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January 1, 2014. The new year finds me in the thick of three different projects, each of them representing the fruition of many years of work.
1. Travelling Medicine Show: Transformation. This third and (I think) final in the Travelling Medicine Show film cycle is a feature-length, unscripted documentary-fiction hybrid. In December, 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer. This film explores the ways the developing illness had been unknowingly woven into the making of the previous Travelling Medicine Show films. I am playing myself, and a variety of family members and friends are playing themselves. Major collaborators include my former student (and now, sometimes, teacher) the multi-talented Chris Wiseman, and the brilliant puppet animator Terril Calder.
It’s exciting and terrifying to be working on something so personal, directly exploring the mysterious interface of art and life. As of now we’ve shot about 40 hours of material, and I’m working on an assembly. In the process I am developing the “script” and will do some more shooting as needed. I’m hoping to finish the film by the end of 2014, but who knows? The film is funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.
2. Mortal Coil. My first novel. The story was first developed as a TV series (details somewhere below). It’s a paranormal thriller about a female doctor who finds herself on the front lines of a change in relations between humans and angels. I’m now doing what I expect to be the final pass. A terrific agent, Ellen Levine at Trident Media Group (her clients include Russell Banks, Marilynne Robinson, Justin Cronin, Michael Ondaatje, Lawrence Hill, and many other writers I admire!) has taken on me and the book.
3. Biology of Story. Recently I received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for this Research/Creation project, an Interactive Documentary exploring more deeply the idea propounded in my book The Way of the Screenwriter that “a story is a living thing.” Through extensive on-camera interviews it will draw on the insights of people who work with story in a wide range of fields. More information on this project can be found here.
The ambitious project – I believe it is the largest Research/Creation grant the SSHRC has ever given – is scheduled for completion in 2016. (“Research/Creation” is a category of academic research where the outcome is a creative project.) The Biology of Story grew out of a book I was working on called Story and its Double, and I still intend to complete that book project as well.
Other Stuff. I’m back to teaching a full-time load in the Department of Film at York University. Administratively I am functioning as Area Head of Screenwriting, which is a relief after my years of Chairing the Department. After this winter I’ll be stepping back from administration completely. From January, 2015, to August 2016, I’ll only be teaching for a total of 12 weeks, which will give me the time I need to undertake the main body of work on Biology of Story, including lots of travel, as well as a few new creative projects already brewing.
With so much going on creatively, I’ve cut back on other activities, such as story editing. I did have a great time in 2013 teaching several screenwriting workshops in India for the second time. (Here’s a story from the Hindu Times.) They really responded to my message about story vs. formula.
October 26, 2012. I have a portfolio online now with samples of some of my film work.
June 3, 2012:
Whew. I’ve been on quite a journey since my last news posting!
As of June 30, 2012 my 3-year term as Chair of the Department of Film at York University will be completed. Leading the most comprehensive, and one of the largest, film programs in Canada was an enormous challenge. The size of the department – in terms of students, faculty, and program offerings – had doubled in the past decade, and its administrative structures had not really kept up. In the course of my term I was able to pull together and work with an amazing staff team, initiate a new degree program in screenwriting, expand our curricular offerings, and undertake exciting new initiatives in public programming — including a major summer workshop program — alumni outreach, and other areas. Much time was spent building and sustaining arguments that could protect our relatively costly programs in a time of extreme contraction of resources, working together with Dean Barbara Sellers-Young and the other Chairs in the Faculty of Fine Arts. The joy was working with wonderful people – students, faculty, staff, and administrators throughout the University.
I did manage to maintain some creative work. Shortly after my last blog news entry (Jan 2011) I began work on a novel. It was a “sanity” project at a time when I had no film projects on the go – I got up an hour early every day to work on it before heading to the University, writing joyfully and recklessly without an outline. I had such a good time writing it! Being able to explore my characters’ inner worlds directly through prose was incredible, after so many years being constrained (though I had never really felt that way) by the austerity of screenwriting.
The months of April through August, normally my prime time for creative work, were entirely taken up with selling our house in downtown Toronto, finding a new place to live (out in the country), and moving there. In December I spent a week in Los Angeles at the film archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, doing further work on an ongoing project to reclaim the film and video work of my film school mentor Dr. Don Levy.
The year ended with a bang when, immediately upon return from L.A., I was diagnosed with cancer. I felt as though I had gone to sleep one night in my bed, and then woken up the next morning on a boat that was drifting away from shore.
From mid-December through the winter and spring of 2012, my time was completely involved with the inner and outer work of healing this serious illness. On April 3 I underwent a five-hour surgery to remove the tumor. I have recovered well from that and by all accounts am now cancer-free.
I returned to work in May, now finishing up my term at the University and cleaning up the manuscript of the novel, whose first draft I had finished a few weeks before the diagnosis. By the time I read it a few weeks ago I had pretty much forgotten what I’d written and was completely unsure of what I had. I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, lots of work remains on a rather large manuscript.
January 11, 2011:
Travelling Medicine Show: Apocalypse “The last man in the world is putting on a show.” As previously reported here, this is the second in a projected film cycle, the prequel to Travelling Medicine Show: Creation. Editor Chris Wiseman and I locked picture just after the new year started. Film is clocking in at 21 min. Sound Design wiz Steve Munro is now getting started, along with a music team comprised of my brother David Buchbinder, and two young composers, Jesse Corrigan and Tony Wallace.
Mortal Coil I’ve just finished a short written pitch for this TV series — six pages that took a year of thinking and exploration. It’s an adult fantasy with some medical procedural elements. Mortal Coil is about angels, “like you’ve never seen them before.” I’m very pleased with the richness, credibility and depth of the story world, and the fresh imagination of a subject that, in film and TV, has been mired in (biblical) clichés.
I optioned the series to Frantic Films (producers of the hit show Todd and the Book of Pure Evil) and have been working with Producer Shawn Watson, and VP of Development Melissa Kajpust. In November the three of us were in New York meeting with Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Jeff, perceptive guy that he is, recognizes the show’s potential for cross-platform story generation, because of the uniqueness and expansiveness of its mythos. In Canada, executives tend to be less enthusiastic about large concepts. We’ll be running it up the flagpole soon. Is there room in the big, bad world of TV for a smart, provocative, visceral, visionary storytelling? I can always dream…
August 20, 2010:
Travelling Medicine Show: Apocalypse. August 6 – 10 was our shoot for this, the prequel to my film Travelling Medicine Show: Creation. We shot in the amazing Sanderson Centre in Brantford, Ont., a beautiful, lovingly restored almost 100-year-old theatre. Working on an Ontario Arts Council grant, it was the smallest budget and crew I’ve had since film school, and it also may have been the most fun I’ve had on a shoot. I certainly laughed a lot, usually just as I called “cut,” because otherwise I would have been ruining takes. I developed the story with my son Ishai, who wrote the script and plays 8 of the 9 roles in the film (my other son Caleb plays the 9th). Ishai’s roles include four men, two women, a dog, and a can of artichokes. The crew consisted mostly of recent graduates from the York film department: Genèvieve Appleton, my wonderful co-producer, was my grad student many years ago and now teaches in the Department of Communication & Design at Bilkent University at Ankara. In addition to producing, Geneviève, a former actor, was a superb acting coach/partner for Ishai, acting all the two-hander scenes with him since onscreen he is playing opposite himself. Her husband Orhan Anafarta, also an alumnus of the York MFA program and also a faculty member at Bilkent, was shooting. Backing him up with lighting were two talented young people who graduated from the film department a few months ago, Andrew Hunter and Elissa Iannacone, with their classmate Pedro Peres doing our sound recording. Current MFA students (and talented filmmakers in their own right) Rafal Sokolwski and Cam Woykin were Asst. Director and Continuity Supervisor respectively. BFA alumnus Chris Wiseman was asst. camera and is now editing the project. Also on the crew (though not from York) were Sophia Chirovsky (production designer), Helen Kotsonis (the rest of the art dept.), and Carly Sellen (make-up). I’m hoping to finish the film by the end of 2010. Then it’ll be on to the next film in the Travelling Medicine Show cycle!
Department of Film. In a few weeks there are 120 new Film majors (divided between our Production, Screenwriting, and Cinema & Media Studies programs) to welcome into the department. Upcoming events include a 40th anniversary reception during the Toronto International Film Festival (if you’re a York alum and haven’t gotten an invite, email the department!), including the screening of The 40 Film, a 40-minute film comprised of 40 clips from 40 films made during the Department’s 40 years. Sept 30 we’re going to screen The 40 Film outdoors on campus at the magnificent (and largely abandoned) Ross Podium. Oct. 6 we’re hosting a panel of critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, discussing the theme of Rosenbaum’s new book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. Oct. 26 is our annual CineSiege event, a juried program of the best student films made by our undergrads last year.
Current Projects as of April 23, 2010
A contemporary adult fantasy epic TV series. I’m almost done sketching out a mini-bible, having a great time creating the characters and world – a world a lot like our own, indeed more like our own than you realize (it’s the kind of fantasy in which what we take for “reality” is an artifact of limited perception). It’s based on a feature screenplay I wrote in 1996, during a weeklong break in my first year teaching at York. I didn’t finish the screenplay, because I ran into a roadblock in the story. Took me over a decade to realize that I simply needed a much longer form to tell the story in.
Travelling Medicine Show 2: Apocalypse, a prequelto my half-hour film Travelling Medicine Show 1: Creation. It’s being written by my son Ishai, with some input from me, and I’ll be directing it this summer, with Ishai acting. It’ll be between 10 and 20 minutes long and is being produced on an Ontario Arts Council Grant.
The Death & Life of Story: Over Christmas I got another spurt of work done on this book. Unlike The Way of the Screenwriter, which gushed onto the page in about 6 weeks (including revisions), this book is dripping like maple syrup. It’s coming out really concentrated, too, in aphoristic bursts. It started out to be a book about the difference between story and formula, but it’s expanding – as if the subject wasn’t already challenging enough. My first book looked at how story has the properties of life; now I’m looking at how life has the properties of story. And about what happens when we lose story. The subject is so large, the book is going to have to be very small to do it justice.
-Oh, yeah, also I am Chairing the Department of Film at York University. Which is sort of like learning how to breathe underwater. Some of the projects I’m working on, in addition to the ongoing administration of an academic unit that has more than doubled in size in the past six years, include some exciting events for the Department’s 40th Anniversary year, an alumni reunion, a brand new website. As of this writing we’ve just had our two-week long end-of-year screening, and again I’m amazed at the quality of work our students are doing. The confidence, craftsmanship and creativity of it is so far beyond the student films of my day….
Story Editing: With all the above going on (heck, just commuting to York eats up 4 hours a week) I’ve cut back on my story editing obligations. Current story edit projects include
Dot’s Will, Feature Film, Playmaker Films (Halifax). Writer Scott Simpson.
The Saver, Feature Film. Writer Wiebke von Carolsfeld. Based on the novel by Edeet Ravel.
Black & Dazzling, Feature film . Halifax Film Co. (Halifax). Writer: Celery Kovinsky.
Celeste, Feature Film. A new round of development for Keith Leckie‘s contemporary noir.
Current Projects as of September 1, 2009
–Eugene: a feature film screenplay co-written with Daniel MacIvor. A revenge drama about Eugene, a flamboyant gay teenager from a small town, and the many forms that hatred can take. Daniel and I had a great time with this; he provided the resonant and truthful character dimensions (as well as some merciless satire of life in the gay ghetto) while I provided the ass-kicking violence and did my best to subvert revenge conventions while invoking the pleasures of 1970’s exploitation movies.
–The Don Levy Project: My film school mentor Dr. Don Levy was probably the most significant person in my artistic life. In addition to his inspiring rigour and integrity as an artist, he modeled an approach to teaching that was profound. Don died in 1987. For the past few years I have been working with his family and some other former students to restore his film and video work, much of it previously unreleased.
Aug. 24: The BFI has released Levy’s feature film Herostratus (1967) along with several of his shorts on DVD and Blu-Ray (all region). The release includes an essay I wrote about the film.
Aug. 7: Just returned from Los Angeles where John Gianvito, Carol Lewis, Lou Sardonis and I (all former students of Levy’s who between us neatly spanned his 15-year teaching career), along with Levy’s widow Ines, worked with archivist Mark Toscano at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to catalogue and organize extensive 16mm film and ¾” video work by Levy, all of it unreleased. This includes some stunningly beautiful pieces shot at Harvard’s Carpenter Center with an ultra-high-speed film camera (229 times normal speed), and many hours of video studio improvisations. None of the material looks like anything I’ve ever seen before. We will be working towards the restoration and release of several pieces.
–Travelling Medicine Show 1: in the spring I finished this DVD incorporating some of the work I did as part of a three-year Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council Research/Creation grant. Central piece is a half hour film. Currently I am working on a high school study unit built around this project.
-The Death & Life of Story: A book expanding on the ideas about the spiritual purposes of storytelling touched on in The Way of the Screenwriter, and considering formula as a negation of story.
-Story Editing projects Summer 2009 include:
Push, TV series, Frantic Films (Winnipeg), writers Ross McKie & Debra Felstead
Celeste, Feature Film, Telefilm Writers First program (Toronto), writer Keith Leckie
Bugman, Feature Film, Halifax Film Co. (Halifax), writer Warren Jeffries
Blackbird, Feature Film, Opolo Films (Halifax), writer Jason Buxton
Dracula’s Granddaughter, Feature Film, Mortimer & Ogilvy (Vancouver), writer Peggy Thompson
True Love Lies, Feature Film, Sudden Storm Entertainment (Toronto), writer Brad Fraser