Born in Montreal almost 67 years ago, John N. Smith got a degree in political philosophy and then worked on docks and in tobacco fields before grabbing a gig as a researcher at the CBC in 1968. He was soon writing and producing public-TV shows in Canada and the U.S., getting an Emmy before joining the National Film Board in the early ’70s. There, he crafted numerous docs and dramas in the Anglo-Canadian tradition, with an emphasis on education (“Acting Class”, “Happiness Is Loving Your Teacher”) and the immigrant experience (Sitting in Limbo, Welcome to Canada).
Watch the trailer for Love & Savagery.
In 1992, Smith won major awards for The Boys of St. Vincent, a TV movie about child abuse at a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland. That brought him invitations to Hollywood, where he made Dangerous Minds, featuring Michelle Pfeiffer as a Marine who becomes an inner-city teacher. Although there were a few more studio projects in the offing, Smith yearned to return to Canada.
“Not just to make films here,” he explains in a call from his Montreal office, “but about here.”
Back in Quebec, he concentrated on made-for-TV historical dramas, such as 2002’s Random Passage, scripted by St. Vincent cowriter Des Walsh, and The Englishman’s Boy, taken from Guy Vanderhaeghe’s best-selling book of the same name. More recently, Smith and Walsh brainstormed about ways to bring Love & Savagery—a collection of autobiographical poems by Walsh—into cinematic form. The same-named result, starring Allan Hawco as a Canadian geologist who falls in love with a rural Irish girl (Sarah Greene), opens in theatres this Friday (February 12).
“We were discussing matters of the heart and if it’s better to have loved and lost, et cetera, and I said, ”˜Just write me a story based on your poems.’ Of course, that was 10, 15 years ago,” Smith says with a laugh. “It seems to take quite some time, at least for me, for movies to percolate up into being. I started writing The Englishman’s Boy 10 years before that got made.”
Among other challenges facing the low-budget project was finding a coastal town unsullied enough to pass for the Ireland of 1969, in which the lovers face many obstacles. And discovering Greene wasn’t easy either.
“That was after a long, intense casting search—a process that took me to Toronto, Los Angeles, and London, as well as seeing lots of tapes from actors in Vancouver and elsewhere. I finally ended up in Dublin, where in walked this lovely young woman who had some good theatre training. There was just something about her that caused me to say, ”˜Okay, we’re done.’ When you have someone new doing a major role like that, it’s really a leap in the dark.”
Of course, with his docudrama background, Smith has often worked with actors who have zero screen experience.
“My solution is just to rehearse like crazy. And that’s the main reason,” he says, “that I’m not chosen for big-budget projects more often. They can have all those cameras and crews waiting, but I’m still going to spend as many days rehearsing as I can possibly get!”