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Guillermo del Toro reached the pinnacle of Hollywood success by shooting Oscar winners and contenders like The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley in Ontario.
So after years of working with Canadian creatives, the horror maestro’s growing web of Toronto collaborators are set to join him at the Academy Awards on March 27 — and possibly in the winners circle — after nabbing their own Oscar nominations. Tamara Deverell, a best production design Oscar nominee for her work on Nightmare Alley — and whose creative ties to del Toro go back to work as an art director on his 1997 Toronto-shot thriller Mimic — says the Hollywood director has built lasting bonds with his Canadian partners.
“I’ve known Guillermo a long time and I’m just comfortable with him. He’s very demanding and he does push his department heads to excel. But you’re pushed because you’re doing your job well and he knows what works for him … and how to collaborate,” says Deverell, who’s currently working on del Toro’s next outing, Netflix’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
Nightmare Alley costume designer Luis Sequeira, another Canadian Oscar nominee, echoes how del Toro manages to draw the best out of his collaborators.
“He does push each of us creatively in bringing our best game,” Sequeira tells THR. That ambition to work with Hollywood directors that prize formative creative partnerships, whatever their challenges, follows Canadians long working with U.S. producers that increasingly come north of the border to shoot their original movies and TV series.
And more recently, a broad Canadian talent pool filling prominent creative roles — costumes, set design, prosthetics, special effects, composing and makeup/hair — has played a key behind-the-camera role as Hollywood studios and streamers embrace expanding production hubs in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
“We were servicing American productions that came up, so we had to be very good. We have to do a very good job. That’s why there’s a real wealth of talent in Canada. If you look at the films done in Canada, the amazing directors and amazing technicians, that speaks to the psyche of Canadian film workers,” Sequeira argues.
Of course, unlikely creative partnerships have long been a staple of Hollywood. But what’s solidifying Canada’s reputation for Oscar-winning movies with locally-shot credits like Spotlight, The Revenant and The Shape of Water is the diversity Canadian talent offers to Hollywood.
“I do think Canadians are artistic people. They really do care about their approach and what they put on screen, and it really does show,” Nightmare Alley set director Shane Vieau, also up for an Oscar this year, tells THR.
“What’s great about projects with Guillermo is instead of an illustrator giving me a photo of what we’re doing, I’m able to get in front and provide product to put in the illustration,” adds Vieau, who first worked on Crimson Peak and then on The Shape of Water. And he didn’t find iconic art deco props in local Toronto antique stores, but instead went directly to specialized collectors across North America.
“I put probably 80,000 kilometers on my truck on (Nightmare Alley). I travelled everywhere from Chicago, across Michigan, through upstate New York and into Pittsburgh,” to find antique carnival equipment, including a 1930s carousel.
Other Canadian talents share similar ambitions to go those extra miles for their work.
Ben Proudfoot, who received an Oscar nomination in 2021 for his short documentary A Concerto is a Conversation, is back this year at the Academy Awards with another short documentary, The Queen of Basketball, a New York Times Op-Doc about Lusia “Lucy” Harris, an unsung pioneer in women’s basketball who led the Delta State University Lady Statesmen to three national championships in the 1970s. LIke Shane Vieau, Proudfoot came out of Nova Scotia on Canada’s eastern coast to forge a successful career in and with Hollywood.
“Nova Scotia is a very independent-minded place, but it also has a long and proud tradition of craft and that’s evident in our filmmaking and in the level of detail,” Proudfoot says. He’s typical of top Canadian talents who shy away from bringing their own ego, over-confidence or a sense of entitlement to set. “So much of my job, and the editor Stephanie Owens’ job, in making this film was just getting out of Lucy’s way, letting her tell the story, letting her exhibit her personality and letting her lead the say in what the story should be about,” he adds.
Veteran film and TV director Annie Bradley, who is also chair of the Directors Guild of Canada’s Ontario branch, says local talent developed the confidence over years after working with Hollywood titans lured north of the border for coveted Canadian tax credits. “You’re seeing all these people who spent a long time developing their craft be acknowledged and embraced,” Bradley says.
So an art director working under an American or British production designer on the rookie season of a U.S. network or streaming series shooting in Toronto or Vancouver will get bumped up to production designer if the show returns for a second season. The cascading result is Hollywood movies and TV shows that shoot in Canada increasingly hire local creative talent before just bringing up Americans as key department heads.
“I see more and more American producers that have heard from their friends there’s a pool of talent here they should explore before they start to bring others here,” Bradley observes.
Bringing fellow Canadian creative voices and perspectives to his side over his Hollywood career worked for Dune director Denis Villeneuve. Among the 10 Oscar nominations for the epic from Warner Bros. and Legendary, including best picture, is a best make up and hairstyling mention for Donald Mowat. As a makeup department head and designer on Dune, Mowat also worked on Villeneuve’s earlier Hollywood pics Blade Runner 2049, Sicario and Prisoners.
“You build a relationship working with someone. He’s very loyal to the creative team and he’s one of the most collaborative directors. He really respects the process of what we do, the artisans who help him,” Mowat recalls about the long journey to turn Stellan Skarsgard into Dune’s Baron Harkonnen character while using extensive prosthetics and a body suit, as an example.
The kind of creative chemistry that has landed Canadians awards season glory often grew out of the experience of working on homegrown short form documentaries, animation and music videos that were funded by BravoFACT, MuchFACT, the National Film Board of Canada and other government-mandated funds to back emerging filmmakers.
2022 Oscar nominee Geoff McLean — producer of Netflix’s coming-of-age short doc Audible, about a deaf high school football team in Maryland — is one of those one-time novice Canadian filmmakers who depended on government financing.
“That’s an incredible part of coming up in the film industry in Canada. There’s so much access to government funding,” McLean says. “It was an amazing thing that gave us the ability to explore things and to try things that I would imagine in other places where those (government) funds aren’t available are harder to do.”
Government funding also played a crucial role for Welsh filmmakers Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, who secured a best animated short film nomination for Affairs of the Art, a 16-minute film they co-produced with Canada’s National Film Board.
That’s the second Oscar nomination for Quinn and Mills after their 1996 short Famous Fred, and the 76th for the Canadian film funder. In fact, National Film Board production and co-productions have won 12 Oscar statuettes over the years.
Says Mills: “The National Film Board is very prestigious. They have great distribution, everyone knows who they are. So we knew it would be great for us and for the film if they came on board. And they did.”
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