Q&A: Director Michael McGowan

Canadian helmer talks 'Score: A Hockey Musical'

Canadian director Michael McGowan was previously at the Toronto International Film Festival with his 2008 road movie "One Week" and "Saint Ralph" (2004). Now his latest movie, "Score: A Hockey Musical," starring Olivia Newton-John and Nelly Furtado as a hockey zealot, will kick off TIFF's 35th edition with a glitzy world premiere Thursday. Etan Vlessing caught up with McGowan before the hometown boy strides up the red carpet at Roy Thomson Hall with his musical homage to hockey, Canada's national pastime.

The Hollywood Reporter: You're not just a little nervous seeing "Score" launch this year's Toronto International Film Festival?

Michael McGowan: As a filmmaker, when you're making these things, there's such a leap of faith, and something like TIFF, you hope that you'll get into the festival. The fact that we are opening the festival is really in a lot of ways more than I could have expected. For a film like ours, that has a great Canadian release strategy with Mongrel (Media), to have an opening is great for the press it generates, and everything internationally that is available. There's so many films in the festival, the benefit of the exposure is incredible.

Toronto has a way of nurturing local talent to sustain and grow the festival. Tell us how that works.

McGowan: They do an incredible job of making you feel like a filmmaker, and they make Canadian films sexy. "Saint Ralph," it was at the Ryerson, it opened the Canadian First sidebar, and was an incredible experience for me as a filmmaker. Having "One Week" as a gala, they tried to put the film on the international map. I obviously couldn't be more appreciative of what they've done for me as a filmmaker. They hold directors dinners and lunches, they put filmmakers together with other filmmakers. They do it in a way that doesn't produce a pecking order. They put everyone together in an egalitarian and informative way.

THR: How is "Score" different from other musicals?

It's a pretty unique film. A lot of musicals break into a song for the sake of breaking into a song. In our film, we make the transition between words and song seamless so you enter this alternative reality that is a musical hockey movie. I can't carry a tune to save my life. But working with great musicians, I work the lyrics into the songs.

THR: How did you collaborate with your music composers on the song writing?

McGowan: I wrote couplets. I sang them to myself. I'm a big lover of music. I followed my own rules to say they would work as a song. But the musicians took over and said, 'This is the way to do it,' and I was happy to let it go. It's a very specific sensibility and humor expressed in the dialogue. We quickly found that the songwriters enjoyed putting those lyrics to music. They were scanning issues to work out. It was a unique world

THR: Is this hockey musical "Glee" on skates?

McGowan: "No. There's a language of 'Glee,' taking established songs and conveying basic emotions through a song you already know. I'm a fan of 'Glee,' but it takes you outside the world. Now we're going into song mode. The characters we've established are advancing the plot through song. There's a big difference between that and 'Glee.' We're advancing the story through music.

"Score" to Canadians must look like a love letter to hockey. Will American and international audiences get it?

McGowan: "Take a film like 'Slumdog Millionaire,' which translates well in the time and place it was shot in. The films that do well reveal the universal. What doesn't work is if the film is too Canadian, if it's too much about hockey. With 'Score,' hockey's a backdrop to tell the story. We do it in a creative way. It's hopefully a really good entertaining story. You don't need to know the rules of hockey. There are things that Canadians will understand that won't translate. But that's just an added element."

THR: What was it like working with music giants like Olivia Newton John and Nelly Furtado?

"You never know when stars come on set how it will all go down. She (Newton John) was incredibly fun and made it great for everyone else. And then for Nelly Furtado to come on set and be a part of it, to be true to the spirit of it ... I'm fairly low key as a director. I tend to let actors get in the space they need to, and you cast people for what they can do. There's lots of figuring out the process and nuances. It's a very congenial atmosphere."

THR: After TIFF, what are your expectations for 'Score'?

McGowan: We're setting it up for what I hope is a huge Canadian boxoffice success. We have high expectations, with the timing of everything. We're in the zeitgeist. I feel like with this one, musicals have proven to do well in the market. I hope it's embraced in Canada. And then internationally. As a filmmaker, if you're not trying to hit the home run, what's the point? This is the film for audiences, and you hope it catches fire all over the world. 'Slumdog Millionaire' came to Toronto and blasted off. That's the game I'm playing. That's the best-case scenario I hope for.
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