Toronto: Norman Jewison Reflects on 25 Years of CFC (Q&A)

Norman Jewison - P 2011
Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

The founder looks back at decades of promoting local talent, drinking whiskey with John Ford and growing up with TIFF.

Director Norman Jewison traveled the world making classic movies such as In the Heat of the Night, Rollerball and Jesus Christ Superstar before he founded the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in 1988. Twenty-five years later, the CFC is about far more than just movies. It has transformed the Canadian entertainment sector by putting it on the map in ways even Jewison is pleasantly surprised by. The veteran director spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about making movies for mobile phones, seeing CFC graduates working around the world, and piggybacking on the success of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The CFC is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Did you ever envision back in 1988 that the CFC would grow the way it has?

As a struggling group of artists working together up here, it’s sometimes hard to tell people [how it was back then]. But it’s 25 years now, and I can’t believe it’s gone so fast. I don’t know whether it’s my age, but time seems to be flying by, and there are alumni from the Centre all over the world. We’ve really become an international organization. We’ve got something going in South Africa, something going in India. We've got a guy making a picture in China, and he speaks fluent Mandarin. We have pictures going in France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. So we really have become an international center for talent, and I feel that it’s not just New York and L.A. where people want to go. We really have expanded our whole vision of where people can find themselves and find their stories.

The CFC hasn’t been a slow burn. It found success early on in the game. Why was that?

First of all, there was no center for advanced film studies in the whole country. We were behind the United States with the American Film Institute, and the Cinematheque was going in Paris. The British Film Institute was going, and the Australian Film Institute was going. And we were a little embarrassed because we didn’t have a center where we could gather people. That’s when I kind of stole the idea from the AFI. The early days of AFI -- we used to go to this mansion in Beverly Hills, and John Ford would be sitting there with a bottle of whiskey on the floor, and we would be talking about John Ford films. And I thought we needed to create a center like this in Canada. All we needed was to find the space. So now we have the estate of E.P. Taylor, a beer baron who also raised probably the greatest stud in racing history with Northern Dancer. He had a farm within the city limits, and it was a lovely estate. And so I met with his offspring just before his death, because I heard he was leaving the estate to the city. I thought, Maybe we can get it. It really was one of those magical good luck things to happen when you’re looking desperately for space.

You’re most associated with movies. And now CFC residents are making movies for mobile phones and tablets. Tell us about that progression.

Now we’re at the point where we’ve expanded. It’s not just film anymore. It’s really about the field of communication. We’re into video, into TV, we’re into digital. We’re starting now into music and acting because we feel that if there’s anything we can do to encourage the talent to speak in some new form, we want to do that. It doesn’t matter about the technology. It’s about the ideas and the passion and the fact that there are so many people that have something to say. That’s what I’m excited about.

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The CFC launched the Slaight Music Residency. You’ve worked with the best in the business to score your movies. What do you tell residents about the importance of music to images in storytelling?

I tell them that I can cry at a Bell telephone commercial if it has the right music. I see the mother saying goodbye to the kids going to school for the first time. But it’s the music that really makes it, and the marriage of music and the moving image has always fascinated me. Music has played a very important part in all of my films from the very beginning.

You hold a barbecue as a fundraiser for the CFC on the first Sunday of the Toronto International Film Festival each year. Did you see TIFF becoming as big as it has?

Like TIFF, we’re growing this parallel success. The Toronto film festival is lucky because they chose September to have the festival. So it’s them and Venice, right? They get the best pictures and the most thoughtful pictures because everyone is holding back the product for the Academy push. So the Toronto film festival lucked out with the choice of dates. And it’s kind of spilled over on us, because we have so many of our people that have passed through here working in so many films that are shown in Toronto.