Canada and me

Michael Moore switches his sights from Flint, Michigan, to a fictional feature poking fun about Canadian anxiety about big brother USA.

The Globe and Mail, December 31, 1993   

A scene for a movie is being shot on the Leslie Street Spit. Three rough-looking Americans — fierce patriots all — are staring at the Toronto skyline.


“It’s beautiful,” says one. “It’s like no other city I’ve ever seen...only cleaner.”


A feature film made by an American director in which Toronto plays itself?


Usually Toronto is used by Yankee film crews to masquerade as any number of American cities — unless the CN Tower gets in the shot. But that’s fine with Michael Moore, who directed the quirky documentary Roger & Me, it’s supposed to be Toronto.


The scene continues: “It’s all white people,” says Kabral, a deputy sheriff of Niagara County, New York — played by Bill Nunn — explaining why the city looks so tidy, even from miles away.


The one member of the cast who should, in real life, know the most about Toronto sounds a cautionary note: “Don’t let appearances fool you,” John Candy mutters darkly as Bud Boomer, Niagara County sheriff. “Underneath that clean exterior lies raw evil.”


“Cheap, efficient public transportation,” Kabral says, his jaw tightening with controlled fury and resentment.


Kevin J. O’Connor's Roy Boy, the character first astonished by the city’s cleanliness and beauty, grips his gun tighter. He clenches his teeth. “Those sons of bitches.”


This is Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon, his first fictional feature, being shot by him and 120 other people in around Toronto since mid-November. Canadian Bacon tells the story of a U.S. government scheme that goes awry, zeal turning it into an (unplanned) invasion of Canada, which is Canadians’ well-known and longstanding fear, whether it’s economic and sparked by free trade, or the cultural incursions of American radio and television.


Something that’s usually missing in the debate about Canada’s future is the weapon Moore’s using — humor.


“I did it because it’s not a comic thing,” Moore says. “It’s a deadly serious thing. But being deadly serious about stuff like this is boring; it’s a turn-off.”


The story begins with the current U.S. president — played by Alan Alda — obsessing on his dismal public approval ratings. The collapse of communism has left the U.S. without an identifiable enemy which, in turn, has led to the collapse of the defense industry. In desperation, the president carries out a plan concocted by close advisors: “Canadian Bacon” is the military and intelligence code-name given the project to demonize this country for political gain. Canada is a natural but previously overlooked enemy; the country’s abundance of fresh water, relative quiet and perceived simplicity are all suspect. And there are darker problems, too — Canada’s obvious superiority in Zamboni technology.


“And there are all those sneaky Canadians who walk among us in the United States,” Moore points out. “Peter Jennings, Morley Safer, Robert MacNeil of MacNeil/Lehrer. And you can’t tell them apart; they look and talk just like Americans. And what about Alex Trebek? Jeopardy is a Canadian plot. This Canadian was sent to America to ask difficult questions backwards just to make us look stupid.”


Moore got the idea for the story and began working on the first of some 20 drafts of the screenplay in 1991, just as the Gulf War was beginning. “It was the way everybody just jumped on that bandwagon so quickly. Nobody really knew that much about Saddam Hussein or Iraq. But all of a sudden he was the worst enemy we’d ever had. Granted, he is a bad guy. But we’d spent a lot of time and money arming him and thinking of him as a good guy immediately before that.”


Canada came naturally to mind as an unlikely enemy for a couple of reasons. One of Moore’s grandfathers was born and raised in Ontario, and during the early 1970s, Moore was certain a low lottery number for the Vietnam draft would mean he’d have to move here.


Moore has always told stories: he started telling them in print first, but didn’t think of telling them in pictures until his journalistic career ran out of steam.


“One firing led to another, one bankruptcy led to another,” he says. He founded and ran his own left-leaning weekly, the Flint Voice, in his hometown in the mid-1970s. On the strength of editing and publishing there, he was offered the editorship of Mother Jones, a magazine known for its investigative work and social conscience. He moved to San Francisco but was fired after a well-publicized conflict of editorial direction. He went back to Flint just as General Motors announced it was eliminating 30 thousand jobs.


“Because of what had happened with Mother Jones, I didn’t feel like writing anything. I called up the people who made the movie Atomic Café, and asked them if they would come to Flint to teach me how to make a movie. They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a week.’”


The result of that self-taught, on-the-fly approach was Roger & Me, Moore’s movie about trying to get then GM chairman Roger Smith to explain why he had laid off thousands of people and being rebuffed or evaded in every attempt. After first capturing attention at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, it got a worldwide distribution deal through Warner Brothers, and went on to turn a healthy profit while trailing critical superlatives in its wake.


Now Moore gets to make a film with studio backing, well-known actors and a professional crew, including Hollywood heavyweight Haskell Wexler as director of photography.


Moore says working with professionals has made the movie-making process easier, but that raising money was tough.


“That was because I didn’t understand a central fact about Hollywood,” Moore explains, “which is that it doesn’t matter how good the script is. What matters is who’s in it, and will people pay money to go see them?


“I had my list of people I wanted to be in this film, but I never thought of actually going to the actors first.”


He started with John Candy, who agreed. Interest from other potential cast members followed quickly: Bill Nunn, Kevin J. O’Connor, Alan Alda, Rhea Perlman, Rip Tom and Kevin Pollak.


Investors lined up next. The picture is a co-production, with funding split between Propaganda Films, a division of the PolyGram entertainment company, David Brown (of producing team Zanuck/Brown) and Madonna’s production company, Maverick.


The film’s budget is roughly ten million dollars — about a third of what the average mainstream studio production costs.


There’s one more scene to shoot on the Leslie Street Spit. Moore is driving a pickup truck loaded with gun-toting, mean-looking patriots who’ve driven from Buffalo to help Sheriff Boomer with his invasion.


He sends them to Saskatoon, ordering all eight of them to take the city by force and burn it down.


Moore has another week’s worth of shooting left on Canadian Bacon. He’ll edit the picture in New York and it will probably be released sometime in the second half of 1994.


“But before we leave next week, I am going to help you guys out with a couple things,” Moore says. “It’s a great country, but you need a little help. First, the French-English thing; you gotta cut that out. Choose one. I don’t care which one, but choose one. Number two, lose the queen. You’re free. You’re a democracy. Get with it; be proud. Get the queen off the money, off the highway signs and off the stamps. People are laughing at you guys.


“Oh yeah, and there’s one other thing I gotta find out. What’s in a Harvey burger?”