“People used to describe us as pot smoking hippies on welfare.”
That was Paul Pope, the dean of Newfoundland TV and film production, describing his early days in an industry he helped create. I knew him for one day, but it was memorable, and he told me the secret to making Canadian television.
That day was in 2019 when he took his series, Hudson & Rex, on the road. He flew a bunch of us – in descending order of importance: two dogs, essential cast and crew, the mayor of St. John’s, a reporter – to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Together they are a territory of France, pitched out in the Atlantic about 25 kilometers from the western end of Newfoundland.
The quaint seaside village of St. Pierre, basically a few streets, served as a backdrop to the final scenes of an episode. Director John Vatcher wrangled lead actor John Reardon and guest star Aaron Ashmore. Trainer Sherri Davis barked orders to Diesel, the German Shepherd who plays the four-legged lead, as well as Diesel’s cousin and stunt double Iko.
The shoot was mainly outdoors. There were no trailers to hide out in, so I took the opportunity to walk and talk in the open sea air with producer Pope.
I’m so glad I did. To the sorrow of colleagues and friends, Pope passed away Thursday, his family by his side.
It quickly became apparent that we were about the same age. We didn’t talk that long, but by the time I let him get back to work, it felt like we had been catching up at a class reunion.
Pope, who was a founding member of the Newfoundland Filmmakers Cooperative, was responsible for a very full day. There was a lunch with the locals at the St. Pierre Legion Hall, featuring real French chefs. Shaftesbury CEO Christina Jennings was there, as was Rogers executive Nataline Rodrigues and writer/producer Derek Schreyer.
There was a toast from the mayor of St. John’s, His Worship Danny Breen. He was a big fan of Paul Pope and loved how Hudson & Rex showed a more modern, cosmopolitan side to his city.
Throughout the day, Pope was conspicuously inconspicuous. During the shoot he stood back like a dad at a school dance. Everybody knew he was in charge but he was quiet about it, like an extra on his own set.
The line about the pot smoking hippies on welfare? That came when I started asking how he got his start in this crazy business. Pope started me off at the very beginning.
“It goes back to my grade three teacher, Mrs Brown,” he told me. “She had this story about photography solving a lost case. I just got interested in it. I went through the whole photography thing.”
An early film inspiration? “Shane,” the landmark ’50s western starring Alan Ladd as a world-weary gunfighter with one last lesson in him for an impressionable kid.
After high school in St. John’s, Pope told his parents he wanted to go to Toronto to study film and photography at Ryerson. And so he did, from 1976 to 1980, years that resonated with me because that’s when I was at the University of Toronto.
“I had a great time at Ryerson,” he said of that move to Toronto. “I was 17 years old. I went to the St. Lawrence Market and saw shit I’d never seen before. Peppers and vegetables. Then there was the quality of the instructors. It was just a real eye opener. Valuable period in my early life.”
His first professional project was a 1988 movie called, “Undertow.”
“Bit off way more than I could chew,” he told me. “My first CBC acquisition. We went to CBC Toronto and had a meeting with the guy in charge at the time. I was wearing contact lenses; it was my first network meeting. He grilled us and my eyes dried up. I went to the washroom, threw my lenses away, washed my face, did the last half of the meeting and could not see a thing.”
Despite getting ripped to shreds, Pope called it the “best workshop ever.”
He and his colleague went back that night and re-did the budget based on this fellow’s notes. “Called him and got a second meeting, He gave us the money. It was the beginning of a very long relationship for me and the CBC.”
“It was just a different level of intensity back then,” Pope explained. “In 1990 I did my first feature, “Secret Nation.” Paul Gratton at The Movie Network backed us up. I did seven or eight more movies for him over the next 25 years.
Project by project, Pope was basically building an East Coast production industry right in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mark Critch Tweeted Thursday that Pope’s 1992 film “Secret Nation” was his first job as a film extra; with “Anchor Zone” (1994) came his first lead role.
“Many people got their 1st jobs in film and TV from Paul,” Tweeted Critch. “Then their 2nd, 3rd & even 100th.”
Pope was modest about those early efforts.
“We knew so little back then. We wrote away to the unions and got their collective agreements and job descriptions. Then we went back and asked out friends: Who wants to be a grip? Who wants to be a gaffer? We divided people up according to the union descriptions—that was how we built the first group. These were people in the indie film scene.”
Or, as others in the industry described them, pot smoking hippies on welfare.
From there, Pope built an industry, one series or film at a time. In 2005-06 he produced the tween comedy Life with Derek. He produced “Grown Up Movie Star,” a 2009 film earning early raves for Tatiana Maslani and teeming with NL talent, including Shawn Doyle, Jonny Harris, Mark O’Brien, Andy Jones, Sherri White, Susan Kent and Joel Thomas Hynes. In 2011, he produced the Trailer Park Boys’ scathing take out of Canada’s broadcast establishment, Drunk and on Drugs Happy Funtime Hour.
As the local industry he helped create took root in The Rock, Pope worked on other people’s projects, directing scenes on Frontier and Little Dog, among others.
In 2019, along comes Hudson & Rex, a modest success that last fall blossomed into a hit, drawing close to a million viewers each week in its fourth season. It has been exported to countries all around the world.
Pope knew this dog would hunt.
“This is old fashioned storytelling,” he told me. “This is a show that in a way, you can watch with your family. It’s not dark, it’s not sinister, there’s never going to be a brutal murder—it’s kind of fun storytelling with a dog.
“The shock for me,” he continued, “is just how much attraction the dog brings to it. I knew from the history of the franchise that it’s always been popular but that’s been the real eye opener. I’ve made all kinds of shows in my life, but now I have family members say to me, ‘Oh, you’re finally making something I can watch.’”
The endless sky overhead was starting to cloud over. It started to rain on and off. I knew Pope had only booked one day to grab these final scenes.
“What’s your backup plan?” I asked.
“Here’s my saying,” said Pope. “You do not need a plan for success; it will just happen. I always imagine my plans for success will not succeed.”
He wasn’t being glib or reckless, just canny.
“I knew I’d have options when I scouted this [location]. We are collapsing two set ups into one right now. Basically you try to make sure that the load bearing plot points get most of the time and fit in the shiny parts around it.
“We are ultimately storytellers. Story outweighs everything. Given the choice, tell the story. We’re going to get our shiny bits but that means we’ll be here until dark.”
And there it was, Canada: best workshop ever.