Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town uniquely blends fact with fiction; Stephen Leacock's own life with his literary creation. The elder Stephen Leacock (Gordon Pinsent) is both the narrator of the film and a wry, ghost-like presence in it. His boyhood self, Stephen Leacock (Owen Best) at age 14, and his real parents - Agnes (Jill Hennessy) and Peter (Rick Roberts) - and family are protagonists in this coming of age story, interacting with the wonderful fictional characters who inhabit Leacock's masterpiece.
The movie combines two key stories from Leacock's comic masterpiece: the sinking of The Mariposa Belle steamer with its holiday crowd in the perilously shallow waters of Lake Wissanotti; together with the frantic campaign to save Mariposa's hotel and public bar from the Liquor Commission's shutdown ("the most daring campaign ever attempted in the history of licensed liquor"). Leacock's sly, humorous portrait of small town Canada - a portrait that mirrors the whole nation - lies at the heart of this new adaptation for television.
Viewers will find all of their favourite characters from Leacock's book have made the leap to the television screen. They include: Josh Smith (Donal Logue), the hotelier with his hand in every scheme; Reverend Drone (Peter Keleghan), the aptly named cleric; his spinsterish daughter Lila Drone (Steffi DiDomenicantonio), a soloist with the voice of an angel (Lucifer's); her rival, Myra Thorpe (Natalie Krill), the aspiring thespian cursed in her ambitions by a cruel lisp; Peter Pupkins (Kjartan Hewitt), the shy, lovesick bank teller; Mrs. Diston (Caroline Rhea), the divorcee school teacher; Judge Pepperleigh (Colin Mochrie), the law-and-order Solomon whose spectacles flash like lightning; and the unctuous undertaker, Golgotha Gingham (Ron James), who knows how to appeal to the living in order to draw in the dead.
Based on the life and writings of Stephen Leacock, Canada's first and foremost humorist, this two-hour signature television event celebrates the book's 100th anniversary.
Executive produced by former Alliance Atlantis Communications executives and Academy Award-winning producing team of SEATON MCLEAN and MICHAEL MACMILLAN, alongside writer MALCOLM MACRURY, the project was first conceived 16 years ago as a television series under the Atlantis shingle. "Unfortunately it didn't go anywhere," recalls McLean. "But it remained something we were very keen on doing and felt it was a very important piece of material that hadn't been done. At that point [Atlantis] had covered off a lot of Canadian authors and Canadian literature and this was a big hole in our oeuvre. There was a lot of regret in not getting it done."
MacRury continued working on the story however. "Over the years, I turned it into a movie and resubmitted it to CBC, the natural broadcaster, who called me last year  saying 'We're ordering your movie for next year, It' s the 75th anniversary of the CBC and the 100th anniversary of Leacock's book--Get going!,'" shares MacRury. Naturally, he reached out to McLean and MacMillan and asked if they would be willing and interested in coming out of retirement to join him on the adventure as executive producers. "It was an easy thing to say yes to and frankly, really one of the only things I could imagine saying yes to, and it's been great - a great creative, social, emotional, roller coaster ride. Almost a year to the day we had the conversation, we started filming," explains McLean. DON MCBREARTY (Terry), who previously teamed with McLean and MacMillan on the 1984 Oscar-winning short film Boys and Girls, was tapped to direct.
"It's been a lesson that life is all about timing. This was just the right time to make [Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town] even though we wanted to a long time ago. Sometimes there's a reason to wait. Everything aligned. I think we've brought this group together at the right time and I think it'll show in the finished movie. This one is special," says MacRury.
One of the biggest challenges on any production is casting but if a role is cast well, it's half the battle won. Producers and director Don McBrearty, along with casting director STEPHANIE GORIN undertook the often-daunting task of casting. "Canada has such a wealth of comedic talent we had a wish list from the beginning," recalls McBrearty. "In many cases we were choosing from a wealth of riches." "I can't imagine having better cast than the one we've got," adds executive producer Seaton McLean. "It's the cream of the crop of Canadian talent; every major (and minor) character in this piece is played by an extraordinarily talented actor."
The movie features a veritable who's who of Canada's top actors and comedic talent. By all accounts it wasn't a hard sell. Many signed on simply because it's a quintessentially Canadian project, others took one look at those already cast and said "Sign me up!" Jill Hennessy maintains her only requirement was that Gordon Pinsent be involved in the project. As luck would have it, he was. She plays his mother and delights in being able to refer to the veteran actor and Canadian icon as "Sonny."
"The wonderful cast that we've assembled is so thrilled to be part of this and so giving, they bring everything they have. What's been interesting is the variety of comedians-some do stand-up, some have their own shows-yet they have all been able to make the adjustment of playing together as an ensemble. It's been thrilling for me to watch and be part of that process," shares McBrearty. Veteran stand-up comic Ron James, usually on stage alone, enjoyed the sense of community. "It brings me back to the fundamentals of the acting craft, which I don't usually get a chance to explore as a comedian. It's such a luxury! You're one component in a bigger machine and everyone is dedicated to making it the best it can possibly be. I wish I were [on set] more - not for the pocketbook but just for the joy," James enthuses.
For many in the cast, the project was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends. One certainly didn't require six degrees of separation to link any two actors. In many cases cast members had long-established working relationships and friendships--and marriages. Colin Mochrie and Debra McGrath, as well as Leah Pinsent (daughter of Gordon Pinsent) and Peter Keleghan are married couples that have worked together on countless occasions. The Second City Theatre along with television comedy series such as Made In Canada, The Ron James Show, Getting Along Famously, Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Red Green Show proved common ground for many. Patrick McKenna and Rick Roberts, who starred together in the Atlantis vehicle Traders for six years, hadn't seen each other in over ten years, "yet it seems like just yesterday," muses McKenna. The two play brothers Peter and E.P. Leacock and found the transition an easy one. "The back-story has already been done for us," shares McKenna.
The seasoned veterans are balanced by a terrific young cast playing the younger roles. "It's been a real treat seeing the up-and-coming talent work. There's a passing of the torch of sorts, if you will, from one generation to the next and it's a perfect project to be doing that on," notes McLean. The "next generation" includes Krill and DiDomenicantonio, BRANDON CRAGGS who plays bully Neil Pepperleigh, along with OWEN BEST, DYLAN EVERETT, KATIE DOUGLAS and SKYLER WEXLER who were chosen to portray the Leacock children. "They are, each and every one, incredibly talented and self-possessed young actors," states McBrearty.
Vancouverite Owen Best was cast as young Stephen Leacock based on his work in Smallville. "It's a fantastic character and I'm really thrilled to be able to play him," says Best. "He's a wonderful young man," says McBrearty." "Owen simply took the world in as a writer would and seemed to have so much emotion in response to his interaction with this world of characters." The role of Stephen Leacock is part of the fundamental triangle at the core of the story. "It's almost a love triangle," explains McBrearty. "Agnes is a mother who loves her son but is desperately afraid that he's being corrupted by Josh Smith, who owns the bar where her husband is drinking away any money they may have. This man can not have Stephen's best interest at heart. However, through Agnes' and Josh's "competition" over Stephen, they come to respect each other. It's this emotional centre I've tried to hold on to as 20 to 30 wild characters make appearances on and off!" he continues.
Executive producer Seaton McLean had worked with Hennessy on the miniseries Nuremberg. "She's a terrific human being, talented actor and perfect for the role. Jill was our number one choice and a joy to work with," he shares. Hennessy, known to television audiences for her work in Law & Order and Crossing Jordan was "incredibly honoured" to have been chosen for the role of Agnes. The material enthralled the Canadian actor, based in New York, even before she discovered the cast included "some of her favourite actors of all time." "The way Malcolm has written the screenplay it's very easy for people in this economic and political environment to relate to everything that's going on: the Leacock's on the verge of bankruptcy, trying to raise their kids the best they can, but also trying to find some kind of enjoyment of life, just trying to survive. The plotlines and situations hit home pretty hard and I think he did a lovely job of dealing with these issues with a lot of grace and a lot of humour. When I read the script I found myself at points crying and then laughing," Hennessy recalls.
Agnes Leacock's nemesis, hotelier Josh Smith, is embodied by Ottawa-born Donal Logue, an actor who first registered on Hollywood's radar with the Sundance hit The Tao of Steve in 2000. Logue too was thrilled to return to Canada for the project. "It was a real pleasure to return to the province of my birth and play the part of a character in Canadian literature, one so close to the hearts of Canadians. It's always a joy to come up here but this one felt particularly unique," he explains. "What I like about the novel is that Leacock talks about Mariposa as if it's a magical land - there's an element of mystery to it. And there's an element of mystery to Josh Smith that I appreciate. And, I do like Josh Smith's flash," Logue adds with a glint in his eye. "Donal is a remarkable talent. Working with him we've been able to find all of the shades of Josh Smith, from the showman to a man who also has the ability to see a young boy struggling and in pain and subtly helps him," notes McBrearty.
A character's clothing is vital in any project, if the clothing is wrong, it can't possibly work. If it's right, you probably won't notice it much. Clothing affects the way an actor will move. The shape, the color, the dramatic impact a garment will have on a scene, these are all important considerations to the costume designer. "The costumes need to tell the character's story even before we meet them--who they are, in which social class they belong, what their habits are, etc.," offers costume designer Ruth Secord.
With Road to Avonlea among her credits, Toronto-based Secord was no stranger to the time period featured in Sunshine Sketches. Because the filmmakers were not making a period piece per se, the departments were given a little more freedom to draw from a range of years around 1905. "We tended to go backward a little rather than forward because fashion began to change quite dramatically in the years after 1905," explains Secord. "The cut and the line was very important to the period and dressing was very involved. Women wore camisoles, petticoats, corsets and a bustle underneath their blouses and skirts or dresses and, of course, hats and gloves and all of the accoutrements. The men wore three-piece suits and shirts with detachable collars, suspenders, hats." Voicing the unanimous opinion among the female cast with regard to corsets, Caroline Rhea, who plays schoolteacher Mrs. Diston (the one who drinks), offered: "The corset is just not comfortable - no wonder she drank!" And Secord's standard reply to plaintive ladies? "If they can breathe, it's not tight enough," she says with a laugh.
Secord prepared 210 costumes for the main cast and approximately 600 for the background performers. The majority of the costumes were rented from many sources including Radio Canada and FMR rentals in Montreal, Berman and Co., Thunder Thighs, Ian Drummond Collection, Sullivan Entertainment and The Wear and Now in Toronto, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and the Shaw Festival.
"Each of our locations are very special places in terms of visual interest but also to complete the story," offers director Don McBrearty. "When I arrive on set in the morning, it's visually strangely familiar because I've been imagining it for so long, but when I see all of the cast and extras in their wonderful wardrobe and all of the spectacular work the art department has done, I'm taken aback. It's really exciting to walk in and suddenly see everything come to life in three-dimension with real locations and a real history."
In Gravenhurst, the Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Segwun ferried cast and crew as The Mariposa Belle on Lake Muskoka for four days. Built in 1887, the Segwun is North America's oldest operating steamship and was a key component in the production of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. One could have easily believed they had stumbled into the 1900s were it not for all of the film gear.
Millbrook, with its turn-of-the-century charm, was the perfect setting for Mariposa's Main Street. The production team was welcomed with open arms as they turned Millbrook into "downtown" Mariposa for a week. Of course thanks to the magic of filmmaking (CGI), Mariposa's Lake Wissanotti will be added to the end of Millbrook's Main Street in post-production.
Locations manager ARTHUR CLARKE searched for over two months before finding the historic Old Mill in Elora whose lower level was transformed into Smith's Bistro. Smith's Hotel and bar interiors were shot at the Rupert Simpson House in downtown Toronto.
The Leacock home's location was in Huntsville's Muskoka Heritage Place Pioneer Village. Cast and crew even enjoyed fresh baked scones and homemade butter while on site. The historic St. Mark's Anglican Church in Port Hope was the ideal setting for Reverend Drone and his Sunday sermons.
"It was a wonderful road show," muses McBrearty. The actors too enjoyed the trip. "It's been so enjoyable to see so much of Ontario that I've gone through in a hurry over the years and seeing Millbrook as a perfect time capsule of a turn-of-the-century town was a real treat," shares Peter Keleghan who plays Reverend Drone.
"Leacock put Canadian comedy on the world stage," explains executive producer and writer Malcolm MacRury. "We're thrilled to bring his work to life for a modern audience."
"There's a certain magical quality to the fact that CBC ordered this as a television movie - both on the 75th anniversary of CBC and 100th anniversary of the publication of the book. It's perfect synergy," states executive producer Seaton McLean. Magic was indeed in the air over the course of shooting. There was a palpable excitement on set and it was thanks to everyone involved, from cast and crew members to background artists and local townspeople. "This project makes me feel special," shares actor Debra McGrath. "The experience has felt like a sweet little dream. It's been charmed."
Whether you had signed on because it was a movie based on the work of Stephen Leacock or because the iconic Gordon Pinsent was attached, "everyone is [on the project] because they want to be. It's a lovely feeling," offers Pinsent excitedly. "Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town happily reflects a Canadian life that might well be overshadowed by life in general these days.... Sunshine Sketches comes back to remind us of the qualities and values of a better time of life in some instances. It's a reminder of a history that we dare not let go of," ends Pinsent. Charmed, I'm sure.