TSN producing eight documentaries to commemorate 100th Grey Cup

Football players and filmmakers. The arts crowd and the gridiron crowd. You'd be forgiven if you think there's got to be a great divide (or line of scrimmage, I guess) between them.

In celebrating the year of the 100th Grey Cup Game, the CFL's television partner, TSN, has decided to blur that line in the name of telling 8 compelling and historic football tales.

In the midst of Toronto's annual Hot Docs Festival today, 8 prominent Canadian film makers were introduced, each of them at various stages of completing their particular chapters in this Fall's series entitled: "Engraved On A Nation: Stories Of The Grey Cup, The CFL And Canada."

How are these for football topics? The FLQ. World War II casualties. Cancer. A plane crash. Racism. The National Energy Program. Domestic violence. All of these do more than make a casual appearance in some of these films. They do no worse than form a partnership with football in telling the stories of people like Jake Gaudaur, Anthony Calvillo, Chuck Ealey, Edwin Harrison and Russ Jackson.

Many of the directors involved in the project had little or no football interest or knowledge before taking on their assignments.

Take Larry Weinstein, an Oscar - nominated director whose film carries the working title "The 13th Man." You can probably guess what that's about, Roughrider fans.

"Somebody came to me and told me TSN was looking for some documentary filmmakers, but they didn't tell me it was a football thing. Right away I started having this conversation inside my head where I said 'don't be football, don't be football, don't be football," he said.

For Shelley Saywell, director of "The Anthony Calvillo Story," the reaction was one of disbelief.

"I knew nothing about football. I still don't know a whole lot about the game," she began.

"When they called me about doing this, I started laughing. I mean I really thought it was a mistake. It took a few minutes of conversation where the producer said 'hang on and listen to this story.' He told me about Anthony Calvillo. I said 'oh, I love this story."

Christie Callan-Jones, who is in the midst of weaving together her film "Mavericks: The Story Of The 1971 Argos," didn't have quite so shocked a response when she was first approached. Although not a big sports fan per se, she has always held great admiration for movies about sports.

"Triumph, redemption," she began. "I think really that even if you don't understand sports, everyone gets that. Ever since I saw 'The Natural' as a kid, sports stories have spoken to me."

"Football is sort of the canvas upon which you can tell these very human stories," continued Callan-Jones. "Look at the '71 Argos. Really, it's a story about the times; the crazy 70's, the city coming into its own. But also it's about a unique bunch of characters who were really, really close, beyond just being teammates. There's something that bonded them that, even 40 years later, many of them are still really good friends."

Callan-Jones, Saywell and Weinstein didn't know it, but their unfamiliarity with Canadian football history actually made them well suited for the job, according to TSN President Stewart Johnston. Did the network purposely go after football neophytes?

"A little bit on purpose," Johnston began. "We didn't actively go out and say we want non-football fans as directors, but what we did want was a perspective that's maybe a little different than what we've seen before in sports documentaries in Canada, which have typically been done by sports people. And done well. But we felt that by branching out this way and getting a new perspective from someone who is going to learn, for the first time, what happened with the 13th man, or, who is Jake Gaudaur, these are eye-opening experiences for them and allows them to take what I think is a completely fresh approach to some stories that we have heard before."

TSN's Vice President of Programming, Shawn Redmond, says the finished product, as a collective, looks a little different than it might have. The notion that the Grey Cup's story could be told chronologically or team by team were both ideas that were considered, then rejected.

"We didn't want to do something that we do every day, said Redmond. "It's about story telling. That's why we reached out to this community and to these eight directors."

"We started out with about 30 stories, whittled it down to 20 and then reached out to the film community and they started to do research. They came back to us after digging into these stories and presented us with ideas. Ultimately we picked the 8 best stories. It was a case of seeding them with ideas and letting them do what they do best."

This type of creative process brought a new and different flavour to some well known CFL stories. As well, it brought a few surprises, according to Redmond.

"Absolutely. The ones where the story was our idea, when it came back to us it was much bigger and much better than we ever could have thought."

One of the films, entitled "The Crash Of Flight 810," wasn't even part of the original conversation about what stories needed to be told.

"The producer and director (Academy Award winner Paul Cowan) brought that to us. We had no idea. And that's one of the stories that we're most excited about."

"The Crash of Flight 810" chronicles the story of Calgary Stampeder offensive lineman Edwin Harrison and his search to find answers about the death of his grandfather, Cal Jones. Jones and 4 other CFL players were killed in a plane crash in 1956.

Saywell's project, on Anthony Calvillo, will likely provide even the keenest of football fans with insight into pro football's all-time leading passer and his personal struggles and triumphs. That's because she was able coax interviews out of Calvillo's family members.

"His family's never really opened up before. So, they're finding out things through the film about each other. They've never talked about any of this stuff," she said.

Good storytelling doesn't come without some kind of struggle. Saywell is struggling over how to best tell Calvillo's remarkable tale.

"I'm trying to wrestle it into some kind of (story) arc. Because, I have to make hard choices. Really, there's so many things that happen that fascinate me."

When asked if football is merely a backdrop in a story like Calvillo's, she pauses.

"I think it's the backdrop, but it's also what saves him. So, it's more than the backdrop. It's part of this drama. So, it's not a backdrop so much as it's another half of him. It's the half of him that saves him from the darker stuff. For instance, he escapes domestic violence by going to this little park at age 7, walking five miles to a game. No shoes. That's how he deals with it."

For Weinstein, sailing into waters that were largely unknown to him has been educational as well as challenging. He freely admits that his telling of the Saskatchewan Roughriders' heartbreaking last play loss in the 2009 Grey Cup Game is coming from a man who loves his rugby, but not so much his football.

"This was one of their favourite stories, apparently," he says of his assignment. "It wasn't my idea at all. I'm one of the few people in Canada who didn't know about the 13th man and I'm quite embarrassed by that."

He's entitled to tell it, of course, and this reflects what Johnston said about having familiar stories being told with a fresh approach. Ask Weinstein for an overview on it and that is clear. This is not just a film about too many men on the field.

"It's much more than that. It's an incredible story. Ultimately it's a weird, beautiful kind of love story," he said, referring to his investigation into the passion of Roughrider fans and the social relevance of their beloved team.

His crash course into the world of Canadian football is, indeed, having an effect on him.

"I'm feeling these pangs of desire to watch football games. Yes, I'm being swayed."

Same thing for Saywell. Her investment in the saga of Anthony Calvillo has made her a fan.

"I really hope I do a great film and that TSN gives me a ticket to the Grey Cup," she said, laughing. But then, a serious turn.

"I'll always see the game differently now. I started watching football footage after I'd done the personal side of the story. I was in tears. Because the triumphs and tragedies on the field meant so much more to me because I understood what it took to be there for him."

As Callan-Jones continues her efforts to chronicle the swashbuckling ways of the 1971 Toronto Argonauts, her energy for the project practically approaches giddiness as she talks about the team reunion she's organizing this July.

"I know a bit (about football), I have a real passion for football movies and stories. It's actually been a dream of mine to do a football movie," she said, enthusiastically. "Especially the '71 Argos. I mean, they lost and people still remember them."

That kind of narrative, and the talents of some Canada's top documentary directors are just what Johnston and TSN are banking on.

"We know that the stories we can tell around the Grey Cup and the CFL will resonate for football fans and non-football fans," he said.

THE LINE UP FOR "ENGRAVED ON A NATION: STORIES OF THE GREY CUP, THE CFL AND CANADA" (Director in parentheses)

  • The Photograph: 1942 RCAF Hurricanes (Manfred Becker)

  • Mavericks: The Story Of The 1971 Argos (Christie Callan-Jones)

  • The Crash Of Flight 810 (Paul Cowan)

  • Western Swagger (Barry Greenwald)

  • The Chuck Ealey Story (Charles Officer)

  • The Anthony Calvillo Story (Shelley Saywell)

  • Grey Cup 1969 And The FLQ Crisis (John Walker)

  • The 13th Man (Larry Weinstein)

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