'Rob Ford had his heart in the right place...': 'Run This Town' director aims to show 'human side' of late Toronto mayor

Yahoo News Canada

Back in 2013, the city of Toronto received international attention after a video surfaced showing the late mayor Rob Ford spoking from a crack pipe. Some were embarrassed, some were concerned and others were entertained, but the scandal solidified Ford as one of the most controversial Torontonians in history.

Dubbed informally as “The Rob Ford Movie,” Ricky Tollman’s Run This Town takes us back to the 2013 crack scandal that rocked the city and became an international news sensation.

 “This isn’t a Rob Ford movie, it’s a movie about people who are affected by policy, bad policy, and will have to clean it up in a couple of decades,” the film’s director told Yahoo Canada. “I never set out to make a hit piece on Rob Ford”

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Other than Ford, the story is told with fictional characters and follows a young journalist, Bram Shriver played by Ben Platt, who just graduated from university and gets his first contract job at a Toronto newspaper. While he’s there, we also meet two City Hall employees: Kamal Arafa who is the “special assistant” to the mayor and Ashley Pollock who is a press assistant, both characters played by Toronto-raised actors Mena Massoud and Nina Dobrev.

These three young people take us through the journey of struggling in their respective jobs, all dealing with the impact of Ford’s questionable behaviour, including harassment and the infamous video. Bram is trying to make his mark in journalism and break the story of the crack scandal, while Kamal tries to bury the story, going against his moral instincts. Ashley, new to City Hall, has to try to balance the need to stay employed with the inappropriate interactions she’s had with Ford.

Some will certainly scoff at the criticism of Ford in this film, while it’s also fair to argue that the fictional portrayal of the real life situation doesn’t go far enough to truly paint a picture of the actual events that occurred when he was the mayor of Toronto.

Tollman recognizes that the media frenzy surrounding Ford caused the first time writer/director to feel sorry the former mayor. He highlights the moment when Ford was on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“There’s this moment when you’re watching his interview that he realizes he’s not there to have fun, he’s there to be made fun of,” Tollman said. “This is a guy with real feelings and I think Rob Ford had his heart in the right place but like Bram in the film, maybe he should have had another job because it wasn’t right for him.”

“I wanted to create a sympathetic portrait of somebody who I disagreed with politically, without it making him a villain or a caricature, I wanted to be able to show shades of a real human who had feelings and thoughts, though I disagreed with those thoughts.”

Although Tollman’s intentions were to avoid making a film that completely bashed the former mayor (he doesn’t show the full breadth of controversy that followed Ford at City Hall), the ex-mayor is still the villain of the movie and it doesn’t lend itself to the audience feeling particularly sympathetic towards the character.

The portrayal of the iconic Mayor

When images first surfaced of Damian Lewis in prosthetics on the set of Run This Town, people instantly took notice and wondered about the casting of Lewis in the role. The face of Ford in this movie doesn’t really resemble the late mayor, and Lewis’ accent is a little less like a person from Etobicoke and a little more like Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers films. But Tollman is aware that the character isn’t an exact replica for the real man who ran Toronto.

“He just wanted to have the essence of Rob in there, but to create a character that - you didn’t necessarily need to know Rob to understand him,” Tollman explained. “It was important to us to create a character that was accessible but based in reality.”

That being said, Lewis’ depiction of the mannerism, the stance and the body language of Ford is pretty spot-on in this film.

Donald Trump vs. Rob Ford

When Tollman began thinking about what he wanted to pursue for his first writing/directing project, he knew he wanted to create something that showcased the intersection of journalism and politics. He developed the idea for Run This Town when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for U.S. president back in 2015.

“I thought, I’ve seen this story before because when he announced [his candidacy] people laughed about it, it was a joke, and nobody took it seriously until election night when he won,” Tollman said, adding that it is the same thing that happened in Toronto when Ford won the city’s mayoral race back in 2010.

“I thought, nobody had really talked about how Toronto saw it first and nobody looked back to see who was affected by that, and what their stories were and why that shouldn’t happen again.”

Mena Massoud in Ricky Tollman's "Run This Town" (Elevation Pictures)
Mena Massoud in Ricky Tollman's "Run This Town" (Elevation Pictures)

Ideal response from Doug Ford

When Tollman began developing the film, Rob Ford’s brother, Doug Ford, had not yet become Ontario’s premier. He doesn’t think that Doug will end up watching his film but when asked what his ideal response from the premier would be, if he watched Run This Town, Tollman said he would want him to say, “the score is incredible, whoever wrote it is incredibly talented and I’m going to go out and buy it on vinyl.”

But Doug is likely one of many who will take issue with the resurgence of the ex-Toronto mayor’s scandal almost four years after his death, following a battle with pleomorphic liposarcoma. 

“Unfortunately, politicians as public figures open themselves up to critique the same way that making a film opens myself up to critique,” Tollman said. “I’m just telling a story and somebody not being around anymore doesn’t cancel out the option of making a film about them.”

Run This Town also received some pushback when the cast was first announced. Robyn Doolittle, now a reporter for The Globe and Mail, is credited with breaking the crack scandal for the Toronto Star, along with the publication’s chief investigative reporter Kevin Donovan. She tweeted about her role in narrative being replaced with a man, the character of Bram.

Tollman responded to the casting controversy by stressing that the intention was never to tell the story from a particular journalist’s perspective. He wanted to tell a story that was reflective of what his friends in the city were experiencing, like struggling to find a job after getting “impressive degrees” and not being able to afford a house in any city centre.

“That whole story that came out that we weren’t telling perspectives of the actual journalists that told the story was surprising because...we’re not telling the story of anybody that broke the story,” Tollman said.

“The story wasn’t about breaking news, it was about somebody that wished he knew how to break news...It seems easy but it’s not, there are really talented people that are much smarter and much better at their jobs than this character is.”

Ford supporters, for both Rob and Doug, are known for being incredibly passionate. Conversely, there are a number of Torontonians who have expressed that they don’t want to relive a controversial, often referred to embarrassing, time in the city’s history. Tollman just hopes people take the time to watch the movie and form opinions on their own.

“I hope that those people, for whatever reason, whether they don’t want to see a movie because they feel like they’ve lived through it and it was a nightmare, or they don’t to see it because they feel like it’s disrespectful, I hope they form an opinion for themselves rather than believing things they read on Twitter from people who haven’t seen the film as well,” he said.

“Just because things align with your particular set of politics doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t form your own opinion about statements.”

Run This Town hits theatres on Friday, March 6

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