“You can’t be fond of living in the past, ’cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re going to last”— Gord Downie
Lavender, Seed to Screen, started and stopped. As with most things it depends on income, time and interest. That said, it’s terribly rude to start a story and not finish it. So, leaving out the animal sacrifices, here’s a Cole’s Notes version.
The main thing people seem to want to know is, how I got from growing up on a farm in Prince Edward County, telling stories and jokes with friends, around a campfire or in a kitchen, to having a screenplay produced that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan? And what a fine question it is. One I ask myself. I also ask myself how to tell such a story without boring the bejeezus out of readers, and myself, if I stick to the facts. Sure everyone says they prefer the truth, but I’ve tested that hypothesis and, ironically, it’s a lie. But, I’ll give it a go.
The twilight must have caused my eyes to play tricks on me; when I first saw his silhouette it looked like he had horns and a tail. When he came closer I could see that he was just a man, a man wearing the finest tailored suit you can imagine. Actually, I don’t think you can imagine it, I couldn’t have. Even after seeing it, its description is beyond words. There isn’t even a name for the colour. He was clearly a man of great wealth and taste.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said.
I said nothing.
“Aren’t you pleased to meet me?”
Still, I said nothing.
“Come now,” he said, with a charming smile that could’ve turned rock to lava. “You wouldn’t be at the crossroads, at dusk, if you didn’t want to meet me. So, let’s just cut the act and get down to business. I have an entire earth to wander to and fro, and walk up and down. Business is good.”
Okay, maybe that didn’t actual happen. To me. Per se. But if you’re going to make me let the truth get in the way don’t blame me when you go back to looking at cat photos. All right. Fine. Let us begin.
I wasn’t the most talented storyteller in the area, where storytelling is a part of the culture. My dad was brilliant at it. Even among my group of friends I wasn’t exceptional. I just took to writing things down. And my friends were loving, loyal and supportive—believing in my tenacity, or bullheadedness, as much as anything.
I wrote short stories and a novella in elementary school. In high school I was told I couldn’t be a writer because I had difficulty with spelling. Still loving stories, and storytelling, I studied drama, wrote a short mystery play that was performed in Mrs. Grimley’s English class and volunteered for a group that brought theatre troupes and musicians to town.
A friend, Tony Hammond, was a lighting director at CBC. He invited another friend, George Vaughan, and me, to see the set-up for The Tommy Hunter Show. I was captivated by how the set looked through the camera. Anything that distorted reality that much I wanted to be a part of.
My media arts teacher, Nigel Sivel, took me under his wing. I wasn’t a great student, but received the Salt of the Earth award for work in audio/visual.
My dad’s nephew, John Frizzell, wrote for film and television. We’d watch his shows on CBC. When his film, A Winter Tan, played in Kingston it warranted a road trip. The film was sold out. I told a member of the front of house staff that I was John’s cousin and asked if I could see him.
“Colin!” John called out in his usual boisterous manner. “You came to see the film.”
“It’s sold out,” I told him.
“Come on,” he said.
He escorted my date and I into the cinema and found us seats. She was impressed. John also got me into a bar afterwards even though I was underage—my date wasn’t.
In Radio Broadcasting, at Loyalist College, I was the Production Manager and friend Mark Garrah was the Music Director, for the in-house station. Good times. Lots of stories. As a team we were only reprimanded once or twice. Though, our classifying Led Zeppelin’s, Hot Dog, as a country song, to help fill the mandatory country content, was certainly called into question.
After graduation I stayed at Loyalist for a year of television before transferring to Humber College for a year and a half of film, as well as studying short stories and psychology. While there I also took a poetry class at Ryerson and worked at Roy Thomson Hall as an usher.
A lot of what was being taught in the film course were things I’d already learned in Radio and Television. It was time to move on.
Not being able to find film work in Toronto I obtained duel citizenship (Canadian-Irish) and headed across the pond.
My first interview in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was more encouraging and welcoming than what I’d experienced in the industry in Toronto. The man I met with informed me that it could take some time to get a job in the industry.
“Are you working anywhere now?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said. “I just started looking.”
“Do you have any serving experience?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him.
He phoned his wife, who did the hiring at Roscoff’s, a Michelin Star restaurant in Belfast whose owners hosted the television show Gourmet Ireland. I went directly to the restaurant, was interviewed and hired. I rented a room in a house that same day and moved from my cousins’, Don and Jakki Neeson, in Portglenone, into Belfast.
After visiting the Northern Ireland Film Commission, to meet everyone there, I called them every Tuesday at 10:00. No one wants to hear from anyone on a Monday, or before 1o a.m.
Divorcing Jack (writer, Colin Bateman; director, David Caffrey; starring, David Thewlis), was my first film job. Part of my duties were driving the director, first AD, DOP and occasionally actors, to and from the set, in a minivan, on the left side of the road, on narrow streets, with round-a-bouts. My main goal was to not kill anyone. The First AD (Konrad Jay) and director told me at the wrap party that it was a good thing I was a good Trainee Assistant Director because I was a shite driver. You should’ve seen how wide their eyes got when I confessed it was my first time driving overseas—aside from a driving lesson I took the night before I started on the film.
After Divorcing Jack wrapped, I began drafting notes for what would become Lavender.
There was more filming going on in the Republic than the North. I decided to make the move. I was interviewed for work at an editing house and had two of the three necessary signatures to get into the film union. Things were going pretty well until my backpack, which contained everything I hadn’t worn to the job interview, was stolen from a hostel in Dublin.
So, I took a job tending bar at Tulfarris Hotel & Golf Resort, outside in Blessington, Co.Wicklow, which provided accommodations and a uniform. There I learned more about storytelling from sessions with co-workers, after hours, over pints and card games.
It took less than a week for me to get two fulltime jobs in Galway. It was in the time of the Celtic Tiger, work was aplenty. During the day I was in the promotions department at APC (American Power Conversation); at night I was a night porter at Jury’s Inn Hotel.
When I’d replenished my funds and wardrobe (and loaded up on towels, sheets, little soaps and tiny shampoo bottles) I quit my job at the hotel and started to experience local culture: sharing stories with housemates and workmates, enjoying markets, plays, weekly films, arts festivals, and live music shows. Many of the events were free, which helped. Galway, I later heard, is affectionately called, “The town that kills ambition.”
About a year later I left Galway (I still miss it), returned to Belfast for a weekend to take a course on AVID Media Composer, then onto Toronto, via The County (where I finished an early draft of Lavender).
Jobs weren’t as plentiful back in Canada. Luckily, I’d left Roy Thomson Hall on good terms and they welcomed me back. I rented a room at Tony Hammond and his wife Dorothy’s house.
Cole Jackson, a friend who’d been giving me notes on writing and schoolwork since grade 6, when he lived next door, read Lavender and gave me some feedback. After correcting what needed correcting, I got together with friends in Toronto, some of whom were real actors. We did a read-through. I did a rewrite.
A copy of the revised screenplay was sent to my cousin John who agreed to read it and give me notes. Thrillers weren’t his cup of tea, so no notes. He would later give me feedback on a script for a short film, which was more to his taste. He also bought me a copy of Final Draft, took me to the Canadian Film Centre for a Toronto International Film Festival b.b.q. and introduced me to award-winning sound and music supervisor, Daniel Pellarin.
Daniel agreed to let me interview him for LIFT’s (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) newsletter. The interview became a feature. Daniel said it was one of the best he’d given. I took it as a great compliment. My Radio Broadcasting education paid off. As did my pub training.
By this point I had left Roy Thompson Hall and was a server at Bar Volo. My girlfriend, whom I met at RTH, and I rented had an apartment and were living in sin.
One my short stories, Prairie Dogs, was published by the UK webzine, eastoftheweb. My brother Mike had once suggested that I should use symbolism in my writing, Prairie Dogs was the first story in which I consciously used that technique.
There was another rewrite done on Lavender. The more I learned the more I went back and reviewed previous drafts.
I wrote and did the drawings for a picture book, The Unbearable Billy Bud, which was sent to, and rejected by, publishers. Some of the rejection letters, however, offered encouragement for my writing. Though, not for the drawings which, I fully admit, weren’t good.
My first job in film on Canadian soil was transferring sound reels onto digital cassettes for a film composer who happened to be my girlfriend’s father. That was an education.
From connections made through LIFT, I was hired on a couple music videos and a short. That led to jobs on larger television series and films as an office PA.
Lusiana Lukman owns CMC (Classical Music Conservatory) in Toronto. She’s a multitalented individual who was looking into producing a film, but hadn’t found a script she liked. My now fiancée was working for her and mentioned that I wrote film scripts. Lusiana asked to see one. She read Lavender and liked it. We met and hit it off. She optioned the script, for a year, at first, and then it was extended to two.
Many people were attached and fell away in that time. There were several rewrites, but I always went back to my original when people left.
The first chapter of Just J (under the working title Rain) was awarded an aspiring artists grant from the Toronto Arts Council. The funds ran out quickly (there was only about a month’s worth), but it was enough for me to complete half of the manuscript.
After working on Resident Evil: Apocalypse I acquired the necessary signatures to take DGC (Directors’ Guild of Canada) training. It was tough getting all the hours necessary to actually join the union, though. Then, after my second application and presentation, I was accepted into the Self-Employment Benefits Program as a writer. After completing intensive small business training, I had six months of funding to establish the business.
The difference it made when I could focus on the craft and the business was immense. It’s similar to an athlete getting funding to train; it can really take their game up. With any profession, really, if you are afforded the opportunity to work at it full time you’re going to improve. Not to mention the physiological benefits of less financial strain and knowledge that someone who doesn’t know you believes in your work and ability; as well as providing the time needed for research and polishing material before sending it out, and the added credibility.
In that time, I completed Just J, wrote Chill, and got publishing contracts for both.
Through the SEB program I met video artist, Leslie Peters. The option Lusiana had taken on the script was up. However, Lusiana still believed in the script, and I in her. She, Leslie and I applied to the Canadian Film Centre with Lavender. We weren’t successful.
I went back to work at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (where I’d worked before while taking acting classes at the New School of Drama and improvisation classes at Second City), tending bar and ushering, while getting to watch and study Canadian Stage shows. I also worked for a catering company at that time.
One of my co-workers at the St. Lawrence Centre, fellow writer Marilyn Anne Campbell, told me about a writer-in-residency position with Now Hear This’ SWAT (Students, Writers and Teacher) program, working with students at risk. It sounded like a dream job to me. I applied.
“What would you do if you had a student who was determined to disrupt the class?” Mark Laliberte asked me, in the interview.
“I was that student,” I replied.
I got the position.
Professionally things were coming together. Personally, not so much. My wife and I went to The County for a summer to try to salvage our marriage. While being back at the homestead, I saw that both the family farmhouse and my mum weren’t doing as well I thought. My dad had died four years earlier and Mum had been on her own since. It’s easy to overlook the toll time takes when you see someone for short visits. But when you’re there for longer it’s difficult to keep living in denial. Not impossible, but tricky. When it was clear that my marriage was beyond salvation, I decided to stay.
At first I thought Mum would just need a little extra help, for a little while—some of the denial still lingered, you see. Aging and dementia don’t work that way.
I kept writing. I had a short audio play produced by Festival Players of Prince Edward County. It was part of a series (Sounding Ground), which they commissioned local writers to write. One of the actors on my play, An Ongoing Process, was Jason Leighfield (Paranormal Survivors, Haunted Case Files) whom I met at Loyalist. Jason had also been one of the actors on Lavender’s first read through.
While writing I did a lot of upkeep, and some renovations, around the family farm and worked at restaurants and wineries. A local artist, Teresa Westervelt, and I collaborated on a book of poetry and drawings, which author Lian Goodall was editing. Unfortunately, that project fell through.
I did some Youtube videos of covers and original songs with George Vaughan, but that was mainly to get his voice recorded, and for the joy of it. My guitar skills are equal to my abilities as an artist, which is to say you can kind of make out what it’s suppose to be, but that’s about as far as it goes.
I became the Poet Laureate for Small Pond Arts’ Festival of the Stick. It brought to my mind Steve Buscemi’s character in Big Fish, Norther Winslow, Poet Laureate of Spectre. I love that film and took the title as a great honour. My cousins Spike and Emmy came up from Milwaukee for my live performance of the poem. Okay, maybe not for that. But they made a point of arriving on time to hear it, so there you go.
I stayed with the SWAT program as a writer-in-residence, driving back and forth to Toronto, for six semesters. Between gas and travel time I didn’t make much. That didn’t matter. I believed in the program, and in the students and organizers, and was disappointed when it lost its funding. It was easy to see, but hard to prove, the positive effect it was having on the students.
Lusiana contacted me in there. She had a producer/director who was interested in Lavender.
Unbeknownst to me she’d never given up on Lavender. I later found out that another friend, Szonja Jakovits, whom I met through Lusiana, was showing Lavender around as well. But what they were showing was two different versions of the script. The one Szonja had was one of the rewrites with other people involved. Ed Gass-Donnelly had read it and didn’t like it. Then Lusiana gave him my original. He liked it and wanted to meet with me. I truly appreciate both their efforts and belief in the project. And I’m grateful that Ed agreed to read both versions.
Lusiana set up a meeting at her school. I drove to Toronto. That’s when I first met Ed, after seeing his film This Beautiful City. There was nothing in this for Lusiana, it was just her belief in the script, a desire to see it get made and her loyalty and kindness. She’s a rare gem, to be sure.
Ed wanted some changes made. I went home and made them. We met, again, just the two of us.
The main part of our first one-on-one went something like this,
“I tried working with another writer, before,” Ed said. “I made some changes to his script. He didn’t like them. This had to be this way, that had to be that way. I told him that he seemed to know exactly what he wanted and he should go and shot it. And that was the end of it. How do you feel about that?”
“I want it to be the best film it can be,” I said. “I’ll challenge changes, if I think it’s an error or I feel it takes away from the story, but I want it to get made and made well.”
We agreed that the film was to come first.
It’s amazing how much more work can get done, and how better it can be, when those involved are focused on, and willing to do what’s best for, the project.
We went back and forth for a bit. Ed asked to come on as a writer. I agreed. There was some more back and forth after that but Ed seemed to have a clear idea of where he wanted to take it. Film is, after all, a director’s medium.
We’d still get together for drinks and dinner occasionally, when I was in Toronto. Ed would buy, or cook, which was nice. It was constant reassurance that he believed in Lavender. I read once that writers never pick up the cheque. I didn’t feel I was in a position to challenge that accepted norm. And, financially, I wasn’t in a position to challenge that accepted norm.
There were other people interested in seeing the script at the time I signed with Ed. The other route may have given me more creative control. I choose to go with Ed rather than follow up with the others for a few reasons.
Personal: maintaining the farmhouse and grounds (even basic upkeep is never done on a farmhouse. I found a deep appreciation for all my dad did when he was alive), and helping my mum (cooking, trips to the doctors etc.) took more time, and energy, than I imagined.
Professional: I’d seen Ed’s work and liked it, a lot. I thought he could get Lavender made, and made well, on a level I’d only dreamed of. He said he could do it. I trusted him. After I went over to his place and saw a rough cut of, Small Town Murder Songs, I was reassured, yet again, that I made the right call for Lavender.
Personal/Professional: Ed enjoys food and drink. I respect that. He’s a hell of a cook and as well as being exceptional at plating meals. To me the plating showed patience, attention to detail and pride in what he was doing. He also has good taste in music and both our mum’s are from Northern Ireland. He’s generous, has a wonderful wife and kids and had a dog. These things helped in establishing and keeping a good faith relationship.
My trust in him and his abilities made it easier for me to step back. Writers often refer to their work as their children, well, my child had grown up and was married off. If a parent, no matter how well meaning, meddles, it can ruin everything. This is one of life’s lessons that can be applied to screenwriting.
Good for him! I thought. I definitely made the right call! Oh shit, I hope he’s still interested! (The thoughts didn’t necessarily come in that order).
He was still interested. All was good.
Writingwise, I focused on other projects, my children who hadn’t left the house. My cousin, Jeanne Buchanan, read and offered honest input on many of my manuscripts. I also put together and published a book for my mum, Such Little Time: A Collection of Love Letters, to honour what would have been her and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. My sister, Trish, did a final proofing on it, as she’d done with other stories in the past.
Such Little Time, got some press in Ireland, North and South, and in Canada. The teacher whose English class my mystery play was preformed in, Mary Grimley, came to the launch. Such Little Time is still selling well at Books and Company, in Picton, and is available on Amazon.
By the time shooting started on Lavender I was back in Toronto, and back working at the St. Lawrence Centre while trying to re-establish myself (something I’m still doing). Mum was in a place, also in Toronto, where she could keep her independence, walk to shops (driving was no longer safe), keep her dog and have 24hr nursing staff on hand when needed.
“There’s a lot of trailers,” Mum said.
“They’re for my little film,” I told her.
“It doesn’t look very little,” she said.
For the first time in her 87 years she was on a movie set. She sat in the director’s chair and watched what they were filming in the next room.
Pretty damn cool.
It was a pleasure meeting everyone who was working on the film. Before shooting began the only people I’d met, besides Ed, were producer David Valleau and executive producer Tex Antonucci. We met at Ed’s place the week before. Ed cooked some tremendous lamb burgers (among other things), I brought a bottle of Rosehall Run Pinot Noir that I had set aside years before with the promise of not opening it until we were sure Lavender had a green light. Instead of asking Ed, “Is it certain?” I’d ask, “Can we open the wine, yet?” It aged well. Much better than I did.
It was a good night.
I enjoyed being on set, on all the films I worked. With Lavender I was excited but also extremely nervous, uncertain of what to do with myself. I started offering to get people coffee at one point—old habits.
I said to the server at the local pub, Lizz Alexander, who’s a friend as well as being an actress, that I felt like I should be doing more.
“Your job is done,” Lizz said. “And if you don’t realize that they won’t let you on set.”
I took the advice to heart. I utilized craft services and kept my mouth shut, the best I could.
Though I think it’s safe to say that I managed to embarrass myself a few times.
When I heard Abbie Cornish was playing the roll of Jane, the lead, I watched anything I could get my hands on that she was in. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, it ended up making me more nervous when I saw her on set, which led to me being extra awkward.
I decided to not say anything for fear of saying something stupid.
Close to the end of the shoot I was leaving for the day when I saw Abbie sitting on a chair near the edge of the driveway.
I thought, I’m being ridiculous.
I turned back around, walked up to her, stuck my hand out and said, “I’m Colin Frizzell.” I did it in a, and you are . . .? sort of way. I didn’t mean to, that’s just how it came out.
She graciously extended her hand and said, “I’m Abbie Cornish.”
I nodded while shaking her hand, then walked away, thinking, yep, I said something stupid.
However, hearing lines spoken that I’d written over a decade before, seeing the script come alive, I felt . . . well, I think the word that comes closest would be gratitude. Extreme gratitude.
Dermot Mulroney gave me the thumbs up one day, after bringing some of those lines to life.
“I’m doing my best,” he said. “They threw it at me a day early.”
I don’t think I said anything back. I looked around to see if he was talking to me. When I was sure he was, I smiled like an idiot.
Another day when I was hiding in a garage watching daily rushes, one of the crew asked me if I was the child psychologist.
“No,” I said. “Wait. There’s a child psychologist?”
“Yeah, man. Some of the scenes are pretty dark,” he said. “So, who are you?”
“I’m the reason they need a child psychologist.”
He had no idea what I was talking about and just went back to what he was doing after giving me a funny look.
Everyone was great and worked so hard to make it the best it could be.
When I went to Tribeca Film Festival it was my first time in New York City. I took the overnight bus out of Toronto. I stayed in a little hotel, a 15-minute walk from the Port Authority, the bus station I’d seen many times on Law & Order. The room was cheap (for New York) and clean. There was live jazz from a sidewalk patio below my window, in the evening, while I was changing to go to the cinema. I know it’s cliché to say, but it was magical.
Being in New York for the first time, and going to the film’s premier, was a dream within a dream. I missed the red carpet because I didn’t check my email. However, it probably would have just made for some very awkward looking photos. In the photo taken at the Q & A at the theatre, after the viewing, everyone is laughing and relaxed, Justin Long is talking on the mic, I’m standing next to him looking like a deer caught in headlights. That sums it up nicely.
I was a stranger in a strange land and behaved accordingly. It all felt so much like a dream that I was terrified of doing something that would cause me to wake.
One of the readers, from the first reading of Lavender, Martin Sneath, came down for the premier. He gave me a tour of New York City the next day. We had smoked meat sandwiches at the deli where the famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry Meet Sally was shot; walked through Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge; went down by the water, had a beer while looking out at the Statue of Liberty and across at One World Trade Centre and the skyline of Manhattan. It’s not that far from Prince Edward County to New York City, as the crow flies, but they’re worlds apart. However, it all felt familiar since I’d seen it so many times on screens big and small and listened to Lou Reed’s New York endlessly in college.
After walking through Central Park, I ended my trip with a visit to the Empire State Building and its observation deck, where Tom Hanks met up with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Standing near the top of the building King Kong climbed, I watched the sun set and saw the lights of New York come on. It felt like I was in the movies. I sort of was. The oddsmakers took a beating.
There’s a certain satisfaction in accomplishing something that so many in your world didn’t think possible, and let their skepticism be known with such certainty you often doubted yourself, but tried to not let it show— if the wolves know you’re vulnerable, they will eat you. I fought a good fight, stayed the course and had faith that the film would come to fruition. However long it took.
I’m indebted to so many. Especially those who, throughout the years, believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You were my strength when I didn’t feel I had any. I hope you know who you are, even if I didn’t get to mentioning you this time around. I do love you all and your support meant more than you can possibly imagine.
I’m a guy trying to make a living, who enjoys telling stories to entertain my friends and family around a campfire or in a kitchen—with the help of a few drinks—who was fortunate enough to find a wider audience. I’m so appreciative to all the wonderful people who helped make that happen.
Anyway, that’s the Cole’s Notes version. I hope you felt the love (it’s the only way I can win my soul back after that twilight deal at the crossroads). When Lavender is released on Cineplex screens on November 4th, 2016, I hope you feel the fear (to give devil his due).
As Gord Downie said, “I can make you scared, if you want me to.”