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Hollywood's Dirty Secret: The World Actually Exists

05/07/2013 12:23 EDT | Updated 07/07/2013 05:12 EDT
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Thinking about current filmed-in-Canada American-produced series like Defiance, Hemlock Grove and others can lead you down a warren hole of musings, about American pop culture in relation both to Canada, and to the whole "Global Village" (as Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan defined it).

First a quick digression ('cause I'm unhealthily prone to using odd analogies). In 1938 the American actor and director, Orson Welles, caused a stir with a now legendary radio dramatization of War of the Worlds. Years later, Welles was asked why he made little effort to correct people who mistakenly assumed he wrote the script when it was actually by Howard Koch (from H.G. Well's novel). Welles' response (if memory serves) was people preferred believing a single vision was behind a production.

Tuck that away. We'll be coming back to it.

I've written before about how often Canadian movies and TV shows will pretend they are set in America, or simply avoid any obvious Canadian references. The claim (true or false) is it's easier to sell a production if people think it's American.

Likewise, most international co-productions between Canadian and American (and other) co-producers tend to settle on American settings, like Copper, Rogue, Being Human, XIII, etc.

Yet even when American producers go it alone, productions are sometimes filmed in foreign countries for budget or location considerations. And they rely, to varying degrees, on the local talent pool. TV dramas like Defiance and Hemlock Grove are, I believe, technically American productions (though I haven't scrutinized the fine print) yet are filmed in Canada, with casts including Canadians and other nationalities. In fact, only one actor in Defiance is actually American! Yet Defiance is set in Missouri and all the (human) characters are American.

It's an American series, so why shouldn't it be set in America about American heroes?

But that's where tumbling down that warren hole of philosophical thought comes in.

It's not as a favour to the world that Defiance -- and similar productions past, present and future -- are filmed in Canada (or New Zealand, or wherever). American producers sometimes freely admit that their series wouldn't have been made if they hadn't been able to shoot it abroad.

So if you're an American fan of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica from a few years ago, then on behalf of Canada, I say: "You're welcome."

And even American movies and TV series shot in the U.S. employ foreigners. It seems like you can't channel cruise without landing upon a Hollywood series (or a movie) that features at least one non-American in the cast -- usually playing an American. Now that's something Americans can brag about: Hollywood has become so dominant there's an unprecedented influx of acting refugees.

But the flip side is: America is relying increasingly upon the global talent pool.

American movies and TV present a vision of American dominance and insularity. America stands alone! America is complete unto itself! America is the world's sole super power! And this refrain is parroted by Canadians (and others) by setting their own movies and TV shows in America -- even those without any direct American involvement.

Yet in order to perpetuate this image -- this propaganda, if you will -- America is leaning heavily upon the international community, like an old man supporting himself with a cane. Like Uncle Dudley Marvel in the old Shazam! comics being propped up by the Marvel Family members with true super powers (or am I getting too obscure in my analogies?)

They hire foreign actors, but get them to adopt American accents. They film abroad, but pretend it's America.

Like Orson Welles willing to let audiences forget about Howard Koch, the attitude is: it's better to present an uncomplicated American face even if the reality is more pluralistic.

But is that healthy?

In an interconnected world of multilateral alliances and market forces -- the Global Village -- one gets the impression a lot of Americans think of America as separate from other nations. They get resentful when international treaties are proposed, and see the U.N. as some sinister busy body. The world needs America, they insist, but America doesn't need the world.

No nation is truly alone or self-sufficient any more, yet Americans (and the rest of us) turn on the TV to be soothingly reassured that the world outside America is irrelevant. All great heroes are American. All great stories take place in America.

Even if they need foreign actors and foreign countries to help tell those stories.

I suspect there'd be a bit of culture shock if every non-American actor suddenly reverted to their native accent -- if Rick on The Walking Dead revealed he wasn't a southern sherrif but from Scotland Yard. I can imagine a few panic attacks if every American series filmed in Canada suddenly unfurled Canadian flags in the backgrounds. FOX News would no doubt go into overdrive raging against how Hollywood is undermining American confidence.

And as a guy who has long advocated for more Canadian presence in Canadian movies and TV, I'm literally the last person to suggest a country should exclude itself from its stories. But there's a danger in being too insular.

So, no, not every production. But maybe a few should reflect on screen the multinationalism occurring behind-the-scenes.

Just to gently remind Americans that they aren't alone.

The irony is the core theme in the SF series Defiance is about different cultures trying to get along. Yet apparently the thinking is the audience is more comfortable accepting imaginary space aliens than acknowledging actual Canadians, Australians, Britons and Scots!

Nor is America alone in these attitudes.

Although Canadian productions over-emphasize America...they can be reluctant about recognizing the multiculturalism within Canada's borders.

When South African-Canadian actress, Jodi Balfour, landed a lead in TV's Bomb Girls, she understandably adopted a Canadian accent to play a born and bred Canadian gal. Yet when she appeared in a couple of episodes of the series Primeval: The New World...why couldn't she have used her native accent? If she's a South African-accented person living in Canada...then couldn't she play a South African-accented person living in Canada?

To paraphrase Pogo: "We have met the world, and he is us."

And we're all in this together.