Address to convocation by Dr. Paul PopeFriday, May 28, 3 p.m.
It came in the mail. A business size envelope addressed to me at my production company office. Inside was a letter telling me I had been selected by the university senate for a honorary doctor of letters.
It was quite a shock. Maybe a joke. I looked closer at the letter. It had Office Of The President as the return address and it was signed by someone important.
It said really nice things about me, recognizing my work in film.
My first thought was about my mother – she would be so proud. My dad too, but my mom would be really proud. My dad died in 2002 followed by Mom in 2007. They both hailed from a small community in Fortune Bay called Stone’s Cove. At 14 my dad got a job as a cook’s assistant on a schooner. He quickly realized that his calling lay neither on the sea, nor in the kitchen, and determined that higher education was the ticket to wider possibilities. Both he and my mom became teachers, dad later turning to social work and then the civil service. They had that unique set of values, often found here, that combined a fierce sense of self reliance with a strong belief in social responsibility. A society is only as successful as its most vulnerable members. And they knew that education was absolutely fundamental to building a thriving and equitable community.
In 1975, when I announced that I wanted to go away to Ontario to study film and photography, I had to pass some rigorous “are you serious” testing. But they were soon all in. For the four years I spent away at Ryerson my mom would mail me letters stuffed with two dollar bills – just a little extra – mad money. I think of my mom and dad often. They instilled in us a love of learning and a conviction that we could do anything if we put our minds to it. I learned a lot from them.
As I did from my sister Joan, and my brother Glenn, to whom I am very grateful for their unwavering support over the years.
I would not be on this stage today without the support and hard work of my wife Lisa Porter and our two boys Simon and Alex. I thank them very much and share this honour with them. I would also like to thank my late mother in law, Ida Porter, who was a remarkable woman and helped propel my sense of humour to a whole new level.
So, my first piece of advice to the graduating class is “do not forget your family.” Respect for family will help you in your career aspirations – and your quality of life.
I started in photography – inspired by short story in a Grade 3 reader about a riddle solved by photography. The teacher, Mrs. Brown ignited my interest in story telling. I built my first darkroom in Grade 5. By Grade 8 it had expanded to almost a third of the basement.
It was in high school that my interest in film and photography really kicked in. I was working part time in a commercial darkroom and taking photographs of everything – much to many people’s annoyance. At the same time my oldest brother David was making short independent films. Just to be clear, independent means a film where you come up with the idea and you own the intellectual property. It becomes your job to convince other people to buy it.
At the time the only film activity in Newfoundland was at the university or at the CBC – and it was small. But there were a handful of others making independent films – my brother David and his friends, Mike Jones and John Doyle and his brother. In 1975 they came together and formed the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-operative. Little did I know that first meeting would change my life for ever, and the lives of many more people. NIFCO is a remarkable organization because of the vision of the founders – first president was Mike Jones; first manager was David – and the continuous great leadership of successive boards of directors. It was, and still is, a collaborative nurturing environment. I was very fortunate to have people like Mike Jones, Derek Norman, Adrian McKeever and Mike Riggio supporting me when I was just an eager high school student. My brother David stayed active in NIFCO until he passed away in 1988. He didn’t get to see just how big and significant NIFCO would become – but he knew it was possible.
So my second piece of advice to the graduating class is this. “Anything is possible in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Like many before you, you may be tempted by the lure of greener pastures abroad. Think again. This province offers unique opportunities that you won’t find in many other places, especially in those have not provinces like Ontario and Quebec. Yes, you should travel; yes, you should see the world and experience as many other cultures as you possibly can. But you would be surprised how you can leverage living here to achieve your goals. We have a government that offers initiatives and support that are the envy of many – and a premier that gets things done. I think this province is experiencing a sea change like no other in its history. It’s a good time to be here.
However, there will be obstacles.
When I returned from Ryerson there was no professional film community as such, so I got a job with film’s more mercantile cousin, advertising. Working at Bristol Communication was trial by fire. As a producer I had to know about everything from camera to editing to mastering the fine art of client relations. I got to film on ships, oil rigs, mines, paper mills, airports, mountains and rivers; from cars, snow mobiles, planes and helicopters. I was lucky enough to see many amazing places in this vast province and work with extraordinary people like Rick Gill, Bob Carter and Doctor Rex Anthony.
But by the early eighties I was itching to get back to my real love, making movies. I paired up with fellow Ryerson grad Francine Fleming to make a one-hour dramatic program, Undertow. Undertow was a significant milestone in the industry here as it was the first network acquisition from this province. It was a seminal moment. The networks were buying material from us.
When I started a film production company in Newfoundland it was common to get a “are-you-crazy” reaction.
Maybe – maybe not.
Fortunately no one asks that question any more. Newfoundland film and television production is second fiddle to no one. Our programs sell all over the world and garner huge audiences. In 1976 a TV network executive referred to us at NIFCO as pot smoking hippies on welfare. In 2010 those same TV networks spent over 20 million dollars buying independent production from Newfoundland Companies – the latest feature I produced along with Jill Knox Gosse and Shawn Doyle was Adriana Magg’s Grown Up Movie Star. It was the only film from Canada to screen in competition in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It was selected as one of only 14 films from 1,022 entries from around the world and garnered the prestigious Award for Breakout Performance for lead Tatiana Maslany. We have indeed come a long way.
Don’t get me wrong – it is important to work with the major centers. You must travel among them and learn their ways. It is not us against them.
My next piece of advice is “Play the long game.” There are no shortcuts to success. Before you make any major decision you should ask yourself what the short-term and long-term ramifications are. For example, a film shoot can get pretty rough and tumble, and I have seen producers who opt to take shortcuts – shoot first, apologize later. I have never seen these guys go on to make a second film in the same town. They burn so many bridges they are never welcome back. Successful producers work with the community and develop relationships. It’s a lot more work but you are always welcome back. It is the professional thing to do.
And if things go wrong, don’t play the blame game. We all make mistakes. But we learn from them and move on. There is no advantage to mudslinging and finger pointing. Be a grown up – even when others around you are not.
As you move out into the work force you will soon find your selves in charge of people or projects. I would like to quote a fellow doctor of letters, actor Andy Jones from Newfoundland’s first independent feature film The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood – “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
When ever I am asked what a film producer actually does, I like to describe it this way. When you watch the credits of a film you might see 100 names. Each of those people has their signature on one contract – their own. The producer has their signature on every contract. Every contract that I sign represents a relationship that must be fostered long after the film is finished. To succeed in anything you have to seek out and surround yourself with outstanding people and treat them with respect. My mantra has always been: Power grows the more you do not use it. And I encourage all of you to think about that. People who are power hungry miss out on important collaboration. Success and trust go hand in hand.
In my business I have had the fortune to work with many great people. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Mary Sexton, Jennice Ripley, Marlene Cahill, Ken Pittman, Mary Walsh, Nigel Markham, Noreen Golfman, Jean Smith, Steve Cook, Ralph Holt, Ed Riche, Scott Garvie and Brian Freeman, and my close friends Pat Short and Ted Blades, to name just a few.
I would also like to acknowledge two people who could not be here today, the Chancellor, General Rick Hillier, who has redefined the Canadian Military, and the former Chancellor John Crosbie who has ensured that the interest of this province were heard loud and clear on the national stage.
So, thank you for honouring me with this doctor of letters.
In closing I would like to encourage you to follow your dreams, never give up, and have a fine bit of fun.