Interview: Writer/Director Robert Cohen and Producer Colin K. Gray Talk ‘Being Canadian’

Canada is a country that exists but not too many of the American public and beyond know much about. It’s a nation shrouded in mystery and maple syrup. A new documentary, however, is trying to change that and through celebrity interviews and some fascinating historical facts, Being Canadian is on its way to change the perception many people have about the country. Writer/director Robert Cohen (MaronThe Simpsons (Episode: Flaming Moe’s)) and producer Colin K. Gray (Atari: Game OverClean Break) were kind enough to speak with me about the film and it was an illuminating talk to say the least. Here’s how it went:

Thanks for taking the time.

I’m here with Colin Gray, who produced the movie.

Oh, okay. The more, the merrier.

Hey, how are you?

Good, how are you guys?

Great, we appreciate you taking the time out for us.

Of course, of course. Love the movie. Really good, really funny. How long have you guys been thinking of doing this project?

Well, it was an eight year process. We had day jobs, and we would start and stop just because we had to go do other gigs to pay for this movie, but yeah, it’s been about eight years.

Okay. What were some of the challenges during the making of the film?

Well, I think, I mean, it’s like any typical documentary independent film. We would have a little financing come in dribs and drabs, and also just scheduling this amazing group of people who were wanting to participate in the film but working around everyone’s schedule was a challenge in just wanting to fit as many of these amazing people in. But also it took frankly years to get them all in the can, but we were very grateful because the amount of people who participated and then capping it off with this cross-country trip. And then I think the other challenge, which was typical again for a documentary is we had a huge amount of footage. I mean, I think we had about a hundred and fifty hours of interviews and B-roll by the end and sort of how to sift through that and distill it down into a 90-minute documentary was a good editing challenge.

Wow. Huh. Okay, well, what was it like getting all of these interviews together?

I mean, for us, honestly, it was a thrill just because we as Canadians are obsessed with who else is Canadian, so check that off the list, and we all got to meet people that we’d idolized for a long time and really respected, but also it was really a blast, you know, just to get these people to sit down and talk to them and get their opinion. Each one had its own unique bit of fun but hopefully it will help validate the whole reason why we were making the movie.

Okay. Was there anyone that you wanted to appear in the film that you couldn’t get?

We had two scheduling issues that I wish we could have gotten, Jim Carrey and Lorne Michaels, who had said they were interested. You know, it just really came down to one was in New York and the schedule just didn’t work out, and so those were on our wish list.

And I would also, we also had the great one, Wayne Gretzky. He was very interested too, but we could never quite – he was traveling or we were traveling. So yeah, there were a handful, but we were very grateful to everyone who did participate and who were able to make it work.

About how many people did you get overall?

Oh my god, umm, 75? 75 to 80 people.

Wow.

And they’re not all famous. We wanted there to be a balance of – you know, there’s a therapist, there’s a politeness expert, there’s a guy that runs the secret maple syrup reserve, you know, we definitely wanted a balance of regular Canadians and regular people and then a mix of well-known people that are Canadian but also not just comedians. Like Malcolm Gladwell, who is an author, and Alex Trebek and a former Prime Minister, so we just tried to spread it around and get different opinions.

Okay. So what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

I hope they don’t feel nauseous. (laughs) I hope that they take away – hopefully they take away, hopefully they realize that the things was made, like, a home movie where it was made with a great affection for Canada, and maybe a slightly greater understanding about our country, but that they had a good time. You know, it’s a road trip documentary like Roger and Me and that if they learn more about where Canada is now and hopefully feel like they got a fun ride. That would be great.

Okay. So Rob, you play many roles. Writer, director, producer. Do you have a favorite?

On the film?

In general.

Yeah, I mean, I started as a sitcom writer. I did that for almost 20 years and have been directing for about 7. Right now, I would say directing, which I really, really enjoyed, but you know, even just from a producer standpoint, the whole team was Colin and Megan and Mike and Teza. It really was like traveling around with your family, and we didn’t always agree, and sometimes the car smelled, but it was just a blast to work with fun people.

That’s awesome. So did you guys hang out at all when the cameras weren’t rolling?

Well, absolutely. Partly you’re forced to when you’re doing a cross-country trip, and you’re stuck in a mini-van for 10 days. But no, I think that’s kind of one of the things we’ve been very appreciative of. You know, we keep describing this as a life experience, and I think one of those things that happens after having spent 8 years working on a film is that we’ve also developed these lifelong friendships. There’s people we met along the way with each other. I think it’s also the blessings of doing something like this if you actually get along and can tolerate each other is to go through this amazing experience together, and it’s something that I think we all cherish and hopefully will continue to collaborate on other cool stuff down the road.

That’s great. So speaking of the future, do you plan on working with this crew again in the future?

Me?

Well, both, definitely.

No.

No, never again. (laughs) If it’s just us being honest, absolutely not. (laughs) Yeah, today was the day that I had this really pretty heavy-duty goodbye with Colin.

And I keep lingering around. I just, like, please don’t leave me, Rob. Don’t let me go. I moved my flight up by a day just so I have an excuse.

No, everybody really, it was a great, I know a lot of people always say this, but it was genuinely a labor of love, not only for Canada but just, it was great people that everybody chipped in, in every possible way, to make this happen, and we’re just so thrilled that it exists and that our very early response has been so positive. Colin and I, when we’ve done some of the film festivals, some people have chased us down the street, you know, screaming, “It’s the Canadians!” And I never thought that would happen ever anywhere, but it’s been very fun.

Are there any other subjects you hope to tackle in the future in documentaries?

Well, I think that we definitely, now that we’ve sort of released the film, I’d like to do a documentary about Rob’s massive ego. It’s just getting bigger every day because of all the amazing press about the film. We’re thinking of entering it as a float in next year’s Macy’s Day Parade. It’s getting out of control. We need help.

I like the balloon actually.

I like it.

No, we have some different topics and things that we’re exploring, early days, but there is, I think we’re all hoping we could dig into some more stuff together and with our partners, Mike and Teza like Rob mentioned at Amaze Films. They’re based in Toronto, a really wonderful company, and then our company Grainey Pictures, we’re all sort of exploring some new things to dig into together.

Anything you can talk about right now?

Well, there’s a doc that we’re starting to just look at about gender equality but with a sort of comedic twist, of course, and also one that looks at income inequality in the lead up to the election and sort of a little bit of a road trip element as well.

Okay. Sounds cool, looking forward to it. Do you think people will have a different perception of Canada after watching this film?

Yeah, I hope so. I mean, I hope, I think a lot of people outside of Canada never even think of Canada, so if they think of it long enough to have a perception, that would be a huge win. But this is just our view and our presentation of a sort of lightly comedic situation, but the response we’ve seen definitely outside of Canada, people have really wanted to engage in conversation about Canada and their opinions or people they know who are Canadians ask us if we know Greg in Vancouver, which is a constant Canadian curse. But yeah, it’s been great. Really, we had some viewers at a screening last night in New York that wanted to talk on the street for about 20 minutes. They’re from New Jersey. How much they learned about Canada, we were very excited to bore them into the ground with our knowledge.

That’s awesome. Rob, how often do you visit your homeland?

I try to go back a couple times a year. One of my brothers lives up there. My mom lives up there. A lot of relatives, and I try to go skiing. I try to go back to Calgary for the stampede in the summer.

Okay. Here’s a random one, did you guys run into any problems with the Canadian government or police while filming?

(laughs) I don’t think we got a single speeding ticket, which is shocking because I think that Rob definitely has a lead foot, and we, no, I don’t think we –

Quite the opposite.

The opposite! I mean, we were welcomed everywhere we went, and –

We got 40 mounties to get on horses and charge at me, and no, they were, everyone was super cool. The Canadian government, if they noticed us, we could just apologize and then let us go.

Very nice. So who was the most difficult interview to get for the film?

Difficult to get, I mean, there were…I’m trying to think. There were certain interviews where honestly we had to go through a bit of a process to sort of coordinate everything. The RCMP musical ride when we were in Ottawa, like Rob said, they very graciously allowed us to be there, film it, and they had Rob on the field. There were a few things where we had to do just basic sort of pro forma forms and emails and multiple phone calls, but –

Maybe the maple syrup place.

That one, yes, you’re right. In the movie, we expose the actual secret maple syrup reserve that Canada has that we have stored up for five years of emergency maple syrup, and negotiating to go film there and get the location was probably the most difficult because they are so protective, but when we got there, we found out it was probably not necessary, but that one took the longest.

Okay.

It was the perfect Canadian answer.

Okay. So this question is for both of you. Who were some of your favorite comedians?

Favorite comedians?

Yeah, most inspirational.

You know, gosh, there were so many from the ones we interviewed, I definitely would, I mean, Will Arnett was just so down to earth and so approachable and so funny, yet he was so insightful. Whether he was talking about hockey or the fact that Americans really just don’t think about Canada very often, if at all. The way he phrases stuff, the way he tells a story is just, I think it’s something about his voice too. That deep voice. He was certainly, I mean, there were so many great people, it’s hard to choose one.

Yeah, I would say like Eugene Levy, a hero of mine just from SCTV, and I think sitting down with him, but also people like Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, somebody you never thought you’d be talking to. It’s a damn rush. It’s just like, why are we in a room with these guys? Why are they being so awesome?

Well, I will say too for me, the hardest one to keep a straight face was the one where we’re doing the road trip, and we pulled into Toronto, and we interviewed Dave Foley in a hotel room, and Rob and Dave jumped into bed and stripped off their clothes and did the interview basically naked, and we had to film them. It was just the most absurd, the entire thing, but then their banter because they’re old buddies was hilarious, their whole conversation. I think that one, you cracked up more during that interview than almost anyone as well. But that was, that was so ridiculous and so absurd and so fun to be there and be a part of it.

Awesome. For both of you again, out of all of your work, are there any actors or filmmakers you haven’t worked with that you want to in the future?

You mean just for any project?

Any project, sure.

Wow. Umm, yeah, I mean, I would say there’s just people that I have immense respect for. Like, this is an obscure answer, but like Terrence Malick. I just think he is one of the greatest directors of all time and certainly a guy who directs weird TV commercials, we’ll probably not cross paths with him. I just think there’s, it’s a generic answer, but I just think anybody that is so funny and has their own thing. Like Will Ferrell is a guy who just owns it, and Robert Downey Jr., they own it, and to do a project with somebody like that who you respect their superpowers, it would be great.

I think you’re right. It’s really just someone who you have immense respect for. I mean, for me, it’s definitely, I’d love to have a chance to work with some other great doc filmmakers, like an Alex Gibney or a Michael Moore, just to sort of see how they do it. Check out their superpowers, or some other feature film directors too, like a Michael Mann or something. There’s so many I would just love to be a fly on the wall and get to see them in their zone, doing their thing.

Nice. Rob, what was it like working on the Oscars?

Well, I worked on those just helping other people out, so it was fun, but when you’re a comedy writer, you get called in for a lot of these jobs, so I was there to help people that were doing either bits or were hosting. So I wasn’t working on the actual show, the day to day show, but it was a blast because, you know, at the Oscars, you get to see a lot of the cool behind-the-scenes stuff and you get a very nice giftbag.

Nice, okay, swag.

Yeah, if you want my windbreaker, you can have it.

(laughs) Yeah, sure. Do you guys prefer film to TV or TV to film?

I am a creature of TV. I mean, I love it because there’s an immediacy to it, and I grew up loving it as a kid and, you know, workwise started working in it, and I think it is the best because you get 13 or 22 shots at something in a season, and there’s a schedule to it, and I think you have a more dedicated viewership. I’ve never made a film beyond Being Canadian, so I have limited experience.

And I mean, I would say, it’s like my thing now is, we’re storytellers. I’m platform agnostic. There’s strengths and weaknesses to each of them, but I love telling stories in long format, big screen, and serialized formats for TV, but also we’re doing a lot of stuff online and shorter format stuff too. So wherever you can tell a great story and sort of however you can sort of make the format work for you.

Nice. Okay. Rob, this question is for you. How did you come up with the Flaming Moe?

The recipe for the Flaming Moe or the story for the Flaming Moe?

The story.

Well, the story for the Flaming Moe came about two ways. When that was sort of getting broken, somebody in the room said, “What if Homer invents something and somebody steals it and makes a lot of money?” And then the conversation shifted to Moe, who is a buddy of his, and then everybody just discussed, “What is the dumbest thing that somebody could steal?” And since it is Moe, it would be a drink that was on fire and purple. So it was, that was how it really came about is a one-liner that just expanded into that story, because it really was the one thing that Homer would have been a gajillionaire from, and one of his best friends ripped him off.

Classic episode, really great.

Oh, thank you.

Okay, final question for the both of you, do you have a secret sauce for comedy?

Wow. I don’t, I mean, that’s really a Rob question. A secret sauce for comedy, I have no idea. Rob? Do you have a magic thing?

Yeah, this is going to be a weird answer, but I think if it’s approached from a fun perspective, you’re going to find a more broad way to present the comedy, and any stuff that I’ve been involved in, if people approach it from a fun standpoint, it will be, it will have a lightness to it as opposed to someone scientifically trying to do it or doing it from a mean standpoint. So I just think it’s got to be fun and silly, and it may work or it won’t, but it was fun making it.

Well, gentlemen, this was fun. Thank you for your time today.

It’s our pleasure. Thank you for having us.

We’re out across the country On Demand as of Friday. You can get it anywhere. iTunes, cable VOD, so we hope people have a slight interest in checking it out.

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