Published: Friday, May 18, 2012
It was a surreal end to a surreal experience.
In 2010, Calgary-born actor, producer, director and writer Paul Gross was tapped to do a rewrite of the massive Hollywood blockbuster Battleship by his friend, director and actor Peter Berg. Alongside fellow Albertan scribe John Krizanc, Gross took a run at revising a screenplay originally written by Jon and Erich Hoeber, which was based on the popular board game.
Gross never actually made it to the massive set. But, during the process, he attended gigantic “green light” meetings that featured 40 or more movie execs. He saw scale models and maquettes of space ships and aliens. He witnessed bizarre discussions about how a second-unit shoot was short $25 million, which happened to be exactly $5 million more than the entire budget of Gross’s decade-in-the-making First World War epic Passchendaele.
Paul Gross worked on the script for Battleship, but doesn’t appear in the credits.
And then his Hollywood adventure came to an end, albeit in a somewhat passive-aggressive manner.
"I said to Pete, ‘Are we fired?’" says Gross, on the line from Princeton, N.J., where he’s currently starring in a play. "He said ‘No, no. The studio is just asking you to put down your pens for awhile.’ Hollywood can not bring itself to fire anybody. So they invent all these euphemisms for what’s happened."
Directed by Berg and starring Liam Neeson and Rihanna, Battleship opened Friday to high expectations and generally scathing reviews . After arbitration by the Writers Guild of America, it was decided that only the Hoeber brothers would receive writing credits, Gross says. He hardly seems heartbroken by the ruling, although admits that the potential six-figure pay day he could have received if the film does well was certainly appealing. As it was, he was paid a scale salary for his work.
But he’s philosophical about it, chalking up his brief Hollywood sojourn as yet another curious side-step in what he cheerfully calls his “stupid career.”
In the past few years, Gross, best known for his starring role in the 1990s TV hit Due South, has flirted with the American mainstream on several fronts. In 2009, he starred in the short-lived ABC drama The Witches of Eastwick, in which he played the Devil opposite a trio of beautiful women that included Rebecca Romijn.
Last year, Gross was on Broadway opposite fellow Canuck Kim Cattrall in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. It had been a smash in Toronto, but fizzled in New York despite generally strong reviews.
And then there was Battleship. For a few months in 2010, he toiled away on the script at the behest of Berg, who first met Gross when they both starred in the forgettable 1993 Disney film Aspen Extreme.
Gross talks about all three of these experiences with detached mild amusement that suggests they were interesting if not really his thing.
"I think taking over a script is kind of complicated," says Gross about working on Battleship. "The set pieces that were already in it, the action sequences that were laid out, although we modified them, they were the fixed pieces. This is what the film has to contain. So you’re writing in and around stuff that doesn’t necessarily make any sense but has to be there. It’s a weird exercise. It’s creative in the same way writing a limerick is. You have to come up with something but with very rigid boundaries. It was kind of fun. I don’t regret it, but it was weird. And it’s not what I would want to do for a living."
It’s not like he doesn’t have enough on his plate. Gross founded the Toronto-based Whizbang Films more than a decade ago to help produce films that he and his partners thought have merit. Over the years this has included his own projects such as 2002’s Men with Brooms and 2008’s Passchendaele. But its roster is nothing if not eclectic. In the past year, this has included everything from the recently shot earnest TV movie Horses of McBride to the ultra-violent cult exploitation film Hobo With a Shotgun.
Gross says the reasons for his company to get behind a film are varied. Horses of McBride, based on the feel-good true tale of a B.C. town that helped save some starving horses, just felt like a “good little story” and the sturdy basis for a Christmas-timed family TV film. Hobo with a Shotgun had more to do with Gross’s admiration for young writer-director Jason Eisener than any personal connection to the film.
"This isn’t a genre I have any interest in at all," he says. "I don’t even understand it. But I did meet with Jason and I was knocked out. The kid is obviously a filmmaker. For a young guy he has an amazing, almost encyclopedic knowledge of movies. It just seemed a great idea to back this emerging filmmaker even though I didn’t really get the script."
At Princeton, Gross is starring in the first production of John Guare’s new play Are You There, McPhee? When the run finishes in June, he will be turning his attention to a modern war film called Hyena Road. It’s his followup to Passchendaele as a director. He is also writing, producing and starring in it. Set amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, Gross will play an intelligence officer whose life intersects with a sniper and a veteran Afghani fighter. Gross first went to Afghanistan a year and a half ago and spent a week in the war zone. He returned with a camera crew and got 50 hours of raw footage by going out on foot patrols in the Horn of Panjwaii.
He hopes to start shooting the fictional story by the end of the summer. Jordan will sub in for Afghanistan, which is too unstable for a film production, Gross says.
"I didn’t think I’d do a war movie again," he said. "…In the course of being there I would just talk to soldiers and slowly a story would emerge. So that’s what I’m going to shoot."
FEELINGS, I HAVE THEM. Namely, on the kinds of films that he picks to produce for WhizBang films: He saw potential in the writer for one, and went with that, seeing someone who deserved a shot. There aren’t many production companies out there that would take such a risk at all and it just makes me <3 him all the more for just being genuinely awesome.
Also, dear Hollywood: Paul Gross is too good for you.