Goin’ Down the Road and Down the Road Again writer/director Donald Shebib.
Donald Shebib considers himself a classic filmmaker. And he’s got good reason. It’s next-to-impossible to talk about Canadian cinema without talking about Shebib’s 1970 feature Goin’ Down the Road.
The story of two men from Cape Breton, Pete (Doug McGrath) and Joey (Paul Bradley), trekking west in their Chevy Impala to find prosperity in the big city of Toronto, Goin’ Down the Road remains a seminal (if not the seminal) work of Canadian narrative cinema, frequently cropping up at the top of lists ranking the greatest Canadian features of all time. It was a film that invigorated both English and French-language narrative cinema. Perhaps even more importantly at the time, it introduced many Canadians to Toronto, which Shebib filmed as a burnished metropolis of skyscrapers, bright lights, and broken dreams. Now, forty years later, Shebib is returning to Toronto, and to the characters of Goin’ Down the Road, with Down the Road Again.
The prospect of a sequel to Goin’ Down the Road seems, at first glance, a bit ludicrous. Besides the original’s narrative and thematic universe being fairly hermetic (sure, the film ends on a downbeat note, but it’s not for want of a happy ending), attempting to meet, let alone exceed, the legacy of the first film is the tallest of orders. It’s essentially the Canadian equivalent of making Citizen Kane 2. It’s also the longest gap between sequels starring the original actors, beating out The Odd Couple II by a whole decade.
Curious, we finagled our way onto the set of Down the Road Again, which had set up for a few days of shooting at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse in Corktown, near King and Parliament.
The Schoolhouse is just a short trip from Regent Park, which was originally built to house the influx of immigrants to Toronto (like Pete and Joey in the first film) in the 1960s and ‘70s. While the set was still fairly quiet, it was immediately obvious this sequel would have a lot more gloss than the original, which was shot vérité style by Shebib and his three-man crew. Still, there was a modesty to the set-up that recalled the spirit of Goin’ Down the Road, and even star Doug McGrath (now seventy-five, mulling around the set amicably in a ball cap and Canadian tuxedo) looked none too worse for wear.
And to get the final answer on a lot of the questions we had about a sequel to his landmark 1970 movie, we chatted with Shebib, who told us about why he finally came around to revisiting Goin’ Down the Road and why he can’t stand Canadian films.
Torontoist: After forty years, what was it that made you want to revisit these characters?
Donald Shebib: People have been asking me for years if I ever wanted to do a sequel—Goin’ Down the Road 2 or Son of Goin’ Down the Road—and I just didn’t want to do it. Finally a producer, a different producer than I actually ended up with, offered to try and help put it together. So I thought that if somebody professional was going to try and do it, then let me sit down and try and find a story that makes some sense. And it came together surprisingly easily.
The exterior of the colonial-era Enoch Turner Schoolhouse in Corktown, where scenes from Down the Road Again are being filmed.
Without spoiling anything, what’s the story that you eventually worked out?
It’s a very Dickensian story. Dickens would set up characters and pay them off in a way that you didn’t think they’d pay off. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, did the same thing—a very Victorian way. But he did it in a very different and comic way. This is not a sequel so much as a prologue. It’s what happened in the past that is now brought to light, and makes sense with both what happened in the original Goin’ Down the Road and with this one.
[We are interrupted by producer Robin Cass, who steals Shebib for a few minutes. Apparently there is—as is often the case—a hiccup in the next days’ meticulously planned shooting schedule. We can’t overhear what the issue is, exactly. And anyway it’s none of our business. Shebib swiftly addresses the problem and returns. He picks up the thread of our conversation without missing a beat.]
But anyway the story came together ridiculously easily.
When did you start working on it?
And the basic idea is that Joey dies and Pete has to return to Toronto for the funeral and to sort out some of his affairs?
Joey dies in the beginning of this film, and he leaves a bequest to Pete to take his ashes back to Cape Breton, and to stop in Toronto to see Betty, who he left behind. It all revolves around, for want of a better term, a crime. Not a police-type crime, but a bad thing that Joey did to Pete before they left Nova Scotia…now after Joey has died he’s trying to make amends for that, and trying to bring Pete back together with another character that he had left behind. A lot of what drives Pete is still this desire to be a somebody; to do something that says “Pete McGraw was here.”
Well he has that speech in the original film at the ginger-ale bottling plant, where he goes on about how pointless their whole job is.
Yep. And he has a similar thing in this one. He’s trying to write something about his life. He’s just retired from being a postman and he’s won a couple of short story contests. But Joey has set up this series of letters that brings these characters back together, and gets Pete involved with Joey’s daughter.
That’s very Victorian too, this idea of some epistolary network connecting all the characters.
Exactly, yeah. And it’s not a romantic thing between Pete and Joey’s daughter but it’s…it’s very Victorian. Victorians knew how to tell fuckin’ stories. Just like how Hollywood knew how to tell stories. Or it used to. Not anymore.
And the interior of the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse. It looks just like a movie set! A very small, very Canadian, movie set.
When the original Goin’ Down the Road was released in 1970, it had this very cruel—or maybe it was just honest—view of Toronto has this boomtown that kind of grinds these naïve characters through its harsh economic realities. And in the process, Toronto became kind of a character in the film. Is this going to be a concern of Down the Road Again, showing how the city has changed?
Well not really. I mean, you’ll see how the city has changed, but I can’t just cut back to dialogue from those scenes from 1970. That’s a totally different convention.
Well not even necessarily directly comparing the two or anything, but showing Toronto now and to frame the city in a similar way.
You will see that, yeah. I think an ancillary effect of the film is that people who saw it originally—and loads of people have seen Goin’ Down the Road; it’s been off-and-on TV for forty years—especially people who were in their twenties or thirties and are now in their fifties or sixties or seventies, will be affected by it because it’s about growing old.
The original was shot on a shoestring budget with a small crew, and has this very quick-and-dirty, almost Cassavetes feel. Will this sequel try to maintain that?
It’s even quicker and dirtier.
The shooting schedule is only something like twenty-eight days, right?
Eighteen days. It’s an extremely tight schedule.
And is that a function of money, or…
But it must make it at least backhandedly true to the aesthetic of the original.
Yeah, but I’d just as soon not do that. Goin’ Down the Road was shot with a three-man crew. This is shot with a thirty or forty man crew, which is still small, but it’s like a small television crew. We move a little faster, but as fast as I’d like to be able to move. But we can’t make it look intentionally cheap and shoddy. I don’t want to do that.
Knowing that the original had such an impact on Canadian cinema in a way that, presumably, you couldn’t have anticipated—
Oh I had no idea.
Donald Shebib is like the nice, grandfatherly face of Canadian cinema. And just like your real grandfather, he only watches TCM and doesn’t like Canadian films.
But what would you say your hopes are for the sequel?
I hope that it proves that Canadians can make films that touch people, and that can make people cry. I don’t like Canadian films.
They’re fucking boring. They’re unemotional. I’m famous for putting them down. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. We’ve made too many dull, boring, Canadian movies. When they start making fun of Canadian films on South Park, then it’s fucking enough.
“[Canadian films are] fucking boring. They’re unemotional….We’ve made too many dull, boring, Canadian movies. When they start making fun of Canadian films on South Park, then it’s fucking enough.”
Is this something you’re trying to strike back against? People talk a lot about guys like Cronenberg and Egoyan and how emotionally chilly their films are. Are these the kinds of films that you mean?
Well, without naming names.
First of all, I don’t go to movies. I haven’t been to the movies in five years. Most of the time I go there and I think, “Well there’s nine holes of golf I’ll never get to play.” And at my age I don’t have many rounds of golf left. And I’d rather do that than watch a bad movie. The last good Canadian film I saw was Parsley Days, which was a really wonderful, sweet, darling, adorable film. I really liked it a lot. Most of them I haven’t seen and wild horses couldn’t drag me to them. Maybe there’s some good ones I’ve missed. But I don’t know because I don’t go to movies. I watch movies on TCM. I’m a classic filmmaker. I love old—I don’t want to use the world “Hollywood”—but I like old style, good, entertaining movies.
So is this part of your aim with Down the Road Again, to harken back to what Goin’ Down the Road did? To tell a very sincere, emotionally-resonant story?
I hope so. There’s a lot of emotion in this picture. A lot of it. And I think that’s what I have to sell. I’m just not interested in stories that don’t move me. And most of the films I’ve seen…I get in too much trouble for naming names and naming films, and I’ve paid the price for it in this town. You can imagine who the number one offender is.
Well you can say it and it doesn’t have to go on the record.
[Shebib begins striking poses, placing his head in his hands in different configurations.]
What’s that? What are you doing? Who does that?
Why don’t you look at his pictures?
[He continues to model like this for a few seconds. He still won’t tell his who he’s talking about, but the poses look something like this. And this. And even this. And sort of kind of like this, too. But maybe we’re being unfair. They could just as easily resemble this. Or this. But they certainly look nothing like this.]
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
This article mistakenly suggested that “just a short trip from Regent Park, the Schoolhouse was originally built to house the influx of immigrants to Toronto…in the 1960s and ‘70s”—in fact, it was Regent Park that served that purpose. The Schoolhouse was built in 1848.