Profile by Jane Ledwell
“I’m quite laid back, but also quite driven. It’s a real dialectic,” laughs John Hopkins. The filmmaker required the pull of patience and persistence to spend five years on a feature-length documentary on the Bluefin tuna, to be released by the NFB this coming fall.
Filming the massive tuna, which John describes as “the world’s most evolved fish,” “demanded more than one season,” John says: “Tuna are living animals. They’re here for a few weeks, and then they’re gone.”
The story of these fish, he says, “is a hugely important story internationally. It’s a mystery story in many ways.” First, the mystery of how the tiny community of North Lake, PEI, became “ground zero of the international sushi economy” – a story that required John to fly to Japan, “following the story from the beginnings with the actual guys involved.” The central mystery today: “Why is there a 90% decline in tuna stocks, while people here have never seen so many fish in their whole lives?” John explored this question with scientists but most importantly with “the people of North Lake telling their own story.”
John says, “It’s an emotional film. I’m sensitive – I look at every image, and I feel it.”
John didn’t even set out with a plan to film thousand-pound fish off North Lake. He also didn’t expect to turn last year’s deluge of snow into an opportunity to take part in his first 3-D shoot, with camera and crew on toboggans and snowshoes for a film production based in snowless Alberta. But that cold adventure contributed to the film, *40 Below and Falling, which earned a major Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society for achievement in 3D.
A motto John inherited from a mentor is, “You really want to keep on throwing spaghetti at the wall, and eventually one will stick.”
John has been throwing spaghetti for a while. He started with radio documentaries, editing with a razorblade. “I was amazed by the editing process, being creative with space and time,” he recalls.
Later, he went to Carleton University - as a mature student, since he had dropped out of high school in Charlottetown. “I thought I had been accepted to Carleton’s journalism school. I went to register, drove up with all my possessions in a red Bobcat station wagon. There were 600 people in front of me in the line, and when I got to the front, they had lost my name. They said, Listen, go to the end of the line and think about what you want to do.” When he got to the front of the line again, he said, “Put me down for film.”
John remembers, “I did a double major in film and political science. Seeing all those great movies was fantastic, but I’ve always been a hands-on kind of person. It got painful to watch good movies. I really wanted to make them.”
He carried on to Sheridan College, where he was taught by profs from the Escarpment School of filmmakers, “pushing the edges of the media. Your imagination could go in any direction, and they never put the reins on you,” he remembers.
In his third year, the free trade debate was raging in Canada, and John says, “I knew free trade would be a disaster. I had to go out and fight that, even though I was in college.” He connected with political science friends from Carleton and started an anti-free trade documentary. “We got a camera on weekends from a company doing commercials for Consumers Distributing,” he laughs.
When he finished the video, his step-father Reshard Gool had had a stroke. “It was a negative time for the family,” he says. He left school to take the anti-free trade doc on a road show, billeted in city after city by the United Church of Canada. At one stop, in Calgary, he even found himself shaking hands with Brian Mulroney. He leaned in and told the Prime Minister, “I don’t like what you’re doing to Canada.”
John was supposed to be in Thunder Bay when he realized he had to finish film school. He had almost been thrown out in his long absence. Flying back to Sheridan, he though of an idea on the plane: a film about a photographer in a society where time is money. “You get a bill in the mail that deducts 20 minutes of your life,” he says.
He made the film, Portfolio, using film stock he got from film companies he asked for test rolls. The film (“extraordinarily, because it was shot with a bunch of f**ing goofs”) “turned out to be a quite interesting film. I was sleeping in the editing room, I covered myself in outtakes for a blanket. But people seemed to like it. It won the best film award at Sheridan.”
The problem was, “it ended up costing me $8,000 I didn’t have. I used my brother’s credit card. But I gave him an executive producer credit.”
John submitted the film, to the Atlantic Film Festival in 1989 and forgot about it, and one day he got a call from Dave Ward from PEI. “Your film! Your film! It won everything. It cleaned up,” Dave reported. “It beat all the feature films and won the festival, and I thought, ‘Geez, maybe this is my calling.’ I tried to sell it to the CBC to pay my brother back. They bought it and gave me the $8,000 to his great relief.”
But, John says, “When I went to pick up my award at Sheridan, I was so angry about how I was treated when I went back (after the anti-free trade tour), I stood up on the stage in the tuxedo I wore as a flambé waiter (I was also a flambé waiter) and I quit, as a statement against the administration.”
John’s next film Johnston… Johnston was a short starring Lenore Zann and Henry Czerny, which John describes as “Walter Mitty in a time warp in a drama of office politics.”
Actor Lenore Zann signed on first, after reading the script. She said, “I’ll do the movie, but I’m going to be The Boss. I hadn’t written that part for a woman, but it’s great to cast against type...” She suggested Henry Czerny, whose star was on the rise, for the role of “Johnston.” With Lenore, John “drove across the Don Valley Parkway at 11:00 at night. (Henry Czerny) came down in his bathrobe and said he would look at it.”
The advice John got at this stage was, “Don’t jump off a skyscraper with paper wings.” He went out and raised $125K to do the short film, “which was unheard of back then… Because I raised the money, I had a crew of 30, wardrobe, makeup… There were 77 extras on set, everyone asking me what to do next. It was quite a jump in terms of filmmaking experience.”
But then, John says, “When I came back to PEI, I was not sure I wanted to get into drama. I had a documentary background… I decided to pursue documentary.” He left the actors and extras behind in Toronto.
“I never expected to come back to Prince Edward Island,” John says. “I came back because my mother, (visual artist) Hilda Woonough, was sick. She had three bouts of cancer, and her partner had died. I was the only one in the family flexible enough to get back here to stay with her.”
John says, “It was a wonderful chance to get instilled with her visual sense and values.” He adds, “She was a bit of a battler…
“When she passed away,” he continues, “I decided to stay here, to do stories about the Island. I don’t know what it is about this place, if there are chemicals that cause a kind of addiction that people can’t leave here… Every day that I lived in Toronto, I found my heart and mind getting more disconnected from each other.”
John later reflects, “The Bluefin project came out of a documentary on Hilda, called Timepiece. When I came back to help my mom out, it was a great chance to explore the way she thought about things.” The film uses Woolnough’s 2001 exhibition “Timepiece,” John says, “as a hub or portal to explore some of her creative ideas.”
John recalls, “I started shooting video, learning Final Cut Pro. I learned everything on my own here, I mailed away for DVDs and sat out in the country teaching myself stuff.”
Woolnough died before her son completed the film. “I couldn’t touch the film for years,” John admits. “It was a long grieving process, out there in the country by myself. When I could look at the images again, I started working on it and finally came up with something. It’s a film on your mom, right? You’re going to work on it till you get it right!”
By the time he completed Timepiece, John had also spent years and thousands of dollars going all over the world pitching a movie about his cousin Mark Tilden, a roboticist with unusual ideas. John had raised $650,000 for the documentary when the broadcast deal crumbled.
Reeling from that dead-end, John says, “Then I showed my mom’s movie at the Island Media Arts Festival, and the head of English programming from the NFB saw it. She asked ‘What are you doing next?’ I had absolutely nothing, but one thing I had learned is you always tell these people you’ve got something. And I had always wanted to go Bluefin tuna fishing at North Lake...”
John says, “I’m from a family of big fly fishers, and fishing saved me from a bad youth – it was a tough town, growing up here. So I thought at least I’d be able to spend some time on the water with some fish. The producer said, ‘Why don’t you send me a one-sheet?’ You always say, yeah, I’m ready, and then tell them exactly when it’s coming. I said I’d give to them by Tuesday. So I went into writer-bum mode, stopped shaving, and sent it to her by Tuesday.”
After several back and forths showing progressively more interest, and John becoming increasingly invested in the plan for a film about the Bluefin, they had given a green light but were still deliberating funding a month before he was supposed to start shooting, and, finally, “The money decision was made four days before the first shoot.”
At the end of the work, John hopes a big break for him will also be a big break for the Bluefin. “More than anything I’m hoping it’s about time some attention was paid to Bluefin,” he says. “We haven’t really paid attention because we can’t see them, because they’re not mammals or land animals.” He has filmed “a thousand-pound fish backlit at dawn. No one’s ever shot them like that.”