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Is Hollywood ready for Mike Clattenburg? 

As the feature film drops into theatres across Canada, the brain behind Trailer Park Boys is staring down his biggest potential success yet.

Trailer Park Boys is a certified phenomenon. From a low-budget film that premiered at the Atlantic Film Festival in 1999 to a Showcase cable TV series featuring now-iconic characters, there’s something about Trailer Park Boys that gets people laughing, whether they live in trailers or towers. The show is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine a time when Ricky, Julian, Bubbles, Lucy, Lahey, Randy, and the rest of the motley crew haven’t been in our lives in some capacity. Every summer for seven years, the cast and crew of the little-TV-show-that-could have gathered together in Dartmouth and then in Cole Harbour to make their show about a dysfunctional family of reprobates and drug dealers.

The origins of Trailer Park Boys have been inscribed in the stone tablets of Canadian TV lore, kept right next to Bruno Gerussi’s moustache and the bronzed paws of the Littlest Hobo. It’s the kind of thing that’s so brilliant in its simplicity, no one can believe they didn’t think of it first (and anyone who wants their own show these days had better pitch it as “TPB crossed with…”). Here’s the recipe: Tell the story of three under-educated guys who are constantly running afoul of the law in their efforts to get high, get rich and avoid regular work. Set it in a trailer park and shoot it in summer, so you can do a lot of exteriors and not have to worry about expensive lights or sets. Make it a mockumentary, so you can shoot it on inexpensive video, quick and dirty—the spontaneity that comes from that sort of on-set environment gives the show an extra kick. Finally, cast your friends and creative collaborators in the show, whether they have any real performance experience or not, for that extra hit of verisimilitude.

Mike Clattenburg is the brain behind Trailer Park Boys and he has guided the show through its six seasons (with number seven in the can). He co-wrote and directed the almost-$5-million Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, opening October 6, produced by the Canadian-bred godfather of American movie comedy, Ivan Reitman.

It was Clattenburg’s short One Last Shot (1998) that reunited his high-school buddies Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian, versions of characters they’d play again in a 67-minute black-and-white feature called Trailer Park Boys, sometimes referred to as the pilot for the TV series. Barrie Dunn, a producer—and future cast member: He plays Ray, Ricky’s father—saw the film at the AFF and thought it would make a great TV series. He tracked Mike Clattenburg down in Sydney, where he was shooting Pit Pony. One trip to Toronto and many unsuccessful pitches to TV stations later, and Showcase—in what must be seen now as its infinite wisdom—picked up the show. It premiered on the cable network in April 2001.

And did it fly? Does the Tin Man have a sheet-metal cock?

While generating a very loyal fan base for his ribald TV show, Clattenburg, 39, has been able to do the same on set as well. Cast and crew keep coming back, season after season. There’s a tangible sense of loyalty, not to mention, secrecy. In a town as small as Halifax, with as many big mouths, details of the plot of Trailer Park Boys: The Movie—formerly known as Trailer Park Boys: The Big Dirty, but renamed somewhere along the way—remained as elusive as Danny, the never-seen but often heard-from off-screen character in the show. Requests for access to the movie set went ignored, messages relayed to publicists went unreturned and among the crew and cast, confidentiality agreements were signed and stuck to. “What in the fuck?” indeed.

Scuttlebutt suggested the movie told the story of how the boys got together, their first adventure. It doesn’t. It is the TV show writ large for the screen, distilling the elements of the small-screen edition, with familiar plot points and all, for an audience not familiar with the TV version. The question is, in making this movie that borrows liberally from moments already visited in the series, does Clattenburg risk alienating the very fans who’ve made the show such a success?

“I hope not,” he says, sounding a little concerned. “I hope to present a fresh twist on it. But I think Ivan, he really liked the relationship between Ricky and Lucy and really wanted to see the wedding and all of that.” Ricky and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Lucy were to be wed in the final episode of the series’ first season, but the ceremony was interrupted and the boys were sent back to prison. A similar scene takes place in the movie. “I still hope that it appeases our hardcore fans. We’ve been able to do what we do here in Nova Scotia with our friends…this is a chance for us to show it in a cinematic way, to slow it down. At the same time, there are many winks to the show.”

John Dunsworth’s on a mission of mercy in Clayton Park, helping someone out who needs a lift. But he’s always happy to talk, far more gregarious than his alter ego, Jim Lahey. He also doesn’t drink, which surprises some people since he plays such a convincing drunk, but then, he’s the performer on Trailer Park Boys with over 40 years’ experience as an actor and director.

When asked what was special about working on the Trailer Park Boys movie versus the series, he’s typically frank, “Nothing,” he says. “Same deal as far as I was concerned. A few more people running around.” Did the director have more pressure on him? “Mike Clattenburg has had so much pressure on him for the last seven years, that any different variety just washes off his back.”

Why do you keep coming back to doing this? “Well, he’ll kill us if we say anything bad or quit on him. No, I mean, it’s so rare in Halifax that you get to have anything with any continuity. There’s been nothing of this magnitude or this popularity. To be part of something that is talking about Canada as a universe, it’s hard to find something that has such universal approbation.” He pauses. “A car just drove up with ‘Nerd One’ written on it. We’re going to go and kick the shit out of him. Just kidding.”

Hollywood came calling while Clattenburg was standing in a field full of hemp. He was shooting the end of season four in New Brunswick, where the boys were cultivating a giant field of weed.

“My cell phone rings: ‘Mike, it’s Ivan Reitman,’” he says. “My heart kind of fluttered. He had been watching it in the US and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’”

It took a year to get the deal in place before Clattenburg and Robb Wells—who, along with playing Ricky, is a co-writer—went down to Los Angeles to collaborate on the movie script with Reitman. “He worked tirelessly on the film,” says Clattenburg. “I couldn’t believe how hard he worked, while he was doing a million other things, shooting a pilot, getting into pre-production on My Super Ex-Girlfriend.”

Clattenburg marvelled at Reitman’s enthusiasm, though he and the Hollywood heavyweight found places where compromise was difficult but necessary for the movie.

“One of the things he insisted on was telling it to a first-time audience,” says Clattenburg. “It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. With pretty complex characters, people who don’t know them that well, it might be hard to relate. He wanted to reintroduce them to everybody.”

Sarah Dunsworth was “scared shitless” before starting on the 43-day shoot, afraid it would be different than the show, but she says it wasn’t, except that the crew was much larger.

“It was also a bit scary working for Ivan Reitman. Ghostbusters is my all-time favourite movie and having a huge name like that involved makes you feel a little bit weird because you’re just Sarah Dunsworth from buttfuck-nowhere with no real resume.”

Dunsworth, real-life daughter of John Dunsworth, was working as an assistant director in TV production when Clattenburg called and asked her to be on camera on the Trailer Park Boys show.

“I said, ‘Ha ha, I guess so,’” she says from behind the desk in the office of her Barrington Street clothing store, Junk & Foibles. The colourful tattoos she sports on the show appear to be real. “Honestly, to me it didn’t seem like that big a thing. The first season felt like hanging out in a trailer park with a bunch of friends, because that’s what it was. It wasn’t until season three that it started to feel like something bigger.”

On the subject of the intense loyalty the cast and crew has for Clattenburg, Dunsworth has a few ideas, “He finds people and he believes in them. He really gives people chances. Not to sound like a suck-up, but he’s brilliant. Trailer Park Boys—I think it’s changed Canadian television forever. Of course, when you’re involved with something like that, the person who created it inspires great loyalty.”

A point of contention on the movie was the use of interview-style clips. Clattenburg explains that Reitman thought their use had become hackneyed, though they were more fresh when the show began. “I shot them anyway because they’re kind of a staple.” Clattenburg wound up showing him the clips, and Reitman relented. “He said, ‘Yeah, they work. Go ahead and use them.’”

With Reitman’s reputation as the king of R-rated comedy, he wanted nudity in the movie. “I wasn’t so sure of that off the top,” says Clattenburg. “But if I could make it funny, it’s good. If it’s just salacious, then I’m not interested.”

He jokes about having auditioned “hundreds and thousands” of stunt boobs for the moment when Lucy reveals a surgical augmentation, though he admits the pair chosen—by the eponymous actor Lucy Decoutere herself—were natural assets of the body double. “Nudity can be funny,” he says. “For example, Old School—Will Ferrell running down the street naked, his wife driving up and he’s drunk. That is fucking hilarious. It’s important in an R-rated film too, we did it but I think it was tasteful.”

Mike Clattenburg was wearing black jeans and high-top sneakers when Lucy Decoutere met him for the first time at the 1998 Atlantic Film Festival.

“I was like, what’s your deal, bud?” she says. He offered her a part in his new film. “I’m like, fucking take a number, buddy. I’m at a party with emerging filmmakers who all want to make a movie. So, I said, sure write a part for me. But, at that point, I didn’t know that Mike was the coolest guy on the planet.”

That led to the first Trailer Park Boys movie and subsequently, the show. “I’ll do Trailer Park Boys as long as Mike is interested. I like his vision. He’s still laughing every single day.”

The movie was good for the time it allowed to get certain things right. On the show “we shoot 11 pages a day, in the movie we shot three pages a day. So we had more time to work on scenes, to take them as far as we can.”

Ivan Reitman wasn’t much of an intimidation factor for her. “Within 10 minutes of meeting Ivan he told me to fuck off, in the nicest possible way. When I hadn’t seen him for months and we were getting together for a script read-through with all the cast, he came up to me and said, ‘Lucy, where are your big, dirty tits?’ I was like, ‘No hello, how’s your cat? Nothing!?!’ He was being a comedic genius. He is the creator of Meatballs.”

Decoutere has winter plans away from film and television production. “I’m going to Australia to become an elementary school teacher.” Why? “I hate kids.”

A final, surprising suggestion from Reitman was non-swearing takes.

“He likes the swearing, believe me, but he was concerned about the accumulative effect of swearing,” says Clattenburg. “I think on the show we’ve done it too much, too. After a while it grates on you.”

However, non-swearing takes meant rewriting a lot of the script because it plays with that kind of language in unusual ways, so Clattenburg wasn’t crazy about the idea, especially if it was being done with an eye on a future network TV broadcast. “If he goes to an American distributor and says, ‘Here’s Trailer Park Boys, the feature film, I also have a TV version,’ that makes the sale a lot easier. There already is a crazy TV show. I’m not interested in a sanitized TV version.

“So, he had a lot to say about everything we did, but in the end the collaboration was net positive.”

Perhaps the most popular character on Trailer Park Boys is the cat-loving, surprisingly deep Bubbles, immediately recognizable by his giant coke-bottle glasses and pronounced underbite. He’s essayed by one-time sound-man Mike Smith. Nicole Frosst, who works in wardrobe on the show, found the spectacles at an estate sale in Texas.

“He was always a guy who was doing characters,” says Frosst, who was once Smith’s romantic partner. “The glasses were so ridiculous that he became the character in them, and that turned into Bubbles on the show.” Frosst doesn’t dwell on being connected to a massively successful television series. “I know there is a phenomenon, but…so many people have been working on the show since the first season, so it’s like hanging around with your friends all summer. It’s always something to look forward to.”

She casts more of a critical eye on the movie version. “There was a bit of a change. There was a catering to a Hollywood ideal of what was funny, right? What might have appealed to more Canadian or more Maritime humour, sort of morphed into what Ivan Reitman might think was funny.”

Clattenburg admits that he did feel the stakes were higher, with much more pressure and more collaborative partners and ideas flying around on set, but the film got made with the same performers and the same colourful language, anchored by values such as the importance of family and fidelity to your friends. In this, the message of the work and the attitude of those making it find a happy connection.

“They bring so much of themselves to the characters,” says Clattenburg of his actors. “They feel a sense of ownership in the work that they’re doing. Some people think we go out there and fuck around and are drunk. It’s the furthest thing from that. When people come to set they’re quite surprised at how serious everybody is at work. I think they know I believe in all their talent.

“I work hard at creating a bubble where the actors aren’t self-conscious. The second somebody new comes in, even if it’s just a friend, the self-consciousness is back, and I’ve seen it. Everybody just freezes up. That’s why I like to keep it insular, and we’ve developed that over a long period of time and I think it frees the actors. They feel they’re safe.”

Mike O’Neill, formerly of The Inbreds, does sound for Trailer Park Boys and has respect to spare for Clattenburg’s creative influence, calling him the engine that drives the show.

He’s bringing that influence to his music, too (O’Neill and Clattenburg are now in a band called The Beginners, where Clattenburg plays drums and O’Neill, guitar). O’Neill recalls an all-night shoot at the end of season five in downtown Dartmouth, where Clattenburg had to leave the set.

“Everybody just stopped. We were like zombies—I think we were all tired. Then John Dunsworth said, ‘Hey everybody, look what’s going on. You see, Mike’s gone…and everything stops.’”

O’Neill is amazed at Clattenburg’s openness on set as something that makes everyone feel as though they are part of the overall product. “It doesn’t matter what position you are on that show, if you have an idea and suggest it there’s a chance that it might be used. I mean, all the best suggestions come from Clattenburg and the writers, but just the fact that they’re open just shows the kind of security they have. The other thing, by the way, it’s a comedy and people who work on the show laugh.”

The solidarity in the cast and crew explains some of the secrecy around the movie that extends out into the world, but Clattenburg goes one further, explaining how on season six the show’s first few episodes were pirated before they went to air and released on the Internet.

“With the feature film and the fear of piracy we had to be very, very careful,” Clattenburg says. “Plus we wanted to keep the film fresh.”

Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay are standing outside the Delta Barrington having a smoke when someone approaches them to say hello. Though Wells’s hair doesn’t have the altitude nor the acreage of his character, Ricky, and Tremblay appears taller in person and is freed from his ever-present mixed drink, they’re unmistakable as Ricky and Julian as they stand together. Tremblay is wearing all black, and his combined height and black hair makes him a brooding presence, while Wells is wearing a tracksuit. To get back up to the room set aside for interviews, the actors encounter a locked security door. Tremblay jimmies it with the edge of his plastic door keycard. It’s not a criminal act, but, for a second, fiction and reality seem to converge.

It’s a rarity that the press gets to speak to these performers when they are not being Trailer Park Boys.

“Probably only a few times in the past seven years,” says Tremblay.

“At this point, people want to know the difference between TV and the movie—it’s hard to answer all those questions in character,” says Wells. “For print it doesn’t matter as much, but especially for TV, it’s better to be in character, to sell it that much more.”

Mike Smith, who plays Bubbles, comes into the room, with his glasses tucked into his pocket. On close inspection, the glasses are ancient, scratched and crazy-glued together. They’re one-of-a-kind. The production has tried to replicate Nicole Frosst’s discovery but new ones never look quite right. Smith says this prototype broke the first time when Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson—who has starred on the TV show and has a cameo in the movie—tried them on his “big head.”

Without the glasses, Smith is simply not Bubbles. “I can move around, most people don’t recognize me. I’ll stand 20 feet away and watch them get smoked by somebody and I’ll just carry on.”

Tremblay explains there is a price to be paid for fame, though he’s reconciled with it. “Things take a lot longer these days. If you want to go and get gas, go to the grocery store to pick up some milk, instead of it taking 10 minutes it takes half an hour now.”

Wells adds, “Whether you’re in character or not, people call you by that name and think you are that character. It’s bizarre. Here”—in Halifax—“people are so comfortable, unless it’s tourists, we can get around pretty good the city these days.”

Wells is first to address the content of the movie, which makes sense as he had a hand in the script. “It was a challenge story-wise, because in the show, we’re shooting it for the current audience we already have. Although ultimately we made for the fans we have through the show, we also have to write it for first-time viewers, to set up the characters all over again—try to do it in a way that isn’t going to bore our current audience.”

He is quick to express admiration for Reitman’s experience in comedy and the effort he put in to make the film work. “But it’s always tough when you’re working with someone creatively and you’re not used to having much input, I guess. Originally with Showcase it was the same kind of thing, they had their views and we had our views. We’re lucky enough that we can pretty much do what we want to do. We do our best stuff when we’re free.”

He mentions the struggle over nudity in the movie. “It’s more a numbers thing I guess, to the studios. If you have an R-rated comedy, you need to have to have some nudity in there because there are some teenage guys who will watch specifically for that reason. We had to compromise, I guess, and do the strip club.”

The three stars reiterate the prevailing feeling that Clattenburg is very open to ideas from both cast and crew members. “He’s not afraid to speak his mind, and he lets us play around,” Wells says. “He’s just a fantastic director. We’re also basically non-actors and he’s made us look like we sort-of know what we’re doing. A little bit. I think that’s why everyone enjoys coming back, it’s a big family. It’s just a positive environment.”

Whatever the box office fate of the movie, Clattenburg deserves whatever time off he can manage. He shot the movie last summer, then went right into shooting season six, edited season six, edited the motion picture, then started writing and shooting season seven, which wrapped in September. Next is promotional work for the film here and in Toronto and then post-production on season seven.

“It’s been great, but it’s a tremendous amount of work. I’ll have some time off in around January. I think I’ll take my wife Annmarie”—Cassidy-Clattenburg, who has edited, done costume design and hair and make-up on the show—“to Grenada, drink Carib beer and melt in the sun for a couple of weeks. Or six months, I’m not sure yet.”

Of an American distribution deal for the movie, Clattenburg says nothing has been inked, but “there’ve been some interested parties. It looks like Sundance will be an option if something doesn’t happen sooner.”

While looking forward to time off, the director of Trailer Park Boys can’t help but get enthusiastic about season seven, airing April 2007. If the show’s hardcore fans “are unsatisfied by the movie, then we have a spectacular season coming for them. We did a lot of stuff that we originally wanted to do in the feature film. It’s my favourite season. There’s plenty of Trailer Park Boys to get your fix.”

Pressed, he mentions a few of the cameos: Sebastian Bach, as himself—“he was one of the most prepared actors I ever worked with”—George Canyon as a forest ranger and Mike O’Neill playing Thomas Collins, the son of Phil Collins (one of the characters on the show, not the Genesis drummer). Denny Doherty, from The Mamas and The Papas, also appears as an FBI agent.

So, with the possibility of other projects in the wings for Clattenburg—he’s had offers of films coming from US interests that he has so far turned down—and no plans for an eighth season to be shot (though many of the cast and crew commented that they never know from one season to the next whether they’d be back the following summer), is this the end of Trailer Park Boys on television?

“It’s too early to say right now,” says Clattenburg. “I don’t think so. It’s a very small group of people that actually do it, so it’s a huge undertaking. I might like to shoot some more specials. Maybe a sequel, if that should ever come. Slow down, focus the work. Still do it… but not as much.”

Trailer Park Boys: The Movie opens Friday, October 6.

Carsten Knox is a Halifax-based freelance writer and broadcaster. He was born in Helsinki, where trailer parks are unpopular, though vodka does have its proponents.

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