A breath of canned air | The Coast Halifax

A breath of canned air

Carsten Knox assists CTV at the Junos and lives to tell the tale.

"It's so fuckin' great out here," says Ben Mulroney to anyone in earshot near the corner of Argyle and Carmichael in downtown Halifax.

It is fuckin' great out here. It's Thursday, March 30 at 10 in the morning, and spring-like weather has come early, though only a fool would suggest it will stay. I am down here as a production assistant (PA) to the Junos, to help out the big show right through Sunday. I'm working in the cavernous bowels of the Metro Centre, the man under the seats, connected directly to the labyrinth of conference rooms in the World Trade Centre where an entire floor has been reserved for media-related events and eTalk Daily interviews.

Mulroney has just done a spot on the recently rolled-out red carpet that runs some 70 metres down Argyle Street. It's real carpet, even though it looks like crimson Astroturf. Pilly bits of red fluff collect in the gutter. Ben—as I feel compelled to call him, Mr. Mulroney I think of as his father—is strangely orange under artificial light, but the megawatt smile, the ease in front of the camera, the just-so glossy hair, they reproduce well in real life. I'm no fan of his too-smooth on-air persona, but he's so genuinely enthusiastic about everything, even the weather, I can't not like him. Dammit. Even when one of the small army of producers who have flown in from Toronto gestures at the TV star and whispers, "I've worked for CTV for months, I do stuff for eTalk, and I still haven't met him. He's a bit of a diva."

You learn many interesting things working as a PA on a big budget TV event like this. For instance, I hear there won't be any footage of the musicians getting out of limos this year, the reason being last year Big Ben made a big deal when someone arrived in a Smartcar. Corporate sponsors GM freaked and insisted this year they stay away from the cars altogether, but for the ones they hawk during the commercial breaks.

The producers are a group of 10 or so mostly white women (and a couple of effeminate men) in their mid- to late-20s sequestered in a production office, a curtained-off area beneath the seats in the Metro Centre. For the most part the producers, all with their own special titles, are friendly, attractive and highly caffeinated. A mid-afternoon run to Starbucks makes everyone happy. That the nearest Starbucks is in Mic Mac Mall is no deterrent to TV people equipped with a transport department. When someone suggests Steveorino's, they shake their heads in unison. "Starbucks is an addiction," says one. Many of the other CTV executives seem to be aging hipster white guys in their 50s. We PAs study a photocopied image of the five major CTV executives who are expected to show in the coming days. I am told CTV Grande Fromage Ivan Fecan pronounces his name "Eeevahn Feesahn," with maximum nasality, and if I happen to meet him, I am not to stare too long at his glimmering brilliance.

The world of film and TV production is ridiculous in its hierarchy: the PAs are reminded that in quiet moments where we don't have anything to do we should offer to go and get bottles of water for the producers, a couple of whom are almost laughably rude and nasty. I forgive them of course, because common courtesy or the ability to hydrate oneself is too much to expect from people doing such important work. As a PA you learn quickly to gravitate to the people who are pleasant and ignore the assholes, or the whole experience will suck out loud.

The Pantene Room is assembled: here is where the talent will be led after arrival on Sunday. The Giant 'E' logo covers the walls on sheets of whiter fiberglass. The carpet is black, shaggy. There's a bar lit from below, plasma monitors strategically placed running eTalk logos, chairs and couches for interviews, a table bowing under the weight of gourmet candy and a small battalion of silvery Oxia, portable oxygen dispensers in aerosol cans. In a corner stands a photobooth just like one you'd see in a mall, surrounded by hot lamps, clamped high up on long stands.

On Friday, things really start hopping in the production office. Ben Mulroney wants a new camcorder he saw someone using a few days ago. He knows it's a Sony, but can't recall the model. A producer delegates to me to source it, rolling her eyes a little, saying that Ben is a "gadget guy." I find the one he wants, but it's not yet available here in Canada. When I tell him the bad news he's disappointed, but politely thanks me for my efforts, his effervescence dulled for barely a moment before he bounces out of the office. Etalk on-air personalities Tanya Kim and Sophie Gregoire both visit, and I note both are quite tanned too, though not quite as vermillion a tone as Ben. I imagine CTV executives getting together in Toronto boardrooms to determine the varying shades of tan for their entertainment reporters.

There's a moment of shock when an interloper is discovered on the fenced-in red carpet on Argyle Street. "Where's our fucking security?" rages a producer, when they identify who it is: Rick Campanelli, entertainment personality for The Enemy, Entertainment Tonight Canada. "Ah, good for them," says one of the senior CTV execs, applauding their initiative. I expect a tale about the good old days, when we were all friends and would share a beer down the bar after a day in the entertainment news trenches. But it never comes.

Buck 65 rehearses inside the arena, a space now tricked out with long catwalk stages, huge video monitors, and an impressive array of lighting cues. Buck sounds good. R&B singer Massari gyrates to his song, accompanied by a couple of dancers. Divine Brown sings her song six or seven times, hitting a final note and flawlessly drawing it out every single time, raising bumps on the forearms of everyone in the building. Waiting for the camera crews to get cued, Bedouin Soundclash riff on Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites." The bassist plays "Seven Nation Army." They look bored.

I spend a good portion of Friday evening with my fellow PAs attaching Juno pins to hundreds of tiny tartan bags full of salt water taffy. On Sunday they will be issued to people stuck in limos, waiting to be deposited on the red carpet.

On Saturday Michael Bublé sings his hit Home ten times, wearing his 'street' gear, a military cap turned backwards, the hoodie beneath a blazer. Hedley crank out their generic guitar pop a bunch of times. Once was often enough.

Today is the day of Pamela Anderson's arrival. I help set up a room in the Delta for her one-on-one exclusive interview with Bouncing Ben, then attend the Anderson press conference. She's introduced by the Juno Executive Producer John Brunton, who is the spitting image of Rip Taylor, right down to the handlebar moustache. He tells the assembled reporters "she loves Canadian music and she loves musicians, as you know." Anderson strolls in, more than 30 minutes late, on the arms of two RCMP officers in full uniform. She heavily made up, serious black around the eyes hiding the webby wrinkles, wearing a short, flowing blue dress. Under the bright lights, it's easy to see she has nothing on beneath it.

She's refreshingly self-deprecating about her acting and her blonde bimbo persona ("I love having nothing to live up to, then you never let anyone down") and only gets serious about her cause: the seal hunt. Though she's passionate, she's not articulate and comes across as ill informed, admitting she's never actually met a seal fisherman. She's taking PETA’s word for all that is going on, and is disappointed the PM won't meet her to discuss it. She does manage to spout a few facts about the issue, and it makes me think she's definitely smarter than we think she is, though maybe not as smart as she thinks she is.

When the subject turns to music, she's utterly lost and makes little effort to conceal it: when asked about Canadian "indie pop rock," she mentions Shania Twain and Bryan Adams. A leading question from a PEI reporter reveals she has no idea where The Black Eyed Peas or Coldplay are from (she at first assumes they're Canadian) and then goes on a tangent about how women have told her they respect her "because she drives her kids to school." It's Pam's world, we just live here.

The press corps get frothy, softball questions her way, and let her go. The feeling I'm left with is we should all just be happy she's graced Atlantic Canada with her silicone presence. Maybe she is a good choice to host such a self-congratulatory event, one that this year has seemingly become an adjunct to the Canadian Idol machine, what with CTV producing both and so many former Idol contestants in the running for statuettes. When the party is inherently spurious, shouldn't the host be at least partly artificial as well?

In the midst of all this, Ben bounces by, white fangs flashing, and expresses to a colleague how thrilled he is to be going to see Matisyahu, the Hassidic reggae performer playing at the McInnes Room this evening. Of all the bands playing in town, all the parties he could stroll into without pausing at the door, he's seeing Matsiyahu. Worse, he's "psyched" about it. I have to admit, this gives Ben genuine indie cred. What kind of topsy turvy universe is this?

Sunday: the big day. Now wandering the Metro Centre are teams of men wearing shiny black suits, and crowds of grips and lighting technicians with chunky plastic ID cards hanging from lanyards around their necks. A company called Insight is handling all the production duties associated with the technical side of the show. As a red carpet CTV worker bee, I won't even have access to the arena when the show is on so I make sure to get in there during the soundchecks. When I arrive, Black Eyed Peas are doing their new song, "Pump It," recreating the Dick Dale "Miserlou" surf guitar and horn sample with live musicians on stage. It's awesome, it makes you want to groove.

At the production office, the stress levels are peaking, though when hair and make-up girls come in, some of the producers take a few minutes to get their hair done before they have to go out on the red carpet. It's TV, folks, everyone wants to look their best.

Later, the familiar, insidious Kraftwerk-sampled chords of Coldplay's "Talk" filter down into the office, and PAs scatter like cockroaches to get into the arena for a better look. I find an unoccupied section of seats, and watch Chris Martin and his cronies recreate the track a couple of times for the soundcheck, almost note-for-note as it sounds on the album. It's an epic, gorgeous song, and for a moment, I feel like I'm the only one in place, drinking it in. Without a doubt, this is the highlight of the week. Martin is charming, relaxed, and jokes that the strange circular stage reminds him of the last U2 tour configuration and that tonight he and his band will do the U2 tribute show.

The red carpet is hoppin' at around six, surrounded by eager and noisy fans, despite the drop in temperatures: the warm spring days of earlier this week are gone. Men in suits are vacuuming it with bright yellow machines that look like scuba diving gear. The stars begin to arrive. Kathleen Edwards, lovely in a thin-looking shirt sans jacket, gets the best eTalk soundbite, when Tanya Kim asks her how cold she is: "Can you see my nipples?"

I am deployed to the Pantene room with its hot lights, black carpet, candy and personal oxygen. I'm helping the sound guy with his mics, allowing me to listen in on all of Ben and Tanya's interviews with the musicians just coming off the show stage. For the next three hours I try to be inconspicuous as star after star stroll through for their three minutes on the couch. The flow is constant, and with handlers and hangers-on present, chaotic.

A few people stand out, often for what they're wearing more than what they say, though sometimes both: Skye Sweetnam, a Barbie doll from hell in pink and canary, impresses with hardcore black motorcycle boots and skull-and-crossbone decaled socks. "In one month I'll be 18," she says, coyly. "No more chaperones on tour." Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland only have a couple of minutes, and I think Ben is nervous. On the way out, Chris is offered one of the oxygen cans. "Does it work underwater?" he asks, taking one. "We're going to get all gassed up." Jully Black, singer and entertainment host, struts in on huge blue leather boots and a bigger personality.

I feel bad for former Canadian Idol-winner Kalan Porter. Not only does he look like he'll blow away in a strong wind, he's so made up, under the lights he shines as if he's been dipped in Vaseline. I can see the fear in his eyes when Kardinal Offishall and his pin-striped crew glide into the room and take over the place. In the interview with Ben, Kardinal mentions Pam and "the twins." Following soon after are the guys from Bedouin Soundclash. Lots of props and respect between Kardinal and the Bedouin boys, lots of photo ops, and everyone tries out the photobooth, gratis, of course. Massari oozes around, talking about his 'art,' coming off a little like Ali G. The 47 or so members of Broken Social Scene wander in. Feist looks hot in serious Come Fuck Me pumps, though the frills over her clavicle inside the plunging neckline of her dress were drawn on in what looks like marker. The single Canadian TV star I see, beside a brief appearance by Sandie Rinaldo, is Tara Spencer-Nairn from Corner Gas, though I recognize her as the American teen who moves to Cape Breton in New Waterford Girl. One of the CTV crew comments on her "pipes:" she is certainly lean and muscular, though, as with many of the women I see stroll through, frighteningly thin. This is a strange world. The last band to come into the room are the Black Eyed Peas. As animated as she was on stage, in person Fergie looks wrapped in plastic, with a single, plastered expression on her face and a glaze over her eyes.

Through it all, Ben and Tanya are pros, improvising on the go and shoozing like champions with everyone. Aside from the Coldplay chat, Ben is amazingly relaxed, even finding time to have snack between interviews ("Yum, cheesecake!" he says). I will reiterate, I can't not like the guy, especially when later, at the post-Juno CTV party at the Halifax Alehouse, I see him dancing to a cover band's version of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Actually, he bounces.

The evening is over in a blink, and the wee hours of Monday morning finds me helping strike the Pantene room, stuffing candy in my pockets and huffing on canned air, my head spinning.