March 2012 – blogUT

SERVITUDE follows a group of frustrated waiters who take over their restaurant for one glorious night when they discover they are all about to be fired.  It’s a laugh-out-loud, semi-autobiographical comedy that I wrote when I was still waiting tables myself.  It was developed with mentorship from such Hollywood heavyweights as Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), Etan Cohen (MIB3) and Donald Petrie (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and the cast includes Joe Dinicol (“The LA Complex”), Dave Foley (“The Kids in the Hall”), Enrico Colantoni (“Flashpoint”), Lauren Collins (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”) and Margot Kidder (Superman).

Writer-producer Michael Sparaga was nice enough to answer some of blogUT’s questions. Read the Q & A below:

First off, can you give our readers a bit of information on your background in the film industry?
I produced my first feature, the award-winning superhero comedy, Sidekick, on my credit cards and line of credit back in 2005 when I was still working as a waiter at The Keg.  When the movie was finished, it started getting into film festivals and it attracted the attention of Telefilm Canada, who stepped up to the plate and gave me money to take the film across the country, screening it in theaters in 8 Canadian cities from coast-to-coast.  While on that tour, I collected footage for my next film, a documentary on the state of the Canadian film industry called Maple Flavour Films.

Maple Flavour Films aired on Canadian PayTV and Sidekick ended up getting picked up for distribution by Maple Picture in Canada, Warner Home Video in the US and sold in a bunch of other international territories.  But best of all, those films got my foot in the door and allowed me to quit my waitering job and work as a screenwriter and producer full time.  Of course, my latest feature is a waiter-themed comedy Servitude, so in a way I’m back working in a restaurant!

As an Honours graduate from the film department at York University, what advice would you give to cinema students at the University of Toronto?
Every day is a challenge.  There’s not enough room in this business for every talented, hard-working person to be successful.  There’s lots of people with those qualities that will never make it.  You have to fight and claw for everything you get knowing everyone else wants the same thing.  Dealing with that everyday will make you very resilient to criticism and rejection.  Also, work on your craft.  Everyday.  Don’t let a day go by where you’re not doing something that’s going to get you to where you want to be.  Because once you let that happen, you’ll find it gets easier and easier to let that happen again.  And before you know it, months have passed and the desire will fade.

Servitude is described as a semi-autobiographical, work-place comedy, which you wrote while waiting tables.  How closely do you identify with the main character Josh?
The character of Josh is essentially me at age 25, a wannabe writer struggling with the embarrassment of having not made it yet and wondering if I should give it all up and go to law school.  Like Josh, I even went so far to write my LSATs.  And like Josh, when the envelope with my scores arrived I refused to open it because I didn’t want the pressure of knowing how I did.  I wasn’t sure how much of that sort of thing I would include initially, but it was actually my mentor, Ivan Reitman, who pushed me to make the script more semi-autobiographical.

How would you explain your writing process of Servitude?  Is it true that the script took over 10 years in the making?
Actually 11 years to get it into production.  13 years to get it to screen.  I wrote the first draft of Servitude back in 1999 when I was still working as a waiter at The Keg.  The idea of waiters taking over the restaurant and treating guests with the respect they deserve is something that I thought about everyday so writing the film was really a catharsis of sorts.  The best part about waiting tables at night is that you have your days free to write so that’s what I did.  Often the events of the night before ended up in the script.  Still, when I was finished writing, I was too embarrassed to hand the script out because I thought people would say, “Oh, you’re a waiter” instead of “Oh, you’re a writer.”  It took me a long time to recognize I actually liked waiting tables and that it was nothing to be embarrassed about.

What would you say has been the biggest obstacle with producing Servitude?  How might you personally describe the Canadian film industry?
Quebec’s film industry is healthy and successful. They produce box-office hits all the time.  People will argue it’s the fact that the films are French, but that’s not the case at all.  Quebec films were bombing left-right-and-centre less than a decade ago.  Then they got their act together and started making more commercial movies like Les Boys starring their known talent from French TV.  The media got onboard and started promoting the films and then everything changed.  And it’s not to say that all they make are commercial films.  They also make the best dramas.  That’s what success will do, raise the bar on everything.

The English-Canadian film industry is another story.  English films only get 1% of our own box-office.  1%!  That’s not much higher than family and friends of the filmmakers.  The argument was that we were making culturally relevant movies, but with viewership that low that you can debate their cultural relevance.  But there’s a new English-language film czar at Telefilm Canada, Stephanie Azam, and her background is in marketing.  She’s trying to change things and you can see that by the films they’re now supporting.  It used to be that 90% of their budget was designated for drama, but now it’s closer to 30% for drama and the rest will be spent on comedies and horror movies and other commercial fare.  Y’know, the movies people want to see.  There has been and will continue to be a backlash from critics and others in the industry who think we shouldn’t be spending our tax dollars on films like that, but their vitriolic comments will fall on deaf ears if Canadians start showing up to the theater in droves as they clearly just did for Goon.

What was your experience like as the first film made by Telefilm Canada Features Comedy Lab?
After sitting in the drawer for 10 years, I pulled the script for Servitude out and thought, “Hey, this is really funny” and decided it would be my next feature.  I gave the script to a director whose work I admired, Warren Sonoda, and asked him to give it a read.  He called me back the second after he finished reading it and asked “Is this written for the geographical location of The Keg on Church Street?”  I told him yes and that’s when we realized he worked there until 2 weeks before I was hired – so there’s a chance I took his job!  So it felt like fate that he should direct it.  Just a few weeks later, Telefilm Canada announced it wanted to make comedies again and was starting up a Features Comedy Lab that would be chaired by Eugene Levy and run in collaboration with Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre and Just For Laughs.  I did a quick rewrite on Servitude, mainly just to update technology, and submitted it to the Lab, which was looking for five scripts from across Canada to pair with A-list Hollywood comedy talent for development.  Within a month, I was accepted into the Lab and sitting in a room with people like Ivan Reitman (director, Ghostbusters), Etan Cohen (writer, MIB3) and Donald Petrie (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) working on the next draft.  It was quite an incredible experience.  And in the end, Servitude was the first film greenlit from the Lab for production!

You collaborated with Canadian film veteran and Hollywood director Ivan Reitman.  What words of wisdom did he give you?
Ivan’s best advice was “cast the funniest people you can find and let them do what they do best.”  In some respects that was a tall order because we’ve made so few comedies in Canada that we had to start a Comedy Lab just to develop them so that means our actors haven’t really had a chance to be in many comedies.  So we went the American Pie route when casting by finding new raw talent and surrounding them with comedy veterans like Linda Kash (Waiting for Guffman), Enrico Colantoni (Galaxy Quest) and my hero, The Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley.  Having that sort of seasoned presence really helped our young cast rise to the occasion.  Ivan Reitman saw the finished film back in December and afterward he said to me “You made a comedy with big, genuine, earned laughs from beginning to end and that’s hard to do.”  Considering that I saw Ghostbusters on the first date I ever went on, I can pretty much die happy now!

Your production company is called Victory Man Productions.  Why did you choose this name and how would you describe the directive of the company?
Victory Man is the name of the superhero in my first film, Sidekick.  I took the name for my company because I felt it had good vibes.  Who doesn’t want to be victorious?  I run the company with my childhood friend, James McEwen, who has a business background.  He’s also the biggest comic book collector on the planet so a name like Victory Man speaks to him, too.  Our directive is to make high-quality, high-concept productions that succeed both in the domestic and international marketplace.

What’s next for you?
Telefilm Canada has already come onboard my next script with development funding. It’s called The Dailies and it’s about a famous Hollywood movie star that’s blackmailed into starring in a Canadian independent movie.  It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy that has a lot of heart, too.  It’s kind of reminiscent of the tone to my favourite comedies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck.

SERVITUDE opens in Canadians theaters today! Check out the hilarious trailer below:

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