Award Winning Screenwriter, James DeFelice

Why Shoot The Teacher? will be screened on Sunday, September 28 during this week’s Alberta Culture Days. We checked in with screenwriter James DeFelice on the  37th Anniversary of the film and the creation of his award-winning screenplay.

It all started with a memoir that was published in 1965. Canadian novelist Max Braithwaite recorded his anecdotal stories of working as a teacher in rural Saskatchewan. Once Max planted the seed of turning his book into a film (read the article with Producer Fil Fraser here), he took a shot at the initial draft of the screenplay. Max spent a full year struggling to define a workable draft. It was clear he was too close to the story and that’s when screenwriter James DeFelice came on board.

“I was handed a 300 page screenplay and given the task of finding a workable narrative” James explains. “I started with the theme and in this case, it was ‘the Teacher is taught.’ I went from there.”

It was quite the undertaking and a completed script wasn’t the end for this writer. James worked closely with Director Silvio Narizzano, hashing out scene by scene, and was invited to be on set every day of the production. He worked closely with the actors and had regular lunch meetings with Bud Cort and actress Samantha Eggar, often meeting at her favourite Chinese restaurant.

“Some people don’t let the writer anywhere near the set,” James reflects. His experience is one that every writer dreams of, but few get to experience. And being on set proved to be very useful. “We had to think on our feet.  We couldn’t wait on the weather, we had to keep going and change things as we went along,” he explains.

James also describes the wonderful working relationship he had with Max Braithwaite. In fact, while touring the film together, a member of the audience had asked about a particular scene in the film and Max opened his novel to locate the story. “I had to remind him that scene was made up,” DeFelice laughs, “He wasn’t going to find it in the book.”

Filmed on location in Hanna, Alberta, the production team utilized everything they could, including furniture found in an abandoned farm house and a school house provided by the local museum. The locals were also essential as extras to develop the sense of the rural town. Thirty seven years later, one often wonders what happened to the children? Where are they now?

According to James, Mike Ross, the editor of the Edmonton Sun played a role, as did Cynthia MacDonald, sister of James MacDonald, the Program Director of the Citadel Theatre. “The director wanted a real mix of actors and non-actors, ” James explains. “We did a lot of casting in Edmonton and then hired non-actors from Hanna and mixed them in.”

One young man in particular stood out from the rest. The role of the rebellious 9th grader named Jake was difficult to cast. The director decided to go with Dale McGowan, a high school student from Hanna who fit the part perfectly. The crew was so impressed with Dale’s natural talent that they strongly encouraged him to follow a career in the entertainment industry, but Dale had other plans. He moved to Edmonton and joined the RCMP where he served for three decades before retiring as Deputy Commissioner last year.

James would also like you to know that no gophers were harmed in the making of the film. “They actually became our pets. We gave them names, fed them… it was hard to let them go.”

James DeFelice won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Screenplay in 1978 for his adaptation of the novel. Why Shoot The Teacher? went on to be the highest grossing Canadian film that year.

AMPIA is presenting a FREE screening of Why Shoot The Teacher? as part of Alberta Culture Days on Sunday, September 28 at the Metro Cinema (8712-109 St., Edmonton). James DeFelice and Producer Fil Fraser will be in attendance. Please join us for a  reception before the film, and stick around afterwards for a Q & A with Jim and Fil.