Over the years, Jeremy Torrie has worn many hats. His bio on the Web site for his company, High Definition Pictures, lists him as a writer, editor, camera operator, director, producer and executive producer. But it was a co-producer's hat he wore on the set of Cowboys and Indians: The Killing of J.J. Harper.
The film, a made for TV movie about the 1988 shooting of Native leader J.J. Harper by a member of the Winnipeg police department, marked Torrie's first foray into producing dramatic programming. And, despite his experience producing documentaries, it's a chance he never would have had if there hadn't been some established names involved with the project, because funders prefer to put their money behind people with a track record of getting the job done.
"I had never produced anything dramatically before. I'd done tons of documentary, done tons of commercial and corporates and that sort of thing. But, had I had the rights for the film, I would not have been successful at the Telefilm crapshoot that it is. Basically, it's a role of the dice," said Torrie, whose past production credits include Warrior Spirits, a documentary about the rise in the number of Native gangs in North America, and the Powwow Trail series on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
"What they look for is who has gone there before, who has been successful, and who is likely going to create a project for us that is going to fulfill everything that we expect it to as far as audience numbers. And it's going to be on time, and it's going to be on budget and all those sorts of things."
It didn't hurt the movie's chances of getting funding that the other co-producer for the project was Eric Jordan, from Toronto's The Film Works, whose past producing credits include Where the Spirit Lives, a television movie about residential schools, the Spirit Bay children's television series, and The Arrow, a mini-series about the Avro Arrow.
"He's regarded as one of the best producers in the country. So I partnered up with a guy who was pretty good, and I was able to learn from. And because he was on side, that helped get the funding," Torrie said.
The relationship Torrie had with Jordan, learning from him and benefiting from his experience, is something he would like to see more Aboriginal producers get a chance to experience. Not only would such collaborations allow young Aboriginal producer to learn the business from the inside, but would also provide them with that much needed foot in the door with funders.
"That's something that I'm hoping more mainstream producers, if you will, will do. And I've been trying to encourage that through all of my networking, going to film festivals and that sort of thing, because we cannot do it ourselves. We don't know how to play the game as well as they do. And that's been a problem all along. Now that I've done one, I hope that we'll be able to go forward with another, and we can do it ourselves ... but that's one of these things where you have to be able to prove that you can do it. And they're very reticent to take risks because there's a lot of public money involved."
Securing funding was the biggest obstacle to overcome in getting Cowboys and Indians made, Torrie said. While the initial money for developing the project had come from the CBC, the public broadcaster had to be convinced to continue its support into the production phase.
"They had said the story is no longer relevant. 'It happened in 1988; we don't think we need to tell that story.' And, pardon me, I know many instances where this is still relevant," he said, referring to the situation surrounding Harper's death; that he was stopped by the police just because he was an Indian, something he knows still goes on today.
When all was said and done, the Cowboys and Indians project had received funding from APTN, CBC, Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Television Fund, Manitoba Film and Sound Recording Development Fund, the Canadian Film or Vieo Production Tax Credit Program, the Manitoba Film and Sound Tax Credit Program, and the Ontario Film or Video Production Tax Credit Program.
The movie was the first major Canadian drama APTN has funded, and Torrie hopes it is far from the last, seeing the network as the best chance for more Aboriginal dramas to be made.
"Because, let's face it, we're in a world w here the CBCs and the Globals and the CTVs of this world do not want to fund these projects. They don't see it as relevant because they see their demographic as Caucasian ... and that's really unfortunate," he said.
"I'm trying to develop another film called Just Another Indian, based on John Martin Crawford in Saskatoon," he said, referring to the serial killer convicted of murdering three Native women in Saskatchewan in 1992, and who had previously been convicted of manslaughter for the killing of another in 1981.
"But part of that story is also the culpability of the CBCs and the CTVs and the Globe and Mails and the Globals of the world, where they basically ascribe no value to a Native woman's life in Canadian society. They felt Paul Bernardo was much more important, because those trials went on at the same time. And I've submitted these projects for development to these other broadcasters, and they went, 'No, we don't see it as relevant. We don't see it as important, and we're not going to support it.' I want to tell a story. It's a great story. The book is excellent. And the only way it's going to go anywhere is if APTN steps up to the table."
While producing Aboriginal programming is part of the mandate of APTN, that doesn't mean mainstream broadcasters can back away from their responsibilities in the area, Torrie said, because, budget-wise, APTN just can't compete with the more established networks.
"I'll give you a perfect example. I did the Powwow Trails series, and we did 11 hours, and they gave me $12,000 an episode for an hour-long. Well, I'm doing an hour-long Life and Times of Randy achman for CBC, and they gave me over six figures in license fee alone," he said.
"We've got some really important stories to be told, and this medium is a very important medium for us to be able to affect the social changes that we need to do. So hopefully we can get continued support from APTN," he said. "And hopefully we can get some other broadcasters to come onside, because APTN should not have to do it alone. And the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), when they said APTN was going to be a channel, that just because APTN is now here that doesn't mean that other broadcasters do not have to do any more Aboriginal programming. So hopefully this will be a successful project, that people will go, 'OK, we'll take a shot again on another Native project."