Canadians all live in igloos, snowshoe to work (at the maple syrup factory), have moose for pets, wear jean on jean, worship hockey, and are just generally really sorry. That about sums Canadians up, eh? Los Angeles-based comedy writer and displaced Canadian Rob Cohen was sick of battling these lame (but, sadly, sometimes true) stereotypes. And he hated that no one (besides his fellow "California Canadians") knew anything—or even cared—about his beloved homeland. So he decided to make a movie that would explain The True North.
In Being Canadian, Cohen travels across the country, seeing the sights and interviewing Canadians about, well, what it means to be Canadian. Celebrities like Mike Myers, Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short chime in, and answer important questions like "What is Canadian food?" and "Is our politeness covering up something sinister?"
There's beer. There's Tim Horton's. The War of 1812 comes up. A lot. Being Canadian is a loving (and, of course, self-deprecating) exploration of all things Canadian. VICE spoke to Cohen in advance of his film's world premiere at the Hot Docs documentary film festival to discuss his take on Canadian identity.
VICE: When did you decide you had to make this movie. Was there a moment?
Rob Cohen: I always, in the back of my head, felt some concern—certainly on vacations early when I was with my family outside of Canada. But once I moved to the States, and every job that I worked on, or TV show or something, every time the same questions started to come up in the writers room, it sort of grew. I guess the straw that broke the polite camel's back was when I started talking to other Canadians down here [in the States] and they had the same issues. I just thought, sort of jokingly, someone should make an instructional manual on what it means to be Canadian. I would say probably like 10 years ago is when the germ of this movie actually started, just in my head.
But you'd been living in the States for a long time at that point though, right?
Yeah. I mean, it was more suffering through it and not knowing how to deal with it. As the clan of secret California Canadians kept chatting, it sort of grew and then went from like a joke to me just deciding to do it.
Did you ever feel a bit sad about the fact that you had to make the movie?
No, honestly. It's sort of one of those comedic frustrations. It happened all over the world, not just in the U.S. It was more like if you knew you were Superman and you couldn't tell anybody, and you would just sit there at the table like "Mhm, yup I would love to help open the sugar but I, I can't."
It was more like, again, a polite frustration. Canada's not perfect, no country is, but I just thought this is something that I would love to do, just to make, but also maybe selfishly, to shut some people up.
How long did it take you to make this movie? You interview the Barenaked Ladies when there were still five of them in the band.
Yeah. The movie, it's misleading, because it took seven years from the beginning to completion, but there were huge chunks of time in between when we weren't working on it for eight months, or six months here and there because we all had other jobs.
But did you actually cross the country in 10 days like the film depicts?
Yeah, we did.
And was that your first time really seeing most of Canada?
No, I mean, I'd seen Canada growing up there, mainly the west. I'd never been to New Brunswick, I'd never been to Nova Scotia. My experience of the Maritimes was zero. I'd only seen bits of Quebec, but it was great. It was really—it was such a selfish thing for me because I knew I had this mission with the movie, but at the same time, I got to personally see the country that I truly missed and was, and am, so proud of, but also get to see these new areas. New Brunswick just blew my mind. [It's] so beautiful.
Canadians love to celebrate themselves. Like you say in the movie, we're always pointing each other out and specifically telling Americans that, you know, "So and so is actually Canadian". And this film celebrates a lot of Canadians, everyone from Alanis Morisette to William Shatner. But you also try to celebrate Canada itself, the country, and it comes across as kind of a tougher sell. Canada seems hilariously sad in comparison. Like what does Canada have? The Beachcombers, curling, the RCMP.
It's not meant to be sad. It's sort of, there's definitely some tongue-in-cheek element about this. We wanted to pick the silly things like The Beachcombers—I grew up loving The Beachcombers.
What I was hopefully doing, I don't know if it was successful, but this whole movie is supposed to be our love letter to Canada. We love Canada. I love it so much. I miss it. The producers, who are Canadian, we all were selfishly excited because we got to go back to the place we love and talk about this country. But we also wanted to not make ourselves seem too fancy. It's not like we're re-writing the legacy of Olympus. So that's why we picked a few things that are sort of near and dear to Canadians hearts and non-Canadians would think they're super lame. I think our secret weapon would be to under-play the cool stuff. I think hopefully in the film there will be a lot of Canadians in the audience kind of nodding like, "Totally." They'll be like, "Littlest Hobo? What is that?" That was sort of part of the plan. It's all done with great love and affection.
Canadians clearly have very ingrained identity issues. We explain being Canadian by comparing and contrasting ourselves to Americans, which is really messed up.
Do you think any other country has that same kind of identity crisis? I can only think of maybe Wales, being so close to England. But even so, probably not. Do you think that's unique to us?
To me, I could imagine maybe North and South Korea, but they're still Korean. I just think Canada is in this weird spot because we are, like I say in the movie, we are these aliens. I walk around L.A. all the time, even yesterday, [I] was talking to somebody about the hockey playoffs and I said, "Sorry," or whatever, "Sorry about the Kings," and they were like "Are you Canadian?" And immediately the conversation shifted from the Kings to me, almost how could I keep this a secret? I think we're like the stealth country, but in a great way. We're sort of the bits and pieces of Britain and the U.S., with a little French thrown in. I can't think of another country that's really as awesome and massive and powerful as we are that [is also] this person at the back wall at the party sort of.
I loved when someone said we're the "Hey guys, wait up" country.
Exactly. Oh my god, when Mike [Myers] said that I was losing my mind. Because it's so true.
But it's great. I think it's—I love the fact that we know how great we are and we don't need to be trumpeting it all the time. That makes the country even cooler.
After I saw the film, I spoke to someone who was kind of shocked that our identity was such a big issue. She said something to the effect of, "I just think of Canada as a little bit of everything for everyone." Like that is Canada's identity. Stop fretting about it. Do you think that's good enough? Can that be it?
I think, honestly, in the movie, there's no right or wrong answer. This is sort of how we chose to present this story, and it's not saying this is the Bible on what it means to be Canadian, but I think to be American means different things to Americans. If you're from Texas it might mean being big and loud and rich, and being from Louisiana you're laid back and [in] Seattle you're into coffee. It's whatever people want. I think that the great thing about Canada is we could [say] "We're polite," or we could [say] "We're this," but I think we've found an easy way to almost elegantly not have the conversation by saying, "Well, we're like the U.S. but cleaner" or whatever. Because it's a way that we have found people outside of Canada can process it easier. But within Canada it's a little more provincial. I grew up in Alberta, so I was always hearing about Quebec, the crazy people in Quebec, or the Newfies, or whatever. I think Canadians are so—in my experience—so comfortable knowing who they are that it's almost like an effort to explain something that they feel doesn't need to be explained.
Finally, and this is very important, is it true that Milhouse from The Simpsons was modeled after you?
That is true.
How did that happen?
When The Simpsons first started I was a [Production Assistant] there and they needed to send drawings to Korea, where the animation was getting done, to explain what characters should look like, because the Korean animators were not understanding and sending back these drawings that were wrong. So they just took pictures of people that were around the show and said this is so-and-so, this is so-and-so. So they sent a photo of me, unbeknownst to me, to Korea and said make this guy Milhouse. A lot of the characters on the show are based on real people, but I found out about it afterwards when one of the writers brought me into his office and said, "I've got a surprise for you."
So his personality traits were not based on you, it was just your actual physical appearance.
Yeah, just my physical look. I mean, I hope so.
Being Canadian screens Saturday April 25 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.