Interview: Jay Baruchel
The veteran actor and star of How to Train Your Dragon makes his directorial debut with Goon 2: Last of the Enforcers, but the closet poet says his movie is about more than small-town hockey, it’s about the very heart and expletive-laden soul of the Canadian identity
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC — Jay Baruchel emerges from the elegantly muted, sand coloured hallway with the urgency and focus of a grey squirrel gathering mid-winter nuts.
He’s on a mission and if it means tipping over a garbage can or two, traversing a frozen road from an overhead transmission wire or even fluffing up his tale for a confrontation with the unsuspecting public — he’s ready.
The Canadian actor known for playing Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, as well as earning a place alongside Tom Cruise as one of the bawdy pranksters in Tropic Thunder, recently directed his first feature, Goon 2: Last of the Enforcers.
He says it was the achievement of a life-long dream, which is why no broom-swinging porch granny is going to get in his grille about vulgarity, obscenity or even Canada’s undying love for the enforcer — the unsung hero of professional hockey who sacrifices his body for the greater good of the team.
Baruchel and his friend Evan Goldberg (Superbad, This Is the End, Sausage Party) celebrated the enforcer in Goon, the 2011 release featuring Seann William Scott as Doug Glatt, a small town hockey star who may not be all that bright, but can use his fists with purpose.
It was a Rocky story on ice: a tale of social redemption with a true love and two black eyes. For Baruchel, Glatt’s story was a reflection of the Canadian soul, which is why he spent the last few years of his life bringing him back to the ice, and going to the matt to make him real.
The Ex-Press caught up with the Montreal-raised Baruchel in Vancouver days before Goon 2’s national release. Not only did the discussion crack the nut of the national psyche, it reconciled how the same nation that produced Leonard Cohen and Stephen Leacock could also have the worst potty mouth in the English-speaking world.
The Ex-Press: You do this exercise a lot. Is it more fun to talk about a movie that you have directed than being part of the cast?
Jay Baruchel: Infinitely more.
Ex-Press: How so?
JB: Because usually I am just asked what everyone else that I worked with is like, and what pranks at base camp there were and stuff. And this, I just get to talk about my movie which is much more fun.
Ex-Press: So… Tell me about the pranks at base camp… No. Joke! Were you apprehensive about taking on the directing challenge at all?
JB: No, no. Not at all. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t in complete awe of it and didn’t pay it the appropriate respect. No. I’ve wanted to do this since I was nine years old.
JB: Oh yeah. All my life. My acting was always a means to be on set and to be in movies and stuff. Not the other way around. So I’ve been waiting for this since I was a child. And when you finally get the chance to do your professed life’s ambition, you better not blink. So I tried to treat it the way a sailor treats the ocean: You have the appropriate respect for it because it could kill you in a second, but you don’t let the fear of it overcome you. So I treated it with respect and reverence but also knew that I had spent the bulk of my life seeing movies in my head so it was good to finally see it in reality.
My acting was always a means to be on set and to be in movies and stuff. Not the other way around. So I’ve been waiting for this since I was a child.
Ex-Press: Being a sailor myself, it seems to be a good analogy because you need knowledge of several things. So if we follow the metaphor through, what’s the vessel, what kind of ship is Goon 2? What’s the destination, what are the conditions, what kind of captain do you want to be?
JB: Very good question. I would say Goon 2 is a warship. It’s an old school dreadnought. And we were obviously fighting our way through the choppy Atlantic. And I would say the ocean in this case would be all the constant myriad pitfalls that any set faces. You can hemorrhage time and money very easily. You can do busy work and not have anything to show for it at the end of the day. You are also in the business of managing emotions and expectations and egos. And I say ego not as a bad term. Everyone has an ego. It’s just that I had a very deliberate vibe that I wanted on the set. I wanted everyone to always believe that, no matter what, I had an idea for every scene. That I had a vision. But I also wanted them to get along with me; feel like they could be psyched up to go to work everyday. And I wanted them to feel that it was their sandbox too. There was no one on our set who wasn’t allowed to come and pitch me an idea. I encouraged it and that was from pre-production onwards. Whenever (co-writer Jesse Chabot) and I would do revisions, the industry standard is to do the revision and then put out a document highlighting where they are. We did that, but also gave a third document about why we made the changes. I wanted to take ownership of the movie. So there are ideas in the movie that maybe the actors pitched or the gaffer pitched. Whether there was room for those ideas in the movie or not is another matter, but I wanted everyone to feel like this was their movie, too. So I think we had a pretty good morale on set, and we were always very productive. We averaged about 45 set ups a day…
I would say Goon 2 is a warship. It’s an old school dreadnought. And we were obviously fighting our way through the choppy Atlantic.
Ex-Press: Wow! That’s a lot.
JB: It is. But we really wanted to make this bloody movie. At one point we got up to 84.
Ex-Press: What? Were you shooting all natural light?
JB: We got that high shooting the hockey scenes. The camera is moving and the subjects are moving. There’s no time to belabour one specific image. It’s much more about the story points you are trying to communicate in each bit of play. So I’d go in with a wish list. What do I need? On this go, I want camera trailing number 13, so this camera follows the hit, and every time we’d send the camera out following a different aspect, and each time that was a different set up. Also, we didn’t do things over and over again. If I do two or three takes of one shot instead of seven of another, that gives me three other shots to choose from. And I have more options. It increases the number of images (Jason Eisener) the editor and I had to choose from.
Ex-Press: Sounds like you had a lot of footage. Was it a huge ratio?
JB: Yeah. We had a lot. And it was amazing. When our post supervisor called the editor it was like, so, just the selects. No. We want everything. The repositions, the garbage before the slate goes in. We want absolutely everything — all the info we recorded to cut to and access in our movie. We found a home for a lot of that: some repos, interstitial moments when actors are waiting for me to say action. We love all of it. And if you want to make the best movie possible, it behooves you to have the most amount of ammunition.
Ex-Press: In your experience does a good set vibe translate into a good movie?
JB: In my opinion, yes. A lot of people would say one has nothing to do with the other and some would even say they thrive in a sort of chaotic environment. I am not one of them. In all my time in the trenches on set, I was always most productive when I was enjoying myself and in a good mood. I believe a happy set is an efficient set. Plus I don’t want to be the boss of a place where people aren’t psyched to be there every day. That’s a miserable thing. We’re not paramedics. It should be as fun as it possibly can.
In all my time in the trenches on set, I was always most productive when I was enjoying myself and in a good mood. I believe a happy set is an efficient set. Plus I don’t want to be the boss of a place where people aren’t psyched to be there every day.
Ex-Press: Do you see yourself carrying that notion forward? Collective action works in a Goon context. It’s about collective identity as a hockey team. But what if the next project you direct is not about hockey or the team idea. What are your feelings about a solo endeavour?
JB: If I have any solo instincts, it’s not in movies. I think that’s what literature and comic books are for. And by the way, I write a great deal for me that no one will ever see. Like I’m not going to publish any of my poems any time soon, but I write them all the time.
JB: Of course. Since I was a kid.
If I have any solo instincts, it’s not in movies. I think that’s what literature and comic books are for. And by the way, I write a great deal for me that no one will ever see. Like I’m not going to publish any of my poems any time soon, but I write them all the time.
Ex-Press: How come you won’t publish them. Or have you even put them before a publisher? Is it too private? Like a diary?
JB: It’s a bit of that. I’ve shown it to people. I have a friend who is a published poet and I showed it to him and he thought it was good enough to be in a book, but I don’t need to put it out there. The people who are near and dear to me will see it. But I guess film and TV are inherently collaborative and anyone who tries to make a movie a novel ends up losing their set and has an entire cast and crew that resents them. Also, by the way, any one person can only see X amount of things. And if you truly want the best movie possible it behooves you to have as many eyes and brains on the material as possible. Any good work of art is what you set out trying to do, and what happens along the way, as well. You know, the snowball and all the little stuff you pick up along the way that makes it handmade, and proprietary, and distinct. I don’t know how you would have that with a fucking dictatorial process.
Ex-Press: Given that you have just used the word behoove, and that you evidently appreciate language, how do you reconcile the crass nature and the basic vulgarity of Goon?
JB: It’s because I appreciate language! A friend of mine told me years ago, they had conducted a study of English speakers all over the globe and found that Canadians swore more than any other English speaking group in the world. When you first hear that you can’t believe it, because we Canadians are perceived as so polite. We love to queue up. But when you actually take a second and think: It’s not ‘fuck’ in caps. It’s fuck in lower case. That is our elipses. It’s our ‘whatever’…. For whatever combination of reasons, that’s the language I heard growing up in Montreal. I read an unfavourable review of the flick that attributed our coarse language to not having ideas for jokes or something. I took issue with that because his entire theory was that every time there was an F-word in our movie it was because we wanted to make a joke, and that was just not fucking true at all. We use them in any way every one uses them. They are not a crutch. I didn’t want my movie to be bullshit. And I think part of what people liked in the first one is that it passed the bullshit test. It looked like and sounded like people they knew. It had the stink of truth to it. And for me, especially considering how widescreen and classicist our movie was, I thought it was a sexy combo to cut that with blue collar punk rock language. I hadn’t seen those two forms together in anything else.
I read an unfavourable review of the flick that attributed our coarse language to not having ideas for jokes or something. I took issue with that because his entire theory was that every time there was an F-word in our movie it was because we wanted to make a joke, and that was just not fucking true at all.
Ex-Press: We do swear more, don’t we? I notice it when I speak to Americans. You can see them react. And it’s kind of an unconscious thing, but I hear myself use expletives as punctuation.
JB: I know. Americans do not swear like we do, and it really hits their ears every time. But that’s just how I grew up. It was my Mum and all her brothers and sisters — army brats from Nova Scotia. My cousin Colleen put it perfectly. She’s a soldier and married to a soldier and they have two of the brightest, most well-behaved little girls you will ever meet anywhere. And usually, bright kids are an asshole or a wet noodle but these two are not. And their parents who swear constantly in front of them say their kids know the rules: No swearing until they are 18 or in the army. It’s just like just the colour and flavour of English in the country I grew up in….
Ex-Press: Language reflects a nation. What does that say about us? Maybe it says two things… form and anarchy. Like hockey. Why the dynamic tension between the perceived self and the reality? What have you learned about the nature of being Canadian? We really are different.
JB: Completely… I remember talking about this with Craig Ferguson, not to name drop, but he said it’s like you guys have a place to put it. I think other countries are kind of at odds with aspects of themselves they find unpalatable. They put them down and keep them at bay. But we make peace with it. We may swear a lot, but we still gave the world Leacock and Cohen. I have a theory my friend and I have developed about the makeup of the Canadian mentality. You look at who built this country: Peasants from Normandy, Scotland and Ireland. These are disparate but equally harsh climates. You have one option: you work hard and get along with your neighbour, or you won’t survive the next winter. So as clean and progressive as we are, I honestly think we are a more working-class society than the States is. Even though they’ve built their identity on the cult of the common man, I really think that you feel it more here. Think about it. It’s no coincidence that Trailer Park Boys is on Season 12 or whatever.
So as clean and progressive as we are, I honestly think we are a more working-class society than the States is. Even though they’ve built their identity on the cult of the common man, I really think that you feel it more here.
Ex-Press: It seems we’re still watching the rise of this whole new Tim Horton’s styled genre — where we celebrate the small town hosers, whether it’s Trailer Park Boys or Letter Kenney or even Corner Gas.
JB: That’s just it. I lived in Toronto, I grew up in Montreal and I love Vancouver but that’s not Canada. Those are great cosmopolitan centres and are important to the history and life of Canada. But you go outside those centres, and you see the rank and file. You see where our country really lives. That’s where hockey lives. It’s where Junior hockey is a way of life. And that’s who we made our film for.
THE EX-PRESS, March 23, 2017