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obituary

Filmmaker Paul Pope.Courtesy of the Family

As a producer, director and mentor, filmmaker Paul Pope helped shape hundreds of projects including the current TV series Hudson and Rex and the feature film Rare Birds (2002), starring William Hurt and Molly Parker, which Roger Ebert called “a sweetheart of a film” and compared favourably to The Shipping News.

“The film was largely controlled by local forces, and for Pope Productions Rare Birds offered a powerful opportunity for growth and artistic development,” said Noreen Golfman, vice chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation (NLFDC). “It took the industry to a whole new level of confidence.”

Mr. Pope spent more than four decades steeped in film and television. In addition to working on individual productions, he also helped launch organizations vital to the growth of the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. He co-founded the dynamic Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-operative (NIFCO) in 1975, serving as its president for more than 20 years. He was also instrumental in establishing the NLFDC, and the forthcoming Film and Media Production Centre at the College of the North Atlantic. An investment of $10-million for the new facility was announced the day before Mr. Pope died on April 14, in St. John’s, after a short illness at age 63. An unofficial campaign is pushing for the institution to be named after Mr. Pope.

“His contribution is central, pivotal,” Edward Riche, Mr. Pope’s frequent collaborator, told CBC. The two worked together on many projects including the political thriller Secret Nation and the film adaptation of Mr. Riche’s novel Rare Birds,

Mr. Pope knew the film industry in Newfoundland and Labrador needed access to major financing as well as training and equipment. To address the former, he was a bridge to funding and resources in Canada; for the latter, he led the expansion of NIFCO into a complete production centre. The co-operative now occupies four buildings and includes recording studios, editing suites and equipment rentals for lighting, sound and camera batteries.

Some of Mr. Pope’s other projects included Gerry Rogers’s Gemini Award-winning documentary My Left Breast (2000) and the TV mini-series Above and Beyond (2006), whose cast included Richard E. Grant, Jason Priestley and Allan Hawco.

Mr. Pope always thought big, Ms. Rogers told CBC. She compared his role as an industry leader to his function as a first assistant director on set, making sure the director had the resources to tell the story. “As first AD he ran the show and that’s what he did throughout his career, he made sure we could tell our stories. He was always so incredibly generous with experience and opinions. And he was smart.” When faced with the myriad complexities of filmmaking, she said, filmmakers “would ask themselves: What would Paul do?”

Mr. Pope’s work spawned other work and his mentorship was constant and enveloped all aspects of film production, including acting. For example, Mark Critch got his first film work as an extra on Secret Nation, and his first lead role on Anchor Zone (1994), both produced by Mr. Pope; and Tatiana Maslany won a Special Jury Prize for breakout performance for her work in another Pope production, Grown Up Movie Star (2009), in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. She went on to win an Emmy for her work in the TV series Orphan Black.

“All roads led to Paul,” his friend Ted Blades said.

Dogged, persistent and determined, he had the nerve to take risks and a sharp mind for strategy, and at the same time was always a delight as a colleague. His rapport was immediate and lifelong.

“Paul Pope was one of the funniest and [most] empathetic people I have ever met,” said Paul Bronfman of William W. White International Inc., a film equipment supply company, and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios Inc. He met Mr. Pope when they served on the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) board together. “People loved working with Paul, whether that be crew, cast or other members of his production team.”

Mr. Pope’s extraordinary work ethic led friends to suspect secretly that he was able to pack more than 24 hours into a day. He sat on festival juries, and even acted occasionally, as in the Genie Award-winning When Ponds Freeze Over (1998). And he never stopped championing his home province.

“There’s a big boom in Canada and we’re kind of part of the boom,” Mr. Pope told CBC during Hudson and Rex’s latest round of production. “It’s a great place to film. People like the locations, love being here. It takes a while to build an industry – and you know we’re not done yet.”

Paul Leslie Pope was born in St. John’s on Nov. 7, 1958, to Fanny (whose maiden name was also Pope, though she was not closely related to her husband) and George Pope, both schoolteachers from Stone’s Cove on the South Coast of Newfoundland. He had two brothers and a sister.

The earliest filming in the province was limited to silent films on big game hunting and the seal harvest by U.S. or European crews, amateur footage of the 1932 riot and Amelia Earhart’s visit to Harbour Grace that same year, and NFB documentaries from the Second World War era. Then, in 1959 MUN Extension Services created a media unit, and in the late 1960s Mr. Pope’s older brother, David Pope, made a series of silent shorts there. The siblings were then among the group that co-founded NIFCO, with an association of 14 charter members and a $17,500 grant from the Canada Council; David was NIFCO’s first manager. Together they also made what’s known as “the Pope trilogy,” Offstage Line, Slipway, and Stone’s Cove (1975), shorts united by their connection to that now-resettled community. David died in 1988.

Having earned a BAA in Film and Photography from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University), Mr. Pope worked at Bristol Communications in St. John’s throughout the 1980s. In 1998 he founded Pope Productions, from which offices he generated, germinated and guided production after production. His energy and enthusiasm did not flag.

For example, despite their long collaboration, “my favourite project with Paul was the one we were yet to shoot,” Mr. Riche said. “It was an espionage thriller built around the facts of the Bulgarian refugees that dropped from the sky into Newfoundland in the late 1980s. … Paul and I were back and forth to Sofia and he was terrifically excited about the logistical challenges of the International coproduction to be shot in both countries. The screenplay was completed but the project had to be put on hold because of Hudson and Rex. Spurred by the news out of Ukraine we were talking about it again. Our Bulgarian partners were as shocked as everyone in town to get the sad news of Paul’s sudden passing.”

Mr. Pope leaves his wife, Lisa Porter, his partner in many film productions; and sons, Simon and Alex. Both his death and funeral were widely covered by provincial news media; Premier Andrew Furey called him “a pioneer, a driving force.”

Among other honours, Mr. Pope received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University of Newfoundland, the Arts Achievement Award from ArtsNL and the Legend Award from the City of St. John’s, which also noted his contribution to the city’s 10-year economic plan, Roadmap 2021, and the Douglas James Dale Industry Builder Award. In addition to the CMPA he served on the St. John’s City Arts Advisory Committee and the Resource Centre For the Arts board.

But, ultimately, “Paul is going to be remembered for building the film and television industry in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Mr. Riche said. “It is no exaggeration to say that it would not exist without him.”