Helene White, Part 1: Early Career

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

I'm Helene White and I have an office in Calgary; I have worked internationally and domestically for 30 years or more; I'm addicted to the industry. I love the people I meet, the passion in everybody and I still have that same passion. I still have ideas that I want to make films and television programs from. Now, I'm getting into the web.

Fraser. You are a pioneer.

W. I suppose so. I do remember that, in the 1970s, the Alberta producers were knocking around Europe with the help of the government. Some of us didn’t know what we were doing. We were just talking around, trying to pick up whatever we could in terms of knowledge, information, and contacts.

F. How did you get started?

W. I had been working in the oil patch with a very good job and I decided one day that that wasn't what I wanted to do all my life. So I went back to university; I went into drama at the University of Calgary. We had a film program as well. I took a year of documentary there. We didn't make films, but we studied them. I remember that a professor came in from Toronto every two weeks, flown in by the University. I can't remember his name; he was Czech and had quite a heavy accent. Sometimes we didn’t understand him, but he got through to us. He certainly showed us a wide variety of documentaries from around the world. So, I started off with a view of film that was international. At that time, I worked as a director and an actor in alternative theatre in Calgary. Drama has always appealed to me.

F. What was your first dramatic film?

W. It was called Rocky Mountain Triple; it was 60 seconds long and was a comedic piece, written by a Frenchman about a fellow with a beret on and with a very heavy accent. He was holding up a bottle with the label “Rocky Mountain triple,” and selling it to the camera. Then we did a quick pan to a cow; we had a herd of steers across the river from us. One steer raised his head out of the water and said, “Moo.” We got it on camera and that was the end of our little film. [Laughter.]

F. So often, we have unfinished projects. Do you have a movie like that?

W. Yes, it's based on historical fact and is about a church that was stolen in BC. A little town lost its church when the CPR closed the town down. Historically, the CPR put towns where they wanted to. It wasn't working out, so they closed the station and everything else. Settlers had built a church there. They took the church down, board by board; the pieces were all piled on a siding. Then the people who built the church, stole it. They barged it down the Columbia River, down Lake Windermere and set it up on a sandy hill. It's still there. It's called The Stolen Church. In my version, they did not take it down board by board. I had a vision of the church floating down the river. Through the treetops, you could see the steeple. It’s a kind of comedy. Two towns were feuding over this church, so it's one of those kinds of stories.

F. Are you going to get made?

W. I hope so, I haven't given up on it. I've wanted to tell that story for years.

F. We all have one of those up our sleeves. What are the highlights of your career?

W. One of the highlights for me was a television series done when Peter Pearson was head of Telefilm. He was a champion of this new concept. You were on one of our programs; it was called Connecting. It was a talk show for teens. I had been down in the States for a period of time, and I had seen The Donahue Show there. So I thought, why not a Donahue type show for kids? When we were producing it, I told everyone that the more it looked like Donahue, the better I liked it.

We found a host in Montréal after we asked the teenage audience to choose the host from among eight or nine people who auditioned from across Canada. We asked them to do a live audition; then we had the tapes go out to focus groups. The host wasn't my first choice, but I thought they knew what they were doing; they knew who they wanted to talk to. It was a fellow named Reiner Schwarz who was known at one time as the Crown Prince of Counterculture, in Eastern Canada. They felt that he was on their side. He wasn't an authoritarian figure talking down to them, explaining the rules to them. So they were very keen to have him as their interlocutor. It worked well. We did 117 episodes, which was the first syndicated show out of Alberta; that was a real highlight. I think we did the first one in 1983 and then it went up to about 1985. Now I'm planning a remake with a whole new generation of teenagers. I'm looking forward to that.