Kevin Sullivan - writer, producer, director
When I created a page about Kevin Sullivan on this website, I realized there was very little information about him available. I wanted to interview him and ask questions that had made me stumped for years. Then AvCon 2004 took place; and, later, Sullivan Entertainment organized an online Q&A session with him. Others were able to have questions answered. Since then, I've also had the chance to talk to him online and in person. Yet, my dream of conducting a proper interview with him remained... until now.
I hope it will answer some of your questions.
- Why did you take so long to begin making films again? Your last film was The Piano Man’s Daughter in 2003. In the meantime your company seemed busy putting its various titles out on DVD, but nothing new from you. You had a lawsuit with the heirs of L.M. Montgomery. Then in 2004 you opened your official Road to Avonlea website at www.roadtoavonlea.com and Sullivan Entertainment started www.sullivanmovies.com with regular updates, video clips etc. but still there were no movie plans from you. Fans were worried Sullivan Entertainment was dying. Then in 2006 you began filming Mozart’s classic opera The Magic Flute and you attended and spoke at the first official Avonlea reunion. So after a long break you are making films again. Why this break? Was it because of the lawsuit? You have just completed Magic Flute Diaries and now Anne of Green Gables – A New Beginning. Does this mean you have further plans for more movies and series in the future?
I took a break from making films a few years ago, mostly because I had a number of series projects in development with Canadian and US networks. I was tired of series development. There was nothing that I had in development that I was really energized about. I am a film-maker at heart, so I needed to develop films I was really passionate about making for myself. Film scripts often take 2-3 years to develop until you are happy with them. Working with other writes takes a lot of time too. Making series is arduous work with very short develop time frames. I decided to let go of that for awhile to develop movies. Also my children were really growing up in that time period and my wife and I wanted to make sure we had the time for them. If you are always producing you cannot have a normal family life. There are many, many other things I enjoy doing besides making films!
The disputes with the family of L M Montgomery didn't really have anything to do with my taking a break. They were more of a distraction than anything else. Fortunately for both sides, the disputes are all behind us now.
I have a number of films I am writing myself which will unfold over the next couple of years. I decided to develop only things which I am personally interested in by writing, producing and directing. Magic Flute Diaries and Anne – A New Beginning are the first of a slate of films that I have been working on for myself. In other words working at all three roles: writing, producing and directing is what I enjoy most, but it also requires the most amount of prep time to get a project off the ground. I'd rather make fewer projects, but make things where I do all three. Our children are a little older now and we can afford the time again as well.
- You studied in Normandy, Austria, and Germany so you spent a lot of time in Europe as a student. Did Europe influence you more than perhaps other filmmakers who have studied only in Canada and the US? Did you learn something in Europe you have been able to use in your films?
- Actually I have traveled and studied in Europe a great deal, not only France and Germany but England, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. I also really love Eastern Europe very much. We record all of our film scores in Bratislava with composer Peter Breiner who is Czech. I do think my time in Europe has affected my sensibilities. I have spent a tremendous amount of time painting and studying painting. This has influenced more an approach to lighting and composition in my films. I am easily influenced by many artistic aspects: music, great writing, and the visual arts – so undoubtedly that creeps into the aesthetic of my film work. From a European experience I think I have learned to treat film making as a craft more than a career; which would be a bit more of a North American way of looking at it.
- Why Mozart and The Magic Flute? Do you love his music and that caused you to make a movie based on his work? Is it some kind of tribute?
My daughter was performing Mozart with her string ensemble in Europe for the Mozart 250th birthday celebration. The Magic Flute is one of the few operas I really enjoy, because Mozart's score is so intoxicating! I decided to make a film for television with Toronto's Opera Atelier because I enjoyed the detail and authenticity of their 18th century interpretation of opera and dance. They have performed a popular baroque version of The Magic Flute onstage. I also wanted to make a film that was shot in studio as well as on location. This project allowed me to do both. Some of it was shot in Austria and Bavaria. Most of it was shot in our studio. I wanted to experiment with the fantastical side of film-making with something like Sin City or 300. But to make a film where I could play with the things I've always enjoyed being a spectator to: dancing and singing; but which I know very little about because I have never directed them before, was an exciting proposition. The film was a wonderful collaboration with many other artists: singers, choreographers, dancers and actors. This film also really allowed me to experiment with CGI and music a great deal. Much of the CGI experience I gained on it allowed me to expand my film-making canvas on Anne – A New Beginning and to create an even larger tableau for my new film. Which I would not have been able to achieve without all of this recent practical experience.
Magic Flute Diaries goes to air this Christmas on December 20th on CTV in Canada also allowed me to create a documentary on Mozart entitled Mozart Decoded. It airs the same night at 7 pm just before Magic Flute Diaries. Both projects provided an opportunity for me to tell a story about what it's like to look at the world from an artist's perspective. It is a homage in a kind of way to Mozart, because I happen to believe Mozart was one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time. He burned out very quickly when he died at age 35 -- almost as if his genius was too great to be contained by human form. He was also completely misunderstood by his father and the aristocracy of the time, in whose employ he worked. Freemasonry gave him an alternate communication valve. The documentary deals with this little known aspect of his life.
The Magic Flute is essentially a Masonic opera written for common folk of Mozart's time and not for the aristocracy. It was first performed in a beer garden. At the same time it is a fairytale laden with Masonic symbolism; and tries to explore the human experience that we all have of finding meaning in life. In that sense my film is a musical journey, set against a contemporary story, where the lead performer goes through the same dilemmas as the character he plays in the opera. Fantasy crosses over with reality and in the process the hero learns to understand how not to fear the creative genius of a daunting talent like Mozart, but to embrace the music for all of its inspiration. Fans can read alot more about this in The Magic Flute Diaries Movie Companion available in our Sullivan Boutique if they want to know more about how the film came to be made.
- You said in the past you would never make another movie based on L M Montgomery's work. No more Anne, no more Avonlea. Why did you declare this and what has changed since then? Also we have no news of your relationship with the heirs of L M Montgomery. Does this mean you could have an arrangement with them?
Well I would say first of all, alot of fans and broadcasters around the world convinced me to make another Anne film with so many letters and emails which I have received constantly in the last couple of years from people hoping maybe I would do another film for the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book. I was not really interested in making any more films of Montgomery's books. I don't care very much for her later novels about Anne. I never felt any of them were very cinematic. I began to change my mind about another Anne story when I thought about how I could maybe shed some artistic light on how Montgomery created Anne's character out of her own imagination and based on her loneliness as a child. She was literally deserted by her father, after her mother died. She grew up with strict grandparents on PEI who she transformed into the beloved characters of Matthew and Marilla. Montgomery created Anne as her alter ego and PEI was the pastoral world she wrote about with such great romance. I wanted to tell a story about what that experience might be like for a writer. In my depiction of Anne on screen I have always tended to portray her as an aspiring writer – inspired by L M Montgomery's real-life persona. That was the seed for developing Anne in my latest film – which is both a prequel and a sequel to my earlier films.
This new film will hopefully give audiences insights and surprises into how Anne came to be the wonderful character she is; because it was not without experiencing many hardships and disappointment with the people she deeply cared about. It is inspired by L M Montgomery's own experiences in life because Anne and Montgomery really are the same person. This kind of film can be watched alongside my earlier films to give greater depth to the early stories, but this is a completely original tale that describes things like where Anne coined the phrase
kindred spiritsor where she found her carpetbag. It is an expansive story from my own imagination to celebrate the creation of the original book.
The films were not made with the involvement of the author's heirs. As I mentioned before the disputes between us are all behind us, but Sullivan Entertainment maintains the right to copyright and use trademarks to all of my original works and images.
The Anne 4 Official Movie Companion in our boutique gives a lot of in depth description about Montgomery and the making of this new film; as does the seven documentaries which Dan Matthews has produced -- that will be available on the new Anne 4 DVD under Bonus Features.
- You have three daughters; two of them attended the 2006 Avonlea Reunion. Do they love and know your films? You mentioned in 2004 your girls loved you to tell stories about the shooting.
- My daughters know my films, but I would not say they are fans! They like other things and have a wide array of tastes, as they have traveled with my wife and me so extensively. They also prefer much more contemporary subject matter. They do love hearing stories about the adventure of making films though. Even more than watching them. Occasionally if there is an argument about what to watch on a Sunday evening on DVD I do notice they are happy to watch on hour of Wind at My Back or Avonlea.
- Do you love the turn of the century? If so why?
- I like the era of 100 years ago as that is the time period my father grew up in. My brother and I were born when my father was in his sixties. He was born in 1895, so when I was a boy all of my aunts and uncles were very old. Consequently I knew a great deal about this time period. Almost as if I had grown up in it myself. I enjoy making period films, mostly because I've become skilled at it. It has allowed me to put an original imprimatur on my body of films as well.
- Lots of people love this era but most of them can see only the good things, the right side of this period. Lots of films - including your ones - are showing mainly the right side: everybody is happy, everything is okay, members of a community love and help each other, everybody is friend. But what about the bad things, the dark side? What about diseases for example? In that period lots of people died in TBC but now TBC is not a fatal disease. Women had no right for vote (okay, you made an RTA episode about this subject), there was no electricity in small rural towns, there was no comfort, etc. But lots of people are escaping from the present world, escaping to an idyllic time and place and thinking that period was ideal comparing to the present world... But is was not... Avonlea is a fictional town and we can see mainly the good things with its citizens but living in such a small town was not an ideal thing despite Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote about the shiny side of this world. What do you think about this?
Avonlea was certainly an idyllic series, but there were many difficult subjects tackled in the course of the production too --- such as when Olivia gave birth (which was quite realistic), or Cecily contracted TB, or when Jasper and Olivia lost their cannery in a fire. I think if you look closely at the production part of its success is that it is not always television idealism. It is a fantasy (with lots of big acting) but it also has good doses of reality in it too, alongside the adventure. My goal during the course of developing material for it was to enlighten an audience as well as entertain people. The shows speak for themselves I feel.
However Wind at My Back was much less idealistic (which many complained about). I actually prefer this show, specifically because of that.
And if you want an even less idealistic period world that I have produced on screen, which deals with all of the issues that are not the
shiny side of the worldas you refer to it in your question; then screen Butterbox Babies, Under the Piano, Sleeping Dogs Lie or even Promise the Moon. They will give you a good dose of period reality with gripping human-interest stories.
- In the Green Gables books Anne and Gilbert married in 1890. You put their marriage at the time of World War I in 1914. And you put the Avonlea series into the time frame of 1907-1914. Why did you change the time frame?
I enclose an excerpt from the Anne 4 Official Movie Companion which explains this:
Anne of Green Gables – A New Beginning moves back and forth in time from 1945 at the end of the Second World War, to the 1890's, when Anne is depicted as an eleven year old. Sullivan's chronology of Anne's life and many aspects of how he has chosen to develop his films are unique to his particular perspective of Anne's dramatic character. Audiences have frequently wondered (and debated vociferously) why Sullivan chose to diverge from Montgomery's novels so abruptly after such a completely faithful adaptation of the original book in the first installment of his four films.
Sullivan has commented that Montgomery's original story was set in the 1880's at the time of her own childhood. Montgomery's first story was a fictionalization of her own early years growing up on Prince Edward Island, when she was deserted by her father, and left in the care of strict Calvinistic grandparents. These stern individuals were idealized in her first novel as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Sullivan chose to set his movie version of Anne of Green Gables just after the turn of the century however; more than a decade after Montgomery’s chronology. He made this decision initially because, from a production design perspective, he felt the early 1900's offered a more interesting look, both in architecture and costume. He chose the early Edwardian period over the late Victorian period. This capricious design decision unfolded against 10 years of film production and a chain of stories (in subsequent Green Gables films and the Road to Avonlea series) that began to link together and that were all affected by the unique chronology he used in interpreting Anne Shirley on screen.
After the success of his first adaptation, Sullivan decided to synthesize three later novels: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars, into a cohesive and original new story which portrayed Anne's life during the years 1905 to 1907. In between Anne of Green Gables – The Sequel and Anne of Green Gables - The Continuing Story however he also created 91 episodes of the television series Road to Avonlea, as well as a Christmas Special, An Avonlea Christmas; all of which played out chronologically from 1907 to 1914. An Avonlea Christmas took place just at the outset of World War One. When Sullivan was faced with creating a third installment to his previous two Green Gables films he chose to let the story of newlyweds, Anne and Gilbert Blythe, unfold against a more mature background than his earlier films; one that would change the lead characters' small-town roots irrevocably. His depiction of their lives was in some ways the antithesis of Montgomery's later novels, which depict Anne and Gilbert as middle-aged parents watching their own children go off to war. As Sullivan's Anne and Gilbert move from life in New York then back to Avonlea to be married and then off to the battle fields of Europe as Anne searches for her husband Gilbert, Sullivan wanted audiences to understand why they had become so attached to the world of Anne's childhood which he had filmed a decade prior. It was the profound innocence of a world that was overturned so completely in the mayhem of the 20th century that Sullivan understood endeared audiences to his films. It was the nostalgia for this world that made it seem even more distant and attractive for audiences, because it had vanished nearly completely both sociologically and physically, by the end of the 20th century. Anne's story is all the more poignant when against the sweeping changes in history that she survives, and in light of the difficulties she endures in her early years that make her so strong and optimistic.
As with his inventive decision to depict Anne as a mature woman, caught in the coils of an abruptly changing world, Sullivan's new film Anne of Green Gables – A New Beginning elaborates on all of the earlier interpretations of Anne's character, but also offers audiences an enhanced perspective on Montgomery herself, struggling to come to terms with the desolation of her early years and how those events shaped her unique and extraordinary perspective as an author.
I know a lot of audience members wondered why I made such a different film with Anne 3. I got kind of tired of hearing some people say they didn't care for Anne 3. In some ways that may have prevented me from making another Anne film. I was myself really happy the way the three films sat together as a Trilogy though. I also felt that what happened to Anne in Anne 3 was more dynamic than the world Montgomery placed Anne in – which was very passive, watching the world unfold through her children’s lives during the war.
As you may guess the only way for a film maker to tell a story is to believe implicitly in the world they create on film. If fans and audiences like that world – great! But in order to make a world believable (even with Avonlea) you as the film maker have to make it your own first. With the chronology of events that linked Anne 1 and 2 and 91 episodes of Avonlea as well as Happy Christmas Miss King, in my imagination the things that happened to Anne in Anne 3 are exactly what would have happened to her if she and Gilbert had been married at that time and Gilbert had been forced to go off to War. I guess my own vision of Anne is just out of synch with Montgomery’s literary works. On the other hand my films have always been an original perspective on the character – so Anne 2, 3 and now Anne 4 only serve to increase my original perspective of Montgomery's world.
The Anne Trilogy is a complete work unto itself (especially with Megan's performance). People don't like war and violence generally – but that is the whole point of Anne 3, if you look very carefully at the film. After World War I the world changed forever. The characters that everyone loves were prevented from ever going back in Anne 3 to all the idyllic things that Green Gables symbolizes; because that time was gone forever. That is the poignant part about the story and that is why Anne 3 puts the earlier two films in perspective. Anne 3 is meant to make audiences cherish the earlier time at the turn of the century, even more. Anne grows up and the audience is forced to think about their own lives in the same way Anne does about hers. Life is not always an escape. Sometimes we need a perspective to make us realize how good our lives really are. Anne has to make decisions about her life and Green Gables – so she gives the farm as the ultimate gift to her best friend, when she realizes she is at the moment in her life when she must and can let go of that past world she held on to as a child.
In the Anne 4 Official Movie Companion there is a wonderful article entitled The Mythology of Green Gables, which really nails why the picture of that idyllic farmhouse has become such an icon.
So my new film is really a stand alone. I couldn't cast Megan because I needed an actress in her late fifties and an actress of 10-11. I am thrilled with the performances of Barbara Hershey and Hannah Endicott-Douglas because I think they provide even more depth to Anne's character, seen alongside the brilliant performance of Megan Follows. Anne 4 is a stand-alone film though. It is meant to shed light on the earlier Trilogy. It is meant to be screened once and reflected upon, then screened again after looking at the earlier films. Who was Anne? Was she really an orphan or merely estranged from her father as LM Montgomery was from her father, when she made up stories about her early life out of fear and shame? How did she become so wildly imaginative and where did she develop her strong personality? All of these questions are answered in the film when seen through the eyes of an older woman still struggling with her identity. In this story Anne is betrayed tragically by a number of people close to her; and yet her optimism allows her to survive. In the end she is a completely inspiring personality and she understands how extraordinary her life has been – despite all of its difficulties. It is this particular point of view which allows her to inspire others; which was really at the root of Montgomery's own genius.
- Thank you for the interview.
Created in December, 2008.