Pitching Woo by Pam Grady

Writer-director Helen Lee reveals the Art and magic behind her romantic comedy debut.


One of the highlights of the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival was the world premiere of The Art of Woo, the first feature from Canadian writer-director Helen Lee. A contemporary romantic comedy with the savoir faire of classics like The Lady Eve and Breakfast at Tiffany's, the movie centers around Alessa Woo (Sook Yin Lee from Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a Toronto art curator. Convinced that happiness lies in filthy lucre, this suburban daughter of a convenience store owner sets her sights on snaring a rich husband, only to meet her match when gifted (but presumably poor) artist Ben Crowchild (Adam Beach from Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside and Windtalkers) moves in next door. With the city of Toronto—so often disguised as someplace else in movies and TV shows—co-starring as its glittering self, Lee creates a magical romance about the twin delights of finding love and oneself.


Reel caught up with Helen Lee at the film fest where the director filled us in on what went into making her debut, her awesome cast, her joy in filming in her home base of Toronto, and why she feels fortunate to be working in Canadian cinema.


Q: What was the genesis behind The Art of Woo?


Helen Lee: Well, the producer of it, Anita [Lee], and I are friends and she approached me with the idea of doing a romantic comedy, though with non-white leads. That appealed to me, actually, to do something new with the genre and also to work with Adam again and Sook Yin—I admired her work for years, we've known each other [for years]. So it worked out to have two actors who are really charismatic, plus they had great chemistry, which is essential to me, to make something like that work.


Q: It's like a classic romantic comedy in that you have the constantly bickering couple who can't see what's right in front of them. That's something that's never gone out of fashion, but it's rarely done well anymore. It was nice to see it where it was, "Oh, yes, I like this couple. I like what they're doing."


HL: Oh great. Yes, I mean, it's juicy to watch people acting against their heart and what you feel is good for them. And you know that they need to be together, but social circumstance or social aspirations or whatnot gets in the way. Romantic comedies are often about that, kind of situational dilemmas, about class often. That was also of interest, tackling those issues. Things that are really issues-based, but in a form that could be entertaining and lively to watch.


Q: So much of it is set against the Toronto arts scene. Are you from that background? At times, it felt a little incestuous.


HL: [Laughs] I hope not too incestuous. That was really what we had available. We were really low-budget and had twenty days to shoot. We really wanted to set the film in Toronto, like Annie Hall is very Manhattan and Sleepless in Seattle, those films are so of their locale. And also, for a change, to have Toronto…


Q: …be Toronto.


HL: Yeah, and not disguise it. And really have places like the exterior of the AGO, the Henry Moore sculpture outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto Island Ferry, the Power Plant, the Royal York Hotel for romantic escapades and have them featured for a change.


But it was also fun to work with—to go back to what you were saying—the genre of the romantic comedy, because we do borrow liberally and lovingly from those, more the classic romantic comedies than the ones now. It also incorporates the sort of Sex and the City ethos.


Q: Alessa also reminded me, especially with the costuming, of Holly Golightly.


HL: Oh right, right. [Breakfast at Tiffany's] is so beloved and known by people, and she definitely has Audrey-isms, the way Sook Yin played her. But it was really to partly send that up, but in a loving way, and also put a different spin on it, because she's a very contemporary character and there are very contemporary issues at stake.


Q: And Adam Beach does a great Cary Grant.


HL: [Laughs] He's pretty smooth, that Adam. I thought he brought a lot of nuances to the role. There were scenes where, a line or two … he dances in his apartment or he's painting. Adam really brought those scenes to life.


Q: Sometimes he'll just give her a look—he doesn't even need a line of dialogue, because you can just read everything in his face.


HL: Yeah, Adam is a really powerful actor, really instinctual and of the body, and really smart. He has this emotional intelligence.


Q: I recently saw Dance Me Outside again, where he's playing a doofus, but you can still see that light in his eyes.


HL: Adam's quite versatile. As you know, he'll be in Windtalkers.


Q: Yeah, I fully expect him to steal that from Nicolas Cage.


HL: Yeah, I know. He's got supernova, Adam.


Q: How did you go about putting together the rest of your cast? You've got Don McKellar, who is a Canadian treasure.


HL: Well, I think that a romantic comedy also depends so much on your supporting cast, because, in a way, the couple are kind of like the straight people. And to have really memorable characters in the supporting roles was really important for us. And we really cast looking for star quality in everyone. And everyone just kind of really kind of sunk their teeth into their roles. They found them really juicy.


They're familiar, but then very different. They're very—I don't know—I guess, Canadian, honest. I don't know. I think the performances are pretty honest.


So Don is a friend and we were in a bind, looking for someone who could carry off that role of Nathan with a kind of aplomb and humor that Don could bring to it. We were really lucky to have him. Alberta Watson, who I've always loved from Spanking the Monkey, is a veteran Canadian actress. She came in for a script reading and adored the script and wanted to play the role from the start. She brought a lot to it, brought layers to the kind of wicked-stepmother character. And Joel Keller, who you may know from The Hanging Garden, he also is someone who is really charming.


Q: He and Adam worked well together in their sibling rivalry.


HL: Right, that sparring among the brothers. It was a great cast all around. John Gilbert. Kelly Harms, who, as you know, is starring in Picture Claire.