Gail Harvey – An Artist Among Us

By Marie Smith

Toronto-born, distinguished director/photographer Gail Harvey is yet another Canadian artist whose many accomplishments go largely unsung. Were she from New York or Paris, it is likely her story would be quite different.

With an impressive track record dating back to the eighties, Gail has had numerous photographic exhibits: 1980 – Algeria: The Face of a People, BGM Photo Gallery, 1992 – Photosensitive – It’s In Their Eyes, a collective study of people living in poverty, 1989-2002 – Photos of Film Stars, Canadian Film Centre, Toronto (Permanent Exhibit), to name but a few.

Her photography is on display at various locations, such as Famous Players/Premiere, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute, and her work also forms part of the personal collections of Robert Ebert, Shannen Doherty, Kirstie Alley and others.

You’ve probably unknowingly viewed her work on numerous high-profile movie posters, including ‘The Terry Fox Movie’ – which garnered her the coveted Art Directors of Los Angeles Gold Award in 1982. Her stylistic photos of Hollywood stars have captured the enduring presence and personality of the likes of Matt Dillon, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Shirley MacLaine, Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Taylor and other luminaries.

Gail’s foray into film began with a short film titled ‘Up Hill in a Wheelchair’, which was screened at the 1987 Toronto Film Festival. She went on to become Director in Residence at The Canadian Film Centre, training with Arthur Penn, Wim Wenders and Neil Jordan. Her impressive roster now includes films for both the big screen and television, for companies such as Fox, HBO, Alliance Atlantis, the B.B.C. and more. She has received nominations, awards, praise and other accolades at festivals and screenings in Canada and abroad. Her latest film, ‘Some Things that Stay’, starring her daughter, actress Katie Boland, was released by Alliance Atlantic to rave reviews, receiving four out of five stars in the Toronto Star.

And yet, despite her notable accomplishments, Gail Harvey walks her Toronto Beaches neighborhood in relative obscurity.

I recently sat down with Gail Harvey in her beautifully refurbished 1930’s Beaches home, and asked her how this could be. How can a respected body of work, spanning over two decades go seemingly unnoticed in its country of origin? Gail didn’t seem surprised.

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“It’s very sad in English Canada,” she said. “No-one goes to see our films. No money is spent on advertising and promotion. ‘Some Things That Stay’ got some fabulous reviews, a two page spread in the paper on the Friday it was released – and that Sunday, there was no ad in the paper. Spielberg said once that he understood the movie industry after making ‘Jaws’. The promotion and marketing budget was higher than the film budget. If you make a film and don’t promote it, there’s no point.”

When asked what led her to directing films, Gail’s mood brightens: “I always loved doing photo essays,” she explains. “If Life Magazine was in existence today and doing its photo-spreads, I might still be doing that. I was the third woman photographer ever hired by United Press, and I used to do photo essays and run them on the newswire. I did a photo book on Terry Fox and then got hired by Home Box Office to work for a couple of days on the Terry Fox Movie.”

“After that I was hired to work on a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett. I quickly learned that directing films was about telling a story with images – but also with wonderful performances, sound, music and more. I was lucky enough to learn and work with some of the best people in the business.”

Who inspires Gail creatively? “Norman Jewison, one of the world’s most incredible story tellers. Arthur Penn, the Director of ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, was a mentor to me, Dan Petrie, Agnes Varda and Photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.”

Gail has an artistic family, her father and brother are both musicians, and her sister, once a stage actress, is now a writer. Gail speaks fondly of directing her daughter, actress Katie Boland: “Katie was eight when she actually got started. I’ve been cautious, and am pleased that it’s been a great experience for her. I was thrilled when producer Catherine Gourdier approached me with the project ‘Some Things That Stay’, and had the idea that Katie and I would do it together. It was a wonderful gift to direct my daughter in a film before she moves to L.A.”

So, what does the future hold for Gail Harvey? “Well, I’ve been doing some television. I’m involved in the new Terry Fox movie with CTV. I am penning a screenplay titled ‘Looking is the Original Sin’, inspired by the life of Diane Arbus. I’m also slated to direct ‘Women Drinking’, a great script by newcomer Ellen Douglas, as well as ‘A Boy in Winter’ by Donald Martin. In this business – in Canada – it really depends what you can get off the ground. I’ve recently decided to look to L.A. for projects more than I have in the past.”

So, is Gail heading south? “Oh, no, I love where I live, but the unfortunate fact is that more projects are available to me south of the border. I see myself in Ontario in ten years, doing more of what I’m doing, telling the stories I want to tell – but hopefully with bigger budgets, more time and larger releases”. These are the words of a true Canadian artist, one pursuing her art for the love of it. But if L.A. gets hold of her, the ‘relative obscurity’ bit may soon become a thing of the past.

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