'Goin' Down the Road' director Shebib, who paved way for Canada's road movie, dies

TORONTO — When Donald Shebib got behind the camera for his 1970 drama "Goin' Down the Road," the director's modest expectations couldn't have foreseen its regard as one of the country's greatest films.

With little more than a handful of TV projects under his belt, and a Canadian movie industry still in its infancy, the late filmmaker didn't exactly have the blueprint for homegrown success.

"He would often say to me, 'I only wanted it to be shown in a theatre once and that some people were (in attendance),'" recalled Shebib's one-time romantic partner Tedde Moore, a Canadian actress.

"The idea that there would be lineups around the block was beyond his comprehension."

And yet "Goin' Down the Road" packed movie houses in Canada and beyond, racked up awards and earned Shebib a name as one of Canada's most influential filmmakers.

Shebib died Sunday at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto after a brief illness, his family said. He leaves behind an oeuvre often overshadowed by his gritty road movie, a point that friends say rarely slowed his aspirations.

Born in Toronto to parents from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the young Shebib was an early student of Hollywood cinema with an almost equal interest in football.

He enrolled in the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television and landed uncredited work on early Roger Corman films, including Francis Ford Coppola's debut feature "Dementia 13."

Upon his return to Canada, he met aspiring actor Art Hindle who was playing on a local university football team.

"He always seemed very cocksure," recalled Hindle.

"He was very opinionated, and dammit, if he wasn't usually right all of the time. That combination made him a very special person in my eyes."

Shebib worked on numerous small projects for the National Film Board of Canada and CBC-TV.

By 1970, he had pooled $87,000 — largely from a government grant and by selling his beloved black and white Morgan sports car — to make "Goin' Down the Road," which he co-wrote.

The film tells the story of two young Maritimer men who depart Cape Breton for Toronto in search of better lives, only to become disillusioned by the realities of big city life. It starred Doug McGrath, Paul Bradley and Jayne Eastwood and featured the music of Bruce Cockburn.

"Goin' Down the Road" won acting awards and the feature film prize at the Canadian Film Awards, a precursor to what are now the Canadian Screen Awards.

Within a year, Shebib was shooting his second feature, the high school comedy "Rip-Off" about a group of youngsters seeking direction before university.

That's where he first met Moore, a young actress whose can-do attitude immediately appealed to him.

"We just had the same sense of humour," she recalled.

"We were two unconventional people.... He was an introvert. I was an extrovert."

It would take several years before they hit it off in earnest when they reunited at an acting agency's Christmas party, she said. They went on to have two kids together.

She quickly learned that Shebib wasn't shy in expressing his opinions. Less frustrated with his name being forever tied to "Goin' Down the Road," he was actually "furious" that Canada hadn't moved on and raised its standards, she said.

"It wasn't about him; it was about the fact that they were not funding proper and appropriate films, and (that) the wrong people were in charge," she said.

"He came out of a time when it seemed like it was going to take off and people were going to do things and go places. Aside from what was going on in Quebec (cinema) it just didn't happen."

Shebib revisited the road trip formula with 1981's "Heartaches," starring Margot Kidder and Annie Potts as an odd couple who connect on a bus ride to Toronto.

Other notable films include 1973's "Between Friends," a crime-drama about a group who conspire on the heist of a Sudbury nickel mine and the 1986 adventure "The Climb," set in the Himalayas and starring Bruce Greenwood.

But "Goin' Down the Road" accomplished a rare feat for a Canadian feature — transcending the culture to the point of parody. Some have credited the film with helping establish the hoser buddies years before "SCTV"'s Bob and Doug McKenzie.

"SCTV" even skewered the film in 1984 with a sketch featuring John Candy and Joe Flaherty as two Maritime pals seeking "doctorin' jobs and lawyerin' jobs" in the big city. They wind up fleeing Toronto for Western Canada.

Don McKellar's work on screenplays for 1989's "Roadkill" and 1991's "Highway 61" riffed on the influence too. Both films were directed by Bruce McDonald, who McKellar recalled "looked like a young Don Shebib" during filming, due to his shoulder-length hair and kept beard.

"We were critiquing that legacy and making fun of it, but also honouring it, which is how these cultural inheritances should work," he said.

Shebib even returned to "Goin' Down the Road" himself by directing a 2011 sequel.

He followed that a decade later with his final feature, "Nightalk," which made its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The project had been long in the works by the director and it took help from his son and executive producer Noah Shebib to get it financed and completed.

"Nightalk" went against the grain like many of Shebib's films. It was an erotic thriller set in the world of a phone-sex app, released at a time when the adult-minded genre had collapsed under the weight of superhero fare and franchises.

"I’m just an old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaker," Shebib told The Canadian Press at the time.

"In that sense, I don’t see many modern films because I think Hollywood’s forgotten how to make Hollywood films."

Noah (40) Shebib, a music producer and frequent Drake collaborator, said his father will be "dearly missed."

"He was a deeply brilliant and complex man and this came through in his art and his life," he wrote in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press