Rob McCallum on PlanetCoolStuff after winning TIFF award for Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make Believe
For McCallum, creativity comes from a place of love. If in Mr. Dressup he celebrates the life and work of Ernie Coombs, one of CBC’s most beloved children's personalities and a generational favourite, PlanetCoolStuff reflects McCallum’s lifelong passion for video games, action figures, movies, music, and toys; in short, anything and everything that excites, enthuses, and elicits a passionate response from its followers. He also has a particularly deep love for Masters of the Universe, especially He-Man, which he documented in Netflix’s Power of Grayskull.
Then there’s the multi-award-winning documentary Missing Mom, McCallum’s highly personal and emotional journey in 2014 to find his mother who had gone missing 25 years ago. If Mr. Dressup is an ode to childhood, Missing Mom is an exploration of a deep childhood loss that still hurts – but both reflect McCallum’s approach to his art.
“As a kid watching Mr. Dressup, what you do feel is that this is a safe space, you feel comfortable in it, and you’d want to revisit it over and over again. And you can't really understand why until you look back at it in hindsight.”
“You’ve got to write or make what you know and what you love. Because then that love will come out,” McCallum says, speaking to us not long after winning at TIFF, about his passion for making films that evoke nostalgia and open a window into the cultural forces that shaped a generation.
Q. What is it like to have won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF?
A. It has been an overwhelming experience because at one point, we didn't expect Mr. Dressup to be in any film festival at all. We had hoped for maybe Hot Docs because it's the world's biggest documentary festival, but we weren't quite done with the film in time to submit it for that. We thought while it’s not horrible to just have the film released on Amazon Prime, it’d be nice to have some sort of a festival run. So, we tried for Toronto (TIFF) and we were fortunate enough that the people who looked at the film saw the value in what we had crafted, and we made the cut.
Q. How did you decide on Ernie Coombs for the subject of the documentary?
A. There’s this saying that you’ve got to write or make what you know and what you love, and what you know many others love too. Because that love will come out in what you create and share with the world. There are so many of us who loved Mr. Dressup growing up.
My kids watch a fair bit of television, and I wasn't feeling super great about a lot of the things that were drawing their attention. I wanted to show them the stuff their mom and I had grown up with, and Mr. Dressup was high on both of our lists. The kids really responded to it, and when I saw the value the show still holds for today's audience of kids, and the way it still resonates for my generation and earlier generations, it just made sense to explore it as a topic.
Q. Mr. Dressup features first-hand accounts of leading artists such as Michael J. Fox, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Graham Greene who grew up watching the show and were influenced by Ernie Coombs and his Tickle Trunk. How easy or difficult was it to pull all that together in the documentary?
A. I don't want to say it was fairly easy, but it wasn't difficult. Nobody was hesitant to be on camera once they knew that we also had the Ernie Coombs estate, his son, and daughter on board along with Amazon. And thankfully, I had built enough of a track record with my previous films and TV shows as well.
“It's what I learned at Sheridan: you're going to pitch the project a million times to a million people, and each time, you're going to have to adjust how you sell that idea to them.”
It's all about being risk averse: Is this something that people are going to feel comfortable about? It's what I learned at Sheridan: you're going to pitch the project a million times to a million people, and each time, you're going to have to adjust how you sell that idea to them. Whether you're trying to get your DP (Director of Photography) on board or another writer or another producer, you're going to have to cater that creative language to them to entice them to join the project.
Q. Critics have praised Mr. Dressup, and Ernie Coombs, for being ahead of their time on issues such as gender and race. Did you get a sense of that growing up?
A. No, and let's not forget, Ernie Coombs had a staff of writers, and a team of producers and directors who made the show feel as it did. He would’ve been the first to say that he couldn't have done the show if it was just him.
As a kid watching the show, what you do feel is that this is a safe space, you feel comfortable in it, and you’d want to revisit it over and over again. And you can't really understand why until you look back at it in hindsight.
“In some sense, everything I do is biographical because what I love the most, I want to share with everybody, whether it’s the journey with my brother to try to find my mom, who had been missing for 25 years, or Mr. Dressup.”
Everybody (working on the show) was helping and aiding, and they were all of different colours. They all came from different backgrounds and beliefs, all from different regions of Canada. There were boys, girls, men, women, puppets, and animals. There's a bit of everything and there's this great community that you just want to be a part of as a kid. You just want to feel safe, and you want to be included in something that feels good.
It's like we can all make an apple pie, but even if we had all the same things, the kind of TLC that you put into your pie is going to be different than mine. And I think the people that made Mr. Dressup over the course of 29 years, despite all the changes, adjustments and pivots, still had that recipe of tender loving care and that found its way to the kids.
Q. Is all of this equally true of your documentary because anybody could have made it, but you had that extra bit of TLC for the show?
A. It's true, because my love for Mr. Dressup was what convinced the Coombs family to get on board. Over the years, they had been approached many times by people in production and they’d always said no. But they saw that for me, it wasn't about fame and fortune. It was about sharing my love for the show and their father with the rest of the country.
Q. Much of your work comes from your own experiences, such as Missing Mom. What inspires you to do that?
A. In some sense, everything I do is biographical because what I love the most, I want to share with everybody, whether it’s the journey with my brother to try to find my mom, who had been missing for 25 years, or Mr. Dressup, or taking a deep dive into the legacy of Nintendo, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in my other productions. It’s about exploring what I love, what other people love and why, regardless of subject matter.
It’s nice that people are watching Mr. Dressup, but I don't think that makes me famous or anything like that. It's not about me. It's about the subject matter, and what makes me feel good is that I'm able to put it on a pedestal and shine a little bit of light on it and celebrate it. What gets me excited is that people rediscover a passion they had and re-examine it in a different light. Mr. Dressup transformed the country. More than any other project, I would say it is a look at where we came from and what made us who we are.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I've got lots of different projects on the go. I have two series that I'm working on right now for Super Channel. PlanetCoolStuff is a 13- episode series in which most episodes have four parts. It takes a look at different creators in the pop culture universe, whether it's toys, video games, movies, music, or any kind of subculture with a passionate fandom. We tried to either visit a location or talk to a creator that's responsible for something that has made a big impact, like action figures of the 80s, or this candy store that has really unique candy from all over the world. One of the things I love doing in this series as a recurring segment is watching my eight-year-old son play video games from the 80s, putting him up as today’s gamer against older stuff. Seeing him react to that, and what works and what doesn't work and what still stands the test of time, is kind of fascinating. So, the series has a bit of everything for everyone.
Q. Any advice for our current students?
A. Make as many films as possible. Or, if you're a storyteller, find the best way to tell your story. Sometimes it's a song, sometimes it's a novel, sometimes it's a poem, sometimes it's a podcast, or sometimes it's a music video. If you're a storyteller and you like to be creative, find a way to be creative. And regardless of what field of study you're in, find a way to play every day.
That's the core lesson that Mr. Dressup taught us, the importance of play and play time. That’s when we can be free, creative, and get that sense of discovery.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Banner photo: Preview of PlanetCoolStuff, a 13-episode series by Rob McCallum (Advanced Television and Film ’06) to be released on Super Channel.
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