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Phillip Borsos

Director, Producer
(b. January 1, 1953 - d. January 1, 1995)

Phillip Borsos was a prodigious talent whose brief but admired filmmaking career ended with his untimely death in 1995. Borsos’ legacy belies his mere 41 years in the richness and maturity of his filmmaking, including the acclaimed and much loved feature The Grey Fox (1982) and his lasting impact on the Canadian film community. Peter O'Brian, Borsos’ friend and the producer of his films The Grey Fox and One Magic Christmas (1985), praised him as "one of our few great filmmakers…. There's no one's work I admire more in Canada."

Borsos studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Vancouver School of Art (now called the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design). His student films The Barking Dog (1973) and Cadillac (1975) (a stylish, smart take on the mundane world of car sales), reflect the early development of his visual technique and shrewd sense of how to engage the audience. Almost immediately after embarking on his professional career, Borsos established his reputation with three award-winning short films: Cooperage (1976), Spartree (1977) and Nails (1979). Among other accolades, all three films won the Canadian Film Award for best short, and Nails received an Oscar nomination for best documentary short.

The successful trilogy demonstrated Borsos’ concerns with industry, tradition and almost-forgotten crafts. Cooperage is a look at wooden barrel-making at the Sweeney Cooperage, built in 1895. He used this location to shoot The Barking Dog and returned again for the filming of The Grey Fox. Spartree provides a breathtaking glimpse at a disappearing and dangerous logging technique. Using long tracking shots to capture the natural beauty of the B.C. rainforest, Borsos displayed his fastidious, characteristic visual style. In Nails, once more he contrasted the skilled labour of traditional tradespeople with modern, mechanized processes. This time, he turned the presumably dull subject matter of nail making into something spectacular to watch. As a Los Angeles Times review put it, “Who'd have thought the subject could be so interesting, or so exciting photographically?”

In 1976, Borsos incorporated his own production company, Mercury Pictures, producing numerous television commercials and sponsored films, mostly in the Vancouver area. With the making of his debut feature, The Grey Fox, in 1982, he fulfilled the promise of his award-winning first films and solidified his place as a major talent.

The Grey Fox is an understated, finely nuanced essay on heroism and technology set in the Canadian West. Considered one of the best Canadian films ever made by audiences and critics alike, The Grey Fox won a Golden Globe nomination and five Genies, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay. Like his earlier short works, it was conspicuously and unabashedly Canadian; moreover, it was the first B.C. feature film to obtain financial backing and support from Telefilm Canada. Its success gave other filmmakers renewed hope for the future of Canadian feature film.

In 1985, Borsos made two dramatically different films: The Mean Season, a mediocre but well-liked crime thriller starring Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway; and One Magic Christmas, an updated version of It's a Wonderful Life, starring Mary Steenburgen and Harry Dean Stanton as an angel. In the same year, he began work on the adaptation of John Irving’s Cider House Rules. He was instrumental in getting the project off the ground and persuading Irving to write the screenplay, but the two were unable to get the financial backing in time for Borsos to direct the film. The Swedish director Lasse Hällstrom eventually made the film in 1999, and Borsos was credited in memoriam.

Borsos carried over the quiet, fatalist poetics of The Grey Fox in all of his subsequent features, yet none more than the sprawling, awkward grandeur of Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). Bethune became known as Borsos’ most single-minded and controversial work, and one of Canada’s most expensive productions ever. It told the true story of a Canadian surgeon, played by Donald Sutherland, who worked in China during Mao Tse-tung's revolution. The logistics and inevitable delays of working in China in various, primarily mountainous, locations were not the only obstacles to the project’s successful completion — reports also cite creative conflicts and financing problems. Although the film was warmly received, an air of disappointment surrounded its release.

Phillip Borsos’ last film was Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog (1995), filmed in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. It tells the tender tale of a boy and his dog and their survival after becoming stranded in the forest. Shortly after the film’s release, Borsos was treated for leukemia with a bone marrow transplant. The treatment was unsuccessful and he died soon after.

Film and video work includes

The Barking Dog, 1973 (director)
Cadillac, 1974 (director)
Cooperage, 1976 (director)
Spartree, 1977 (director; producer)
Phase Three: Regeneration, 1978 (director)
Racquetball, 1979 (director)
Spartree/Making the Film, 1979 (director)
The Mean Season, 1984 (director)
One Magic Christmas, 1985 (director)
Needles, 1992 , unfinished (director)
Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, 1995 (director; writer)