The “evil empire” that was the former Soviet Union may be dead, but the hostilities between East and West are still as hot as hell. As average people and political experts alike wonder if America’s current President has been compromised by Russia, shows like the critically acclaimed Cold War-era thriller THE AMERICANS and other period dramas have examined the personal and political crises of those on both sides of the ideological divide.
Part of THE AMERICANS’ storytelling genius was its look into the home lives of a deceptively traditional American family – albeit one where the parents were secretly Soviet sleeper agents. While that uncomfortable portrait was part of a suspenseful drama, a totally humorous window into another atypical family — a Canadian one — has been opened in the comedic web series, THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER, created by Leah Cameron.
Supported by Canada’s Independent Production Fund (IPF) and Women In The Director’s Chair (WIDC), THE COMMUNIST DAUGHTER’s hilarious proof-of-concept teaser was honored last July by the Just For Laughs CBC Original Pitch Competition. (That video can be seen at the link listed at the end of this piece.)
THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER revolves around Dunyasha McDougald, a politically aware Toronto teenager who tries to fit in with her classmates at a new high school while maintaining the idealistic – and old-fashioned – beliefs shared by her father and family. Her friends include ex-Soviet turned new Canadian citizen Tatiana Ilescu, and aspiring future corporate exec Roxana Esmailji, who wants to one day accomplish the same success that Diane Keaton’s character does in the 1987 comedy BABY BOOM. They’re both as fascinated by American pop culture as Dunyasha is.
Dunyasha’s life gets complicated when her ultra-left father decides to make a bid for a municipal government seat, and when she finds out that her big crush, Marc McGuilvary, is the son of her dad’s uber-conservative election challenger.
Premiering online in Canada sometime next year, the series will be seen in the United States and other territories at a yet-to-be-announced date. Though the script writing phase of THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER’s pre-production is wrapping up, filming won’t begin until the show’s active Kickstarter campaign successfully makes or surpasses its $25,000 target.
Part of that money will help the series look like a celluloid time capsule recognizable to denizens of the Great White North during the last days of the 1980’s. Set in Toronto, all 9 episodes of THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER’s first season will be heavy on nostalgia, mixing era apparel with local TV clips (newscasts, commercials, etc.) and other period accoutrements.
THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER’s two crowdfunding pitch videos (also on Kickstarter and the series’ YouTube channel) are also a vintage throwback to a public TV ritual that’s still compelling viewers on the American side of the U.S.-Canadian border to cough up their dough: the pledge drive. Both hilarious and unique, the pitch videos were produced much like those that would have been broadcast by Buffalo, New York PBS station WNED – or any other PBS station – during the ’80s. (Read on for more information.)
Based on Cameron’s incredible memories of her peculiar childhood in the late ’80s, THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER is an outrageous reimagining of the unusual family situation she was born into. As Cameron and show producer Natalie Novak detailed to Snobby Robot, the series’ comedy proves how an ordinary Canadian home can play host to the cultural divide between East and West.
Leah – describe how you drew upon your real life family experiences to create the characters and storylines for this series.
Leah Cameron (creator/writer/director, THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER): My Dad went through more what I would call a Commie phase throughout the ‘80s. While Reagan was yelling about the “Evil Empire”, our little house in Toronto had subscriptions of “Soviet Life” delivered to the door, and two rusty Ladas (Soviet economy cars) parked in the drive. When we went on vacation we went to Cuba to, and I quote, “support the economy.” You know, as you do.
My Dad was never a card-carrying member of the party, but that’s where his allegiances lay. He voted for the Communist Party more than once, (and) was an admirer of (former Cuban leader Fidel) Castro, Norman Bethune (Canadian Communist), etc. I think it was really the ideals of equality and anti-colonialism that appealed to him in the end.
We joke that he, unlike the character of the Dad in the show, my Dad had the common sense to move to the right and run for the NDP (Canada’s New Democratic Party), which he did twice. He ran municipally as an independent too. So I’ve taken this kernel of an idea, the prolonged Commie phase, really, and blown it up into a fish-out-of-water comedy about the McDougalds: a family of dyed-in-the-wool Pinkos who approach just about everything from that very distinct point of view.
Were your experiences exaggerated for comedic effect in the series, or were they loosely based on your family life?
Cameron: A lot of the incidents are inspired by real events. My Dad did buy Soviet cars and vacation to Cuba to support the economy. We had “Soviet Life” magazine delivered to the door. (We) would go to May Day parades. We hosted some Soviet generals at our home once who were in town for a conference on nuclear disarmament. I have a hat they gifted us that has pins on it that say things like, “People of Communist Rock and Roll and Jazz Unite” alongside another pin with a tank on it, etc.
He was seriously considering buying a big fur yushanka once to wear, but my brother and I were like, “absolutely not.” And when he did run, I distinctly remember helping him to silk-screen signs in our backyard which also happens in the show. So, yeah, a lot of it is real, but then you exaggerate and create characters, situations, etc., for the sake of comedy.
Describe how both the political and cultural climates of the 1980’s – and those of today – inspired you to create THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER.
Cameron: As Natalie and I sometimes joke, what’s bad for the world is really good for our show. The Cold War seems to be heating up in new and increasingly weird ways (#TrumpPutin) and it feels like there is a desire to look back on this time — the Mulroney/Reagan ‘80s that is very different and yet very similar to our own. You see it with the popularity of shows like GLOW, THE AMERICANS, MANIAC, etc.
You see it with Trump borrowing Reagan’s (campaign slogan) “America First,” with the new tensions we’re seeing again with Russia, North Korea etc., (and) with the predictions people on the left were making in the ‘80s about the gap between rich and poor getting wider. I think what’s great about setting a show at the height of the Cold War is that we now have enough space from it to laugh at it a bit.
Our take with the show is to view it all through an absurdist lens. No one character is right in our show. Everyone is human and has different points of view. So it’s a way of making jokes about the past that lets the air out of our current situation, because if we got through that time all right, chances are we’ll get through this one all right, as well.
The Kickstarter campaign features a 1980’s era PBS pledge drive pitch video to help solicit donations to fund your series. How did you come up with that idea?
Natalie Novak (producer, THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER): We wanted the Kickstarter campaign to feel related to the series itself, but also for it to be its own fun thing, so it made sense to set it in the same period. Then it felt so clear when we thought, ‘What was the Kickstarter campaign of the ‘80s? Oh, yeah! Asking for donations on public television was the norm!”
We found this great clip of Goldie Gardner (legendary WNED on-air spokesperson) raising funds for WNED Channel 17 in Buffalo (that city’s PBS station). I think it was titled, “Most Obnoxious Pledge Drive Ever” and we thought that would be really fun. We wanted to do something we’d be excited about creating and sharing day in day out.
We think the more fun you have making something, the more giddy we’ll be to share it in the hopes that people will feel entertained by it. Plus, crowdfunding campaigns require a lot of consistency in getting your message out there, so as creators we felt we needed to be putting something out there we enjoyed.
What inspired you to create the pitch video, and how does that video tie into the show itself?
Novak: The IPF (Canada’s Independent Production Fund) requires a teaser when applying for funding so that really lit a match under us to get it together. However, even without the IPF we felt it was necessary to make a proof of concept. After all, “a show about communism? And it’s a comedy?” was a question that was bound to come up!
What other ways are you working to accurately capture both the ’80s-era setting of the show, and of Toronto during that time, in the series?
Cameron: We have partnered with Ed Conroy of Retrontario (@retrontario) who has digitized a wealth of old 80’s commercials, TV spots and other bits of cultural ephemera that are specific to Ontario and Toronto at the time. So that’s really exciting.
Our hope (if we raise enough funds through our Kickstarter campaign) is to have enough money to feature these kinds of clips in the same sort of montages you see in the teaser — old ads for Toronto fashion houses where the women have the most ridiculous hair; ads for Honest Ed’s, etc.
The period element of our series is really what costs the most money. We’re going to be smart when we shoot it, but the ‘80s hair and make-up, the ‘80s costumes created by our costume designer, Emma Doyle, (and) the vintage cars we need to rent, like the vintage Lada Niva the dad drives, all costs money. So bringing 1980’s Toronto to life is the thrust of our Kickstarter campaign.
Who do you think would like to watch THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER?
Novak: People who like THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER seem to come from a variety of backgrounds. They may come from a lefty family and relate directly to many of the scenarios. We’ve had a lot of messages like that where people tell funny or cute stories. If they don’t come from a lefty family, they often find humor in the absurdity of it all. The human truth at the core of it is what is feels like to try to raise your family one way when your beliefs (“no television! No cell phones!”) don’t match the values of the outside world. (It’s) that fish-out-of-water feeling that many of us have in one aspect of our lives.
Cameron: You don’t have to have grown up in a leftie home to ever have been embarrassed by your Dad or his janky car. So we really feel it has broad appeal like (the 2016 Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen film) CAPTAIN FANTASTIC did, (or) like THE AMERICANS does, etc. You could see our show as THE AMERICANS, but (as) a comedy told from Paige’s point of view.
What, in your opinion, sets your show apart from similar movies/TV/web series?
Novak: I think our show is unique in that it’s a comedy that has politics and even an election in it, but it’s not really about politics at all. The show is about that very human tension between wanting to be your unique self, to stand up for your beliefs, and then also wanting to be part of the crowd and wanting to belong. What happens when your beliefs are tested both within your family dynamics and in your community? And what hilarity ensues if you take those beliefs too far?
Our characters come from a variety of backgrounds showing Toronto for the real Toronto that was in the ‘80s – not necessarily the one we saw on TV. I think that Toronto has yet to be depicted authentically on TV. We’ve seen a lot of ‘80s shows like GLOW and STRANGER THINGS that speak to American culture, as well as (to) the cinematic style of the time. We’re excited to bring the specificities of Toronto to life.
What do you hope people take away from watching the show, and what are your overall hopes for its success?
Cameron: I hope that we are able to create a show that is touching, funny and that helps us laugh at and be empathetic to our differences. That’s my hope. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is a real touchstone for me, as far as stories go. It embraces our awkwardness and our humanity in a way I find very touching.
(NOTE: Cameron says that THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER will be closed-captioned, as recommended by Canada’s CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission).)
To contribute to THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER on Kickstarter, visit:
The show’s promotional teaser can be seen on Instagram:
Watch THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER’s “PBS pledge drive”-style fundraising pitch here:
ON THE WEB: https://www.thecommunistsdaughter.com