Drew Taylor, our man in Tehran

The Leasider and film-making colleagues discuss their documentary that tells the Canadian story

DYNAMIC DUO: Our Man in Tehran directors, Larry Weinstein, left, and Drew Taylor in a shot leading up to their documentary’s big TIFF premiere.

The impetus for Drew Taylor’s directorial debut at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival was Ben Affleck’s movie Argo, which premiered the year before.

The 31-year-old Leasider, and former Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect, has teamed up with veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein as well as 2010 Miss Universe Canada, Elena Semikina, to present Our Man in Tehran.

In a small room tucked away on the 18th floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in mid-September, the three gathered to talk about why film lovers
should avoid taking Hollywood movies as historical gospel, and how this documentary came to be presented at this year’s TIFF.

Our Man in Tehran focuses on the facts behind Canada’s role in rescuing six American diplomats who fled the U.S. embassy when members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line took over the building.

The film’s executive producer, Semikina, 29, had been talking with Kenneth Taylor (no relation to Drew), who was Canadian ambassador to
Iran in 1979, prior to the release of Argo.

Then, with the help of Drew Taylor’s brother Matthew, who worked for both eOne Films and Film House Inc., the importance of telling Canada’s side of the Iran hostage crisis became evident.

“When Elena had met with Ken and realized parts of the story hadn’t been covered before, and it was a very pertinent topic, as it was in development it became a very pertinent topic because Argo premieres at TIFF,” Drew Taylor said. “There are aspects to this Hollywood film that are not covered, that are important to Canadians and they take a lot of pride in.”

He subsequently pitched the idea to Weinstein at Rhombus Media.

“When Argo looked like it was going to get released at last TIFF — it clearly did not tell the Canadian story — so (Taylor and Semikina) thought, with Ken Taylor, if someone would want to do a documentary on this,” Weinstein said. “Drew came over and met with me, and he had a guest
with him named Ken Taylor, so I couldn’t just shoo them out the door!”

Drew Taylor, 31, interjected, with a grin: “That was your impulse, though.”

“I was hoping I was going to be working on a film about the saxophone that I had been trying to get off the ground for five years,” Weinstein added. “I was really in the mood to get into that film, and this idea came around, and it kind of has supplanted all my other ideas.”

Weinstein, 56, has directed other documentaries. The North York native’s credits include The 13th Man, the infamous story of Saskatchewan
Roughriders’ costly Grey Cup snafu.

So when Taylor told him he wanted to premiere Our Man in Tehran at this year’s film festival, he was a little flummoxed.

“As a filmmaker who has made a lot of archival films before, or used archives, I know how long it takes to get these archives in or get the rights,” Weinstein said. “I kept trying to discourage Drew from getting his hopes up — we’re not going to be ready for this TIFF.

“Drew, not having that experience, just willed it into existence.”

Though the subject matter of the Iran hostage crisis, which took place between November 1979 and January 1981, is serious, Taylor and Weinstein bantered back and forth like old friends, with Semikina smiling at their interaction throughout the interview.

When asked about his first foray into filmmaking, Weinstein interrupted Taylor with an obscure pun.

“No, it’s his first (Erik) Satie; (Gabriel) Fauré is a different composer,” he said, with a laugh. “Sorry, there’s Satie and because the film opens
to the music of Satie — I make French composer jokes.”

“It’s a niche,” Taylor responded.

“Like when you make knuckleball jokes,” Weinstein added, noting the three of them were suffering from post-lunch malaise.

Our Man also marks Semikina’s first full production. What she’s learned, she says, is having those who experienced the subject in the film makes it all the more poignant.

“Documentary storytelling is more powerful when it comes from the people who were a part of what actually happened,” she said. “We interviewed people that were on the ground, and there were emotions and feelings that were so powerful, and that’s what makes this documentary so powerful to watch.

“I would describe this documentary as very compassionate and empathetic. It’s not easy to provoke those feelings from the audience unless
they watch the people who went through this experience.”

Much like the coda of a French opus, the three wind down with talk of Canada’s importance during the Iran hostage crisis.

Taylor does not dismiss the movie Argo as American jingoism, but merely a view of CIA agent Tony Mendez — the man seen through the eyes of actor-director Ben Affleck.

“(Affleck) did not cover in great context how the Iranians felt about it, how the Canadians contributed,” Taylor said. “That left a big opening
for us to go in there and cover the story more inclusively.

“We just wanted to document exactly what happened in the Iranian hostage crisis, with careful attention to what Canadians — specifically what
Ken Taylor and (then-Prime Minister) Joe Clark — did, to make sure these hostages were kept in the best condition possible.”

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