Over the years, Vancouver-based filmmaker Michael Pohorly has accumulated credits as producer, director, assistant director and production manager in films and television shows such as The A-Team, Prison Break, The Grey, and Jiminy Glick in Lalaland (he has a great story about Martin Short, Kurt Russell and Janeane Garofalo on that one).
Last spring, at the behest of Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, he took on the task of writing, producing and directing the hockey team’s opening film, and became the in-house producer and director of their in-game entertainment.
For Pohorly, though, Niagara-on-the-Lake will always be home. Back at the family farm for a visit last week, he took time to reflect on his roots here, and his hometown’s place in his past, present and future.
“This is where it all started,” he says, showing a recent post on his Instagram account (@mikepoho). It’s grainy Super 8 film footage of a five-year-old Pohorly driving a tractor as he and his father Frank, and younger brother Steven, are tending to a strawberry patch.
“My dad had the camera, and in the summers in the backyard he would put up the screen and have his buddies over. He would take movies of when they would have snowmobiling trips or going to the cottage with them. I was five years old, sitting in this home theatre with this screen. Everyone’s laughing and having fun, that’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
At Niagara District Secondary School, he made every effort to turn assignments into something he could complete using his VHS camcorder. “My historical essay in history class,” he explains, “became a 30-minute documentary about the Battle of Queenston Heights, retracing Brock’s last steps, and visiting all the historic points of that battle.”
Following high school, Pohorly earned a degree in communications and film at Concordia University, while playing on the varsity hockey team. The 1995 graduate credits the late professor Marc Gervais for developing his passion of film production while there.
From Concordia, he set his sights on Hollywood, taking a job with a high tech company in California. He moved on to a role as an office production assistant on the James Cameron TV series Dark Angel, starring Jessica Alba. Then Pohorly worked his way up the Director’s Guild Assistant Director program, establishing himself in a busy Canadian film industry.
Surprisingly, Pohorly credits his farm background as an excellent training ground for working in film and television. “We had our guys coming from Jamaica and the West Indies. Getting to work with and manage teams of workers, starting when I was young, it was pretty natural for me to go work as an assistant director. We had our peach-picking operation, our packing operation, you’re seeing how all the people work together. It’s just like a film set.”
His first real opportunity to tie it all together and take full control of his own set came in, of all places, Bali, Indonesia.
“My friends opened up some bars there,” he explains. “I went to visit, then I met a production manager who was doing a Samsung commercial, and he hired me as an assistant director. So I would go back and forth between rainy Vancouver and Bali, living on a beach on this tropical island. It’s not a bad deal.”
That commercial led to many more, then to a 2014 short film called Made in Bali, which he wrote and directed. It’s the story of a young man searching for the biological father he has never met, shot amongst some of the most stunning landscapes on the island. Pohorly won a 2015 Directors Guild of Canada award for the movie. He also took the helm for a number of episodes of the Indonesian television show Brata.
While sitting on a Queen Street patio Saturday, Pohorly talks about how valuable those experiences will be when he’s finally handed the reins for a feature film. His train of thought is interrupted, though, by two groups of revellers passing by on the local pedal pubs. He’s so enthralled by them, in fact, that later, while walking to Queen’s Royal Park, he approaches the driver-host with a number of questions about the unique vehicle. During the walk he also raves about the chicken wings at Butler’s Sports Bar, which he would be sampling later that evening.
The suspension of the hockey season back in March has meant that Pohorly has had a bit more free time than he had expected. Prior to the trip home, he revisited his old haunts in Montreal, and has also spent some time connecting with friends in Toronto. But he sees the busy NOTL streets and diversions like the pedal pubs as reasons to begin thinking of spending more time here in the future.
“I’ve never seen anything like it (the pedal pubs) in my life,” he exclaims. That’s incredible. The fact that this is here just gave me more of a feeling to want to be here.
“I’d like to have more of a presence,” he adds. “This is where I grew up. My sweat and blood from a young age is still in this dirt. When you’re a farm boy, that never goes away. I’d like to have some businesses associated with the farm, and wine. The only other way is I’ll have to make a movie about it.”
In recent years he’s been mulling over the idea of helping his uncle, Niagara wine pioneer Joseph Pohorly, with his grapeseed oil business. He has also considered beginning a small boutique winery somewhere on the property his family still owns on Niagara Stone Road, but that’s some time in the future.
He promises to be back with the Canucks for the 2020-2021 season, and is already planning a new theme for next year’s opening film. It might be hard to top the zombie hoards the Canucks had to battle in this year’s production, though.
In the meantime, he is in early talks to produce a Christmas movie for Hallmark back in BC. Also in development is a psychological thriller that is slated to be shot in the Pacific northwest. His vision for this one, though, might make for a made-in-Niagara option. “One of the key scenes takes place on a cliff, in a forested area, and I thought this could be set right here on the escarpment. The whole thing could be around the gorge and the escarpment.”
If he can make that happen, it might be the first step into a more permanent place for Michael Pohorly in his home town. Keep your eyes and ears open. The casting call for that one might be right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.