Author's cameo a weird case of déjà vu
There's a blurry line between fiction and reality when novelist Vincent Lam appears on the Bloodletting set
Vit Wagner, Toronto Star
53-second scene in the TV adaptation of Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures concerns a consultation in the emergency ward involving a patient with a sewing needle embedded in his foot.
During the brief exchange, it is established that the patient, identified in the script simply as Mr. Needle, makes his living as a writer. This prompts the doctor to inquire after the nature of the man's work. The patient responds with a laundry list that includes everything from short stories and novels to screenplays.
In the third take of the scene, shot yesterday on a sound stage impressively decked out to represent the fictional Toronto Mercy Hospital, Mr. Needle unexpectedly deviates from the script.
"Well," he deadpans, "I wrote the book that this show is based on."
The impromptu version, a last-minute prank hatched by script supervisor Melanie Orr and director Rachel Talalay with the complicity of the actor playing Mr. Needle, will not be in the eight-part series when it airs in January on the Movie Network – although viewers can probably look for it among the extras, when the inevitable DVD comes out.
If you haven't guessed by now, Mr. Needle is played by Lam who, of course, is the author of the book the series is based on. Going with the improvised take, no matter how much it delighted the crew members who were in on the fun, would have to count as one inside joke too many. As it is, the keeper shot ends with Lam reaching for an issue of Maclean's featuring a mock cover with his face plastered across the front – the idea being that Mr. Needle is actually a writer of some renown.
"It's all too confusing," said Lam, after shooting his cameo. "I already can't follow the distinction between reality and fiction with this process.
"To write the book, I used my experiences as a doctor," continued Lam, who still works part-time in the emergency department of Toronto East General Hospital. "And now, when I come to the set, it feels like a reverse process. The book has spawned a physical reality that looks remarkably like my hospital. It's as if life became art and then art became life inside of this television set. It's a very weird, déjà vu experience."
Lam was quick to give credit to Byron Mann, the actor playing the doctor, for the way he handled the unexpected curveball.
"I was very impressed by his professionalism," he said. "When I threw in that joke line, Byron totally played it straight and did the rest of the scene. He barely flinched."
Director Talalay had similarly high praise for the way Lam acquitted himself during his acting debut. His cameo took six takes – three each from two different angles – not counting the one that was a hoax. Lam shot the scene barely 12 hours after flying back from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
"Actually, I was really surprised at how well he did," Talalay said. "I've shot cameos before and I was worried that he was going to clam up. You know somebody's going to be good when during rehearsal they have the lines down but not memorized."
As if winning a Scotiabank Giller Prize for your debut work of fiction, on top of being a physician, isn't accomplishment enough. Not that Lam, who turns 35 next month, is contemplating a career change. He is continuing to put the finishing touches on a much-anticipated first novel, Cholon, Near Forgotten, a historical narrative set in Vietnam and based loosely on the experiences of his grandfather.
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which won the Giller in 2006, is a series of linked stories that overlaps the experiences of a group of young medical students as they become doctors.
The TV version, a Shaftesbury Films production adapted for the screen by Jason Sherman, doesn't promise to replicate the book incident by incident, which is fine by the author.
"It's nice to be able to spread an idea," said Lam, who also serves as artistic consultant on the project. "If one thinks of a book as a particular idea, it's neat to be able to take that, push it out and have other people do different things with it artistically. That's been a really neat thing to see happen – to see how the life of one's work can go further."
The patient with the needle in his foot, for instance, does not appear in the book. Instead, it is based on something that happened when Lam, his wife and two young children moved house recently.
"Somehow a sewing needle ended up in the carpet. I walked into it and it actually got into one of the joints in my foot. I went to Emerge and it was too deep for them to take out. So a friend of mine who is a great plastic surgeon had to take me into minor surgery and cut open my foot to get the needle out," Lam said.
"So the line between fiction and reality becomes rather blurry. There is no one with a needle in his foot in my book. That's just something happened to me in real life."
© Toronto Star 2009