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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Writer turns days spent waiting tables into a movie

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Kristen Hager and Joe Dinicol star in Michael Sparaga’s latest feature Servitude. [Caitlin Cronenberg photo]

While Michael Sparaga’s films have allowed him to quit his job as a waiter and work full time as a screenwriter and producer, he said he will never forget his humble beginnings.

His latest feature, Servitude, hit theatres on March 30. It’s a waiter-themed comedy, “so in a way I’m back working in a restaurant,” he said.

Sparaga started writing screenplays in 1991, when he was studying film at York University. “Almost everything I wrote back then was a ripoff of Goodfellas, which came out that year and completely blew me away.”

Sidekick was the first feature Sparaga wrote and produced. “It’s about Norman Neale, a comic-book-obsessed computer geek who discovers that one of the cocky stockbrokers in his office, Victor Ventura, has slight telekinetic abilities. Norman decides he wants to train Victor to be a superhero, so he can become his sidekick. The only problem is, Victor was always a bit crooked and, as he grows in power, he doesn’t have any intention of becoming a hero.”

Sparaga produced Sidekick on his credit cards and line of credit while he worked as a waiter to make the minimum monthly payments. “I figured if the film wasn’t any good it would just take me a mere 15 years to pay it off,” he said.

“I guess it turned out all right because the finished film played in worldwide film festivals, was theatrically released in Canada and went on to sell in numerous international territories, including the United States. Remake rights were even optioned by Universal’s Focus Features.”

Sparaga said Sidekick attracted the attention of Telefilm Canada, which gave him enough money to take the film cross-country and screen it in eight Canadian cities. While on that tour, Sparaga collected footage for his next film, a documentary on the state of the Canadian film industry called Maple Flavour Films.

He said the original idea was to include the documentary as a DVD extra on Sidekick, but the finished film ended up selling on its own merit and airing on Air Canada flights and pay TV.

Sparaga wrote the first draft of Servitude in 1999, when he was working as a waiter at The Keg. “The idea of waiters taking over the restaurant and treating guests with the respect they deserve is something that I thought about every day, so writing the film was really a catharsis of sorts,” he said.

 “The best part about waiting tables at night is that you have your days free to write, so that’s what I did. Often the events of the night before ended up in the script. Still, when I was finished writing, I was too embarrassed to hand the script out because I thought people would say, ‘Oh, you’re a waiter,’ instead of ‘Oh, you’re a writer.’”

It took Sparaga a long time to realize he actually liked waiting tables and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. After a decade, he pulled the script out of his drawer and was reminded of how funny it actually is.

Sparaga decided Servitude would be his next feature. He gave the script to Warren Sonoda, a director whose work he admired, and asked him to give it a read. A few weeks later, Telefilm Canada announced it wanted to make comedies again and was starting up the Features Comedy Lab, which would be chaired by Eugene Levy and run in collaboration with the Canadian Film Centre and Just For Laughs.

Sparaga did a quick rewrite on Servitude and submitted it to the Lab, which was looking for five scripts from across Canada to pair with A-list Hollywood comedy talent for development. Within a month, he said he was accepted into the Lab and sitting in a room with Ivan Reitman (director, Ghostbusters) and Etan Cohen (writer, MIB3) working on the next draft.

 “It was quite an incredible experience. And in the end, Servitude was the first film green-lit from the Lab for production.”

Servitude is “a laugh-out-loud comedy with big fun characters. And a bit raunchy at times, too. Kind of like American Pie in a restaurant. It isn’t the sort of film that critics normally bestow praise on, but I’m hopeful. As for audiences, I’m not worried,” he said.

 “I’ve screened the finished film in several festivals, including the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival last July, and the theatres are always rocking with laughter.”

As a Jewish writer, Sparaga said his background influences his work. “The character of Josh in Servitude is Jewish. He is essentially me at age 25, struggling with the same decision of whether or not he should go to law school or continue waiting tables as he tries to make it as a writer.

“I wasn’t sure how much of that sort of thing I would include initially, but it was actually Ivan Reitman who pushed me to make the script more semi-autobiographical.”

While Sparaga hasn’t waited tables in seven years, he said it “feels surreal to this day. I still get anxious on Friday and Saturday nights, like I’m supposed to be somewhere running around like crazy. But overall, I know I’m lucky to have a job that I love, that doesn’t feel like a job at all really and allows me to work in my pyjamas.”

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