Tuesday 14 September 2010

From N.B. to Hollywood and Back

There may be many residents of the Moncton area named "Paul LeBlanc" but only one of them has ever won an Oscar.

That Paul LeBlanc, who is now retired and lives in his hometown of Dieppe, is the only known Acadian to date to ever win an Academy Award. It was earned for his work on the 1984 film Amadeus. LeBlanc had a career that can be seen as somewhat of a reassurance to locals with big dreams that such aspirations may not be as distant as you might think.

The second oldest in a family of six children, Paul became interested in hair while he was in the 10th grade. After graduating, he studied to be a hairstylist at the New Brunswick Community College. Upon completion, he had a business for a few years before deciding to explore the world.

"I decided I wanted to travel", he says, "so I left and, after a few stops in Montreal and Ottawa and stuff, I ended up in Toronto and got involved with wigs. This was in the late-'60s and wigs were very popular and very fashionable. Eventually, I went to Europe as a hippie, just with a knap-sack, long hair and stuff, and ended up in North Africa, and then I ended up in England. At the time, Canada was still under the common market with England so I was able to work.

"Fortunately, I got to work at one of the top wig houses in the world that dealt a lot with show business, a lot with BBC (television) and movies and stuff like that. I got my first beginnings in showbiz there."

After a year, he returned to Toronto and got a job at the CBC. A few years later, Paul worked on The Black Stallion (1979), his first movie credit.

"The Black Stallion people came (to Toronto) and were going to shoot for a month or something and then they were leaving. They weren't going to bring any Canadians with them but I had to work with the horse. I had to put a wig on the horse every day and stuff like that. Francis Ford Coppola, who was the executive producer, came over to see the race part of the movie, which was (the ending, being shot), liked the hair work and he mentioned it to some people. They asked to meet me and I met (Coppola). Then, the next day, a producer asks me if I want to go to Italy to finish the movie. The director liked me and, because of the horse, who was the star of the movie, I got to go to Italy for nine months.

"Francis Ford Coppola's a good friend of George Lucas, so when we got back to (North America), I was asked to go to the States to work for a movie for Lucasfilm called More American Graffiti (1979), which was (a sequel to American Graffiti)."

The doors to Paul's film career swung open from there as he continued to land gigs on high-profile films helmed by Hollywood royalty of the late-20th Century, which included, among others, Steven Spielberg, who hired him for the Second Unit on Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984).

He was also hired to work on the third Star Wars film produced, Return of The Jedi (1983), a credit many people would be envious of having.

"They had brought me in to design new looks for Princess Leia," LeBlanc explains, "because George didn't like the donut and the beagle thing (in the hair). They wanted something softer and more feminine, so I was brought in to do some drawings and designs. I did that and then they went off to England to shoot. When they came back to finish in Arizona, I joined the group there and worked with them on the end of that."

"(The Jedi shoot) was very technical and very, very big. I mean there are a lot of people. There are a lot of departments, you know, and, of course, Harrison Ford's great. Everybody was very good and very nice but it's big. It's a big production. Lots and lots of people.

"My sketches (related to designing Leia's hair for Return of The Jedi) are in the Smithsonian, but I had to sign them off to George Lucas. When you work for Lucasfilm, all your artwork is not yours anymore. You sign it off."

Although, he was involved with that film, he wasn't involved with any of the Star Wars prequels.

"I'm glad (that I wasn't involved with them). I wouldn't have been that interested even though the conceptions and designs were beautiful, especially for Natalie Portman. I love that stuff but I must say that the filming of it (was) all done in front of a blue-screen, green-screen, and stuff, and for (the hairstylists), standing by, watching, it's really, really not very interesting. Not for us. It's interesting for the director, the photographers, you know what I mean but (not) for the people doing costumes and make-up and stuff. You're standing around watching one person acting in front of a green-screen and there's nothing! There's no fun to that. It's not interesting but then when you see the movie, that's not what you see at all! Of course, it's all different but to actually be there and doing it, it's very tedious!"

After the completion of The Terminal (2005), LeBlanc returned to the Moncton region and semi-retired. During that era, he opened a hair studio in Dieppe which he eventually decided to close after having a stroke and also realizing that, for him, cutting hair is not nearly as exciting as designing hairstyles for movies. He expects his last Hollywood credit to be for the upcoming film Black Swan (2010), which was shot during the Christmas months. As for advice for local people interested in having a career in the film industry, Paul recommends that they realize Moncton is far from the film industry and, not counting TV shows and documentaries, nobody can make a significant living in that field if they're based in the city. They would need to move away.

"You couldn't do what I did here. It's just not possible."

Paul also believes that there are behavioural differences between people living in Moncton and those who live in film centres like New York and L.A.

"People around here wait for something to happen, they don't make it happen themselves. You've got to make it (happen) yourself because nobody's going to do it for you."

* Bernard C. Cormier is, among other things, a freelance writer and broadcaster. www.myspace.com/bernardccormier. www.twitter.com/bernardccormier. E-mail: Bernardccormier-gncb@hotmail.com © Bernard C. Cormier 2010