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pogo2posterFINAL2The Last Pogo Jumps Again studies the evolution of Toronto from small town to big city and it’s pop/counter-culture lifestyle during the early and mid-70s.  It centers around the first wave of Toronto punk rock and new-wave music, from the Ramones playing the New Yorker Theatre in ’76 through the police shutting down Teenage Head and causing a riot at the Horseshoe Tavern’s infamous “The Last Pogo” concert in December 1978.

London had the Sex Pistols, New York had the Ramones, but Toronto had a punk movement all it’s own.  The Toronto landscape by the late ’70s was forever changed with the infusion of the DIY/Punk/Alternative Culture(s) movement.  Six years in the making, The Last Pogo Jumps Again successfully explores the whys and wherefores of what was arguably one of the most exciting but misunderstood movements in Toronto’s history.

The DVD contains the 204 minute documentary, plus over a 100 minutes of added material, and a snazzy 24-page booklet.  Check the Shop for details on where you can purchase it.

The Last Pogo (1978) is the documentary that chronicled the last punk rock show at the Horseshoe Tavern when it was run by legendary Toronto promoters The Garys (Topp and Cormier) featuring The Scenics, Cardboard Brains, The Secrets, The Mods, The Ugly, The Viletones and Teenage Head. The Last Pogo was released on DVD in 2008 to great reviews.  Available at the Shop.

How we made Highway 61

As a follow up to the blog entry about making the feature film Roadkill, here’s a story of how Bruce McDonald and I made our follow-up, Highway 61.

It was our original plan that Bruce and I would alternate directing and producing.  When we’d finished ROADKILL, my idea for a feature — WEST OF LUNCH — was half-baked to say the least, but Bruce had an idea that was a little less vague than mine.

He wanted to make a movie that took place on Highway 61 and that had lots of tunes.  While looking through an atlas one day Bruce discovered that not only was Highway 61 a real highway and not just a part of Bob Dylan’s fertile imagination, but that it started in Canada:  Thunder Bay to be precise, the proving ground of Neil Young, the birthplace of LATE NITE WITH DAVID LETTERMAN’s Paul Shaffer.  And it seemed like the Film Gods were trying to tell him something (like, among other things, “Why are you sitting around reading atlases?  And how much hash did you actually buy with the Roadkill prize-money, Bruce?!”).

In September 1990 Bruce and Don worked out the basic idea of the story, and Don started writing.  As with ROADKILL, we enlisted the aid of ace story editor Al Magee to help lay out the blueprint for the story.  And, as with ROADKILL, Don would do some writing, pass it to me and Bruce and Al, and we’d all question each other.  Al kept these encounters lighthearted with his oft-repeated query “Like, on this film I’m going to paid, right?”.

Based on the vague notion of a film, and the faith we had in Don to write a script that we could shoot within six months, Bruce and I sprang into action.  We started thinking about casting ideals — Bruno Ganz or Jack Lord for the Devil character, Iggy Pop as the Rock Star.  We knew that Valerie Buhagiar would play Jackie Bangs.  We wanted a black actor for the part of Pokey.   As Don was struggling through the first draft we also put a lot of thought into budgets, marketing, schedules, etc., as best we could considering we didn’t really have a script yet.

All we had going for us were two things:  Absolute Faith that we could make this film, and a reputation as “bad boys”.  We also were determined that we were going to have fun all the down the line, from preparing the budget to casting to shooting and then marketing.  What we didn’t have was money (Bruce and I made about three grand each on ROADKILL).  We then discovered our Secret Weapon #2 (Al Magee remained Secret Weapon #1):  An Executive Producer who had some money, enough to float the office for six months or so, and the same kind of enthusiasm that we had.  Danny Salerno became our Guardian Angel, comrade-in-arms, and Executive Producer.

We hired a professional photographer and a graphic designer, and delved into the “baffle them with bullshit, dazzle them with daring” phase:  We ended up spending about three thousand bucks on a very slick looking kit that included bios and photos of all the key creatives involved in the project, including cast, and right down to transportation captains, PA’s, Craft Service People, etc.  If we weren’t sure who was going to play a certain part, we included silhouettes instead of photos.  Al Magee wrote cute, clever and irreverent bios of all involved, and by reading these fictionalized cv’s, you had a sense that not only were we organized and ready to go, but it also looked like it would be a fun project to work on.

In retrospect, considering the impact of the kit, and how important Al’s writing had to do with us getting funding, Al should’ve been given one of those nebulous “Associate Producer” credits, but he didn’t.  (Sorry, Al!).

Bruce wrote an essay on the history of music along Highway 61 from Thunder Bay right down to New Orleans to kick off the booklet.  At this point, the story line was still not complete, but by designing the press kit booklet, we’d also started to define how the film itself would look — dark, funny, entertaining, with cool toons, and lots of attitude.  We focused as much on including good visuals as we did on the actual content.

I don’t recommend that people try and copy our style.  Copy our method, for sure — but make the style as distinct as your film will be.  Our style — lots of pictures, just enough words, an air of anarchy about it — only works for certain types of films.  If Bruce and I were making a film about 9-11 or the Holocaust or something equally serious, you can be we wouldn’t have included the cute bios, and the glib remarks.  We wouldn’t think of having rock ‘n’ roll types  doing cameos.  The type of films that HIGHWAY 61 and ROADKILL were allowed us to take this approach.

One of the reasons our kits were so good, and so effective at getting financiers, distributors and press intrigued, was that we didn’t do them on our own:  we hired really good photographers and graphic artists and writers and printers to help us.  The primary goal for spending money to make these kits was to make the projects look interesting enough that people would actually read the script and maybe get involved.

The above phase — the initial development and creation of an eye-catching book — took a month or so.  I was driving taxi part-time, and cleverly avoiding paying rent and utilities.  Bruce was seriously eyeing the “Dishwasher Wanted” sign at the Peter Pan Restaurant at Queen and Spadina.  Our DOP, Miroslaw Baszak, had fortunately gotten enough work after ROADKILL that he no longer had to work on weekends at an old folks’ home, administering enemas.  Bruce and I were broke, but Danny helped out and loaned us some cash.

With all of this controlled chaos happening, the Shadow Shows office looked like some sort of bikers’ clubhouse.  We’d graduated from the tiny, cramped messy office down the hall, to a much larger, but equally cramped and messy office a few doors down.  Whenever we had an important meeting and felt we had to really impress someone, we’d ask Al if we could use his office, which was just down the hall.  Al’s office was always very clean and neat and tidy (except after me and Bruce would have a meeting there);  the Shadow Shows’ office was always kind of grimy and stinky, with coffee cups and mugs all over the place containing what looked to be failed grade seven science experiments, and a stinky brown sierra film over everything from our chain-smoking.  Other tenants in the building, besides Al Magee and his Screenwrite company, were struggling Queen Street West artistes, a performance artist who kept a frozen raccoon in her fridge, and among other companies, L.I.F.T., the filmmakers co-op that Bruce had co-founded, and which we had both helped resurrect when it went into a bit of a tailspin.

I guess if you had to pick a specific place and a specific time to nail down an interesting bunch of Canadian filmmakers, you couldn’t do much worse than 345 Adelaide St. West in Toronto in the mid-eighties.  Because of our involvement with L.I.F.T. and the gang of filmmakers that belonged to it, we always had visitors dropping by for a coffee or a smoke, trading war stories, ideas for film, leads on funding, and the like.  Atom Egoyan, Jeremy Podeswa, Patricia Rozema, and Peter Mettler were just a few of the filmmakers that were involved in L.I.F.T. around that time.  There was a real community feeling; it was a fun place to hang out at.

Once the kit was printed, we applied for development funding from Telefilm, OFDC, and FUND.  The kit was sent to Channel Four in England, and ZDF, a TV station in Germany, both of whom had bought and enjoyed ROADKILL, and were curious what we could do with a million bucks.  In addition to the kit, we also enclosed ROADKILL T-shirts and soundtrack CD’s.  We figured we had a better chance of someone reading our script if we packaged it up with some decent goodies, rather than just a cover letter and an outline like most people did.

Over the next six months, we fine-tuned everything as the script got closer to being a final draft.  We pinned down most of our cast, took location scouting trips all over Ontario, and Bruce and Miroslaw even took a trip part way down Highway 61 towards New Orleans to scope out the territory and bookmark interesting sites.

Because the Executive Producer had pretty much lent us close to seventy thousand dollars, we had to have the attitude that this film was going to get made, and that it would not only be good, but marketable and commercial as well.  The loan from Danny was not something we took lightly.

We hired artist Chris Minz to create some story boards for us.  Like most story boards, they were guidelines for the director and DOP, and concerned somewhat tricky sequences that neither Bruce nor DOP Miroslaw Baszak could wrap their heads around.  Storyboards are usually used to outline ideas for stunts and special effects.  Knowing Chris’ wild imagination, we knew that in his scribblings he’d come up with some ideas for us.  By the time he’d worked on them for a few weeks, we began to think  that they looked so good, they could be turned into a comic book, a novel promotional idea.  We sprang that little plan into action by contacting a comic-book publisher, Bill Marx, and getting Chris some help, and let them all have a go at it.  Everyone worked on spec, but the final product resulted in them getting paid, and us getting a nifty new promotional tool.

We had many, many meetings with record companies to work out a deal for the record.  Finally, during the mixing of the movie we worked out a deal with a local company called INTREPID, who were distributed by Capitol Records.  INTREPID never held up their end of the bargain because they didn’t spend anywhere near the time and money they said they would promoting the record, but at least their numbers added up.  I’m not really sure if soundtracks are worth the effort anymore.  Every once in a while there’s a hit like ROMEO AND JULIET or MOULIN ROUGE, but must of the time they tank, and I think that if you are pressed for time and money and making a low-budget, down-and-dirty feature, there might be better things to do with your energy than deal with record company executives.

Both the comic-book and the record were to be used for promotional purposes.  We didn’t really care that much if they made any money for us, the idea was to simply get the title out on the street, try and get a bit of a buzz happening, and make people know this film was being made.  Make them aware.  The title HIGHWAY 61 was already etched in the collective consciousness (or at least anyone who was a Bob Dylan fan) so we had a bit of a head start – it was a familiar title.  Backtracking a little here, that was a reason that I think the title ROADKILL worked – instant imagery, and a phrase that anyone who’s driven a car knows.

While we did all this, and sent weekly updates to Channel Four, ZDF, the Agencies, etc., I struggled through the process of gaining official permission to shoot for a couple of weeks in the U.S.  All in all, this process took six months, and when I started it, despite not having a complete script, I had to give them a minute-by-minute schedule of when we would be there, what scenes we would shoot, how much money we would spend, etc.  Amazingly enough, we ended up being fairly accurate, and only a week off the mark.  It took a huge amount of time, but saved us thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees.

We had to convince the U.S. Government that we were “extremely talented” – it’s the kind of work visa that artists get – and to that end, we had to ask for really embarrassing letters of support from David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, and others, including Mayor Art Eggleton.  (After getting the letter from Mayor Art, the then Film Liaison officer from City Hall – Naish McHugh (or was it Hugh McNaish?) phoned to tell me that I shouldn’t ever mention to His Right Honourable anything about the infamous hash remark (when ROADKILL won $25K for Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF that year, Bruce said he’s spend the money on a ’57 Chevy and a big chunk of hash) for fear that it would look like City Hall was supporting a traveling caravan of drug-addled monsters.)  Since I’d been arrested for possession of a joint back in the early seventies, I kept my name off the application, fearing that any trial by association would keep the crew out of the U.S.

When the script was finally written to our satisfaction, and it was time to apply officially for production funding and get deals from Channel Four, a Canadian distributor, etc., we still hadn’t figured out who was going to play POKEY JONES, the male lead.  We had no luck finding a black actor, and Spike Lee’s company was not helpful, even though this could’ve been a huge break for an unknown  actor.  We finally decided that Don McKellar would play the part.  He later told us he wouldn’t have written any scenes showing his skinny little butt up on the big screen had he known he’d play the part.  But once Don read for the part, we knew that no one else could have played Pokey.

We hadn’t figured out who was going to play MR. SKIN either.  Jack Lord (the guy with the big hair from Hawaii Five-O) hadn’t gotten back to us.  Bruno Ganz’s London agent said Bruno was busy, and we wrote a typically cocky letter back saying that we didn’t take “No” for an answer (which, of course,  we ended up doing anyway).    But we did have one casting ace-in-the-hole:  Iggy Pop had verbally agreed to play the part of OTTO, the burnt-out rock star, a role written with Iggy in mind.  A cameo role guaranteed to get attention, add some more rock ‘n’ roll credibility to the project, and help make sales anywhere he was popular.  And we’d get to meet and work with one of our musical heroes.

We tried hard to lure both Neil Young and Bob Dylan into appearing in the film in cameo roles.  We had a friend who was one of the few who had Neil Young’s personal phone number, and after weeks of trying, he finally made contact with Neil.  I remember sitting in the office and answering the phone, and having the person on the other end say that it was Neil Young and he wanted to speak with Bruce.  With his distinctive nasally voice, I had no doubt he was the real thing and not someone playing a joke on us.  I passed the phone to Bruce, cupped the receiver and told him it was Neil Young, and he just raised his eyebrows a touch, and picked it up.  I tried my best to guess what Neil was saying on the other end, hearing only Bruce’s responses.  And it seemed that good old Canadian boy Neil sure liked to talk.  All I could pick was Bruce saying “…yeah…”, or “…hmmm…”, and then a chirpy, “Well thanks for calling, Neil, we’ll be in touch”.  Bruce sighed as he hung up the phone, and told me that Neil loved the idea of a movie about music set on the legendary Highway 61, but his idea was that he would be open the film by addressing the camera and waxing poetic about the Highway itself and what it meant to him. Not great, structure-wise.  He wasn’t as keen as playing a panhandler who sells his soul for twenty bucks to the character Mr. Skin, a devil-wannabe.  For weeks and weeks we tried to get in contact with Neil again, but first he was in the middle of a tour, and then he was cutting a new record, and it never did work out.

Bob Dylan was another story altogether.  I have a file folder of letters I sent to him, his manager, his manager’s manager, two agents, and at least two of his lawyers.  Forget “Tangled up in Blue” — access to Bob Dylan was tangled up in a labyrinth of lawyers and managers, and we were not expecting any calls from him at our grimy offices.  After a while we realized that because of his schedule, he’d be way too busy to appear in our film, but still we never lost hope.  Our second best hope, barring him appearing in the film, was to allow us to either use his tune “Highway 61 Revisited”, or failing that, give us permission for us to hire some other musicians to record a version of it we could use in the film.

A month or so before production was scheduled to start, Dylan played at Massey Hall, and we got a friend who knew someone at Dylan’s record company to make sure he got one of our promo kits  before the show, along with a heartfelt, personal letter from Bruce.  Bruce got tickets for the show.  Before entering Massey Hall, the friend of a friend assured Bruce excitedly that Bob had received and read the package.  Just imagining Bob Dylan looking at our package was pretty exciting and way, way cool.  And we were so optimistic.  Our “mole” promised us any updates, and Bruce promised to call me at home if there were any clues during the performance that Dylan was going to lend a hand.

Dylan played the show, and when it came time for his encore (Bruce recounted to me excitedly from a pay phone in the Massey Hall lobby), what did he sing — with a huge grin on his face — but “Highway 61 Revisited”!  That was it.  The eagle had landed.  We had him.  Bob Dylan had read our kit and Bruce’s letter and he liked it and he was flattered as hell and he was going to be in our movie!  Bruce – a diehard Dylan fan – was so pumped up I thought he was going to birth kittens.  He couldn’t stop going on and on about how “up” Bob seemed (we, of course, felt as though we could call him Bob now), how revitalized he’d seemed, how into the song he was!   We had personally revitalized Bob Dylan!  We were hyped.  We were excited.  And now, more than ever, we were convinced that we were going to have a bona-fide hit on our hands.

The next day we hit the clubhouse known as Shadow Shows bright and early (i.e. 10’ish) to wait for actual confirmation from our mole.  We stared at the phone, willing it to ring and reassure us that Bruce wasn’t hallucinating or imagining things.  And as soon as that call came, we were going to call our investors and give them the good news.  So we waited for the call.  And waited.  And waited just a little bit more until late in the afternoon, when finally the phone rang, and it was our buddy.  But he told us that he didn’t know anything.  Bob and the band had left town, and Bob didn’t say anything to anyone about any movie.  Bruce told him about Bob singing the signature tune for an encore, and how we were both convinced that ’cause he seemed so happy, that it was a sign that he was going to be in our movie.  “Oh”, said our friend, “No, no, no.  I think that had more to do with drinking. Bob was just hammered”.  And so the Gods of Rock ‘n’ Roll slapped us in the face, gave us another reality check, and checked out of our lives.  He would appear a little bit later with more bad rock ‘n’ roll news.

We held auditions for the part of Mr. Skin, trying out best to see through the audition jitters of the nonunion hopefuls who hoped to land the role.  We couldn’t afford to use union (ACTRA) cast, and we were lucky that both Valerie Buhagiar and Don McKellar said that they would wait until HIGHWAY 61 was complete before they would join up.  If you’re making a low-budget film, and your cast is all under twenty-five or thirty, then you’ve at least got a chance of finding a hidden gem.  But to cast characters that are over that age limit, the chances are slim that you’ll find a decent actor.  And so it was for the part of Mr. Skin.  Because of our drive for publicity and promotion, people in the industry in Toronto knew of our project, and many ACTRA members called, hoping to land a part in a feature film that promised to be more interesting than the TV drama or theatre work they would normally get.

Each time an ACTRA member would call, I’d explain that since we were nonunion, they would be at risk with ACTRA if they joined our cast.  I wasn’t sure what the repercussions would actually be, but we knew that casting ACTRA in a nonunion show was frowned upon, and while it wouldn’t have been any sweat off of our necks, I had to explain to ACTRA members that they were taking a big risk.  Most understood, were disappointed, and left it at that.  But one local actor had gotten hold of the script. fell in love with the part, and badly wanted the role.  The actor was Maury Chaykin, a familiar face to international audiences, let alone Canadian ones.  I gave Maury my warnings about us being nonunion, but he was adamant that he “didn’t give a damn” what ACTRA thought, and he wanted the role.  After the third insistent phone call from the supremely talented Mr. Chaykin, I told him that while Bruce and I would love to cast an actor of his talent in our modest little film, he really could get in trouble, and could he please, if he wouldn’t take our word for it, talk to his agent.  The next morning Maury phoned, and sounding a little sheepish, conceded that he would be at risk, and he couldn’t consider it.

We auditioned about a half-dozen nonunion actors for the part of Mr. Skin.  Some were very good, but not quite good enough, some were okay, and really not quite good enough, and most, like almost all feature films, television shows, scripts and ideas, were mediocre to a fault.

The audition themselves were perversely hilarious.  The scene that we chose the actors to use for the audition was a very funny scene in which Mr. Skin, a character who thinks he’s the devil, tries to buy the soul of a little girl.  And in a very sweet, very understanding tone and timbre, Mr. Skin tells this very cute little eight-year-old that  she’s “ugly, and’ll probably be fat and work as a cashier”.  The little girl breaks down in tears, and the sympathetic Mr. Skin comforts her, and tells her that if she doesn’t want to grow up to be an ugly, fat cashier, she just has to sign her little name (and therefore signing over the rights to her soul) and all will be better.

What made it hilarious was the scene itself and the dialogue. What made it somewhat perverse was that the little trooper we’d cast to play the little girl had to endure, for the good part of a day, total strangers, acting badly, telling her that she was going to grow up to be fat and ugly.  After each actor would try — and fail — at the audition, we’d reassure our smallest cast member that she’d done a great job, and remind her that she really wasn’t an ugly little girl.  By the time the auditions that day were winding down, we sent Danny a few blocks to pick up a couple of toys and treats to go with the daily wage we’d promised her; a little something to ease the pretend humiliation.

Almost at a dead end, and grasping at straws, we got a call from Earl Pastko, a wonderfully intense and talented theatre actor who’d had a small part in ROADKILL.  Like Valerie and Don, he was nonunion when he shot ROADKILL, but unlike Valerie and Don, he’d since taken the jump to ACTRA.  We therefore had the same problem with Earl as we had had with Maury.  Except this time, my criminal mind plotted, maybe we could fudge things a little.  I figured that if we had hired Earl to play Mr. Skin back when we were making ROADKILL, then wouldn’t that mean that we’d hired him when he was nonunion?  It was pretty flimsy to be sure, but after Earl auditioned for the part, Bruce and Don and Al and I were convinced that no one, not even Maury, could play the part like Earl, and so we had to work on a way to make it work.

We gave Earl all the warnings, and told him that if he got busted by ACTRA, he was on his own.  We’d help out if we could, but since no one knew exactly what kind of punishment ACTRA  would exact on him, we were all kind of whistling in the dark.  Earl wanted in.  And I put my jail house lawyer mind to work.

Trying to think my scam through, I thought that the only thing that would prove that we’d hired Earl during ROADKILL (when he was non-ACTRA ) would be a contract.  So I wrote one up.  But I thought that if it seemed too on the money, ACTRA would smell a rat, and we’d all end up in some trouble.  So instead of calling the film HIGHWAY 61, I called it something like GOING DOWN HIGHWAY 61, and insisted of calling the character Mr. Skin, I called him Beelzebub.  I dipped the “contract” in tea-water, and smeared a bit of tobacco ash on it to age it, and after letting it dry, ripped a small corner off of one end, and voila — we had what looked like a slightly old contract for the services of Earl Pastko.

It turned that all the effort wasn’t quite worth it — but it was a decent criminal effort.  A few weeks into HIGHWAY 61’s Canadian release, an ACTRA member blew the whistle on Earl, and he was caught.  The aged contract didn’t even come up.  Earl took his medicine straight-up, and prepared to face his unions wrath.  And his punishment for breaking the number one rule at ACTRA?  A twenty-five dollar fine, and mandatory attendance at three “new members” meetings.  They could’ve humiliated him just as effectively by simply asking him to wear a dunce cap and stand in the corner for a couple of hours.

Now we had to finalize our financing.  We’d sent our slick kits off to the usual suspects:  Alliance and Cineplex.  Alliance responded quickly, and their cover letter indicated that while they really liked the script, in order for them to get involved they would need final approval on everything from final script and final cut right down to final approval on crew.  It was onerous, and didn’t feel right.  Cineplex called us back not a day or two later — and told us that they wanted to make a deal.  They offered us two hundred thousand dollars for the Canadian rights.  Considering that this was what the whole budget of ROADKILL was, it seemed like a no-brainer.  But I tried to play it cool, told them to please hold for a second, and covering up the receiver with a sweaty palm, excitedly told Bruce how much cash we’d just been offered.  All we could do was laugh.  And get sly.  I got back on the phone and told them that while we would really like to work with them, the advance seemed a little light to us.  I told them that if they could up it to, say, two hundred and fifty thousand, we’d make a verbal deal right then and there.  I mean, it was hard to say this with a straight face, but somehow I blurted my bullshit out, they told me to hold, and a few minutes later came back on the line and told us we had a deal.

Once that deal was in place, we focused on foreign rights.  The German distributor turned us down, but we got interest from Britain’s Channel Four.  They called us up and told us they were willing to invest seventy-five thousand for the British television rights.  After hanging up and telling Bruce the good news, he asked me a very appropriate question:  Was it seventy-five thousand in Canadian dollars, U.S. dollars or English pounds?  Trying very very hard not to sound like a complete moron, I called back Channel Four and they confirmed that it was in English pounds.

So:  Cineplex bought the Canadian rights for $250,000, of which $75,000 was used as production financing, and the rest was going to be held as guaranteed revenue. What that meant was that the second our film was completely finished, we already had a chunk of dough coming in as revenue, before the film would play at a theatre or on TV.   Cinephile bought the foreign rights with an advance of $100,000, but we didn’t use it as financing and again we wanted to keep it as guaranteed revenue, so that when we went to the agencies  Telefilm and OFDC) for funding we could show them an immediate return on their investment.  We also withheld selling the rights for theatrical rights in Great Britain (because of the Channel Four deal) and the US, thinking that we’d rather go in with the attitude that we were going to make a really cool and maybe even commercial film that Americans would want to buy, and we thought we’d get a better deal showing them a finished print.

When it looked like all the money was falling in place, and we’d be able to repay the mounting loan our executive producer had fronted us,  disaster struck.  With only a few weeks to go, my father died, and it knocked the wind out of me big-time.  I knew that there were a lot of important things to do to finalize the financing, and I foolishly came back to the office only a few days after the funeral.  And all the deals, all the financing, everything on my desk looked superficial and stupid and meaningless.  It all just paled in comparison, and I had to take time off.  Bruce understood, of course, and held the fort, and I came back to the office a week later.

I started to make all the last minute phone calls to lock all of the money in, and then received an unsettling phone call:  Iggy Pop’s agent called to say that Iggy had just gotten back from Cannes where he was promoting John Waters’ CRY BABY (how appropriate, I later thought), had done thirty interviews in one day, and was now under the impression that he was a “thespian” who needed months to prepare for an acting role.  The agent said that Iggy would no longer do the role.  I argued that I had booked two full days for a scene that only needed one, being a nice guy and therefore giving Iggy much more time than needed to pull off a role that was in fact based on him.  The agent said sorry.  I thought I was going to burst a vein.  Did he understand that if Iggy pulled out, and that caused even one investor to pull out, that the film was finished?  And “sorry” was the only one-liner Iggy’s agent could come up with.

I had only myself to blame:  I hadn’t gotten a written deal with Iggy, went entirely on faith and agreed with the agent that the actual contract could wait a bit.  I did it much in the same way that I booked Joey Ramone for ROADKILL.  And now I was scared shitless.  How much did Cineplex’s interest have to do with having Iggy in our film?  What about Channel Four?  And who could we get to play the part?

Time was pressing.  Everything had to be finalized.  And wanting to iron out a few details, cross some more “t’s” and dot some more “i’s” — Channel Four called me.  And their very first question, right after the pleasantries was, I swear to God, “Yes, Colin, and is Iggy Pop still in the film?”  I felt sick to my stomach, and feebly blurted out that there might be “a little scheduling problem”.  And during the one or two second pregnant pause, my mind reeling, it hit me hard just how close to being in big trouble Bruce and I might be.  If Channel Four dropped out, it would create a domino affect that would shut down the production.  The film wouldn’t get made, all that hard work would be for naught, and worse — Bruce and I would owe our good pal and executive produce Danny Salerno a hundred thousand dollars.  For a couple of guys whose fallback position was either driving taxi or getting dish-washing gigs, this was an enormous amount of money.  There was only one thing to do:  we had to score someone to play the part of “Otto” who would be as appealing to financiers and audiences as Iggy was.  And we only had a couple of weeks to do it. We had to act fast before the cat got out of the bag.

I wrote dozens of letters to all kinds of rock stars:  David Bowie, Keith Richards, Prince, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Johnny Lydon (nee Rotten), Lux Interior, Elvis Costello, Axl Rose, Stiv Bators, and on and on and on, as well as some bona fide actors, including Crispin Glover.  The guy who played “Wally” on Leave it to Beaver wanted to be in the film.  Bobby Sherman wanted to be in the film.  Jamie Farr from M.A.S.H. wanted to be in the film.  We were getting desperate and scared, and were so out of our minds that we were actually, at bad moments, able to rationalize the concept of hiring Jamie Farr to play a burned-out rock star.  Our emergency contingency plan was to beg the investors to let us make the movie without the dubious acting talents of Iggy Pop, and use our dashing and handsome First A. D. David Webb to play the role.

When I had originally contacted Iggy’s agent, I jokingly added to the bottom of the letter that if we couldn’t get Iggy, then we would cast Bryan Adams, and now we were starting to think along those lines.  We got classy, prompt and polite replies from Prince and Ozzy (Ozzy wrote me a letter on official “Ozzy” stationary.  The gist of the letter was that he “had a hard enough time being a rock star let alone trying to become a movie star”;  Prince was busy doing his own movie, GRAFFITI BRIDGE, but thanks anyway). Elvis was booked up for the next five years.  Alice Cooper was flattered, but busy.  No one knew where Johnny Rotten was.  Keith Richards was on tour.  Lux Interior never got back to us, neither did the others.  We didn’t get back to Wally or Bobby or Jamie or the multitude of other US “stars”.  Bruce and I started to pursue someone we had thought of even before Iggy:  Canadian rocker Art Bergmann.  Maybe Iggy canceling was some sort of message to us that we should’ve gone with good old homegrown instead of a name U.S. star anyway.

We somehow got all of our funding together.  Everyone understood about Iggy, and were confident that at the very least, we would just get a good actor to play the part, and forget the rock star cameo thing.  Art Bergmann’s agent was called on a Thursday, with the scene scheduled to be shot the following Monday (!).  The agent said Art would do it, and set out to find him..but couldn’t.  She dispatched a dozen helpers and friends to actually roam the streets looking for him in Vancouver.  Finally someone found him on Vancouver Island, playing a surreptitious concert for a bike gang (he didn’t want his agent to know so he wouldn’t have to fork over the ten percent) and they got Art on a plane headed for Toronto.

Art started reading the script moments after the plane took off, and got very very nervous when he realized that this film was just a wee bit bigger and demanding and intimidating than ROADKILL, and he actually had to act and memorize pages of dialogue.  He later said he’d wished there were a stopover somewhere so he could just bail out, but no such luck.  He steeled himself to the notion that he was going to make a couple of hundred bucks a day to embarrass himself on camera.    But once he arrived on set and saw our motley crew, he later said that he thought we all looked like a bunch of roadies, he felt right at home, and it all fell into place.  We all thought he did a good job, and funnily enough, his lack of acting chops actually enhanced his performance.  He muffed his lines left, right and centre, but this, coupled with his general jangled nervousness worked for the character.

As for Iggy Pop? Even though we had explained the whole sordid mess to our investors and distributors, there was a bit of a buzz going around that we had Iggy Pop in our new film, and we prided ourselves on being pretty honest (except when creating fake contracts) and straightforward (except when certain jobs had to involve cross-dressing), so we knew we had no choice but to have Iggy Pop in our movie.   And so we did.   Except his name is actually Iggy Pup, and he’s the little dog that finds the dead body and starts the whole movie off.

Going from producing the two-hundred thousand dollar ROADKILL, the little film that could, to the million and a half dollar HIGHWAY 61, the bigger film that should — was a bigger leap for me than I thought, and we were lucky to have David Webb as our first A.D.

As I became more and more mired in what seemed like an endless trail of contracts and paper and reporting requirements, Webb ran the floor, assumed most of my Production Manager duties, and left me alone to focus on the day to day details.  On ROADKILL I was on set from morning to wrap;  on HIGHWAY 61 I barely visited the set.  And all the fun and craziness of producing ROADKILL was replaced by a much more sedate set of tedious tasks that were alternately boring and mind-boggling.

At the same time I was producing HIGHWAY 61, producer Camelia Frieberg was producing the feature film MASALA, with an office just down the hall from ours.  She too had taken an equally big leap with MASALA, and one day, running into each other in the hallway, we both had arrived at the same dramatic conclusions:   producing was basically a jive job for chump change; the bigger the budget, the less fun it’s going to be; and the shared thought that we would never, ever be so foolish as to try and produce a feature film again.

That vow, of course, didn’t last long:  I went on to produce five feature films by first-time filmmakers at a programme I helped create at the Canadian Film Centre called The Feature Film Project;  Camelia went on to produce some of Atom Egoyan films, and a few other quirky, low-budget features, including BOLLYWOOD HOLLYWOOD and THE FISHING TRIP.

When the fine-cut was screened for the agencies and distributors, everyone seemed happy.  Bill House of Telefilm especially like the temporary music we used for the screening, and encouraged us to apply for an “enhancement” budget.  We did, and Telefilm and OFDC gave us an additional two hundred thousand dollars for music rights and mixing.  Half of the money went to a Dolby Mix and half went to purchase music rights.

We ended up coming in around seven thousand dollars under budget, which was almost as bad as coming in seven thousand dollars over budget.  You should never go over budget, of course, but you should really never come in under budget either.  There’s always something you can spend that money on, and the real reason we came in under by seven thousand, rather than a dollar under budget (which we had planned to do) was basically a mistake that our bookkeeper made.  We didn’t discover the error until after the audit, at which point it was too late to do anything.  What it ultimately meant was that we had to redo all of the investors agreements to reflect the new, total budget.  It was a pain in the neck for everyone involved.

CINEPHILE was hired as our US sales agent, and sold the film for an advance of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.  There were two companies that wanted our film, and the one that me and Bruce wanted to go with —  because they sounded smart and hip and new  — folded.   The first clue should’ve been that they didn’t appear to have an office, per se, and would make their calls to us from various places, including on at least one occasion, a public library in New York City.  We decided to go with the company that offered the same amount of money, but on a quicker payment schedule.

The company was SKOURAS, who we immediately nicknamed SCREW-US, and not only did they have a better pay schedule, but they also had a lucrative deal with Paramount Home Video and syndicated television in the US.  They’d also had a lot of success distributing the film MY LIFE AS A DOG.  We did some research on how they marketed that film, and of course, we were already spending the millions of dollars we were sure we were going to get.

The actual contract with Skouras took the whole summer to fine-tune:  For a good three or four days Skouras’ lawyers tried to convince us and Cinephile that we had to retitle the film, just in case people associated it with Bob Dylan’s song, or worse, that Bob himself decided to sue us.  Cinephile argued their way out of it for us.

I had to courier down to L.A. every single piece of paper regarding the film for the lawyers to look over, including all cast and crew contracts, insurance forms, E & O reports, trademark releases, annotated extra release forms, music cue sheets, music contracts, etc.  All in all, there were about a dozen three inch black binders that I refused to let out of my sight, and so the small and overworked staff at Cinephile spent a good few days photocopying everything.

And after carefully wading through three feet of paperwork and deal memos and contracts and release forms, the L.A. lawyers for Skouras nailed us.  We had messed up:  my contract with the people handling The Archies (“Sugar, Sugar”) had called for 58 seconds of the song in the film, but sitting down with a stopwatch those sharp L.A. sharks had discovered that the song actually ran closer to 59 seconds.   I mean, think of it:  it wasn’t even that we were even one whole second over the contracted time, it was just closer to 59 seconds.

It was a mistake in the mix.  The fade-out on the song didn’t fade out as soon as I would’ve liked.  I had to make some fast phone calls and get the Archies’ people to grant me the extra second.  It didn’t cost me anything but a day or two of phoning, faxing and calling couriers, a few long distance bills for calls to New York and L.A., a couple of migraine headaches, and a major pain-in-the-ass.  The upside was realizing that the Archies problem was the only error that we had made.  On paper.

SKOURAS lived up to the nickname we gave them, and then some.  In August, 1993 I learned SKOURAS had allegedly been sending Telefilm bouncing cheques as they tried to repay the U.S. launch fund monies that Telefilm loaned them.  They also claimed that rather than receiving $200,000 (U.S.) from Paramount Home Video for the U.S. home video rights, Paramount had only paid them $15,000.  Who knows?  And what can you do?

To really investigate the whole sordid affair, me and Bruce would have had to hire a L.A.-based lawyer, spend tons of money we didn’t have, and sit and wait for a year or two to see what happened.  In the meantime, there would be a good chance that tied up in the courts, there would be an injunction against the film, and it would never get shown in the States at all.

In March 1996 I phoned up Skouras to find out what was going on.  Of all people, the receptionist immediately started raving on and on about the film, and how it was one of Skouras’ busiest products.  Still, no hope for money, and I really don’t know if the Telefilm launch fund money or anything else has ever been cleared up.

But I do know of one person who actually got so pissed-off at what he thought was major mishandling of his film that he saved up some money and flew to L.A. to confront his distributor.  He had a very strong impression that the company was making sales to foreign territories and neither informing him nor paying him his cut.  So he gets to L.A., and stumbles into the nearest police station.  He finds a sympathetic detective who actually listens to his story.  He tells the detective that he’s aware that there are probably more pressing things to attend to (the Rodney King L.A. riots were in full swing), but I’m being ripped off, etc.   And the detective gets on the case.  And the distributor gets busted. And he gets sent to jail for six years.

The filmmaker is awarded one million dollars in damages (which he’ll probably never see, but at least he’s a millionaire on paper).  The distributor’s only defense was that, basically, his cocaine habit got out of hand.  And who was one of the distributor’s star character witnesses?  None other than the owner of Skouras Pictures.

CINEPLEX (especially Paul Gardner and Andrew Austin) did an exceptional job marketing our film in Canada.  TV ads, radio ads…they went for every idea we had, and spent upwards of $350,000 in promotion in Canada, at that time a huge amount for promotion.  And more than the money, it proved to us that Cineplex was really behind it.

HIGHWAY 61 played for six weeks in Toronto, and got rave reviews all over Canada and the US, but the Seattle and Boston critics hated it, and the “hip” weekly in Laguna Beach, California hated it too.  Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up, but by that time, their thumbs didn’t carry as much weight as they once had, and it had little or no effect.  The New York Times, The Village Voice, The LA Times, etc., gave it great reviews.

It’s now been released on home video in Canada and the States, and while we continue to make sales to foreign markets, we  know that we’ll never make any money from it.  But who knows?  I did an interview for TVO when 61 was completed, and told them with a straight face that I sincerely believed Bruce and I would be millionaires a year after the film’s release.  And I really thought it might actually come true.  At this point, though, I feel that if we do become millionaires it’s either going to be in pesos or Zeller’s points.  At the very least it lead on to a nifty job with a steady pay cheque at the Canadian Film Centre where I was hired as the executive director of The Feature Film Project, a programme where first-time filmmakers got to make their first feature film with total creative control.

How come we didn’t make any money?  In the February 15, 1993 issue of PLAYBACK, HIGHWAY 61 is listed as the 5th highest grossing Canadian film in Canada for 1992.  We grossed upwards of $525,000.  Pretty good for Canada, but break it down:  That’s the box-office gross.  If CINEPLEX gets 50% of that, they get about $260,000.  Take away the advance of $250,000, and that leaves them with about ten grand.  Deduct the $350,000 they spent on advertising, and they are about $340,000 in the hole.  They’ll recover most if not all of  this deficit by pay, free, and pay-per-view television sales.  Even if CINEPLEX somehow eventually makes enough money to get over this big deficit (re-sales to CBC or whatever) and start to pay Bruce and me some cash, we’ve then got to continue repaying the $1.5 it cost to make.  And then we make some money.  Our reward will be in Heaven.  And the blender those million Zellers points would have scored for me will have to wait.

The foreign sales were disappointing to say the least, and what made it complicated was that CINEPHILE went bankrupt, and our films were passed on to NORSTAR.  Bruce and I really weren’t keen on simply getting a notice from our old buddies at CINEPHILE that this was happening, so we triggered a clause in our contract, and blocked the sale to NORSTAR, which I think kind of surprised some people — low-budget filmmakers aren’t supposed to have any business savvy.  We then spoke to them and cleared the air, and Norstar did handle the films, until in 1998 when they were bought out by Alliance, who later in the year became Atlantis/Alliance.  We still get our reports, and my teenagers still tell me whenever either ROADKILL or HIGHWAY 61 plays on TV.  There’s no money coming in from them, but someday, maybe…

While Highway 61 was pretty smooth sailing, it wasn’t without problems, and Bruce and I made a number of mistakes.  My biggest one, I guess, was not getting Iggy to sign a contract right away.

Bruce found the whole affair very grueling, and promised that for his next feature he would be in better physical shape.  I’ve told people half-kidding that the best thing a director can do —  especially on a low-budget, down and dirty feature — is get to the point where they can do at least fifty push-ups a day.  This is advice not to be taken lightly.

Our other major error was “locking” the picture at 110 minutes.  Way too long.  When we finally got the US deal, part of the arrangement was that we had to trim it down to 100 minutes.  This of course cost a bundle (around $75,000) which was deducted from the US advance.

The other problem was with the script.   A lot more time could have been spent on it.  Don did an amazing job and is a very talented guy, but the opening act was always too long and the ending too muddled.  We shot lots of scenes for the opening that were eventually cut from the film: a major waste of money, but unavoidable in most films.  The ending (or third act) was a real problem that I don’t think we ever really solved.  I know I was never happy with it – too much of a change in tone and mood – and Al Magee really wasn’t happy with it, but what can you do?  As we got closer and closer to the start of principal photography, the less time Don had to fine-tune it or heed any of Al Magee’s pearls of wisdom.  So we could have spent longer on the script, but on the other hand you don’t want to “analyze ’til you paralyze”.  It’s good to have solid deadlines.  And when you have a hundred thousand dollar debt hanging over you head, it’s amazing how you can stick to them.

We basically got the film done – from concept to finished product – in just under a year.  The script is the toughest thing to get right, the next toughest being the marketing and distribution of the movie.  The really boring and tedious part is doing all the reporting and tracking that as a producer you’re obligated to do for anywhere from one to 15 years, made even more grueling considering that you’re probably not going to be getting paid to do it.  The six months it took us to have the script written and all the elements in place seemed like an eternity to us — we really felt like we were dragging our asses, although others in the business told us it was an incredibly fast production.

If there is a single reason that ROADKILL and HIGHWAY 61 were decent films — apart from creativity, hustle, business smarts, and plain old dumb luck — it was because we were totally committed to making them, and would never let ourselves doubt for a minute that they wouldn’t get made.  You’ve got to be making the film for the right reason:  you’ve got to believe in the story and you’ve got to believe you’re going to do it.

Bruce and I were obsessed with both ROADKILL and HIGHWAY 61, and despite whatever kind of “gonzo” image we may have had in some people’s eyes, we took extreme care every step of the way and always made sure we were having fun.    While we’d always hire a casting person, we mostly ended up doing that ourselves.  If we had the time, we had no problems helping anyone out on the set — craft services, grips, etc., — as in that tired but true cliché, “don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself”.

I think the big reason most Hollywood films are so bland is because they are just so manufactured.  Get a star name and some money, and damn the torpedoes — and damn the script, the care, the time to develop, and everything else you might think could lead to a good film.  They can be well crafted and slick, but most of them don’t have that special and  mysterious quality that comes when you are ready to die for your film, that special passion you need to get the job done right.

You should surround yourself with a crew and cast that you can get along with, a group of creative people who are as into the film as you are.  You should paint the worst possible scenario for them at the start (not too hard on a low-budget independent film) — don’t bullshit them — so that when you can be nice, and get them a case of beer, or an extra-special lunch, or just show them the respect they deserve, they’ll go that extra distance for you.  When I crew a film I balance the need for topnotch techies with the more important consideration of having a bunch of people who share my sensibility, who you can go out for a beer with, who you can basically stand living and working with for the two to six weeks it will take to shoot your film.

P.S.  I originally wrote this in the mid-nineties.  It’s now twenty years later, and we’ve still never made a nickel off the film.

 

 

 

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