Jack Darcus: The Offscreen Interview
It’s crunch time at Vancouver’s Alpha Cine postproduction studio in the spring of 1971. Jack Darcus is editing his second feature, Proxyhawks, a meditation on the intersections between the war raging in Vietnam and one couple’s domestic difficulties while tending a house full of wounded birds of prey, shot at Darcus’ home while he was keeping these birds for the Stanley Park zoo. The film is boldly experimental for a feature-length film and is running on almost no budget. Meanwhile Robert Altman is in town for final mixing on McCabe and Mrs. Miller shot nearby. He’s running over schedule and asks if Darcus might yield some of his studio time to the cause. Darcus agrees to push his mix back by a week – on condition that Altman views the rough cut of Proxyhawks to provide some professional feedback. Altman agrees and shows up with his editor Homer Powell and a handful of other crew. As Darcus tells me, this was the chance of a lifetime for he and his team: “Altman’s presence at the screening, and his helpful comments afterward, made everyone realize that they had been in, or worked on, a ‘real’ movie. Up until then I’m sure many thought they were dealing with some kind of maniac who looked after eagles (me). I was grateful to Altman for making it real to them.”
This was the new dawn of Hollywood’s interest in British Columbia as a filmmaking centre. Altman came for the rain and the trees, as he had on That Cold Day in the Park a couple of years before, but more and more often the Americans would show up for the cheap eats as early experiments in government tax incentives on foreign productions spurred interest by Hollywood not seen since the brief age of the “quota quickie” films of the 1930s. Meanwhile independent filmmaking started to gain ground. Larry Kent had made his Vancouver films in the early 60s and had already departed for Montreal by the time Darcus started filming, but Kent’s no-budget bravado inspired Darcus and a new generation of filmmakers who came of age just as new government funding schemes emerged for domestic productions in the 70s. As Darcus wrapped up Proxyhawks, Sylvia Spring became the first woman to direct a feature film in Canada with Madeleine Is… released the same year, while a host of experimental filmmakers like Al Razutis, David Rimmer, Gary Lee Nova and Kirk Tougas were carving out a distinctive West Coast brand of avant-garde film practice. Film schools popped up from the University of British Columbia through Emily Carr College of Art and Design and on to Simon Fraser University, while foreign productions intensified and spawned the installation of increasingly sophisticated local production infrastructure in the 1980s. Darcus shot three films in that decade – Deserters, Overnight, and Kingsgate – a time when local films like My American Cousin and The Grey Fox would bring some of the first serious national and international attention to BC film. And Darcus’ last two films were made in the 90s, which saw the launching of the Pacific New Wave, a new era of independent filmmaking that benefited from the presence of Hollywood’s now permanent industrial presence in town.
Jack Darcus’ encounter with Robert Altman in 1971 was a prototypical example of the intersections that would be carved out between these very different worlds of regional filmmaking practice. But Darcus’ subsequent trajectory maps quite a different path through the space of Vancouver’s film scene between the 60s and the 90s than so many of his colleagues of the era. His is a story of the cracks in the system, the impossibilities of working to one’s own story within the parameters of regional and national funding schemes. To follow Darcus’ career is to read between the lines of the all the key points that make up the standard narrative about the emergence of Vancouver as a major filmmaking center, to discover to an alternative history of Vancouver’s film scene and its significance in thinking about the West Coast and its connection to Canada and the world. Through all of these major shifts in the Vancouver scene, Darcus has remained consistent to his own needs as a storyteller, working largely on his terms to make the films he wants, seemingly unaffected by the whirlwind of change that surrounded him. As Colin Browne puts it, “Jack Darcus should be recognized as that rara avis, an independent spirit in the cinema who has continued working actively for over thirty years in the service of his own vision.” 1 Significantly, Darcus has managed throughout to negotiate contracts that allowed him to retain all the rights to his work. And this would make it all the easier to make these films available today in some form or another, a project that Darcus has kept on the back burner while happily carrying on with his successful painting practice out of his studio on Granville Island.
I first became aware of Darcus’ films when I was putting together a graduate seminar on Vancouver cinema at Concordia University for the fall of 2011. There aren’t many references to Darcus in Canadian film studies literature despite the filmmaker’s steady output of 8 feature films between 1969 and 1997. It was in David Spaner’s book Dreaming in the Rain 2 that I came across a description of Darcus’ early features, including Proxyhawks and Wolfpen Principle. It was the latter that caught my attention most particularly, a story of two Vancouver men – one European immigrant and one local First Nations – who conspire to free the wolves of Stanley Park.
As I was embarking on a research project investigating how Vancouver-based films engage with regionally charged social issues, I knew that I simply had to find and see these films. Various paths led me to the man himself, and he pointed me to Library and Archives Canada, which houses copies of his first three efforts. Upon viewing the films at the archives I fell in love with them and, with Darcus’ permission, was able to obtain DVD copies to screen in my course, and subsequently use for my research as I embarked upon a two year postdoctoral research fellowship at Simon Fraser University.
I met with Darcus several times at his studio while I was in Vancouver, and we sat down for a formal interview on the morning of December 3rd, 2012. A light rain dappled on the roof of his studio mixing with the sounds of the factory across the street and the regular passers by touring Granville Island’s artisanal galleries and shops as we chatted amidst a variety of his large scale landscape paintings and a sprinkling of portraits in progress. Naturally, I started by asking him about the role of Vancouver in his work, and we went from there.
The Vancouver Scene and Artistic Inspiration at Home and Abroad
RJ: So did you grow up in Vancouver?
JD: I did. I was born here in 1941. My middle name is Winston, which tells you which war I was born in. And I grew up here. I went through university here and launched myself as a painter of pictures, and then went sideways into set design because I was fascinated by theatre too, and then that led me over into the film thing. The first time I saw Eastern Canada was when I took two films to Toronto.
RJ: There have been a number of attempts over the years to try and classify a “West Coast School,” or something like it. Nobody’s really been able to define such a school, but something that keeps coming up over and over again is a sense of isolation here, certainly from Eastern Canada, but also in many ways from the rest of the world.
JD: Well, I can’t talk about a Vancouver school in the same way that I can talk about Montreal in the 1970s with a bunch of filmmakers trading off subjects. I felt very isolated here. If they were trying to do what I was doing they’d gone away already, you know, like Larry Kent had gone. But, partly because of this isolation, Vancouver represented a great liberating sense that you could do whatever you wanted here. For instance, and I’m going to leap sideways here, Greenpeace could not have started in Ontario. For all the people who were concerned about atomic weapons and the environment, I mean it wouldn’t have started there. It had to start out here, because of the peculiar connection that we have to California, up and down the coast, the peculiar climate we have. When the Group of Seven come out here to try to paint BC’s trees they can’t do it, they always go away and go back to the Laurentians. It’s a different place. Spiritually it’s a different place in some indefinable ways. I think it has fed many artists of all media because they’ve been able to say, “Well why not? Why not do it?” We have the least support for the arts in Canada of any province, therefore there’s no provincial bureaucracy that we have to deal with or suck up to. I mean I wish we had some more support, I could always use some support, but in some ways it’s turning a liability into an asset. I mean the peculiar people who began here like Larry Kent, Morrie Ruvinski, there was just the feeling that there was nobody here to stop us. You know. And the opportunity is there. Let’s do it!
RJ: Did you have any exposure to some of the local stuff that was going on here before Kent? I know there wasn’t a whole lot happening, but, for example, there was the stuff at CBUT with Stanley Fox, Allan King, Arla Saare, and those folks.
JD: I never had any connection with them. Later on Stan Fox became helpful when I was doing my first film, we borrowed things and got some help there. Allan King I never knew until Toronto, and he was one of the ones who wanted to direct the project I wanted to do so that created some conflict. He was a gentleman about it, the minute I said “no” he said, “Okay, I’m gone.” And he backed away. He wasn’t going to try and rifle his way in there. Or offer me any money. No. When I was finished university, Larry Kent had just made The Bitter Ash with Alan Scarfe, and that was the first [independent feature] film that had been made here. And then Larry made his second film the year after, and by that time I was out painting pictures and doing whatever I was doing. [Kent always did] an improvisational thing where he got his actors together and said, “Alright, you’ve got two girls in a bathroom, here’s what you’re talking about. You guys do it.” They talked, and Larry shot. And this I could understand. I could make a film that way.
And then of course the real inspirations coming down from the sky were the great movies from elsewhere. The major inspiration here was a man called Don Barnes who ran [the Varsity Theatre up on 10th ave. near UBC]. Don was part of Odeon, but he had his own programming going and there was a window in the late 60s / early 70s, you know, he brought in all of the early Polanski, Kurosawa, Bergman, Hiroshima Mon Amour, all of Renais’ films, every Truffaut, every one of those great films, and they were all happening at one place in Vancouver. It was in the area of UBC so it attracted that audience. Going to see one of those, a particularly fine one, would make you want to go and make a movie. That was the team you wanted to join. You know, I think that if Don Barnes hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go and make a first film. It was out there; it was real. And because there was no one else here to turn to and say, “oh wow, you did that? I’m going to try that.”
When you see Polanski’s Knife in the Water and you’re 28 and you know you really want to tell a story somehow, and then you see this amazing film made by this guy with three actors and one sailboat, and you never get off the blinking sailboat once you’re on it, you know, you see this jewel of a story and things begin to become possible then. Because I can find three people who can act and a sailboat, no problem.
And that kind of inspiration found its way into the claustrophobia of Deserters. The film that really gave me the courage to do Deserters as a film set in one house over one night was a Fassbinder film: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It all takes place in sort of a design studio. I mean it’s a clothing design place and she’s a clothing designer and she’s madly in love with this lovely young woman that keeps going off and sleeping with American servicemen and breaking her heart and all this stuff, and it’s a drama but it’s really claustrophobic in the middle of all these clothes and you never get out of the place. And I thought, “Oh, if you can do that, then it can be done.” You can keep a drama airborne in that sense.
And Bergman had, of course, been a HUGE inspiration. There was a play called The Stranger by Strindberg, and Persona had been Bergman’s reaction. That was his homage to Strindberg. And those were my platform for The Portrait in a way. Those were out there, I knew they were out there, and they were great pillars to stand upon. Every artwork is an homage to another artwork. You need your great works that are there to support you and then you go and fool around with the subject that you’re trying to understand. But you’re in a surround of similar great works that have done their own take on something like what you’re trying to say, you know. It’s the same with painting. Every painting is an homage to another painting in a way. And that’s fundamental to originality; shadings of what you’ve been able to make of the inspiration and the help you’ve received from someone else.
RJ: What about the Canadian scene outside of Vancouver? Any inspirations there?
JD: The only part of Canada’s [film industry] that I found immensely admirable was Quebec. When I went to Quebec and I met the communal feistiness of the people who were defending their culture, proud of their language, resting on a very well developed publishing industry, children’s television industry, theatre scene, all of this in French, all of this supported as a reaction against the Anglophone world because they were going to preserve their culture.
You know, if I had been born in Montreal I’d have been very happy. Just because the early films by Jean-Pierre Lefebvre and Denys Arcand, they were light years ahead of anything in English Canada. Réjeanne Padovani for example. When I saw that, I had a screening of Wolfpen in Winnipeg and Réjeanne Padovani played at the same event, and it was hard-edged, tough, it was about the real politics of Quebec. They did outrageous things. They cast a look-alike for the Mayor of Montreal; he was a dead ringer for the Mayor! And, craziness, they shot it in three days. They rehearsed the film for about a month, so they had it all down. And then they did one weekend’s rental of equipment and went in and shot it. So, this was revolutionary, powerful filmmaking. And in Wolfpen I was trying to do a professional film according to what I was told was the right way to make movies. But what they did in Réjeanne Padovani was similar in spirit to what I was doing with Proxyhawks. You know. So, seeing the two films side by side was such a shock. Because I really wanted to have made Réjeanne Padovani, you know what I mean? So, as I got to know later when I took Deserters back and I screened a couple of films at the NFB in Montreal and met the film community there I felt at home there, spiritually, compared to English Canada where everybody just wanted to make a successful film.
There’s no such thing in English Canada as preserving English Canadian culture. You were gonna put bums in seats. This was the attitude in Telefilm. I mean, there really is not that defensive thing. In certain areas there’s a microclimate, like in Alberta there’s a certain Texan point of view that produces someone like Ian Tyson for instance. And the folk scene and the country scene. And there’s a microclimate in Vancouver that has a lot to do with First Nations, a lot to do with just the sense of liberation of being here. But it doesn’t mean that there’s a cross-feed in the literature, you know. There’s never that sense of cross-referencing to other filmmakers. So there is no school, as such, that deals up a certain theme, or variations on a theme, in that sense. Whereas in Montreal there is. I mean you can really find it there. You can find that sort of arch, slightly satirical, edge to things that is quite consistent in a bunch of people’s work.
The Canadian Film Industry and the Early Days of CFDC and Telefilm
JD: The very frustrating part of Canada’s film scene is that film is a great engine for telling our story to ourselves. And that has been the justification for Telefilm Canada. And for the effort to preserve our stories in that language. And that has slipped away now. Partly the digital revolution has homogenized it all so that suddenly on the Internet you’re anywhere in the world you want to be. Instantly. So that in itself has laterally spread all the attention worldwide. Which is a good thing. But at the same time, filmmakers who make a movie now, most of them dream of putting it up on YouTube. Which is a new venue, a new publishing scene. But we need the support for the literature. We need the awareness that there is such a thing as the literature. We need a cultural ministry that has an idea about this, you know, and I don’t see that happening. I see Telefilm doing its bums-in-seats act, only approving projects that make money. This is insane. In Canada? Forget it. This is their dream, and they keep themselves in office by doing this, by talking that language. But the language is ridiculous and destructive. Because it means that things don’t happen, you know. In many ways here on the West Coast we’re back to the bad old days of the 1970s, before Vancouver had its own independent film office. Because this office is completely tame; they will do whatever they’re told to do. And there is no independence out here, no sense of autonomy about who we are or what we’re doing here.
RJ: Let’s talk about the bad old days and your early attempts to get your films out of Vancouver. I read a great story about your trip to the CBC offices in Toronto to try and sell them Proxyhawks, where you had to screen the film on the back of the acquisition manager’s door, and at the end he replied: “Sorry, we can’t do this to the average Canadian worker.” 3
JD: That’s true. The door kept opening during the screening as people came in to meet with the guy. And they discussed matters with the film playing on their bellies!
RJ: Was this a major factor in your shift away from the edgier experimentalism of Proxyhawks to a more narrative-based approach in your subsequent films?
JD: No, that was because of the new opportunities offered by Telefilm Canada [then the CFDC], available for the first time as I was developing Wolfpen. I had to write a screenplay that would satisfy their needs. Couldn’t write it on the fly while shooting as I did with the others. We got the funds and made the film, but I didn’t like the experience of working with the producer they attached. Then in 1976 I wrote a screenplay called “The Falcon and the Ballerina” for Karen Kain. [That was the one that] Allan King wanted to produce and direct. Everyone wanted the property, but nobody wanted me to direct it. Telefilm refused to let me produce or direct. Meanwhile I discovered that the project was being developed by others without having bought the rights, so when I found out about that everything was shut down. That ate up 4 years. I gave it up and wrote Deserters instead. And then a theatre company wanted to produce it as a play, but with a $50,000 price tagAnd I could make a film for that money. So I went to Canada Council to pitch an hour-plus “experimental drama,” not a feature: The Canada Council doesn’t do features; they’d send you to Telefilm. So Canada Council gave me $25,000. Then I got some matching funds, sold 3 paintings, made Deserters, and sold it for the cost of production.
RJ: And here you went back to what you had tried with Proxyhawks, which was to sell the films directly to TV rather than attempt the usual theatrical route, which you had on Wolfpen.
JD: Well, in fact, I was offered theatrical runs on all the films from Deserters onward. But I always refused them because theatrical in Canada only meant you’d get, um, one week in Toronto, one week in Ottawa, and maybe Vancouver. And then they would take the television rights. That’s what they wanted. It was some part of Telefilm policy. But it was ridiculous. Filmmakers just lost the rights to their films completely. Some distributor would come in and pay $20,000 or $30,000 on some prints and ads, and it would be put in what was known in the exhibition trade as a “death house”, which means that it was sandwiched in, on a one-week only run, between two American films that were coming in. Nobody cared whether it earned a dime or not. The theatres didn’t really want these things but they had to do it. Films never had a chance to gather an audience, because each theatre had a house nut that if each film made a certain amount a week then it would hold over for another week. When the take dropped below whatever that house nut was, then they would move in the next film. And because most all of the theatres in Canada were foreign owned and controlled, they knew that if a film did 8 weeks in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it would do 4 weeks in Vancouver. So they could plan their year way in advance. They knew how many weeks each film was liable to do. And if a film surprised them by not doing the 4 weeks they expected, then there was a one-week window to put a Canadian movie in. That was the way in happened. And so I never took an offer for a theatre because it was just giving your movie away. Instead I would go and sell the licenses to the broadcasters myself. And the broadcasters never cared whether the films played in the theatres or not. You know, because they never noticed if they did. And it was no advantage to the broadcasters if a film had had one of those ridiculous theatrical releases.
RJ: Some of these frustrations with the Canadian film industry eventually fed into your fourth film, Overnight, which is a pretty biting satire of how things work in this country.
JD: Mordecai Richler said that the dream of every English Canadian businessman was to get big enough to sell out to an American. And the whole film industry was that way. So it was very easy to spin Overnight into what it became, which is a satire. But originally, it wasn’t quite the statement on film production in Canada that it turned into.
The genesis for that film was tragicomic. I got a call from the union saying there was an invitational screening over at Panorama studios. Was I interested in going? So I went over. And um, there was a screening of – I should have known actually – the film was called Sexcula, 4 and [laughing] I went not knowing what I was getting into. And I saw one of the grips from Wolfpen was there, various crew people were there, people I knew from the union who had worked on some of my films. So we all said hello to each other etc. and we all sat down, the lights went down and up came the film. Um, Sexcula had basically, I mean, I’m blurry now on whatever the plot line was, it doesn’t matter. It was just a film about fucking really. It was a piece of pornography that was… well it wasn’t soft-core. I mean in those days it was a little raw, it had a sort of Dracula type basis to it in a way. You know, it was a fantasy. But the excuse for making the film was that the leading lady was going to have her legs open most of the time.
So, we’re all sitting there watching this. When the lights came up at the end there was sort of a stunned silence in the audience because nobody knew where to look or what to say to each other. And we all sort of stood around looking at our shoes, and the grip I knew came over to me, and he started to talk. He had been in the film! There he was. There was Frank up there on the screen, you see, balling the leading lady, right? And I mean, very graphically balling the leading lady. So he comes over to me and he’s all sheepish and embarrassed. And he started to talk about how there was a lot of cocaine on the set and whatever else, etc. He’s going around and around about this, talking about the leading lady and how she was a bit of a burnout due to the drugs, and then he said, “That wasn’t me up there.” And up until this point I thought he was embarrassed because I had seen him doing that. But no, he wasn’t. He was embarrassed because he wasn’t really up there. He said, “I couldn’t do it. I thought I could do it. But when they started, I couldn’t get an erection. So they had to cut somebody else’s body in to make the scene work.” And the whole situation had been calamitous to him because he thought, “Hey, gonna do it!” But he couldn’t do it. So here he was apologizing because he wasn’t on screen, not because he was on screen.
I was sympathetic, and then I walked out into the night’s fresh air and that was the end of that. But then I felt very, very sorry for that leading woman. I mean, you know, it was so tawdry, it was such a piece of crap. It used her terribly, and she was probably 27 years old but she looked 43. She was a rather battered piece of person. It disgusted me and so I went away and wrote a story about two people who meet on the set of a hard-core porn film. There’s a real connection between the two people, but they’re in the middle of this chaos of making a hard-core film. And they’re trying to preserve some humanity, you know, and they’re drowning in it but they’re trying to stay above it in a way and stay real with each other. And so that was the original screenplay. It was a short thing, about 60 pages. But there was good dialogue and it was these two people trying to cope with what was happening to their feelings because they were just being used completely. So it was my reaction against that film that caused me to write the initial thing. But then as my experience with Canadian film grew, [laughs], I kept those original scenes but it started to transmogrify into the whole amazing industry that we had at that time – and still have – which is such a futile gesture in the film world when you stop and think of the level of literature that is almost constant.
RJ: Perhaps my favourite line from so many good ones in the film: “We may be little and dirty, but we’re Canadian.”
JD: When it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival that line got such a reaction in the theatre. Just whoops and cheers and shouts, it was wonderful.
RJ: And then there’s the moment when the lead says, “He does make shitty films but it was a good job and we were working with our friends.” Is that how you felt a bit? I mean, you never wanted to sell out, to get a big American gig the way Alan’s character in the film does?
JD: Never. And in fact when I went initially, I took Deserters to the American film market in LA and I had been through New York screening it, and also I did that with Overnight, and by this time I was learning the ropes. So my first experience in LA was with Deserters trying [chuckles] to sell it, and Telefilm at that time was very supportive and they had a suite in whatever hotel it was in, and they had screeners of the film there and what have you. But I met a young filmmaker there who had just done an independent American movie. She had worked for the props department at 20th Century Fox and had borrowed equipment and gone off to some abandoned building in the desert and made a movie. The kind of movie we make in Canada. I went to see the screening of the film, and I learned from her that she was going through all the same struggles as an independent filmmaker in America as I was in Canada. That was one of the big learning situations. When I went off to England and Europe to sell my films later, I was competing with a lot of people just like myself who were trying to make their own movies in their own domestic situation, trying desperately to sell their films into their own broadcasters. I realized very quickly that I was just competing in a market. The idea was that you could take your Canadian film and sell it elsewhere. But that was fantasy. A large part of it was fantasy. And if I were an American, living in America, trying to do the same subjects, I’d be having the same difficulties and the same hopelessness that I have at home, really. And then I realized that I was immensely lucky to actually be able to do the films I wanted here.
RJ: So, because you never had the dream of selling out, and managed to navigate the Telefilm strategy from time to time, you had enormous freedom to pursue topics that were true to your heart.
JD: The source of my subject matter had always been issues that were troubling me, and that were troubling everybody, like the Vietnam War, that I needed to resolve in some way by making an artwork. The social function of the arts is that kind of sharing, where someone in the isolation of making art, works out a piece of art that says something that can’t be said otherwise, and then other people come and see it and they go, “Ah, I felt that way.” And it’s that kind of social sharing that art really is all about. On the other hand, 96% of the art produced is narcotics. It’s basically there not to ask questions, but to put the audience comfortably to sleep. To give them the world they expect, you know, with a happy ending. And then they walk out onto the street full of bubbles and fifteen minutes later they’ve forgotten it and it’s gone. So, those kinds of films I didn’t have any interest in at all. I didn’t like to watch them, because they were pointless, and also because I was a young man working out difficult issues for myself about love, relationships, immoral wars, and what have you. I mean, Vietnam was the moral watershed of my generation. That was the one issue at the time that had huge impact for me. And being a Canadian in the Vietnam years with sympathies very much against the war, and all my friends were American draft dodgers and deserters, and they had all given up on going home to avoid fighting in that war, it really made me reevaluate my position in it all. It was very easy in Canada to be on the side of the angels; it didn’t cost you anything. You know, I didn’t have to give up anything. I could go around with all the right thoughts, but they were really cheaply held. But for me, art should ask a good question, ultimately. So that’s what I’ve tried always to do.
RJ: And those questions about the Vietnam war fed some of your films directly. In Proxyhawks the issue is presented rather metaphorically, though there are a few overt references to the war that help situate the domestic tensions and the birds of prey within that context. Can you tell me about that very striking scene in which the large-scale pictures from the war go up in flames?
JD: Those were actually blow-ups of napalmed children from Ramparts magazine. Before the film I was part of a demonstration. One of the guys took a motorcycle and went to San Francisco, to Ramparts and got the negs and brought them back up to Vancouver. They used my studio and made these huge trays for developing, and then we developed those things in billboard size on photographic paper using huge long exposures in order to get the picture. And then we took those out to UBC and set them up and handed out pamphlets about Vietnam and so forth. After the demonstration was over, nobody knew what to do with them so I said we could store them at my warehouse studio downtown. A year later when I was making the movie I thought, okay, let’s do it. They can definitely be part of the film because they were part of the central subject.
RJ: And Deserters deals overtly with Vietnam issues as it tells the story of an American Sargent who comes to Vancouver in search of a draft dodger. In the process he manages to convince another young man to join the military, only to then question his own involvement in the horrors of war. And psychological situations like this arise often in your films as you write characters who are constantly shifting ideological positions, changing their minds, wrestling with these ideas, starting with one opinion and then taking another. And in many cases, these characters are artists: writers, painters, and filmmakers. Is that born, in part, of your own wrestling with ideas across interdisciplinary boundaries?
JD: You know, again, this is another one of those sweeping pronouncements, but to me drama is always a can’t leave / can’t stay situation. And drama within ourselves is fundamentally that: you can’t stay with the idea and you can’t leave it either. Also, when I’m teaching writing, I’ll point out that a writer subdivides themselves into characters and puts them on the stage and says, “Alright, if you’re this and you’re this then let’s see what happens when you meet.” And often there are discoveries there for the writer that are really profound and unexpected. I think that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet he was all the characters in that play. He’s everybody. And he put them all on stage and put this uncertain young man who doesn’t know quite what to do in the middle of it all surrounded by the ghost and everybody else, and the whole thing is Shakespeare’s self-portrait. Now, I’m not presuming to be in the same league as that writer, but at the same time, there’s a great lesson in that. If you’re going to write drama that is going to have a profound effect, then it’s a can’t stay /can’t leave situation. So what has to happen is, peace has to be made, sometimes a very fragile peace between the opposite poles of the drama. In Shakespeare’s day, characters ended tragically. Fortinbras comes in and the kingdom goes on. The great metaphor of all of Shakespeare’s writing is that the kingdom is what goes on and that each of us, each individual, is a kingdom with all these characters at war within it. In the comedies it goes on happily; in the tragedies, the person at the center is in trouble and dies, but the kingdom still goes on. Now, we don’t have kingdoms anymore, and we don’t think of ourselves as kingdoms. Although the metaphor is still very powerful because when you go to a good production of Shakespeare you fall right into it. You’ve still got that sense of identity about being essentially the kingdom. It makes sense to you. But we are much more now, I believe, in the can’t stay/can’t leave situation and so we’re into making complicated fragile pieces in ourselves about irresolvable issues, you know, about relationships that turn out to not be the ideal that we thought they were, or whatever. The impulse to write, for me, is to find myself caught in the midst of this kind of thing. Who’s at war with whom here?
RJ: This kind of mental battling really comes out in a film like Kingsgate, where the main character, played by Alan Scarfe, is a struggling author.
JD: And sometimes things happen in the strangest way. Sometimes someone will say something to me, just an anecdote, and I’ll think that’s a wonderful subject and away I’ll go. I’ve got a wonderful screenplay I’d love to do now called SVEC, and it was something that somebody said to me on a trip to Prague. And I went, “Wow, what a subject.” Because it suddenly touched the nerve in me, that’s really balancing on two points, if that makes sense. Every student I’ve had wants to write vampire stories or something, because they’ve seen a vampire film and they really liked it, and then I’ll have to take them and say, “Alright, you want to write a vampire story. But why did you choose this particular vampire story? What is it in your life that’s making you write this subject in this way right now? And until you can get in touch with what that is, you won’t have a fresh way through the subject. You’ll only have the cliché way. And every screenplay that I’ve started that turned into a pile of clichés is because I lost the thread, the reason that I was writing it. And all of a sudden I started to write stuff like every other thing I’ve ever seen. But that’s normal.
Collaborative Processes: Shooting
RJ: Let’s go back to your first film, Great Coups of History, and talk about how that fit into your creative process as a painter at the time, and what led you into filmmaking.
JD: I had been designing sets for a theatre company, and wanted to direct in theatre. I really wanted to direct a play. But nobody in the theatre scene in Vancouver would let me go near a play, because I was a painter who was a stage designer who obviously knew that I didn’t know what I was doing as a director, right? So, that was a closed door for me. So at that time, I met a woman that I wanted to paint a portrait of, who was a great raconteur, talked endlessly about herself, and I’m busy doing some drawings of her and she’s yakking away, and at the second sitting she’s telling me the same story again. And I realize that she’s got these stories, and then I thought that she would make a wonderful movie. So that’s how Coups began.
Meanwhile I had to find a way to make it. The Film Society at UBC at the time was a student run organization that had access to a theatre there and they kept all the money. So they had money, and they wanted to make a movie. And here I was with a subject, and I wanted to make a movie. So I went and talked to them about it, because I had friends who were connected with that, and they said, “Alright, if you can pay for the first part, we’ll pay to finish it.” The deal at the time was that they wanted me to use one of their members as a cameraman. Now, I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, so I went out and said to the cameraman, “Right, let’s you and I go out for a day of shooting and see what happens here.” So we went out and shot a bunch of stuff and I just asked him to do different things. I didn’t know what I wanted, except that I wanted to know he could take pictures. Well it turns out he couldn’t, and then I realized, “Woops, we’re in trouble,” because I’m not going to be able to do this with their chosen cameraman. So I went to Morrie Ruvinksi who had just finished shooting The Plastic Mile, which I hadn’t seen, but the film was in the can and they were editing it. And I said, “I need a cameraman” and he said, “Terry Hudson,” who worked for the CBC as a cameraman. So I went and got Terry and showed him the writing, such as it was (five pages or so), and he said, “You’ve got a really great subject. Okay I’ll do it.” So we struck a deal where I paid him almost noting for the whole film, and he said, “You don’t know anything about directing but I’m going to tell you the logic of the shots that we’re doing.” And by the end of the first week I knew that if I did this shot then I needed that shot. Shot/reverse shot, etc. The language is very simple. So by the end of the first week I knew what we were doing. And away we went. Terry was enormously helpful. It was like a mentorship thing.
Then I was left alone at the end of the shoot with 22,000 feet of 16mm film work print, and I’ve never edited before. So they gave me an editing room in a closet at the university somewhere in the Student Union Building, and they gave me a hot-splicer that you use for cutting negative, and a set of rewinds, and a moviescope viewer. With a hot-splicer you lose a frame each time you cut, so when you’re cutting sound with a hot-splicer you’ve got to sacrifice a frame of your sound. 8 months later I had the movie made. And I learned. It was in the editing process that I fell in love with making a film. You could compress time. It was so malleable, you know, in terms of what you could do to make a scene work. All these things were wonderful discoveries. I was completely engrossed and happy with that.
Collaborative Processes: Editing
RJ: Speaking of editing: the sequence that really stands out across all your work, with regards to the editing, is the “bird rape” from Proxyhawks, where you use montage to really flesh out the metaphorical connections between your human characters and the birds of prey. This was the moment that most struck my class when I showed it to them as well.
JD: Yes. That movie, I moved up one notch from Coups. We didn’t have a Movieola or a flatbed to work with, I still had rewinds and a moviescope viewer, but now I was cutting with a guillotine cutter so I wasn’t sacrificing frames. I didn’t have to do all these mathematics all the time with sound. That one it took me the whole winter to cut. We shot it and again it was another 8 months or so of cutting, and then I did the first screening of it. And it was such a strange screening because everyone was quiet at the end. Nobody wanted to say anything to me. They all looked at their shoes. And then they all left. And I went and visited John Gray, a writer from Vancouver, and I said: “What happened?” He said, “Well it was so strong, nobody knew what to do.”
But editing is such a joy, and it was my first love in film really. Later I was very fortunate. Jana Fritsch, who was in Vancouver here, is arguably the greatest dramatic editor, at least in Western Canada if not the whole country. Up until that time I had cut and worked with people to help me polish at the end because I was completely burnt out by what I was doing. So a fresh point of view was really helpful. So Jana, who is Czech trained, and she came out to Canada in 1968, had such a high reputation that I was kind of scared to approach her. I had The Portrait under way, and this time, for the first time, I wanted to have an editor on board cutting while I was shooting so that I could have an assembly happening. I had never had that before. And so I approached Jana about that and she said yes. So she came on and then I started getting these lovely notes on the set saying, “I think you need a reverse on this shot” and other things she thought were required, which was wonderful. I mean I try to keep my wits about me about cutting points but we did so many dolly shots in The Portrait that every time you turn the dolly around somebody you reverse the axis and you can tangle your brain up completely as to which side of the camera the actor should be on when you go into the close-ups. So Jana was keeping me honest that way. But when the shoot was over I was expecting to move into editing and so I was hanging around in the editing room while Jana would continue to cut. And I’m looking over her shoulder and I’m sort of dancing from toe to toe wondering how I can be useful here, you know, because I really want to get my hands on the film. And then I saw her doing things with stuff that I had directed that I could never have cut. I mean she was doing wonderful editing, skill on another level than what I was used to. So very soon I relaxed. I just went into the next room, painted a picture, and if Jana needed me I’d trot in and look at something, and she cut the movie.
Jana is one of those people who’s a joy to work with. The art of editing is not something that I’m a master at. I’m a pretty good editor, but I’m not there. Jana’s not a writer; she’s a very good editor. So she’ll work with the material to the script. But if you want to go in later and change the script in the editing, like you want to make a scene say something else, that’s when the writing ability comes in. We did that with the ending of Silence; we spun it into a different dimension during the trial scene. But that was all fabrication. We didn’t shoot it that way.
RJ: Tell me more about that. What had you intended for the end of Silence, and how did that change?
JD: Oh, the ending as written was sweeter than the ending I did. You have the father on trial [for the murder of his brother who sexually abused his daughter]. He won’t say anything. The prosecutor’s on his case, she’s pushing for the worst things that can happen to him. And the only person who can save him is the daughter, and then the daughter steps forward. That’s the way the writing was. And the movie’s over. The minute the kid is going to go to the stand you know what’s going to happen. And so the movie died at that point. Because it was a happy ending. You know, play the violins and go home. And I didn’t want that. There was a scene with August Schellenberg [who played the father] and the kid on a bridge. Augie is having angst about his brother and he’s trying to tell his daughter that his brother isn’t all bad. And the daughter is vengeful and says, “I wanted him dead.” So what I did was, I put the kid in place, and I took that scene with Augie out of the earlier part of the movie and now I went and put it there as a flashback. And what that does is it puts the whole issue on the table again; this is a kid that has been terribly hurt and is terribly angry. And justifiably so. It’s not a kid that’s going to come forward and tell the truth to save her dad; that’s far too thoughtless. That’s too sweet an ending, and I wanted an ending that was a provocation. But for Jana to cut that scene in, and make all the directions work in the courtroom – the positions and directions that people are looking – that’s all fabrication. If I could ever make another movie I would love to work with Jana. She’s so very good.
RJ: Yeah, there’s an elaborate montage sequence towards the end of The Portrait when you’re hearing the painter lecturing, but then you’re seeing him in the studio intercut with what seem like flashbacks to the first time that Barbara, the woman with the fur coat, comes in to visit a lecture. But then what he’s saying is tying in with what’s going on later, and then maybe she imagines that she’s there while he’s in the room painting. And other times it might be his imagination we’re privy to. It’s very complex.
JD: Really complex. And there’s a dolly shot in there that’s one of the longest dolly shots that we did. Because Barbara appears and disappears. And every time she appears she’s sort of there, behind him, and he’s hearing her voice, but then we move the dolly so that she disappears, and now she’s running around the set to come in at another point and then the dolly picks her up again. So we establish her unreality by having her appear where she shouldn’t appear, all the time throughout the shot. And that shot went on for something like 7 or 8 minutes of shooting, and with incredibly complicated marks to hit on the floor, and Barbara had to hit her marks and get in on time for each of the entries, and when we finished that shot and got the first successful take the whole crew cheered. They were cheering the dolly operator, Terry. Because what you’re doing is pulling focus like crazy while you’re moving all the time. But I mean those things are in the writing. You can’t do that without planning. But then you work with a really good editor who comes in with a whole different series of cutting points and makes something smoother and truer in your own way. This is what I mean. It’s having another brain whose seeing it all fresh.
Collaborative Processes: Acting (Human and Otherwise)
JD: It’s such a high to make a film. I mean you’re working with a circus. It’s a team effort. You’re working with all these really high-powered people, and if you happen to have written the thing, you’ve lost all your objectivity so your actors can teach you so much. They can just say a line in a way that you’d never expected to hear it and suddenly you’re awake! You’re realizing, “oh my god there’s another possibility there.”
RJ: You’ve worked with Alan Scarfe on every film from Deserters through The Portrait.
JD: Alan is, I think, and thought always, that he is one of Canada’s greatest actors. When I saw him initially he had just come back from England. He made a film with Larry Kent, The Bitter Ash, then he went to England. He studied two years at LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art], and then he did repertory theatre in Liverpool for another year, and then he came back to Vancouver because he was burned out with theatre. He came back to Vancouver to go back to university. But Paxton Whitehead was put in charge of The Vancouver Playhouse. Paxton was a fine director and a really great actor too, and that was the highest point that the Playhouse ever reached. He went and winkled Alan out of the university and back into the acting world and then Alan did wonderful productions here. They were just superb stage productions for one season. And then Alan went off to Stratford, and I didn’t meet him until I went east while working on Falcon and the Ballerina. I initially wanted him as the lead on that. Nobody in the film world thought that a Stratford actor could act in films at all, so that was a write-off for everybody. They didn’t want Alan in a film. They wanted someone with film experience. I mean, these people were idiots. And then, of course, when Toronto saw the film, they thought, “Holy cow, he can act!” I mean it’s ridiculous. He had been a great actor in their midst for several years. He’s a wonderful actor. If I could do another film with him I’d be very pleased. He was nominated for a Genie award on both Deserters and Overnight.
RJ: Any great moments come to mind about shooting with Alan?
JD: On Deserters, we had shot the scene on the train after all our big location stuff was done. So the scene on the train, when Alan tells the joke, that was either our last or second last day of shooting. So the first time when Alan steps up in the living room at night and tells the joke about the ditch that blew up, no one on the set had heard the dialogue before and it was all done in one shot. And we had a dolly and just went with him until he’s down on the floor and they move into a close-up on him.
We ended up cutting into those things because we’ve got other people looking at him but basically it’s all one shot. There are turning points in films where all of a sudden everyone goes, “Gasp, my god, we’re into something here we never thought we were into before.” And with what Alan did that night, the whole crew had never realized, you know, what he was capable of. Up until this time they had seen him be the heavy duty Sargent, but not that kind of raw emotion. And so in each film, things have happened where all of a sudden something like that takes place, or an actor does something that causes me to say, “Oh shit I’ve got to rewrite this, I’ve got to add two scenes now, or something,” because that is too good to let go. The story has to go with it. There have always been those times when you have to let go, to abandon and then reform the script, to carry on.
The ending of Kingsgate was that way. His walking out to the cows, that wasn’t in the screenplay. The film was written before the shoot, but I knew going into the shoot that the ending would have to change. And so I rewrote the ending somewhere in the first or second week of shooting. It’s really such a dynamic process, like you’re riding this horse and you want to keep it going in one direction but it won’t sometimes, and it veers off, and now you’re into a whole different ride and you still have to get it back on course again, but you really have to take advantage of those things because they’re wonderful things.
And while I’m on that kind of a subject, there was a night on Wolfpen, it was one of those amazing nights. We had it set up: the wolves would howl when there was a police siren in the city. I knew that wolves did that from my prior experience; dogs will do that too. So I thought, okay, we’ll shoot the wolves howling and we’ll do that before the drama, so we’ll have that. And that I think was our first night of shooting at the wolf pen [in Stanley Park]. We went and got a siren in a stationary police car down on the seawall, and the police car turned the siren on and the wolves all just sat there looking. No way they were going to howl. And so we’re thinking, what are we gonna do? So finally, I had the bright idea, I said, “That siren is sitting there stationary. Can we get it in motion?” So we put the car in motion and the sirens started to wail and it was traveling. Now the wolves started to howl. So we got our stock footage of all the wolves with their heads up howling and it was a moving siren that was going to trigger them. Okay. Good. Done. We had a successful night. Now, we had come to the scene where my plan was that Vladimir was going to come up to the wolf pen, he’s going to howl, we’re going to feed in a siren and the wolves are going to start to howl, and then we’ll go cut back and forth between Vladimir howling, wolves howling in the pen, and we’ll have a scene fabricated out of two different nights of shooting. So I didn’t need the wolves howling on the second night, so I didn’t need police cars or anything like that. So we set up for that particular shot and the dolly we had, would you believe, was a spider with four little wheels. We didn’t have a proper dolly, we just had a traveling spider for the tripod, and Terry rode on this piece of plywood with casters on it and the grip pulled him back and parked him where he was supposed to be. So Vladimir comes walking around the corner and up to the wolf pen and then the grip corrects the camera so that we’re now parallel to Vladimir at the fence looking in. A little tweak with the dolly to bring Vladimir into frame. So as Vladimir is coming up, before that dolly move, a siren goes off in the city. A real one. And the first wolf goes, “Awoooooo!” like this. And you see Vladimir’s face light up, because this is synchronicity now. God is with us; it’s happening. So the siren kept going in the city, and the wolves kept howling, and Vladimir stopped at the fence and did his howl and now we’ve got real wolves howling, a real siren out in the city, Vladimir’s doing this thing, and I said, “Keep going! Keep shooting!” And so Terry has got the camera, like he’s here with the tripod, and he reaches down and he pops the three legs of the tripod free. And he takes the camera onto his shoulder. This part of the shot isn’t in the film because that’s a whole [jerky motion], and he steps off the dolly and now he’s beside Vlado and Vlado goes over the fence. Now Terry is going down with Vlado. And then as Terry is taking Vlado over the fence with the camera, now Vlado’s kneeling at the fence, a wolf walks into the shot and howls with Vlado. It’s a two-shot and it’s real. And at that point Terry said, “We’re out.” The film was out. We’d blown the whole roll. But, everyone cheered. The whole place just went up in pandemonium because all the crew was just whistling and shouting because it was just so amazing that it all went YES.
Things like that, I have a lurking theory about group energy that if everybody wants something and they’re all in the same space, somehow they’ll make it happen. You know. I can’t articulate that theory very well, but film productions, especially low budget film productions where you can’t afford to do things the right way – and you have to invent like crazy and you need something at three in the morning and you know it’s out there and then it turns up – these kinds of things are, to me, the real joys of film. And that’s something. That’s the wonderful part of it. That’s the up side to it all.
RJ: And you came to films like Proxyhawks and Wolfpen with a certain comfort level working with animals from your experiences at the zoo, right?
JD: [At the time of Proxyhawks] I was looking after all the birds of prey [for the Stanley Park Zoo], and I also looked after one ocelot, a moose, coyotes, two monkeys – I became a repository for whatever needed care and attention. But the birds of prey were the center of it all. Alan came to me one day at the property I was on – I had about a quarter of an acre – and he said, “How big a property would you need to keep six wolves?” And I looked at him and said, “Well, this times two I guess.” We talked about it but I didn’t know the wolves were on their way, which, in fact, they were. They had already been given to the zoo and then they built the wolf pen down there. So from that time on I went down there to see them. Two years before [shooting Wolfpen] I did some recording down there, I was thinking of doing a sort of Proxyhawks type underground movie. So we went down and recorded some stuff of the wolves and all of that, and so I was already aware that they would howl with the sirens, for example.
And then I heard a story one day. A young woman anthropologist told me (at a party) that she had just returned from Northern BC where her First Nations “informant,” a very old man, had recently died. On the night he died, wolves came around the village and howled. This was a remarkable event, as wolves had not been heard there in many years. And the coincidence of hearing this story right around the time that the zoo had acquired their arctic wolves is what gave birth to Wolfpen Principle.
RJ: So, in Wolfpen you dealt provocatively with issues of Native presence in modern Vancouver, and tied this to general feelings of isolation and incompatibility also felt by the white European immigrant character. That film was ahead of its time for dealing with indigenous/immigrant relations as a complex set of interconnections rather than the more typical dichotomous relationship found in so many other films of the era and even later. But you didn’t revisit the topic until your very last film, Silence, completed 25 years later. Why did you wait so long?
JD: The big answer is that I’ve written quite a bit on the subject, including a novel, but I’ve never gotten that out into the world at all. So it is a subject that haunts me, but there are two or three big issues here: political correctness and the fear of cultural appropriation are two strong forces in our society. Political correctness, meaning that you want to do the right thing for the First Nations people. And I have incredible respect for them as survivors. One friend of mine, Willard Sparrow, was the chief of Musqueam reserve, and he managed to turn that reserve from what was in those days a pretty typical reserve into something quite amazing. He kicked Indian Affairs off of it, he went and got CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] in and made Musqueam the first reserve in Canada to allow mortgages, rebuilt all the houses and turned a great deal of the politics of being an Indian upside down. And I knew him at the time. He was one of my neighbours when I was looking after all the birds of prey, because I lived right on the edge of the reserve. And the kids from the preschool used to come and look at the animals every Thursday.
RJ: Where was that exactly?
JD: That was at the foot of Dunbar and 49th.
RJ: And that was where you shot Proxyhawks?
JD: Yes. But knowing Willard – who died tragically at 42 years of age – was a real education for me about the survivability of these people whose culture was decimated. I mean they went through genetic decimation by measles and what have you, but they have rebounded in a startling and amazing fashion, and I’d want to be very, very careful before going anywhere near that subject. It’s so easy to screw it up. So when Hank Shachte brought me the screenplay for Silence, that was the first subject that I thought had real power and was potentially good. Then there were some big influences on that script because George Johnson of the NFB read it. At first there was sort of a wise old Indian Shaman type man, and George said you better get rid of him because he’s a cliché, so I said that to Hank and he got rid of him. Then actor Tantoo Cardinal read it and at that point the woman in the screenplay was a very docile, obedient, following Johnny 20 feet behind him type of wife who was slightly dimwitted so she didn’t really understand what Johnny was doing. And Tantoo said, uh, “You want me to play that?” I said, “Why don’t you have a talk with the writer.” And so by the time she finished with Hank [laughing]… I just stood back and stayed out of it and that character became something else again. Very much something Tantoo would want to play now. And she’s a wonderful actress, and was wonderful in the part.
We were looking for a place to shoot it, and I went to the Musqueam friends I had on the reserve and I asked if we could shoot down there and one of them said, “No, don’t shoot down here, they’ll make a meal of you. Go and talk to the Tsawwassen people.” So I drove into the Tsawwassen reserve and spoke to the business manager and said I’d like to shoot a movie here etc. And I had already driven around the place and said, “I’d love to use this house and that trailer etc. and we’d like to rent your hall” and I explained the whole deal and asked if they’d consider it. So they had a business meeting about it and I came back for another meeting and yeah, they were interested. So I said that I’d like to meet the people whose houses we’re thinking of using and explain to them what’s going to go on. So I, and I believe Hank, the writer, and a couple of other people went to meet one of the women whose house we were going to use. What we found was that, not only were we meeting her, but we were meeting half the reserve. I mean the living room was just packed with people. And so we all got in and introduced ourselves and somebody there said, “So, what’s the story about?” And I thought, “Uh-oh, sink or swim now.” So I said, “Well it’s about a man whose daughter has been sexually abused by his brother, and he murders the abuser and swears his wife to Silence because he’s not going to have his brother’s reputation destroyed. He’s put on trial for the murder and he still won’t open his mouth.” And I stopped right there. And a voice said, “Sounds like real life.” And I knew then that we were in and we were okay. But I told the bluntest version of the story I possibly could just so that nobody would have any illusions; we’re not here to make a fun film, you know, etc. And that worked. But it was like one of those cliffhangers. You tell the story and then shut up and wait for the reaction.
And from there on in we were treated so well by that reserve. We were completely looked after by them. We used the hall for our catering and we all had our lunches there and everything else. It was a pretty big rig, we had something like 25 or 30 trucks, ‘cause I mean people don’t know what’s going to happen when a movie arrives. They saw one car arrive and four people get out. And we had a chat with them. But then all of a sudden this whole thing arrives, and that’s often a shock to people. But no, it all went down well, they all went with it very well. Mind you, we had enough of a budget – that was 1.3 million – so we paid a good rent and I made sure everyone got copies of the film on VHS later and all that. So yeah, it was a really good time.
RJ: So how was that film received? You didn’t do a theatrical release for that?
JD: No, I sent it to Sundance and it was accepted there but we didn’t have a 35mm print because I went to Telefilm to try and get a print made but they went “nope” and wouldn’t do it. So we showed it digitally. And this was just the start of digital projection in theatres, and Sundance had one all set up. So it was up there on the screen and it went well.
There was a big meeting for Sundance out at the ski resort. We were part of the First Nations film programming there and before the film we were invited to this First Nations meeting at the Sundance resort. Robert Redford was going to be there. But I was amazed at the political anger of the Native American people. I mean, rude! They weren’t impressed with Redford, or with anybody. They just had their own agenda and they knew what they wanted. It was strongly political. Redford made a very nice speech, I mean he was the host – he was the one who put the festival together for Christ’s sake! But the Native Americans were on their own turf. They weren’t on his turf. So I thought, “Holy shit, what’s going to happen when the film arrives?” And there was a great discussion afterwards. I was able to tell the story of Tantoo tweaking the woman’s character, because everyone there loved Tantoo very much, and she received a huge accolade when she was there for the film. Augie drove up from Texas with his wife and they were there too. But it’s like another culture. Native Americans have had a hell of a lot harder time than the Canadians have. A really bitter time, and they’ve got huge cause for anger you know.
So to go back to your question as to why I hadn’t revisited the subject: it’s a really, really difficult subject, because you have to tell the truth of what’s happening. When I was asked why I had done the film, I said it was brought to me by a writer whose daughter was sexually abused. And the reason he wrote the screenplay was because when his child had gone through this, at the same time, on the nearby reserve, a boy was sexually abused and the father had killed the abuser. That was going on when the writer was dealing with this in his own family. He put two and two together and came up with a First Nations story. And that answer satisfied everybody. I mean it was real experience that was coming out here.
RJ: That’s the first script you’ve done that wasn’t your own.
JD: That’s right. And that was great. Well I mean I had done some directing in Toronto at the CBC, but Silence was a good experience. It was a good piece of writing. And Hank did have to go through some fairly steep learning curves to deal with some very powerful people who were not going to do anything they didn’t want. Writing a screenplay anyway is such a thankless thing to do, Jesus Christ, nobody wants you on the set even. But for me it was a subject that, when I read it, I thought it should be done. And Hank had gotten to know me because he was an observer on the set of Portrait, because his girlfriend at the time was an assistant on the set. She was an Emily Carr student who was somehow connected up with the crew. But she was also his girlfriend so she actually brought him and introduced him to me. And it was about the time of that shoot that I read Silence and knew that would be the next one.
I sent it to Augie, after we had the script in final good shape and he sent me back a note saying, “Nope, not interested.” Okay. So I thought, “Dead issue.” If I don’t have Augie, I don’t have a movie. Then about three months later I got a note from Augie saying he’d changed his mind. And I thought, “Okay, we’re in business.” So then I went after City TV and told them I’ve got August Schellenberg, and whoever the buyer was at City TV at the time said, “If you can guarantee Augie then we’re in.” And I said, “Oh yeah, no problem, we’ve got a letter from him.” So from the minute Augie said “yes” the film started to happen. But up until then there was literally no one else in Canada that could catch the attention of the broadcasters. Not another First Nations actor that would make the broadcasters take note. And Augie is a great actor.
RJ: This was ’96 when you were shooting? Because North of 60 had been running for a while by then.
JD: That had been running for a while and I did think of the man you’re thinking of who was part of North of 60…
RJ: Tom Jackson.
JD: Tom Jackson. But he wasn’t right for Johnny. He’s a nice actor, a nice entertainer too. But I saw Augie first on stage doing Ecstasy of Rita Joe back when it was first staged here in 1968. And Augie was about 34 years old and had just come out of the National Theatre School and he did an equally electrifying performance to anything Alan Scarfe had done on stage. So I knew I wanted to work with him. And I was fixated there. That was it. So when I read the script, he automatically became Johnny. And then I really didn’t look anywhere else.
RJ: He’s certainly perfect for the role.
JD: Oh yeah. And the way he carried the actor who played his brother, who had never acted in a film before this… Augie was there for the readings when I was casting the part, and after the brother read, Augie caught me at the door and said, “You’ve gotta use him.” And I said, “But Augie, he’s never been in a movie before” and Augie said, “No, no, I’ll work with him. I’ll work with him. You gotta use him.” So I said “fine” and we did. And he did a beautiful job, and it was Augie who was always taking him aside and saying, “Okay, when you do this, think of that” and coaching him and that. Augie was a very generous man. He died tragically in the Fraser Canyon three or four years ago. He came out of a tent at night and fell off a cliff. They were up there at a fishing camp.
JD: I’d love to make another film, but again, it’s the bloody economics that makes things so difficult. A film has to make its money back. Or, it’s a hothouse plant that has to be very strongly supported. I mean, finally, as an artist these days your address is your website. That’s publishing. So I’m looking now to try to get the whole thing up on the platform and then give it away and see what happens [laughs]. Because it’s another whole game. In some ways we’re very lucky to be living in times when all this is becoming possible.
Storytelling is model building, in a way. And storytelling can oddly penetrate some unplumbed depths in our lives if people are looking for that kind of thing. Now that remains my interest. It’s only worth telling a story if you’re going to try to say something that couldn’t be articulated in any other way other than a story. But that narrows the field; every language has had to fight a rear-guard action for survival in order to combat incoming languages. So when the camera happened in 1850, painting suddenly went into spasm because all of a sudden most of the business of painting had just been taken off the table. And this flurry of isms that happened – impressionism, cubism, every ism – all of those different and quickly revolving schools were the language of painting trying to discover what painting could say that no other art could say. And when television happened, the same thing happened to films. Film suddenly went into an identity spasm. What could films say that TV couldn’t? And so the language changed again. And we’re into another one of those now where, with all the information out there, what do stories count for? And stories told in film in particular? These are really vital questions that we really need to share. Because I go to film festival screenings and see a film by, I don’t know, an Iranian filmmaker who happens to be working in Japan right now or something like this, and I’m saying, “Wow, you know, there’s a whole other take on storytelling here.” And this is a subject that really needs to be assembled and put up there for young people to watch and see that this is where stories can take you. It isn’t just entertainment. It has a really serious point underneath it.
Shortly after this interview with Darcus I began organizing a screening of Wolfpen Principle for the annual conference of the Film Studies Association in Canada, which was meeting in Victoria, BC, in early June 2013. It was the 40th anniversary of the film, and with the conference’s return to BC it seemed the perfect moment to (re)introduce Darcus to the Canadian film studies community. In fact, nobody in the audience had seen the film before, including a handful of noted historians of Canadian film, and Darcus was on hand to regale the audience with stories from the film’s production, and his career in general, during the lengthy Q+A that followed. It was a fitting tribute, and I’m grateful to Darcus for being such a willing participant. He has been most gracious over the past couple of years in making his work available to me, giving permission to include clips with this interview, and in spending the time to talk to me about his work. Thanks Jack!
- Browne, Colin. “Afterword: Fugitive Events.” Cineworks 2000: Twenty Years of Independent Filmmaking in British Columbia. Ed. Justin MacGregor. Vancouver: Cineworks Independent Filmmakers Society, 2001, 112. ↩
- Spaner, David. 2003. Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. ↩
- Jack Darcus quoted in: Ibrányi-Kiss, Á. 1977. “Filmmaking West Coast Style: Jack Darcus.” In The Canadian Film Reader, Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson, eds., 268-273. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited. ↩
- See Murray Leeder’s review of Sexcula in this issue here. ↩