Remembering Remembering Mel & The Tax Credit Years

An Interview with Doug Harris

by Felix Rebolledo Volume 12, Issue 2 / February 2008 20 minutes (4941 words)

Every story has a story. This secret story, which has little chance of getting told, is the history of its creation. Maybe the “story of the story” can never be told, for a finished work consumes its own history, renders it obsolete, a husk.”

Patricia Hampl, The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination [1]

The films of the Canadian Tax Credit Era were definitely consumed by their own history—but not individually—they’ve been tarred (fairly or unfairly) with the same brush and languished, more or less ignored, up to the present. [2] This paper is the story of Remembering Mel, Portrait of a Loser—one of the infamous Tax Shelter Movies and how it came to be produced. It’s the story of a Concordia graduate and his chance at the brass ring. It’s a snapshot of three weeks in the life of Doug Harris in December 1984. Doug Harris, who wrote and directed Remembering Mel, is now a commercial director making 30 second movies in Montreal through his company Hot Spots Productions. There are 8 million stories (more like 345) [3] in the naked city, this is one of them.

Felix Rebolledo: What was it like for you in 1984 as a 24 year old filmmaker?

Doug Harris: I’d pretty much finished Communication Studies in 1983 at Concordia and I’d been freelancing on various productions and that summer I’d been hired to work as a location scout/manager on a Larry Kent project on legendary Montreal bank robber Richard Blass—there were so many projects in production limbo at that time that no one thought this film would get the green light. So I basically hung out and enjoyed the summer, kicking ideas around with my buddy Larry Raskin, driving a Lada provided by production and not really location scouting at all, when I get this call from the producer or the production manager saying that financing is in place and the film is good to go. I scramble for two days with my still camera and shoot every possible location around Montreal to try to put together some kind of portfolio of locations. The financing never actually came to be but that’s what it was like, it was a fun, freewheeling kind of time.


Doug Harris, left, Steve Campanelli at camera, David Franco behind

FR:: Remembering Mel was a Taurus 7 production, how did you hook up with them?

DH: My student films were a lot more involved than most people’s. If I had to do a 4 minute film I would make a 25 minute film so in trying to get processing for my films, I ended up getting a couple of jobs at the National Film Board and I met Peter Serapiglia. He’d been a boy wonder at the Film Board. He was a bit older than me and became a kind of a mentor. He had worked on Gwyn Dyer’s War series and had left to join forces with a producer by the name of Claudio Castravelli who had a production company called Taurus 7 and they were going to take Montreal by storm. Claudio had worked for a couple of years with Roger Corman and had come back to Montreal to start a production company along the same lines. They’d set up an office in Old Montreal which they shared with Film Line International, another production company that was run by Pieter Kroonneburg. And I mean, Film Line was like the big leagues and Taurus 7 a farm team. I’d started hanging out at Taurus 7 and got a job on The Blood Root starring Nanette Workman. Terrible movie as far as I can remember it. I would show up on set with Peter Lafreniere (another commercial director and Concordia Communications graduate) and ask people if we could get coffee or help move stuff around or whatever, and eventually we got hired. I was always hoping that Pieter would notice what a hard worker I was and give me a chance. So one day he waves me into his office and I feel like this is my big break. He pulls out a license plate and a screw driver and asks me to put it on his new BMW! Not exactly what I had in mind.

FR:: So how did you end up shooting Remembering Mel?

DH: I got a call one morning from Claudio asking me to come by the office because they had something to offer me. So I come down and Claudio and Peter are both there, and Peter has that “I just swallowed the canary smile,” and they say to me that if I can shoot a 35 mm feature before the end of the month that they’ll put up the money. Now, you have to realize that this is the 10th of December and they want principal photography to be finished by the 31st! There’s no script, no locations, no talent, nothing. Only the financing is in place.

FR: Three weeks to write the script, find the locations, crew up, cast the players, break down the film, and shoot! It’s kinda crazy! Why did they chose you for this?

DH: I had shown them my student films at some point and they knew that I was capable of putting together a production on a shoestring budget. While my peers at Concordia were using fellow students to cast their films, I would go and get older people or semi-professional actors for no money; I’d manage to book locations around town to shoot in, and always tried to get the best d.o.p. around and so my films looked a lot bigger than they actually were.

FR: What are your most vivid memories from the shoot?

DH: I don’t remember what was the first day of shooting, nor the second, and you know what? I don’t even remember what the last day was. I remember shooting at Steve Campanelli’s one day, because I remember they presented me with this little director’s chair which broke three days later. I remember being tired. And I remember being cold. We were so exhausted. I would always sleep at lunch. The crew would go out to eat at a local restaurant, I would put some jackets on the floor or whatever, or a couch or a bed if were shooting in an apartment, and I would sleep for a half-hour and they would bring me back a hamburger and I would eat that while the lighting was going up. Because we were always waiting for the lighting to go up. And that’s how I’d get my sleep. And we’d go to the set and it was always freezing cold, and we’d get there, unpack the van, set up the camera. What scene is this? Who’s in the scene? And it’s freezing cold, and we open up the script, and we get to the scene, and the page is blank. There would be the header: exterior, street, day, whatever, with a note saying “Write this scene later.” And we’d just look at each other and say, “Oh my God! Okay everybody, ten minutes.” And we’d write some short little scene. And it was super fun and super exciting, but it’s just not a great way of making a movie. If there’s magic in a bottle, when you have the talent and the actors have that talent, and it all comes together it’s great but usually it’s a good way to get a lot of poor footage. And we had no ability to retake or improve shots because film was so expensive. So it was always, like, 3, 2, 1, action! Hold your breath and hope the actors said their lines. Call cut. See how many lines they hadn’t said exactly right. Rationalize to yourself that what you had gotten was pretty darn good. And move on. And that’s not a good way. That’s where you’re in an edit three months later asking, “So, is there another take of that?” And they go, “No.” And I say “You’re kidding me! That’s it? They’re terrible! Those are the only three takes of that?” And they go, “That’s all you wanted.” And you know, that’s me, those are the decisions you’re forced to make on set. It was very fun. I don’t mean it to come out as a downer. But there were a million things going wrong at once. But what I wanted to say was that you can’t shoot anything without your script and your structure being defined. Even if it’s heavily based on improv or whatever, you have to have your eye on the prize. You quickly learn that you have to have a script, you have to have a script, you have to have a script! And to this day I’m still sort of like that. I’m still structure oriented. I don’t feel like I can shoot a commercial until I’ve laid it out for myself. And I’m sure that it’s left over from that.


Crazy sound guys Steven Woloshen and David Bannon

FR: So you finally finished the film, how was the film received by the public?

DH: It’s a tiny film so it wasn’t really “received” outside my immediate circle of family and friends. Unless the film is a Jim Jarmuschian film then there’s no real public to receive it. Remembering Mel just showed at Cinema V [a local Montréal repertoire theatre long defunct, ed.] for a few dates and the people that went there were by and large people that we had pushed there. It wasn’t like, “Hey, look, there’s a Canadian film at Cinema V, I think I’ll go look at it.” Remembering Mel didn’t get received by a wide public but a lot of people in our circle did end up seeing it. I remember the first screening, people were kind, they wanted to like the film, but you could just tell that it just wasn’t that good. At first I thought Cinema V should have played it more and support Canadian film, but I look back on it now and the film wasn’t very good, so why should they have played it any more than they did? If you look at the calendar of what was playing there at the time you see Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or The Wall or Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.

FR: Would you ever sit in the audience? Were you curious to see how the audiences would react to the film?

DH: I’d go to screenings sometimes, more to see how many people had shown up and after a while you just stop going. I remember one time coming back from golfing, so it must have been in the summer, and we were driving by in front of Cinema V and Mel was just letting out so I decided to go and see how many people had gone and I made the tragic mistake of not leaving fast enough and getting caught in the lobby as the patrons were leaving. And I ran into someone that had been attached to the movie with a friend of hers and so they come up to me and the friend asks me “Did you make that film?” and I’m like a deer in the headlights and I say “Yeah, I’m one of the people.” And she says, “Well, I’ve come to support Canadian film, and I want to do my part, but I have to tell you that I really hated that movie, I really hated that movie!” And I just stood there saying “I know.” And she’s going on, “It’s terrible” and I’m there “I know. I know. I wish it was funnier.” I mean I wish there was something else to say. And I think she pointed out that there were a lot of people saying fuck and shit in the movie. And at the time we wrote it and shot it we felt like it was young and hip and of course it was a terrible idea. And I remember when we were doing the VHS screenings we felt like it was too much but we couldn’t do anything about it. You hear the director saying “I don’t fucking care! You go back and do the fucking scene!” And while you’re filming you’re saying “Hey, way to go!” and then when you screen it you go “Ugh!” So there’s a lesson right there, not that it matters anymore but saying “Fuck” isn’t always the smartest idea in a movie.

FR: Did the movie make any money at all?

DH: I have no idea how much the film has made so far. I had this document drafted up at one point during the making of the movie, and Claude was very cool about it, that whatever money the film grossed over $150,000 he would get half and I would get half and I’d distribute it around to the crew people that worked on the movie for free. I know it played around town in English, mostly at Cinema V. I know it played on First Choice, on pay television which was new then. And people thought that it was going to be a bonanza. And it also played in French on Super Ecran. It also played in England. And I also heard that it had also played in Germany of all places. People have come up to me relatively recently and told that they had seen it on First Choice but I don’t think it’s hit the magic number yet.

FR: Any lasting impressions about the film?

DH: Well, the first is that the film landed with a tiny thud. And the other which was a bit of a lesson for me for the rest of my life is that it took super long to do it. It took two years of my life to do it. When it came time to screen the movie, everybody else had moved on. The camera guy was shooting, the lighting guy was lighting, the production people, unit, make-up, hair, everyone in the crew, at least any of those that were interested in doing it, all got jobs. Campanelli was working, David Franco became a top d.o.p. in the city and still is one of the top, Nicolas Marion became a top first A.D. in town. Robert Grossman also became a top first A.D. And in many ways, people skipped steps. Like Campanelli absolutely vaulted ahead of people their age because they could go and say that they had just finished shooting a feature on 35. Everybody but you. You stayed behind, you slogged it, you worked it, you cut it and I couldn’t get work for years because I had gotten out of phase. I was the only guy who didn’t get anything out of it. Everyone else went on to gainful employment. And I mean I did pull back after it was all over but there was also nothing, nobody there going “Okay, Doug, now for your next film…” And everybody else had found other projects I also felt a little sad that nobody sort of came back and asked me if I was okay.

FR: You’re talking about the crew here.

DH: Yeah. I feel that there’s a lot of people that could have taken a moment to see if this guy is okay or needs a job. And nobody did. Everybody sort of benefited from the movie and the relationship and so for me it was like a turning point in my life in that for me, I had worked on a lot of cinema sets in Montreal before that at the Board, I had worked on an Imax film, and so I made the decision or the decision was made for me that I didn’t want to work on feature films forever. I didn’t want to live my life, for better or for worse in two year increments. I think that for me it was a good decision not to become a 46 year old, chain-smoking, coffee-swilling, single guy twice divorced, with a kid I’d never see. Always chasing down a movie in this city or that city. And we all end up making choices in life and for me it was kind of fortuitous in a way. But I mean what can you say? If Mel had a been a fabulously fantastic movie, I could have moved on to projects B, C, D, E and F.

FR: I don’t think that Remembering Mel was a worse film than say, Cronenberg’s Shivers but you not only got out of feature film making, you didn’t even continue writing.

DH: I think it’s a bit like having a kid. But it’s like putting all this amount of energy and time into something and then just watch it die. And until you have that personal experience, I don’t think you can understand what it is. For me I lost my desire to write, for a while, I lost a lot of confidence. I had gone from being the guy who made the biggest, longest student films at school and then straight out at bat into the film scene in Montreal and then two years later, this thing comes out and it’s not good. If people didn’t like it, believe me, I liked it less than they liked it. I wasn’t particularly used to failure in my life and I made no bones about it but I didn’t go around telling people that it was quite funny, just give it another chance. When you do something like that, when you’re given the chance to do something like that, it’s like you’re at a ball game and someone pulls your ticket and offers you a once in a lifetime opportunity to get on the field and have the pitcher throw you a fastball and you get one swing. For me, I think you have to hit a home run. You can’t hit a single, or double or pop-up, or ground ball. You can’t miss it. You have to hit a home run in that opportunity for it to be the turning point in your life. And Remembering Mel was like a weak ground ball to shortstop. And you know, someone else might have taken it and said, you know what? the hell with it! My next film will be a line drive to center field, and my next one will be a double into the left-field corner. But at that time, I just didn’t have it in me.

FR: But Claudio could’ve helped you and gotten to you onto another project?

DH: Well, not really. I mean he putzed around. Strangely enough, Claudio had left Roger Corman as an apprentice to come to Montreal to try to do the same thing here. So that’s why you read in their press releases from the period about Taurus 7 and their $2 million project to develop burgeoning student talent, and you’d hear the this and the that and just because it’s in print doesn’t mean that it’s true. And of course you realize later that it was all money driven and that was what the tax shelters were all about. But I just don’t think that it was great way of making movies. Suddenly you have these limited partnerships where dentists are suddenly investors of movies. They’re giving $25,000 and saying “You know, my daughter Laura has always wanted to act.” The people making movies are the ones that are good at getting money and not necessarily the ones with dreams, or heart, or vision, or who have film experience. They know what accounting is and know a half-dozen dentist who will put together $150,000 to make a movie as long as they get their tax deductions. And the other guy knows how to work the Government grants, and knows how to cheat here and there and suddenly they have the $250,000 to go out and make a movie. Which is cool and a great way to do things but not the way to go when looking for excellence in filmmaking. I mean, Claude is more proud of that film than anybody. He thinks it’s a little gem of a movie. And I’ve said to him that I was sorry it wasn’t a better movie and he always says that it is a terrific little movie. Claude could have made my next movie. Had I written something, I could have taken it to him. But I didn’t and I felt that everyone had moved on. Claude would’ve helped but he also had all kinds of other stuff going on. He always had something in development and a story as to why they didn’t go forward.

FR: Was he just into development as a business without actually producing anything?

DH: Yeah. I think there were a lot of factors at work. The financing was shaky. I’m not sure how much of that money necessarily was actually legitimate money. I felt like the accounting was always sort of touchy. I guess I could have made another movie through Claude if he had been making a lot more movies but I just didn’t have it in me to pursue it at that time. And I do think that it would have been a mistake. The thing to have done is get my copy of the movie, get my papers together, pack up my bags and say I’m moving to New York, or L.A. or Vancouver, as opposed to staying in Montreal to try to do Remembering Mel: The Sequel. Or another one like it. At that point I guess I came to realize that what was shiny and bright when I first came out of film school was a very dodgy film situation here in Montreal. There was no way I was going to make another movie like that. I think that was my first thought. But believe me, when we were at Cinema V, or the Seville, or the York, or the Monkland or wherever we were watching indie movies that were coming out in 81, 82, 83 and 84 it’s not like you’d run into Claude Castravelli and Peter Serapiglia there. They weren’t terribly in touch. They were talking about independent filmmaking and giving interviews about it but I don’t think that they even knew the movies. It’s just the way it was. It was just a couple of guys that saw an opportunity and tried to make it.

FR: But do you think that the Roger Corman school of production would have been a good model for filmmaking in Montreal or Canada?

DH: I don’t know. But I do think that Roger Corman really loved movies. I was 24 years old at the time and it must have been pretty evident if I can tell that these guys seemed to have a jaded attitude towards films and don’t seem to be that much into whether or not the movie is good or not. Maybe it’s my opinion or subjective take on it, but you read articles in today’s newspapers about the Quebec Government considering getting into bed with Joel Silver to the tune of $18 million and they’re going to develop 15 movies over X number of years and Edward Pressman joining forces with the FTQ to produce 12 movies over the next five years. And I’m thinking, big mistake! I don’t know Joel Silver or Edward Pressman, but I think a lot of that money is going to go directly into their personal lifestyles. Twenty years later are we any better off? There’s still no English cinema in Canada, I don’t care what anyone says. England has their cinema, Australia has their cinema, France, everybody seems to have their cinema but we don’t. Why? Because we live in the shadow of the giant. But now it’s like we’ve become content to not even bother to make our own English Canadian movies. We’re just happy to suck at the tit of American movies that might come here. And of course, let us give you all of our tax money and entice you in any way possible to come shoot here and of course bring your own directors and bring your own writers, bring your own producers, bring your own main actors, just make sure that our technicians are allowed to work on it and that you’ll eat at our restaurants in town and date the local girls. Is this it? Is this the big dream? Quebec cinema in French is exciting and fun and healthy and they have all these cool things going on but it’s because they don’t give a shit. They understand the situation and they’re making the best of it. They make movies for one and a half or two million bucks and hope to make back 5 or 6 million. But Canada, there’s just nothing. I imagine it’s all centered out of Toronto and that’s a horrible place for anything to be planned out of. But there’s nothing, there’s absolutely no identity. There was nothing in 1984 and there’s still nothing now in 2006. It’s almost sadder now. We’re all excited if Eddie Murphy wants to shoot Pluto Nash here because the Canadian dollar is really low. Is that our Canadian cinematic hope? I don’t want to go on about it because it sounds like sour grapes and I don’t mean it that way. Maybe we should have done a better job in 1984.


It’s a Wrap!

FR: Would you ever do another film again?

DH: I don’t see why. I don’t think I will do anything again. But if were to do anything again I would be more inclined to do the kind of thing you can see of TV sometimes now. The things I watch. Like Rescue Me or The Larry Sanders Show or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show like The Office. I don’t even watch movies much anymore. It’s super rare that I like a movie now. Every once in a while there’s a good movie made, but by and large, I feel there’s not much out there. But it’s also a function of being older. You feel like you’ve seen every movie before and the stuff rings hollow and the actors always feel too young for their roles because you’re older. Why is that 30 year old guy playing the President? Or why is that 28 year old guy playing the part of a grizzled F.B.I. veteran? I think the stuff that I watch is like independent filmmaking all over again except that it is weekly and it goes back doing something that would take two years. It’s something that improves as you go along. You make one show. Then you make another one. Maybe the first one, two, three, four aren’t that good but by the fifth one you know you’re making something of quality. I don’ t think that I could do something where I hold my breath only to find out two years later that the quality wasn’t there. It’s personal. It’s just based on my own experience. I’m certainly not trying to justify it.

Remembering Mel Production Credits [4]

Doug Harris: Director
Doug Harris: Writer
Larry Raskin: Writer
Steve Campanelli: Cinematographer
Nicolas Marion: Director of Photography (D.O.P.)
David Franco: D.O.P.
Larry Raskin: Editor
Doug Harris: Editor
Don Rennick: Editor
David Bannon: Location Sound
Steven Woloshen: Location Sound
Donato Totaro: Production Assistant
Claude Castravelli: Producer
Peter Serapiglia: Producer
Doug Harris: Associate Producer
Larry Raskin: Associate Producer
Taurus 7 Film Corporation: Production Company
Harmony Gold: Distributor


The Cast

Cast
Robert Kolomeir (Mel, the loser), Arthur Holden (Dennis, the director), Jim Connolly (Kent, the cameraman), Guy Laprade (Sandy, the blind soundman), Natalie Timoschuk (Natalie, the production manager), Allan Lallouz (Gerald), Steven Light (Maurice), Ariel Grumberg (Jerry), Isadore Lapin (Norm)

Endnotes

1 Hampl, Patricia. The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination. Quoted in Dennet, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained.

2 Urquhart, Peter. “You should know something—anything—about this movie. You paid for it.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2003. Can be accessed here.

3 From 1974 to 1988, 345 feature films were produced in Canada under the aegis of the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) in the Federal Income Tax Legislation of 1974. 2001-02 CAVCO Activity Report. Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office. Ottawa. 2002.

4 Steve Campanelli went on to become a big name camera operator in L.A. notably for Clint Eastwood. Claudio Castravelli is still running Taurus 7. Larry Raskin went on to a successful career in TV as a writer and creative consultant and as a teacher at VFS. David Franco continues to work as a cinematographer for film and TV. Donato Totaro was smart and got out production and into teaching. Robert Kolmeir died of AIDS. Arthur Holden continues to work as a film and TV actor in Montreal.

Felix is a partner at Hot Spots Productions in Montreal, Canada. As a TV commercial Producer/Director he’s worked on over 300 retail commercial advertising campaigns and on-air promotions. Production credits include CTV, King World Entertainment, Wow Wee Toys, Hasbro, Fisher-Price, IBM, and RJR-Nabisco. As a field-producer, he has worked with E!, Entertainment Tonight, Fox L.A. Sports, WTN, ZDF, ARD, RAI, RTVE, CANAL “+” (Spain & France) in North America, South America, and Europe. He edited the NBC documentary The Earth is the Lord’s (Silver Medallist, New York Festivals, 1991). He loves the work but would rather be sailing his Seafarer 31 “A Su Aire” or racing Etchells, really.

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