The Back Story
Close to the turn of the century, I got a rather hefty royalty check for my work on the TV series “Kung Fu, the Legend Continues”. If I was a sensible person, I would have salted it away for my eventual retirement. But digital media was just coming into its own and I wasn’t ready to retire. I wanted to explore digital, zero budget, production.
After years of making television, I was really tired of the industrial approach to film making, a management style that is anti-art and anti-experimentation, a management style invented by Fredrick Winslow Taylor. In conventional industrial film production, money rules the set. Every second on set with the expensive crew must be productive. The script, by necessity, is guaranteed to work because it takes no chances. Actors are hired for their ability to say the lines, hit their marks, and not cause any problems. Setups per day are the mark of a good director, and a good director plays it safe. There’s no money to recover from a mistake until you hit the A list.
At that time, digital productions generally had the camera mounted on the head of a trained seal, and stories made excuses for the quality of the image. It pretended to be amateur footage found in the woods (remember the Blair Witch), or interviews with a psychiatrist. But I looked at the quality of miniDV and thought, hey, this could be used to make something that looks like a movie. If we take a serious approach to camera movement, focus, and sound quality, this stuff can look good.
So that’s what I set out to do. I teamed up with a casting director, Beth Waldron, here in Nanaimo. She found me a cast of local actors. We got dispensation from ACTRA to do a zero budget cooperatively owned movie so that Gordon May could take a part. I bought three Canon GL1 mini DV cameras and two Mac computers with Final Cut Pro. I bought a Cobra crane, fluid head tripods, a carbon fiber fishpole for the mic boom, and a basic microphone package. I invited the everybody to own the movie, to participate in story development. We began with just a theme and idea – obsessive infatuation. We set up a basic situation – Dwayne Fever, part owner of Cabin Fever Antiques, has fallen in love with his business partner, Sharon. His daughter, Zoey, is grossed out by what she views as geriatric lust. Sharon is in a relationship with Bob. We started shooting scenes, usually just one scene per shooting day.
As we shot, I would edit. We would gather to watch the scenes and talk about where the movie was going. One of the actors, Tim Johnson, became a major writer. Gordon May’s character emerged as the obvious main character. This movie was going to be about him. Sixty-four shooting days later (far more than I have ever had on a mainstream television movie where thirty-one days was the most I ever got) we had a completed movie. And my first objective was met. It really does look like a movie. The camera moves are clean and steady. The story telling is clear and extremely quirky. The locations look incredible and would have cost a fortune in a conventional movie. We had restaurant scenes, an extensive scene in Home Depot, a scene in a local shopping mall, waterfront scenes, and wonderful scenes in the actual antique store, Cabin Fever. Shooting felt like magic. If we needed something, it would just show up for us. If it didn’t, we would change our approach and find something better. I was having a ball, and the whole adventure was the most creative and fun movie making of my career.
I cut a trailer.
A local graphic artist put together the poster. We had a world premier at the local theatre. I dressed in a tux. We had a great audience response. Everybody who had contributed to making the movie was there to appreciate the end result. It all felt good.
Then, following my business plan (sic), we sent “Passion” off to film festivals. I had attended the Toronto Film Festival every year for the previous twenty years, ever since my first feature, “Skip Tracer”, was invited way back in 1978. I was sure that “Passion” would blow them away. Here was something that looked like a real romantic comedy, made in digital with no excuses. It hung together. It was wonderful.
And that’s when the disappointment started. I hadn’t recognized that the festivals were being flooded with digital material. Flooded. A friend of mine lent his teenage son his professional gear. The kid produced a five minute short of himself French kissing the family dog – and immediately got invited to three festivals. They were only giving him five minutes of screen time, and they could count on an enthusiastic, boisterous teenage audience. “Passion” ran 110 minutes and looked like a movie. So we were competing for screen time with the latest Hollywood big budget “special” movie they didn’t know what to do with, a movie that would come to town with big name stars and an entire promotions team. We didn’t get invited to anything. I’m pretty sure that “Passion” wasn’t given a screening with an audience (which it really needs) by the selection decision makers. Most likely it played on a VCR while the busy festival staff took phone calls.
In desperation I decided that I had to get the movie some attention. I set up a special screening at the Vancouver Cinematheque. I hired a publicist. In all, the event cost me about a thousand dollars. We attracted a full house, and had great audience response. But… not one opinion maker showed up. (Possibly smelling an embarrassing failure, my publicist didn’t show up either.) We didn’t generate one column inch of copy in any local paper. I realized that I might as well have torn up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Robson and Thurlow for all the good the screening had done my movie. And I was tapped out.
I’ve had to face the fact that the movie industry and many of my friends do not like my movie. More than don’t like it. Actively dislike it. It’s not what they expected as a romantic comedy, and many of the ideas and character attributes turn them right off. They don’t find it funny.
In one case at least, this is clear and the reason is obvious. There’s a scene in “Passion” where the main character, Dwayne Fever, returns home from jogging to find his daughter and her boyfriend having sex in the back seat of his classic Mustang convertible. At first he thinks it might be a burglar, and the preamble to the scene is an homage to the scene in “Pulp Fiction” in which Bruce Willis chooses a weapon in the pawn shop. When he discovers it’s his daughter and her boyfriend, he is initially outraged – not because they are having sex but because they are having sex in his car. “Don’t you have an apartment? Why my car?”
“It’s a classic”
The scene becomes a very touching connection between a loving father and a free thinking daughter. It contains one of the harshest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie, when the father hugs his daughter and says, “I never thought I’d smell that smell on you.”
The daughter’s reaction shows that she takes sex for granted, something that she’s entitled to enjoy. And she cuts off any potential for hypocrisy with the question, “Did you ever get caught.” To which the father has to answer, “Once. With your mother.”
So all in all I love this scene. In it, mature and intelligent adults have a pro-sex loving conversation. I find the idea of his daughter using her key to get into his house and have sex in his classic car absolutely hilarious. But one of my friends felt that the scene showed “bad parenting”. What? My idea of a beautiful father/daughter relationship is “bad parenting”. And then I have to consider the source. My friend is quite religious, Dutch Calvinist, the people who lock the rooster up on Sundays because the bird is to do no work on the Sabbath. I can understand him not accepting the idea that a father would have a relaxed attitude toward his daughter having sex, especially before marriage. So this reaction to my movie is completely understandable. I just disagree.
Other negative reactions to “Passion” are also quite understandable. Many people find the very idea that a middle aged man is lusting after his young and attractive business partner downright creepy. He is, in fact, the detested stalker. Add to this the fact that the man’s wife is in a hospice in the process of dying and he loses all sympathy. Ain’t nobody going to like this character. Yet I do. Because he knows exactly what he is and what he is doing. He really does love his dying wife. They have a history together. He knows that his infatuation with his business partner isn’t rational, but he can’t resist it. He’s a very unhappy man trying to cope with emotions that are out of control.
There’s something in “Passion” to offend or turn off just about anybody. Dwayne Fever is himself being stalked, by Iris, a much more serious nut case with a fetish for Japanese geisha clothing and an absolute commitment to her delusions. This character goes way over the top of anything you will find in reality, unless you read the newspapers and notice how many people kidnap or murder because of delusional passion. And Sharon’s boyfriend is a secret transvestite who insists “But I’m NOT gay.” and has the childlike simplicity of Mr. Bean even though he’s supposed to be writing his college thesis. These are not the usual cast of characters in your usual romantic comedy. These characters mix extremes. They are not designed for the audience to emotionally identify with them, but to reflect on what they say about humanity and the world. That’s why I like them.
Then there’s the lesbian lawyer and her submissive receptionist, the hunk of a fireman who solves problems with a punch to the nose, the French waiter who dispenses romance advice.”Passion” is rich in these characters. “Passion” throws up a melange of ordinary people, stupid behavior, and insane solutions to minor problems, the harsh realities of life and death, and the silly ways people deal with them.
So that’s the movie, and that’s why I love it. The world just didn’t get it.
The Volksmovie Group and Movement
I came to regret coining the term “volksmovie”, because Volkswagen has associations with the word “volks” in the public mind pretty much sewn up. I still love the concept.
“Passion” is a Volksmovie, a “peoples’ movie”. It was produced outside of the system, outside of the establishment, by people who wanted to make a movie but didn’t have any money. Well, okay, we had my money, not enough to cover craft services on an average TV episode. I pitched the concept to the cast and crew, saying I would absorb the hard costs if they would put in sweat equity. We kept track of everybody’s hours, with the intention of dividing any returns. We all owned the movie, some more than others. Everybody contributed ideas, props, locations, and, most of all, time.
Professional film equipment is expensive. But really it’s nothing special. A set of work lights from Home Depot can be fitted with barn doors and made into quite serviceable film lights. Add furnace filters for diffusion and a microphone stand with alligator clips to hold French flags and you start to have a lighting package. Add in some moving blankets and a few two by fours and you start to have a grip package. None of it needs to be very expensive.
The rigid structure of a film crew may be necessary for industrial film production, but it doesn’t take long to teach a normally talented person how to hold a microphone boom or push a dolly. On “Passion” everybody did a bit of everything. Actors and crew were totally interchangeable. Best cast and crew I’ve every worked with.
One of our actors was a very good welder. He converted a refrigerator dolly into a film dolly that worked as well as any dolly I’ve ridden on a conventional film set. We experimented with a homemade version of the Steadycam. We avoided all of the bureaucracy and red tape that normal film production entails, so we had no official permission, no script or script breakdown, no schedule, no producer, no production manager, and nobody getting in the way of our creativity. You might not like the end result, but I have to tell you, the process was pure joy.
And sooner or later, somebody is going to make a Volksmovie that is big hit. We missed that goal, but damn we gave it our best shot. I’m incredibly proud of what we did manage to accomplish. “Passion” was a subversive act, a radical departure from established movie making. It’s not the first to take this approach, but it may be the first do do it in digital, and show what can be done with the new medium.
So That’s My Pitch
“Passion” may not qualify as “great art” but there’s a lot in the movie to think about, and to talk about. It deserves more attention than it got. And beyond the content, the movie has important historical significance, as does the Volksmovie Group and movement. Some day in the future I still hope a film critic/film historian will recognize what we did, and bring it all to the attention of the world.
Until then, I’m happy to have had the ride. It’s been a slice.