In Defense of “Passion”

Some time before the turn of the century, I was blessed with a rather large royalty payment for my television work, enough to settle my debts and give me some money to play with but not enough to buy me an early retirement. At any rate, I was in my fifties and not yet ready to retire. At the time, digital media was just coming available, bringing amateur film production closer to reality, but the resulting films generally had the camera mounted on the head of a poorly trained seal and sound quality that made the dialogue impossible to understand. Generally these productions made an excuse for the technical failings by pretending to be a college documentary found in the woods ( Remember the “Blaire Witch”) or footage from a security camera or a psychiatrist’s interviews.

My agent at the time had a client who was about to have a kidney transplant. He and his partner also happened to have a tiny miniDV camera with very limited controls. With that, and a flimsy tripod, I made a documentary on events leading up to the operation.

And I was hooked. I realized that with care and attention to the camera, focus, and shots plus good quality recording and a mix, this stuff could look like a movie. My first step toward bankruptcy.

That royalty money from the television work wasn’t enough to finance an industry style movie, which was just fine by me because I hate the way the industry makes movies. They are micro-managed in a style that originated with Frank Winslow Taylor and is absolutely antithetical to art. Television is a factory product. To a lesser extent, so are feature films. Money controls everything, from the script to the choices of locations, director, production personnel, and editing time. Every second on set is important. There is no room for experimentation, or for just trying things out. Not until a director gets to the A list, at which point things loosen up. But I never worked on a production that had time or money for re-shoots. Follow the script. Make a precise shot list. Get it right the first time or never work again. It’s a formula for formula film making and I chaffed under the restraints.

But here, with the availability of digital prosumer production gear, was a chance to make films completely outside of the industry. So I launched Volksmovie.com and set about revolutionizing film making. I teamed up with Beth Waldron, a local talent agent, and pitched the idea of a totally cooperative film production. I would provide the hard cash for equipment and MiniDV cassettes. Everybody else would do whatever they could to help make the movie, from manufacturing equipment to writing scenes. One of our actors was a welder. He turned a refrigerator dolly from Home Depot into a very serviceable camera dolly. Home Depot because our largest equipment supplier. We made diffusion filters out of furnace filters, and adapted work lights into set lights by adding barn doors.

I purchased three Canon GL1 miniDV cameras, three fluid head Manfroto tripods, a carbon fibre boom pole, a selection of mid range Audiotechnica microphones, and two Apple computers equipped with Final Cut Pro. I even purchased a light weight Cobra Crane.

It was very much a European style of film production, where a theme was chosen and threads explored. We had no completed script. We would shoot a scene. I would take a day or two to edit it. Then we would have a group screening and try to collectively figure out where the story was taking us. Artistically it was heaven. On the first shooting day, everybody stood around watching me put equipment together. After a week or two I could stand back while the van was unloaded and gear assembled. If an actor wasn’t in a scene, they might be operating a camera, or holding the boom pole. We had 64 shooting days, twice as many as I ever had on an industry production.

We kept track of everybody’s time, and the deal was that proceeds from the film would be split three ways, one third to pay back my capital investment, one third to be divided among the crew depending on time worked, and one third for the group to finance the next film. The problem was, there were no proceeds.

My business plan was extremely simple and obviously flawed: Make a zero budget film that looks good. Get invited to film festivals. Grab a couple of television sales that would more than recover the production costs. Rinse and repeat.

I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for about the past thirty years, ever since “Skip Tracer” was invited back in 1976. I felt certain that “Passion” would blow their minds. Two things I did not anticipate – an absolute tsunami of amateur short films, mostly made by teenagers, and the fact that we had achieved our objective. “Passion” looks like a movie. Right down to the poster.

It’s a shame that the ownership of volksmovie.com was lost when the fan I handed it off to neglected to renew it. It was a very complete record of making “Passion”, equipment used, and scene development. The film has recently been appended to a release of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer” by Gold Ninja Video on Blue-ray so it is finally available to an audience.

But now back to the problem with my business plan: A video maker I knew who had found a niche making “So Ya Wanna Fight” videos, lent his son his production gear. The kid shot a five minute video of himself French kissing the family Rottweiler. And got invited to three film festivals as soon as he submitted.

“Passion” was invited nowhere. The festivals could afford to give five minutes of screen time to a teenager’s production that would bring in an enthusiastic audience. But “Passion” was a full length feature. As such, it was competing for screen time with the latest “special” film that comes to Toronto with name stars and a whole promotions team and budget.

“Passion” plays best to a live audience where the laughter is contagious. It would die on a VCR in an office while a festival organizer takes phone calls.

Having failed to find attention on the festival circuit, I decided to try another route. I rented the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver and set up a private screening, inviting film workshop students and industry members and, most importantly, opinion makers from the press. I hired a publicist to bring in those opinion makers.

We had a full house, with laughs all the way through the screening. But none of the opinion makers showed up. For that matter, my press agent didn’t show up. We got not one inch of copy in any paper. I realized that tearing up a thousand dollar bill on the corner of Thurlow and Robson would have done just as much good for my movie.

So “Passion” worked well with a full audience, but nobody in the industry liked it. Maybe it’s a crappy film. Maybe I’m just a crappy director. I’ve given this possibility a lot of thought. Except I still love the movie, and there are others out there who love it too.

I can understand why “Passion” turns a lot of people off. At it’s heart, it’s about a stalker, Dwayne Fever, part owner of an antique store called Cabin Fever, a man obsessed with a younger woman, his business partner, who is already in a relationship. The thing is, I can forgive him for that. He’s very self aware, and doesn’t want to be obsessed. His wife is dying of terminal cancer, making him even more of a creep in the eyes of many people. But grief manifests in many unexpected ways. You haven’t lived if you’ve never been obsessed with somebody, and needed to control your behavior.

The actions and characters in “Passion” are absurd, but so is reality. Nothing can be more absurd than the human behavior we can read about every day. Just Google fetishes to see for yourself.

I can understand why many people who expect the normal romcom tropes would be turned off by “Passion”. Here’s one example. This is a letter I wrote in response a friend’s criticisms of the movie. I never sent it.

Dear _________:                                                                                                                  December 5, 2014

I was going through some old files the other day and came upon your remarks about my movie, “Passion” (dated March 27, 2002).  I didn’t address them at the time, because I don’t really believe in defending my movies against criticism.  People will think what they want, and I generally take their comments as just an indication of whether or not I have correctly predicted their reactions in order to give them a movie they enjoy.  But one of your comments demands a response, late as it is.

You wrote: 

“For me the incongruity is best encapsulated in the scene between Fever and his daughter Cloe when he remonstrates her for having sex in his car.  Rather than taking issue with her morality, he is most concerned that she stay out of his car!  His fatherly instincts are laughable.”

My friend, I think I understand and respect your concept of morality.  But you should understand that I do not agree with it.  I place no value on virginity or chastity before marriage. None at all.  In fact, I believe that telling a girl to remain a virgin until she marries is foolish.  It means that she will be marrying a stranger.  In the case of my sister it resulted in her marrying a repressed homosexual.

I am a sex positive person.  It is my belief that sex is a natural human activity and a source of great joy, but that this has been perverted by the demands of patriarchy which, in the past and still today, treats women as chattel. 

The scene you found such a laughable example of poor parenting is actually my very favorite in the entire move.  As he says to his daughter, “I know you are old enough to have sex.”  His complaint about her having sex in his car is not about her having sex, it’s about his shear incredulity that she would come to his house, for which she obviously has a key, specifically to have sex in his car.  His initial reaction to her having sex in his car is more one of surprise than anything else, and if she’d asked his permission in advance he quite probably would have given it.

You see, I feel that Dwayne Fever’s relationship with his daughter is a model for what a father’s relationship with a daughter should be.  So far from seeing him as a bad parent, I see him as a role model.

I completely accept the fact that my daughter has sex with her boyfriend.  I see no problem with this.  I would much rather have her enjoying sex than being afraid of sex, or withholding sex through fear. 

Our culture has had and still has a double standard about sex.  Women are not supposed to want or enjoy it, and are only supposed to engage in sex for procreation.  Men, on the other hand, are expected to “sow their wild oats” and get experience so that they can be lord and master in the marital relationship.  I detest this aspect of our culture, and I’m very happy to see it changing.  “Slut shaming”, now part of the lexicon, is an activity that belongs in the past.

My friend _______, I’m sorry if I sound like I am lecturing you.  I really do appreciate the time you took to watch my movie, and your rather gentle response to it.  I just couldn’t let your main criticism go unaddressed because it’s an issue that is very important to me.

Warmest regards and all the best for a very Merry Christmas

Zale

In writing this letter, I was very aware that my friend had grown up in a Dutch Calvinist culture, one in which the rooster is locked up on Sundays so he doesn’t do any “work”. I really can’t blame him for having values antithetical to mine.

So Dwane Fever’s creepy behavior is redeemed for me by his relationship with his daughter, by the self aware the way he tries to control his stalker behavior, and by the relationship his has with his dying wife, best illustrated in the scene where he is in heaven and confronted by her ghost, who at that point knows everything. Her lines, “So you thought you loved her. Don’t you get it. You don’t know the first thing about her. She doesn’t know where she was when Kennedy was shot. All that time you were looking into a mirror.” And his line after he acknowledges the truth of this, “You know you are the only woman I ever really loved.” To which she responds. “Of course I know that.” This is great, honest, relationship stuff.

There is a lot more than the social values I enjoy about the movie. One of our main actors, Tim Johnson, took on a key roll as a writer. Between us we created scenes that still make me laugh. Tim found us a lesbian advisor who helped shape the scenes between Fever’s female lawyer and her secretary. And Tim was capable of finding completely off the wall lines that somehow rang true.

For example, when his character, Bob, is caught trying on women’s clothing, he chases his girlfriend down the street crying “But I’m not gay. It empowers me.” And that line, written by Tim, always made me shake my head. Where did that come from? Well, recently I met a man who told me his first marriage had fallen apart. I asked him what happened and he said, with admirable candor, “I’m a heterosexual transvestite and my first wife couldn’t handle it.” Naturally I had to invite him and his second wife to dinner and show them my movie. I wanted to ask him about that line, did it have any validity? “Absolutely,” he responded. “My mother was a very dominant personality and a seamstress. Somehow women’s clothing and the fabrics they’re made from acquired an irresistible sexual frisson. I just had to wear them. They make me feel powerful”

My love for the “Passion” is not uncritical or unreserved. At times the performance wanders too far into Mr. Bean territory for my taste, and some of the acting is questionable. But overall, it gets at least an A for effort. And it deserves a place in movie history if only for the production method and technology used.

For me, the characters in “Passion” are absurd, but not repugnant. They are all human beings, some smarter and more enlightened than others, but all part of this amazingly absurd world we try to muddle our way through. Watch it it without judgement and you may find yourself appreciating it, if not loving it, as I do.

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