Interview: J.A. Gaudet
Joseph Aldic Gaudet's career in Canadian film and media production has encompassed everything from industrial video production to script doctoring to lecturer. Learning his craft as a cameraman, floor director and switcher for provincial public broadcaster TVOntario in the 1970s, Joe branched out as a screenwriter for TV series including Magic Shadows, Struggle Beneath the Sea and The Littlest Hobo. But his break as a director came from infamous Emmeritus producer Lionel Shenken, who specialized in staggeringly low budget, shot-on-video movies that would air on Southern Ontario's CHCH-TV before hitting the international video circuit. Brought on to supplement Emmeritus' string of non-union directors, Joe debuted with Deadly Pursuit, a Vietnam revenge movie, and later directed his own script for the international political thriller The Hijacking of Studio 4.
Joe moved back to TV production with Don’t Stop Now and Contact before his script for the film Baltic Storm was picked up. Since then, he's largely worked as an instructor for new Canadian film industry hopefuls through his course “ScreenWriting Rules," (now known as ScreenWriting123) which was developed from a series of lectures done for Hamilton's McMaster University. His history as a writer, director, editor and author is covered on his extensive website, JAldricGaudet.com.
J.A. Gaudet graciously conducted an e-mail interview with Canuxploitation.com in February, 2010.
Canuxploitation: Tell me how you first met Emmeritus head Lionel Shenken.
J.A. Gaudet: I saw an ad somewhere, probably Playback magazine, about a company that was looking for Canadian scripts. I sent my script for The Hijacking of Studio 4 and got a meeting with Lionel. He said he couldn’t do my script, but he liked it enough to talk to me. He told me his roster was full, but there was enough money to do one small-budget story. He already had a script but no director. I wanted to direct, so I took it. The script, "Survival Games" (which became Deadly Pursuit after a brainstorming session), was written by Peter Ferri. Peter also had another script being shot there, Fly With the Hawk, which he appeared in. Peter agreed to let me do a major overhaul of the script for shooting.
I was not aware at the time of how frugal Lionel was so I had no idea how small a budget he meant. I couldn’t use union crew or any of the normal craft talent pool. I had to find people willing to work hard for small pay and long hours. I raided Hamilton’s little theatre community for production personnel and contacted a video/cameraman I had worked with on a promo for the Peel Regional Police. He was willing to work for cheap. We shot film style. I had free reign to keep people overtime without penalty or cost, and I did, often.
After Deadly Pursuit and before The Hijacking of Studio 4, I was set to direct Movie Games but there were scheduling conflicts with a TVOntario shoot I was working on.
C: By any chance, was Movie Games turned into another Emmeritus film, Death in Hollywood?
JAG: Yes, I believe it was. I met with the writer and we got along very well. The shoot was planned for Casa Loma, using the CHCH mobile and multiple cameras, but it didn't happen because Casa Loma could not be rebooked.
C: Did you meet any of the other directors working at Emmeritus at the time?
JAG: I met and talked to many of the other directors, however I don’t recall much. Except for casting calls and meetings, I wasn't in the building at the same time as the others, I just saw them in passing. I usually edited after hours or prepared for shooting or editing at home. I was also an outsider, since Deadly Pursuit was sort of an extra, tacked on to the rest.
I also don’t really remember too much about the other movies, although I remember being impressed by Lady Bear, the one about the spy.
C: What makes the Emmeritus films immediately identifiable is their "shot-on-video" look. These were shot on 3/4" Umatic video, is that correct?
JAG: For Deadly Pursuit, I assume it was 3/4" video, but for The Hijacking of Studio 4 the main scenes were recorded and edited on 2". We used 3/4" for the other locations.
C: Shenken claimed the budgets for his films were $375,000, part of that being Telefilm funding. Is that an accurate figure?
JAG: I have no way of knowing. I don’t know the figures for The Hijacking of Studio 4, but my budget for Deadly Pursuit was $20,000, which was small, but the others were only around $30,000. But those are "above the line" figures—CHCH editing time and crew and many other services contributed to the budget. Generally, two thirds of the funding came from CHCH, and the rest from Visual Productions.
C: Supposedly, Shenken's "secret formula" for these films was that no scene was allowed to be longer than two minutes, and an action scene was required every six minutes. Were there any specific guidelines he gave you?
JAG: I don’t recall Lionel ever setting parameters like that as rules, but I am very stubborn and would have balked at such arbitrary standards anyways. I’m sure those were his own parameters and those of his editors. I edited both projects myself and hopefully kept a good pace for an interested audience.
C: How did The Hijacking of Studio 4 come about?
JAG: I wrote the script while working at TVOntario's basement studio. It was small and soundproofed which made me wonder about the concussion effect a bomb would have. I realized how easy and cost effective it would be to shoot such a story, using a studio as a studio. That stirred the script into motion. As mentioned above, that was that script that got me my first meeting with Lionel.
C: Was the film actually shot at CHCH's studios ?
JAG: Our main location was CHCH's old Telecentre on King Street in Hamilton, with parts of the new building on Jackson Street serving as the exterior and some limited interiors. For the St. Kitts footage, I flew down with a singing group and a video crew who were working on another project. I was there three days to do shots for the movie using one of the girls of the group as the kidnapped daughter, then they went on to do their project and I came home to finish shooting. When we landed at St. Kitt’s, our customs documents hadn’t arrived yet, so the officers were surprised to find guns in our luggage!
C: What was the biggest challenges working on The Hijacking of Studio 4?
JAG: For me it was co-ordinating everyone. Most of what we shot, the "main event," so to speak, was shot with multiple cameras recording. The three studio cameras were being recorded separately, while there were other cameras shooting inside the control room at the same time. It was also a challenge to make sure all the cheats were carefully shot—for example, the Telecentre control room is on an upper level to the studio, whereas we played it as though it was on the same level out one of the doors. Another door led to the hallways and the green room, which were done after hours at the new Jackson Street studio.
I remember one day we were shooting out the back of the building, doing the TV show intro that appears in the film. It was in this backyard surrounded by high fencing and we were out there about an hour or so. After we left to take the footage to CHCH for editing, Emmeritus got a visit from two burly men from next door, who wanted to know what the camera was filming and wanting assurances that it never shot past the fence! Scary.
C: Tell me about Shenken's cameo—I don't believe he appeared in many of his movies.
JAG: We were casting and I couldn’t find anyone to play the studio boss. I thought Lionel could pull it off so I asked him, and he agreed. Unfortunately, he didn’t learn his lines and neither did the fellow playing opposite him! We wasted a lot of time doing their scenes and ended up with wooden performances.
C: Was it hard to make a park in Southern Ontario look like Vietnam for Deadly Pursuit ?
JAG: It was a night shoot, so the dark helps disguise it. We
looked at photos of the time and set
dressed the artillery area and the
Vietcong, and dug holes for
trenches. We had about five people
who went past camera in costume,
then circled behind and grabbed a
hat or changed their prop so they
could walk past camera again
and give the impression of a large
Peter Ferri was doing special effects for Lionel’s shows and had an explosives licence, so we got the war effects cheap. The guy who owned Canusa Park, the property we shot most of Deadly Pursuit on, also had some friends in an artillery unit who drove their artillery piece to the set as a prop. Peter rigged fire effects to simulate shooting.
I remember the gunshots got us in some trouble. They use a special blank to make flame spout from the rifle barrel, which is especially loud. We kept firing long into the night; single shots so I could record many different shooters. It went so late that the owner of the place came out to complain, and we wrapped just as the cops came to investigate the gunshots!
C: The tailing scene in Deadly Pursuit goes on forever, was this an attempt to stretch the running time?
JAG: It was only meant to imply how far out this was, so that sleeping over seemed reasonable, also to stress the tension level, but if you find it too long then it doesn’t work. A lot of my ideas didn’t work or were ineptly carried out. Mea Culpa.
C: Deadly Pursuit is actually pretty groundbreaking in including the perspective of the Vietnamese wife. Tell me how and why it was decided to emphasize her perspective?
JAG: I’m not sure what her status was in the original script,
but I liked her and wanted to
emphasize her story when I rewrote.
I remember hearing someone talk
about how the sound of a helicopter
in Vietnam was a scary thing and it
stuck with me, so I gave her that
What I am more proud of, as a dramatist, is turning the tables to make a hijacker sympathetic to the audience in The Hijacking of Studio 4.
C: You also do that to the killer in Deadly Pursuit—he had his whole unit killed by friendly fire, and nobody seems to care. In fact, several Emmeritus films have sympathetic antagonists. What is it about that idea that attracts you, personally?
JAG: I’ve always felt that characters should be three dimensional, and not simply "cut-outs" to put in place. And, as exemplified in The Hijacking of Studio 4, I like lots of characters.
C: How much improvising was there in your Emmeritus movies?
JAG: I prefer not to improvise since I have a particular story to tell. I rehearsed them a bit but expected too much from them. In hindsight, I should have been more hands on.
C: How many pro actors and how many amateurs were used in these movies?
JAG: Our access to pros were those with limited credits who would accept non-ACTRA fees and conditions. Most of those actors were after credits so they could join ACTRA. However, the part of the Vietnamese wife in Deadly Pursuit was different. She was a student from the Philippines and wanted the part, but it would disrupt her status as a visiting student. The Philippine Embassy and the Canadian Embassy agreed she could play the role if she accepted no money.
C: How were these films received by audiences?
JAG: I really don’t know. In Ontario they were bicycled around in half hour weekly segments on CHCH TV. Not many people, except those connected with it, watched. However, Lionel and [his wife] Bev travelled all over the world selling the film package.
C: Do you look back on your time with Emmeritus fondly? Despite your problems, did you consider working on these films good learning experiences?
JAG: It was a wonderful experience, a valuable learning experience. I don’t regret anything. However, I always look back on everything I do with a critical eye to see how I could improve the film's connection with the audience.