Interview: John Paizs
John Paizs really did mean to be good. With his brilliantly hilarious comedy Crime Wave, the maverick director managed to establish himself as one of the country's most unique voices in an industry where "entertainment" is often considered a dirty word. Through his short films, his work on seminal Canadian TV series Kids in the Hall and his gloriously goofy sci-fi romp Top of the Food Chain, John's subtle humour and striking visuals have made an indelible mark on Canadian comedy. Today, John mentors new Canadian directors in his role as one of the professionals in residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He also selects films for development through The Feature Film Project, continuing to play a vital role in the development of Canadian film.
On January 20, 2007, John Paizs enjoyed a bowl of soup and reminisced to Canuxploitation.com about his rise to the top, his approach to filmmaking and comedy and Crime Wave's original ending.
What is your background? How did you get interested in filmmaking?
Originally, I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I started making my own superhero and horror comics in junior high school. At this same time, I also started experimenting with film, with my dad's 8mm camera. But I didn't decide to focus on film until my first year of university, when I bought a Bolex camera, a few lights and a tripod, and started making films in 16mm. Also at this time I had a comic strip in the university newspaper, which is where I met [producer] Greg Klymkiw. He was the movie reviewer there.
How did you get involved with the Winnipeg Film Group?
There came a point where I needed to get more equipment, and they were able to provide me with it for a reasonable maintenance fee. I was also getting equipment from the NFB, on loan.
What about your own style, how would you describe that?
My style grew out of my limitations. At first I didn't shoot in sound because I didn't have the ability to, and I didn't move the camera because all I had was this old rickety tripod. Working within my limitations proved to be a good thing, however, as it gave my work something that was visually different from the majority of other films of that time. If you look at my older shorts, the more successful ones are the ones where I didn't have a lot of dialogue. Basically, they were almost silent movies with narration, which is a great device to use to tell a story, because you're able to jump around in time without confusing anybody—it's very easy to organize your material with it. And it's also a great way to get into your character's head to communicate their interior life, or what have you.
So, how did Crime Wave come about?
Well, I realized my best and most popular films were the ones where I used narration. The International Style, the film I made immediately before Crime Wave, was practically wall-to-wall dialogue, and it dies in the setup, because it has three, five-minute scenes of back-to-back dialogue to set the story up in a 35-minute film! No one made it out of the first act alive. So I decided that I would use a narrator again, but I wouldn't make any scenes longer than a couple minutes, and I would alternate between a narrated scene, a music scene, an action scene—three or four different kinds of scenes that I would cycle through to keep things lively and fast-paced.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before that, I wrote an entirely different Crime Wave. It was a Shoot the Piano Player kind of thing, transplanted to Winnipeg. But I wasn't happy with it, so I wrote something else called Crazy Casey, about an 18-year-old girl who, based on a bad romantic experience, decides that being a young adult sucks, so she returns to childhood and starts to act like a 13-year-old. Living over her family's garage is this guy the same age as Casey, and he becomes romantically obsessed with her. The problem is she's like a child, and utterly in her own world. He basically dogs after her through the whole story and tries to figure her out. I wasn't happy, finally, with that one either. I felt the pressure of the situation, having written two scripts that I wasn't happy with, and out of that came this idea about a guy who hasn't quite got it together as a screenwriter. Those two scripts didn't feature "silent man" characters, but I thought I'd go back to that, since I'd had some success with it in my short films. So I took the title Crime Wave from the first script, the guy over the garage from Crazy Casey, I made Casey an actual young girl, and I got rid of the romance angle. And I tried to tell it in the most humorous and original way I could.
What was the shooting of the film like?
I wrote the script in February and March of 1984, and it was the next month that I started filming it. We shot on weekends, mainly, since I had a regular day job with the City of Winnipeg. I was a traffic clerk--the job the guy does in Crime Wave. Counting cars, that was actually part of it. It was a great job because it was absolutely stress free. And the hours were short, which left me time to run around and get my props and costumes and things for the weekend's shoot. This went on for about a year and a half. It was very enjoyable. I look back on those days with great fondness. I actually haven't had a directing experience as wholly satisfying since.
What were the inspirations for the beginnings and endings of Steven's colour crime films?
The year before I wrote Crime Wave, I remember visiting a local animator and film collector, Brad Caslor. These were the days before VHS, so if you were a collector, you were really hardcore, because you collected 16mm films. He had a whole bunch of trailers for these 1950s crime movies, and they used narration, which was really staccato, and I remember saying to him these had to be way better than the movies themselves. Really, I was emulating those trailers more than anything for Crime Wave's "beginnings and endings."
C: Did you realize at the time that Crime Wave was a very different kind of film than what most Canadians were used to?
Oh yeah, I made it as different as I possibly could while still having a gut feeling that this will still make people laugh, that it'll still play—I coined the phrase "original but good" for myself. In terms of the photography, I lit with hard light instead of soft, which gave it a sort of Technicolor look saturated colours and high contrast. It was the way they shot colour prior to the 1960s. The sound I called "Select-O-Sound." It was clean and stylized, like a radio drama. Not gritty and naturalistic, which was the usual thing back then. I even went as far as to re-record all the dialogue, even if the quality of the original was good, just to give it that sound.
Was Crime Wave ever targeted as being "too American" or a by-product of the tax shelter system?
I remember the violence in Crime Wave rubbed a few old-guard Film Groupers the wrong way, who probably considered it too American. But because I put Winnipeg upfront in the story, most reviewers said that I was commenting on America, not imitating it.
Tell me a little about some of the graphic design work you did for the film--the promotional pamphlet and self-help book covers that you designed.
I really enjoyed that! I have all that stuff still I put it all together in a big banker's box this summer. I was my own archivist. In different compartments within the box I have all my artwork from each of my films—all very anally organized. But it has, of course, tremendous sentimental value for me.
How was the picture received?
Critically, terrifically. But nobody would play it. Even [Toronto's] Bloor Cinema wouldn't. I couldn't believe it, that this theatre which was supposedly such a big supporter of independent Canadian filmmaking wouldn't screen it. It was incredibly frustrating.
You re-shot the ending to Crime Wave after it premiered in 1985. What was the original ending?
It started just where, in the current version, the streetlight falls on Steven's head. In the original, Dr. Jolly lunges at Steven, and the truck appears, driven by the dog. Dr. Jolly is hit, and Steven is saved, but he's knocked out, and the streetlight stays where it was. And then two figures appear--this irascible old lady and this Jethro Bodine-kind of character. They take Steven back to their cabin in the woods, where the old lady--Old Mum--nurses Steven back to health, and he sort of becomes her second son, along with this strapping retard. Finally, Steven gets so comfortable he doesn't want to leave. So that night, Old Mum takes him out to the creek to show him something. It's a creepy scene, the tension builds like something's going to jump out at you. Then, at the last moment, the retard lowers his lantern towards the creek and Steven sees what he was meant to see--his reflection in the water. And Old Mum boots him into the creek and starts to berate him for being a quitter.
So that's what it boiled down to in the original version of the film--that was the message: don't be a quitter. Crime Wave's original ending was really weird, but it wasn't funny, exactly. Instead of sticking with my plan and cycling through different kinds of scenes, these scenes were longer, mainly silent, and there wasn't that razzle dazzle. There was laughter maybe five minutes into that ending at the premiere, but then things got pretty quiet.
Matters weren't helped any by a big technical glitch at the premiere either. Beforehand, I told the projectionist to play the movie as loud as he could. He did, and that caused the sound board or whatever to fry three-quarters of the way through the screening, and about half the audience wandered out into the lobby while they waited for it to get fixed. I noticed that when it got up and running again, a lot of those people didn't come back. So now the theatre was maybe three quarters full, and the original ending was just coming up. So it was like, out of the frying pan and into the fire! After the screening I want back to my hotel room, convinced that the movie was a failure. I was quite depressed. I guess I forgot how well the first three quarters of it went, before the malfunction, because there was a lot of laughing during that.
The next morning when I wandered into the lobby of the hotel, wondering what I was going to do with myself, I walked by the media room, and someone said, "Have you seen the Globe and Mail?" There was this terrific review by Jay Scott which said something like: If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, I may be the person to do it. That when Crime Wave cooks, it sizzles, but that the ending kinda lets things down--which I had to agree with. So I returned home determined to fix the last 20 minutes of the film. I basically rewrote and re-shot it to make it more like the stuff that came before it.
What was your approach to portraying comedy in the film?
One thing I did, was try to construct the gags so they gave the audience credit for watching closely. The payoffs came when the viewer put the two halves of the gag that I gave them together. It was kind of interactive gag-making. I remember being a big fan of [Far Side cartoonist] Gary Larson, who worked his humour kind of like that. Otherwise, my approach was deadpan. I played everything utterly straight, no matter how absurd the thing was.
Tell me about your TV work after Crime Wave.
Bruce McCulloch is the reason I got involved with The Kids in the Hall. He saw Crime Wave on pay TV and really liked it, so he got their producers to find me. And it was very lucky for me. It really changed the course of my life--who knows what I'd be doing now otherwise! It was already a good six years since I'd made Crime Wave when the call came, and at that point I was kind of floundering, to tell the truth.
Once there, I had to learn on the job, literally. I'd never worked with a real crew before. On my films, it was always me and maybe one or two or three old school friends behind the camera. Mainly one old school friend--Gerry Klym. He was my sound man, but really, he helped me with everything. He was invaluable. Also, I used to edit in the camera. I didn't shoot coverage--I didn't even know what that was! I just shot the bits I needed to put it together jigsaw puzzle-style. So at The Kids they had to basically show me the ropes. But it wasn't a problem. They knew it was my first professional gig.
It was actually my first time directing material written by anyone other than myself, but for some of the sketches I was able to draw on the things I'd been doing on my own films. There's one called "A Trip to the Farm," written by Bruce, that's very Crime Wave-like in its 1950s-inspired music and look. I also designed the "Mr. Heavyfoot" sketches, for Dave. So there's a bit of me in some of their stuff.
From there you did Maniac Mansion, correct?
That's right. Some of the folks there had seen Crime Wave, so when I went for my interview, they treated me kind of special. Joe Flaherty was very charming, nevermind hilarious. He'd break me up constantly while we were filming, then would turn to me and say with a big warm smile, "Having fun?" I did two episodes of that. After that, I did a Shirley Holmes episode, then two John Woo's Once A Thief episodes.
How did Top of the Food Chain come about?
Top of the Food Chain was written by two TV writers and producers, Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde. They started off as one half of a comedy quartet from Montreal. As with The Kids in the Hall gig, the script came my way after they'd seen Crime Wave on pay TV. This was a couple of years before we actually made it. It took a while to raise the financing, because it was not a typical sci-fi spoof, it was this weird hybrid. When they asked me what I thought of it on first reading, I said it was like Twin Peaks meets Petticoat Junction meets The Naked Gun. Later, I took to describing it as a platypus, which they thought was also pretty accurate. That hybrid quality was the best thing about Top of the Food Chain, but it was also one of its biggest liabilities, especially in terms of raising the financing. But the producer, Suzanne Berger, made this great contact in New York who had a line on a wealthy investment banker who thought it would be fun to invest in a movie, so a lot of the money came from that direction. It wasn't actually until Campbell Scott signed on that Telefilm came on. That was in the last week or so before production.
How did Campbell Scott get involved?
Campbell is a very literate, intelligent guy who knows his pop culture references. Crime Wave really appealed to him, and he really responded to the language in Top of the Food Chain. And he saw an opportunity, I think, to contribute some of the dialogue, because when we were shooting, he'd show up in the morning with stuff he'd written the night before. He'd run it by me, and we went with just about all of it—it was hilarious stuff. For example, the "lumpy bumpy part of town" --that was all his, and the other actors picked up on it and made it longer and more absurd. He was absolutely perfect for Dr. Lamonte. He brought so much to the role, and to the film.
How much did you contribute to the look of the film this time?
They wanted me to give it the look and feel of Crime Wave, and I did my best--or rather, the cinematographer, Bill Wong, did his best. Bill was also the DP on John Woo's Once a Thief and had actually shot with Woo in Hong Kong, so it was fantastic having him he was really fast and knew exactly what I wanted. But other than the Technicolor look, which we were sort of able to achieve (it also requires a lot of sun for the exteriors, which we didn't get that much of), the fact that I almost never moved the camera and composed in tableaus, I found those didn't translate well to the Top of the Food Chain world, because there were too many actors, and it would have been too stiff and confining for them to frame it that way.
Top of the Food Chain was a much bigger production than your earlier films. How do you look back on it?
It was more of a showcase for the writers and the actors. It actually turned out a lot better than I thought it would based on how many people all along really questioned whether it would work the script was just so odd. Even when we were filming, you'd hear crew members and even cast members making cracks about it. But it premiered really well at the Toronto Film Festival, and all the reviews were favourable. In terms of its theatrical release, it did OK, about as well as the great majority of English-Canadian films--a couple of weeks run at [Toronto art house theatre] the Carlton! And it still plays occasionally on the Space channel. I was keen to direct something again, and I was willing to accept an unsuccessful film, if that's what it was going to be, but it really worked out for the best.
In 2005 you shot your most recent feature, Marker. Tell me a bit about that one.
Well, we did it for very little money and on a really short production schedule, and it suffered. It's not a terrible film, but I wasn't able to create any atmosphere. All I really could do was to get the bare bones, and not even all of them.
Do you ever feel like you want to go back and make another film in the style of Crime Wave?
Most filmmakers who are able to keep their own particular thing going are by and large remaking the same film over and over. But I decided I wanted to pull the plug on what I was doing. I could have kept going--I had more ideas for silent man films, I even had a kind of sequel to Crime Wave, but I stopped myself. It wasn't that I was creatively dried up or couldn't get money, it was because after nobody would play Crime Wave, even as a midnight movie, I figured I wasn't going to get to where I wanted to go by doing the silent man thing. Festivals may like it, but that's where it was going to end. I was very ambitious at the time, and I wanted my films to play at the local theatre. I made some choices that probably set the occasionally bumpy road of my career, post-Crime Wave--no more me starring in my films, no more silent man, no more narration, and I had to have real stories!--but I didn't see I had a choice. And I still don't think I had one.