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Interview: Bob Presner

A veteran of the film production business in Canada, Bob Presner has worked on a wide variety of films throughout his career. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he played a pivotal role in the development of Canadian B-film, producing both the teen sex romp Pinball Summer and the well-loved Maritime slasher classic, My Bloody Valentine. As former President of Film Finances Canada, Ltd., Mr. Presner has provided completion guarantees and bonds for feature films, including high-profile Canadian efforts like Owning Mahowny, Men with Brooms, Atom Egoyan's Ararat, and David Cronenberg's Spider.

During a phone interview with on October 19, 2004, Bob Presner courteously shared some of his many experiences in Canadian film.

What is your film background?

Well, I was born in Montreal and attended Loyola College—what is now Concordia—moving from Commerce to the Communication Arts Department. Finally I settled into making films, and went on to make about 15 of them in my three years in the department. One of my film professors, Charles Gagnon, actually told me that I was going to be a producer, not a director, which made me mad at the time! He proved to be right.

Your first feature film credit is on one of Cinépix's very first English language " maple syrup porn" films, Loving and Laughing. How did you get involved in that?

I originally got a job as a production assistant, painting the inside of a barn in Point Claire, Quebec for the film. The movie was based on The Prince and the Pauper—a rich draft dodger from Vermont switches places with a poor kid from a commune in Gaspé. Two days into the filming, the first assistant director on the film, Peter Svatek (Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck) saw that I had more ability than just painting, and offered me the job of location manager. We brought in lobster traps and seagulls and make it look like the Gaspé. In those days, there weren't things like " no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture," so the set dressers made sure the seagulls didn't fly away by attaching their legs to nylon cords. They didn't.

For the next five years, I was head of production at a company called SDA Productions, where I was involved in the making of 15 or 20 documentaries and industrial films, and about 250 TV commercials—for every toothpaste and every beer. During that time, the people who were directing these things included Francis Mankiewicz and Gilles Carle. All of the directors who were making movies or who wanted to make movies would moonlight on TV commercials because it paid very well, and there was no other way to earn a living.

You got your first job as a production manager on Garth Drabinsky's first co-production, The Disappearance. How did that happen?

Gerry Arbeid, who was production manager on Black Christmas, came to Montreal and hired me on. Because it was a British/Canadian co-production, the hub of the crew all came over from Britain after finishing up work on Barry Lyndon. It was very interesting having Mr. Kubrick's A-team, including Johnny Alcott—the DOP on 2001 and A Clockwork Orange—just drop out of the sky into Montreal in the middle of January, with no time to set it up. The movie itself was a " dozer" —a slow boat to China.

You worked with George Mihalka on two films in the early 1980s, Pick-Up Summer and My Bloody Valentine. How did you first meet up with George?

I used to judge student films around Montreal. I had been visiting a student film festival at Concordia, and saw this really well-done genre spoof called Pizza to Go, shot by Rodney Gibbons and directed by George Mihalka. As I always did, I introduced myself, and asked them to come and say hello when they had a chance. Sure enough, they eventually did—and I got them work in the industry.

How did Pick-Up Summer come about?

Well, Pick-Up Simmer was really titled Pinball Summer. The Americans, for whatever reason, decided that " Pick-Up" would sell better. The whole premise of our making the film was that pinball was a really hot fad at the time it was in every corner store.

Basically, I got a call from Jack F. Murphy from Criterion Pictures, a non-theatrical distributor of 16mm films, who said he had $100,000 to make a movie. I said I knew some kids who could probably do it for that budget, so I put Rodney and George on, and they brought in the Zelniker brothers, Richard and Michael. They were twins one was a writer and one was an actor. After five months, Jack called me back, said he had a script and asked if I would get involved. I told him that I could probably get the film made for about $750,000. So, he raised the money, and I hired a bunch of people, mostly straight out of university that I knew could make the film look good.

Our challenge on that was to take Montreal in the summer and turn it into California. We even got a local cover band—Jay and Germain, who had just released a Beach Boys medley—and got them to do our score. We didn't have any oceans to go to, so we just went to Oka Park. The idea was that if you could get young nubile women to wear the smallest bathing suits possible and splash around in the water, no one would notice if it wasn't the Pacific Ocean!

So we made this movie in about 25 days. I just dragged these kids through it. I wasn't much older than they were, but I was a decade ahead of them in terms of experience. The acting in it was absolutely over the top, and the script was so juvenile that I cringe to this very day on some lines. But George wouldn't hear anything of it. He and Jack weren't looking for good taste they were looking for crass, that which was going to attract a somewhat dimwitted teeny-bopper audience looking for T and A. Pinball Summer may be infantile, puerile and childish, but it's a great looking movie!

So, from there, you went to Cinépix to make My Bloody Valentine?

At the time, Cinépix was THE place to make real movies. John Dunning and André Link have always been great boosters of young talent in the same way as Roger Corman was, and Dunning was looking for fresh blood at the time. Since they realized the kids could do a movie that looked okay for the money that they had, we started working with John on a script which became known as " The Hospital Comedy." It was ostensibly being written by Rodney and George, with a Quebec writer named Michel Choquette and his partner, Michael Paseornek. Coincidentally, Michael Paseornek is now the President of Lions Gate Films Productions—the company that was born out of Cinépix. Michel had been part of a comedy group called the Times Square Two, a folk music act where two people would sing and play the same guitar at the same time. They had been all over American TV in the early seventies, and had made Johnny Carson fall out of his chair laughing! So, Michel was this hotshot writer with " New York smarts" who was going to bring humor to the script. We worked on it for five months, story conferences and writing back and forth. John thought it wasn't funny enough, George was saying that they didn't understand the humor, and Michel thought everyone was out of it! As fate would have it, a repertory cinema owner named Steven Miller came proposed to John and André an idea for a film called My Bloody Valentine, that would open day and date on Friday the 13th of February, the day before Valentine's Day of 1981. It was a too good a hook to pass up. Just one problem: he only had an outline—and no script! So out went the hospital film and My Bloody Valentine was born. The hospital film was finally made under the title Stitches, and released in 1985.

So the whole idea for My Bloody Valentine was based around the release date?

Yes. Everyone was doing stuff like Halloween, these day-and-date movies, so why not do one about Valentine's Day? We all sat around a table, thought about how long it was going to be, how often we had to kill someone, and figured out how to kill these kids in such a fashion that it would be gorier than John Carpenter could ever imagine. I can remember conversations where we would say things like:

"So, they're down in the mine, and the miner finds this young girl, he grabs her, jams her body through a copper shower pipe and leaves her there."

"Well, that's okay, but what else can we do?"

"How about if as she's hanging there, the miner turns the shower on and the bloody water comes gushing out of her mouth—now that's really gross! Why don't we do that?"

Or, "There's a guy who climbs up a ladder to escape the miner, and suddenly then there's a noose around his neck, and he slips, and drops down into the mineshaft and hangs there with his eyes revolving around his head."

"How can we gross it out a little more?"

"Because of the jolt, we'll have his body come away from his head, so just his head his left in the noose and his body goes flying down the shaft!"

Basically, you were just aiming as far over-the-top as you could go.

It was gross-out city, and John Dunning was the guy who was egging us on! He wanted to out-gross the gross. We had to write like crazy to get the thing done, to start shooting by the middle of September—the idea had come to Cinépix at the beginning of July, and by August, Paramount's Frank Mancuso Sr. had given it the green light.

So, it was fairly rushed in order to get it into theatres by February?

Yes. We completely took over a town called Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia, redressed all the town signs and everything for two weeks of prep, and then filmed for seven weeks without taking down the dressing. It was a race from start to finish, and we were literally shooting day and night. We had a first unit going as well as a full-time second unit—just to keep up with the kills. Rushes would go back to Montreal and on Saturday morning we would have a conference call with John Dunning where he would tell us: " More blood! Gotta be gorier!" and we'd go off and shoot more, with tighter close-ups.

Tom Burman did the effects for the film, right?

Well, there was nobody in Canada who could do the effects. Tom Burman's studio in L.A. built the effects, and Tom Hoerber and Kenny Diaz were the guys who physically made all that blood spurt. One of my favourite deaths was Keith Knight, who played Hollis. I knew about these nail guns that were used to attach conduits to concrete, and I thought that would be a great thing—he turns, sees the miner's light, and you see the gun going up to his head. Then you hit him in the forehead with one of these .22 caliber nails, and pull the gun away, and there's a nail sticking out. Making it look like he had been shot was easy, but the hard part was getting this nail to stick straight out of his head without drooping. A number of times we couldn't get the shot because it was loosing its rigidity, as they say, and there were a lot of jokes about Keith not being able to keep it up!

How was it working in the Nova Scotia mines?

When we went down to see the mine on our location scouting, it was fabulous, all grungy and dirty, but when we went back five weeks later to set up production, they had completely painted the mine a greenish-gray because they wanted it to look nice. So, we had to dirty up the mine again.

For two weeks we filmed in right inside, 800 feet below ground. I remember one morning the mine manager came down and said " You're going to have to ask the crew to go up top. There's a wind up there that's creating a vacuum and pulling the coal dust and methane out of the mine and it could all blow up." I made a quick decision, stopped filming, and all 130 cast and crew went up—15 people at a time in the bucket.

Obviously, you all escaped okay and finished everything up in time!

Well, we did do some second unit work shooting in Montreal after the picture was over, because John wanted a little more gore on the separation of the arm at the end of the movie. The miner survived down there by eating his cohorts, which made him crazy in the first place, so we had to shoot some additional nibbling scenes.

Once we got the film done, we had three editors working 24 hours a day trying to cut the film in November and December to get an answer print—Gérald Vansier, Rit Wallis, with a little help from Debra Karen, and a supervising editor, Jean LaFleur. We didn't know we were going to get 1107 prints out of it, which was quite a lot at the time—Jaws had gotten 1400 in 1975. John kept telling me " Frank Mancuso likes it a lot, he wants to release 500 more prints!"

How was the picture received by audiences?

There were great expectations for the picture, and I assure you that had we delivered to the viewers what we shot, there would have been a gasp every nine minutes, like we planned. Unfortunately, the MPAA made the film clot at the box office. A woman had just sued one of the studios because she said her son had made a copycat murder from one of these gory movies, and also it was around the time that John Lennon had been assassinated. Both incidents had made the censors a little bit edgy. The negative was ready to be cut at the time we sent it for MPAA certification, and they told us what we had to take out—an additional four-and-a-half minutes. Because of the delivery deadline, we didn't have the luxury of submitting and resubmitting. We just had to cut what they said had to go. So four-and-a-half minutes of great graphic gore hit the cutting room floor. I went to see the movie the second night it opened in this cinema in Dorval, and I listened to people saying, " That wasn't so bloody, was it?" At that point I knew we were doomed, because we were not delivering. What we had in mind was Grand Guignol, to shock people. What they saw were wide shots with very little gory detail!

Has any audience actually seen an uncut My Bloody Valentine?

Well, it seems that intact prints went out to Japan, and they saw the whole thing, either dubbed or subtitled, but then the prints disappeared.

My Bloody Valentine is curiously the most Canadian of the 80s slashers. Was this conscious when you were making the film?

All we wanted to do was kill young people in exciting and gory ways, and titillate like crazy. We did not purposely make it Canadian, but what we didn't do, like we did on Pinball Summer, was go out to make it look American with U.S. flags and mailboxes. As far as the accents go, in the Maritimes, there are certain lilts to speech that are so infectious, that some of the actors just started taking on the Nova Scotia drawl. One of the kids from Toronto all of a sudden started saying " Aye, bye" and all that, and nobody knew where he had gotten it—it was just kind of osmotic.

And all the Moosehead beer?

Moosehead beer was not known in America, and we needed to supply " wrap beer" to the cast and crew at the end of the day, as was the custom. Someone on our crew made a deal with the brewer to put as much Moosehead into the film as possible and they would give us free beer. I've been told they credit that movie with their launch into America they got so much coverage in that movie. We even built a neon sign with a big moose head to hang up in the bar. I think they paid for it, but we built it.

So it wasn't intentional, the portrayal of East Coast joblessness?

Well, it was really a pretext for the conflict. The loss of jobs was a reality all over North America. Coal had fallen into disfavour, because of the environmental implications.

There's been a lot of talk about a sequel, recently. What are your thoughts on that?

I know that John Dunning would absolutely love to do a sequel. About five years ago he asked if I would leave the bonding business and do one, but I said " No, I've already made that movie once, I don't want to make it again!"

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