Sunday, 9 March 2014

interview: Jim Makichuk

It was back in Janury 2006 that I posted a review of Ghostkeeper, a VHS tape that I bought some time in the early 1990s. A little while after, I was delighted to receive an e-mail from the director Jim Makichuk who kindly agreed to an interview. Unfortunately my computer exploded shortly thereafter and one of the e-mail addresses that I lost was Jim’s. In June 2008 we finally re-established contact - and this is the result.

I’m really glad to get back in contact with you because I’ve wanted to find out more about Ghostkeeper for a long time now.
"Thanks a lot for the review that you did on the movie. You sort of got what we were going for - because there’s a lot of people who didn’t. I found out from some kids who were working at that hotel we shot at in Lake Louise, they all had copies of the movie and I said, “Where did you get it?’ They said, ‘There’s somebody from England who’s uploaded it. Everybody’s doing it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m flattered.’"

That certainly wasn’t me. I have no idea how to upload a movie onto the internet!
"Me neither!"

Let’s talk a little bit about your background before Ghostkeeper. You did TV news and stuff like that.
"I started by majoring in psychology and English, and I got a job at a TV station in Ontario. I was a 21-year-old kid and I walked in there, in the mail-room, and I looked at the studio and I said this is it, this is my life. And that’s all I’ve ever done."

Was working in TV a means to an end?
"The jobs I had, I was just totally excited. I’ll tell you actually. For me it started at the age of eight, or actually even earlier. I think I was four or five and I lived in a small town with my parents and they took me to the movies. This one time I saw something on the screen and I just started screaming and crying. I was three or four and my mother, she took me up to the fellow in the booth, the projectionist. You know, a small town, everybody knows everybody. I sat there excited and I still have this image in my mind. The film was going through the projector and it was warm, it was like being on a train, it’s got that sound. And that was it. As I got older - five or six or seven and eight - I would go to see every movie that played town. So since I was eight years old, all I wanted to do is make movies and be in Hollywood."

Did you want to write or direct or what?
"Just ‘make movies’ I guess. I always wanted to do everything. I worked in TV, I worked as a cameraman, I worked as a writer for news, then I got into writing and directing commercials and documentaries and so on. I was always a film-maker. Even now, I’m still doing some documentaries on my own, just to go inbetween the movie stuff. Basically, I can do almost every job on a movie set. For me, I just wanted everything. I just wanted to learn about every sort of job that was on a movie set. Except make-up, I was never interested in make-up! I didn’t care about make-up but for shooting and editing and all that stuff, I just loved it - and I still do."

So how did Ghostkeeper come together? Why was that the right film to make as your debut feature?
"I was working in commercials in the western part of Canada. I was doing it for three years and I just got tired, as I used to say, of selling toilet paper. Metaphorically speaking. I said that’s it, I’m quitting the commercials business and going to make a feature. I was one of the highest-paid guys in the western part of Canada and in three weeks I got a job as a PA on a movie. I was hauling out the empties for all the teachers. I wanted to learn. I would copy every piece of paper that I got my hands on: the scripts, the budgets, everything. And I just learned. A friend of mine in Calgary said let’s make a movie and his friend had a father who owned the hotel."

So the location came first?
"Well, yes. It was the location because we thought, ‘Boy, that’s a perfect place. It’s a spooky place. Right by the Chateau Lake Louise.' It’s an old hotel and it’s a really spooky hotel. It’s on its own. So we went out there and we thought about a story and it came sort of together. At that time there was a tax shelter going on in Canada. Alberta, being the centre of the oil industry for Canada, there was a lot of guys who had a lot of money. So we had six guys who wrote us cheques for about a hundred thousand each. The tax shelter meant that if it made no money, they had the write-off. It was common in Canada from ‘75 to ‘85 and we call those the tax shelter movies. Scanners, The Grey Fox, Porky’s: those were all made under that. Basically, it was commercially driven, whereas in Canada now it’s the government who drives film and the emphasis is more on culture than it is on commercialism."

So was the Canadian film industry very healthy at the time? Were there good prospects for Canadian movies to break out internationally?
"Eventually the thing that happened to the tax shelter, as with everything, is there were some lawyers and accountants who got a little greedy. So the government said right. You know, they raise a five million dollar movie and two million would be going to the accountants and lawyers. So the government said okay, that’s enough of this - and they closed it off. I don’t think it’s ever fully recovered because from ‘85 to now they just make these obscure movies about - well, the joke is the lesbian hunchback eskimo. Because it’s government now and it’s a bureaucracy. They’ve never made good movies since the tax shelter. Yes, there’s a handful and everybody points to Cronenberg. That last one he did with Viggo Mortensen, it’s not really a Canadian movie. He’s Canadian but it was shot in England and financed in England. Canadians say ‘Well, there’s a great Canadian movie,’ and I say, ‘It’s not a Canadian movie. It’s a British movie.’ But English Canada, they’re still trying to figure out whether they’re British or American. When it comes to French Canada, French Canada makes terrific movies, but that’s because they have a culture, they have a strong identity. For us, there’s French Canadians and English Canadians - and they can be Ukrainians or Chinese.

"But it was a time of tax shelters. There were guys on street corners with fliers for movies to invest in. People were investing, it was like a gold rush, so it was the perfect time. We got the money for it and we went and shot it. The biggest problem we had is halfway through, the producer that I had, he screwed up and we ran out of money. In the original script there was a lot more in the second half. We actually shot it in sequence. just because of coincidence it was all shot in sequence. All of a sudden, halfway through the creature, the producer came in and said, ‘You’ve got him for half a day.’ I said, ‘Half a day? What do you mean?’ Because he figured a lot more in the script but that’s all we got him for. So we took the poor guy, stuck him in the costume and we shot a whole bunch of angles with him - and that was about all we could do."

So that’s why you’ve got a monster movie with almost no monster in it.
"Exactly. They told us that the money is almost all gone. We had a choice of stopping the movie, pulling the plug and I said, ‘No way, we’ve gotten over half of it shot.’ So every day I made up the scene as we’re going along, which is not the way to make a movie. That’s what made it so uneven and without a terrific ending that we had hoped for. But the thing I wanted with Johnny Holbrook, who is a great cameraman, is to have a mood. A dark sort of mood, an ominous thing going on - and I think for the most part it works. The prints that got finished were so dark but the distributors, those guys, they don’t care at all."

When you were shooting it, were there any practical problems with the isolated location and all the deep snow?
"There wasn’t actually because it’s Lake Louise. In Alberta, that’s a ski town. So the highways were perfect, there was lots of hotels and motels and lots of snow. Anything we shot of the snow was actually about ten feet off the highway. We’d stop on the road and there’d be some snow and we’d tell the actor to walk in it. He’d walk back and forth and then we’d just move on. The hotel that we shot in was empty because it was never open in the winter time. There was no heat in it actually. We had these massive heaters about the size of torpedoes. Everybody had ski outfits on - ski pants and ski jackets - and everybody had burn holes in their ski pants and ski jackets from the heaters. Because you’d stand beside a heater and the outfit is nylon and the heaters were so hot they would melt the nylon as you had it on. That hurt! The actors were not the greatest, they were basically some people we knew from Calgary. And the story got kind of screwed up because of the money. So it’s an interesting failed attempt for me. It got me started in some ways. I got the feeling and the mood I wanted and it works in a theatre especially with a terrific print. It just gives you this sort of feeling that there’s nowhere to go. Actually all the snow that you see in the movie is real, even if it’s falling. That was all real. It was amazing because every time we had to shoot outside, it snowed."

How was Ghostkeeper distributed?
"We had a guy called Alex Nassis who was at that time what they called a sales agent and he sold it pretty much everywhere. I’ve got a poster from Mexico that’s really interesting. It has got il Diablo or something. The poster from England, I saw that. I got a copy of the movie on PAL and I looked at the poster and said, ‘Who thought of this?’ There’s palm trees and there’s some kind of creature that looks like a bird..."

That company, Apex Video, I think they just had a stock of weird paintings that had probably been done for paperbacks and they just picked one at random.
"I guess so. It was just amazing. But the American one from New World was actually pretty nice. It played nearly everywhere and we made a bit of money on it. It was shot on 35mm with an IA crew. The hardest part was for the guy who did the focus because those hallways were so dark and we shot so dark. At some points we were shooting 1.4 which means that the depth of field was half an inch. And then you have actors who are moving. The focus puller guy, we used to call him the Prince of Darkness. He would do it but it was by instinct because it was impossible for him to focus so he just calculated it in his mind."

Where did Ghostkeeper take you to professionally?
"Into the feature league, the feature business. Of course, by ‘85 the thing that happened is that the shelter stopped and the industry basically collapsed, which didn’t help me at all. Because all of a sudden there was nothing in Canada. There was nothing for about five years and then these American TV shows like Friday the 13th and The Twilight Zone - I always call them third-rate American shows, they go into syndication - they started up and that started the business once more. But by that time I was out of it and had moved to Toronto and then was a starving artist for a couple of years, and then just decided to come to Los Angeles."

When you got to LA, did you find there were writing gigs for you?
"There’s a script that I wrote in ‘89 called Emperor of Mars and we’re hoping to shoot it in the next couple of years if not next year. It got me into meetings with everybody. It’s kind of like Bridge to Terabithia. I had an agent in LA before I came to LA so it was pretty easy. Then I did a bunch of movies for Paramount and some Highlander shows and then of course they hired me in Canada. It’s the old: if he’s working in LA, he’s got to be good. But if he’s from Canada, he can’t be great. It’s this Canadian thing we have of making sure that we don’t get too much of an ego."

Did you find that anyone you were dealing with had seen Ghostkeeper?
"No really, no. It was pretty much off the radar at that point."

Why did you concentrate on writing? Did you want to do that more than directing?
"I got tired of working for 14 hours a day for a while and it just came easier to me. People talk to me about talent and things and I say, ‘Well, I don’t think I have talent, I just think I’m stubborn.’ It took me a long time to learn how to write something that’s good. In Canada I’m sort of known as a director but by the time I got to the States it was a more of a writer. So I was always holding off this Emperor of Mars. This is the seventh time it’s been up."

So on your seventh attempt, twenty years after you wrote it, why are you confident you’re going to get it made now?
"I’m not that confident! At this point I have some producers in Canada who have made about 38 movies. It sort of fell through from this American who was supposed to finance it. I guess that you just have to be confident. It seems like the right combination of people. It seems like the right timing and everything else. It’s intuition but at the same time I’m not excited. My friend said, ‘Are you excited?' I said, ‘I’ll be excited when there’s a cheque that clears.’ Because I’ve been in the business for thirty years. It seems like this is the best scenario I’ve had. At this point I’m beginning to be apprehensive about this happening in October but these two guys from Alberta, they have done this in the past. There’s a trick to financing movies in Canada; I guess maybe it’s a bit like England. Because there’s all these government agencies you have to go through and broadcasting agencies and things. It’s a paper maze, you get lots of paper - and they know how to do it, probably better than a whole bunch of people up there. So I’m not sure. I’m not buying any kind of a house on the possibility of an income from it but I think it’s the right combination of people.

"Also, I’m working on a whole lot of stuff. The secret for me is always to have at least four or five things in the air at the same time. It’s one thing that I learned from working as a writer. There are people who write A Script and they hang on to it. They wait and they wait and they send it out and they wait and they wait. I’m always working on about four or five things. Right now I’ve got a movie that might be going with the people at Nu Image. It’s called Deadhead. It’s about an old aeroplane that’s returning and all of a sudden it’s taken off course and starts heading towards the northern part of the Pacific. There’s an alien virus on board. It was inspired by this movie, I don’t remember the name, this movie was made in I think Yugoslavia with Telly Savalas on a train."

Horror Express.
"Yes, I saw that and I thought, ‘This is a great idea.’ Except that I put it on an aeroplane. I’ll be honest - I stole the idea!"

Do you like making and watching horror and fantasy stuff?
"Yes, I like both. There’s a lot of reading I do. This movie I did on Roswell, it’s kind of a Roswell movie. The people from Paramount, they changed it a whole lot, but I went out to Roswell and I hung out there for a week. I just spoke to people. And I’m a sceptic, you know. I don’t think there’s aliens. If there’s one that shows up on CNN, I’ll believe it. But at the same time, a sceptic is probably the person who will write a story that’s good. Ever since I was a kid, I was always interested in sci-fi because of all the potential for all the worlds that you can create. There’s a movie I’ve been trying to get off the ground for years called Anyone Else That’s Like Me. The author Walter Miller wrote a classic book..."

A Canticle for Leibowitz.
"Phil Borsos and I were friends until he passed away. He actually bought the book and was planning on making it just before he died. And there’s another story from Miller, this one, that I’ve had for twenty years. I’m just arguing with this agent in New York who’s very old now and I hope he goes soon because he’s so stubborn. So I’ve got that story and there’s a director called David Winning who I’m going to see tomorrow. He was actually my protégé in Calgary. He was this kid who would hang around my office all the time. He’d bring me stories all the time: ‘No, that’s no good... That’s no good...’ Him and I are still friends, we’re going for lunch tomorrow and he has bought a script of mine. I squeezed some money out of him. I said, ‘I can give this to you as a friend but I think that you should pay money. It’s more of a commitment.’

"So he said okay. It’s called Beneath, about a Russian submarine that sinks in the Pacific. It’s based on a true story. I don’t know if you remember, in the ‘70s, there was a story about this Russian sub that sank. The Americans they disguised a freighter, hollowed out the inside, they went over to where the Russian sub was and inside was a huge crane. Their intent was to hook it up and pull it up. So I took that story and added an experiment on humans to turn them into aquanauts. And of course the experiment goes wrong so there’s the Americans that go into the ocean and they go down to the submarine, they enter it but they realise they’re not alone. So I seem to like those kind of stories."

What is the state of play of Ghostkeeper in terms of rights? How likely are we to see a special edition DVD?
"Actually, somebody told me that what I’ve got to do is get it out again and then do the sequel. I said, ‘I don’t have a sequel,’ and they said, ‘Who cares?”"

Well, then do a remake.
"I would like to do the movie it should have been, with my experience now. I talked with the investors in Calgary. Because the thing I’m trying to do is release it to people over here like Netflix and give them a print that’s good, as opposed to that horrible print that they have now. Even the one that somebody from England has uploaded, it’s like magenta. It’s really awful. I don’t mind that somebody’s taken it, I just wish it was a good print. So there’s a strong chance that something is going to happen again, just because it’s there. I’ve still got the original script somewhere. That’s one of the projects that’s on the board."

It could have a whole new lease of life if you can get a decent print onto DVD.
"I think so too. It’s not that hard. I’ve got a print on 3/4” and they took it into one of the labs here. They stuck it on one of their machines and played with their little scopes and things - and it looked beautiful. It looked amazing and this is just off a 3/4”. I have a print in 35mm and a print in 16mm so it certainly is possible. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a couple of months. I’ve just spoken to some people from Netflix so I’ll see what they say. If they show an interest then I will certainly go to the guys at the lab there, see what kind of deal I can make. The problem is that very few people among the investors have contracts any more so there’ll be some arguments, as there always is.

"One thing that I don’t think you mentioned in your review was the guy who actually edited Ghostkeeper, who was Stan Cole. And Stan Cole was arguably one of the best editors in Canada. He did all the movies for Bob Clark; Murder by Decree he cut and the famous Christmas one with Darren McGavin. He was probably the most experienced one on the crew and he was hard as hell to work with but he taught me a lot. For Emperor of Mars, he’s the editor I’d like to use. He’s in his seventies now but I told the producers, ‘For an editor, I want somebody who’s under thirty or somebody who’s over seventy.’ Those are the two most interesting people around. Somebody in their forties - I don’t want to see them any more. Some hot kid who’s got some crazy ideas or somebody who’s seventy who’s so smooth that they can make it just look like silk."

interview originally posted 5th September 2008

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