Feature by: Thomas Scalzo
Posted on: 20 June 2010
If the name John Paizs is known to American audiences, it is likely due to his work with Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, for whom he directed a number of short film segments in the early 90s (including the classic “Mr. Heavyfoot,” an homage to Jacques Tati). Before that, however, Paizs wrote, directed, and starred in 1985’s Crime Wave (not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s identically titled film of the same year), an eminently playful – and surprisingly personal – deconstruction of 50s genre tropes. In anticipation of our forthcoming screening of Crime Wave, we interviewed the Winnipeg-based filmmaker on his career, his close friendship with Guy Maddin, and his proclivity towards characters who are constantly seeking direction.
This interview will be followed by reviews of select Paizs films throughout the week.
Let’s begin with your early work. How did you get your start as a filmmaker?
As a kid my dream was to be a filmmaker, a comic book artist or a cartoon animator, and I worked variously at each. It was while in university that I decided to focus on filmmaking.
Would you talk a bit about your short films?
I made several leading up to Crime Wave. Aside from just trying to make good, entertaining little films, I was experimenting and teaching myself filmmaking. Crime Wave can be thought of as a kind of distillation of what I thought worked in them.
You’re often compared to fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin. Do you feel this comparison is warranted? And do you feel his work is an influence on yours and vice-versa?
I think the comparison is warranted. Our films had a lot in common in the beginning, “postmodern” the label commonly applied to them. As to our work influencing each other’s, I actually made my last film before he made his first. When I say my last film I mean the last that I both wrote and directed, that can rightly be called mine. So there wasn’t a chance for my work to be influenced by his. Though just knowing him may very well have influenced me. I could already see how talented he was and his knowledge of film went into many areas that I knew nothing about. And his point of view, his personality, they were so out of left field to me that they really made an impression. And he was funny! Really, I’d have been lucky if any of this had rubbed off on me.
One of your aesthetic signatures is the creation of oddly endearing Technicolor worlds. How did you create this look, and what films or filmmakers do you cite as inspiration?
Obviously actually shooting Technicolor wasn’t an option. I mimicked the look by lighting with hard light, which is what they mainly used when they shot Technicolor. Hard light creates high contrast and saturates colours to make them pop. For exteriors I lit with direct, unfiltered sunlight, which of course is also hard light—the mother of it. As to films or filmmakers that inspired the look, definitely Hammer horror films, especially the early ones like The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. And MGM 50s musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. From the 40s, Meet Me in St. Louis has always stood out for me as a particularly evocative use of Technicolor. As do the colour films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger from the same time. And 60s live-action Disney films also had their impact, in particular The Three Lives of Thomasina and That Darn Cat. I drew heavily from them for Crime Wave! But really, so so many.
Were these short films ever released theatrically?
No, they weren’t. Neither was Crime Wave.
I’ve read that you once had a serious interest in creating comic books. Did this interest also translate into the look and feel of your films? You include many still-life type shots, for example the garden hose filling the pool in Springtime in Greenland, which I could easily imagine as a comic book panel.
I loved comic books as a kid. As I said, one of my dreams from then was to be a comic book artist. And I know I developed my visual chops largely through my practicing to be one. Though by the time I had started making films, my aesthetic had shifted largely away from the pop-art kinds of stylings I had enjoyed so much in the comics I loved and settled more into the school of classical restraint, if you will, hence the tableau-style shots in my films like the one you mention in Springtime in Greenland. But their compositions and attention to detail were definitely informed by my comic book roots, as was, come to think of it, the sequential storytelling through still images technique that they combined to create. That’s right out of a comic book.
When did the idea arise to make a feature film?
With my trilogy, The Three Worlds of Nick. Springtime in Greenland is the first part in it. The other two take my silent Nick character to an ivy league-style college and to a 60s sort of pleasure palace in the mountains, where he plays spy. Together the films ran feature length. But I only played them together once, at the premiere, which was less than auspicious. But since then Springtime in Greenland has emerged as a kind of minor Canadian classic, is taught in university film courses, and is cited as Canada’s first postmodern film. And next came Crime Wave.
Why did you decide to play Steven in Crime Wave?
Well, I had already appeared in my short films in the central roles doing this kind of Buster Keaton stone face thing. Really, I just kept going with what I thought had been working for me.
There is a distinct similarity between Nick (in several of the short films) and Crime Wave’s Steven, in particular the sense that each character is searching for something greater than himself. In fact, it feels like Nick’s undefined quest for something more became Steven’s quest to write the great color crime novel. Are there thematic links between these two characters?
I think you put your finger on it when you say Nick’s undefined quest for something more became Steven’s quest to reach the top in the colour crime world. Nick and Steven are essentially the same character. And in Springtime in Greenland you see his alienation and read into it a longing to escape. But as yet there’s no plan. In the next Nick film, Oak, Ivy and other Dead Elms, he’s still the outsider. And you can see him trying to figure out who he is through his somewhat ill-considered hero-worship of his college roommate, the wasp-establishment, neoconservative and charismatic Brock West. The next Nick film, The International Style, is an escapist fantasy, and doesn’t offer Nick/Steven any long enough term solution, and he winds up back where he started, in Greenland; but now with a wife and a baby on the way to support! But finally in Crime Wave he takes the bull by the horns – his style – and emerges victorious – again, his style.
Crime Wave has an astonishing sense of intimacy, from the engaging narrator to wonderfully unexpected scenes of audience participation. Did audiences of the day appreciate what you were doing?
Some did, yes. Festival audiences certainly did. As for those more acclimatized to mainstream fare, it was touch and go how it might go over.
How was Crime Wave received by both home town and other audiences, particularly in the U.S.?
Well, as I mentioned, it never had a theatrical release. So its exposure was limited almost totally to video rentals and the occasional late-night screening on Canadian TV. But it did manage to garner something of a cult following nevertheless, in the U.S. as well as in Canada. Letters would trickle in from places like San Francisco, Houston, Charleston, from folks who wanted to tell me how much they enjoyed the film. In fact three indie rock bands that I know of in the States and in Canada took their bands’ names or names of their songs from lines or characters in the film. And this kind of thing is still happening today, twenty years after it started. Search “Who Shot Hollywood” at YouTube to see a recent “extreme” example from New Hampshire.
Would you talk a bit about how your collaboration with The Kids in the Hall came about? Your dry humor and wry observations suit their brand of comedy perfectly.
One of the Kids, Bruce McCulloch, had seen Crime Wave on pay TV and got their producer to track me down in Winnipeg to see whether I’d be interested in meeting with them in Toronto and possibly directing for them. He was excited about what he’d seen in Crime Wave and by the prospect of how it might translate to their sketches. It turned out to be my first professional directing gig.
In 1999 you returned to features with Top of the Food Chain. What was it like working with such a large cast, crew and budget, in comparison to Crime Wave?
Night and day. Crime Wave was made for about 35 thousand, shot on weekends over 18 months with an all-amateur cast and a crew of three—me and two high school friends. Obviously with a budget of 3 million, etc., etc., Top of the Food Chain was a whole different ballgame. But actually in many ways it was more restricting than liberating, having those much greater resources. I’ve often thought that it’s ironic that for a director the two best places to be in terms of not having to compromise and just getting what you want are either at the top of the heap or the bottom. That unless you’re the successful Kubrick way up there or the just-striking-out Kubrick down there, you’re going to be forced to compromise, almost always for budgetary reasons. Another way of putting it is that unless you have nothing to lose or you can afford to lose it, you’re going to have to compromise. And it seems the closer you are to the middle, the more you have to. So there was that on Food Chain. We didn’t get sun on some of the exterior shoot-days, for example, which compromised the look I wanted, but we couldn’t afford to reschedule. Or many things I dearly would have liked to reshoot we just couldn’t. If it were Crime Wave or one of my shorts, however, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
How was Top of the Food Chain received?
It was well received. The reviews were pretty much uniformly positive. Not big raves or anything, but solid.
Though Crime Wave’s wry sense of humor is very much in evidence in Food Chain, the story is obviously much different, more obviously a “story” and less an introspective exploration. Would you talk about your approach to creating such a film?
Well, this goes back to what I said about what constitutes one of my films. I didn’t write Top of the Food Chain. I came onboard the project after it was written. So my role was more of co-creator. And while it had a certain amount in common with what I had being doing in my own films, it was something else again. And the best way I thought I could serve it was to step back and shine a light on the performances, on the script and the performances. That’s finally what we were selling with it.
Campbell Scott seems a perfect fit for the film’s understated humor. Did his presence influence the tenor of the film?
He just got what we were trying to do. His performance was pitch perfect and he served as a “how to” to some of the other actors, whose first instinct was to overplay it, to go big for the laugh, which of course went against the whole idea. Having said that, some of the overplaying still managed to slip through and stayed there at the distributor’s behest. He [Scott] also contributed some of the dialogue. There’s a whole routine around having found a body in “the lumpy, bumpy part of town,” for example. That came about from an improvisation of Campbell’s, which the other actors picked up on, adding to it until it became this long ridiculous spiel, which was hilarious.
From there you went on to direct Marker, an intriguing film. Although the budget was less than Top of the Food Chain, the story here feels more intimate, and more in line with the self-discovery quest of Crime Wave. What drew you to this picture?
The script was unique. I liked its mix of character drama with the supernatural. Though talk about having to compromise! I just feel terrible for the writer that so many of his best scenes had to be cut or translated into exposition – that is, said not seen – because we couldn’t afford to shoot them!
Did you have ideas for the film that were compromised by budget constraints?
I wish I could have made it a lot more visual, and added more, and more elaborate, action set pieces. The Twilight films are more the balance it should have been. But there just wasn’t the money.
From Crime Wave to Marker, your feature films incorporate elements of comedy, drama, sci-fi, horror, thriller, and more. As such, the films defy easy classification. Do you see yourself as a director of a particular type of story?
With Crime Wave, as with my shorts, semi-autobiography. And since then, I’d say my love of genre films shines through.
Any new projects in the works?
I concentrate most of my energies these days into my role as Director in Residence at the Canadian Film Centre, which I enjoy. However, I am still actively developing things on the side.