Monday, March 01, 2010

Tom Scholte's CRIME: Vancouver Dogme to screen at UBC

For the last couple of years, around the time of my birthday, I've hosted private movie screenings for friends and family, footing the bill for a theatre rental so I could show people favourite fare like John Cassavetes' Husbands or Saul Bass' Phase IV. Much as I enjoyed doing this, this year, I haven't the income or ambition to organize something like that - but luckily, one of the films I'd considered playing just happens to be screening anyhow, on Friday, March 5th! I'm speaking of the locally made dogme film, Crime, written and directed by (and co-starring) Tom Scholte, perhaps best known for his roles in fellow Vancouverite Bruce Sweeney's first three films, Live Bait, Dirty, and Last Wedding. Like Sweeney's films, Crime is not only made in Vancouver, but set in Vancouver - "Vancouver plays itself," as they say; like Dirty, which was based in part on a screenplay Scholte wrote, Crime deals with a varied group of all-too-human characters as they travel along different tangents towards a moment of intersection, probing with wry dark humour and at least some fondness into their areas of weakness, excess, self-misperception, and desperation. (There's a fair bit of sexual trauma and drug addiction in the film, too - and some hockey!). I spoke to Scholte at length about his film - which I hope a few friends will join me for when it screens Friday night at UBC Point Grey (at the Royal Bank Cinema, 6265 Crescent Road, starting at 7:30pm; admission is free!). Crime was one of my favourite films at the 2008 VIFF; I am very happy that I'll get to see it again on screen this week.

A note on spoilers: there was no way for me to conduct the following interview without revealing various plot points. While the film is highly character-driven and not so plot-heavy, some people out there may be like myself, wanting to enter a film fresh, knowing as little as possible about the experience to unfold. If you're like that, and you know now that you'll be attending Friday's screening, you might want to see it first and come back to read this later. I'll warn you again when the spoilers seem particularly significant...

Tom Scholte and Frida Betrani in Crime

Allan: Why dogme?

Tom: A number of reasons. One is that I've experienced a lot of Canadian filmmakers who feel the need to jump to the next budget level, after they've had some success at a low-budget level. And many of them start losing creative control very quickly, and things get compromised. I sort of adamantly wanted to push against that, and to try and make a film outside of any Telefilm funding at all, and any of those sorts of pressures. Some of it was to push back against this idea that "well, we can't keep making ultra-low budget films forever" - that somehow that's a sign of our film culture not maturing. So that was part of it. And I thought it really suited this film, which I wanted to be as gritty as possible, with none of those usual tricks of audience manipulation such as music and stuff. I've always just sort of believed in what the Dogme Manifesto stands for - not that it's the only way to make films, but I appreciate pushing back against the idea that film had become so cosmetic, that what you needed were characters that were interesting and dramatic situations that people could relate to, and were powerful.

Allan: Tell me a bit about the genesis of the project.

Tom: I chose to fund this film as a UBC research project, testing some things in the dogme manifesto against Syd Field's classic, more commercial three-act film structure - which is very prescriptive, right? It's like, "Ten pages in, this needs to happen; thirty pages in, you need a plot point here." So it's a very simple equation to put those two things together, but I was really experimenting with what you lose or gain by marrying these two paradigms, one that comes very much from an alternative, anti-commercial cinema, and one that is very much at the heart of commercial cinema, which is "narrative narrative narrative."

Allan: Right.

Tom: A lot of this, also, came out of working out of the film Dirty - which I love, and I'm very proud of. But I'm very cogniscent of the fact that the film tended to polarize people. They loved it or they hated it, and people that loved it loved its kind of authenticity and grit, and people who hated it were usually craving something more narrative, or more narrative payoff... And so I just became interested in whether you could 'split the difference,' in a way that was satisfying to both audiences - audiences that want that kind of unvarnished social realism and audiences that want to feel... I wanted to see if there could be more of a 'classic structure' that would hopefully be submerged enough beneath the surface of it - so you wouldn't be thinking, 'wow, this is a really well-plotted film' - but that it would sort of hold the thing together, without sacrificing authenticity.

Allan: You co-wrote Dirty?

Tom: Yeah. I wrote a play that was called The Bingo Sweethearts - I did a staged reading of it, and Bruce (Sweeney) heard it and liked it. It was a two-hander, just the chracters David and Angie - my character and Babs Chula's character, in the movie. (Allan's interpolation: for those who haven't seen Dirty, David is a stressed-out student with a compulsive need to be dominated sexually, and Angie is a middle-aged Strathcona pot-dealer and object of David's obsessions, who has indulged his kinks from time to time; there's also Ben Ratner as a socially awkward, possibly unwittingly homosexual pothead from Port Alberni with anger management issues, and Nancy Sivak as a young unemployed binge-eater with massive student loan debts - all desperate, confused creatures whose damage is all too recognizable. Unfortunately, the film never made it to DVD, coming out in 1998, just as the format change from VHS was gearing up, but it's a must-see, especially since, like Crime, it is self-consciously Vancouver-based). So the original version explored this sadomasochistic relationship between these two people; then Bruce asked me to take a crack at writing a screenplay based on those characters and sort of fleshing it out more, which I did. But we weren't satisfied with where that screenplay was going, and he had done these workshops with Mike Leigh, and was more and more interested in generating work through improvisation, so he said, "What if we kept those two characters and the basic situation between them, and just tossed out the script completely and created a couple of other characters and started improvising from within that framework?" So we did, and the film was developed through a series of improvisations that were videotaped, and Bruce sort of carved out a script out of those improvisations.

Allan: All right.

Tom: So what I did with this film was, I went the sort of reverse way, in that I used improvisations to help generate the actual text, but I started with a complete three-act structure. I think it's fair to say, with Bruce on Dirty, he sort of generated a pile of stuff and carved a structure out of that, whereas with Crime, I built a structure first, right down to a scene-by-scene breakdown - I had it all plotted out - and then we used the improvisations to put the meat on the bones.

Allan: Did any odd changes to the plot happen as a result of the improvisations?

Tom (laughs): Well, it was never my intention that the coach and Rick were going to kiss, and they didn't actually kiss on the lips in the improv... At the end of the day, a lot of it was stuff that I essentially wrote on my own, but based on things that came out of what they did, or sometimes there'd be an actual line, here or there, that came out of the improvs. A lot of time, what happened was, it just gave me a flavour for it, or it showed me how important transitions could be made. It was really helpful that way. But in terms of the coach and Rick scene, there's not a line that Tom Butler says that didn't come directly from his mouth in those improvs. He just so inhabited that character... I knew he was going to be great - he was the only person I wanted to see do that role. And then when he got to that point - this was with a different actor than the one who ended up playing Rick, I had another actor who had to drop out - and when he said, "It's okay, coach, I'm still on the team" and Tom looked at him and said, "Okay, prove it: kiss me" - in the improv he just kissed him on the cheek, but I went "Oh my God." But that moment just happened. That's, in a way, my favourite scene in the film. That scene would not be what it was without the input of those actors, for sure.

Evan Frayne as Rick

(Note: spoilers mount!).

Allan: In terms of the hockey thing - I think it's Theo Fleury who has written this book about sexual abuse from his coach or such. Was that out, when you were working on Crime? Where did that stuff come from?

Tom: Well, I knew about, obviously, the Sheldon Kennedy story - who was coached by Graham James, the same guy who had coached Fleury; and when Fleury's life started spinning out of control and there was all this substance abuse, and he was getting arrested and stuff like that, the speculation around the NHL and in public, in sports circles, was that he had been one of Graham James' victims. And now he's finally come clean. But the case that really inspired me in terms of this stuff was Mike Danton, the player who had this very, very strange relationship with his agent/coach; and then Danton, who played for the St. Louis Blues, went to jail for taking out a contract. Now he's claiming that he took out a contract to kill his father, but there was this phone call between him and his agent, while he was in jail; he's allowed one phone call, and he phones his agent, and his agent is saying, "Am I safe?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah." And then at the end of the phone conversation, his agent says, "Do you love me?" and he says "yeah." And the agent goes, "Well, I want to hear you say it." This kid was completely alienated from his parents; this guy - his name is David Frost - was famous for preying on kids who had sort of troubled home lives. And he was a coach, and he was suspended for punching a player in the face when he came off a bad shift one time. So it was really the Mike Danton case, and the strange enmeshed quality to it. Then all these stories started to surface about the hazing that went on, and one of the things I really wanted - what I tried to get out of that kiss - was that it's not even as clear cut as a kind of homosexual thing. It's this bizarre world where this hypermasculinity and homoerotic hazing are all in this strange blend. People will say to me, "I don't get it; is the coach gay?" I don't really know! To me, it was more about the power.

Allan: Yeah.

Tom: Because this is the same coach in the tape of the gang bang. And people are going, "I don't get it - I thought this was going to be some gay thing." Well, but it's not, right? I'd also read this great book by a woman named Laura Robinson. It's called Crossing The Line: Violence And Sexual Assault In Canada's National Sport. And it's all about hazing and about acquaintance rape by a hockey player, and how the whole town rallies around the hockey player. So it's a really great expose of the dark underbelly of junior hockey. And I'd been aware of it through guys I knew that had played junior hockey. I mean, I knew a guy who'd intimated that there was some dark stuff that he'd been involved with, but he wouldn't talk about it, which is indicative of something... So it was a combination of things.

(Spoilers intensify further).

Allan: It interests me that right up until the end, pretty much, we sympathize with Rick. It's really quite skillful of you, to keep us with Rick, thinking he's actually a pretty decent guy.

Tom: It was important to me for him to be sympathetic, absolutely. To me, that's way more important: for the audience to have to confront horrible things done by people that they like, where they can feel they understand how it got that bad. They can't excuse the act, but - to me, that's what's more provocative. That's what I hunger for in theatre, in film, in fiction: when I'm forced to grapple with that. We can get as far away from "knowing who the good guys are and who the bad guys are" as possible; my experience of life is that it's so much more complicated than that. I wanted the audience to be very troubled by the scene. I wanted the audience to be with him, to think that he was a little foolish or a little naive or maudlin - "oh, this guy is clearly hanging onto a dream that's over" - but I really wanted them to be blindsided by the fact that he could do this thing. And that we could hopefully see some of the factors that had created this situation - that didn't let him off the hook, but at the same time, needed to be accounted for, in the reckoning of this character.

Allan: You had said at the VIFF screening that your inspiration for the whole film came from an episode you actually witnessed...

Tom: Yeah. I was in a bar/restaurant on Granville Street that no longer exists, and I was eating out on the patio, and there was this guy skulking around - sort of a greasy looking punk and his girlfriend. And it was actually a friend of mine who spotted that he had come in and did exactly what Brent does in the film - he took $40 off the table. And my friend alerted the staff. It looked to me that it was a bar that was run by ex-athletes - they were all really ripped and it had that kind of vibe to it. It wasn't a sports bar, but it had that kind of vibe. And one of the guys took off down the street and dragged the guy back in an armlock and they forced him to apologize to the waitress in front of the whole restaurant. And then the cops came; the guy was humiliated and taken away, and his girlfriend was sent off stumbling down the street in tears. And then I watched these guys start to celebrate and take tequila shots and get all jacked up... I looked at them and I thought, "I'm more afraid of these guys than I am of the guy who got taken away in the police cruiser." There's a kind of menace to that super-jacked testosterone thing that was sort of eerie to me. It just sort of popped into my head, as they really started to rip it up - the night was young, and I was thinking, "What are the odds that one of these guys is gonna do something way worse tonight than what that guy just did?"

Tom Scholte as Brent

Allan: Let's talk about substance abuse a bit in the film. The 12-Step stuff is really interesting to me. You don't see a lot of that in cinema. You also don't see a lot of people taking bong hits like your character does.

Tom (laughs): Right.

Allan: Where did the 12 Step stuff come from?

Tom: What I was interested in portraying about the 12 Steps was - first of all, I'm really interested in people who are afraid of the 12 Steps, and their reaction to it that it's a cult, or it's this or it's that. And the idea of someone in a couple trying to clean up while the other person is deeply fearful that that person is going to have to change everything, and that's going to have to include them. Brent's character (a potsmoking struggling musician) was really built on a fascination I have with self-sabotage in people - particularly in people with a lot of talent. I've known a lot of musicians over the years, that this character was based on, that had a lot of talent, but were completely socially inept and had great talent for self-sabotage. I was interested in that fear. Where does this fear come from, of this thing that seems to empower people - not everyone - to sort of clean up their lives and find a new way to live? One of the important things, in terms of Tula's character (Frida Betrani, Scholte's wife and co-star) going off the rails: she doesn't go off the rails because of the 12 steps. In fact, she doesn't do what her 12-Step sponsor tells her her to do - her sponsor tells her, "Don't go and talk to your Dad about this until things calm down; don't rush this." ...I'm interested in addictive behaviour and compulsivity, and how, even in trying to get clean, she's compulsive. She has no patience. I'm deeply fascinated by the addictive personality, the compulsive personality, so I was interested in that kind of sabotage that went on, as well. But I wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether I was saying something positive or negative about the 12 Steps. In fact, I think the film is neutral about the 12 Steps themselves. But it's important to me that when someone crashes and burns in this film, it's because she actually didn't listen to what this person told her to do.

Allan: Right.

Tom: She had begun to, right? They said, "We're not telling you to break up with him, but you've got to set some boundaries. He's got to get a job. You can't live this way anymore." And then she rushes it, ignores the advice, and stumbles ahead and the whole thing collapses again. Though the film does end with her calling her sponsor again. Of all the characters in the film, I think she's got the most chance of starting over the next day.

Allan: Right, although at the time I first saw it, I remember thinking when she called her sponsor, "Uh-oh, she's copping out and deferring responsibility to someone else to bail her out... Here we go again..."

Tom: But I want people to react to that however they want to. I see that as a completely legitimate response. Someone might see that as "Oh good, she's going to call her sponsor, she's going to try again;" someone else might think, "Oh, here comes the first step in the next cycle of futility." I wanted to make something that people bring their own experience to - one's own experience in the world is going to colour how one responds to a moment like that.

Allan: There seem to be a lot of different ways of reacting to the film. In the theatre, at the same moments, I noticed some people were laughing, others looking uncomfortable or serious...

Tom: To me there's actually quite a bit of humour in Crime, but people don't seem to pick up on it in the same way. I'll be writing something that I think is funny, and my wife reads a scene and goes "This is so depressing! The people are so sad..." So I dunno. All I can say is that I'm making something that I would want to watch.

Allan: Any comments on Frida's contributions to the film?

Tom: She was very involved, and is really just a merciless critic of mine in the best possible sense. I would read her stuff and show her stuff and get her feedback throughout from the beginning, to put the story together, and the characters... She really encouraged me to explore the dark side of the hockey stuff - which was in there before, but she saw the same Fifth Estate piece as me on the Mike Danton story, and she said, "You've got to talk about this, this doesn't get talked about!" And throughout the writing process, she let me know when something wasn't working, or was forced; and I'd show her every cut of the film. She's an amazing sounding board and support, and she's got a very high standard. She certainly doesn't hold my hand and tell me it's all gonna be great. And I think her performance in the film - I mean, this is my wife, and I'm going to see it in a certain way, but I'm probably her worst critic, too, because we know each other so well... I'm so thrilled by her performance in the film, and she's a huge contributor to everything in the movie.

Frida Betrani as Tula

Allan: Can we talk a bit about pot? I mean, we chuckle at Brent, we think he's a bit of a loser, though we're fond of him. I think I remember people actually tittering when he reaches for the waterpipe. Are you trying to make a comment about marijuana in Vancouver?

Tom: Well, not so much of a comment... I believe that marijuana is in and of itself a totally benign drug, but I also believe that if one has a penchant for self-sabotage, for avoiding taking responsibilty for one's life, and for procrastination, and all kinds of other things, it's a pretty handy place to hang out in. The wake-and-bake world is one of responsibility deferred endlessly. So I'm sort of interested in that. I'm interested in what happens when... Pot can be a very creative tool for a lot of people, and then it can be, "well, I'll smoke a little more pot." What happens when you get to the point where you don't feel like you can do anything without takin' a bong hit? Like, "I need groceries. I can't go grocery shopping without a bong hit!" This guy's going to go job hunting! He's got to the point where he can't look for a job unless he's high, because there's so much disappointment and resentment and such a sense of failure and futility and lack of self-esteem piling up, so that this guy is now at a point where he's going to get up, take a bong hit, have a brief euphoric moment, then spend the rest of the day chasing that high. Then eventually falling asleep for a couple of hours, and doing it all again. But again, I'm not trying to say anything for or against pot, I'm just trying to portray a realistic example of someone who has used it in a particular way, and has found themselves at a particular point...

Allan: Why are you so interested in compulsive behaviour? Do you have a history of fairly compulsive behaviour yourself?

Tom (laughs): Yeah, yeah. I've had a history of fairly compulsive... I can try to dance around it - and I'm trying to dance around it now - but yes, I mean - it's something I have some experience with, and that I've experienced in my family and people around me. You're supposed to write about what you know, and there's no denying - there's things about that world that I do know.

Allan: Right. Because in both Dirty and Crime, the characters are barely in control of what drives them.

Tom: Yes. And when I look at the world through that lens - I'm not saying everyone in the world is an addict, but the whole capitalist paradigm is an addictive paradigm. The old idea is that it's never enough, and that we're always looking for a fix of some kind, that next thing around the corner that's gonna be a payoff. But definitely, I'm interested in characters that are not in control, that are struggling to have some kind of control but are driven by forces that they don't comprehend. So yes, it's an ongoing fascination, and yes, it does come from my own personal experience...

Allan: Okay, well, we don't need to delve further there. But to go back to questions of structure, it occured to me that there's also a certain similarity to a rather popular device being used in films like Magnolia, lately, where several disparate threads connect at one very precise point.

Tom: Right, yeah. And Dirty was similar in that way, where all of their lives kind of intersect in a confrontation at the end. In a weird way, I was inspired by the great German director and playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, in terms of how he wanted his work to be instructive, that you would watch something and not just try to guess what's going to happen next, but to try to piece together why it happened. So if there's a car wreck, rather than being swept away in the emotion of it, can you see the anatomy of how the car wreck happened: what speed was everyone going, was someone distracted... I wanted to start from that climax point where everything crashes together, and when I built the story, I worked backwards: "what are the causal relationships that lead to this car accident?" In a way, that accounts for the structure as well, these seemingly divergent threads coming together.

Allan: Thanks, Tom... I think we have enough!

Tom: Thanks again so much for your support... and again, when I read your review and you talked about it as a critique of masculinity, that was like, reading my dream review: that phrase in particular - I was so thrilled, that was a big part of what I was after. It's that old cliche, if one person gets it, it's worth it, but you so got it, and it's been so gratifying. And then to go your site and see all these punk connections, it's like - it's funny, man: the people who dig this film even listen to the same music, even though there's no ostensible connection between us - that's wild!

Once again, folks, Crime will screen for free this Friday at the Royal Bank Cinemas, near UBC Point Grey, starting at 7:30. There's a short film on the program as well - my apologies for not doin' justice to it - but if you show up at 7:15 or so, you should be fine! I presume Scholte will be in attendance to further comment on his film (it won't be quite like my last couple of b-day events, in that this is his show, not mine, but I hope to see some familiar faces there!)

1 comment:

HollyandHolly said...

It's nice to see something awesome happening on this far-west side of town. Hope we can make it.