Canada’s Man in Hollywood: The Don Carmody Interview
May 11, 2011
April / 2011
Canada’s Man in Hollywood:
The Don Carmody Interview
by Wyndham Wise
One of Canada’s most successful film producers, with a record six Golden Reel Award winners to his credit, Don Carmody celebrates his 60th birthday in April. Over the years he has produced many films with CSC DOPs, including three with the late Reginald Morris csc (A Christmas Story, Porky’s, Porky’s II: The Next Day), two with Glen MacPherson csc, asc (Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster, Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D), Pierre Gill csc (The Art of War, Polytechnique), Robert Saad csc (Shivers, Death Weekend) and also with Steve Danyluk csc (Breakaway), Peter Benison csc (Meatballs III: Summer Job) and the late Don Wilder csc (Meatballs). In 2010, Carmody won the Best Picture Genie Award for co-producing Denis Villeneuve’s heart-wrenching Polytechnique.
I had the privilege of sitting down and talking to him at his Toronto production office in February while he was in prep for Silent Hill 2 3D, the 100th film that he has either produced or executive produced over the span of a 40-year career.
WW Where and when were you born?
DC I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, 1951, and brought up in Boston. My family ended up in Montreal when I was 11 years old.
WW How did you become interested in film?
DC While I was in Loyola High School, I was attending classes at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. My parents lived in a town outside of Montreal called Rosemère, which was noted for its golf course. It wasn’t noted for anything else aside from being this little English island in the middle of a French community. My train left every morning at 7:20 a.m. and came home every evening leaving downtown Montreal at 6:30 p.m. My classes in high school ended at 3:15, and I was always interested in art, so I enrolled in classes at the Musée after school. When it came time for my university education, I marched into my father and I said, ‘You know that money we’ve been putting aside for my college education? Let’s use it as a down payment on a garret where I can paint.’ My father basically marched me to the door and said, ‘You come back through that door in two weeks with a letter accepting you to some institute of higher learning where you can get at least two initials after your name or you don’t come back.’
I went back to the Musée and I was commiserating with my live-drawing teacher, who was a well-known Quebec artist, Charles Gagnon. He had been fooling around with film; little animation things. He said, ‘I’m teaching film at this college next year and I think they give a degree.’ This turned out to be Loyola College, which had the very first communication arts department in Quebec, and sure enough they offered a degree. So I enrolled and, much to my father’s dismay and disdain, got my degree in communication arts. My major was in film production. Later I got a law degree from McGill. My father was overjoyed. ‘When you graduate, you’re going to do your articling year with this guy.’ I told him, ‘I have no intention of practicing law, I just want to make sure I don’t get screwed.’ So, really, my father and I didn’t speak for a number of years, although later he did become my biggest fan.
WW I see on your résumé that you landed a job as a driver on Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
DC I was the teaching assistant to a well-known film critic, Marc Gervais, who was teaching firm theory. He was the coolest priest I ever met. I became his assistant because I knew how to run a projector. He was always lending his favourite students out to various friends of his who wanted cheap labour. Virtually everybody in Marc’s class ended up working on a Paul Almond film for free. One day, he said, ‘Who wants to go out to Vancouver? Robert Altman is a good friend of mine and he needs some additional labour.’ I managed to catch a ride on a drive-away car and I took the train from Calgary. I worked on McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a gopher. One day I happened to be driving Julie Christie and she liked me, so I ended up being her driver. It was great and I loved Julie Christie. I’m still smitten.
WW I also see that you were involved, but un-credited, with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
DC They didn’t give credits in those days to anybody but the top people. The producers couldn’t get the locations that they needed because nobody knew the Jewish community in Montreal and it was a bit closed. In those days there was a lot of thinking that they were somehow going to make Duddy Kravitz not the way it was meant to be made, but rather make fun of the Jewish community. Even though I wasn’t Jewish, I knew the big people in the community. There were a lot of places that were closed to the filmmakers before I got involved with my connections.
WW You ended up at Cinépix, which was a distribution company run by John Dunning and André Link. How did that come about?
DC Ted really liked me on Duddy Kravitz and recommended me to a friend of his, the director George Kaczender. He was shooting a movie called U-Turn, and I got a job on that one. I was officially the assistant production manager, but my job entailed basically being in Montreal. The film was being shot in Smith Falls, Ontario and every day I drove from Montreal to Smith Falls with the dailies. When I got there, I would run the dailies. George would give me his notes to take back to the editors in Montreal. Then the editors would give me the first edits, which I would drive over to Cinépix and show them to John and André. Invariably I would be sitting in the screening room beside John and he would dictate his notes to me. That was my real film school. It was an amazing process.
WW You were involved with Ivan Reitman on both Shivers and Rabid, the two early Cronenberg features. Ivan is credited with producing them. What was your function?
DC While I was at Cinépix, André walked in one day with Ivan and said, ‘Here you go. You guys work together. Ivan’s going to be producing these things and you’re going to work with him.’ So we did the early David Cronenberg pictures and Death Weekend with Bill Fruet and a bunch of things all the way through to Meatballs.
WW After Meatballs you moved down to Los Angeles.
DC I didn’t work for two years after Meatballs. I couldn’t get anything done. In Hollywood, you’d go take a meeting and then the guy wouldn’t return your phone calls. Eventually I learned that in Hollywood, nobody says no because they don’t want to but you have to learn how to read a yes. Anyway, I had been down there for some time spinning my wheels when Harold [Greenberg] called and said, ‘Look, I’m getting really busy here and I need somebody to run the production side of Astral, so will you come back and be my vice president in charge of production?’ I came back, and all of a sudden found myself supervising all these Sandy Howard movies, which were drivel.
WW I believe you actually left Astral before you went to work on Porky’s.
DC I had left Los Angeles to work with Astral on a contractual basis. I went to talk to Harold and said, ‘Where am I going to go from here? My last name is not Greenberg, so I’m not going much higher here and I can’t keep making these Sandy Howard movies.’ I had nothing against Sandy. He’s a lovely person and one of the funniest men I’ve ever met, but he didn’t have great taste in movies. I said, ‘I’ve got to go back to making my own stuff.’ The American director Bob Clark came to me and said, ‘I hear you’re leaving Astral and here’s a movie that I’ve been trying to get made. Will you help me?’ It was Porky’s. I took it to Harold. He had a lot of resistance from the people around him, but he thought it was hysterical and his kids, Joel and Steven, thought so as well. That was what kept the thing going, because it was quite difficult to put that deal together. There were all kinds of caveats. Harold would only get involved if there was another partner.
Mel Simon was the American shopping centre guy who had wasted so much money on so many movies that hadn’t hit at the box office. He agreed to join us for a certain piece of the action. Then he turned to us and said, ‘I’m not sure if it’s suitable for American distribution. I’m not involved unless you line up a distributor.’ So we got 20th Century Fox interested in picking up the U.S. rights for a very small percentage. The weird thing about the movie was juggling those three financing entities, and every time I turned around, one of them was getting cold feet. One was in Los Angeles, one was in Montreal and one was in Indianapolis. I was constantly on a plane jumping around.
We had the entire crew in the North Miami Beach Holiday Inn on my American Express card. They could eat there, they could drink there, but if they stepped one foot outside of that hotel they were on their own. Another part of the deal with Astral was we had to qualify as a Canadian film. I remember having these meetings with the teamsters and saying, ‘Okay, I’ll sign your teamster agreement, but I’ve got to have Canadian drivers.’ They had to have a Canadian mother. They had to have a birth certificate, but they kept sending me people like, ‘My mother’s cousin is a Canadian, so I qualify, right?’ And I went, ‘no way.’
The deal that we had made with 20th Century Fox was with Norman Levy, who was head of distribution. Sherry Lansing, who had just become head of the studio, hated the script. Norman wanted the film because he wanted to piss her off, or so we were told. I have no idea if its true or not, but, knowing Hollywood, it could quite possibly be true. When it came time to screen the movie, we were running on fumes because it was very expensive shooting in Florida. We had pretty much toasted our contingency. We held the screening, and Lansing sent this guy down from her office. He was basically there to tell us that Fox was not going to distribute the movie. I remember after the screening, he stood up and said, ‘You guys know that I’m here to can this movie. But I can’t. This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen and I think its going to do terrific business.’
WW I’d like to move onto another film that still shows on television at Christmas, A Christmas Story, which is another Bob Clark film.
DC Bob had been working on the screenplay since Porky’s and had always been talking to me about it. With the success of Porky’s, we didn’t need the support of the CFDC, although we shot the picture mostly in Canada with a few days in Cleveland. The interesting thing about A Christmas Story, which plays 24 hours a day at Christmas on TBS in the States and a few other stations, is that it’s never shown a profit. It was made for $4.5 or $5 million, I can’t remember exactly, but in their infinite wisdom, MGM released the picture in June. It didn’t do all that well and there was no home video in those days. It wasn’t until a number of years later that it became a personal favourite of Ted Turner. Since it was made, the rights have been sold at least seven times. There were lawsuits all over the place and I don’t know who owns the rights anymore.
WW After A Christmas Story you wrote, produced and directed your first film. Would you tell me about The Surrogate.
DC By that time I had produced maybe 20-odd movies I said, ‘I know what to do and I can do this.’ I had a script that John and André wanted to finance and I said, ‘I want to direct this because I know I can do it.’ I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. The Surrogate was an unabashed, commercial, sexy thriller type of thing that was made to make money. In those days there was a lot of interest in R-rated thrillers. Not only were they doing well in the theatres, they were doing well on the new home video, which was a way of getting around a lot of censorship in various countries. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. The one thing that movie taught me was that I was a producer and not a director. I have been a lot nicer to directors ever since.
WW What’s your relationship with your DOPs? François Protat shot The Surrogate and you have worked with him many times and a lot of other very good Canadian DOPs.
DC Most of the other jobs on a film set I’ve ether done or I certainly know how to do, so it’s pretty hard after all these years to pull the wool over my eyes. I can still walk on a set and get a sense when a DOP is taking too long, but I usually cut them slack because I don’t know everything about it. I don’t know how to paint with lights, so to speak, and I know that good ones do. I certainly appreciate speed because I know that’s helpful to the director to get as many set ups as he wants, but I don’t pretend to know what the DOP does. I look at these cameras and go, ‘Too many knobs and dials, and I have no idea what they do,’ so I do cut them a lot of slack.
WW You have a reputation of bringing American films to Canada and convincing people in L.A. that Canada’s a good place to shoot.
DC When I started doing pictures in Los Angeles, one of the first was for Columbia Pictures. I came in on Jagged Edge to replace a producer who had managed to get himself kicked off the set. I became his eyes and ears on the set. Columbia said, ‘You did a great job on that, how about doing some more for us?’ I said, ‘If you really want to save some money, why don’t you consider moving some of these movies up to Canada?’ ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing in Canada. We would have to bring everything in.’ I said, ‘Oh, no. I’ve shot these movies in Canada and there are great people, especially in Toronto and Montreal. Then with pictures such as Spacehunter, which we shot a good chunk of it in Vancouver, they said, ‘Oh, my God. The stuff you shot in Vancouver is just as good as the stuff you shot in L.A.’ I said, ‘Yes, and look at the cost.’
So they started giving me smaller pictures that didn’t have a lot of big clout behind them and I’d bring them to Toronto, kicking and screaming with their directors. They thought they were being sent to Siberia. Over the years, eventually, the word got back that this is not a bad place to shoot and there are really good crews and actors.
WW I want to move onto 1990s, and another one of your Golden Reel Award winners, Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves. You had a big success with that one.
DC I got involved because of Robert Longo. Ever since art school I’ve been collecting art and I have a fairly extensive collection of American contemporary art. Longo was a hero of mine and when I heard that he was involved in adapting Johnny Mnemonic I got in touch with him. It was a bit of a challenge because Robert had never directed a film before, but he has the most amazing eye and I remember the battles between him and DOP François Protat on the film. François would call me and say, ‘Come down here. He has the camera on its side.’ I would come down to the set and François would say, ‘I don’t know what to do. He won’t listen to me and look at the camera.’ I’d say, ‘Alright, Robert, show me the shot.’ Keanu would step in frame. ‘Shit, that’s kind of cool.’ I turned to François and said, ‘Relax, just let him do it’ until the next battle.
WW You are listed as a production consultant on Good Will Hunting, the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck film that made them both stars.
DC I started doing pictures for the studios, especially when they didn’t have other producers to call on. Then Kevin Hyman, whom I had known from Film Finances, the bond company, called me up and said, ‘Listen, I’ve left the bond company and taken the job as head of production for Miramax. We’ve got some money, but we have to make them cheap. They don’t care where we make them, but I need somebody who can make movies cheap and be a politician. Would you be interested?’ I flew down to meet with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, got yelled at a little bit by Harvey, and we began a working relationship. I made eight movies for Miramax over the years and one of them was Good Will Hunting. At the time I was also doing a movie with Sharon Stone called The Mighty. I said this was serious overlap, and we need to bring in a line producer, but I’ll oversee the picture. Part of my job was to convince Ben and Matt that we could make Toronto look like a stand-in for Boston, which we did. We ended up shooting in Boston for seven days and the rest of the movie was shot in Toronto. I loved working with Harvey and Bob. They were always terrific to me and always very supportive. They gave me my opportunity to work on Chicago.
WW Let’s move on to Chicago then.
DC Right after The Mighty, Harvey said to me, ‘You like musicals, kid?’ Kid? I’m older than he is. I said, ‘I love musicals. I’m like a closet musical freak. When I get sick, I sit in bed and watch musicals.’ He said, ‘Well we’re going to do Chicago now.’ I had seen the original Bob Fosse production. I met with the original writer, Larry Gelbart from M.A.S.H. It was a funny script, but it was your standard Hollywood musical. It was quite old fashioned, and Harvey, rightly so, was nervous. He told me, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work because no musical since Cabaret has worked.’ We went through several other writers, but they couldn’t get it to work either, so it was put on the back burner.
Miramax owned the rights to make Rent as a movie. But they couldn’t get it together as a movie, so they decided that they were going to do it for television. To direct it, they had hired Rob Marshall, who was a famous Broadway choreographer who had done Annie for television. When Rob met with Miramax he said, ‘Oh, you want to talk about Rent. I was hoping you wanted to talk about Chicago. I’d be honoured to do Rent, but Chicago would make a terrific movie.’ He had the idea that if all the numbers happened on the stage of the Onyx Theatre and it only existed in Roxy’s head. Eureka! It was like the light bulb had gone on. We made the movie for $40 million and the rest, as they say, is history.
WW Actually, you didn’t get the Oscar for that film, did you?
DC No. It was Marty Richards, who was the owner of the rights and was the original producer on the first Broadway show. He knew that if the picture was done properly there was going to be an Academy Award nomination and he didn’t want to share it with anybody, not even Harvey. We were all executive producers or co-producers. Marty, because he liked me, allowed me to be called the co-producer. But Marty has never made a film in his life. I must say, I consider Harvey to be the producer of that movie.
WW Then you picked up the Resident Evil franchise. Did you know the video game before you got involved?
DC No. I wasn’t a gamer. When it came to making Silent Hill later, I had to call my son because I couldn’t get off the first level.
WW For Resident Evil: Apocalypse you closed down the bridge over the Don Valley in Toronto for a day.
DC One of the reasons that I love shooting in Toronto is because, quite frankly, they let me get away with murder. They’re very supportive, and on Driven I shut down University Avenue from six until nine every night for a week, running cars up and down the street. We shot Resident Evil in the middle of the SARS crisis, so there was very little shooting in Toronto. I guess I was a bit of a local hero for bringing in a big movie. We shut down City Hall for nine days running, and at the end of the movie we blew the place up.
WW Let’s move on to Polytechnique, which is a lot different from Resident Evil. Basically, it’s a low-budget independent Canadian movie without a great deal of box office appeal.
DC Yes, very, very different. I had this envelope from Telefilm Canada. I didn’t even realize those things existed and actually the first year I didn’t use it and gave it back. People were like, ‘You what? You gave the money back to Telefilm!’ The following year I was determined to do something with the money Telefilm had allotted me. I had been talking with the guys at Remstar for a number of years about doing something together. They had this script by Denis Villeneuve and asked me to take a look.
I met with Denis. He’s definitely is an auteur director. He had his own way of doing things. I would see the dailies and say, ‘This is astonishing. How did he do this?’ I think the only kind of tension we had was when he delivered his cut. I asked, ‘Where’s the movie?’ He showed me the film, and I said, ‘This is amazing, but where’s the rest of it?’ because it was only 75 minutes long. ‘What’s going to happen when you show this to Telefilm? They’d say you’ve put all this money into this and this is what you’ve got?’ Denis said, ‘I had a longer version, but it didn’t work. Then I cut one even shorter and that didn’t work either. This is the right length.’ From my commercial film making point of view, I sign contracts where the movie has got to be a minimum of 88 minutes and a maximum of 110. Denis said, ‘No, this is my movie. It’s 76 minutes and that’s what it is.’ I think, actually, if it had been longer it might have become unbearable. Denis was right. He’s a brilliant director, and I would work with him again anytime.
WW Then you returned to the Resident Evil franchise. Resident Evil: Aferlife is now officially the most successful film in Canadian film history, finally supplanting Porky’s.
DC I really enjoyed doing the movie. We had done three and the studio wanted another. Paul Anderson, the writer/director, discussed how do we could do it. Was this going to be the swan song, or could we figure out a way of kick starting for five, six and seven? Paul said, ‘I’ll really knock it out of the park as much as I can, but I want to do it in 3D because this really lends itself to 3D.’ I was the one that was reticent, because I had done a 3D movie in 1983, Spacehunter, that didn’t work out so well. I was the one saying, ‘I don’t know if 3D is a flash in the pan. The new technology is way better then it was, but are we just going be shooting ourselves in the foot here?’
The decision was to shoot it in 3D because with the new systems we could always throw away the right eye/left eye stuff and release it in 2D. Paul is a very dedicated and studious director. We looked at everything that had ever been released in 3D. We went back to The House of Wax and all the new stuff. We checked out the various systems. There were only about three systems that were really viable at that time. We saw 30 minutes of Avatar and were blown away by it. The decision was to go with the Pace system, which was used on Avatar. We brought in Glen McPherson as DOP. He’d done a 3D movie before and was up on the latest technology. We did the 3D right and we’re doing the sequel to Silent Hill in 3D as well. I think 3D’s going to be around for a while. I keep thinking if we were shooting Chicago now, we’d do it in 3D. When it’s done right, it’s great. I’ve seen some of these recent conversions, and they’re not done right.
WW In addition to Silent Hill: Revelation, you have recently produced on a couple of other low-budget Canadian hockey films, Breakaway and Goon.
DC Breakaway is a Bollywood hockey film, and Steve Danyluk shot that one. He used to be a gaffer for me way back in the day. Again, I’m using Telefilm envelope money to help fund it. I’ve always been fascinated by the kind of multicultural mix that is Toronto and I’ve been trying to develop something that told the immigrant story the way it is in Canada. Then this script came along telling the story about these Punjabi kids who wanted to play hockey. Their parents are from India, but they’re Canadian and they grew up hanging out with other kids and, of course, playing hockey. There’s a great scene where the father is really pissed off at his son and says, ‘Why are you playing this hockey? Nobody plays it. A million people play cricket.’ His son looks at him and says, ‘What time does Cricket Night in Canada come on, dad?’
Goon is in post. We shot it in Winnipeg with Mike Dowse, the FUBAR guy, the perfect director. The original story came from Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel who were all on the set of Knocked Up. They were talking about why there isn’t a great Canadian hockey movie and they came up with the idea of Goon. Evan and Jay wrote the screenplay and they got it to me. Slapshot is one of my favourite movies and even though I’m not a hockey fan, I love Slapshot. We shot Goon with a great cast [Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Sean William Scott, Eugene Levy], and it’s coming together very nicely. It will be ready later in the fall.
WW Among the 100 films you have produced, are there any favourites, anything that really stands out?
DC It’s the one that makes a lot of money. I always go back to something that John Dunning said to me and I truly believe it. Once I asked him the same question, ‘Of all these movies that you’ve made, which one is your favourite?’ I expected him to say this one or that one. Maybe Meatballs or Valérie, the one that launched his career. He said, ‘There are no favourites. These movies are like my children. I just send them out into the world, dressed in the best clothes that we can afford, and just hope somebody loves them.’ I will always remember that comment. Every movie I make I wish it success. I never make a movie thinking it’s crap. I always hope that it’s going to find an audience.
WW Let’s take a different angle. Is there one that you regret making?
DC Battlefield Earth. I did it to pay my divorce attorneys. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like it. John [Travolta] showed up, and he was about 50 pounds overweight. Once I saw the aliens, I went, ‘We’re doomed.’ I really enjoyed working with Roger Christian, who was the director, and his DOP [Giles Nuttgens] was an amazing guy. It could have been so much better, and there are still elements of it that work. If you look at the miniatures and the visual effects, it’s an astonishing achievement considering what it was made for.
WW On the flipside, what is the one you got most pleasure working on?
DC That would be Chicago. We worked seven days a week. It was really hard work and we were short of money. But what a joy it was to go to the set everyday. Rob Marshall is one of the nicest men on earth and everyone was behind the movie. We’d be doing a dance number, and I’d look behind me and there were all the drivers lined up. You never see the drivers on set, in Toronto or Hollywood or anywhere. They’re usually in their trucks taking a snooze or reading the paper. There they were, all lined up watching the dance numbers.
I have a great Catherine Zeta-Jones story. We’re shooting one of her numbers where she slides down a pole in the prison, does a cartwheel over a chair and then does the splits. It’s about two in the morning and she’s been doing this thing flat out nine times. She says, ‘Oh my God, my thighs hurt. Does anybody want to ice my thighs?’ She looks up and just burst out laughing because every guy in the place has his hand up.
WW It’s a great story. Perhaps we can end on that note. Thank you very much for your time. Good luck in the future and on your 100th film.
DC Thank you very much.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller 1971 (driver); The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz 1974 (location scout); Shivers 1975 (p); Death Weekend 1976 (assoc. p); East End Hustle 1976 (p); Rabid 1977 (co-p/pm); Meatballs* 1979 (production executive); A Man Called Intrepid 1979 (exp, miniseries); Porky’s* 1981(p); Being Different 1981(exp); A Christmas Story 1983 (co-p); Porky’s II: The Next Day 1983 (p); Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone 3D 1983 (p); The Surrogate 1984 (p/d/sc); Meatballs III: Summer Job 1986 (p); Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster 1989 (sc); Weekend at Bernie’s II 1993 (co-p); Johnny Mnemonic* 1995 (p); The Late Shift 1996 (p, TV); Good Will Hunting 1997 (consultant); 54 1998 (exp); The Mighty 1998 (co-p); The Boondock Saints 1999 (co-exp); Get Carter 2000 (exp); The Art of War* 2000 (exp); Battlefield Earth: The Saga of the Year 3000 2000 (exp); The Whole Nine Yards 2000 (co-p); Angel Eyes 2001 (exp); Driven 2001 (exp); 3000 Miles to Graceland 2001 (exp); The Caveman’s Valentine 2001 (exp); The Pledge 2001 (exp); Chicago 2002 (co-p); City by the Sea 2002 (exp); Gothika 2003 (exp); Resident Evil: Apocalypse* 2004 (p); Assault on Precinct 13 2005 (exp); Silent Hill 2006 (p); Lucky Number Slevin 2006 (exp); The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day 2009 (p); Polytechnique** 2009 (p); Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D* 2010 (p); Breakaway 2011 (p); Goon 2011 (p); Silent Hill: Revelation 3D.
*Golden Reel Award for producing the high-grossing Canadian film of the year.
**Genie Award for Best Picture.