Saturday, December 24, 2011

David Cronenberg meets Ken Russell

I have been a videographer capturing many film events from Toronto, Ontario to Austin, Texas for quite some time. Last August at Rue Morgue's Festival of Fear I had the great honor of recording the first time two great filmmakers met. David Cronenberg was the guest of honor at this convention and was speaking at a panel with Rue Morgue's Editor in Chief Dave Alexander when it was brought up that Cronenberg had always wanted to meet fellow filmmaker Ken Russell who was also in attendance. I walked up the aisle with Mr. Russell as he was wheeled up to present Mr. Cronenberg with a lifetime achievement award. Below is my footage, raw unedited, capturing a great moment of two master filmmakers meeting. This footage has taken on greater importance as Mr. Russell passed away on November 27th, 2011.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

PETROPOLIS: Ariel Perspectives of the Alberta Tar Sands

                                                Image From 

"The Alberta Tar Sands is now the world's second largest oil reserve." 
                         From The Opening of Petropolis: An Ariel View of the Alberta Tar Sands

The opening shots of PETROPOLIS are of the Northern Boreal Forest of Alberta enshrouded in low cloud cover I was mesmerized. There was no music only the sounds of the birds and nature uninterrupted. The film immediately reminded me of one of my personal favorite films of all time, Koyaaisqatsi my second thought was this film was made by a true Soldier of Cinema. That soldier was Canadian film director Peter Mettler

The Tar Sands are very much in the news but recently even more so with a two weeks long sustained protest in Washington D.C. aimed at pressuring the Obama administration with stopping Calgary-based TransCanada Corporation's proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline which would be a contentious pipeline from Alberta to Texas. Canadian writer, journalist Naomi Klein was one of more than a thousand people arrested. 

"Peeling back the forest surface has already displaced more earth than the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the ten largest damns of the world combined." 
                                                 From Petropolis: Ariel Views of the Alberta Tar Sands

Still From PETROPOLIS: Ariel Perspective of Alberta Tar Sands

Peter Mettler has taken to the air with cameras in what can be the only way to truly show the scope of this vast project which could eventually industrialize an area the size of England. This film is not only a documentary but truly a horror film, a film on par with Gasper Noe's Irreversible. This film is truly showing the rape and plunder of a part of Canada's beautiful wilderness. 

Here is yet another disturbing fact from the film, "Per day, the tar sands operations release as much carbon dioxide as all the cars in Canada."

In a country with such great intellectual wealth should our collective focus not be on the short term plunder of our natural resources for the economy and energy needs but a much more sustained focus on the the environment which can provide not only sustainability but also create new jobs as well as protecting our natural environment?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

ActionFest 2011. A small collection of still photographs.

In April I attended the second ActionFest in Asheville, North Carolina as a videographer/blogger. I fell in love with Asheville and the surrounding area immediately. As I write this I have finally begun the process of editing and uploading my footage. Looking through my stills I figured I would share some here:

           Festival Director Colin Geddes with the "Foam Warriors" at the opening night ceremonies.

Legendary Stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker at the tribute to Buddy Joe Hooker panel.

Actor/Director Michael Jai White at the NEVER BACK DOWN 2 Q&A
Richard Ryan (Swordmaster on TROY, stunts on THE DARK KNIGHT, Fight coordinator on SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)

Kung Fu Expert Ric Myers (right) at the introduction for FILMS OF FURY with Festival Director Colin Geddes.

Fight coordinator Larnell Stovall at the Modern Day Fight Coordinators panel.

Trish Stratus, Andrea James Lui and director Patrick McBrearty at the BAIL ENFORCERS Q&A

Buddy Joe Hooker (left) with his lifetime achievement award with Festival Founder Aaron Norris.

Festival Founder Aaron Norris working the crowd during the Stunt Show.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Queen and Spadina. June 27th, 2010. The G20 Summit Toronto.

*All photos by Robert Mitchell taken on an iPhone 3G. Except for picture of the writer with Megan Liley taken by Matthew Hendrickson.

How fitting that as I begin to articulate a day emblazoned into my memory that it begins to rain. I will never forget the rain that Sunday night in June but that is the end not the beginning of this remembrance.

Perhaps I should start with the day prior Saturday, June 26. It was the first day of the G20 summit in my city of Toronto. A billion dollar conclave that our current Prime-Minister Stephen Harper choose to set in a Canada's largest city and was the reason for such an excessive price tag. Or so we are told even though the previous G20 in Pittsburgh cost 18 million.

Police from all over the country were flown in to bolster our police force the final number was said to be ten thousand police. As I recall the weeks leading up to the G20 summit it quite well amazes me how fast this major city was transformed into a police state. I will always remember the culture of fear that sprang up overnight. Everyone was afraid. No one quite knew what the actual threat was but you better stay away from downtown. Fences were erected everywhere. CCTV cameras were installed everywhere. Police stood around everywhere. They were on bikes, horses, motorcycles, in cars. As I walked past hundreds of police I'll always recall the boredom and the numerous stares of "cop eye" the look that I know your guilty and up to something.

I came up with the idea that my Federal government had provided me with something I could never afford. Huge production values. I then got the idea to make a short film using the G20 as a backdrop. I met many actors and am still amused by the looks on their faces when I told them of my intentions to film at the summit, suffice to say not many were up to the task. However my friend Megan Liley who I have since learned is one of the most fearless women I know said she wanted to accompany me. We set off with backpacks loaded with water, still cameras, my video camera and our smart phones. We wore bandanas around our necks in the fruitless gesture of staving off the possible impending tear gas.

                           Writer Robert Mitchell with Megan Liley 06/26/10

We figured we would capture as much as we could and then shape a story around the footage. That was the plan anyways.... I have been to numerous protests and taken video/photos but nothing would prepare me for this Saturday afternoon.

Megan and I went to Queen's Park and met up with the rest of the people who planned to march down University - the official sanctioned march. The march started. There were many signs for many different issues, no war, the environment, workers rights, reproductive rights, you get the idea. The mood was fun and festive even with the persistent rain. However once we arrived at the U.S. consulate we had out first glimpse of the police force that would await us. A steady stream of R.C.M.P. riot police flooded out in front of the consulate to a huge round of boos.

Once we got to the corner of Queen and Spadina the march split into two fractions, many continued to march up Spadina and many chose to stay on the front lines with the riot police, with the impossible goal of getting to the convention centre to where the G20 leaders were meeting. We stayed.

 Shortly there after a flare was set off and then all hell broke loose.

At the corner of Queen and Spadina there were two police cars that were sitting in the middle of the street. These were protected by a small contingent of riot police and then they gave them up and fell back behind police lines, to a large cheer. The cop cars began to get destroyed and became a photo op for any fool who chose to stand on the cars.

A large group of people began running East on Queen St. and we began to follow after them but were quite far behind. As we made our way along Queen we began to see the aftermath of what was happening ahead of us: smashed windows, graffiti such as "burn prisons, fuck the banks" Streetcars were left deserted. These were vandalized also. The street was pretty much empty. There were news vans with smashed windows.

I will always remember the extreme quiet broken by helicopters flying overhead. People who were talking did so in whispers. It was at this time that my friend Sheleigh sent me a text telling me to get to Bay and King for the footage of a lifetime. I had no idea what was happening there but knew if Sheleigh told me to get there it was big. I began to hustle through the alleyways and side streets. This is where I encountered an insane amount of riot police assembled. Waiting. There were numerous coach buses filled with riot police. I have never felt anything like walking down a street by yourself with hundreds of riot police checking you out.

Once I arrived at Bay and King I begin to see the smoke above the riot police assembled. It was then that I saw the two cop cars on fire. We had arrived before the protesters. It was shortly after that I saw something I will never forget. We were standing in the middle of the street as the the riot cops and the protesters marched on either side of the street and met where we were standing. It was incredible.

Megan and I continued to capture content for a couple of more hours and then went our separate ways with the goal of meeting up Sunday morning to go back out in the fray once again.

The next day Sunday, June 27th I met Megan at her place and we sat around and discussed what the plan was going to be for the day. We had none. I figured after the mass demonstrations and anarchy the day prior there was nothing officially organized. A search through social media confirmed this. We also discussed what the atmosphere would be like and agreed we would be much more likely to be searched and or arrested just for being out in the streets. Added to that we would be two individuals and not in the midst of a much larger group and thereby easier to be targeted by law enforcement. We made sure to have our photo I.D. on our person. I could tell Megan was hesitant prior to leaving and yet she was full of aplomb and ready to face the day. We left and headed to the nearest subway station. We got off the train at Queen and University. We exited onto the North side of the street. The streets were utterly deserted. However on the south side were fourteen police officers sitting on bicycles. I turned to Megan and told her I was going to walk down University to see what would happen. She followed. After stepping five feet onto the south side of the street we were stopped and surrounded. We were then immediately asked for I.D. which we supplied and were  forced to submit to a search of our backpacks and person - failure to do so would result in us being arrested. After seeing all our camera gear I was then told that today was different then yesterday and if I got in the way of police actions I would be taken out. We were then told we could not proceed down the street so we gathered our packs and began to wander. Over the course of the morning we saw at least twenty people stopped in the same way as us. Those with out I.D. were hassled and some arrested. (In accordance to a law which was secretly brushed off and passed by the McGunity provincial government)

That day civil liberties went out the window. If you were out in the street you were suspect. You would be stopped, searched and possibly arrested. We then walked up Yonge street and only then realized the full extent of the vandalism of the day prior. It seemed every other business from Queen to College street was smashed. Many windows were boarded up with wood. Even the strip club.

Searching twitter we saw that the temporary detention centre out on Eastern avenue was blowing up with protests and that tear gas had been fired. I turned to Megan and she said "let's go!" Once we arrived we immediately began to roll video and take stills.

The energy here was electric. The small group of protestors were chanting and clapping. As soon as we arrived the head police officer running the show walked out flanked by other senior officers and was then surrounded by media. We could not hear what was being said at first but then we heard him say that we - as a crowd - had been warned and that we have five minutes to vacate the area.

The crowd began chanting, "Billion dollars! Where's your megaphone?!" I had to laugh. Five minutes came and went. The head officer came out and was once again immediately flanked. He then reiterated the warning. The crowd remained steadfast. No one was moving. Megan and I exchanged looks. We were not moving either. I thought to myself that we were going to get tear gassed. Several tense moments passed.

Impasse. The police then began releasing detainees once again in five to ten minute intervals to large cheers and clapping. Most emerged disheveled, and dazed, some wore orange jumpsuits, all held a super large clear ziploc bag with their belongings. Some emerged defiant, flashing peace signs. Others were broken and defeated. One teenager left the detention centre crying and once he reached the crowd he was met by his father. They embraced and left. I will not forget the look of shame that young man carried with him. I approached a couple of the people released and was given a first-person accounts of life inside the make-shift prison. The conditions were beyond horrible and reprehensible. No water for twelve hours. No phone calls. People withheld medication. Upwards of twenty people to a cell. No privacy to use the washroom. Some threatened by police. It was deplorable and beyond disturbing. I thought to myself, "What has happened to this country?" The detention centre would be dubbed Torontonamo Bay after Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where 9/11 suspects are held in very horrible conditions.

Megan and I decided to leave the detention centre after a search of social media and found a protest gathering was forming at Queen and Spadina. We began the trek back downtown. Our unspoken code was we would walk as much as possible to see this weekend unfold from being on the ground. We walked for several kms. We barely spoke to each other as we walked overwhelmed by what we had been seeing and witnessing. As we walked it began to softly rain. As we got closer to Queen and Spadina twitter informed me that the sound canon was being deployed (one of four sound canons specifically purchased for the security of this summit) and police had informed protesters that it would be used (despite the full legalities of using such equipment not really settled by law) The closer we got to Queen and Spadina the more officers we encountered. Many said hi to us and were very friendly. One said, "How are you folks doing?" I turned to Megan and said, "You know we are walking ourselves to the slaughter. Do you want to continue?" She said yes, so we kept walking.

The rain really started coming down. I ducked into an alcove and wrapped my video camera up and put it in my backpack. We passed the ominous all black draconian sound canon. I knew this was not going to end well. Once at the corner there were no media to be found. One guy was taking pictures with a high-end professional camera. Megan went up to the riot police and began to snap photos. I hung back amongst the first rank of people milling about to access the situation. At this point it was hard to tell who was actually protesting and who was a curious by-stander. There were many rowdy teenagers. I remember one girl running around yelling, "fuck the police' and giving the finger to the large group of riot police ahead of us. The police began beating on their shields. The rain began to pour. I mean really pour. The only proper way to describe it was biblical.

It was almost simultaneous that as the rain became more intense the police charged us. Everyone in front of me turned and ran towards the crowd behind them. It was either turn and run or get trampled. My vision was beyond poor with the amount of water flowing into my eyes. It was at this time that I had lost Megan. People around me were being taken down hard. I turned my head to the right and saw the guy beside me take a baton to the back. He stumbled and fell to the ground. The police fell atop of him. I reached the back of the alleyway. Thirty odd riot cops were filtering into the open area. I starting walking through the narrow alleyway against them like a fish swimming up river. One riot cop asked me where I was going? "I'm trying to leave." I said. He informed me, "You made the choice to be here" and pushed me back into the frenzy. I turned and saw Megan. I ran to her, grabbed her hand and with several others pushed our way to the last way out before the police had closed the kettle. We were probably the some of the last people to escape. The fate of others were not so lucky. They were detained in the pouring cold rain for four hours. Then like nothing happened released. Those that ran went free. Those that ran unto the waiting buses were taken into custody and detained at Eastern ave. detention centre.

After the smoked cleared over a billion dollars had been spent and to this day no official documentation has ever been released stating where exactly this tax payer money has been spent. Civil liberties were all but obliterated. Over 900 people were arrested with a very small portion ever charged with any sort of criminal act. Most of my footage still sits on a hard drive unused much like the many questions that still remain unanswered by Stephen Harper in regards to the G20 summit.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies. My Interview with Director & Editor Nicholas Eliopoulos

My recent research into Gordon Parks found me having the good fortune to meet director and editor Nicholas Eliopoulos. In 1968 he was a student at the university of Kansas and visited the Fort Scott, Kansas set of The Learning Tree as a student reporter. After that experience he was inspired to set out to Los Angeles to begin inroads towards starting his own career in the film business. He has been a an editor since the the late seventies and has directed four documentaries. Most recently, Mary Pickford: The Muse Of The Movies. Here is my interview with Mr. Eliopoulos about the film.

What was the impetus that made you want to decide to devote a significant amount of time to create the documentary on Mary Pickford? 

Well, when I went back to a reunion in the late 80’s at the University of Kansas, there was another fellow who showed up from a class “way” earlier than mine.He was Charles Buddy Rogers who had starred as a young actor in the first movie to WIN the Best Picture Oscar WINGS – 1927. Buddy was Mary Pickford’s third and last husband, and even through Mary had already passed away, Buddy invited me up to his home Pickfair Lodge when I returned to Hollywood, and there were all of Mary’s Oscars, memorabilia and great collections she had gathered during her life and movie career.

At that time I knew very little about Pickford, only that she was a silent actress… as I became friends with Buddy, he lent me many of his and Mary’s films to watch. When I learned that Mary had purchased the rights to almost all the films in which she had starred, and they were housed in the Pickford vaults in Hollywood. I began to realize no one at that time had done a comprehensive documentary on her enormous contribution to the Cinema as a whole. The more I learned the more it fascinated me. My first interview for the documentary was with Buddy. He introduced me to Lillian Gish (Mary’s best friend and fellow actress) who was still living at the time. Lillian gave me a clip of film she had done mentioning Mary. So that began my collection of footage…. Almost 15 years later.. this is the final film you have just seen.

I understand that the process took almost two decades, could you talk about some of the challenges you faced trying to create the film?

The largest challenge was finding the funding to complete the project. Buddy and the Pickford Foundation helped with his initial interview, and then I spent almost 5 years looking for a funder (movies about the silent era at that time where not a sure bet for documentary funding). After many searches and false starts, I found Elizabeth Wood Coldicutt, my fellow producer, and her husband Thomas Coldicutt who served at Executive Producer.

We did several additional interviews with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and, in a fluke visit to Las Vegas, I was able to locate Roxanne Rogers Monroe, Mary Pickford’s adopted daughter and conduct the only “on camera” interview she had ever given about her mother. Roxanne has since passed away. For various reasons, some financial and other unexpected events, my work with the Coldicutts had to be put on hold for
almost 4 additional years. I had been searching and collecting footage and Mary Pickford audio interviews during the down time as well.

Then in 2002, we started on the documentary again, with additional funding, only shortly after that to have Elizabeth and Thomas suffer the tragic loss of their only daughter at the young age of 17. Elizabeth could not work for almost two years while she healed from the tragedy. She has since become stronger and started a Foundation for the Arts in honor of her daughter Caroline Victoria Coldicutt to whom the film is dedicated. You can visit her Foundation’s Web Site: When we got rolling again in late 2005, we were able to complete this extensive work.

The film also serves as Elizabeth’s Master’s thesis in American History. We were accepted and premiered the film at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival, and then were invited for its European Premiere to the Pordenone International Film Festival in Italy later that year. In 2009, we had our Los Angeles Premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Ms. Pickford was one of the original founders of the Academy itself.

One of the great aspects of the film is how you incorporated Mary's voice along side Michael York's narration. Could you talk about the process of tracking down the audio clips. What condition were they in? How much work did you have to accomplish to ensure they would be of a good audio quality? Could you talk about the process you had to undertake to "clean up" the sound?

Long before I began the film, I was on a trip to London and ran into Kevin Brownlow in the lobby of the BBC one day. Being a fan of Kevin’s many books on the silent era; I told Kevin that I was up to raising funds to do a feature documentary on Pickford. Kevin told me that he interviewed her in the late 50’s and recorded the interview on an inexpensive home recorder. I asked him if I could listen to the interview.

Months later Kevin lived up to his promised and about 5 cassette tapes arrived to my house in LA by mail. As I listened to Kevin’s interview, and how business savvy Mary Pickford really was, and also how well she expressed herself (even though the recording was very low volume and had other people talking in the background) it gave me the idea “why not have Mary, herself, tell her own story”. Kevin had only made the recording for information purposes for his book “The Parade’s Gone By”. He never intended to use the recording as it was of such poor quality. Kevin’s initial interview with Pickford sent me on a quest to find other audio recordings where she talked about her career and the beginnings of the film industry.

I went to the Library of Congress in Washington and found several radio shows. Elizabeth, Thomas and I traveled back to London where we found more recordings in the BBC Archives. Then we traveled to Paris and visited Charlie Chaplin’s Foundation where we discovered some gems. Other audios came in from Australia, some from Mary’s own vaults. I went to the George Eastman House in Rochester New York and found an oral history that George Pratt had done with Pickford. And finally Professor Arthur Freidman at UCLA had also done an oral history with Mary as well as interviewed her for his radio show. I spent an afternoon with Professor Friedman and he kindly gave me his radio show to use in our film. Now the hard part was balancing, restoring, and equalizing all the many interviews to come as close as possible to making the differences unnoticeable by the viewer.

I had worked with the sound guru at the Post Group in Hollywood, Steve Michels, before on a documentary I had done on the history of Russia. Steve is amazing in sound and music, and the mixer Troy Smith is the best in the business! For sure! Troy mixed and equalized the tracks. Mary’s voice was higher when she was younger, and as she became older her voice dropped almost a full octave. All that technical part was difficult and time consuming but paled in comparison to editing and ordering the sound bits and her many interviews so they “told the story” of Mary and the Cinema. I think had I not spent years as a film and sound editor in Hollywood, I could have never achieved the great task of having an actress (no longer living) co-narrate and tell her own story. It was a grand feat accomplished in the editing room and took quite a few of the 15 years just to get that one aspect done.

The amount of archival footage you also compiled is mind-blowing. This had to be a daunting task.
Where did you start compiling the footage from?

Again, almost close to 50 percent of the footage had been collected by Mary herself, in her own vaults at the Pickford Foundation. She was an avid fan of the movies, and oddly enough went about buying up the rights to ALL her own films with the idea she was going to have them “burned” upon her death. She was deeply afraid that future generations might laugh AT them rather than WITH them, and she didn’t want any kind of ridicule of her “little girl” or the “silent era” to happen.

When sound came in it left a deep mark in the psyche of those professionals who did not make the transition to the new medium, and with the change in projector speed from 18 frames per second to the sound standard of 24 frames per second, now all these great silent stars of the silver screen were projected faster which made them look like cartoons characters rather than stellar performers of the early art form. Mary was determined to have them destroyed rather than have them become a laughing stock. Thank goodness at the funeral of the great D. W. Griffith, Mary shared her plans with her dear friend Lillian Gish who talked her out of the idea. Now they are all donated to the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute as a record and preservation of an era gone by.

What did you learn about Mary Pickford that you did not know before you stated the research for the film?

So many things, well for starters, America's Sweetheart and the first female movie star of the cinema was actually Canadian. Mary Pickford was born in Toronto and proud of it. Mary was the first actor (male or female) to ever have her name in lights on a Cinema Theater Manqué with the Film’s Title.

Mary Pickford was the only star to ever receive a 50% profit share of her Movies. She was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a co-founder of United Artists’ Studios, which was the first company ever owned and run by actor themselves. She created the Motion Picture Country Retirement Home to care for the aging of the movie industry, and even invented the “baby spot” lighting technique that is still in use today.

It was Mary Pickford’s idea to have “hand and footprints” outside the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and with her then husband, swashbuckling hero of the screen Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the duo were the first to immortalize their prints in that theaters cement.

Mary starred in over 52 feature films, and 141 shorts, producing over half of them through her own Company. She was perhaps the most powerful woman in early motion picture history and that was long before there was television, and even before there was radio.

There has never been someone quite like Mary Pickford. She was a shrewd Hollywood pioneer and business woman at a time when there were only men attaining such heights in this new emerging industry. That was just a few things I began to learn as I looked into Mary’s life and career.

The film has been on the festival circuit and has won a lot of critical praise and awards. What is the future of the film? Do you have distribution?

Right now we are negotiating with several distributors to put our film out to into the world. We have a top notch Web Site:, and we are going to put out a “limited edition DVD” on our own which will benefit the Caroline Victoria Coldicutt Foundation, and the sale of a “rose” Elizabeth developed in honor of her late daughter, The Caroline Victoria Rose:

You will be able to order our DVD on line at our Web Site: and can
go there now to sign up under “contacts” to be informed of its release.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reflections on Gordon Parks and The Learning Tree. My Interview with Kyle Johnson

Recently my good friend Carol Borden over at the Cultural Gutter asked if I would be willing to write an article for her. We talked about topics and agreed that I should take a look at Gordon Parks because it ties in with my Soldier of Cinema ideas. The course of my research had me discover that Gordon's first film, The Learning Tree (1969) - which also happens to be the first Hollywood film directed, written and composed by an African American. In the course of my research Warner Brother's archive only recently re-released the film. You can buy from here. The people I spoke with that had met, knew and worked with Mr. Parks I was very fortunate to be able to meet and have a conversation with The Learning Tree's lead actor Kyle Johnson. I found Kyle to be very generous in his time, knowledge and opinions. I have noted that I believe that it is a real testament to Mr. Gordon Parks that everyone I have been able to meet has been extremely kind and generous. Here is my full interview with Mr. Johnson. A Very Special thanks to Nicholas Eliopoulos, for without whom this interview would never have taken place.

Upon revisiting the film The Learning Tree I was curious how old you were during the filming of the movie?

I was seventeen.

What was the audition process like? Was it a normal process?

(laughs) No it was not normal. As you know I began acting at the age of eight, so I had learned from a very young age not to dwell on auditions. I would do it then just put it out of my mind. Nothing good ever comes from dwelling on an audition. I first became aware of The Learning Tree when my mother (Nichelle Nichols) gave me a copy of the book. I read it and thought it was quite amazing. My mother than causally mentioned that one day they might make a movie from the book.

Several years later, I got a call from my agent that Gordon parks wanted to meet me. The meeting was the Beverley Hills hotel. I met him, he was stoic, a man of few words. We spoke for about a half an hour. Gordon thanked me and then I left and didn't think much of it.

I got another call from my agent that they wanted to screen test me. I'm like gee whiz this will be my first screen test. Again I had never done one before, but I knew how these things happen. So I go and do the screen test, and the first one was with Estelle Evans, who plays my mother. We do the test and again, (talking like Gordon) "thanks Kyle that was very nice" right, so I go home and put it out of my mind. A week later I get another call, they want me to do another screen test. Oh wow! Okay, this must be good news. This one is with Mira Waters who plays my girlfriend Arcella and we do the test and same thing from Gordon, "Kyle, thanks very much for coming, good job." so I go home and say I'm not even going to think about this thing. Then I get another call and this one is with Joel Fluellen who plays my uncle Rob. The same thing again, so now I get a forth call for the forth screen test and I'm like, "Jesus can this guy not make up his mind?" I go and do the test, same thing, (speaking as Gordon, "Thanks very much." and I put it out of my mind. Well fortunately there were not any more screen tests.

More time goes by, maybe a month or so and I get another call from my agent and he says, "Okay, well they've made the arrangements and your leaving on September 12th" or whatever it was and I said, "Where am I going? What am I doing?" and he says, "Your going to Kansas for The Learning Tree." and I said, "It's not another screen test is it?" Gordon being a man of very few words - in that regard - apparently everyone knew I had the part except me.

So you were the last to know.

Yeah, I was the last to know and the other thing, I didn't know was the screen tests were not for me. They were for the other actors.

That's pretty awesome when you learn that in retrospect.

Yeah, so I was kind of flabbergasted. It was really funny to me that he (Gordon) had basically made up his mind that day in the hotel room. I had been cast from that point but he never explicitly stated it, nor did anyone else. So, that's how I got the part.

When you got to Fort Scott, Kansas what was the reception like there?

It was great, the circus had come to town. In a sense literally, in that there was a circus scene, which a lot of local towns people were characters in the carnival. The reception was good. I certainly did not have unpleasant experiences with anyone in Fort Scott. Sometimes it was a little rocky with the suits from Warner Brothers, it was never with me personally.

It was in regards to the production?

It was issues with Gordon and the position he was in. They (Warner Brothers) are sending out people and that's their job is to ensure that thinks stay on track. Things were not necessary that simpatico all the time. 

Also at this time, Gordon is a first time film director. 

Yes but it was the circumstances of he (Gordon) being the first black director in Hollywood. There were issues with Fort Scott that had nothing to do with the film. The issues with Fort Scott go back to Gordon's childhood and that's what is portrayed in the film, obviously that was the place he grew up, that was the actual place where the events occurred and the people there were descendants, some of the people were his (Gordon's) age - his contemporaries. Although their associations were rather limited, and over the years there were some...let's just say....some friction. Gordon left when he was very young but did not really return - or was ever noticed to have returned - I mean he came back to visit his family but his name did not mean anything until he became successful in his profession. In particular in the fifties when he had really made his mark as a photojournalist and in doing the coverage of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the families in Harlem, this big stories for Life magazine.

In an era where the idea of black pride, militancy became concerns across the country and so basically Fort Scott was scarred of Gordon Parks and they were apprehensive about how the town was going to be portrayed in the movie. The book was there for them to read and that was probably uncomfortable enough to read - that they knew which to be true - but then you add on a layer of black militancy, an association with the black panthers and all of the rest of the tumultuous sixties, they (Fort Scott) were pretty wound up. There were also personal issues - aside from his career and standing in the world - one of the issues, it boiled down to was the maintenance of the cemetery where his parents were buried and of course most of the black community, which were maybe just a couple of notches above the garbage dump. Kansas is also a border state and there is all of that historical stuff, the re-enactments (the civil war). People are fascinated with the era to one degree or another identify with it and we know where Kansas is today.

There was on-going friction as he would come back to visit his family or have any encounters with them (Fort Scott) so now coming up to doing the film, the film has a green light, it is pretty much set that it is going to happen and he (Gordon) wanted to do it in Fort Scott. Well there was actually a fair amount of resistance from the city fathers, the old guard, the old boy network, however you might want to describe it. They did not want the film to be there, they did not want Gordon there, they just wanted him to go away and not darken their door anymore.

At some point along the line a contention of younger folk and some folks in the business community kind of went, now wait a minute, let me get this straight, your saying that this very famous person, who was born here and is famous all over the world, wants to come back and make a movie and bring two to three million dollars to inject into this local economy and you don't think this is a good idea? Well, once that kind of way of looking at it entered into the debate the old guard had to retreat and so here we come. By the time we got there, essentially the pragmatists, the realist, the adults had prevailed. We were all treated very well and had lots of co-operation and on the sidelines were a few grumbles.

I was quite curious, it was the late sixties and where Kansas is situated, the tone of the film, I was thinking there had to be some kind of friction. 

Yeah, we shot this is the fall of sixty-eight, we're looking at both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (assassinated) in the same year, along with the Black Panthers, the Vietnam war and hippies and everything else. Everyone were on pins and needles but one of the things about us coming there and actually it is one of the things that I hold dearest to my heart, is that once we came they could not go back and that has had a major impact especially on black people that live in the town, who had been suppressed, held back, kept in their place. This is 1968 but it had a little bit of a time capsule aspect to it, so their like ten to twenty years behind in terms of general attitudes, so black people are deferential, they say, "oh yes sir, oh yes this, oh no you first." and all of these self-deprecating behaviors and that was the code, that was how things are done here, but they were not done like that anymore after we shot The Learning Tree because a new perspective was introduced - there was no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube.

I have always thought that cinema can change the world.

Yeah it can, not only change the world but it change a small town which is sometimes a bigger challenge.

Mr Parks was a first time film director. What was he like as a director?

I have to say it was my most enjoyable work as an actor. I always felt - when your working as an actor in Hollywood there is a certain level of professionalism that's expected and it doesn't often drop below that in studio and network productions, of course there are some independent type things where there might be some dips. I was accustomed to a certain standard, I really enjoyed The Learning Tree, for me it was like being a part of a part of a tight run ship, a well oiled machine, you do your part and you recognize it's importance and relationship to all the other parts, cast, crew, director and so forth.

Working with Gordon was a little different, it was really the first time, not really the first time but certainly the most enjoyable and the importance of the film historically and socially added to the that. I think that as a director, a lot of his direction was at the casting and hiring levels, in a way. I think that everyone that came on the project came with a certain capability. From Burnett Guffy who was the cinematographer. (Who would win the Academy Award the year previous for Best Cinematography for Bonnie and Clyde) to the assistant directors and also Gordon made an extraordinary effort to get as many black technicians on the film as he could and he was very successful at it. There is a thing with the unions, and in particular at the time where you had to work a certain amount of days in order to qualify for the union and it was a catch-22. How do you qualify if you can't get a union type of job? He hired a lot of technicians, drivers, caters, make up people, etc that were actually able to get their union cards having worked on the film because the production schedule was three months and it met every one's requirements, but aside from that, if they were black, white, long established, or capable. or newly inspired, none the less there was a sense that everyone was there and knew their job and were for sure going to do it. I think everybody was very motivated, in the same that it was a special thing for me, I think, I don't think i know because many people said that and others nodded their heads in agreement that this was a very special film and while they (film cast and crew)  had a board range of experience this one stood out.

Working with Gordon was, he basically went with his instincts, which were very good. He would pretty much create the environment and let you do what you did. Often his direction was not detailed or conceptualized in the sense of, "Okay, we're going for this kind of thing.". Basically it was there in the script, it was written from the book, it's not like we were going to do it different from the book, other than compressing time, fewer characters and that kind of thing.

Gordon just seemed to trust the instincts of the actors, and that was for myself, Estelle Evans or Alex Clarke - who played my adversary. He just sensed that he had the right person and all he needed to do was create the environment and let them do what he could see them doing and past that he would say, "In this part I want to bring out this aspect." He certainly didn't coach lines or say do it like this. He would simply say. "I want to show this more." That's pretty much how we worked, we also worked very quickly. As I said the crew was very focused and a lot of stuff was done in or two takes, sometimes three or four, rarely seven or eight. I think everybody was just kind of tuned in and supportive of each other in a way that just allowed stuff to come out.

Sounds like that from an actor's perspective it was a great environment and experience.

Yes, very much. I always enjoyed working in television, I never really had any criticism of television, sometimes there is. I think that the era was different in the sixties there were no illusions about what it was supposed to be, it was just this is it, this is what we do. That's how you approach it and do the best job that you could. This was definitely more pleasurable in being able to take the time when necessary, to dig a little deeper and not having to say so much, "Okay shoot, let's go, let's go!"

When I watched the film again, it is based on Mr. Parks childhood and some of his experiences were pretty intense. What was that like to recreate as a young actor?

It wasn't difficult. I think it was clear what needed to be done and again Gordon would set the environment. It was real clear what you needed to do. As far as the type of experiences he had, it's both universal. I think in different cultures there are similar challenges, but even as a young person when your black in America you figure that out pretty quick. You have lived with that for a long time. Even though I hadn't suffered any particular grievous experiences, being beat up or insulted. However I did grow up in L.A. during the Watts riots, it proceeded the filming by a few years and when Magnificent Montague said, "Burn, baby burn!" - that's where it originated - we knew exactly what he was talking about and agreed. It was a time to confront the static, pervasive, on-going injustices that had occurred all this time. James Brown "I'm black and proud." came out in sixty-eight, it was right around that time, so there was a lot of uprising and you look today in the middle east, it's the same thing.

I think you can only suppress a people for so long before everybody says enough is enough. I hope so anyways.

That's true. Actually, when I was in Fort Scott, my grandmother accompanied me. I was underage and I needed an adult guardian. so my grandmother came with me which was wonderful she had such a wonderful time. She was a bit of a star herself. My grandfather who had passed away a few years prior to that, he and I used to sit down and watch the t.v. news from the time I was ten, basically when Kennedy took office, before that I thought Eisenhower was the president's first name. When Kennedy came along it was like, this is a change, I'm not quite sure what it means but I like it and we used to talk about the news, talk about world affairs as we watched Cronkite. We went through, "ban the bomb" era, the cold war stuff and even up to, if you hear a siren, duck.

My grandfather was the mayor of a small town outside of Chicago, Robin, Illinois. His father was one of the founders of the town. My grandfather was mayor of the town in the thirties. So he had the awareness of politics and world affairs and he used to say, "You know, one of these days all the little countries of the world are going to get together and gang up and kick the United Sates' butt." for all the accumulated indignities. I had an awareness of social conditions, even though I didn't directly experience, every black person experiences Emmett Till.

Would you say things are getting better?

Yeah, I think you can say objectively, without any serious challenge that things are better, yes. It is certainly better, it is certainly better then before Martin Luther King, before the civil rights era, before some of those things swept away and even though we see it continue in some people's behaviors, ultimately what it boils down to is something I recognized a long time ago, racism is a tactic not a strategy. The strategy always involves money. It always boils down to that. Money and power. Racism, racial division or exploiting those kinds of issues always, always, a means to an end. it's not really an end to itself, although it has a corrupting and corrosive influence because people start believing their own bullshit.

Because at the end of the day the people in power only care about the color green.

Right, Exactly. But of course they exploit people who have their attentions else where, so as far as the range of experiences in Gordon's life that were, the many events that were traumatic, you know it's not that far removed. even if you don't experience the exact same thing because their is a symbiotic relationship in a community.When someone you know is stopped by a cop, your reaction is the same if it was you or a member of your family, or it could have just as easily have been. You could have been on the same street corner an hour before. There is an identity factor which I think is more pervasive than direct experience. Even though he had gone through these many terrible incidents that were foreign to me.

What are some of the things you have learned being in the prescience of Gordon Parks?

I think I'm still learning. I think there is a lot about him that I absorbed but didn't quite recognized at the time. There are certain things that I gone back to and revisited and go, "Yeah, I seem to remember when this thought first entered my mind." It certainly wasn't prophesying or him saying, "Kyle, you should do this with your life." I think it was a life by example and he was a very admirable person. Obviously very wise, very successful, very talented, very creative, tremendous empathy. Your lucky if some of that stuff rubs off. I think my upraising to that point made me receptive to it.

What were some of your favorite memories of making The Learning Tree?

I was thinking about that, I don't know, just the whole process, the relationships with the different people in the cast and crew. Jack Aldworth was the assistant director. I don't myself quite know what it was but I always glad that he (Jack) was there and when ever I saw him or talked to him, I always felt uplifted. Somehow, that everything is okay. But that is just one example, everyone on the cast and crew there is a hundred or so people and you don't have the ultimate bond with every individual but you could feel a commonality, a sense of community. I think it exists on some degree on all such things, I mean you go on a shoot for an amount of time and certain bonding occurs and relationships and you get to know people but as I said earlier a lot of people said this one is specially, special. I think the privilege and joy of being a part of something that is so good and that you share with so many people and the townspeople, both black and white and seeing how the town changed once the circumstances were such that it could. I think it's kind of the whole package that was really a great gift. I really enjoyed it and not just in the sense that it was very fulfilling in a way that you might not experience in other things.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Serbian Film. The Controversy Continues.

It has recently come to my attention that Stiges Festival Director Angel Sala has been charged with the exhibition of child pornography and facing the possibility of serving time in jail and fines for screening A Serbian Film at Stiges last year. The film has played in several festivals, among which the SXSW Midnights programme, Fantasia and screened as part of Rue Morgue's CineMacabre movie night.

There is a petition that has been circulating. Most notably by horror maestro Eli Roth. The first part is in Spanish but if you scroll down you will find the English text. Here is the link: No a la censura - En defensa del Festival de Stiges y su director

I saw the film at the world premiere at the Alamo Draft House last March at SXSW and subsequently several months later in Toronto. While the film is brutally intense and holds no punches I believe it is quite a far reaching to say the film involves child pornography. This in no should also be construed as a defense for the film and it's subject matter. A friend of mine Jay Clarke saw the film and here is his review:  The implications of Angel Sala being charged for showing a film in a film festival, it what it could mean for future screenings of controversial films is far reaching and could become a major set back for freedoms of speech and expression.

Here are my videos from Tim League's Q&A with the film makers last March at SXSW:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bloody Sunday. March 7th, 1965. From Selma to Montgomery.

The march was a direct response to an Alabama State Trooper shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson (February 18th, 1965) who tried to protect his mother and grandfather after they had fled a civil rights demonstration that was being attacked by police. Jimmie Lee Jackson would die eight days later as a result of his gunshot wounds.

The first of three marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama began on March 7th, 1965. Organized by the Dallas County Voters League with assistance from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The marches were also organized to help support voting rights for African-Americans in the state of Alabama. The first march ended in violence as state and local police used billy clubs and tear gas to stop over 600 civil rights marchers. The day would be forever known as "Bloody Sunday"

A second march began on March 9th, 1965. "I'd rather die on the highways of Alabama then make a butchery of my conscience." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The second march would also end unsuccessfully. A third march would begin on March 21st, 1965. The march began with over 8000 people and by the time it would end - 51 miles and five days later, over 25 000 people would arrive in Montgomery, Alabama. On March 25th the marchers would arrive at the Alabama state capitol building where Dr. King would deliver his speech, "How Long, Not Long."

This being a blog primarily devoted to cinema I found the amazing footage of Stefan Sharff's documentary of the Selma to Montgomery marches on youtube. The footage is absolutely riveting.

The marches from Selma to Montgomery would prove to be a major watershed moment in the fight for civil rights. The world is a far better place because of all the people who took to U.S. Route 80.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ice-T - The Original Gangster

I have been busy fulfilling other writing commitments recently so suffice to say it has been some time since I have been able to pop in here. However earlier in the day I saw that today, February, 16th marks Ice-T's Fifty-third birthday, so I figured why not take a look back at the film work of The Original Gangster.

In my teenage years my musical tastes was a steady diet of punk rock and hip-hop - hell they still are. I have fond memories of destroying curbs of my local strip mall with my skateboard while the soundtrack was provided by bands like Fugazi, NoMeansNo and Bad Religion. The Hip-Hop portion would consist of bands like Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim as well as the aforementioned Ice-T.

While Public Enemy were political in nature and Eric B & Rakim were some of the best lyricists of all time it was Ice-T - while displaying both politics and amazing lyrics also took his listeners to the rough streets of South Central and NYC. I do have to admit that as an awkward teenager there was some definite role-playing going on. It was quite easy to slip into a fantasy of being tougher than any other kid in the schoolyard. However, Ice-T while easily showing one the wealth and excess of being a street hustler would never shy away from showing you the flip side of the "gangster" life style. Most of his gangster songs would have the protagonist wind up in jail or dead. So, while it was easy to imagine being a tough motherfucker there were no illusions where that lifestyle would lead you. His lyrics would also speak to the strength of the individual that no matter what you faced you could overcome all the obstacles and survive a system that was geared to keep you down, well all the while his tunes were scored with some great beats.

Ice-T would first land himself in front of the movie cameras for the 1984 break-dancing classic. Breakin' His credited role was Rap Talker.

In 1991 he would act in the Mario van Peeples crime classic, New Jack City. A film that also has blazoned into my memory that of Chris Rock acting all strung out for the rock while drapped in the American flag. "Seventeen for a key? You must be doing the dope." A great Ice-T line. Here the T meets the Rock for the first time.

Ice-T would also provide the title track for the film which would also lead to one of great music videos. Ice would also act alongside Denzel Washington and John Lithgow in Ricochet. To anyone who even remotely knows me it is not very much a secret that one of my all time favorite directors is Walter Hill. Trespass would see Hill and Ice-T working together as well as another "Ice", Icecube. Here is there collaboration video from Trespass, which was conveniently also titled, Trespass. featuring lyrics like, "the motherfucker ain't home...fuck it I'll trespass"

1995 would see the one-two punch of Tank Girl and Johnny Mnemonic. Mnemonic is one of those films that while flawed I absolutely love. Perhaps because so many of my influences come together for 107 minutes. William Gibson, Takeshi Kitano, Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins as well now is quite obvious Ice-T. Perhaps it was working with Ice-T that would later lead Kitano to write and direct his East meets West mashup Brother. We may never know. Also from the department of weird coincidence Rollins and T have birth dates three days apart and Ice T is three years older than Rollins. I know, trippy...

It was around here that Ice began his foray into television with New York Undercover.

1997 would see T team up with director Albert Pyun and Christopher Lambert. Yes, Albert "The Sword & The Sorcerer, Nemesis, Cyborg and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor" Pyun.

1998 would see Ice once again provide a title track for a film. This time it would be for Dennis Hopper's directorial debut Colors. Since it's a title track, the song is....Colors.

The late nineties early two thousands would see Ice-T in a slew of direct to video titles, Corrupt, Gangland, The Wrecking Crew,  to name a few. 2000 till the present day would also see him in the television series that would explain why today's generation does not even know that Ice-T as a hip-hop superstar. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  

What does the future of cinema hold for Ice-T, well according to the great oracle otherwise known as IMDB he is acting alongside, Armand Assante, Cathy Moriarty and Ja Rule in a film tilted Goat. To say there have been more misses then hits when it comes to the filmography of Ice-T is for others to decide. For me he has worked with some of the great under-appreciated directors working in the crime/action genres and at the same time have provided great title tracks with accompanying music videos. So here is my birthday present from a Soldier of Cinema to a West Coast Player from the streets here is my quick blog entry look at the film work of Ice to the motherfucking T

I'll leave you with this, one of my favorite Ice-T tunes, "Six in the Morning" "Six in the morning, police at my door, fresh adidas squeaking across the bathroom floor..."


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hobo With A Shotgun Blasts the Sundance Film Festival

One of the films I have been tracking for quite some time is Canada's own Hobo With A Shotgun. It is quite a remarkable story. The initial trailer was made for the Robert Rodriguez' SXSW Grindhouse trailer competition.

Jason Esiener's trailer took first place. When Grindhouse played theatrically in Canada the Hobo With A Shotgun trailer was interspersed with the regular coming attractions. The trailer was so much fun and so true to the seventies exploitation trailers that it was not long before there was talk of a feature length version. At the 2008 Toronto After Dark Festival I caught up with director Jason Esiener and producer Rob Cotterill. We spoke about their short Treevenge that premiered as a part of the closing night festivities. We spoke about the possibilites of a Hobo feature, which at the time were in the very initial phases of going through the process of trying to find funding. Here is that 2008 interview:

Well the film was the opening selection of the Sundance Midnights programme and has been getting great reviews from a number of critics:




It has been quite fun to watch these guys and their passion for film take them from a trailer shot in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to a feature length film starring Rutger Hauer. I send you guys huge congratulations and am glad the world is getting to see another side of Canadian cinema.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

ActionFest - The Festival With A Body Count

One of my favorite genres in film is the action film. Nothing beats a high speed chase through city streets, a gun battle, the odd explosion, perhaps a fight in which one dude fights five other dudes. In short, nothing gets the heart rate up and you on the edge of your seat faster then an amazing jaw-dropping action sequence.

If you have not heard there is a new festival that more then appreciates a good action film, ActionFest - The festival with a body count. ActionFest marked it's inaugural year last year. The festival takes place in beautiful Asheville, NC and this year falls on April 7-10, 2011.

What is also amazing about ActionFest is that this years profits, all 100% of them will be going to the Chuck Norris' Foundation Kickstart Kids. ActionFest will donate 100% of this year’s profits to the charity and attendees will have the opportunity to make individual donations as well. Giving a child hope is one thing, but teaching them to find the strength inside themselves to overcome adversity is the greatest adventure of all.

I am also quite honored to announce that I am one of a great team of contributors to the recently launched ActionFest Blog. The blog with a body count. You can check out the blog here. I hope to see you in Asheville this upcoming April.