Monday, December 26, 2011

Back to the beginning

 My real feature film career really began in oil-rich Alberta and specifically in Calgary, which when I was there had almost 300,000 people, and now has over 1 million. One of the remaining icons was the Husky Tower, above, which in its day was the highest structure in the city.

Today it's crowded in between towering buildings that for the most part, deal with oil. Think Houston set near the Rocky Mountains and you have Calgary. A dozen or more major oil companies from the US and Britain and even Canada play their oil and gas games here.

In the US, Obama has to deal with the pipeline which would stretch from oil sands northeast of Calgary and extend all the way to Texas. This issue is coming up in 2012 and the problem deals with the usual suspects; those who want oil and those who want to preserve pristine land. 

But this isn't about pipelines. It's about movies.

Before Calgary I worked in television all across the country, starting in Windsor and Detroit and then to Vancouver and Regina. And then Calgary where I worked as a "writer/producer" for commercials. After 2 years of commercials I wanted out and I wanted to make a movie.

Another writer/producer, Harry, left before me and we got together to make a movie he wanted to produce. But that fell through and Harry had a handful of investors who were still excited about financing a movie. It would be a shame to see them go away.

So I came up with an idea with my friend Doug who did government educational films. Doug knew the owners of the Deer Lodge Hotel in the heart of the Rockies and a little over 100 miles from Calgary.

The hotel was a perfect place with a 1920's feel to it, but also incredibly creepy. It was a natural. 

Back in Calgary, Harry talked 6 investors, most from oil money, who wrote 6 checks for around $650,000 (around $1.6 million in today's dollars). As this was 100% tax shelter money (meaning investors could write off 100% of their investment), we had to hurry as that money had to be invested before the end of the year.

I wrote a screenplay, my first real one, with some help from Doug and my brother and we rushed into production, starting around Dec 3, 1980. It was a full union shoot with IATSE (grips, gaffers,make-up, etc), ACTRA (actors) and Harry, me, Doug and a few others.

We shot it in 15 days, with a great help being that it was set in one building and the surrounding snow which gave it an isolated feeling even though a major ski resort was a couple of miles away.

We stayed at one of the ski resort motels as the hotel was closed for the winter and had no heat. As we began filming, I began to notice that the actors seemed to be living their parts, and not always aware of it. And the crew gradually began to feel it as well, they acted like there really were ghosts there.

At the end of a day, nobody wanted to hang around to clean up unless they had someone else around. The dark halls and the constant cold was not particularly cuddly. And I began to realize that of the six characters in the movie, there were two other ones, two that nobody really paid attention to --

The -25 degree weather and, of course, the hotel.

And they were just as real as the flesh and blood that walked down the creaky hallways. While filming, we used torpedo-like construction heaters that blasted heat down the hallways that gave us about 15 minutes as we had to turn off the heaters to film with sound. Then the cold began to  creep upon us again.

One critic said this of the ambience of the movie; paraphrased "you had a choice, either say in the hotel with a crazy old woman or go outside into the freezing cold".

(Wed: feuds, snow and the money running out)

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