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This Director Edited 400 Shitty Canadian Movies Into One Weird-Ass Film

Most of the films came from the late 70s and 80s, a period known as the "tax shelter era" of Canadian film, which has been written off by anyone with taste.
July 9, 2015, 9:15pm

Filmmaker Jonathan Culp. Photos courtesy Jonathan Culp.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In the 1970s and early 80s, the Canadian film industry went through a boom of sorts. Between 60 and 70 films went into production per year, budgets were ballooning, and directors and producers were popping up everywhere. Unfortunately, the bulk of these films were awful, inspired by neither artistic vision nor commercial ambition, but by the desire of groups of lawyers, doctors, and dentists to lessen their tax burden via a series of government programs meant to stimulate the country's film industry. The period has been referred to as "the tax shelter era," and its films have traditionally been discounted as garbage.

For Toronto-based collage filmmaker Jonathan Culp, though, these movies represent a wealth of raw material. In his new movie Taking Shelter, Culp has edited together clips from 434 Canadian films from the 70s and 80s and woven them into a (pretty difficult to follow) narrative about an alien invasion of Canada.

VICE: So, explain the tax shelter era to us?
Jonathan Culp: When people talk about the tax shelter, what they're talking about is a government policy, called the Capital Cost Allowance, or CCA, that was put in place to stimulate film production. It has been in place since the 50s, but the conditions weren't really optimal for investment. In the early 70s, there was a push from the filmmaking community to support feature filmmaking in Canada, so in 1975, the Trudeau government [increased] the Capital Cost Allowance to 100 percent. So you could write off 100 percent of your investment in a feature film. The young producer Robert Lantos, along with Steven Roth, were making a film called Agency—which was a Canadian production starring Robert Mitchum and Lee Majors—they discovered that they could exploit this policy through a limited public offering. Basically, by selling shares at affordable rates to doctors, lawyers, dentists, and stuff like this. And once this was vetted as a real thing, the portfolio managers and [people like that] started looking at Canadian films as a good place for generic investors to park their money.

And they weren't making art films, right?
Literally, some of the portfolios were saying, "Don't invest in any movies with artistic inclinations." [Former Telefilm Canada executive director] Michael McCabe was very much an ideologue about making films that conformed to the American market, that could compete in the American market, and could stand up to the American product on its own terms. There was a lot of hostile rhetoric about how the Film Board and the CBC had stunted the growth of the Canadian film industry by standing in the way of the workings of the market. And really, what that translates to is genre. There were action films, there were high seas melodramas, there was a variety of horror movies.

So what made you want to make this movie?
This project has been in my head since I was nine years old. I read Jay Scott's takedown of tax shelter movies in the Globe and Mail, on my parents' subscription, and read about these funny tax shelter movies and was like, "Someday, I'm going to see these movies and make fun of them, and have a good time at their expense." So even before I knew that I was going to get involved in collage filmmaking, I was a little bit obsessed with these movies.

Can you summarize the plot of Taking Shelter for us?
Someone suggested I post a libretto, which I may get to yet, because the narrative gets very complicated. The simplest outline of it is: Aliens invade Canada, mistaking it for America, and try to turn people's everyday lives into cinema in order to disorient them, so that they can colonize them. So there's a sense that the main narrative line is a description of what was attempted within the film industry itself at the time. And there's various character subplots, there's good guys and bad guys, there's through-characters and people who make cameos—Saul Rubinek only shows up for a quick scene before he gets drowned—but others hang in there. It's a thriller in a lot of ways, it's fast-moving. My challenge was to make a collage film that worked as a narrative, but that achieved this without any intervention from me, in terms of voiceover or inter-titles or anything like that. Some people stick with the narrative, other people just choose to let it wash over them. It's like 4,000 image cuts and 8,000 audio cuts in 100 minutes, so there's a lot of sensory stimulation going on.

What did making this thing entail?
As I researched the subject, I found that the "tax shelter era" means different things to different people. I thought I was going to be able to just get a list of all the films that exploited the tax write-off, and found out that that tax information was not publicly accessible, so there's even a certain degree of speculation about what is or is not a "tax shelter movie." Which meant that I had to look up the whole era, and just taking in all of the titles that I could find from those two decades. And it amounted to 434 films in the end, which it was a haul that I was proud of, but it took a long time to accumulate those, it took a long time to transcribe them. My method required full transcripts, because most of my editing was done through text searches, which is how I let the material lead the narrative.

Why did you feel the need to transcribe everything?
OK I'll give you an example; you've got the super alien from outer space, Overdog, being played by Michael Ironside in Spacehunter. So this guy is like the montage monster, he speaks one word at a time. And so in order to construct his sentences, I had to actually be able to hunt through and find and isolate these single words to put these sentences together, and that was one of the technique things that I was able to do through transcribing. When it was working, you know when it wasn't like going to the dentist, it did provide a meditative space. Because it was a research project as well, and I needed to familiarize myself with these films as films. And get inside them, get to know the performers, because one of the style things that I settled on was the use of composite characters. Character actors like Henry Ramer, Kate Lynch, Gary Reineke, people who are not household names, but who might have appeared in small roles in eight or ten films. And by creating composite characters, I was able to sort of promote these Canadian actors into lead-supporting roles.

How long did this all take?
Seven years. And that broke down to three years of sourcing, two years transcribing, and two years editing. Not necessarily 40-hours-a-week straight through there, but that was the arc of the work.

Did you ever want to quit?
I'm going to say no, because quitting renders the work already done meaningless in this context. I'm going to avoid projects of this nature for a couple of years, though. At some point you do miss contact with other human beings, and leaving the house and stuff. By the end of it, there was a certain amount of torment involved, but I'm glad I struggled through. It's like this is my homemade PhD, and now I get to talk about all the stuff that I learned, at length.

Does anyone who's featured in the film know about it?
I have met Lisa Langlois and Lesleh Donaldson, who are two of the three scream queens of 80s horror lore. The third, Lenore Zann, is presently running for the leadership of the Nova Scotia NDP, and she's dealt with some harassment online regarding her work in these films, so I doubt she looks back that fondly on these. I think those are the only performers, but I've noticed some directors who I'm friends with on Facebook—Larry Kent, who's one of the first independent filmmakers in Canada, from the early 60s—he liked my page. I've spoken to a few other filmmakers. I haven't mailed them copies, but I'd love to see what their reaction to the film is.

Anything else?
I think it's worthwhile giving these films another look. And I'm not a booster. A lot of the stuff that's been called bad filmmaking does fall into that category, but there's so much good stuff. I wouldn't have survived seven years in the VHS mines with this material if there wasn't a good percentage of movies that were good, or things that were good in the movies.

Taking Shelter plays at Cinecycle in Toronto on July 10 at 8 PM.

Follow Chris Dart on Twitter.