Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
In the late spring of 2010, Jody Shapiro joyfully announced on Facebook that he was headed to Winnipeg to produce Keyhole, a new Guy Maddin fantasia starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier. I immediately sprang into action and furnished him with my most recently updated Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg (see sidebar for all the gory details). The following is our exchange on Facebook after Jody received it:
JODY: Thanks so much for the Guide. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve circulated it to the entire cast and crew and personally handed hard copies to Jason, Isabella and Udo.
GREG: Why do I have a feeling Mr Kier will take special interest in some of my suggested activities?
JODY: Hah! Agreed. Maybe Guy will do some of the things in your Guide to Winnipeg with me.
GREG: Can you do me a favour?
JODY: Name it.
GREG: At some appropriate moment of privacy and solace, would you (a) kneel before Guy on my behalf to pay him that special homage that only those who adore him with all their heart truly can and (b) whilst nimbly offering said tribute from the deepest pit of my soul, make absolutely sure that the photograph of me as Akmatov in The Heart of the World is firmly affixed to the top of your head so that his eyes are trained greedily upon my visage?
JODY: Done. Aaaaaannnnnnndddd done.
* * *
There’s a special language that develops, a shorthand, if you will, when two gents become acquainted, bonded forever, if you will, by sharing relationships with the same object of affection and, furthermore, communicating and/or commiserating, if you will, about said object of passion. Depending on the parties involved and how deep their respective repressions are, how dark and cosy their respective closets are, and how comfortable they be with each other’s mutual peccadilloes, one can safely say the aforementioned ligatures of manly gentility also apply to the greatest love/marriage of all; that between a movie producer and director. To wit, one can safely define Canadian surrealist film artist Guy Maddin and his relationships with producers within the following: before Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and after Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Acknowledging the happy aberration within these parameters, Vonnie Von Helmolt’s first-rate producerial gymnastics with Maddin on Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the ‘before’ in this equation would be myself, and the ‘after’, none other than the charming, brilliant, deeply committed artist and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, who began his odd professional-artistic history with Maddin some nine years after mine had ended.
Jody is the director of the all-new Burt’s Buzz, a supremely entertaining documentary portrait of Burt Shavitz, the man whose face adorns a myriad of sweetly gooey products hogging shelves of health stores and pharmacies the world over. Shavitz’s insanely ubiquitous honey-infused lip balms and other body applications that bear the moniker ‘Burt’s Bees’ and his life story will receive a Canadian theatrical premiere at TIFF Bell Lightbox (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities, including the Toronto International Film Festival) on 13 June, following its American theatrical debut on 6 June 2014. Jody’s film also enjoyed a successful world premiere during TIFF 2013, so it seems entirely appropriate the film launches here for the general movie-going public here in the Dominion of Canada.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is a myth, but at least there really is a Burt.
When I recently pinned Guy to a wall and asked if he’s ever harboured masturbation fantasies involving Shapiro, he blushed, shook his head rather unconvincingly, lowered his gaze from mine and instead launched into reciting his own unique Tod Browning-like scene (not unlike the bizarre Browning pitches detailed in the great biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada). Maddin’s Shapiro-inspired scene (which hopefully will tuck its way into some future Maddin endeavour) goes thusly:
‘I see Jody at the TIFF premiere of one of his films – he’s outside the theatre stressing about getting comps to his friends. A hundred comp requests have been cavalierly tossed off in recent email correspondences. In this hypothetical (and cruel) scenario, some of the friends feel guilty that they haven’t shown much interest in Jody’s filmmaking over the previous years, so they figure they can pay him a compliment by requesting free tickets to his show. Many of these intend to go, but as the premiere approaches they realize they would rather not go. Some of them get as far as the theatre where they are greeted by long anxiety-inducing line-ups, and the sight of Jody on tippy-toes trying to find his comped friends. For his part, Jody would rather he didn’t have so many friends, especially the ones failing to show up 15 minutes early as he requested. He would much rather be inside, hyperventilating and prepping his introductory remarks, but, no, he must find these friends. Now all the stomachs are churning. Oh, the all-round anxiety! As is often the case with funerals, this strong feeling – of dread in this case, not grief – is an aphrodisiac. Jody’s friends, some not even knowing each other, throng cheek-by-jowl together outside the theatre and bond over the atmosphere hanging over the festival. Soon they pair off and fall into nearby bushes in ardent clinches! (I’m thinking now of the bushes outside Elisabeth Bader Theatre!) And there they stay, forestalling dread and anxiety by attempting to satisfy their lusts of odd providence, and the excitement only gets more and more unbearable the closer Jody’s ever-searching footsteps come to their illicitly and thoughtlessly trysting bodies. I see the scene ending, as it must, with Jody returning to the theatre, now packed with those of the unknown public who lined up in the stand-by queue, the filmmaker’s pockets bulging with comps lovingly set aside for acquaintances who got off betraying his devotion. Hot! Super hot!’
My immediate thought is this: I wonder if such an inspirational confluence of passionate bodily juices would even remotely cross the cerebella of Shapiro’s childhood friends from his North York stomping grounds on Osmond Court near Steeles and Leslie – friends he’s maintained close ties with since those halcyon days among the sleepy, grassy suburbs of Mel Lastman Land (Mel being the longtime King of North York, one-time Mayor of Toronto and furniture salesman). And how about Jody’s parents? His school teacher/principal Mom and key Ontario government consultant Dad? Might they envision their son, a nice Jewish boy from the land of majestic synagogues, delis, creameries and bagel shops embroiled – no matter how inadvertently – in such Maddinesque shenanigans? Well, perhaps not, but Shapiro proudly maintains he was never expected to enter the stereotypically staid world of ‘professional’ activities involving accounting, lawyering, doctoring or dentistry.
‘My parents were always 100% supportive of my need to pursue art,’ says Shapiro as we puff cigarettes on the sunny outdoor Gabby’s King Street patio – conveniently across from the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox complex.
In fact, other than to smoke my endless supply of bargain-priced Aboriginal ciggies, art is what’s brought Shapiro to the neighbourhood this very day. During the previous TIFF he marvelled at the huge display boards in the Lightbox lobby, which thousands of people pay homage to – scouring the ever-amorphous schedule of world cinema. ‘They’re designed, hand-crafted for utility, but they’re also beautiful in and of themselves. They represent one massive snapshot of an important cultural event – not just in this city, but the world,’ says Shapiro. ‘I asked Cameron [Bailey, TIFF Artistic Director] if the boards were archived but given TIFF’s storage needs, they eventually make a trip to the recycle bin.’
So what’s a feller like Shapiro gonna do? He photographs them, of course – his goal now is to photograph them every year from here on in and eventually – ‘Maybe a book, maybe an installation, perhaps even a permanent exhibit somewhere. Most importantly for me is that these photographs will exist as a record’ – of what once was, is and will be.
This makes complete sense, of course, as does his family’s support. There was probably never a time in Shapiro’s childhood and adolescence when he wasn’t looking at life through a camera lens. ‘Pictures tell stories,’ Shapiro offers. ‘Stories are everything.’
This early obsession with visual storytelling grabbed him by the lapels and hung on for dear life. As a teenager, he fell in love with the immediacy of the Polaroid SX-70 camera and used it to tell stories with a ‘single image’ and upon graduating from High School, armed with a portfolio that might have been the envy of most burgeoning Yousuf Karsh aspirants, he entered York University’s Fine Arts program where he began his studies in photography. He eventually switched to film and video. ‘Most of my time,’ he explains, ‘was spent waiting for a darkroom’. Mostly, though, his love of storytelling and his desire to capture a reality that was mediated through a lens drew him closer to pictures that moved.
Here, one major event changed his life immeasurably. He volunteered to give Rhombus Media partner Niv Fichman (The Red Violin, Last Night) a ride up to York for a guest lecture. Shapiro lived, by this time, in the Annex downtown, which one would presume was an ideal location for him to offer this kindness. Unfortunately, Shapiro did not own a car, so he needed to travel way up to North York, borrow his Mom’s vehicle, drive back downtown and wait outside for Niv. Then, the battery died. Neither Shapiro nor Fichman will ever be mistaken for grease monkeys and this spanner in the works proved a most vexing challenge, which they eventually pulled off with aplomb (and a bit of assistance from the roadside service of the Canadian Auto Association – one of the Dominion’s unsung heroes during the frequent inclement weather here in the Colonies).
Once the vehicle was roadworthy, the two gentlemen forged northwards. Shapiro was then afforded the opportunity to converse and hit it off with the head honcho of what was, at the time, the world’s leading production company devoted to classical music documentaries for television.
After graduation at York U in 1994, Shapiro joined the Rhombus team and never looked back. This became his real film school – one in which he assumed a variety of roles – learning from such brilliant directors as Larry Weinstein (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill) and Barbara Willis Sweete (Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach) and, of course, one of the world’s most outstanding producers, Niv Fichman.
And it was here where Shapiro eventually met Guy Maddin in late 1999. Fichman had brokered a brilliant deal with TIFF to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary and the Preludes were born: a series of short films helmed from coast to coast by Canada’s most acclaimed directors, which Shapiro would be producing in the field. The films are endowed with high points, to be sure, but nothing – and I do mean nothing – comes close to the dizzying epic scope of Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World.
‘The first time I met Guy was over the telephone,’ says Shapiro. ‘We were supposed to get acquainted and have an initial production discussion. I knew his work to this point very well and I must have spent days preparing for our chat, but all we talked about for an hour – maybe longer – was baseball.’
Shapiro has always believed that filmmaking should be fun, and in that he was influenced by Maddin, who urged him to treat the act of filmmaking as playing in a big sandbox. ‘It really was this collaboration with Guy that nailed it for me,’ notes Shapiro. ‘Fun truly became, and continued to be, the order of the day.’
Maddin, for his part, thinks the world of Shapiro, as a highly valuable producer and mensch of the highest order. ‘Look,’ insists Maddin in that way of insisting that only Maddin has. ‘The guy served 10 grinding years under the delightful thumb of Niv Fichman at the Rhombus dream factory, learning every aspect of filmmaking from top to bottom – at first, I’m sure, mostly bottom.’
Bottoms have always been integral to Gay Maddin’s art also, and he continues to wax eloquent on the matter of Fichman’s attention to Shapiro’s own bottom and subsequent moves up the ladder of love, the ladder of cinematographic epiphany. ‘I can think of no better place for a bright young thing to learn as much as Jody did, stuff they never teach you at film school,’ Maddin explains rapturously. ‘Rhombus stresses the slow massaging of the deal, getting to know the filmmakers organically. A great deal of stress is put on diplomacy, and with that, necessarily, on eating well with big league talent. Jody learned his diplomacy very well indeed and there is no more gracious man working in the business. He’s unafraid of titans as we approach them hat in hand to help us on our projects.’
I have to personally agree with Maddin. I first met Jody on the set of Heart of the World. Guy asked me if I would play the role of Akmatov the industrialist and I accepted immediately. This was a bit of long-gestating unfinished business twixt Guy and myself after I turned down the lead role in Tales from the Gimli Hospital to go to law school, but then never bothered to go – by which point, he’d recast it and I leapt on board as its producer. And now, here I was, so many years later – on the set and utterly in awe of this ‘kid’ Shapiro, tear-assing all over the place like a whirling dervish – even picking up a camera and shooting like some kind of Sven Nykvist on speedballs.
Maddin confirms Jody’s prowess as a versatile creative producer. ‘Jody’s a superb cinematographer. When he and I had trouble keeping DOPs on My Winnipeg – it turned out we were offering so little money we kept losing our cinematographers to other projects, including, in one case, a local French CBC-TV puppet show – we just decided that he would do the shooting, and we never regretted that. We saved $500 and he did a much better job than anyone else could have!’
The Shapiro-Maddin collaboration continued for several pictures. According to Maddin, the reason this relationship worked so well was Shapiro’s ‘impeccable sensitivity to the concerns of others, but iron will in his resolve to get results. That’s a rare combo in Canadian film, which is normally a roiling mess of deferential passive-aggressives enraged by how collaborators failed to intuit the most ardent hopes in others.’
While producing Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, Shapiro developed a close friendship and creative bond with star Isabella Rossellini. Between his own producing and directing stints (prior to Burt’s Buzz, Shapiro helmed the magnificent Ice Breaker and How To Start Your Own Country), he embarked upon Green Porno, Rossellini’s immortal series of short films sexualizing nature in all its glory. ‘Isabella is the Jean Painlevé of her day,’ says Maddin. ‘With a singular bio-comedic manifesto, an inscrutable tone so delicate it could easily get crushed by the distractions of simply making the work, it was Jody who was instrumental in helping her see her mission through. He frequently produced, directed or co-directed, and even shot the episodes.’
Rossellini, serving as an Executive Producer on Burt’s Buzz, concurs: ‘If it wasn’t for Jody’s special style of making films, I would have never been a director. He knows how films can be made diligently and meticulously, but without the many assistants running around and numerous memos and call sheets. This style actually gave me the courage to direct.’
Maddin adds: ‘Jody is there – as close to conception as is humanly possible and he’s there right till he put on his midwife’s hat. Do midwives wear hats?’
Well, Burt Shavitz certainly wears a hat and he’s been midwife to billions upon billions of bees and frankly, given Shapiro’s pedigree, could there be anyone better to tell Burt’s story than the meticulous, amiable Shapiro? Upon meeting Shavitz through Rossellini, who’d been contracted by the Burt’s Bees Company to be a spokesperson for their product, Shapiro was immediately taken with the bearded old hippie. Rossellini suggested the company hire Jody to shoot a series of interviews that they could use for archival purposes. Shapiro spent a few days getting to know Burt and interviewing him. Going through the footage, Shapiro was convinced a documentary film existed in there somewhere. When he heard that Burt, this supremely private old guy, happy to just be alone on his farm, would soon be taking a promotional tour to the Far East, Shapiro launched into action immediately. A film about Burt Shavitz had to be made.
‘This was the juxtaposition I needed,’ said Shapiro. ‘This is the story I wanted to tell – a private man who occasionally must become very public.’
Hearing Shapiro talk about his film – why he wanted to make it and how he’d be approaching it – was music to my ears. This was exactly why I was so thoroughly and immensely entertained by Burt’s Buzz. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time and for me, was just what the doctor ordered. The camera loves the guy, and his low-key irascibility allows Shapiro to indelibly capture him as the man himself engagingly spins his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper, then, with assistance from the woman he loved, saw his business grow to gargantuan proportions. The shy country gentleman became a brand until melancholy set in and he became unhappy with corporate life. He then experienced the dissipation of love when he engaged in an affair with an employee. This is when his former lover and practical head of the company reportedly forced Burt to sell out his shares for peanuts.
There are certainly any number of strands to this story for any filmmaker to go in and sever the jugular – most notably the implication that Burt is forced out for reasons of sexual harassment, and the unavoidable fact that his former company and, importantly, his image are being used by a corporate entity that now owns the whole shooting match of Burt’s Bees, an entity seen in some circles as anything but a model citizen of natural, whole, healthy remedies.
Burt Shavitz, you see, is no longer just Burt Shavitz – everything he was, is and continues to be, especially as the face of Burt’s Bees (both in terms of branding and in public appearances) – is owned by the dreaded Clorox Corporation.
Shapiro maintains a sense of ambiguity around the issue of Burt’s potential engagement in sexual harassment, which I’d strongly agree with. Given that Shavitz comes from an era of free fucking galore, he’d have no idea what sexual harassment was if it came along and tore out a fresh asshole in his posterior regions. Not that that should be an excuse, but I genuinely feel the guy is a charming, ruggedly handsome rake, but because he also does have a degree of naivety coursing through him, I’d have no difficulty in believing he could be duped into signing a dotted line based on allegations of said harassment – never by the ‘victim’ in question, but in fact, by ‘the woman scorned’ – the woman he was once in love with and, the film implies, might still be in love with.
At the end of the day, this is great storytelling.
As to the whole issue of the Clorox connection, Shapiro maintains: ‘That would be a different movie. It’s not the one I wanted to make.’ As a viewer, I agree. It’s certainly not the movie I’d have personally wanted to see. Burt Shavitz is just too damn cool and I’d prefer to spend time with him – not a story dealing with environmental ironies. That so clearly isn’t Burt’s tale.
Besides, one of the astounding bits of information Shapiro relates is that the company sold back the rights to all his original interview footage with Burt for practically nothing. Even more amazing is that they signed every piece of legal documentation Shapiro needed to make the movie his way – without any approvals of any kind. They signed everything before Shapiro proceeded to make the movie. They then gave him unfettered access to anything and everything. If Shapiro had wanted to make either a promotional film or one that shredded the company from top to bottom, he had every right and all the permission he needed to do so.
He was interested, ultimately, in the man himself.
This is echoed by one of Shapiro’s biggest champions, Steve Gravestock, a Senior Programmer with TIFF and the topper of their Special Canadian Projects and, in general, all things cinematically Canadian. ‘Jody has lots of the qualities good directors have, he’s energetic, committed, curious,’ says Gravestock. ‘I think his rarest quality, particularly within the filmmaking world, is that he seems sort of ego-less. At least, he doesn’t seem to be driven by it either exclusively or primarily. That trait served him well as a producer obviously but it is also probably one of the most important attributes a documentary filmmaker can have. It allows Jody to respond to and profile his subjects in a way devoid of overt editorializing. He has made films about people whom most or many would dismiss as eccentric or just plain nuts, but being dismissive isn’t in his films at all. That doesn’t mean that he’s overly sympathetic to his subjects or functioning as a cheerleader or lacks his own point of view, but he has that kind of clear-eyed empathy allowing us to encounter these people without leaping to easy value judgments.’
At one point, during our time together, Shapiro reveals how insanely busy he’s been with school. ‘School?’ I ask. He responds that he’s studying at George Brown College to be a chef and hopes to soon be interning at a friend’s restaurant. My response is almost dismissive – as if this is just some kind of a hobby. ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,’ I offer and then add, ‘Cooking – especially at a heightened level – is clearly a fabulous creative outlet.’
Shapiro lowers his head then raises it with a smile. ‘Look, I really have no idea what the future’s going to bring for me in the film business. It’s not like what I do puts me in a position where I can actually apply for a job. I can’t actually be hired for anything.’
‘Fuck off,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve just made a movie with your own money, you own it free and clear, you’ve got John ‘Fucking’ Sloss’s company FilmBuff handling sales and Burt Shavitz is beloved all over the world. On that alone, the movie’s going to sell to millions of his fans. And what? You’re going to chuck it all and be a chef?’
He smiles demurely, excuses himself and heads to the little boys’ room. I’m wondering if he’s pulling a Burt Shavitz on me. Two days later, I got my answer. He sent me a text message that reads: ‘Just made this in class tonight. I thought of you immediately.’ Attached is a photograph of the most mouth-watering Ukrainian food I’ve laid eyes on since my Baba died. I wonder if her spirit has somehow parked itself in Jody’s soul. Then it hits me like a truckload of kishka. I remember that Jody’s grandfather served up some of the finest delicacies this side of North End Winnipeg and that side of the Montreal Main at the long-gone Quality Kosher Kitchen at Dundas and Spadina.
A few weeks later, I’ve dragged Jody to Jilly’s, one of the finer Gentlemen’s Clubs in Toronto, which sadly, will soon be shuttered because of the endless gentrification of the biggest city in our fair Dominion. While we’re getting private dances in the V.I.P. room, I tell Jody my fantasy of buying the building to save this shrine to the magnificence of the female form and forevermore keep a safe harbour for the young fellows of the local Hell’s Angels (formerly ‘Satan’s Choice’) to continue celebrating birthday parties.
Shapiro smiles and admits, ‘I have a fantasy, too. It’s a perfect fit for this obsession you have of always drawing parallels between us, but this time, it has nothing to do with Guy.’
‘Do tell,’ I plead like some chub in the Steamworks Baths in Toronto’s Church Street Boys Town.
‘Well, I may be a lot more Klymkiw-esque than you think,’ he answers saucily. ‘I’ve recently gone into full-on survivalist mode.’
‘You’re finally building a fallout shelter?’ I ask whilst Wanda, a comely platinum blonde, grinds into my crotch.
‘I’ve teamed up with Michel Hunter, an executive chef who hunts,’ he declares proudly whilst demurely gesturing to Flossie, a nubile African-Canadian adorned in a fluorescent pink wig, that he’s happy with her gyrations at a greater distance than my own. He continues: ‘The two of us are working on a photo book about wild game hunting and preparation. I’ve now cooked four different squirrel dishes! Delicious!!!’
He paused wistfully then said, ‘You know that thing I mentioned to you when we last met? The cooking thing? Well, I really have become obsessed with cooking and I’m finally staging in a real kitchen when I have the time – working the line and everything. My fantasy is that I’m training to be a chef and may one day switch careers.’
Ah, I think, he’s not genuinely abandoning his brilliant filmmaking career. Nestled in the comfy red-velvet-lined comfy chairs at Jilly’s, I can’t get an image out of my head – one that’s married to Guy Maddin’s words from his sex-charged Tod-Browning-like idea for a scene in a movie involving Jody.
I think long and hard about the Ukrainian food he prepared. I see the soul of my own Baba and the soul of Jody’s Zayde swishing about in the very depths of Shapiro’s soul – their ‘trysting bodies in ardent clinches’. It becomes clear to me that there could be a lot worse than making movies and cooking. Kind of like Burt Shavitz enjoying the adulation afforded him by fans in a Target store and his fees from that allowing him the privilege of living life the way he likes it best – in solitude – his loyal dog at his side amongst hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
Burt’s Buzz is released theatrically in selected US cities on 6 June 2014 and at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Canada on 13 June 2014.