Dubbed “one of Canada's most provocative and in-demand directors”, Jerry Ciccoritti isn’t shy about his viewpoint. He knows what he likes and sticks with it. It’s paid off. His first film sold for $300,000 in the 80s. Since then, he’s directed Trudeau and has received a Gemini for Best film, 7 for best Director, and 3 Directors Guild of Canada Awards. In a sit down with Jules Ross, Jerry offers insight onto his journey and thought process.
How did you get your start?
I worked as both an usher and manager of a movie theater and ran an audiovisual production house prior to becoming a filmmaker. Before Catwalk, I had done a few grindhouse movies. They were my first features. I did them because I loved movies more than anything and I wanted to learn how to make them. I’m a slow learner and it took me a while to figure out what story I wanted to tell. One story I found was about dislocation. That’s how I felt in Canada at the end of the 20th century. I had a clear sense of being ‘here’ and wanting to be ‘there’.
Do you mean wanting to be in the US?
I mean anywhere. It’s a geographical thing to some and spiritual thing to others.
What was it like to be the co-founder of the Buddies in Bad Times?
I started that out of high school. One of my good friends was Sky Gilbert’s girlfriend. [Laughs] He likes to say to people, “That’s how far back we go. I had a girlfriend!” She thought we’d get along well. We did have a mutual passion for acting and theatre. Before Bad Times we’d do cabaret. We found old rehearsal space on Queen and River. It was a rotting 8 story Victorian warehouse. The owner wanted the place to become a scene making environment. We wanted a cheap place to put things up. So it worked out. That was the home for the first year. After that, we came up with the name and made it official.
Why did you drop out of York?
I don’t know how it runs now, but back in the old days, in 1920 when I was in high school, once you were accepted it wasn’t official until you had an interview and you had to send in a package. I sent it in April and in June I went to be interviewed. I met with a lecturer, Peter Harcourt. This was back in the early 60s and he was the only film critic with global recognition. It was sheer luck of the draw that I got to impress him with my 17 year old self. He told me flat out, “I went through your stuff and I’m going to save you time, you’ve already done the course”
I enrolled anyway and sat for two weeks. It was a good program. No knocks against the school – but I had done it. So I took a pencil and paper and I went through the 4 years of tuition, beers, books, pencils, etc. I figured that like it or not, I’m going to be spending thousands of dollars. To me, it meant that I was admitting to myself that I could raise this money. Well, I figured I should raise it to make short films instead.
What was your next step?
I did a 30 minute short film, erotic reinterpretation of Adam and Eve. Then I formed a small indie company with a friend and we started making short films. After that we started a company to make training, promotional and music videos. It was a great way to get into the business and learn how to deal with them properly. I realized that if the Toronto Humane Society is willing to hire 19 year olds, and if we can handle those meetings, then the meetings at Alliance Atlantis and Telefilm wouldn’t be that different. And then we made ‘Psycho Girls’, our first feature.
How did Psycho Girls come about?
Psycho Girls came out in 1985. By that time we had 4 partners, we were 26 or 27 and we had been making films for 5 or 6 years. Nothing was going our way so we bankrupted the company. So here we are, renting a rat infested house on Beverly. Two of us are living upstairs and the ground floor was full of desks. Six months went by and we’re still borrowing money from our parents.
One Friday at around 5 or 6 p.m. we had just finished another lousy day. I asked one of the partners how much film stock we had. It turned out we had half of what we needed to make a movie. I said, “Alright! On Monday, we’re making a movie!” We prepped it in 5 days. We called our friends, borrowed $5,000 for sandwiches and beer and shot it in 6 days. We made a VHS dub of the movie and lucky for us, one of the partners had a father who was a retired film distributor. He offered to show it around when he headed to LA. He showed it to Canon Films. They’d done Rambo and were big in the 80s. They liked it and offered to buy it. When they asked us the price, we didn’t know what to charge. I asked my partners and we figured with deferrals, cast crew, and lab we wanted $200,000. So we asked for $300,000. There was yelling and screaming, but they agreed to buy it so long as we’d waive residuals. This was mid-late 80s where if there was a video of anything in focus they’d throw money at it.
After that we had a good laugh. We figured the film business was easy! The sale bought us good face. So we had an easier time making the next few horror films. Of course, they didn’t turn out that way.
Of all the films you’ve worked on, which one is closest to you?
Either ‘Blood’ or ‘Paris, France’. In both cases I got the chance to work with controversial material. I like that. Also, those are two examples of films where the form and content came together. I also liked doing ‘Trudeau’. There’s an unspoken rule about making a well crafted series. When I shot Trudeau, I broke every rule. I consciously threw them all out. When we started shooting, I had a meeting with the Cast and Crew and said that Trudeau wowed the country and we have to do the same.
What rules did you break?
Everything! Format, storytelling, mixing drama and comedy, using archival footage to tell the story instead of using it to fill budget holes, using the medium of TV so that it wasn’t just the broadcaster but it was part of the storytelling device. For example, the first image is the scratchy. I did that on purpose. The network heads were horrified but the producers stood behind it.
It must have been incredible to receive that amount of support from the producer.
When the writer, [Wayne Grigsby] offered me the gig, naturally I was flabbergasted. When I got my wits back, I asked to read the script. He told me, “CBC offered me the gig and I’m writing it, but there is no script yet. I want you on board though.” I told him, “We should talk turkey. You know I do the wacky crazy stuff, and I can only assume that you’re asking me to do it without a script because you want me to do my thing.” He said, “That’s exactly what I want!” So I had free reign from day one.
So are you going into the zombie genre now?
Funny you should ask; I am. I wrote the script 10 years ago, I think I was ahead of the curve. It’s my homage to zombie movies.
How do you find the people you work with?
I look outside of the main stream. I’ve had success and it allows me to choose what I want to work on. I can wait until I’m offered something interesting. Also, if I’m working on someone else’s project, no matter how much I invest in it, it’s someone else’s money. I take the fee and put it directly into writing my book, or a script.
For instance, with Blood, I wanted to venture into the world of experimental cinema. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to keep the budget low. I figured it would take $100,000 to shoot. I called the heads of CBC, TMN, Corus, and other friends of mine. I said, “I’ve made you a lot of money, won you awards, and I’d like to call in a favour now. I need to raise a third of my budget from each of you.” They had questions, of course, but in the end, they funded. Then I pick well known actors, and my DP is a guy I’ve been working with for 5 years.
Do you prefer TV to film? Has this changed over time?
I don't think that one format is better, or cooler than the other. They're both equal. There are just two different presentational formats.
Everyone always asks you about Canada vs. US
Listen, I just bought my first house. That’s something people usually do when they’re young. It’s in Little Italy, I have a widescreen TV, comic books and I can take my friends out to dinner. The only thing Hollywood can give me is money and sex. I won’t make better movies out there. If anything I’ll be more compromised. [Thinks for a moment] There’s no way to have this conversation without sounding pretentious, and I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that here I can make a ‘Blood’ or a ‘Paris, France’ and they pretty much leave you alone. I didn’t want to grow up to be Francis Ford Coppola. He’s been giving the same interview for years, where he says, “I make this movie to give me the ability to make the real ones.” But the ‘real ones’ never happen. Once you get in that system its hard to get out. Steven Soderbergh! He’s the only one I can think of. He can do an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and then turn around and do a ‘Bubble’. But he’s one in 100,000 directors. I don’t want to take that chance.
Or the movie Crash.
You mean David Cronenberg? Yeah, that’s a good example.
I love watching James Spader.
[Laugh] James pulled me onto a dance floor once. That’s how we met.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a feature. It’s called, ‘Mad Dog and the Weasel’. It’s a 1972 old-time wrestling movie. A coming of age story. I’ll be shooting at the end of the summer. Stay tuned!