Without further ado...
IJ: So an obvious but appropriate first question would be how did you get involved with filmmaking?
JM: My interest in filmmaking goes back to when I was 4 years old. I lived in a small village in Manitoba and my parents took me to the local theater where I ended up in the projection booth and was totally fascinated by the clicking of the projectors. By 8, I was seeing every movie I could possibly see in a small town and TV was just beginning to appear. I began reading credits like “director” and “written by”, and even tech credits.
We moved to Windsor across the river from Detroit in the early 60’s and I bought my first copy of Variety. I went to college in Detroit and majored in English and Psych, but one summer I landed a job at the local TV station where I learned how to edit on film rewinds and wrote news broadcasts and finally film camera work. I was hooked.
IJ: Before you were a filmmaker you worked in the TV news industry covering some pretty interesting events like Vietnam War protests and the like. What made you get out of the news business?
JM: I really loved TV news, as weird as that may sound, we were always involved in something interesting. I met every type of person from Nixon to the Happy Hooker to movie stars and drug addicts. A lot of my stories comes out of these years. I was even involved in a shooting at a Ford plant and actually watched a guy shoot at another guy. We got it on film too, helped convict him. A blow-up of one single frame of 16mm b&w film was on the front page of the New York Times.
I got married and then got a job offer in Toronto as news camera for a new network and quit but the job lasted 6 months and they let me go. I didn’t want to go back to Windsor/Detroit and my wife didn’t want to leave. We divorced 6 years later and just recently discovered each other after 26 years. At that point I didn’t really want to do news anymore, I wanted to make movies and so I moved to Vancouver.
IJ: After film school you’re credited with making two short films, Cadillac and Cooperage – what were these about and are they ever going to see a release? Cooperage in particular seems to have been quite well received and was nominated for an Oscar?
JM: The film school I attended was at the Banff Arts Center, a prestige art school in the heart of the Rockies, this was when I was married yet. I met Phil Borsos, and since I was pretty experienced already (I knew more than the teachers) we began to plot movies we’d like to make someday. By the way, Phil and I were the only students who failed! Instructor hated us. Nobody else in that class ever did anything in film.
When I moved to Vancouver Phil and I opened a tiny office and basically starved for 2 years. In that time we scrounged film and camera and anything else and made Cadillac (I have pics) with a Beaulieu 16mm camera I bought. Then Phil wanted to make a short about a cooperage, which is a barrel-making factory he had seen as a child.
Again we begged, borrowed and stole anything we could, and became known by the rental houses and other filmmakers. We also took a semester at Simon Fraser University but only for use of camera equipment. You have to understand that we shot film and it was expensive, there were no digital cameras you could buy for a few hundredbucks. We got film from National Film Board and Phil worked at the filmlab so we got some good “deals” there.
Cooperage was shot in 2 weeks, I shot the first week and then had to work at a TV station editing job so we got Tim Sale to finish it. Phil hired a great editor who was hard to work with but she did a great job. The short took off at festivals and won many. For correction, it wasn’t in the final 5 shorts for Oscars, but was a finalist in the top ten. Both films were well circulated and we actually made money on it.
IJ: From there you were quite prolific making commercials and industrial films for quite a few years. I’m sure the experience came in handy when it was time to direct your first feature – what made you decide to take that plunge?
JM: I was tired of commercials after a few years, in fact hated it, having to listen to ad agency types who often knew very little. I had worked in Regina, Saskatchewan and finally Calgary and a co-worker, Harry, said was going to make his own movie, so he quit and I quit a few months later and we worked on his project but it fell through..
IJ: That obviously brings us to Ghostkeeper, which you wrote and directed. Where’d the inspiration for this one come from?
JM: After my friend’s movie fell through I met Doug MacLeod who as a writer and producer for a local educational channel. We got along and decided to make a movie with me writing and directing and he producing. When we were looking for an idea we figured a single location and a small cast and a horror film as Halloween had come out and others were doing well so we thought that was the best way to go.. And that let us to the Deer Lodge Hotel in Lake Louise, Alberta.
Doug knew the owner’s son, Rick Crosby, and we drove the 2 hr trip from Calgary and the minute we saw it, we both knew it would work. In fact, the hotel became a character of it’s own during the movie and the filming. It was also closed for the winter (the hotel is now open all year). Harry still had investors left over from his failed attempt so he managed to raise around $650,000 which would be around $1.5 million now.
IJ: Ghostkeeper is very much a ‘slow burn’ horror film. How much of this was intentional and how much of this was due to budgetary restraints and time issues?
JM: A lot of people thought it was inspired by “The Shining” but it wasn’t at all. It was the location, the hotel and the winter. It’s mood is pretty much what John Holbrook (the DP) and I were going for mostly because it just felt right. Once we got up there, isolated in -30F and nowhere to go, the hotel and the forests and the snow won us over. One funny thing though, about 200 feet away stood the famous Chateau Lake Louise, a very expensive ski hotel and summer destination. I think the hotel had us under it’s power from the time we stepped in. Same with the actors who began to behave like their characters. Even the crew was spooked by the dark hallways and creaking floors.
As I’ve mentioned in other interviews, we began to run out of money and my written ending had much more of the Windigo creature. But we were faced with closing down or finding a new ending. This is where my newscamera experience helped, I made up shots and scenes every day depending on which actor we had for that time. Not the best way, but I was not going to close the film down. Some of my ideas worked, some didn’t. The budget wasn’t bad and we were lucky to be locked into a single location. I think we shot for 15 days with a day or two of exteriors.
IJ: The cast for the film is pretty great across the board, particularly Georgie Collins. How did you come across her specifically for that part of the old lady/Ghostkeeper in the movie?
JM: Georgie was a dream come true, she was and is totally brilliant. If you’ve seen the extra on her interview in the new DVD release, she is sharp and witty at 86! She filmed Ghostkeeper at the age of 56. Funny thing is that I didn’t hire her. I was so busy prepping as we had a rushed schedule to film before January 1 as that was the tax deadline for the investors and their 100% tax shelter. My former partner found her in Calgary and she had a list of playing characters older than she really was. When I asked her if she would be in Ghostkeeper 2, she said “I’d like to play that old bird again.” I love it.
IJ: Location plays a huge part in what makes this movie as interesting as it is and the Deer Lodge obviously turned out to be the perfect spot to set your movie – so picturesque but so remote at the same time. What was involved in securing this location?
JM: Location was everything for us, as mentioned above, the hotel and the snow were characters as much as the actors. Doug’s friend’s dad said okay as the hotel was closed for winter. One reviewer said something like “you had a choice, stay in the hotel with a crazy woman or go out in freezing weather. Funny story, I can usually sleep anywhere and during one shot outside in a snowfall I had to wait for the setup so I laid down on the snow and fell asleep. When the AD woke me, I was covered with snow. Obviously good winter clothing.
And the great thing about the hotel is that we didn’t add a single prop or anything, what you see is what was there, like the blood red carpet in the lobby. Only thing we brought in was hot water for Chrissie’s bathtub as the heat was never on. In fact we used construction heaters to heat each scene, turning them off when ready to shoot. Then we had about 15 minutes to film before it got cold again.
IJ: Ghostkeeper was distributed by New World and wound up on VHS where it got a pretty solid cult following after some time. Did it get any theatrical play? Were you going for that or was video always the intended market for the movie?
JM: I think it got some foreign theatrical through our sales agent, Alex Massis. It played for several years on Canadian TV and of course, VHS with New World. I have posters from Mexico and England too, but never knew if they were shown theatrically there.
IJ: The film has recently been issued on DVD using the only surviving 35mm elements. How did the movie wind up ‘lost’ and how to you feel about its recent resurgence in popularity?
JM: Over the years, most of the paperwork got lost. My company, Badland Pictures, produced the film although Harry was the producer who found us the money. Funny thing about that, the AD didn’t like me and thought he should direct (some AD’s have a tendency to think they’re better than directors) so he’d write down all the time I took to set up shots and was “indecisive”. But I got all his notes at the end of the day and I was certain I wouldn’t fire myself!
IJ: From there, you made a couple of TV movies – The Tower and Niagara Strip for Visual Productions of Toronto. How did this compare to the 35mm feature you’d just made? Was it a big change going back to television work after what I’d assume was a fair bit of creative freedom with Ghostkeeper? What was Niagara Strip about? I grew up in that city so I’m kind of curious…
JM: I lost a lot of money in Alberta during 1981-83, had a bad time, split with my girlfriend and ended up broke in Toronto. This was just around when the Americans began to film series in Canada. Niagara and The Tower are poorly made and for less than $50,000 so it was like going from the bigtime (or “reasonable big time as we think of it in Canada) to the minors. We shot ¾” video and I did the first 2 edits on both of them by myself. By the way we shot it all in Hamilton, had one day at the bridge in Niagara with customs guys. From the age of 13 I lived across from Detroit so I think we probably have some common border stories?
Great thing about Lionel Shenken is that he was cheap but he paid. And I still get some good comments on The Tower, which had a great premise; an office building that uses body heat to generate power goes a little crazy when it begins to want more. Actually based on a building in Calgary.
The crew was a TV crew from CHCH-TV in Hamilton who mostly covered hockey games, it was really amateur level but about the only work I could get. I never liked Toronto and it certainly didn’t like me. Made some friends and almost made 2 movies that eventually folded. But I got my second script made in 1989, Betrayal of Silence, which was quite good and made for Lifetime in US. It was also a first draft screenplay. No polishes or rewrites. I’ve had a few of those.
IJ: When the 90s rolled around you moved to Los Angeles and have worked steadily as a television writer ever since. You’ve dabbled in everything from drama to sci-fi (lots of sci-fi, really) to Heathcliffe cartoons – is there a genre you prefer more than the others? What’s your favorite type of material to work on and why?
JM: Well, you mentioned freedom back a page or two, I am notoriously someone who does not suffer fools and I have turned down work because I didn’t like the people. It cost me in the long run but I never feel like it was a mistake. Someone asked a director who was always doing things the hard way why doesn’t he try the easier way, he replied that he would have if he had seen an easier way.
IJ: On your blog you’ve mentioned a few projects in development as of late, not the least of which is a potential sequel to Ghostkeeper. What can you tell us about this?
JM: I have two projects I love and want to make. One of them, Emperor of Mars, is the screenplay that got me into every studio (from Amblin’ to Zuckers) in L.A. and a fair amount of respect. It has “almost” been made 4 times with me assigned as director for the last 2. But the money always falls away and since I wrote it in 1989 it was tough. Of course I still plan on making it, it drives me. I recently novelized it as a book on Amazon and May 28th, the Manitoba based McNally/Robinson booksellers are taking it on. It’s sort of Stand By Me meets Super 8.
The other is Bender Hamlet, a story set in Manitoba as well, based on a great 93-yr old man who took a screenwriting class I taught at UCLA for 2 years.
And another one I just added, I finished the screenplay to Ghostkeeper 2 – Never Go Back. Premise is that the real actors return to the hotel for a 30 yr reunion and – stuff happens. This time more emphasis on the Windigo. Just gotta find the money.
I also have 34 specs on the shelf and they still get circulated around, and to be honest I really wouldn’t want to direct them, I’d rather just hand them over. They aren’t bad but they aren’t what I love. I’ve never directed something I didn’t write and I like that.
I also have 2 scripts I wrote that I’m trying to produce for 2 talented directors (and I use that term very little). And my ex-students at UCLA and my friends have encouraged me to write a book on screenwriting, like there isn’t enough now. Last time I checked Amazon there were at least 200 books! But as my friend Paul Lynch says, “but yours is the newest”, he also says I would be one of the few screenwriting book authors who actually wrote and made movies!
IJ: Anything else you’ve got going on of interest/anything else you want to add?
JM: The Ghostkeeper thing really exploded in the last few years and if anything, I appreciate the hell out of those kids who re-discovered it and the handful of critics who said good things about it. I usually get people who like it because it’s creepy, people who hate it and people who don’t understand it. My friend says it should consolidate my somewhat up and down career and I guess it does in a way.
An ex of mine, Carole once asked me if I was happy. I said I didn’t know, but I did know I wasn’t unhappy. She said that’s because I’m one of the few people she knew who lived their dream.
As Billy Murray says in Caddyshack, “I got that goin’ for me."
And on that note, big thanks from the R!S!P! team to Jim Makichuk for taking the time to do this interview. Anyone interested in his work or in a behind the scenes look at the film industry in general is encourage to check out his excellent blog here.
All black and white photos are property of Jim Makichuk and appear here with his permission.