Hard times inspire Terrifico

TORONTO-The creator of The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico sounds like he was at least as excited about meeting the real-life musical icons who appear in his film as he was about making his first feature. Writer-director Michael Mabbott is enthusiastic when he talks about his movie, but he practically glows when he talks about its soundtrack. "I love the music just straight up," he says.

Terrifico, which stars East Coast rocker Matt Murphy in the title role and opens next Friday (November 11) in Vancouver, is a mockumentary, a genre that might be entirely Canadian if we could only get Christopher Guest to move up here. It's a strange-enough-to-be-almost-true story about the life, death, and life of a legendary Canadian country singer who hung with all the icons of the era when Nashville first conquered the music world (circa the Rolling Stones adding twang on Exile on Main Street).

What makes Terrifico feel more doc than mock is the seamless integration of actual interviews with Guy Terrifico's contemporaries, who are, coincidentally, Mabbott's personal idols. The film kicks off with Kris Kristofferson and includes cameos from country icons like Merle Haggard and Ronnie Hawkins.

"I love Kris," Mabbott says in a room at the Hotel InterContinental prior to the film's premiere at September's Toronto International Film Festival, less than a week before he's set to start directing his second feature, Citizen Duane. Mabbott says Kristofferson gave him a lot of firsthand insight into the era he was re-creating. "I learned more about the way that they made this music and what incredible integrity those guys had in it. Kris was huge."

But as excited as he is about Kristofferson, Mabbott can't stop grinning when he talks about working with the former Band leader. "What blows my mind is Levon Helm. It's not when I see the film; it's when I'm driving down the street and some Band song comes on, like, you know, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', and his voice”¦" Mabbott pauses for a moment to collect himself. "He's one of the all-time greatest rock 'n' roll singers. Having that guy in the film just absolutely blew my mind."

Although this was his first film as a director, the former journalist and author of the fictional memoir "Cabbage Soup" suspects that his lack of experience helped keep things real in a movie featuring mostly non--actors (including Murphy, who was making his acting debut). "I can give direction to Merle Haggard probably better than I could to a real actor because I'm not an actor and neither are they, so we can speak the same language," Mabbott explains.

The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico was born when Mabbott found himself on hard times in Vancouver. He was living in a small apartment at Main Street and 21st Avenue and was so low on cash he could barely afford to eat. "You know when you're so poor you can afford one cup of coffee but you can't afford a whole can of coffee?" he explains. That's how poor Mabbott was, and he was making regular visits to the neighbourhood's Liberty Bakery to buy whatever his virtually empty wallet could get away with. One day, he says, he stared at the treats behind the glass for so long that the woman behind the counter pointed to a gingerbread man and said, "Take a cookie."

Mabbott says he politely declined. "I was like, 'No thanks.'?" he recalls. "?'I'm not quite homeless; I'm just really, really skint right now.' So I said, 'No, no. I don't want one.'?"

"And she said, 'It's free.'?"

"And I said, 'What do you mean?'?" "And she said, 'It's broken. It's no good.'?"

"And there was this perfectly good nonbroken cookie, and I really wanted that fucking cookie and this woman gave it to me, and that was kind of the world I was living in when I wrote this thing."

Mabbott sent the first draft of his script to Nashville, where it ended up with singer-songwriter and country icon Donnie Fritts, who helped line up all the guest stars and bring the project to life. Once the screenplay was done, Mabbott spent the next five years working on the music with Murphy, who helped craft Terrifico hits like "Perogy Moon".

Collaborating with Murphy was another highlight for Mabbott. "To be able to see Matt take some of those songs-or the idea of Guy and the spirit of Guy-and watch him turn this into what I think is really beautiful and fun and kicking music, that was one of the coolest honours ever. It was a total fantasy to see that."