TORONTO-It's All Gone Pete Tong is Cockney rhyming slang for "It's all gone wrong." But as we sit down to meet in the dining room of the Hotel Intercontinental, everything seems to be going just fine for Alberta writer-director Michael Dowse. His film was generating serious buzz at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, and it went on to win the fest's City Award for best Canadian feature. It also took best picture at HBO's U.S Comedy Arts Festival and just won three Leo Awards: two for sound plus the big prize for best feature-length drama.
It's All Gone Pete Tong (which opens Friday [June 10]) tells the true story of legendary British club DJ Frankie Wilde (Paul Kaye), a hard-living, 24-hour party person working on the island paradise of Ibiza, who tries to keep making music after going deaf.
Although most reviewers and reporters describe it as a "mockumentary" along the lines of Christopher Guest's films-or Dowse's own first feature, the hoser classic Fubar-Dowse practically snarls at the term.
"This isn't a mock-doc format, and there's not much that appeals to me about that anymore, because I'm really tired of it. I think it's a really tired genre. I had to kill the filmmaker to let myself look in the mirror on Fubar, because it was like, 'Guys, it's been done.' So what do we have to do to make it different?"
The answer for Dowse was to create a biopic for a fictional character, which sure sounds like a mock doc, but”¦ Dowse disagrees. "Bio pieces these days are just so ridiculous. They're not really objective. Like, you have the guy who you're doing a bio of as a technical adviser on the set," Dowse says. "So I kind of wanted to take the piss out of bio pieces a bit. I just thought it was a fun format to work in and I loved the idea of building a legend. And you do get a bit of an insight into a character by having people talk about him in the third person."
Unlike most mock docs, the line between fact and fiction in It's All Gone Pete Tong seems fairly blurry, and it must be blurrier for British audiences familiar with popular DJ Pete Tong, who appears in the film as an interviewer, helped create the soundtrack, and is credited as an executive producer. The film does drift into fantasy when the audience shares Wilde's hallucination of what Dowse describes as "the fairy coke badger".
It's All Gone Pete Tong is a British-Canadian coproduction; the Canadian producer is Salt Spring Island's Elizabeth Yake (who runs True West Films), but Dowse is proud that it started as a British film until the producers saw Fubar and invited him to direct it.
Dowse was in England to attend a festival screening of Fubar, met the producers, and they told him they had the concept-and the money-to make a movie. Their plan was to make a movie about the club scene on the Mediterranean island paradise of Ibiza. "We sat down and talked and they just offered me this film. They had private financing. They knew the location and they knew the title and that's it," Dowse says. "They said, 'We like your work, we like your short film, we like Fubar, take a crack at this.'"
So he did. "I went to London, did about two weeks of research just dealing with DJs because I'm not from that scene at all, and then went back and started writing the script," Dowse says. "They had a treatment off the top, but it was a crap treatment. So I read the treatment and threw it away; it was terrible. And then I just started writing.
"The first draft was great," Dowse relates. The producers thought it was strong and funny. "I thought I'd written a good script. It was funny and had its moments, but at the end of the day I thought, 'Well, it doesn't really sustain itself for 90 minutes. It's not really about anything deeper than this island.' And this island is quite a flaky place in a lot of ways. It's a very gorgeous place, but it's filled with people that are fucked up on drugs and all over the place and partying, so I think it needed something beyond just that."
With Fubar, Dowse wanted to come up with the worst possible thing that could happen to his main character in order to make the story interesting. The answer: kill him. At the start of his third Pete Tong draft, Dowse decided it was time to do something awful to Frankie Wilde. "I was really stuck on the script. I'd shown it to a couple of people and it felt like it was good, but it wasn't deep enough for it to have enough impact. And then I was with the sound designer; I went over to his place, and I was like, 'I've got it; I've got it”¦' I just thought, 'What's the worst thing that could happen?' And as soon as I thought of the deafness, it was just like, 'What can I do with the sound?' And there's so much to be done with a story like that, and what you can do with the music editing."
Having his DJ go deaf definitely changed the tone of the movie.
"The subsequent drafts after that went a little bit too serious. And then they encouraged me to bring back some of the elements of the first draft. So it was kind of a weird writing process, but great in a lot of ways. But to me that's a credit to how strong the producers are, because you don't get that in Canada."
Then Dowse takes on his own profession. "You have this auteur thing with directors and they really need to be challenged more. Directors need to be kicked in the nuts more, in my opinion, because they get carte blanche. Nobody challenges them on their scripts. And it's like, 'What the fuck is this? This is crap.' Like really fuckin' challenge them on what they're doing”¦This isn't therapy; this is like fucking. This isn't an opportunity; this is a privilege. Please do not abuse this. Make funnier good movies; whatever you're trying to do, make it good. I think it's like directors run rampant in this country."
He puts some of the blame on the Canadian funding system, citing Telefilm. "It's like a studio run by the post office."
Dowse is confident that if Canadians make good films, Canadian audiences will show up, citing the response to Fubar. "It was fantastic. It was great. We couldn't ask for anything better. We set out to make a film that was funny and had no social point and made a great film. It was an absolutely wonderful experience and people responded to it.
"Canadians will support their own films. They just need to see them and they need to be good. It's not brain surgery. And I think the success of Fubar's a reflection of that. To me, I think the ultimate success-and what I want out of this film-is a Canadian film that's funny and good and gets a release that supports it."
And for his next project, Dowse says he plans to avoid doing anything that could get the words mock or doc attached to it. "I'm not going to do another one," Dowse says. "I'm tired of them."