Chris Windsor hasn't commented publicly on Big Meat Eater for over 30 years. The Vancouver-made cult classic won loyal fans around the world when it was released in the early '80s, but its director/co-writer was never heard from again. We wondered openly about Windsor's whereabouts when the Georgia Straight ran an article about Big Meat Eater in January, prior to a screening of the restored film at the Cinematheque. We never expected him to reply. But he did. At length. And so, we're very proud to present, for the very first time... THE MAKING OF BIG MEAT EATER—BY CHRIS WINDSOR
I have never wanted to publicize Big Meat Eater as I wasn’t really satisfied with the way the film worked out, despite the best efforts of all concerned. Some people enjoy its slyly satirical absurdist humour, other people think it is the worst movie ever made. I can appreciate both points of view.
The single biggest problem from my point of view is that the film had to be rushed into production before it was ready, in order to meet tax shelter requirements. We didn’t even have a camera dolly for the first week of shooting, until the crew cobbled one together out of a skateboard. Nor did we have anyone to sync the rushes (match picture and sound) until a guy from White Rock showed up on set and offered his services. So I had no idea if I was capturing the performances I wanted on film or not.
Actually I tried to stop production about a week ahead of time. But producer Laurence Keane’s father, who had found some of the investors, said that there was no guarantee that people would reinvest in the following tax year. He said, “If you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it.” He was right, so it went ahead. But I cannot make excuses. Most film directors would probably like more time or money or another script rewrite. The film is what it is, for better or worse.
I would describe it as punk filmmaking. This is not because of the music, but because it was driven by anger and frustration about the state of the Canadian film industry at the time, rather than by technical ability. At that time the conventional wisdom was that Canadian films had to hide their origins in order to be successful. So in the opening sequence I very deliberately made sure that you could read the words “Canadian Pacific” on some railway carriages in the background. That was a way of giving the film establishment the finger. If people objected, too bad.
The film evolved partly out of our experiences at Simon Fraser University film workshop in 1973-74, which was brilliant. We had used various student actors, and invented new characters for them, just joking around, imagining these characters in different situations. There never really was much of a plot, which is obvious. It was character driven, with a plot loosely grafted on afterwards.
Eventually we developed a story treatment out of the material. My student film, "Trapper Dan", had just won a national award, so we sent the treatment off to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, naively imagining that we might get some development funding. I was called to a meeting with the head of the CFDC, Ted Rouse, which seemed promising, so off I went. The meeting was a disaster. There was no meeting of the minds whatsoever. He said he couldn’t understand it. I tried to explain that it was along the lines of low-budget cult movies, like John Landis’s Kentucky Fried Movie. He said he’d never heard of it, and obviously didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I have no idea why he even bothered to meet with me. After that we realized that we were on our own. We would have to make it ourselves or not at all. Meanwhile the CFDC descended into the mediocrity of the tax-shelter era, making largely nondescript films in which every reference to Canada was obliterated, in a vain attempt to make them marketable in the US.
Laurence Keane went off to USC film school and I went to work for Access Educational TV in Alberta. But we still continued to talk about the project. Finally in 1980 Laurence Keane’s father said, “You’ve been talking about it for years. Why don’t you stop talking about it and just make it?” So we did. We formed a company and raised investment under the tax-shelter rules. We put up some of our own money, and decided not to take any salary. We got together and rewrote the story treatment. We hunted around used bookstores in New Westminster and bought a bunch of Maclean’s and Life magazines from the 1950s. When you look at them you realize how truly bizarre the 1950s were. They were obsessed with appliances and the Brave New World of the future, right out of Popular Mechanics. Actually some of the most bizarre lines in the film weren’t even written by us. For example, Bob’s monologue in the song "Mondo Chemico" was taken verbatim from an industry association ad in one of these magazines extolling the joys of chemistry.
I was finishing up a French language educational TV series in Alberta so Laurence Keane wrote the first draft of the screenplay. We realized it needed more work and managed to find Phil Savath, a local actor-writer originally from the US, who grafted on the rudiments of a plot and beefed up the dialogue. He instantly grasped the schlock movie references but may have been a bit baffled by the rest of it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the film’s sensibility until about a week after we started shooting. I finally realized it was a cross between an American Roger Corman movie and a British Ealing comedy. That’s about as Canadian as you can get.
VANCOUVER, PLEASED TO MEET YOU
When I first came to Canada in 1971, straight from England, I suffered from culture shock. I really couldn’t figure it out. Vancouver had the physical attributes of a city, but no uptown urban buzz at all. Scenically it was spectacular but culturally it was a bit of a wasteland. It seemed like a giant suburb. The Premier of British Columbia was W.A.C. Bennett, a worthy but somewhat colourless individual. He was originally the owner of a hardware store in Kelowna, and epitomised the provincial values which were manifested in the film, although the connection did not occur to me at the time. The liquor laws were archaic, dating back to Prohibition. You could only get a drink in a grim, depressing downtown hotel bar, where there were separate entrances for Men, and ‘Ladies and Escorts’. The idea of sitting at a sidewalk cafe enjoying a cappuccino, or a glass of wine, was inconceivable, and in the latter case, illegal. It was an extreme manifestation of Anglo-Scottish values. The Scots have many admirable qualities, but joie de vivre is not one of them.
To me it seemed that Canada was stuck in a time-warp. In the UK those sorts of Calvinistic values of extreme abstemiousness and self-denial were pretty much abandoned in the Sixties, but in Canada they were still flourishing. But there was also something rather splendid about it. You have got to love a country, the only one in the world, which still celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday.
There was a wonderful old Scottish butcher shop at the foot of Granville Street called James Inglis Reid, ‘the larder of the wise’, which was the inspiration for the one in the film. It had marble slabs and sawdust on the floor—the real deal. Its motto was ‘We hae meat that ye can eat’, from Robbie Burns. In the movie that became ‘Pleased to meet you, meat to please you’. In the grand tradition of guerrilla filmmaking the crew ‘borrowed’ a great old 1950s shop sign from an abandoned store by putting on overalls and taking it down in broad daylight. The actual filming was done in a shop in White Rock which was scheduled to be torn down. Some of the locals thought it was a real shop and were quite upset when it closed so quickly before they had a chance to visit it.
Bob the butcher was partly based on an actor in Laurence Keane’s student film, whose name we appropriated. He played a mad professor. He had an incredibly sunny, happy personality. The part was written for him, but when Laurence Keane tried to contact him, he would never come to the phone. It turned out that he was trying to be an opera singer, and was trying to save his voice. So we couldn’t use him. I realized that by whiting out a few letters, his surname could be changed to Sanderson, which is a classic Anglo-Canadian name, and we cast George Dawson, who was perfect for the role. The character is someone who carries moderation to excess. Some people might argue that that is a quintessential Canadian characteristic. He’s so straight, he’s actually bent.
There was a whole other element of Canadian society which fascinated me as well: multiculturalism. When I grew up the UK was pretty much of a homogeneous, white-bread society. In Vancouver I lived in the East End for a while, where the immigrants lived. On our street, directly opposite was an Italian family, where the mother did not speak any English. Next door was a blue collar WASP family. And down the road lived a Hungarian family. One day the WASP lady and the Italian lady got into a fight, which was rather sad. We were the hippies on the block, which could have been a problem, but actually we got along with most people. The Hungarian family had a young son who suffered from scoliosis—curvature of the spine. The other kids used to tease him so he would come and talk to us as we all liked him. He was incredibly bright. He eventually had an operation on his spine, which was potentially very dangerous. I remember his mother running along the street to our house afterwards with tears streaming down her face, crying out, “Tommy is alright, Tommy is alright.” He was the inspiration for Jan Wczynski, the teenage whiz kid.
The role of Jan was written specifically for Andrew Gillies, who was in both of our student films, and also incorporated elements of his own hyperactive Type A personality. Regarding his age, that was deliberate. If you have ever seen 1960s Hollywood ‘teenage’ movies, half the actors look about 30 years old. The reason why Jan wanted to be the first person to launch a 1958 Cadillac into outer space is because when I was at the SFU film workshop I owned two 1958 Cadillacs at the same time. They were huge and totally unfashionable, but I loved them. They were works of art. If you’ve ever seen the tail fins they look like they’re ready to blast off into space.
The Simon Fraser film workshop was in a separate unit at the back of SFU in a large windowless storage room. It was very convenient because you could come and go at any time of day or night. The one problem was that there was no thermostat, so it was either freezing cold or boiling hot. You had to phone up Security to get them to adjust the heat. One night another student, Tim Sale, and I were getting rather cold so we called up Security. We had this vision of a swarthy, sweaty individual, like a stoker in a ship’s engine room, being called up on an old fashioned speaker tube to shovel on more coal and crank up the BTUs. He wasn’t the sort of guy you would want to mess with. This was the genesis of the Abdullah character. I also loved the kind of hokey Hollywood movies with fake sets and Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre skulking about hissing "Take me to ze Casbah". Once again we had a specific actor in mind, who was in my student film, but by the time we made the movie he had quit the profession and become the manager of a Shoppers Drug Mart. So we had to find someone else.
Back in Edmonton a friend of mine, David Banigan, had just finished co-producing a documentary about Big Miller, a respected jazz musician originally from the US. I was talking to David one day and suddenly the idea popped up of using Big to play Abdullah. I realized that it would make the movie utterly unique. No Canadian movie had ever starred a huge black guy before.
I sent Big Miller the story treatment, and met with him. He seemed to grasp the character right away, and suggested that he should speak as little as possible. It was only later that I realized that was so he wouldn’t have to learn a lot of lines! But it does make the character more menacing—you know he can speak, but chooses not to. So you keep watching him to see if he’s going to say anything or not.
MULTICULTI CULT SENSATION
The film is about the collision between the traditional Anglo-Scottish values and those of the post-war immigrants. It’s a satire on multiculturalism and more specifically a satire on earnest CBC dramas about multiculturalism. But there wasn’t any grand design behind it. Primarily it was just made for a bit of a laugh.
The irony of it is that when we cast the Wczynski family, it turned out that every single person was from a different ethnic group. The father, Stephen Dimopoulos, was from a Greek background, the mother, Georgina Hegedos, Hungarian, the grandmother, Ida Carnevale, Italian, the daughter, Sharon Wahl, German, and the son, Andrew Gillies, British. It was like the United Nations sitting around the dinner table eating perogies (a culinary favourite of mine). You can’t get more multicultural than that! It was pure coincidence, but it certainly illustrated the point.
Making a low-budget movie is difficult enough, but at some point we decided to up the ante and make it a musical. It was sort of throwing down the gauntlet to ourselves, because it would be virtually impossible. At that point there was no MTV, or else I would not have done it. I cringe when I see slick MTV music videos with many times our entire movie budget.
Laurence Keane and I had worked previously with Vancouver composer Doug Dodd on a TV pilot. We got together with him to discuss music and he played the song "Heat Seeking Missile", which was already recorded. He asked, “Do you want something like that?” We said, “No, we want that actual song!” The sequence where Big Miller walks into the hall, leading a procession of old ladies, punks, Boy Scouts, and ethnic dancers, sums up the whole absurdity of the film. It’s completely nuts. I was standing on the stage during filming and I looked at Laurence Keane and said, “This is it. This is exactly what we were aiming at.”
Funnily enough Doug Dodd didn’t mention the "Big Meat Eater" song right away. Finally he played it to us. It had been written and recorded by actor David Petersen, who is not really a singer but has a kind of Tom Waits voice. It was quirky and interesting but once Big Miller recorded it, that became the definitive version. The sequence in the butcher shop was a kind of performance art. I blocked out roughly what he was going to do, then we rolled the camera. Big Miller got a bit carried away, and when I finally yelled, “Cut”, the crew just fell about laughing. When we decided we needed a new name for the film it was the obvious choice.
I was interested in Big Band music at the time—Artie Shaw and the like, which inspired Bob’s theme song. Laurence Keane and I came up with every cliché you can possibly think of and handed the lyrics over to Doug Dodd to compose the music.
Finally with "Mondo Chemico" I opened all the cupboards in a friend’s kitchen and started pulling packages out and we listed out the ingredients. It was kind of scary when you realized all the chemical ingredients in everything. For my share of the songwriting efforts I used to get the occasional royalty cheque for about two dollars and seventy five cents.
I WANT IT DARK
The film could not have been made without the support of the Vancouver film community. Everybody worked above and beyond, but some people in particular seemed to adopt the film as their own. They didn’t care about the money, they just loved this crazy off-the-wall movie and wanted to see it get made. In some cases payment was even rendered in bottles of single malt. They include Lilla Pederson and Jacqueline Cristianini, who provided post-production facilities, sound editor Haida Paul, and sound mixer Paul Sharpe.
Doug McKay was one of the most experienced cinematographers in Vancouver. He worked on major American productions, but he also loved to support low budget Canadian films. He was really out of our league but he had had a good year and needed a tax writeoff. He read the story treatment and liked it. I believe he actually bought a share in the film. I had seen a film called Union City, which featured Deborah Harry as a bored housewife lounging around in her underwear. It wasn’t a great film but I really liked the lighting, which used highly stylised saturated colour. I told Doug McKay about it and he managed to capture the look I wanted, which is evident in some interior scenes.
Another issue was that we were shooting in 16mm for blow up to 35mm. A good Canadian film called Outrageous starring Craig Russell was pilloried because the tops of people’s heads were cut off after it was blown up to 35mm. I didn’t want that so we had to shoot wide—we didn’t know where the edge of frame would be. This makes the film more distant than I would like. Finally when we did the blow up at Alpha Cine in Seattle, the technician kept lightening the shots. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “It’s a comedy and comedies are supposed to be light and bright.” I said, “No, it’s a black comedy, I want it dark.”
We had no money for publicity. When I first looked at the footage on an editing machine, my heart sank. I figured that if anyone saw the raw footage, it would be all over, like Heaven’s Gate. So we decided to make the editing room off-limits to everyone. A few months later, Laurence Keane got a call from a film journalist in Toronto. She said, “There’s this feature film and no-one knows anything about it. Are you keeping it a secret deliberately?” Unknown to us it had caused a bit of a buzz in the Vancouver film community. So we figured that if secrecy worked in our favour we might as well keep doing it.
The lowest point for me was when I first saw the 35mm release print, at which point the film was supposedly finished. I realized that the film needed to be recut, which meant I had to go back to the 16mm workprint and re-edit it, while keeping all the 16mm and 35mm picture and soundtracks in sync, then remixing the sound, and recutting both negatives to produce a new 35mm release print. Throughout the whole production there had been major upheavals in my personal life, and while working on the film I couldn’t earn any money. I was broke and totally burned out and this was absolute rock bottom.
Finally we launched the film with four midnight screenings at a local movie theatre that we rented. After that we had run out of money and didn’t really know what to do next. But word of mouth led to the film getting invited to the Toronto Film Festival.
When Laurence Keane and I first arrived at the Toronto Film Festival for the screening in 1982 some of the organizers patronized us as hicks from the sticks, as opposed to the ‘real’ movie makers from Hollywood and elsewhere. The screening didn’t seem to go particularly well, so when we were invited for lunch by the programmer, Kay Armatage, the next day, we were quite downcast. About half way through the meal she put down her knife and fork and said, “I suppose you realize Big Meat Eater was an enormous hit?” We said, “What?“ She said, “Yes, people have been calling in all morning asking why we don’t program more films like Big Meat Eater, instead of all that artsy fartsy stuff.” We were stunned.
The film was eventually picked up by New Line Cinema in the US, Palace Pictures in the UK, and Citadel in Canada. It was also sold to First Choice Cable TV. I always expected that the film would polarize opinion, but some people did say quite nice things about it.
"THE LOW POINTS WERE JUST ORDINARY"
During the 1970s it was very depressing. Time after time you would trot faithfully along to see the latest English Canadian feature film, hoping it would be good, and time after time you would be disappointed. (Quebecois films were different.) People were obviously trying to make a good film but it would turn out to be a dud. So we decided to try the opposite tack. We thought: "Maybe if we try to make a bad film it might turn out to be good." When film critic Jay Scott reviewed the movie, he said it had “a truly magnificent awfulness.” That was the highest compliment he could possibly have paid us, as that was exactly what we were aiming for.
Another time I bumped into Alex Grant, the film critic who wrote the Variety review. He liked the film and asked me if I had ever read anything by Stephen Leacock, because it was slightly reminiscent in its satire of small town values. I said no, but later looked it up. I could see what he meant. I was amazed that Big Meat Eater could have anything in common thematically with a bona fide work of Canadian literature. Maybe we were onto something after all.
At an industry event I was introduced to Marv Newland, maker of the classic animated short "Bambi Meets Godzilla". When told that I was the director of Big Meat Eater, he said, “That film had a lot of high points.” I laughed and said, “Yes, and a lot of low ones, too.” He looked at me quite seriously. ”No,” he said. “The low points were just ordinary.”
Jill McGreal was in charge of programming Canadian films at Canada House in London around that time. She once said to me, “Whenever we want to get a good turnout we program Big Meat Eater.” Another time an Australian journalist phoned me and said, “This isn’t like any Canadian film we’ve seen before. Do you think it’s because it was made in Vancouver rather than Toronto?” I was amazed that someone on the other side of the world would pick up on that.
But the ultimate accolade has to be when the Ridge Theatre in Vancouver programmed a ‘Meat and Veg’ double bill of Big Meat Eater and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I slipped anonymously into the lobby during the intermission and overheard one audience member ask his friend, “Are you going to stay for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?" “No,” said his friend, “Big Meat Eater is much better.“
I personally think that Tales from the Gimli Hospital is the best Canadian cult movie, although I am a bit out of touch. I once attended a screening at which Guy Maddin was present but was too embarrassed to introduce myself in case he had never heard of me. In the same genre I also liked Bruce McDonald’s movie Roadkill. I think it was the first Ontario movie to break the mould.
Ironically, having directed an obscure, low budget, deliberately localized Canadian film, I was approached by an agent from the mighty William Morris Agency in New York. For some people that would represent the pinnacle of success. I met with him but didn’t put too much faith in it. It never led to anything. Subsequently I wrote a couple of screenplays and some story treatments in different genres. I managed to raise some private and government development funds, but nothing ever went into production. It’s a pity as I feel that some of them would have made quite interesting movies. But after a few years of Development Hell, I decided to get a life, quit the movie business, and move on. Literally, in my case, as I ended up in Asia.
I was hoping that Big Meat Eater would fade into dignified obscurity, but I see that it’s now on Wikipedia. So I figured I might as well set the record straight. Now I have.
(c) 2018 Chris Windsor