Closeup/Film

One-man show

Will we soon be discussing 'The Fraser Touch?’

Suzanne Zwarun April 17 1978
Closeup/Film

One-man show

Will we soon be discussing 'The Fraser Touch?’

Suzanne Zwarun April 17 1978

One-man show

Closeup/Film

Will we soon be discussing 'The Fraser Touch?’

Suzanne Zwarun

The rambling white house in Old Strathcona, south Edmonton, has the comfortable, lived-in look of a home that has weathered the decades well. On this brisk, wintry night, Fil (from Felix) Fraser unlocks the door and a swarm of kids, cats and guests tumbles down the hallway toward him in a great, warm wave. They’re a kissing family, the Frasers. No perfunctory pecks here. No crisp, chic laying on of cheeks for them. Ruth Fraser elbows her way through the throng, stretches mightily to reach her tall husband and clasps him in a long, passionate embrace. “I haven’t seen you all day,” she manages to say before she’s hustled aside by the rest of the horde.

The bear hugging subsides and everyone crowds into the living room to sprawl in front of the television set. Besides the Frasers and three of their children (Randy,

16, David, 13, Kathryn, 10; Tanise, 17, is out on a date), there are Ruth’s mother, Sigrid Bertelsen, writer Marjorie Morgan, Len Stahl, secretary of the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association, and Wayne Clarkson, director of the Toronto International Film Festival. They’ve gathered to watch a video tape and their attention on the TV screen is so total you can hear, in the dark, the ticking of a clock, the creak and crackle of wicker chairs, the tinkle of ice cubes in glasses. “Is that Kathy?” Randy asks once, as a group of dancers spins past on the screen. “Yep,” says Kathy and giggles shyly.

It’s all so cozy, so removed from the hard-edge glitter of a Hollywood movie premiere, it might be any family watching any home movie. But the film under scrutiny is a rough-cut version of Marie-Anne, a Fil Fraser production, the second feature film by the man largely responsible for bringing Why Shoot The Teacher to the screen. Teacher is a Canadian phenomenon: a critical success—one Toronto reviewer confessed it made him cry—that’s on its way to breaking even financially. Made for a piddling $1.2 million. Teacher has, since opening last July, done $ 1.7 million worth of box office business, a gross

exceeded in Canada only by Black Christmas and The Apprenticeship Of Daddy Kravitz (about $1.8 million each). That doesn’t put Teacher up there with SemiTough, currently doing business at the rate of three million dollars a week. That doesn’t even mean Teacher is making money yet. but it puts it within striking distance of a profit when it goes into American distribution later this spring.

Most Canadian moviemakers would settle for that. Fraser is aiming for an even bigger breakthrough with Marie-Anne. He made the film for $650,000, paring the outlay to the bone, in the hope the film can recoup its costs in Canada. “I don’t know if it’s possible to make back the cost of a film in Canada, but if it is, Marie-Anne has the best chance of doing it,” he says.

Marie-Anne betrays Fraser’s enthusiasm for a Good Story. Starring Montrealer Andrée Pelletier and Albertans John Juliani and Tantoo Martin, it’s the love triangle tale of a voyageur, his Indian princess and his convent-bred wife, the first white woman to reach Fort Edmonton. Written by Edmontonian Marjorie Morgan, who was inspired by Fraser’s plea for a film that could use the highly photogenic fort as a backdrop, it’s based on an incident in the life of the woman who was later to become Louis Riel’s grandmother. It’s due for release sometime in the fall, but as Fraser tidied up the final details, he was

already launched into the preliminaries for his next film, W. O. Mitchell’s stage hit Back To Beulah, to be filmed in October.

And that’s merely the beginning. A blackboard in Fraser’s office spells out one possible timetable: Why Shoot The

Teacher, Marie-Anne, Back To Beulah, Half-Breed, The Meadowlark Connection, The Secret World Of Og, Athol Murray, Never Had A Chance, De Felice project, Rohmer project.

Two down, one in the works, nine to go. It’s an extravagantly ambitious schedule for the veteran of one small film. And if film making is Fraser’s main preoccupation now that he’s 45 and has reached his “maturity,” it’s anything but his sole interest. He regularly steams through 18-hour days, hosting Edmonton’s top-rated radio talk show on CJCA, attending various film association meetings, planning a film festival to be held in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games this summer. He can, simultaneously, launch a petition protesting aldermanic pay raises (24,000 people promptly signed up) and organize the reopening of the historic Princess Theatre, a restoration project of the Old Strathcona Foundation. Somehow, in the midst of it all, he finds time to skate, ski, fly, and rebuild old Studebakers. He’s a hustler, a scrambler, a survivor. Not one of your fast-talking, back-slapping, cigar-chomping stereotypes of a hustler, but a quietly deter-

mined, smoothly efficient mover and shaker, a man with an enviable knack for spinning dreams into reality.

Take the house that Fraser built. Divorced from his first wife when Randy was four, Fraser found on the outskirts of Edmonton the perfect acre of land and set about building an equally perfect house for a man and his boy. Most people would have taken their dream to architects and contractors; Fraser designed the house, built it himself, lived in it happily until he remarried. Why Shoot The Teacher came about in similar fashion. “If you ask anyone back East who made Why Shoot The Teacher, they’ll say it was CTV’S Larry Hertzog,” says a Western stage and film director who’s not close to Fraser but wants the story told accurately. “Out West, we all know it was Fil Fraser.”

The idea for the film was born, casually, four years ago. Max Braithwaite, who wrote the book, was in Edmonton with his wife, promoting a new work, and they celebrated their thirty-seventh anniversary with the Frasers. Stuffed with wild duck and champagne, stretched lazily in front of the fireplace, Braithwaite asked: “What do you really want to do, Fil?” Fraser admitted he wanted to make feature films. “Why not make Why Shoot The Teacher?” Braithwaite asked.

Why not, indeed? It seemed a manageable idea to Fraser. He’d made several television documentaries and had gone as far as picking brains in Hollywood and Toronto on how the feature film industry worked, much the way he’d earlier scalped the expertise of architects and contractors. He sped off to Toronto to announce he was going to make a movie.

In the end, Fraser cemented together one of the more complex financial deals in the history of Canadian film, CTV, Famous Players, Ambassador Film Distributors, The Canadian Film Development Corporation, the Alberta Opportunity Company, private Alberta and Toronto investors put up the $1.2 million. Along the way, Fraser had the screenplay written and rewritten, put together a mostly local film crew, rediscovered Georgy Girl director Silvio Narizzano who, in turn, decided on Bud Cort and Samantha Eggar for the leads. Two and a half years after the champagne brainstorm in front of the fire, the cameras started filming in Hanna, Alberta, and Teacher was under way.

It’s the challenge of making films that appeals to him, says Fraser, over lunch at the University of Alberta faculty club, where his membership is a perk left over from two terms on the university senate. “It’s an incredible financial challenge, of course, but it’s more than that. You take an idea, you pull it together, and you create an entity with a life all its own. It sucks you up, wrings out of you everything you have to give. But there’s a feeling at the end, when you finally look at it. . .” Fraser, by now absentmindedly gobbling down sugar cubes, runs out of words.

Most of Fraser’s life, from the outside, appears to have been lived with that same frantic intensity. His striking good looks might have landed him in front of the film cameras; his seamless, edgeless voice put him, instead, into broadcasting in an era when radio didn’t welcome black faces, even hidden behind microphones. Fraser and his four brothers were born and raised in Ville d’Anjou, east of East Montreal, where their Trinidadian father was a Depression years land developer, selling plots to immigrants for $ 10 down and whatever he could collect a month. In that polyglot community, dubbed Fraserville by the locals, the battles were religious. Fraser had his first brush with racial discrimination— and his last, he says—when he left home at 17 to get a broadcasting job. “In Toronto and Montreal I learned the only way to break into radio was through the smalltown stations. But the small-town stations told me flat-out their towns wouldn’t accept a black man.” That surprised rather than embittered him ... it deterred him not a whit. In 1950 he was working as a stock clerk, still knocking on radio doors, when Foster Hewitt gave him the break for which he’s still grateful: night operator on CK.FH Toronto. That led to on-air jobs in Timmins and Barrie; then in 1955, Fraser decided to tackle university.

In the next three years, Fraser hit his stride. “Those were wild days. I was a young buck in Montreal and there were a whole lot of things going on in my life. It was a big party all the time.” He financed VÁ years at McGill with an all-night disc jockey job on CKVL Verdun, ran his own midnight radio show out of the El Morocco, wrote for Music World, worked for Midnight in that tabloid’s most flamboyantly muckraking days, launched a weekly called Police Reporter that lasted three issues. All pretty much at the same time.

Vacations took on the same tempo. In 1958, now news editor at CFCF Montreal, Fraser wangled a free trip West to see a girl friend in Regina, interviewed Tommy Douglas, and in three weeks was at work in the public relations department of the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office. He juggled another handful ofjobs, in advertising and elsewhere, before coming to rest for seven years in the field of alcohol education, first with the Saskatchewan Bureau of Alcoholism, then with its Alberta counterpart. It wasn’t the departure from his previous work that it might seem; it was a subject close to Fraser, not because of any personal problem with the bottle but because of media friends he’d lost to booze. Fraser wrote a book, edited another, scattered papers at seminars and, all the while, collected Good Stories that later found their way into his radio and television free-lancing work.

The Saskatchewan government’s psychiatric service, in those pre-Timothy Leary days of Fraser’s involvement, was experimenting with LSD as an alcoholism cure. Fraser volunteered for a session. “We were at Long Lake on a beautiful fall day with Beatles music playing in the background. And it was like putting a magnifying glass inside your head. It showed me how fast your head works, how many dimensions it has. I pretty well knew what was in there. But I was filled with a wonder of the whole process. I saw it all with great clarity. For some, it’s a terrifying experience. For me, it was benign, pleasant, lovely. I’m very sane, I guess.”

On the surface, Fraser’s latest film venture seems, if not insane, at least a little quirky. With Teacher a success, Fraser might have been expected to go for a bigger-budget, bigger-star picture. He went the other way, producing Marie-Anne speedily and frugally, using Canadians, mainly Edmontonians (the film editor and production manager were imported from Hollywood). It took four weeks to make and cost $650,000 raised from private backers and an Alberta Opportunity Company loan.

The almost entirely bilingual cast also gave Fraser the chance to aim the movie at both Englishand French-Canadian markets. “No one expects to make money in Canada; they all wait for the foreign markets. So part of what we’re doing is testing that principle. We’re trying to demonstrate that we have the capacity for making films

in our own country with our own people. If the Australians can do it, and they are, there’s no reason Canadians can’t too.”

To spread that gospel, Fraser has plunged into the film world’s political wars. He’s vice-president of the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association, a director of the Canadian Film Institute, a member of the Motion Picture Institute of Canada and the Alberta Film Study Committee, a consultant on film policy to the Alberta Department of Culture. It’s a heavy load for a man who grows too soon impatient at meetings. “But you have to get involved politically, make a commitment; otherwise, you’re working in a vacuum. It’s hard work getting a film out, particularly in this country. Meeting people, learning about film, is all part of getting myself totally involved, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. You’re always on the cutting edge. It’s extremely satisfying.”

It’s not, so far, particularly lucrative, but neither Fraser seems to worry about that. Fraser’s morning talk show “earns my bread and butter before noon”; Ruth is a partner in a publisher’s agency and teaches creative writing at Banff. The two—married five years—are each other’s biggest admirers. Fraser predicts Ruth will one day be a serious writer to be reckoned with; she’s sure he’ll be a force in films. “We go back a long way, Fil and I,” says Ruth. “We were good friends before we were lovers. In fact, we shook hands and said we’d be friends first, regardless of whatever else happened.”

Friends are also the linchpins of Fraser’s film career. Friend Bill Mitchell, scarred by previous encounters with moviemakers, is entrusting Back To Beulah to Fraser. A heavier trust, perhaps, has been laid on him by Maria Campbell, who wrote Half Breed, a history of her Metis people, and was appalled by the exploitative offers that poured in from moviemakers around the continent. It was Half Breed that first turned Fraser’s thoughts in the direction of moviemaking. She’s, his blood sister, a bond forged high over the South Saskatchewan at Batoche after her brother was drowned because her people have the tradition that if you lose someone you love greatly, the sorrow can be eased by having someone take their place. “I’ve read her book over and over again, but to do it properly as a movie is an enormous project. What the book says is so important, so moving, it simply has to be done right.” And one day soon, says Fraser, Half Breed will be done and it will be a movie to be remembered because he’ll handle it the way it deserves. Myrna Kostash, writing in Maclean's before the release of Why Shoot The Teacher, said of an interview with Fraser: “It’s a promoter’s talk. Now, if Fraser can actually persuade people to see Why Shoot The Teacher, we can call him a producer.” With people still streaming to theatres across the country to see Teacher, it would seem that Fraser has passed the first, acid test.Q