The Birth Of A Movie

December 1 1970

The Birth Of A Movie

December 1 1970

SYNOPSIS: Paul Almond, Quebec-born, Oxford-educated son of Anglican clergyman becomes famous TV producer: in 1965 marries fledgling actress Geneviève Bujold, daughter of F rench-Canadian bus driver. Both married before. Her career blooms in 1970 with Academy Award nomination; now wears press label “international star.” He abandons TV in Canada, Hollywood, Britain, becomes luminary in Canada’s infant movie industry. First film, Isabel, stars wife Geneviève, is critical success. Couple live modestly (considering probable income) on side of Mount Royal in Montreal with baby son, Matthew; avoid publicity. Then Almond’s second film The Act Of The Heart, also starring Geneviève, opens in Montreal. For three days before premiere they go looking for publicity. Three chaotic, cataclysmic days in which we see the film star with toothache; film maker as publicity man, organizer, projectionist. Time: September, 1970. Locale: Downtown Montreal. Stars: Almond (39), Geneviève (28), Matthew (two), Penni Jaques, public relations expert (28).

Take One, Scene 1. Tuesday.

Breakfast is a family affair, for once. Geneviève usually doesn’t see the morning until long after Paul, an obsessive early jogger. Today she is more reluctant to get up than usual; has just returned from Spain where she made The Trojan Women with Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. But this morning the whirlwind attendant upon christening The Act Of The Heart is to begin. Reporter due 9.30 a.m. Paul cooks breakfast. They sit, Paul talking promotion.

Her attention wanders. She gets up; looks under the coffee jar, telephone pad, behind toaster, wanders aimlessly. Geneviève smokes a lot, usually runs out at night. To make sure there's always a morning supply, the housekeeper hides cigarettes, but never tells Geneviève where, otherwise they'd be smoked the night before.

In this scene she finds one under the candlestick in the living room; puffs hungrily; goes to change. She and Paul sleep on the third floor, which is more comfortable than the first floor where the living room is straight from House Beautiful; has pillars, a zebra rug, elegant furniture — and is no place to relax.

Penni Jaques, would-be film producer who here plays, the Almonds’ implacably efficient promotion aide, arrives with a reporter. Geneviève misses cue. Paul finds her crying. “I can't do it, not yet I can’t,” she says.

Penni apologizes to the reporter. “Geneviève really isn't well,” she says. She is down to 95 pounds “and that's 15 pounds underweight, but she had to lose it for The Trojan Women.”

Scene 2.
Paul crams lanky (six feet one inch) frame into the family car, a five-year-old green MG two-seater; takes off to play glamorous film maker in an inevitably dingy CBC radio studio, then returns to the parking lot.

The attendant wants 35 cents. Paul searches pockets; comes up emptyhanded. He doesn't just stand there; he shifts around, arms and legs working, as though standing still were impossible. “Wow! I’ve forgotten to bring any money,” he says. “Look, I'm coming back to the studio later. I'll pay you then.” Parking lot attendant says: “Leave that ring as security, then you can take the car.” That ring is a half-inch wide wedding band of hand-beaten gold. “Like hell,” says Paul. He hails a cab, drives home, collects a wallet, goes back to the parking lot, pays with a $20 bill.

Scene 3.

One TV show and two newspaper interviews later. The glass doors of the Martinique Hotel burst open as Almond arrives. Among the cast of this scenario is a writer who says that in full flight Paul Almond seems to be on the point of spontaneous combustion. He is usually in full flight. A friend from his days as a drama producer in the golden Fifties of CBC television says that “Paul has his feet planted firmly in midair.” This Almond character probably couldn’t survive outside his milieu. He wouldn’t measure up to the button-down behavior required of men of accomplishment in other worlds.

One brandy in the bar, then a description of how, a few minutes earlier, he was almost run down by a Royal Mail truck as he got out of Penni Jaques’ car. Remember that Almond, our star, is at this stage in high, off-and-running, promoting his film with the sort of mono-mindedness that he must have to make a movie in the first place. Almond gets up and, in mid-bar, demonstrates how he survived his brush with the Royal Mail.

Scene 4.

Long shot to the corner of Guy and Dorchester. Paul is going to meet Geneviève at the CBC television studios for a joint appearance on a live TV show. As he crosses, a bus swings around the corner. He jumps: “Damn people who drive buses.” He adds, quickly: "But they do have a rough time on Dorchester, according to Daddy, with all this construction.” Geneviève’s father is still a bus driver.

Cut to television reception room. Enter Geneviève, looking stormy, and the ubiquitous Miss Jaques. A flurry of introductions. Geneviève, fragile but ineffably feminine body hidden by a maxi-length dress, looks at Almond, half-glower half-reproach, and says: “Penni told me. You nearly were killed. Don’t you ever look where you are going?”

Cut to ... a screening room where Universal is showing Paul the film as edited in Hollywood for the U.S. market. The credits simply say “A Film By Paul Almond.” He drapes his bony legs over the seat in front. “A film is a totality,” he says. “If it is to have artistic merit it must be the work of one man, not a committee. The concept of one man who makes it, which means writing, directing and producing. Degas, Gaugin — they didn’t paint with a committee.”

To fight to raise the cash for a film, to assemble competence and talent to help make it, to spend two years living with it — that takes an energy few possess. That energy is Creative Conceit.

The cuts for U.S. audiences total four minutes. Almond is flaming. “What the hell difference does four minutes make in a 103-minute movie?”

Fade to flashback: Almond, in shorts, is sunning himself in the splitlevel back garden he largely built himself, walls and steps and all, as a catharsis after Heart was finally edited last April.

“I don’t think Geneviève or I ever do anything for each other that doesn't please ourselves. I don’t think Geneviève would appear in a film if it wouldn’t please her. And I wouldn’t edit a scene to please her.” (Yet he also says: “In Heart, Geneviève plays an 18-year-old. I wanted to catch the youth and innocence she had then that she doesn’t have now, so when she’s old she can look at it and see how she was once.”)

Interviewer: Isn't an ideal marriage, any kind of relationship, one in which you do something for someone else that pleases you as it pleases them?

“You’re right! That’s it. That's fantastic. Yeah, it’s nice. We love each other. I love making films. I love working with her as an actress. You have to have a very profound trust. The way she relates to others in front of the camera is what's important, so I have to give Geneviève complete freedom.

“Now Don Sutherland is the Catholic priest in Heart and Geneviève has to relate to him. I had to bring them together subtly so they would relate more to each other than to me.

“So since film-making is life, and since I am married to Geneviève, it is difficult when you are making a love scene where people are relating to each other. If Geneviève had fallen in love with Don Sutherland the film would have been a disaster. But if she were only in love with me, her husband, behind the camera, that would be equally disastrous. She has to be free to relate emotionally to all the scenes that are going on, all the performers she is with. It’s incredibly subtle. Wow! Is it ever.”

(Remember, this character Almond does talk in exclamation marks. If, in conversation, he is presented with a novel point of view with which he concurs, he actually does say: “Wow! Fantastic!” It is very rewarding for whoever expressed the point of view.)

Scene 5.

An ill-lit hotel bar. Barry Carnon, promotion executive with Universal Films of Canada, is talking. He is doubtful if Heart will make money. To do so it would have to gross more than two million dollars at international box offices. By the time the exhibitor takes his cut, and Universal takes film-rental charges and distributors’ fees off the top, you have just over $500,000 left, half of which goes to repay Universal who put up half the $500,000 production cost, and half to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which put up the other half.

What’s Universal’s interest in films of dubious profitability? Well, the company recognized two years ago that Almond was important to a national film industry. Heart proves Canadian films can be as technically excellent as Hollywood’s.

Take Two, Scene 1. Wednesday.

At 9.15 a.m. Geneviève appears in simple maxi, chewing gum because she has a wisdom tooth coming through. “I chew gum to change my mind,” she says, meaning presumably, “to take my mind off it.” Enter Penni Jaques, taxi waiting. Paul and Geneviève are going to home of girl broadcaster to do interview for CKGMFM. Geneviève takes baby Matthew.

Girl broadcaster is an earnest intellectual in her mid-twenties who says her Karma (which has to do with Zen Buddhism) is to be an instrument through which people communicate. She serves tea, sets microphone in fruit bowl on floor. Geneviève hikes up the maxi, squats Buddha-like.

They talk about love, which Paul says is what Heart is about, and the rhythm of life, because this radio station likes the subjects that preoccupy the young, bra-less and hirsute. Paul says you can’t talk about loving the world around you until you love one other person first.

Then everyone roundly condemns the materialistic way of life and its artificiality, and Penni Jaques reappears to say they are on the air at another station in 10 minutes. Another cab. Geneviève says she likes interviews where the questions mean something.

Cut to interior of cab. It is now noon. In two hours they’ve done four radio shows between them. “Matthew, you’ve messed your pants,” says Geneviève. Paul sniffs, says: “I know.” Geneviève says: “He’s not on your lap. You don’t have that feeling of warm humidity spreading through your clothes.”

Scene 2.

Paul and Geneviève are due at Studio 41, CBC-TV at 1 p.m., to film 90-second statements for a program about movies. The cab driver goes the wrong way and fails to follow Penni’s instructions, and when she berates him, he says: “If you’re not happy in this cab, get out.” At the next stoplight Paul, Geneviève and Penni do that and get right into another. Their abandoned driver yells, wants payment. They arrive at the studio with the first driver in pursuit.

Almond makes his statement on the subject of film critics, who, he says, suffer from Philistine editors. Geneviève is supposed to tell how a girl can get to be a film star; changes the word “star” to “actress” and says that you need training and talent, plus a great sense of joy “because if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, how can you expect other people to enjoy what you are doing?”

The abandoned cab driver is by now threatening Penni with the police. As Paul and Geneviève walk past, Geneviève says: “If I were a man I’d hit him.” Paul says: “That’s what he wants you to do.” Geneviève says: “Yes, I suppose. I’ll kiss him instead.” She doesn’t. She smiles. That smile — it’s paralyzing to most men, but the driver is immune.

Scene 3.

There are three more newspaper interviews that afternoon, so Penni takes time out and is next seen having coffee with friends, telling them Geneviève is shy and still finding herself as a person and that Paul is wonderful but that she couldn’t work with them again because they are both so difficult. Paul insists on knowing every detail. Geneviève has to be reached through the emotions. As in: “If you don’t turn up, a lot of people will be disappointed.” Not: “You promised.”

Take Three, Scene 1. Thursday.

Day of the premiere. Morning. Paul is up early, jogging, spends the morning arranging the New York premiere scheduled for the following week, then lunch hour at the cinema at the Place du Canada beneath the Château Champlain hotel.

There are two prints of Heart. One is a used print and the sound track goes clickety-clack, clickety-clack. The other print is new, and everything, the supposedly white titles, the stars’ faces, the snow . . . everything has a greenish hue. “Christ, she’ll die when she sees herself like that,” Almond tells the projectionist. They decide to try magenta filters to kill the green. Almond leaves to collect Geneviève and go to City Hall to meet Mayor Jean Drapeau.

Through all these scenes the stars have been a contrast in styles. Geneviève, changing her dress for each occasion, always elegant, always maxi. Paul, classically rumpled. Geneviève, tense but poised. Paul effervescent.

Scene 2.

After signing the city’s VIP book, a drink on the city hall terrace. The drink, Geneviève divines, is a potent mixture of port and brandy. “It’s a killer,” she tells Paul. “Don't have a refill.” He doesn’t. Instead, he tells Mayor Drapeau he thinks traffic should be banned downtown.

Cut to cinema at Place du Canada. Geneviève is to see part of both prints. It’s clickety-clack versus green. She is appalled by both. She sits, tired but angry, in the cinema lobby. “That green ... I am not going to look like a fish. Get another print.”

Paul sends her home to rest, begins whipping organization into the projection staff and cinema executives. Now it is possible to see how this apparently wildly disorganized man gets films made. His mind dances around, covering all possibilities. Lens filter. An old print used when they dubbed Heart into French. Cleaning fluid to clean the old print. Maybe a reduction in amplifier sound level to kill the clickety-clack. He paces, fretful, sits down, jumps up, telephones, stretches out on the popcorn counter.

The word comes that Donald Sutherland will not be at the opening. He is in New York.

Scene 3.

Suite 3505, Château Champlain. A cocktail party for people involved in making the film; champagne, a fulsome bar, not enough tonic. Then a fluid press reception.

Paul says his films are about the individual in relation to himself rather than society, which is a pity in some ways because the contemporary film is most successful when there is urgent social significance. Geneviève says it’s more difficult working with her husband than other directors “because art is synonymous with surprise and mystery and when you are married and you know him so well, and vice versa, both elements are pale rather than sharp.” However, she feels “a kind of unique freedom with him.”

And then the long walk down to the theatre where the crowd is beginning to form. Tall, smiling man; tiny, enchantress wife who smiles graciously for photographers. She asks husband: “Do I look stoned?” And he smiles for photographers and says: “No. Are you?” Silence.

They stand at the theatre entrance, greeting friends; shaking hands with the English, exchanging kisses with French Canadians. Then Paul disappears to tend another crisis in the projection room. Geneviève holds the fort alone. Montreal’s newspaper and television paparazzi circle like locusts, and a Lolita-like girl takes a picture on a happy-snap camera and says adoringly: “Miss Bujold, I want to tell you this is the happiest birthday of my life.” How old? Sixteen.

Cut to darkened cinema. Paul Almond is introduced; runs to the microphone like a boxer trotting to the ring; says a few appropriate words and returns to his seat. The film rolls. It’s the clickety-clack print after all. “A film by Paul Almond” . . . and what’s this? A new credit line: “A Jennings Lang Production.”

Jennings Lang is the Universal executive who decided to back the film. He wanted his name on it, so Bob Brewer of Universal has snipped out a section of what he thought was simply black lead-in film and inserted the new credit line. The trouble is the first bars of Harry Freedman’s cantata were on the soundtrack of that snipped-out piece. Almond, skipping out to attend the opening of the French version of the film, leads Geneviève by the arm. He is livid.

Cut to lobby of hotel. Almond stalks out to limousine, Geneviève almost trotting. A four-cop motorcycle escort gets them to the theatre on time for the French opening. Floodlights, a crowd, cheering. They stand awkwardly in the lobby. The audience has lined up, staring. What to do to create a sense of glamour, excitement?

Geneviève walks to the doors, opens them, begins to shake hands with the crowd. A bearded man bulldozes forward. half yanks her into the crowd, kisses her on the cheek. “I had to, I had to,” he yells. Geneviève, at first shattered, smiles; blows him a kiss.

Then the motorcade goes back to the Place du Canada for the end of the English premiere. Then another taxi. This time to the after-the-premiere party.

The party has maybe 250 beautiful people and artists and actors and embryo film makers and reporters and long hair and unharnessed bosoms flying around the dance floor to the raucous beat of a rock group.

Take Four. Morning after.

Paul is being interviewed about the past three days: “It’s merchandising, eh? This week I was thinking it was the most important thing to do. But this morning I think, wow! what are we doing to ourselves?”

Enter Geneviève. In the 10 minutes before the next radio interview the picture on the cover of this magazine must be shot. “Use a soft-focus lens,” she says. “I look like hell after last night.”

Fade out.


The Act Of The Heart received a mixed press. Some critics hated it; some loved it. It did not win the award for the best Canadian film of the year, which upset Almond, but it did win him the best-director award and the best-actress award for Miss Bujold.