The making of ‘Joshua’
Joshua Then and Now is a simple film in the clear and guileless form of a fairy tale. The striving son of a thief marries a golden girl from another world, makes mistakes, meets with bad times and then, in a meadow crowded with lilies, rediscovers happiness. It is a story without guns, car chases, adolescent orgies or flamboyant acts of God. Fathers, children, friends and lovers—all washed in a blend of religious wisdom and belly laughs—find out the truth about themselves and are either healed by it or die. But if the film is classically simple, more sacred than profane, the story of Joshua's making is a richly complex saga, ranging over five years of turmoil and occasional triumph. And as the film moves into theatres in New York and Los Angeles this week after opening at home to mixed reviews, it may well
determine the international fortunes of Canada’s insecure and troubled film industry. Said Joshua's primary financial broker, Toronto merchant banker Frank Jacobs: “Joshua is the kind of film that Canada can hold out to the world. It is our flagship.”
Dizzying: Like all flagships, Joshua trails a wake of dizzying superlatives behind it. The film, which premiered earlier this month at the gala opening of Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, is a collaboration between one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Mordecai Richler, 54, the shambling superhero of Canadian letters, and his best friend, Canada’s most bankable director, Ted Kotcheff, 54. Together, they made movie history in Canada with The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz (1974), the country’s most successful film. Joshua's producer is Robert Lantos, the
cigar-chewing Wunderkind who, as president of RSL Entertainment, is the rising star of Canada’s film industry. His newest film, at a cost of $11 million, is the most expensive in Canadian history and received substantial financial backing from a Hollywood studio: $2 million from 20th Century-Fox. As well, the CBC, which will air a 3^-hour Joshua miniseries in the fall of 1986, set a record for investment in an independently produced film, contributing $1.7 million. Said Rudi Carter, the CBC executive in charge of independent productions: “Joshua is the quintessential Canadian property.”
However impressive its statistics, the story of love and redemption is more than the sum of its parts. Joshua has become a bellwether for the effectiveness of the federal government’s 17-year involvement in film-making and a test
of Hollywood’s presence in an industry in which the major distributors are American studios that reinvest only a fraction of the millions they earn annually in Canada back into Canadian productions. Joshua director Kotcheff added that the expertise of the Canadian crew and largely Canadian cast indicated that Canadian film was “now
world-class”—if unstable financially. Kotcheff, who was not delighted with shooting a feature and a mini-series simultaneously, said: “Yoking film and TV is a matter of inconvenience. TV by its nature has to be more timid. By investing in TV, the government is protecting its downside while compromising the upside.” Toronto producer Pat Ferns concludes:11 Joshua has raised problems with which the whole industry will have to deal. One of those questions is whether we are a big enough country to support a film industry at all.”
Aghast: As Richler consumed a plateful of fettucine on the eve of the film’s debut, he was aghast at the weight that Joshua was carrying. Said Richler: “Joshua has assumed an importance way beyond the worth of the film itself, with everybody looking over our shoulders to see if we’ll fall on our asses.” In its own right, Joshua is a hugely ambitious film. It took 66 days to shoot, its script went through 19 drafts and it is set during four time periods in both the old and new worlds. It employed 120 actors with speaking parts, as well as 1,500 extras, captured on 250,000 feet of film (only 13,000 feet remain in the 117minute film). A crew of 70 worked on 80 sets in 65 locations to fill out a plot so complex that Kotcheff said it “was like trying to juggle nine oranges in the air at once.”
The film focuses on the love between Joshua Shapiro (James Wood), a streetsmart Jewish writer, and Pauline Hornby (Gabrielle Lazure), the daughter of a wealthy senator. Joshua comes from the gritty cosmos of Montreal’s St. Urbain ghetto; Pauline grew up in Westmount, where people store pedigreed wine in their basements and spend their
summers on cottage lawns. But the movie also explores other loves: the love between Joshua and his father, Reuben (Alan Arkin), a richly drawn and funny criminal; the sinister and consuming devotion of Pauline to her wastrel brother, Kevin (Michael Sarrazin); and Joshua’s affection for Sidney Murdoch (Ken Campbell), a bawdy novelist who was his drinking companion in London. As well, the story is about those like Kevin, Jane Trimble (Kate Trotter) and her husband, Jack (Alan Scarfe), who love neither themselves nor anyone else much and cannot examine their lives in the way that Joshua does when Pauline breaks down and retreats.
Joshua is also a film about Canada then and Canada now. The texture of Montreal street life during the 1940s, with its uniquely Canadian mix of French, Jewish and English cultures, is almost lovingly presented on the screen. And although Kotcheff said that none of the 800 viewers who attended two test screenings in New York this summer complained that Joshua was “too Canadian,” cultural markers flavor the entire film, from bottles of Dow Beer to Montreal Canadiens sweaters. Said Philip Lind, a senior vice-president of Rogers Cablesystems, Joshua's, first private investor: “This is a really good Canadian story with a chance of international appeal.”
Impression: In the beginning and in the end, the story of Joshua is Richler’s. While he has said that “it would not be right to say it is either autobiographical or not,” members of the cast said they had the strong impression that they were filming Richler’s own life. The novelist, who now divides his time between a comfortable country home on Lake Memphrémagog and a graceful apartment in Montreal near the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, was born in 1931 in the same Montreal neighborhood as Joshua. The son of a junkman, he dropped out of Sir George Williams University and sailed to England in 1951, where he became a writer. In 1960 he married Florence Mann, with whom he had five children, and in 1972 he moved to Montreal. The novel, Joshua Then and Now, grew from an assignment in 1976, when McClelland and Stewart commissioned Richler to write a 10,000-word text for a book on Spain, where he had spent several months in his early 20s. Three years in the writing, the essay became a memoir and his eighth novel in 31 years. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times called it “a remarkable bittersweet accomplishment.” Joshua was the latest in a series of Richler novels (Duddy Kravitz, St. Urhain's Horseman) that drew international attention to the vivid little universe where he grew up as well as the comfortable, if spiritually arid and resolutely WASP,
community of Westmount to which he later moved.
It was between his life in those two separate worlds, when Richler was living in the low-rent districts of London, that he met aspiring film and stage director Kotcheff. Recently, between an after-lunch Remy Martin and his exit to a waiting limousine, Richler reflected on those hungry days of the early 1950s with the man he described as his best friend:
“Ted and I had an awful lot of fun, and if we were poor I didn’t really notice it. I thought it might get a bit better, but I didn’t think it would turn out as well as it did.”
Splashy: If Richler had any doubts that he has done well for himself, the reception at Joshua’s splashy opening dispelled them. Surrounded on stage by Arkin, Woods, Federal Minister of Communications Marcel Masse and other political, cultural and financial luminaries, it was the shy, defensive and rumpled Richler whom the audience applauded with abandon.
And at the lavish gatherings attending the film’s premiere, his autograph was sought more than any other. For the busi-
nessmen of film, high hopes were riding on Richler’s collaboration with Kotcheff because of past success: Duddy, a $910,000 film that won critical acclaim and launched the career of Richard Dreyfuss, grossed $5.5 million. As well, Kotcheff, a Toronto native of Bulgarian ancestry, made his mark in Hollywood with such films as the football classic North Dallas Forty, the artful and mov-
ing Outback and the epic of Vietnam rage, First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone, which grossed $120 million. Above all, the visions of duplicating Duddy’s success drew producers to Joshua. Said Ferns: “Duddy was the first Canadian film that ever worked.” Celebration: For Lantos and his partner, a bulky lawyer named Stephen Roth, Joshua was the project they had been waiting years to do. Said Roth: “I knew it could be a major Canadian film—at a time when Canada needed a major film—that was also a celebration of universal values.” Lantos, the more visible member of the partnership, is a stocky, extravagantly moustachioed 36-year old, described by fellow producer William Marshall as “the essential water polo player: grace above the water, kicking and gouging beneath.” Lantos says that for years he believed that Richler’s fiction was the best in Canada. Lighting and then relighting a massive cigar over his vast desk in Toronto, he admitted that he went after Joshua in spite of its difficulties. “Some stories,” he said, “are obvious for the screen —those with a
strong motor of a story, those without a lot of twists and turns and a myriad of characters or a lot of flashbacks.” For Lantos the multilayered Joshua was unsuited for filming on almost every count. In fact, the film ignores the entire subplot set in Ibiza, an island off Spain,
which had provided the seed for the novel in the first place.
Struggle: Lantos speaks of the battle to bring Joshua to the screen as just another in a life filled with struggle. Born in Budapest to a Jewish family which had lived through the horrors of war-torn Europe, he moved at age 9 to Uruguay, then marked by political tur-
moil. Five years later, in 1963, the family moved to Montreal, a city scarred by the political insecurity and occasional violence of Quebec’s independence movement. Said Lantos: “The most important thing drilled into us was to survive regardless. When you start with
absolutely nothing, you always tell yourself there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”
Almost from the beginning Lantos loved movies. In Uruguay he watched double-bills of American films every afternoon. Later, attending McGill University, he studied under John Grierson, founder and first commissioner of the
National Film Board and godfather of documentary film-makers. A member of the editorial board of the left-wing McGill Daily, Lantos was also briefly a writer at Midnight and other lurid papers in Montreal’s flourishing tabloid press. According to Lying for Fun and Profit, an article he wrote for Saturday Night in 1973, he wrote about “things that never happened to people who never existed”—the creative mind behind stories with such titles as “Diary of a Nymphomaniac” and “Carnal Capers.” In 1972 Lantos began his film career, soon producing and marketing a commercially successful compilation of footage from New York’s Erotic Film Festival. He went on to produce such films as the erotic classic LAnge et la Femme in 1977 and the highly profitable In Praise of Older Women in 1977.
By 1980, the year that Joshua was published, Lantos had “made many films I didn’t particularly care for.” Toronto film critic Martin Knelman wrote that Joshua was the producer’s “bid for prestige.” But financing that bid proved to be, in Lantos’s words, “a four-year paper chase.” In 1981 capital for filmmaking was scarce. Although the federal government had extended a 100-percent tax credit to film investors in 1974, few quality films were actually made, and “film” was a bad word on Bay Street. Said Lantos: “That left us with finding money out of the country. But what possible interest could a film about a Jewish writer in Montreal be to a studio looking for the next Steven Spielberg movie?”
Rejected: Major studios in the United States, several networks and pay TV resoundingly rejected the Joshua project. The reaction was the same in England. Finally, with the help of Peter Myers, an executive at 20th Century-Fox and a former Montrealer, Lantos said that RSL “snuck in a door somebody forgot to close.” Fox promised $2 million toward the $9.2-million budget on completion of the film. Other financing included $4.6 million from the CBC and Telefilm, the federal agency funding films for TV and theatres, and a total of $3.5 million from a small consortium of banks, Rogers Cablesystems, Bellevue Pathé Labs and Panavision, a film equipment rental company. Given the project’s budget difficulties, Lantos reported that RSL reinvested its own producers’ fees and “lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project itself.” To make a profit Joshua will have to gross $20 million.
Meanwhile, Richler who signed a $480,000 deal for the rights to his book and a completed script, began writing in earnest when the $9.2-million financing came together in January, 1984. Kotcheff, who had made First Blood and
Uncommon Valor while waiting for Joshua to roll, was free as well. The director, also renowned for his work in TV and theatre, had been Lantos’s first and obvious choice. Said Lantos: “It was clear from the beginning that Mordecai would adapt it and Ted would direct it. Anything else would have shocked everybody, including me.” Richler and Kotcheff had collaborated not only on Duddy, which won the Golden Bear Award for the best film at the Berlin Festival in 1974, but on Kotcheff’s Life at the Top and Fun with Dick and Jane. Woods was chosen to play Joshua only after it was found that Lantos’s first choice, Dustin Hoffman, commanded a $6-million fee. Kotcheff, who had preferred Woods for the role all along, gave him Richler’s first treatment of the script in 1981. Said Kotcheff: “He phoned twice a week for four years asking, ‘When do I do it?’ ”
But when shooting began in Montreal, where most of Joshua is set, it became obvious that there was not enough money. A two-block area of Joshua’s boyhood neighborhood had to be remodelled right down to its billboards and street signs, which had been rewritten in French to comply with Quebec law. As well, the storefront and residential buildings had anachronistic aluminum windows and green indoor-outdoor carpets. Building new fronts for the entire street cost $200,000. “I had invested five years of my life in this film,” said Lantos. “I was not going to be party to its butchering. Overcompromising leads to a bad movie, and all the audience cares for is the movie.”
Excesses: As Joshua's guarantor, Douglas Leiterman, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Motion Picture Guarantors, has kept detailed records of the budget excesses. Said Leiterman: “Many sets cost double what they had budgeted, and set construction overall was 15 times the budgeted figure of $25,000.” He also reported that hotel and food costs ran $250,000 over budget. Said Leiterman: “During shooting in Brockville, Ont., a small yacht, hired to sit in front of the estate, ended up costing even more because it was taken on a joyride and damaged.” Another mishap, involving the one major stunt in the movie, cost $10,000. For the kamikaze crash of Kevin’s airplane into an island, the stunt co-ordinator ignited an explosion that Kotcheff felt was too high off the ground. The second attempt, made with explosives placed on a floating barge, was successful, but some flaming material fell back onto the surface of the barge and burnt the deck. Even then, not all the bills were paid. Herbert Black, president of American Iron and Metal Co., who rented his 73-year-old Westmount home to the production for
some shooting, is still owed $925.
Last fall spiralling costs on the set threatened to jeopardize the entire film. In an attempt to deal with an overrun that had soared to $1.4 million, a tense meeting was held in a CBC boardroom for all principals involved in the production. In a faceoff with Lantos and Roth, Leiterman indicated that he wanted to take over the project and perhaps even cancel the upcoming shoot in London, England. Said Lantos: “Friction was a mild word for our relationship.” The participants feared that if that shoot were cancelled
it might lead to the resignation of Kotcheff, the director they had wooed so diligently. If that had been allowed to happen, said critic Knelman, “the whole Canadian film production industry would have its already shaky reputation tarnished.”
Control: Leiterman’s firm took over the film in December for three months. But RSL regained control when Motion Picture Guarantors, Lloyds of London, RSL, the CBC and Telefilm made up the overrun. Leiterman, who told Maclean’s that “our resources are substantially depleted,” said that he had the firm impression that the two government agencies “had made a decision to save the picture.”
For critics attending the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Joshua was the first Canadian feature in full competition in almost a decade, quality rather
than money was the paramount issue. For a time, however brief, expectations were fulfilled as the Canadian contingent of film-makers and cultural bureaucrats wined and dined each other in such three-star restaurants as the Moulin de Mougins. Their hope was fuelled by favorable notices in the French and Italian press. A critic for Paris’s Le Figaro wrote: “Joshua Then and Now has the effect of a sunny and welcoming beach.” A reviewer for Le Matin de Paris wrote that the film “is a well-done and amusing work that will probably
play in the theatre around the block in 20 years, if there is such a thing.” And Rome’s II Tempo announced that Joshua was “a good commercial film that will keep the ticket wickets busy.” The Canadians were further heartened by three of the film’s screenings. Jay Scott, critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, reported that highbrow reviewers gave the film “the cold shoulder,” but that Joshua drew “raucous laughter” and “an extended standing ovation” at other screenings. In Cannes, Marcel Masse said, “We should be proud as Canadians.”
Much of the film’s cost—roughly $3 million less than the average American feature—is highly visible on the screen. Reuben Shapiro wears shantung suits, Jane Trimble is festooned with $100,000 worth of jewelry, and an alley scene on Fairmount Avenue is almost obessive-
ly groomed. Wayne Clarkson, director of Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, said, “I think every penny is on the screen.” Said Lantos: “Kotcheff was a perfectionist but not wasteful.” And at least one creditor, Daniel McMullen, an executive with the American-owned Security Pacific Bank Canada—one of the group of banks that Lantos thanked on opening night just before he thanked God—says he is happy: he has already been repaid. Said McMullen: “These are good, quality producers. It has been a very rewarding experience.”
Whatever the financial difficulties, the majority of the cast and crew reports that it was a “good set” even though Kotcheff was a demanding and unyielding director who sometimes exploded. Said location manager Pierre Laberge: “He is like a dictator. I saw him throw stuff, and once he kicked a fridge and left a dent in it because something on the set didn’t work.” But he knew the script so well, according to actress Kate Trotter, that he mouthed the words as the actors spoke. Said Trotter: “When he stopped, you knew the scene was not working.”
Milestones: For many cast members the making of Joshua was a career milestone. Gabrielle Lazure, 28, the daughter of former Parti Québécois minister for social development Denis Lazure, had never made a film in English. In the end, her voice, which Kotcheff said was
marked by Gallic music,” jy Toronto actress Susan Hogan. Eric Kimmel, 14, also made his film debut, playing the spunky younger Joshua. For Woods, who was paid $342,500 to play Joshua—$137,000 more than Arkin’s fee—the role offered a chance to break away from the villainous stereotype (The Onion Field). And Arkin said that the role of Reuben was totally alien to him: someone who may have killed a man and hurt others who is able to explain the Ten Commandments to his son by saying, “You get eight out of 10 right, and you’re at the top of the class.” Said Arkin: “I don’t understand people who don’t suffer over the evil they do. I love playing crazy characters, but this was different.” Above all, the script offered Arkin an opportunity to speak lines that, although often profane, were “literature.” He added, “You don’t get that chance in film too often.”
Gloomy: In the end, Canadian critics reviewing the film after its Toronto premiere this month did not generally view Joshua as a milestone. Danny Finkleman advised his viewers on The Journal to stay home and read Richler’s book. The Globe and Mail’s Scott reinforced that gloomy assessment, saying that Lazure’s Pauline was “apparitional” and that the ending, revised since the Cannes preview, left him “aghast at its sentimental presumption.” At a press conference the next day, Arkin, who is also a writer and director, defended the ending, saying, “Part of a movie’s job is to tell you what is possible.” And the ending is totally consistent with the things Richler holds dear: close friendships and family ties.
This month, as Joshua heads out into I the American market, it carries what Philip Lind said was “the whole weight of the Canadian feature film industry.” Made and launched against the odds, it has also triggered a debate about the state of film at home and even the profile of Canada’s artistic expression abroad. Said Lind: “The pressures on these guys are enormous. For the past several years we have had a big push in the industry, and nobody has done anything. The question is, can we make films the public will see? The evidence up until now is that we can’t.” Richler, who put eight years of his life into the story of Joshua Shapiro, a man with a life at least something like his own, says that he is pleased that the film was made. But for Richler, along with the rest of the world, the final verdict is not in. Said Richler: “When I see the movie two years from now, I’ll be able to be objective about it. If it works, then they’re real producers.” For now, the flagship is still at sea.
GLEN ALLEN with ANN WALMSLEY in Toronto