John Walker, Filmmaker
by Wyndham Wise
(from Canadian Cinematographer, September 2011) John Walker got his start in photography and turned to documentary filmmaking as a cinematographer for Crawley Films in the 1970s. He directed his first film, Chambers: Tracks and Gestures (about Canadian artist and filmmaker Jack Chambers) for Atlantis Films in 1982 and was part of the collective that produced and directed A Winter Tan. In 1990, his Strand: Under the Dark Cloth – his deeply personal documentary on pioneering American photographer/filmmaker Paul Strand – won the Genie Award for best feature documentary. Five years later, he received a second Genie for producing George Ungar’s The Champagne Safari. His most recent documentary is A Drummer’s Dream.
One of Canada’s most honoured documentary filmmaker, Walker won the 2004 CSC best cinematography in a documentary for Men of the Deeps, and was given the Gemini Awards for best performing arts program best photography in a documentary program for the same film. Has also been nominated at the Geminis for best history documentary program for Passage and best direction in a documentary program for Men of the Deeps. Addition to his Genie win for Strand, he has received three other nominations: best documentary for The Fairy Faith (2001), best achievement in direction and best motion picture for A Winter Tan (1989).
John Walker’s passionate commitment to the documentary form has led him to work around the world and to co-found the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (now the Documentary Organization of Canada), a lobby group for point-of-view documentaries. One of the best in his generation of independent Canadian documentary filmmakers, he’s a natural successor to the poetic tradition created by Colin Low.
WW When and where were you born?
JW Montreal in 1952. I went to high school there and later I took art classes at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. I got a summer job offer in 1969 in a photography studio when I was 16, and by 1970 I had left high school and went to work full time. I grew up in a household where there were a lot of books on art, and my father had built a darkroom. I have been interested in photography since I got my first Brownie at the age of six. When I was eight, my dad gave me a twin-lens reflex camera. I remember going into the darkroom at eight and seeing an image develop. The magic of that struck me forcefully. In high school I was the president of the camera club and in the darkroom all the time.
WW Was your interest just photography, or where you also interested in the movies?
JW Just photography in high school, then a Super 8 Bolex with a zoom appeared in the house – I can’t remember how; maybe my father bought it – so I began to shoot Super 8 when I was 14 or 15. Later I had friends at Sir George Williams University studying cinema, and I began to shoot their films. Early on I had met Paul Strand, several years before he died . I had also met Patrick Crawley, the son of Budge Crawley, who was shooting film in Toronto. In 1970, I moved to Toronto to join him. While there, I met Richard Leiterman, who was shooting Hamlet for Crawley Films, directed by René Bonnière. I got a chance to watch Richard work with the actors, with his camera on his shoulder. A short while later, Patrick was involved in a plane accident, where he nearly died. When he left hospital, he was living with me, and Marin Duckworth had decided to make a film about the accident. While Martin was making this film [Accident, 1973, 16 minutes from the NFB], I was assisting him, working with a Nagra tape recorder. I was totally inspired by what Martin was doing. So it was Martin and Richard who inspired me to become a filmmaker.
I was still doing still photography to make a living, but I began to shoot film in the early 1970s, for Crawley Films and for the NFB. Nothing much, just small things. Then one thing led to another, and I began to shoot my first films for Crawley in 1975. A Song for a Miner, which I shoot in 35 mm, was my first credit as a DOP. Another film I remember from that period was Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery, which was banned from showing in the U.S. by the Reagan administration. That was an important one.
WW Let’s talk about your film on Jack Chambers, one of your early ones that won all sorts of awards, at the Yorkton festival and the CSC gave you an award for that one.
JW The CSC, the editor’s guild, a Canadian Film Award… Jack Chambers was a London-based artist and filmmaker who came to some notoriety when he announced he had leukemia. The prices of his paintings went up, making him the highest paid living artist in Canadian history at that point. Then his cancer went into remission, and he lived another 10 years. People thought he had pulled a publicity stunt. So he became a controversial figure. He had founded the Artist’s Union, he was politically engaged, and he was also an important experimental filmmaker. He had founded the London Filmmakers Co-op long before the Toronto Filmmakers Co-op. He was somebody who used photography as a basis for his paintings. Chris Lowery, also a London-based filmmaker, came to me with the suggestion we make a film about Chambers, which became Tracks and Gestures. I shot that one in 1981. It was a one-hour film that we financed through the tax-shelter provisions of the time. It was totally successful. When we had the first screening in London, I had these investors come up to me and say they had invested in other tax-shelter films and this was the first film they had invested in that they actually liked. We sold 15 units at $10,000 per unit and raised $150,000. We sold it to the CBC for broadcast.
WW I notice that you also produced the film yourself, which was a bit unusual for a documentary filmmaker at the time. Why did you choose to go that route?
JW The reason I started into producing was that I wanted to make a film about Paul Strand, and I had the idea to make a film about Strand since the early 1970s when I first met him. At that point I had not made a film, but I wanted to make a film about his life and work.
WW So the notion of producing a film about Chambers was a step in the direction of making a film about Strand, is that what you are saying?
JW Exactly. When Chris came to me with the idea of making the film on Chambers, I was already in the process of researching and raising money for the Strand film.
WW Which actually didn’t come to fruition for another half-a-dozen years.
JW That’s right, but I had actually shot footage of Georgia O’Keefe in 1981. I was shooting the Strand film while I was making the Chambers film. In a way, the Chambers film was a way to test the waters and learn how to make a film about an artist and filmmaker.
WW In the meantime you were shooting a lot of film for other people.
JW At that time I was doing a lot of work for Rhombus Media. I shot Making Overtures, which was nominated for an Oscar. It was Larry Weinstein’s first film. Rhombus basically had me shoot all their films. Every film they were doing, they used me as their DOP.
WW Tell me how that relationship came about.
JW They were making a film called Sense of Music, which was about the music program at Oakwood Collegiate [in Toronto]. In a way, that one was a precursor to a later film I made about Oakwood called Tough Assignment. Rhombus had hired me on a recommendation from a producer at TVO who liked my work. I shot it all handheld, and I was down on the floor with the kids, techniques I had learned from Martin Duckworth and Richard Leiterman. [Producer] Niv [Fichman] and Larry liked my style, so I ended up working for them on a lot of films.
WW Also around this time, in the mid-1980s, you became involved with the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, a lobby group for documentary filmmakers. Tell me how that came about. I understand it was you, Peter Raymont and Rudy Buttignol who were the driving force behind the formation of that organization.
JW Jack Chambers was apolitical; he fought for the rights of artists. In a sense Chambers inspired the formation of the Caucus. Artists do have to fight for their rights. 1984 was the first year of Telefilm Canada, which had been created out of the ashes of the Canadian Film Development Corporation. They announced their funding guidelines, and documentaries were not included. I thought this was outrageous, especially in Canada with our documentary tradition. And it was not just me. There were several others who felt the same way. We had been talking about creating an organization for point-of-view documentary filmmakers, and this was the issue that crystalized us. I was designated by the group to attend a meeting arranged by Telefilm. Don Haig [from Film Arts] was there. Michael MacMillan [from Atlantis Films] was there. André Lamy [representing Telefilm] was there, as was Peter Pearson, who was second-in-command to Lamy. There were representatives from other producer organizations and distributors. And I was there, representing this new, upstart organization.
I looked around the table, and said there is not a filmmaker sitting at this table who is not drawn from the Canadian documentary tradition. It’s central to who we are, and if you [Telefilm] do not fund documentaries you are cutting off the umbilical cord of Canadian film culture. I was looking at Peter Pearson right in the eye when I said that, because he was the guy who was against the idea. He felt that it was the NFB’s job to fund documentaries, and I was representing the private sector. I was backed my MacMillan. Atlantis at the time was making documentaries, and he agreed with my point of view. If Michael and Don had not backed me, I would not have succeeded. The feature filmmaking guys didn’t give a fuck. Lamy came back with some bullshit, and I’ll always remember, ‘We’ll get back to you on this. We’ll be making the decision. You may not like the decision, but we’ll be making it.’ Two months later, it was announced that Telefilm would include documentaries in its funding guidelines.
WW Let’s move on to A Winter Tan, which came in the late 1980s.
JW We started work on that film in 1985, and it was released in 1987. Initially it was agreed that the credits would read: ‘A Film by…’. There would be no directing or producing credits. We were making this film as a collective, and we wanted to break the hierarchical rules of filmmaking. It’s when we submitted the film for festival screenings, and the forms wanted the director and producer listed, that’s when we said so-and-so did this or that. Of course, the notion of having five directors was a bit silly. It was collectively made, but I was the only one looking through the camera. And Jackie [Burroughs] was the one working on the screenplay, with the help of John Frizzell. But she was the one pulling the material from the book Give Sorrow Words by Maryse Holder. The five of us [John Walker, Louise Clark, Jackie Burroughs, John Frizzell and Aerlyn Weissman] would meet every couple of weeks for nearly a year to discuss the film and shape it. Initially we thought it would be a half-hour film.
The reason it worked was because we did have separate responsibilities. We all had our thing to do, and do one was telling the other what to do. The nice thing about A Winter Tan, and probably the reason it worked so well, is that we had the freedom of a low budget and we were all friends. But I couldn’t do another because at that time the Strand film was coming together, and I was spending a lot of time making that happen. So I put all my effort into making Strand: Under the Dark Cloth after Winter Tan.
WW Well, let’s talk about Strand then. Tell me about that film.
JW I called Paul Strand my mentor. I met him when I was a young photographer, showed him my work and had the chance to talk to him about it. He was an artist I was studying and very much admired, so making the film was like doing my Ph.D. I didn’t have broadcasters telling me what to do. I had total freedom in the making of that film, and I made it the way I wanted to. That was critical. Strand was a great artist who had a lot of influence on modern photography, People studied the way he composed his shots, and he was also influential in politics and filmmaking. Making the film reinforced my interest in filmmaking. I called it Strand: Under the Dark Cloth, and in a way the film is autobiographical. I was studying Strand, but also the parallels with my own life and I came to the conclusion that photography is a very lonely occupation. You are an observer; you’re not engaging, you’re observing. And I really like the social part of filmmaking, so making that film reinforced my desire to be a filmmaker instead of a photographer. So that’s what it really was about: Where do I sit in relation to this artist?
Strand’s photographs are in black and white but I shot the film in 35-mm colour because although they were shot in black and white, they have colour. Some are blue-black; some are warmer. They have the subtlety of colour, so I shot the film in colour so you could see his colour of his black and whites. I shot my own scenes in the film in colour, but on 16 mm, which I later blew up.
WW And you won the Genie Award for best documentary for the film. Was that your first Genie?
JW That’s right. In those days they had two awards, for feature documentary and short documentary. I won for feature documentary. In a way it was a drag, because the film was invited to a lot of film festivals around the world – Berlin, London, Hong Kong – and I couldn’t attend because I was in London shooting the Hand of Stalin series for the BBC. Actually, I did make it to London and Berlin, because they were close by and I was doing the edit for the series. The executive producer on that series was a Canadian, Bill Neptune and he had a company called October Films. He was in England raising money for this three-part series on Stalin, and he had recommended me as the director. And at the same time I was working on Distress Signals, which had just been green-lighted by the CBC. It was a very busy time for me. The Strand film was showing all over the world, I was shooting and editing the Stalin films in Russia and at the same time developing Distress Signals. I was off to MIP, Cannes and Africa to shoot that film.
WW And you started to work on Orphans of Manchuria.
JW Actually, that came a little bit later. October Films also produced that one. A British journalist had discovered the story that the Japanese were trying to repatriate Japanese orphans that had been left in China after the war. He took it to Channel 4 in England who turned again to October Films. The Hand of Stalin films had really put October Films on the map. The British Press Guild nominated it as the best television series of the year and it was being called a ‘masterpiece.’
WW You directed two of the three films in the series, is that correct?
JW I was supposed to direct all three but the third one was delayed for financial reasons. I had given October Films a deadline because of Distress Signals, and it didn’t happen in time, so I went on to direct Distress Signals instead. Then the people at October Films came back to me a couple of years later to direct Orphans of Manchuria and Hidden Children.
WW You were involved with another Genie-winning documentary, The Champagne Safari, on which you served as executive producer. How did that one come about?
JW I also did some additional photography on that one. Around that time a lot of filmmakers who were trying to get their projects off the ground were coming to talk to me. Bruce McDonald came to me after A Winter Tan, asking me how we did it, wanting help. With The Champagne Safari I formalized that relationship and spoke to Don Haig. He gave me advice on what to do as an executive producer, and he became my mentor. This took place over a period of years. In a way it was George Ungar’s Strand film. He had been working on it for years before he came to me. Basically my role on that film was to satisfy Telefilm Canada and the OFDC that they were going to get a film at the end of the process, because at that time George was a first-time director who had been an animator for the NFB. The funding agencies were putting the responsibility on me to deliver, and I said I would. It got the Genie and the New York Film Festival Gold and some other awards. It was a long and arduous editing process, but it was a fascinating film.
WW I would like to move on to Place of the Boss: Utshimassits, which you made in 1996. This appears to be a film closer to your heart. Tell me about that one.
JW You’re right, that story was closer to home. Up to that point I had been directing a lot of tragedy. The Hand of Stalin was tragedy, as were the Manchuria and Hidden Children films. The through line for me was how we survive tragedy, and in the sense I was making films about survivors, it can be uplifting. ‘Place of the Boss’ is a literal translation of the Inuu word utshimassits, which is where they were living. This is the Davis Inlet story and since they had been put there by the government the Innu called it the ‘Place of the Boss.’ It wasn’t their home and I thought it a very poignant notion, so I called the film Place of the Boss.
This was very tragic story and it came to national attention when several children died in a fire while sniffing gasoline. I think it was six children. I got a call from Louise Lorre of the CBC series Man Alive and asked me if the story interested me. But Man Alive is only a half-hour show, so I went to Davis Inlet to do some research and when I came back I told Louise I don’t think I can do it in half-an-hour. Concurrent to this, the Caucus was lobbying the CBC for a new documentary strand, which became Witness, and Place of the Boss was shown during the first year of that new series and it won a number of awards, including the Donald Brittain Award, which I am very proud off.
It was a tough shoot. I was very fortunate to be working with Nigel Markham, who was the cinematographer on that film. I choose not to shoot it myself. He had worked with the Innu before, so he brought experience and it was a good collaboration. But it was very tough to shoot such a tragic story. The whole village had decided collectively that they had to start on a path of healing. So we were dealing with this transitional process to healing, and in a way it was similar to my experience working on the Stalin films, when people were just beginning to open up and talk about their experiences under Stalin. So the timing is critical when telling these type of stories. People were at a point when they wanted to talk and get their stories out. We shot Place of the Boss over a period of a year, and I made three or four trips up to Davis Inlet. Concurrent to shooting that film, I was making Tough Assignment at Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto.
WW Which brings us The Fairy Faith, which I understand you, also worked on for a while.
JW The Fairy Faith came about because I was quite drained from a lot of tragedy. I had made tough films, and in a way Tough Assignment was a break from that pattern because it had some humour in it. I was really questioning the type of films I wanted to make, and I thought I should go into drama and maybe make some fictional films. Frankly, I wanted to get away from documentary reality and documentary truth, because it was becoming painful and difficult as a filmmaker. I wanted to start to use my imagination, and several forces converged that lead me to make a film about mythology and the ‘little people.’ It ended up being a documentary about the imagination: What is imagination? Where does it come from? Why do we lose the imagination we have as children? That was my inquiry. The fairy lore became the vehicle to explore this. What tweaked me, what got the whole thing started, was when I was in London and I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy on Victorian fairy paintings. I saw all these incredible illustrations and paintings from that period. In later Victorian times there was quite a revival of belief in fairies and ‘little people.’
WW It must have been quite a challenge to make a film about something that isn’t there.
JW You’re quite right. I was laughing to myself about setting out to make a film about something presumably you can’t see. What am I going to shoot? That was quite interesting to me, and that’s what clicked when I saw all these paintings. At least I would have some visuals to illustrate my point. If I had not seen the exhibition, I probably would have passed on the subject.
We did release it theatrically, and it did well. It played the TIFF theatrical circuit, and it got a Genie Award nomination. Surprisingly people did love the film. It did very well in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, but I didn’t have the time or money to promote it properly in the rest of Canada.
WW Wasn’t your next film, Men of the Deeps, a more traditional documentary?
JW What’s interesting about that film is that the shape of the story is be formed by the lyrics of the songs. The authorship of the film is in a way the words of the songs the coal miners have written. Coal is in the very veins of Cape Breton culture; there is an oral tradition that dates back generations, so I rooted the film in that tradition. Coal miners are great storytellers. I was familiar with the choir, but this is a film I wanted to do since the mid-1970s. This was a story that had been living inside me since I shot A Song of a Miner. What precipitated the film was the announcement that the last coal mine in Cape Breton was being shut down. It was the end of a 300-year tradition of coal mining in Cape Breton. I was speaking to Kent Martin, my NFB producer on The Fairy Faith, about this, and he was the one who suggested making a film on Men of the Deeps. It struck me like a thunderbolt. I would combine a film about the choir and the closing of the last mine. I was on the phone and on my way to Cape Breton two days after that conversation. At first my plan was to make it feature length, but when I started the editing process I liked the hour, although we did blow it up to 35 mm for some theatrical screenings in Cape Breton. But essentially we made it an hour for television.
WW Your next film, the docudrama Passage, is about Sir John Franklin’s failed Northwest Passage expedition and subsequent attempts to discover what happened to him by the Scotsman John Rae.
JW I had travelled to the Arctic when I was 16 on a ship from Montreal for two months. That trip completely transformed my consciousness, and the Arctic is very close to my heart. We shot Passage in Rankin Inlet and Repulse Bay in the Arctic and the Okney Islands in northern Scotland.
WW You produced, wrote and directed Passage, but you didn’t shoot it, is that correct?
JW I shot a lot of the landscapes. When I did my research, I look my Aaton Super 16-mm camera with me.
WW Your most recent film is A Drummer’s Dream, which you have been travelling the country with. Tell me about that film. Again you produced and directed it, and where you behind the camera as well?
JW I shot some third camera. My DOPs were Kent Mason and Nigel Markham, both of whom I worked with before. The film had been developed in conjunction with the Canadian Film Centre and the NFB. It’s about a wide range of drummers, from rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Latin, soul, you name it, it was some of the best drummers on the planet, a real diversity of characters. It was my nephew, Jamal, in Montreal, who had told me what his other uncle was up to. I was in Montreal for my father’s wake, and Jamal told me about this drum camp his uncle was putting together with this amazing line up of talent. I was immediately interested. So I got in touch with the people organizing the camp, got the permission I needed, and went about raising the money. It was the first film I had shot on digital, and I used the Sony 900R.
We were going to shoot long performance takes, and I thought the digital format was ideally suited for that. As for the result, I would say there’s about 10 per cent of A Drummer’s Dream that I wish I shot on film, mainly the exteriors. When you are shooting high-contrast summer light, film handles that beautifully. But I was really happy with the interiors and the projection looks great. I really like digital projection. I still really love film but I don’t like the cost of 35mm prints. When you are an independent filmmaker and your films don’t have a wide release, you can only afford a couple of prints and they get scratched and all that. Will I shoot on film? It depends on the project. I have not thrown my Aton in the garbage yet.
WW You were one of the filmmakers on the National Parks Project, a collection of short films celebrating 100 years of the creation of the first National Park in Canada, which had a brief theatrical release earlier this year.
JW The idea was to pick a park of your own choosing, and along with the three musicians, create a film about the park with total freedom to do what you wanted. It was very cool. I like making shorts, and after making long, complicated films like Passage, it was fun to do. I can’t say that I’m an expert at it, but I would really like to make some more shorts. My film was called The Stars and the Waves, about the Prince Edward Island National Park.
WW Looking back, which film, or films, gave you the greatest pleasure?
JW That is a tough question. It terms of the challenge, the most challenging, was Passage. Before that film, I would have said Strand was my most challenging. It was my first big film, but Passage was the biggest challenge on all levels because of the story structure and mixing fiction with drama. In terms of pure pleasure and joy to make, A Drummer’s Dream. When I was looking at the rushes with Jeff Warren, my editor, we were smiling and laughing the entire time. This continued through the whole edit, and it continues with every screening of the film. It just won the FIPA gold prize in France, which is a big award. That’s like the European Emmy Awards. The film got a standing ovation. It’s a very positive, uplifting film, and just the whole process of making it was a joy. The truth is, as a teenager I played the drums, which I gave up when I was 17.
WW What is the best piece of professional advice you received?
JW The best piece of professional advice? Probably from my father, who said don’t worry about the money, focus on your craft. Do your craft as best as possible and the money will follow. It was good advice, and it has worked out that way. I always try to make the best film possible, whatever the subject matter.
WW You mentioned earlier the influence of Richard Leiterman and Martin Duckworth on your work. What about Colin Low?
JW Yes, I should have mentioned him. Seeing his early films, especially Corral, was thrilling. His emotional commitment to subject; Corral is just a beautiful and inspiring film. Donald Brittain was another big influence. I remember when I first meet Paul Strand and said I wanted to do a film on his life and influence, he asked me if I had seen Bethune? At that point I was not aware of Brittain, so I went and got the film from the NFB and watched it. So it was my mentor, Strand, who introduced me to the films of Brittain. He was a huge influence.
WW I mentioned Low because he represents the lyrical side of the documentary filmmaker.
JW You’re right, but I should mention one of my favourite films, which is Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault’s Pour la suite du monde. It was a big inspiration early on. Michel Brault was important to me, because he was not only a cinematographer but also a director. His work really opened my eyes to the possibility of filmmaking. He came from a classical tradition of filmmaking and his work has a very strong sense of place.
WW One final question. You seem to be a bit of a workaholic, what’s next for John Walker?
JW I’m really spending a lot of time with A Drummer’s Dream, promoting it. Right now we’re working on a strategy for a U.S. release. People are really responding to this film. There’s a lot of potential with the film, and I’m spending more time with its distribution. We played the Havana Jazz Festival. We’re getting interest from Korea and all over. I promised myself I would spend at least another year promoting it. I also have another Arctic film I am developing, and I want to do another music film, because they’re a lot of fun to make. I do have a feature script I am writing, so I hope to do a drama sometime in the future.
Also see: John Walker’s filmography.
This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Canadian Cinematographer and is reproduced here with permission of its author, Wyndham Wise. Wyndham Wise is the editor of Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film and publisher of Take One: Film & Television in Canada (1992–2006).