Queer Pioneer: David Secter Talks about Winter Kept Us Warm
by Matthew Hayes
Perhaps the most striking thing about watching Winter Kept Us Warm is the very fact that the movie exists at all. Shot by a then 22–year–old first–time filmmaker, David Secter, on the University of Toronto campus in the winter of 1964, it stands as a magnificent achievement.
Here is an unapologetic—if subtly told—story about two young college students who fall in love. The fact that both of them are men hardly seems to matter, as Secter saw the their attraction as so innocent that this sentiment is reflected in the film’s tone. As Secter tells it today, the actors really weren’t even entirely sure they were in a gay movie—which would be understandable, seeing as the popular notion of a “gay movie” really didn’t exist at that point.
Nor, for that matter, did any sense of a Canadian film culture or industry. As David Cronenberg tells it in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Winter Kept Us Warm proved an inspiration for the young director–to–be, given its audacity and the fact that a Canadian had managed to pick up a camera and make an actual good movie with a few friends. “Secter had somehow hustled together a feature film,” Cronenberg states, “that was intriguing because it was completely unprecedented. And then the film appeared, and I was stunned. Shocked. Exhilarated. It was an unbelievable experience. This movie was a very sweet film.”
And Winter Kept Us Warm, as it turned out, had legs. It was the first English–language Canadian feature to be invited to Cannes, where it was warmly received. The film went on to have theatrical runs in several cities across North America. All astonishing parts of the story, given the fact that the contemporary gay–rights movement was then in its early incubation period. Secter followed up with The Offering, (pictured above) believed to depict the first interracial relationship in a Canadian movie. But sadly, Canada’s lack of a film industry and infrastructure meant Secter felt compelled to move to the U.S., where, he says now, there was more opportunity. “I had developed a series that had gay characters in it, and I was in discussions with the CBC about it, but nothing came of it,” Secter recalls. “Back then, there was really just the CBC and the NFB and that was about it.” He worked in the theatre and continued to make the occasional film project in New York, where he was slated to direct Sonny and Cher in their first feature film. (Alas, Cher became pregnant with Chastity, so the project was put off.) Later, Secter migrated west to California, where he settled in Long Beach.
In its fortieth–anniversary year, Winter Kept Us Warm has seen a revival of interest. David Secter’s nephew, Joel, has made a thoughtful documentary on his uncle’s unusual and celebrated spot in film history. Titled The Best of Secter & The Rest of Secter, the documentary has made the international film festival rounds, drumming up more press about Secter and Winter Kept Us Warm. The film reveals many of the details of Secter’s life and evolution as an artist, including the fact that he is HIV postive. As well, Winter has been released on DVD by the Canadian Film Distribution Centre. (Although it is only available to libraries, universities and other academic institutions at a cost of $175.) Secter is now close to completing negotiations for a DVD collector’s edition, with a price tag more in line with the budget of the average consumer.
Secter still makes movies, his latest being Take the Flame, a feature documentary about the history of the gay games, the massive sporting event that will next take place this summer in Chicago. Secter spoke to Take One from his Long Beach home.
Q: When did the renaissance for Winter Kept Us Warm begin?
A: [Montreal author and Concordia film professor] Tom Waugh wrote a piece in the early 1980s in [the now–defunct Canadian gay magazine] The Body Politic praising the film. Then I got a number of calls from gay film festivals across Canada. First, the Ottawa festival got in touch with me and asked to show the film. That article really helped to create a lot of renewed interest in Winter. I hadn’t even see Tom’s article until I attended the festival. I hadn’t actually even seen the film myself in about 20 years. At that point it wasn’t even on video, so we made a point of getting the film put on VHS. The film had made quite a few waves in the 1960s, but it really had been forgotten. It was great that Tom wrote about it after all those years. I know he also shows it in his film classes at Concordia as well. I don’t even know how Tom knew about it!
Q: Do you remember what struck you most as you watched it at that point, after a 20–year absence?
A: That it’s even showable! We were all so green when we made it. I still cringe in certain places. The fact that you can screen it and it seems to resonate with an audience today, that’s very rewarding. The other thing that amazes me, to this day, is plus ca change—so much remains the same, kids grappling with their sexuality. It’s probably not that much different, in some respects.
Q: It’s funny, because Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a film in which the central storyline wraps around the romance between two cowboys, is being touted as a real breakthrough. Your film is so innocent.
A: It’s taken so long for a film like this to be made by a studio and a big–name director. It does feel like there have been forces working to keep this kind of story off the big screen. The kind of money that it requires to produce and circulate a studio film, it’s a topic that turns off a lot of people. You’ve got to wonder if it’s a niche audience and a crossover audience to justify the millions of dollars you’ve got riding on it. It’s great that you don’t have to spend that amount of money anymore. The independent scene is allowing filmmakers to get into every nook and cranny, with a lot of variations. I’m surprised that there are so many movies out there about the transsexual experience. Talk about a niche audience! Suddenly there’s a whole genre around it.
Q: You’ve said one of your major influences with Winter was the French nouvelle vague.
A: There was a place called the New Yorker cinema in Toronto. It was the one place you could go for arthouse cinema in the 1960s. There were a lot of foreign films shown there. I was reviewing them all for the [University of Toronto student newspaper] The Varsity at the time. I loved it, I just saw everything that would screen at the cinema. I was really knocked out by Godard and Truffaut—it was much easier for me to relate to those films rather than Hollywood studio films. There didn’t seem to be as much going on in America. Cassavetes was making films, as were a couple of others, but they were few and far between. Those were the films that I felt much closer to, in terms of sensibility, was what the French were doing. Certainly, the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal it made a huge impact on me—I had never seen anything like it before. In Canada, Don Owen had made Nobody Waved Good–Bye. That was a strong influence too, because I knew the film’s lead actor, Peter Kastner, who was also at the University of Toronto. This gave me idea that it could actually be done. Before I got to Toronto, I used to go to the film society in Winnipeg. That was where I saw my first Satyajit Ray films. Those were very eye–opening as well. But Toronto was where I became absolutely hooked. I think I also took something from the fact that many of the nouvelle vague filmmakers began as critics as well. Much of making of Winter Kept Us Warm, frankly, came from ignorance, I suppose. They made movies, I figured, so why shouldn’t I? And it makes for a bit of a logical cycle, in the end, because Winter became the first English–language Canadian feature to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was very warmly received. Sophia Loren chaired the jury that year. I ended up sitting with her at a dinner party they’d organized. She was stunning. That was a heady experience, one I’ll never forget. Cannes made me feel like I was the closest to levitating that I’ll ever get.
Q: When you were proposing and making Winter, there was some questioning by University of Toronto authorities, correct?
A: Definitely. I think some were taken aback by the sheer audacity of us making a movie. People in the theatre scene were very enthusiastic. But you had to get permission to do the shoot, and some could see through the carefully–worded synopsis, which was loaded with euphemisms to fly under everyone’s radar. But some realized thatit might smack of something that was taboo. One dean, who I needed permission from, said, “There’s nothing like that here! How dare you bring the university into this!” I was pretty good at finding my way around people like that, and simply finding another route towards getting things done. The theatre department was very helpful in terms of recommendations for casting. So I also got a lot of cooperation amid some pockets of resistance.
Q: Your script was so carefully covert that even the actors weren’t quite sure what they were up to.
A: I thought I was clear with them about what the film was about, but to this day a number of them say they had no idea. They say they had no idea their character was to be perceived as gay. This was a different time though. A lot of people didn’t really even have terms for it.
Q: You wrote a sequel to Winter?
A: I called it Memory and Desire, which, like the title of the original, was also from T.S. Elliot, which I quote in the movie. I have them meet up 30 years later, and they both have married. One day, one of the wives arrives home to find her husband in bed with the other fellow. There’s a divorce, but there is also reconciliation. It would have been a great sequel. If we were to make anything now, of course, we’d have to update it entirely because I wrote this over a decade ago.
Q: Are you ever surprised at how far gays have come, both in terms of social acceptance and legal equality?
A: We’re light years away from where we were in 1965, when sodomy was still in the criminal code. Oh yes, absolutely! If someone had told me, when we were making Winter, that gay marriage would be legal in Canada within 40 years, I would have wondered what they’d been smoking. It’s amazing that Canada has become so progressive, because there are still some conservative people there. I’m thrilled that Canada has been at the forefront of gay rights. I wish to Hell that some of that attitude permeated this side of the border. I’m quite frightened by the influence of the religious right here, people who think that the Bible should be read literally. How do you talk to people like that? I can’t move back though because I’ve become too acclimatized to California.
Also see: David Sector’s filmography.
This article is reprinted from Issue 52 of Take One Magazine, published in December of 2005. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One Magazine in 2007. Matthew Hays was a member of Take One’s editorial board and had written for The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, Toronto Star, The Advocate and Playback.