Ted Kotcheff at Fantasia
By Maurie Alioff
(August 1, 2019 – Montréal, Québec) As Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival wound down, the fest honoured moviemaker Ted Kotcheff with its first ever Canadian Trailblazer Award. It might seem surprising that a genre event programming horror, thrillers, Asian action, and unclassifiable craziness would pinpoint the director of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
On the other hand, the festival has always encouraged respect for excellence in filmmaking. And in fact, the now 88-year-old Kotcheff is an eclectic director who made the Australian horror film Wake in Fright, (which has been called the best Australian movie ever made), and launched the John Rambo series with his First Blood.
Kotcheff fought to cast Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, the director recalled at Fantasia’s screening of a 4K restoration of the film. Producers didn’t want the actor because the movies he made after playing Rocky were flops. However, Kotcheff saw in Stallone a “touching vulnerability,” as well as physical power – ideal for a character who reacts to past war trauma and current victimization by going into a one man war against the small town cops tormenting him.
A gracious and talkative man, Kotcheff was obviously delighted by how vibrant the restoration looked and how well the film played with the youthful festival audience. First Blood turned out to be a megahit that Warner Brothers didn’t want to make because of wariness about films evoking the Viet Nam War. At the same time, they held onto the project because they didn’t want to “look like idiots, which is exactly what happened,” Kotcheff laughed. Mario Kassar eventually pried away the rights to the property, made a fortune, and went on to the produce the sequels.
Introducing the screening, Kotcheff told the packed house that this US production “is a Canadian film.” First Blood was based on a novel by Canadian David Morrell, directed by by a Canadian-born filmmaker, and shot in B.C. Following an engaging Q&A, Kotcheff accepted his Canadian Trailblazer Award.
Kotcheff also appeared at a festival screening of Duddy Kravitz, introduced the film, and fielded questions with Montreal film critic Mathhew Hays. Kotcheff flashed back to the long ago days when he roomed with Mordechai Richler in London. From the moment, Richler pulled the last page of his story about a young Jewish hustler out of his typewriter; Kotcheff knew he wanted to put Duddy onscreen. For years, he sought a producer and financing, and thanked heaven when Sam Arkoff of American International offered to make the film. There was unfortunately a “but,” a huge one. Arkoff wanted Duddy to be Greek.
Kotcheff recalls his shock. Greek? Richler wrote the novel out of his experience of growing up Jewish in a Catholic city where schoolyard bullies called him a “Christ Killer,” and a giant Cross lit up the sky on Mount Royal. Eventually, the Canadian Film Development Corporation materialized with the mission of developing a Canadian movie industry. Michael Spencer of the CFDC green lit the project, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz became a milestone in Canadian film history.
At first, Richler was uninterested in working on the project. In London, Kotcheff worked out structure and a first draft of the screenplay with ex-Montrealer Lionel Chetwynd, who went on to become a prolific, Los Angeles based writer-director-producer.
In the next stage, Richler got involved, and Kotcheff found his dream Duddy when casting master Lyn Stalmaster recommended an unknown actor called Richard Dreyfuss. It’s a nice little irony that an American movie star launched his career with a Canadian movie that had a $75000 budget. “As soon as he opened his mouth,” Kotcheff recalls, “he was electric.”
Equally indelible in the movie, Micheline Lanctôt played Duddy’s long-suffering girlfriend with luminous grace. Kotcheff spotted her when he saw her in a Cannes screening of Le Vrai Nature de Bernadette. “That’s Yvette,” he said to a friend. He cast Lanctôt and went on to have a five-year relationship with her that “ended amicably” with a love that didn’t fade, he told the audience
Not only was Duddy Kravitz, which bustles with life in a way many Canadian films fail to, a breakthrough movie for Canada, “it went into profit on the first week,” says Kotcheff. When asked about the movie’s ambiguous ending – what exactly will Duddy do next?” – Kotcheff, said, “Life doesn’t have concrete endings. There’s always stuff straggling.”
Also see: Rambo at Cannes.
Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times.