Interview: John Paizs on Crime Wave

Brian Beadie interviewed director John Paizs on his cult classic debut Crime Wave, on the occasion of the tour we organised for Scalarama 2018

One of the absolute highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival was Crime Wave, an unduly neglected Canadian comedy from 1985 which, despite being over 30 years old, emerged as one of the freshest and one of the funniest films to be shown at the festival. The film was programmed by Sean Welsh of Matchbox Cineclub who, after its rapturous reception at the festival, is bringing the film back for a limited engagement for Scalarama.

Crime Wave is as visually inventive and playfully pomo as an early Coen Brothers or Sam Raimi film (no, it’s not the film they collaborated on), but its director, John Paizs, would never make it big, despite being part of the innovative Winnipeg Film Group, whose other alumni include Guy Maddin. I would go so far to say that I prefer his dark comedy on the perils of scriptwriting to the Coens’ take on the same subject, Barton Fink – it’s far less pretentious, and has far more charm.

To give you an idea of the hectic invention of the film, here’s Paizs describing the film’s genesis:

“You could say it was a slight exercise in making lemonade from lemons. I was feeling pressured because I’d just written two feature length screenplays I wasn’t happy with, one of them called Crime Wave — a completely different story — and the other, Crazy Casey. Then one night at this time, sitting at my kitchen table, in front of a blank page, I just started writing ‘THE TOP!,’ and wrote out the rest of what would become the opening narration to this second go at Crime Wave. In a jokey way, it was expressing exactly my big secret dream for myself at this time with this new movie — which was to be a big success with it, bursting onto the scene — FROM THE NORTH! Ha — OK — scene one. Then, what next? Well, often when you hit the ground running like that in a story, it turns out that that opening bit was a dream, or something staged in the story, or just otherwise not ‘real’.”

John Paizs as Steven Penny in Crime Wave

“And so I thought — well, it could have been the opening scene to a movie that someone had written — like me. OK, so what next? OK — now, in Crazy Casey, I had a guy staying in an apartment over this family’s garage, and the family included a daughter, Casey, late teens, and the guy, who’s a freshman in college, has a thing for her — and next thing, that got reversed, she has a thing for him, she’s now ten, her name is Kim, and he’s a wannabe filmmaker — Steven Penny — who’s just capable of writing fun crap like we’d just seen opening this new Crime Wave. OK, so she comes on in scene two, she’s just finishing reading what we’d just seen in scene one, which is the beginning to one of Steven’s discarded screenplays, all of them called Crime Wave, and, breaking the fourth wall, she tells us about it. OK, so then what? Well, how about then she starts reading the ending to this same discarded Crime Wave, and we jump to that? More fun crap. And then — and this may have been my best idea in all of this new Crime Wave — we come back to her, in scene four, and she says that Steven’s problem is he can’t write middles! Boom. Writer’s block comedy. At that point I knew what it was I was writing. I didn’t know it until then. That’s when I found it out. And that’s what I went ahead and wrote.”

What Paizs wrote was a wildly unpredictable comedy with a shockingly high gag rate, taking potshots at everything from film form to current fads of the eighties – you can almost feel his delight in coming up with more outlandish scenarios, throwing in everything from self-help to the death of Sid Vicious into the mix.

“I never had a method for writing screenplays in those days beyond start with the title, then just jump right into it, no outline, no treatment, just make it up as I go along. And sometimes it would turn out more like a traditional dramatic narrative, and sometimes it wouldn’t, like Crime Wave. But I was never conscious of it being one way or the other at any point. I never thought hardly at all about what I was doing. I just did it. And then, when I got to the end of each script, that was it. No second draft, no revisions pretty much. I’d just apply for grant money to make the movie and that was that. So I guess it’s no wonder Crime Wave turned out the way it did, from a story standpoint. I just did what I liked, wrote scenes that I thought were original and funny, and didn’t think hardly at all about whether they advanced the plot or anything like that. Though actually there was one idea I brought to that script that I hadn’t brought to the others before it: and that was to keep the scenes short, and to keep cycling through the same like four or five types of them — a narrated scene, followed by an action scene, followed by a music scene, followed by a dialogue scene, then back to a narrated scene — that kind of thing, over and over, in a loop. I tried my best to make it that way, to keep things hopping like that, to keep the film hopefully jumping off the screen. I was determined not to repeat my huge mistake of my film just previous to Crime Wave, which was practically nonstop dialogue. Crime Wave was supposed to have learned from that one and be fun and alive.”

Indeed, most of the biggest laughs in the film come from pure sight gags, disrupting the film’s lush but highly controlled visual style, a reflection of Paizs’ background as a graphic artist.

“Because I (almost) never move the camera in the movie, it’s like a series of tableaus, or fixed comic strip panels. And I also lit it with hard light, to give it this ‘50s Technicolor look — high contrast and bright saturated colours — which was going directly counter to the prevailing look of movies at this time. So yeah, its visual aesthetic was one of the big things I was selling with it and that was going to be new and exciting about it. Out with the old, in with the new (old), kind of thing.”

Classic slapstick comedy is definitely another influence in play here – indeed, Paizs plays the lead himself, but mute, as a homage to the master of slapstick, Buster Keaton. “I had Buster’s Great Stone Face in mind for my character. It’s something I thought I could put my own spin on, and give the movie another level of originality at the same time because a non-speaking protagonist forces you to think of alternative — and sometimes very unexpected — ways to get ideas across. And also by doing it, I got to be a lead in a movie, and be good at it, with my extremely limited acting ability were I to speak.”

This device allows the film to be narrated in faux-naif style by his landlord’s daughter, who’s got a giant crush on him (a great performance by Eva Kovacs), which leads to another of the film’s influences – Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. “If Uncle Charlie had murdered prose instead of widows it would have been almost the same movie! I got the whole darkness-in-a-small-town framework from that movie, plus the two Charlies’ relationship has a definite parallel to Steven and Kim’s.”

Eva Kovacs on set as Kim in John Paizs’ Crime Wave

So if Crime Wave is so good – and it really is that good – how come you’ve never heard of it, never mind seen it? Paizs explains the reason for the film’s neglect thus:

“It went down amazingly, actually, at festivals, got amazing reviews — like a few of them almost ridiculously full of praise. But what did it in was a nightmare scenario involving the film’s first distributor. The distribution agreement I’d signed with them had a clause in it saying I’d be paid my guaranteed minimum within eighteen months of the film’s first theatrical release, which they tried not to give it! Instead, they just quickly dumped it onto home video and made some quick pay TV sales, and that they hoped was that, saving them a bundle of dough they’d otherwise be paying in advertising, etcetera, never mind my money. Finally, after taking certain actions, I was able to trigger my payment — like three years later — but by this time it was too late for the film, and I was devastated.”

When I saw the film earlier this year, with Paizs in attendance, he looked slightly nervous about the film’s reception – he needn’t have been. It brought the house down. However, he confesses, “I was so worried about how it would go over in Glasgow, for a million reasons, and was so incredibly relieved and delighted about how well it did go over. But what I hope people can appreciate today, whether they like the film or not, is how new and radical it was back in the day, because it was, then. Time may have eroded the perception of that quite a bit, but it was, what can I say.”

I can attest that Crime Wave stands the test of time very well indeed – its wit and playfulness undimmed – as one of the most inventive cinematic debuts of the eighties, and one that richly deserves a wider audience.

Brian Beadie

Crime Wave | Weird Weekend

John Paizs’ unsung deadpan masterpiece screens from fully-restored 2K DCP.

Crime Wave 2“If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, John Paizs might be the one to make it.”

Jay Scott, Globe and Mail, 1985

In 1986, a cult film named Crimewave was released. Though it bombed, critically and commercially, it was a notable stepping stone in the careers of a many of its key players, who, despite its ignominious failure, went on to have glittering careers that left it only a curious blip in their CVs.  In this case, the term “cult” applies only in the sense that completist fans of the Coen Brothers (writers), Sam Raimi (director) and Bruce Campbell (producer, star) will keep its faint flame burning for a good while longer than it demands on its own merits. Meanwhile in Canada, another film, similarly-titled, received blazing reviews on its festival debut then all but disappeared without trace.

John Paizs’ Crime Wave was the culmination of themes and style developed by Paizs in a series of shorts starring the director himself as a ‘silent man’ character, Nick, the predecessor of Stephen Penny, mute protagonist of Crime Wave. Penny is an aspiring screenwriter, afflicted with a peculiar kind of writer’s block – he can only write beginnings and endings for the “colour crime pictures” he aspires to make, and no middles. When he takes a room above a suburban family’s garage, his landlord’s daughter, Kim (Eva Kovacs), discovers his abandoned script pages in the trash and takes it upon herself to help him realise his potential.

The synopsis, however, barely sketches the experience of Crime Wave. Paizs painstakingly shot and styled his film to mimic the Technicolor of classical Hollywood. He also re-recorded all dialogue in post-production, inspired equally by the highly-controlled sound design of radio dramas. The tone, meanwhile, is deadpan absurd, the construction post-modern. Paizs interpolates Penny’s travails and Kim’s enterprise with sequences realising the opening and closing scenes from Stephen’s script fragments. When Kim introduces him to a mysterious Dr Jolly, who promises a solution to Stephen’s dire straits, the film accelerates towards a manic and hilarious climactic montage.

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John Paizs as Stephen Penny in Crime Wave

Crime Wave debuted at the 1985 Festival of Festivals (later to become the Toronto International Film Festival). The screening was also, according to Paizs, essentially a test screening. Writing and producing his own work, he’d gotten used to unusual creative freedom. “I used to just get to the end and I would not show the script to anybody and I would not do another draft, I just applied to the Arts Council for the money and they were less concerned about, ‘Does it have a coherent story?’ They were more into, ‘Well, is it kind of different?’” Crime Wave, like its creator, was certainly different. Following the (successful) festival screening, Paizs was dissatisfied enough to entirely rewrite, re-shoot and re-cut the film’s final 20 minutes.

Justifiably, though unjustly, it remains the high water mark in Paizs’ filmmaking career. “After Crime Wave, expectations were quite high for me,” explains Paizs. “According to the Globe and Mail reviewer, I had to make the great Canadian comedy, and, I’ll tell you, that was the best thing that someone could possibly say to any film-maker, right, but also the worst. And because I decided not to do the ‘silent man’ thing anymore after Crime Wave, not only did I have to come up with something new that I could invest myself in passionately, but it also had to be great and, you know, that in a nutshell is why there was no follow-up to Crime Wave.” Which is a genuine tragedy for cinema, especially since the Globe and Mail review was based on the first, unrefined cut of Paizs’ masterpiece.

Crime Wave could only have been made in Canada, in Winnipeg and by John Paizs, though it’s so much more than just a great Canadian film. Though its theatrical release was thwarted by an ill-advised distribution deal (which complicates its home-viewing release to this day), Crime Wave’s timeless originality,  meticulously-crafted aesthetic and the singular voice of its creator stake a claim for it in film history, exclusively on its on terms.


This article originally appeared in Physical Impossibility #4: Guide to World Cinema.

Crime Wave screens at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday 3rd June. Tickets from £5, day and weekend passes are available. All tickets available from CCA’s box office, 0141 352 4900, or online: bit.ly/weirdweekend. #makeitweird

John Paizs’ Crime Wave on DCP

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“Imagine if Steve Buscemi’s character from Ghost World made a movie, with levels of deadpan that make Jim Jarmusch look like Baz Luhrmann… but with a lurid perversion in every lovingly Bolexed frame that would make Baz blush.” Castle Cinema

“It’s a joyous, uninhibited film, with each frame fit to burst with visual jokes and ideas. Scenes resemble at times live action Far Side panels, delivering buckets of deadpan, obsidian-black comedy. If there’s a funnier Canadian film out there, we haven’t seen it.” The Skinny

We first screened John Paizs’ incredible lost classic Crime Wave at Glasgow Film Festival 2017. Thanks to GFF’s partnership, not only were we able to bring John across for the screening, we also screened TIFF‘s 2K digital restoration of the film, the first time audiences outside North America had seen it. We then partnered with Canadian distributors Winnipeg Film Group to bring Crime Wave back for a series of screenings, first for Scalarama in September, and then across the UK throughout October and November.

Now, thanks to the Castle Cinema in London (and some final testing at the Grosvenor Cinema, Glasgow), we have our very own DCP to screen from. A DCP is essentially the digital version of a 35mm print. Having one in the UK will hopefully lead to many, many more screenings of John’s amazing, criminally underseen film (read more about Crime Wave here).

Matchbox Cineclub are acting as proxy for Winnipeg Film Group in booking UK screenings. If you’d like to book a UK/DCP screening of Crime Wave, email us for details/terms: matchboxcine@gmail.com

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Matchbox Cineclub vs Scalarama

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Scalarama is just around the corner and we have some of our biggest and best events lined up for it this September. First, we team up with Video Namaste for an event inspired by Everything Is Terrible, the Found Footage Festival and Adam Buxton’s Bug. Then we have a very special event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Chris Morris’ landmark TV comedy Brass Eye. Our Glasgow events culminate on our regular date at CCA with our very first live score commission. Finally, we’re using Scalarama to launch our first ever tour, bringing back John Paizs’ masterpiece, Crime Wave for its theatrical debut across the UK.

07/09: Video Bacchanal at Nice N Sleazy 

The ‘90s in cinema were an amazing nightmare. A sugar-syrup throb of VHS scanlines, dire fast food tie-ins and probably the weirdest time in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life. Come join the Video Namaste boys in a wee trip through the weird videoshop hellscape of 90s cinema and all the amazing stuff that orbited it. Have a drink, gawk at us forgetting to remember and then have a wee dance with us as we play some Exxtra Special ‘90s soundtrack songs afterwards.

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17/09: Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes with director Q&A at CCA

Made from hundreds of hours of unseen material from his personal archive, director Michael Cumming’s film shares insights into the process of making the legendary TV series Brass Eye. Michael directed both the pilots and the series and, over a two-year period, witnessed the highs and lows of Brass Eye from a very personal perspective.

Part documentary, part artwork – the film is designed solely for live screenings and is made up almost entirely of never before seen footage. Oxide Ghosts carries the blessing of Chris Morris and provides a rare glimpse of his extraordinary working practices.

Michael will be doing a Q&A after the film – spilling beans, shattering myths and letting a few cats out of the bag. Celebrating 20 years since Brass Eye’s transmission in 1997, this film and Q&A session are a must for fans of the series but will appeal to anyone with a curiosity about how great comedy is made.

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21/09: Cowards Bend The Knee with live score by Ela Orleans at CCA

Guy Maddin is one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic directors currently working. The Canadian auteur has mined and subverted the imagery and style of late silent and early sound cinema in such films as The Forbidden Room and The Saddest Music In The World to disorientating, often hilarious effect. Cowards Bend The Knee is one his greatest, but least-known films. Originally conceived of and presented as a peephole show, the film’s ten chapters concoct an alternative cinematic biography for Maddin, torn between the influence of his hockey star father and his attraction to Meta, the beautiful girl from the local beauty salon / illegal abortion clinic.

This is Guy Maddin in purest form, the most concentrated and probably craziest film of his career. Never have hockey, hairdressing, homophobia and hand amputations collided to such dizzying effect, in perhaps the most authentically surrealist film of the 21st century. For Scalarama, Matchbox Cineclub have commissioned Ela Orleans to write a new score.

Ela Orleans has gained an international cult reputation for her haunted, noir-inflected torch songs. She recently came to more mainstream attention when her magnum opus Circles of Upper and Lower Hell was nominated for the SAY Awards. However, the Polish-born musician has a parallel career, scoring film soundtracks having studied composition under David Shire (The Conversation, The Taking of Pelham 123) in New York. She has composed new soundtracks for films as diverse as Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.

After the screening, journalist Brian Beadie will discuss Ela’s work and approaches to film scoring.

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September and beyond: Crime Wave DCP tour at various UK venues

One of the greatest and yet most perversely overlooked debuts in Canadian movie history, writer-director John Paizs’s Crime Wave announced the birth of a new genre in Canuck cinema: what cultural critic Geoff Pevere dubbed “prairie postmodernism.” Crime Wave’s recent restoration by TIFF debuted to a rapturous reception during Glasgow Film Festival 2017, programmed by us. Still unavailable on DVD, VOD or streaming, Paizs’ lost classic now comes to UK theatres for the first time. Dates are confirmed at DCA (Dundee), Castle Cinema (London), Hawick and HOME (Manchester).

Disney


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Five More Films about Filmmaking

To celebrate our screening of Maurice Hatton’s Long Shot (1978), about a couple of filmmakers struggling to get their dream project set up at 1977’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and after the first five, we recommend another five films about filmmaking…

Crime Wave

Crime Wave (John Paizs, 1985). Dunno what it is about Winnipeg, but they unaccountably love Phantom of the Paradise more than anywhere on Earth and every so often they produce an outsider filmmaker par excellence. Perhaps most notably, Winnipeg gave us Guy Maddin and John Paizs – the latter responsible for this, unfortunately (and barely) released the year before Sam Raimi’s Crimewave (1986), condemning it to be overlooked in perpetuity. Which is a shame, because it’s great – a tongue-in-cheek homage to 1940s/1950s American screen culture, it features Paizs himself as a struggling screenwriter who can only write beginnings and endings.

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Barton Fink (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 1991). Speaking of writer’s block, has there ever been a better take on it than the Coens’? Never mind that the brothers insist they don’t suffer from it (work on Miller’s Crossing had simply slowed to a crawl, so they took a break to develop Fink), or that no-one really agrees on what it’s about. It’s still John Turturro’s signature role, give or take a Jesus, the root of an excellent Simpsons joke and still one of the Coens’ all-time best.

Living

Living In Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995). Still pretty much the go-to reference point for films about indie filmmaking, this was inspired by DiCillo’s experiences making the extremely early-90s Johnny Suede and not making his passion project Box of Moonlight, ultimately his follow-up to Oblivion). Particularly notable for the shade it casts on Johnny Suede star Brad Pitt via his stand-in character, Chad Palomino (James LeGros), and Peter Dinklage’s diatribe against Hollywood  cliché (“I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them!”).

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Cecil B Demented (John Waters, 2000). One of the best late-period Waters but weirdly not the most loved. Cecil B Demented (Stephen Dorff) is the leader of a cell of kamikaze filmmakers – the SprocketHoles – who kidnap film star diva Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) to force her to act in their film. Maybe it’s a little inside baseball – it’ll help if you know your Premingers from your Peckinpahs – but that’s almost part of the joke. It’s a Matchbox favourite (we screened it in April 2015) with a ridiculously prescient cast (early roles for Michael Shannon and Maggie Gyllenhaal among many others) and really just gets better with age.

The Independent

The Independent (Stephen Kessler, 2000). From the celebrated director of Vegas Vacation (1997) and featuring playing-themselves cameos from Peter Bogdanovich, Karen Black, Roger Corman, Ted Demme, Ron Howard and Fred Williamson, this is a mockumentary portrait of Morty Fineman (Ben’s dad Jerry Stiller), a Lloyd Kaufman-style master of the B-movie. He’s over the hill and down on his luck, but banking on an unlikely comeback – in fact, his struggle to get  a dream project made and his career on track mimics that of the stars of Long Shot. How’s that for putting a bow on it?

Sean Welsh


Long Shot screens at CCA on Thursday 21/07. Tickets are on sale now.