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An Interview with Allan King

This interview was published in the winter 2010 issue of Brick,a literary journal based in Toronto. It is posted here by permission of the Toronto International Film Festival. The photograph appears courtesy of Colleen Murphy.

We met on March 4, 2002, in Allan King’s Toronto living room, where we sat around a large coffee table beneath brightly colored Mediterranean art. Blaine Allan had helped bring an archival collection of King’s work to Queen’s University; Peter Harcourt, one of the founders of Canadian film studies, had known King for more than thirty years; I’d known him for almost that long. I had invited King to the Grierson film seminar in 1984, which, at a discussion of Who’s in Charge?, had ended in a fistfight. The atmosphere was more peaceful on the day of this interview. We had coffee and began to talk. —Seth Feldman

PH: You once said in an interview that you hated making films.

AK: I find it terrifying. Somebody once asked, “If you were given a million dollars, what film would you make?” And I said, “I would put the money in the bank and I would never make another one.”

PH: Do you still hate it?

AK: I tell you, my letters home from Estonia during the last weeks of making The Dragon’s Egg were piteous and pitiable. Documentaries are terrifying. Television episodes are a piece of cake because they are so contrived. It’s work to a pattern. Original work, like a feature, I found difficult, although less so later on when I got more skillful. But the difficulty there is interpreting. You’re always looking over your shoulder wondering, What does the writer think? That’s why I have always had the writer on set if at all possible.

SF: But filmmaking must offer you some pleasure and satisfaction.

AK: Oh, it’s discovery. Doing a documentary, particularly as we got freer and the equipment got lighter and you were more able to do those things that you always saw and thought, Oh, if I could just capture that now, but you never could because the equipment was too cumbersome—it was being able to explore territory. A universe of discourse, if you will. I read a lot but I never quite discover as much as I do in the course of making a film, because the people you film teach you all sorts of stuff. The stuff they give you—it’s spontaneous, it comes out of nowhere, you get extraordinary subtexts. Audiences tell you a lot of things about your films. You learn things thirty years later that you never knew.

SF: For example?

AK: I’ve just discovered something about A Married Couple that never occurred to me before. It was about the moment when Billy and Antoinette have been down in Maine at Eastport, and she has been flirting with a guy and playing with her tassels, fairly close to her genital area. And there’s a sense that there may or may not have been an affair. There wasn’t an affair. But at any rate, there she is sitting on his lap and there is an aria, a bass aria from The Magic Flute. And she is crying. It seemed to sum up the whole feeling of where they were and her feelings. And I think it affected people very strongly. I just learned from Richard [Leiterman] that Antoinette was crying because we were almost done filming, and Richard and Chris [Wangler] would be going. They wouldn’t be a fixture in the house anymore.

And talking to Richard, I thought, Well, you know, does that mean that I have committed an offense in ethics or truth or so on, by using feelings for one apparent thing when it’s another? Does it mean that Antoinette didn’t have those feelings? But what I finally realized, of course, was that the tears were tears of loss and they only come because one has experienced many losses and some thoroughly profound ones, and the distance between her and Billy was partly that as well. So it was perfectly appropriate.

There is another question that some people raise: Are they acting? And it sort of begs the question, because even if they were acting, where did the stuff come from? You know, it’s like dreams. They are your dreams. The action in the dream is yours because you have remembered the dream and you have created the dream. And the feelings are what you may act with or pretend with. So they are valid. Feelings in a sense are unchallenged. Unchallengeable. But they are often surprising.

BA: Okay, but you’re there as well. What role does making a film, especially a film made for broadcast, play in that kind of therapeutic situation?

AK: One gets caught in a bind, and I discovered that nowhere more acutely than with Warrendale, because my objective in the film, and the goal of the film, was to explore the experience of being a child. Warrendale turned out to be an extraordinarily vivid location because the children’s freedom of expression was the priority. Kids were encouraged to express their feelings as long as they didn’t hurt themselves, the place, the property, or other kids. But the object of the film wasn’t to make a statement about treatment. I happened to have views rising out of it, but the film wasn’t designed or edited to express those views. A film always has to be edited to reflect and make meaningful the experience that you have recorded. Just as if you write a book. You imagine all the experience and express all the feelings in your text and then you shape it into a meaning. But if you start to shape it into a didactic meaning, or good guys versus bad guys, you end up with a very trivial piece of work.

I had a similar notion with A Married Couple, that if you could look at a marriage in conflict with sufficient acuity, care, and attention, you might be able to discover reasons why marriages get into difficulty. The film suggests a number of them. Billy and Antoinette said their reason for going into the film was to see if they could resolve the problems in their marriage. They looked at all the footage, swore that they would never do those things again and, of course, did. As we all do. Because you can have all the insight in the world but it doesn’t mean that you are going to change.

PH: You have always been concerned with outcasts, from the alcoholics in Skidrow to the unemployed in Who’s in Charge?, the mother and daughter in Termini Station, and the Russians in The Dragon’s Egg. What does that mean for you?

AK: Well, as I became a little more self-aware, a process that I suppose started with Warrendale, I began to call myself Little Orphan Allan. That was really about my parents splitting when I was six and the extraordinarily traumatic effect of that, and then moving to two or three other families to live for the next two or three years, and then my family getting together again and then splitting again. And then my mother remarried and I thought that was the ultimate betrayal, you see, because we had finally gotten back together—at least my mother, my sister, and I did.

SF: Not to psychoanalyze—well, okay, to psychoanalyze—how did those early childhood experiences shape your approach to the world around you?

AK: As a kid, I had the notion that if you thought hard enough, explored enough, you would probably find the answer to all the world’s problems and people would be happy instead of miserable. Or so I thought as a child. I spent all my time at university studying philosophy. It started with Greek philosophy, the earliest of Greeks, and it went almost up to modern times. I found that extraordinarily valuable.

PH: Didn’t your background also have something to do with you going into documentary? I remember when he interviewed you in the 1970s, Bruce Martin suggested that to you the idea of writing fiction, when you were a young man, was equivalent to telling a lie—that you couldn’t actually invent something.

AK: Well, it was certainly my theory that Canadians’ difficulty writing fiction well into their history can be traced to the Ulster and Scots background that made banking and insurance our first and primary industries. For accountants, bankers, and insurance people, fiction was close to lying and much disapproved of. So I think there was that repression.

But also, there are always very good vernacular storytellers. I was never one. In fact, in Vancouver I was the only one out of our group that had no talent. Stan [Fox] was a good cameraman. Rolph [Blakstad] was a great painter. He got an Emily Carr scholarship. Gene Lawrence was unquestionably the most talented of us. He had the most imagination. Extraordinary vision. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the vision or the eye that Gene did.

SF: Was there a West Coast school of filmmaking in the late 1950s, some common aesthetic that brought you all together?

AK: The name—the West Coast School—came, I gather, from Unit B at the National Film Board after we began making films in Vancouver. We didn’t think of ourselves as a school. I made Skidrow, and the film board was kind of struck with it. It was different than the way they were doing things. I remember taking Rickshaw to the Montreal festival and being interviewed by Claude Jutra, who was then very young. He referred to the West Coast film school and I was dumbfounded, because we used to fight like cats and dogs. It was one of the great virtues of the place. We used to argue so much. We really learned a lot about film from the arguing. We certainly learned who we were and what we liked that was different from each other. And I always enjoyed debating. I am insufferable in my need to teach and explain the truth of everything.

SF: But out of that nonexistent West Coast school you get a very particular kind of cinema verité—which you then brought to England.

AK: I didn’t go to England to bring cinema verité to the English. I went to England because my wife wouldn’t come back to Canada from Ibiza. And I found Ibiza impossible to work in over the long haul because Franco made it very difficult to bring film in and out. I eventually ended up setting up shop in England. I started doing work from there for the CBC. Mostly interviews and public affairs shows for Ross McLean, a lot of them with Douglas Leiterman. They paid for the documentaries we did—like Rickshaw and Where Will They Go?. And docudramas or essay dramas like Joshua and Running Away Backwards—a number of films before cinema verité actually got going. Although we were getting lighter and lighter equipment, I guess the real break was with the adaptation of the Auricon that Albert [Maysles] and his brother [David] made. I phoned Albert to find out about this camera. So we had long talks and he was very generous, we hit it off very well. So I got one. And that’s really what sort of triggered cinema veritéin Britain.

SF: Looking back now, where does your work from the early 1960s into the 1970s fit into this period and the ideas about documentary film?

AK: A lot of cinema veritéhinged on the drama that came from the event. You have to find a sufficient tension within a work to sustain the length of what you want to explore. But for me, it’s always been about people, my fascination has always been with individual people or individual people within the group—personal actuality drama, if you will.

SF: Your films also seem to be more sympathetic to institutions than most from that period—beginning with the Salvation Army in Skidrow, and in the later films all those psychologists and institutions. Do you think they really do help? Do you include them with some ironic intent? Are they part of a dramatic conflict?

AK: It’s both. It is part of the conflict. I have always been interested in groups or organizations that try to solve problems—from the first strikes I used to get into and union activity when I worked in the logging camps. The key for Skidrow was a social worker and writer, Ben Maartman. I was disconcerted when I discovered that he felt there was really nothing you could do about people on skid row. I have come to the conclusion, after many years, that I agree. I don’t think you can help people who don’t want to change. It is very hard to have a homeless person stay in a home, because they don’t want to stay in a home. I am convinced now that most people get the result that they want. Or that they emotionally need. The real difficulty is between what one says, what one rationally wants, and what one is driven to by need. And the drive or the need for things that in a sense are perverse, or don’t gratify what ordinary people find gratifying, is a kink in character, which produces an outcome that is, for most people, unacceptable. But it is needed by the person who feels it.

So what do you do for those people? You can try to ensure that they don’t get hurt, that they get fed, that they get cared for in various ways. But respect their need for what they want. And don’t get into a huge moral fuss about it. It took me many years to work through all of that. With Warrendale, for example, I learned that you could work with kids and help, particularly if they were young and had the flexibility to break through. I think people can work through problems and solve them. Emotional problems particularly. If they want to. But our tenacity is really daunting to overcome. We hold on to our neuroses with great tenacity because they are part of our very identity. The most terrifying thing of all for most people is to lose their identity. It’s the hardest, most painful aspect of schizophrenia.

PH: You once said that what took you to documentary was a wish to explore your own thoughts and feelings—which you felt uncertain about—through those of other people. I want to know whether that’s changed over the years. Are you still uncertain of your thoughts and feelings?

AK: I am particularly surprised by my feelings, because I often think that I know them and then I get caught by surprise and am dumbfounded. Actually, I burst into tears very easily. But I also get angry over some things I thought I had full management over. I am always surprised by my feelings—perhaps because for many years I was a very closed person and hid my feelings even from myself.

SF: Much of what you’ve done since the mid-1980s has been television: some anthology shows, some episodes for ongoing series. What attracted you to that kind of work?

AK: Money. I couldn’t make a living doing the work I wanted to do. Episodic television is an easy, undemanding way to make money. And it had other compensations. I always enjoyed running a show well, shooting it on time, on budget. I like planning, thinking the show through. When I began, it was very hard for me to be really visual, much less write down on paper what the show was going to look like. I’d make a shot list, but it was laborious. But doing an episode, I could write a shot list like you’d write a script. It didn’t mean that I would follow the shot list, but at least everybody knew what we were about. It also gave me and everybody else much more freedom to invent. You have a structure underneath you that you can fall back on. Thinking it through on paper is a way of processing the script, in terms of feelings, who’s doing what, what’s significant, what’s not significant. I found that gratifying.

Sometimes the scripts were fun. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes were a delight to do. On Road to Avonlea, I sometimes thought Kevin [Sullivan] was too infatuated with subplots. Not trusting the audience enough, not crediting them with an attention span. But he provided splendid resources, he never skimped on his shows. The sets were excellent, the schedules better than other series. And working with Christopher Lloyd, Diane Keaton, Stockard Channing, Jackie Burroughs, Zack Bennett, Cedric Smith, and the other key actors, that was a real joy.

PH: What brought you back to documentary, specifically The Dragon’s Egg?

AK: I became interested in ethnic identity and conflict in the middle of Czechoslovakia, which was posing as nineteenth-century Prussia in a miniseries I was doing, By Way of the Stars. And I suddenly found myself in a rage, thinking, Why am I making this film about Prussia? What is this film about? It’s about rehabilitating Prussia! Why do I want to rehabilitate Prussia? And I suddenly realized that I, just like everybody else, had an ethnic prejudice—and it was deep-seated—from the World War II excitement we had on the West Coast. We could almost imagine that we could go out and kill and rape people. War allows everything, you see. Little boys think that wars are absolutely the cat’s meow. But I had not been in the war, I had suffered nothing personally from the Germans or the Prussians, and, in any case, what the hell did I actually know about Prussia? So that’s how I became interested in it. Reading about Prussia and the Baltic states, I found an extraordinary hodgepodge of very powerfully held ethnic and national feelings. And in the course of that I heard about Vamik Volkan, who directs the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia. His group had many years of experience dealing with ethnic conflict. So I went to a conference—one of a series—that Vamik and his colleagues were holding.

PH: And it was Vamik who led you to the situation in Estonia that you were to film in The Dragon’s Egg?

AK: That’s right. Vamik’s people were invited by Gorbachev’s people to go to the Baltic states and see if they could find some way to make peace there, so that the Russians wouldn’t get chucked out. The principal problem to be dealt with was that Latvia and Estonia especially, but also Lithuania, had very large numbers of Russian speakers, whom they feared and resented. There was a high risk that the Soviet Union would not allow the Baltic states to achieve independence and, if they did, they might use the excuse of the persecution of former Soviet citizens to reinvade the Baltic states. It was a highly volatile situation. A series of conferences was held, inviting Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to meet over four or five days at a time, in order to try to understand each other. And the Russians and Vamik and his colleagues from the Center acted as facilitators.

Vamik had written an extraordinarily interesting book called Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism [1997]. One part of his theory suggested that all groups have a chosen trauma. And the virtue of a trauma is that you can cherish it for generations. It justifies some sort of recompense, something you are entitled to. It also prevents people from mourning whatever trauma has occurred and moving on. Chosen trauma allows one to preserve hatred. It’s similar to the tenacity with which individuals hold on to their key trauma. The greatest problem in reconciliation is to give up one’s sense of injury sufficiently to allow oneself to hear one’s opponent and try to put oneself in his or her position. Tough work if you’ve been occupied or been the occupier for centuries.

In the end, though, The Dragon’s Egg isn’t a tract about the exceptional work that Vamik Volkan’s center does. It’s about how things worked out with the people he and his group were working with. It was an extraordinary experiment in democracy. Vamik and his group had finished their conference program by the time I had my film financed. So what we ended up filming was quite a different story.

The center had been given three packs of $50,000 to give to each of the three groups—at least ten Estonians and ten Russians in each, who could form a committee, agree on a goal, become incorporated, open a bank account, and budget their project. Under the leadership of Olga Kamoshan, a remarkable half-Estonian, half-Russian woman, the people of Klooga, a smashed-up former Soviet Army base, decided to build a community center for their children. And by gosh, they did all these things, got their money. We end the film as they clean out a wrecked building and a truck carries off the debris. A year later we had the world premiere of the film in Klooga’s newly completed and splendid community center. Good luck or good fortune played a considerable part in their success, too. In fact, Volkan, a brilliant psychoanalyst, was very frank about how many things are a matter of chance, despite what Freud says. And he is a Freudian. But he believes that many things in his life, the most important ones, were by chance, and it’s the same for me. What you do with chance is another matter.

PH: Was it hard to go back to documentary filmmaking?

AK: Yes, I was a bit rusty. With Dragon’s Egg I forgot to give the people as much time as I ought to have done so that they could really understand what it was we were doing. Not so much to understand the subject of the film—they knew that—but rather to get a feel for us. It took a while before they realized that we would be in their laps for a lot of time. We had to have a review meeting halfway through, when the people in the film wanted to go off on holidays. I pointed out that we were leaving at the end of June and it would be nice if they got to where they wanted to be on their project. So we did interfere a little, and I don’t know if they would have gotten their building built when they got it built if we hadn’t had that meeting. But I didn’t tell them to build the building. I didn’t tell them that it was about them achieving what they said their goal was. I just said it would be difficult filming if they were all on holidays and we weren’t there.

BA: Tell us about your next film.

AK: It’s about following a number of people through the process of dying, burial, and after. Getting into the research has been very slow because the whole business of privacy and confidentiality has been difficult to work through with the medical people in the hospitals. But if it’s financed and we go ahead, it will probably be at Sunnybrook [Hospital in Toronto]. I hope to be able to work in a reasonably bounded environment but one with some diversity in it, so that we start with a group of people, a place. And then over ten weeks or eight weeks, key figures will emerge with whom we can identify. So that’s really what it’s about. Clearly, there is nothing we fear more than dying. I don’t know if there is any real way to come to terms with it other than playing at it, as it were, putting oneself into the experience in some emotionally vivid way, so one can come to terms with it.

SF: Your other project, though, is going in the other direction, back to your beginnings. You are starting to write your memoirs. How did that get started?

AK: It started when I was in analysis, in the 1970s. My analyst couldn’t keep track of the various houses I’d lived in and schools I had gone to, and he asked if I would just kindly write it down so he could get it straight. So I started, and I went through the first six years of my life. After he got about sixty pages of it, he said, “Of course you’re not going to publish this.”And I was crushed. Of course I was going to publish it. I thought it was pure gold, you see. So I stopped for thirty years. I started writing again earlier this year and gave myself an awful fright. I couldn’t find the thread, and couldn’t pick up the story. But I have gotten back into it and now I am up to 1939, going into grade five, my mother and father’s second honeymoon. We went in a trailer—my father was selling cars by that time—and we went off on a trip to Grand Coulee Dam. By the end of the honeymoon, I realized the marriage was again doomed. But we went through another year, grade five, which was the best year I ever had in school, actually.

BA: You also gave a paper to the Film Studies Association about making Maria. Was that part of your memoir?

AK: No, but I did realize that I needed to write about my films. I was writing about them, but it was all piecemeal. I had to get it all out and then I could find out what the shape might be. So that’s why I’m writing now. But it’s very difficult to make a living and find time to write. I’ve been totally absorbed in trying to get a masters’ studio going for emerging documentarians. That would pay me some money. If I could write a book, that might pay me some money. And if I could get the film, that would pay me some money. Then I could afford to raise my son. But it’s been tough going. I should go back to television episodes, though I don’t know if I can. Everyone likes young people in that business.

SF: You said toward the beginning of this interview that filmmaking is about discovery. What have you discovered in all your films?

AK: The disabusing thing is that you may learn a lot and indeed find a lot of answers, but you also find that there aren’t any real answers and the world doesn’t particularly get better—it gets different. But the difficulty of getting people to be peaceful or curb their greed and so on is the same as ever. I guess the gratification of getting older is that you know more about it and you become a little more equitable about it. And sometimes you can in fact do something effective. And some people do change.

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