John Paizs’s Crime Wave debuted at the 1985 Toronto International Film Festival to local acclaim. A Winnipeg-based filmmaker, Paizs had authored a work for which there was no clear precedent: it was decidedly less profane than David Cronenberg’s body horror films, which were at the time Canada’s most visible cinematic export. Crime Wave is more clearly an homage to paperback crime fiction, but more particularly it is a work that considers and reenacts the labor of its very making. It concerns a writer (Paizs himself, who doesn’t speak in the film) who so endeavors to author the next great novel that he constantly second guesses his attempts. Accordingly, the film stages each of his orphaned “beginnings” in a varied showcase of imaginative false starts.
However enthusiastic its initial reception, Crime Wave was never reciprocally distributed. To U.S. audiences the film was only available on V.H.S. (under the title The Big Crimewave), and it has screened infrequently in the near 30 years that have followed. Paizs has answered Crime Wave in only one theatrical feature (Top of the Food Chain, in 1999) and many directorial contributions to Canadian television (including The Kids in the Hall, in 1988), but his film remains an unjustly obscure one. An immediate discovery to many, Crime Wave screens at Anthology Film Archives on Sunday, November 2nd. Paizs will be present to introduce and tend to questions afterward.
Rumsey Taylor (Rail): I take it that your personal 16mm print of Crime Wave is what will be screening at Anthology?
John Paizs: Yes, that’s correct. It’s one of the few stops on Josh Johnson’s mini-U.S. tour of the film that will be screening in 16mm as opposed to the new DCP (Digital Cinema Packaging). I’m imagining this as my print’s last hurrah out there in the world as film projection in theaters goes by the wayside. Folks seeing my print on this tour, incidentally, will be seeing something that folks seeing the DCP won’t: my print has the original Dr.-Jolly-in-the-motel-room scene, with the original actor I had playing Tod, Dr. Jolly’s victim hog-tied on the bed. My original distributers insisted I reshoot the scene as a condition for buying the film. They objected to the actor I had playing Tod because to their minds he looked like a boy even though the actor was in his late 20s! As for what I thought, it never occurred to me that he did, and I always regretted having to reshoot the scene because it was just better the way it was originally. So yeah, I swapped it for the reshot version in my personal print.
Rail: This objection seems highly undue considering how the distributor handled your film. Crime Wave has a storied history regarding its distribution, no? (For more detail on the film’s distribution troubles, see Greg Klymkiw’s very detailed blog post.—Ed.)
Paizs: Well, there wasn’t much distribution, that was the problem. My original distributors never released it theatrically. They just sold some broadcast licences and put it out on V.H.S.—changing the title to The Big Crimewave for the U.S. to avoid confusion with the Raimi/Coen Brothers’ Crimewave, which was released the same year. And the reason seemed pretty obvious after a time why they didn’t. According to the distribution agreement I signed with them, I was to be paid my guaranteed minimum payment within 18 months of the film’s first theatrical release—money which I’d never see if they never released it theatrically. And nowhere in the agreement did it say they had to. Which of course we all saw—the Film Group, the Film Group’s lawyer, and me—as we were checking over the Agreement prior to me signing, but none of us imagined they wouldn’t. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Isn’t that what it’s all about, a theatrical release? Well, you could say we all learned different once getting on two years had passed with no theatrical release in sight. In the end, though, I did get my money. As a favor to me, a local theater in Winnipeg booked the film for a week, which resulted, after a few more twists and turns, in the distributors finally having to fork over. But the whole thing took years, and you could say the independent film community in Winnipeg grew up not a little in that time as a result. Not to be too hard on us, though, for being naive in this deal. Crime Wave was Winnipeg’s first feature film and also its first sale to a major distributor, so there was our complete lack of experience in this area as a factor.
Rail: As I understand it, Crime Wave was also modified after its premier at TIFF in 1985.
Paizs: Yes. I decided after the premiere—which you could say was also the film’s one and only test screening, because there never were any prior to the premiere; the premiere was it—I decided I could make it significantly better by reshooting the last 20 minutes. As well, my eventual distributors said they’d buy the film if I reshot a couple of scenes in the old ending—the Dr. Jolly motel room scene I mentioned being one. So, yes, within about six months of the premiere in ’85, the film had a remade-from-the-ground-up last 20 minutes.
Rail: Do you see the film as a reflection of your efforts in writing it?
Paizs: Yes, very much so. Along with my efforts in writing the two screenplays I wrote just prior to the film. I was dissatisfied with both of them and I suppose you could say I had screenwriting on the brain when I embarked on the Crime Wave script, making it very self-reflexive.
Rail: Watching Crime Wave some three decades after its release, there are some clear, if unintended, allusions to the work of David Lynch, John Waters, the Coens, and perhaps a touch of Hollywood Noir. How knowledgeable were you of these films or filmmakers at the time?
Paizs: Lynch I knew well from Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune. Many people remark on the similarities between Blue Velvet and Crime Wave. Blue Velvet came out just around when I was finishing Crime Wave. I saw it then and my heart sank, seeing that white picket fence against the electric blue sky, the ’50s-like “neighborhood” setting, the juxtaposition of darkness against that. It was uncanny, and totally depressing. So much of what I had in Crime Wave that was “new,” that I had laid the groundwork for in my short film Springtime in Greenland five years earlier, had its thunder stolen by Blue Velvet.
John Waters I knew from Pink Flamingos. It was actually a huge influence on my filmmaking. Partly its humor, but mostly it gave me the belief that I could do it, too, with next to no money and amateur actors, and that the work could get out there. That it could travel beyond your hometown.
The Coens I knew from Blood Simple. It came out while I was filming Crime Wave. I was struck by the lo-fi quality of a section near the end of it, they’re in a car, out on field somewhere, it’s night, and its aesthetic was very much like that of the scene in Crime Wave where Steven meets Dr. Jolly in the Kansas cornfield at night. So that was interesting. Something else interesting regarding the Coens and Crime Wave—and you can take this for what it is—my distributers sent them Crime Wave to see if they might have any advice as to recutting the last reel. Nothing came of that, but a couple of years later Barton Fink came out, another blocked-screenwriter “comedy,” with its own made-up movie subgenre, the wrestling picture, like Crime Wave has the color crime movie subgenre. Coincidence? Who can say?
Of course Hollywood Noir I was a big fan of. Watched whatever I could from that.
Rail: What are Crime Wave’s chief influences?
Paizs: Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt was a big influence, no question. Also Fellini’s 8 1/2. But maybe the biggest was this series of trailers a friend showed me one night—he was a film collector, collected them on 16mm, cartoon shorts and even some features. The trailers were for these ’50s crime melodramas. I can’t remember any of the titles of the films and don’t remember recognizing any of them then, but they were “B” pictures or even “C” pictures. Anyway, the trailers were terrific, with grab-you-by-the-throat narration and over-the-top scenes that were hilarious. I’d love to see them again today to see how they’d stack up to my memory of them. But they definitely inspired the “The Top!” sequences in Crime Wave. Other than that, for sure educational films we saw in school. A lot of these were from the ’50s and featured narration. They heavily influenced a lot of the “Kim” scenes as well as Springtime in Greenland.
Rail: Crime Wave is regularly associated with the work of fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, although it seems you had completed the film before he made his first.
Paizs: The two overlapped actually. In fact I remember we were in the Winnipeg Film Group’s two edit suites at the same time at one point in 1985, me cutting Crime Wave in one room and him cutting The Dead Father down the hall in the other. But it’s still essentially true that my independent work precedes his, though I suppose if there’s going to be any associating going on, it’s going to be my work with his as his is the work that’s very well known.
Rail: Are you comfortable with the association?
Paizs: To be honest, any kind of positive association for a nearly 30-year-old film, my last before I moved on from independent filmmaking, I feel is a great thing. And Guy’s films are great so I’m good with that.
Rail: The film screened recently to a—well relatively hometown audience at TIFF. How was it received? And how often does Crime Wave screen in Canada?
Paizs: It was very well received at TIFF. It was a full house and everybody really seemed to enjoy it. As for how often it screens in Canada—rarely. And pretty much never outside of Winnipeg or Toronto, that is if you don’t count the handful of university film courses in Canada where it screens. It also screens every year at the Rhode Island School of Design. Clearly someone there likes it.
Rail: Well, I’m certain there are many here who adore your film, only it has yet to greet a wider audience. Will a video release will follow the theatrical tour here in the U.S.?
Paizs: No DVD in the works at this point. There have been enquiries from DVD publishers—one even just before TIFF—but, as yet, nothing. But I very much hope it will happen soon - the sooner the better. To my mind it’s the best thing that could happen to the film.
Rail: Apart from Top of the Food Chain, in 1999, your directorial work has been resorted to television. Any interest in helming, or acting in, another feature?
Paizs: Acting, no, but helming would be nice.
RUMSEY TAYLOR is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer. He has written on the topic of cinema for the Boston Phoenix, Senses of Cinema, and NotComing.com, for which he additionally served as editor.