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Arts Michael Jones was a pioneer of Newfoundland filmmaking

Michael Jones, who directed the seminal Newfoundland feature film The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood (1986) and worked with siblings Andy and Cathy Jones from the earliest days of CODCO, died on March 14, following complications from heart surgery.

Michael Jones, centre, with Faustus cast and crew.

As an optimist who believed anything was possible, he was also a perfectionist who reedited The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood even after it had been officially screened, hoisting the eight weighty reels of film onto the editing bench to snip out a few shots that were bothering him.

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“Mike was all in or not in,” said Paul Pope, his frequent collaborator. “His style of filmmaking was 100-per-cent immersion. Jump right into the deep end. Risk it all every day. The complete opposite of conservative.”

Faustus Bidgood took 10 years to make. The first feature film made entirely by Newfoundlanders, it had a budget of $100,000, and “is of singular importance in Canadian film history,” Darrell Varga wrote in his book Shooting From The East (2015). He quotes Mr. Jones describing a typical shoot, with actors, equipment, and crew piling into his green Volkswagen Beetle to invade a local liquor store, shoot a scene, and exit: “Didn’t ask permission. It was a wild and crazy movie in that sense. It wasn’t done according to the rules.”

Bidgood was already the stuff of legend; the artistic megaproject that had occupied the St. John’s film and theatre community for half a decade,” Robin Metcalfe wrote in Arts Atlantic (Spring 1986). “To describe, even minimally, the Byzantine complexities of Bidgood’s plot is a stupefying task. The film depicts a day or so in the life of Faustus Bidgood, dreamer, minor functionary … In his imagination, Bidgood is president of the revolutionary Republic of Newfoundland. Having filmed the fantasies in the drab black and white of old newsreels, director Jones presents ‘reality‘ in riotous colour.”

The film, which elicits comparisons to Ulysses, as well as the work of Charlie Chaplin and the Flemish painter Brueghel, was nominated for several Genies. Its relevance continues: In 2006 it was adapted as a stage play. But, though Faustus was influential, it was not commercially successful. Mr. Jones didn’t care. “I think the future of film in this country lies with the small, independent filmmakers,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1986.

Mr. Jones’s commitment to that idea was integral to the creation of the Newfoundland Independent Film Co-operative, which he co-founded in 1975. He also served as its first president. NIFCO was “part of a larger movement of film co-operatives across the country,” said novelist and screenwriter Edward Riche. “It was to provide equipment and editing space to filmmakers with no access to the commercial, which barely existed then, or institutional help. Equipment then was heavy, and expensive – now you can shoot a feature film on your iPhone.” The province’s film industry has grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise employing hundreds, with NIFCO providing post-production for projects such as the TV series Frontier and Caught.

“But its ultimate purpose is as a facility available to young starting filmmakers, and it has trained a generation of craftspeople and technicians in the field,” Mr. Riche said.

Mr. Jones also directed Mr. Riche’s screenplay Secret Nation, which was accepted to the World Film Festival in Montreal in 1990. “Mike got it into his head that it needed to be subtitled in French,” Mr. Pope said. “It would cost $15,000; we’re sleeping on people’s floors.” But Mr. Jones had heard of possible funding; Mr. Pope did the paperwork and they were approved. A copy of the film was sent to Europe and subtitled with letterpress. Back in Montreal, Mr. Jones delivered their press kit to every newspaper and radio station. The strategy worked; the Quebec press praised the small, independent, subtitled film.

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In 2000, he was one of 10 filmmakers, including David Cronenberg and Denys Arcand, invited to make a four-minute film for the 25th Toronto International Film Festival. Congratulations featured Mike, Andy and Cathy Jones. Paul Pope was his producer.

“He made a list of what he wanted for this four-minute film. I read it and said that’s crazy. Two helicopters, and we have to decorate [one of] the helicopters [with the NIFCO logo]. A helipad. Two full sets of 35mm equipment. A ridiculous amount of film, Mike liked to shoot a lot. A crane. I sent in this request and we got it all.” Congratulations was also chosen as the festival opener.

Michael John Jones was born March 28, 1944, to Agnes Dobbin Jones and Michael Jones Sr., whose businesses included film distribution; his younger siblings were brother Andy and sisters Mary Win and Cathy.

After completing St. Bonaventure’s College in 1962, he joined the Christian Brothers, studying at the Catholic Iona College in New York and earning a masters at Notre Dame, before returning home to be an English teacher. He left the Brothers in 1969.

His filmmaking included short films such as Sisters of the Silver Scalpel, which CODCO would screen during stage plays. He also filmed two of Andy Jones’s one-man shows: To the Wall and King o’ Fun.

He eventually earned two master’s degrees, studied with Marshall McLuhan and as a post-graduate took courses in German and Russian cinema, philosophy and Latin at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Mr. Jones was handsome and charming, with acting credits that included Bill MacGillivray’s Stations (1983). His gorgeous voice also led to an abundance of voice-over work.

His friends found him to be loyal and nonjudgmental (“unless you were badmouthing Newfoundland, Mr. Pope said, “then you were on thin ice”), so they sought him out when they needed a good sounding board.

“Every idea I ever had I went to Mike with,” Andy Jones said. “But I never did anything that was so much about the art as Faustus. We could do whatever we wanted because we had no money.”

Mr. Jones had two children, Megan and John, with his wife, Eleanor (née Blackmore), before their marriage ended in divorce, and he also had son, Gabriel, during a long-term relationship with Susan Williams; they all survive him, as do his grandchildren, Olive, Juniper and Martin.

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