In a corner of a cavernous west Toronto warehouse, about a dozen people are sitting on folding chairs staring at side-by-side JVC television monitors. We're on the set of the action-horror movie Silent Hill Revelation 3-D. The scene on the monitors, which is being filmed a few feet away, behind a partition, involves a bunch of objects, including a Styrofoam head, repeatedly falling off a shelf. Every few minutes, a buzzer sounds, signalling a new take.
Glamorous movie-making, this is not.
Among the spectators, observing with the calm and steady gaze of a visiting surgeon in an operating theatre, is Canadian producer Don Carmody, as casually dressed as one of his crew, brown hair falling over his square face.
If you're thinking "small-time Canadian movie," it's time to change your mental lens. The first Silent Hill, released in 2006 and based on a video game, earned more than $100-million worldwide.
Carmody, despite his low-key style, is probably Canada's most successful producer.
And if his name isn't immediately familiar, his movies are. Included in his oeuvre: David Cronenberg horrorfests ( Shivers, Rabid) raunchy eighties comedies ( Porky's, Weekend at Bernie's), Chuck Norris martial-arts vehicles, and such mainstream films as Goodwill Hunting, Johnny Mnemonic, The Whole Nine Yards and the 2002 Oscar-winner Chicago.
With a résumé like that, Carmody has pretty much seen it all. On a tour of his latest film set, the producer's tales include one about a minor bump during the making of his first 3-D movie, back in 1983, called Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. "The director had some kind of breakdown after a couple of weeks, so Columbia sent us a new guy," recalls Carmody. "I called the studio: 'Do you know he's blind in one eye?' They asked me, 'Is that going to be an issue?' I said, 'Yeah, for 3-D it's kind of an issue.' "
Carmody himself is a mixture of the easygoing and the unshakeable. His friend, actor Art Hindle, describes him as "kind of a pussycat but also really tough." Married to his second wife (producer Catherine Gourdier) since 1999, Carmody is the father of two grown daughters and a son. He collects art and likes good wine - but happens to have what he has called "relentlessly commercial" taste in films, most notably raunchy comedies and grisly horror tales.
And although he usually works behind the scenes, Carmody will have his own turn in the spotlight next Saturday. The occasion (coinciding with his 60th birthday) is a Canadian film-industry roast, to be attended by about 350 people, including producers, crew, suppliers, directors and actors.
The event, dubbed DC-100, and celebrating the 100 films Carmody has produced, has been organized by his family and movie publicist Cynthia Amsden. Proceeds from the evening will go to the Canadian Film Centre and the Special Olympics. "This isn't something I'd normally do," says the guest of honour. "But, it's a good cause. I honestly had no idea I'd produced 100 films."
Or, as has more often been the case, co-produced. Carmody specializes in international co-productions distributed through American studios. Whether you see him as Canada's man in Hollywood, or Hollywood's man in Canada, he has carved out a lucrative niche. By even a very conservative estimate, his films have earned well over two billion dollars at the box office.
The key to his success, by Carmody's own estimation, is that he delivers "high quality for low cost." That often means lots of preproduction work, using Canadian crews (for their enthusiasm as much as their good price), and knowing how to stop small problems before they become big: "I always tell my crews, 'Don't bother me with good news, but the bad news, I want immediately.' "
A lot of this veteran's filmmaking lessons were learned in the trenches of cheap seventies cinema, what writer Paul Corupe has dubbed the "Canuxploitation" era.
First, though, came Julie Christie. While Carmody was studying film at Loyola University (now Concordia) in Montreal, Jesuit film scholar Mark Gervais steered him toward an unpaid job on the British Columbia set of Robert Altman's 1971 classic anti-Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There, he became the British actress's favourite driver, and the two would chat on her trips to Vancouver (although, he recalls, he sat silently when she fought with her boyfriend, Warren Beatty.) Carmody, barely out of his teens, became movie smitten.
The producer is an American by birth - from Braintree, Mass., a suburb of Boston and the birthplace of Declaration of Independence signers John Adams and John Hancock - but he grew up bilingual in Montreal, where his father worked as a corporate lawyer. After finishing his communications degree at Loyola and starting work in the film industry, Carmody managed to get a McGill law degree in 1976, and remains proud of his understanding of the world of contracts, tax credits and the business side of producing.
At the start of his career, though, his was strictly gofer work: driver, production assistant, and later location manager, on such films as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Eventually, he landed a full-time job with one of the few Canadian film companies then in existence, Cinepix Inc. (a predecessor of Lion's Gate).
It was a film house, recalls Carmody, "famous for soft-core skin flicks and horror movies," churning out such titles as Cannibal Girls and Ilsa: The Tigress of Siberia. Eventually, Carmody worked his way up to head of production there. And, along with future Ghostbusters creator Ivan Reitman, he co-produced Cronenberg's Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Later, Reitman and Carmody worked together on Cinepix's biggest hit, Bill Murray's 1979 summer-camp comedy, Meatballs.
"After Meatballs, I moved down to Los Angeles. It was flattering: People wanted to work with you. But every time you discussed an idea, they said it was too expensive. They had these incredible inefficiencies built into the system. So I said, 'You know, I could do this in Canada for a lot cheaper.'
"At first, directors were reluctant; it was like being sent to Siberia. But when you pointed out they could have more shooting days on the same budget, they changed their minds."
He was soon working with director Bob Clark, an American who had come to live in Canada. Employing a cast of Canadians and Americans, they created the 1981 virginity-losing comedy, Porky's. The film earned $111-million in North American box office, and became the template for raunchy teen comedies.
Porky's was only last year surpassed as the highest-grossing Canadian film in history - by another Carmody co-production, Resident Evil: Afterlife. Based on a Japanese video game, it featured Mila Jovovich as zombie-fighting heroine Alice, in a dystopian corporate-controlled future. The film earned worldwide grosses of more than $280-million, and played at a record 2,000 3-D theatres in China.
Along the way to such megahits, says Carmody, he developed a knack for spotting trouble on film sets. In the late seventies, the issue was cocaine: "You knew when it was happening. Everyone was really, really busy but nothing was getting done."
Later, he had to meet with Canadian unions about cleaning up another kind of mood-altering behaviour: "There was a bad habit, going back to the British roots, I think, of drinking on the job. At 4:30 in the afternoon, you'd find some grip passed out on a pile of cables."
Over time, Carmody developed a reputation as a fix-it guy. Columbia asked him to come on-set to salvage the production of the 1985 legal thriller Jagged Edge. The director and the film's star, Glenn Close, were at loggerheads with producer Marty Ransohoff ( Catch-22, The Americanization of Emily), who says Carmody, was a brilliant producer "but he had no filters on his brain and said whatever came to his head."
Today, Jagged Edge, a mildly sleazy legal thriller written by Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas, is probably most memorable for the un-lawyer-like short, tight skirts worn by Close. As it turned out, they were central to the on-set fray: "Marty said, 'Hey, Glenn, that skirt makes your ass look fat,' which obviously annoyed her."
Somehow, Carmody smoothed things over. The $15-million movie grossed $40-million - and an Oscar nomination for co-star Robert Loggia. Carmody and Ransohoff would go on to make another five movies together.
Although he says he's never consciously gone after awards, Carmody has made his share of prestige pictures. In the late nineties, he developed close ties with Miramax through a number of films, including Good Will Hunting, which earned nine Oscar nominations; and Chicago which won seven Academy statuettes, including the one for best picture. Nabbing that, says Carmody, was "an absurd amount of fun."
And over his career, he has won a record five Canadian Golden Reel Awards for top-grossing film. Still, he had never won a best-picture Genie Award until 2010, when he was a producer on Quebec director Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique. That cinematic take on the 1989 mass murder of female engineering students in Montreal swept the 2010 Genies. Polytechnique wasn't a typical Carmody film, but as the father of twin university-age daughters, he felt he had no choice but to see it through: "It was a case of nobody stepping in to make it, and it was too important a film not to get made."
It was an ordinary domestic moment that led to the producer's most recent box-office bonanzas - the game-into-movie adaptations Resident Evil and Silent Hill. A few years ago, Carmody saw his son playing a video game - and mistook it for a film. When he learned of his mistake, he recalls, he knew where movies were headed, and was happy to lead the way.
Still, he remains unconvinced that the future of movies will unfold on laptop computers and handheld devices - at least not the kind of movies he wants to make. "I don't think the communal experience will ever go away," says Carmody. "It's like telling stories in the cave. The payoff for me is when I go to the theatre and watch one of my movies with an audience, when they laugh at a comedy or are frightened by a scary scene.
"Even when I get the Academy Award screeners for Oscar voting, I prefer to go to the theatre to see the films. I'm just a guy who really loves to go to movies."
Carmody's actors talk Carmody
The actor ( Face-Off, The Brood) and long-time Carmody friend calls him "stand-up Carmody" because "he's funny and a stand-up guy." Hindle played the deputy sheriff in Porky's and Porky's 2. He also starred in The Surrogate, an erotic thriller with Shannon Tweed that was the only film Carmody ever directed.
"Don was the guy you parachuted in when a film got behind schedule. Imagine some wunderkind director, framing the image with his hands and he's saying, 'We'll bring the crane shot in here. And then turn here, and zoom in …' Then there would this voice behind him - that would be Don - saying, calmly, "We're not doing that. A master shot and two overs [over-the-shoulder shots] And we're outta here!"
The British star of The Lord of the Rings films, GoldenEye and Patriot Games first worked with Carmody on the first Silent Hill, and has now returned for the 3-D sequel. "I met him six years ago - a very affable gent, but a man who still gets things done," he says.
The affability was important. There was a scene in Silent Hill in which Bean's character gets out of his expensive car. Carmody offered the use of his new BMW for the shot. Bean got out of the car as the scene required. Then, as he recalls, "Suddenly, I noticed everyone was running past me, and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I'd forgotten to put on the handbrake and the car rolled down the hill until it collided with a wall. There was some minor damage. He was quite good about it."
The star of The Sorceror's Apprentice, How to Train Your Dragon and an actor in such films from Knocked Up and Million Dollar Baby, Baruchel both wrote and acted in the yet-to-be-released Goon, directed by Michael Dowse ( Fubar) and produced by Carmody.
"He has faith in what you're working with and has the business acumen to make it happen. This is a movie about what I love - hockey, Montreal and Canada, and it takes someone with his experience, his ability to generate cash flow from making those other movies, to help me get a movie like this made."
Jovovich plays the heroine Alice in all four Resident Evil movies, of which Carmody co-produced two. She met her husband, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson, when first auditioning for the part.
"Don has always been a prolific and intelligent producer and human being. He does such a wide scope of things with a lot of foresight. I think the Resident Evil movies are kind of a new fusion of thriller, horror and action. Sure, you can say, 'Hot-girl-kicking-butt movie,' but really, how many of those kind of films since Aliens have actually worked? Don and Paul and I share the same attitude: The money should be up on the screen - so you make a $60-million movie and it looks like $120-million or more."