It's hard to know whose ambition is most audacious/outrageous: Canadian stuntman Ken Carter, who announced plans in 1976 to jump over the St. Lawrence River in a jet-powered car; composer and bassist Mark Haney, who, more than 30 years later, decided to make a concept album for double bass about the attempt; or director John Bolton, who decided to make a film about them both that would include everything from actual documentary footage to song-and-dance numbers featuring the likes of Evel Knievel (or at least an actor portraying him).
"I was pitching it as a film about an album about a stunt," Bolton says, from his home in Vancouver, on the new documentary Aim for the Roses. "Right from the beginning it felt that Mark was able to locate what was not only ridiculous but magnificent about what Ken tried to do, and his album is ridiculous and magnificent. So I set out to make a film that was also ridiculous and magnificent."
The film – what Bolton calls "a musical docudrama" – has its world premiere at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto May 1 and then opens the DOXA documentary film festival in Vancouver May 5.
Carter, who was born in Montreal, started stunt jumping at 16. His crowning achievement was to be the river jump – which would see him zoom over the St. Lawrence from the Canadian side in his rocket car, travel about 300 feet in the air and land on an island on the U.S. side in a field of roses planted for the occasion. Landing in the island's trees would surely have been disastrous, the movie explains. So the plan was to aim for the roses.
He had a specially made car, a 1,500-foot runway and ramp and built up lots of hype. He even attracted Knievel to the site – who expressed concerns about its viability. "Looks like a dangerous jump to me, boy," the world-famous daredevil told Carter, shaking his head. "You got no elevation, you got no room for error. If you come down in that water, you better have somebody get you out, get you out in a hurry." Carter did not know how to swim.
If you're not aware of what happened, I won't spoil it here, but will fast-forward to Haney.
In about 2003, Haney found in his then father-in-law's guest bedroom a VHS tape of Robert Fortier's 1981 NFB documentary The Devil at Your Heels, about Carter's attempt.
"I was really captivated and, right from the first time I watched it, I was so struck by the idea of the roses as a landing pad."
The idea to make a concept album about it, to be called Aim for the Roses, crystallized in 2008.
Initially a project Haney insisted could be completed in eight days, the album in fact took 2 1/2 years to write and record. The recording – layers and layers of double bass – was organized around a musical representation of 499 digits of pi for solo double bass, with each digit of pi given a duration and pitch based on its number.
It was also made with the help, Haney explains in the film, of Carter himself – contacted by a psychic during a seance. "[She] contacted Ken Carter for me after I completed the album to make sure I had his blessing and that he was happy with what I had done," he explains in the film. "[She] informed me that in fact Ken had worked on the album with me. He was basically my spirit guide through the music."
It was released in 2010 and lauded by critics.
"Employing dialogue and a spare, mesmeric double-bass soundtrack, Haney makes his own unpromising leap, to tell a bizarre story bizarrely," wrote The Globe and Mail's Brad Wheeler in a 3 1/2 (out of four) star review.
Bolton, who attended the album launch at Vancouver's planetarium, was struck by the album's ingenuity.
"I continue to be amazed by its beauty, by its depth, by its form, by its complexity, its wit, its power, all of those things," Bolton, 39, says. "So that's the foundation of everything [in the film]."
Bolton had never heard of Carter before but Haney's concept album got him thinking about the possibility of making a film about the mad stunt attempt.
It was an outside-the-box idea with a bizarre target audience: fans of stunt driving and fans of contemporary classical music.
"The trick was finding overlap between people who were into both," Bolton says. "We used to joke about a Venn diagram … and how it wasn't actually a Venn diagram; there was no overlap, just two circles."
For the film, he constructed a replica of the runway and ramp on the banks of the Fraser River in Mission, B.C. – and on one particularly harrowing shoot, the top of the ramp became a stage for Haney and guitarist David Gannett, who also co-produced, mixed and engineered the record.
Part documentary, part re-enactment, part music video, the film is a bizarre, wild, amazing ride.
"In both Ken's and Mark's cases, those were the biggest projects they'd ever attempted, and this was the biggest project I'd ever attempted," says Bolton, who also travelled to Morrisburg, Ont., for the film, where he interviewed a couple of superfans who run the Ken Carter Preservation Society.
"It's sort of a celebration of Canadian nerdism – highbrow Canadian nerdism in B.C. and lowbrow Canadian nerdism in Ontario," Bolton says. "I realized that … all of the characters in the film have a lot in common, even with me – and that is obsession."