By Ken Eisner
October 17, 2003
Actor-Writer-Director Benjamin Ratner's Moving Malcolm Is A Bittersweet Casting Out Of Personal Demons

Pale streaks of sun from a rain-darkened sky are reflected on the SkyTrain as it slices its diagonal line through a lushly treed canopy connecting two rows of older houses just east of Commercial Drive. In a sight now familiar to Vancouverites in virtually every part of town, white vans and trailers line one side of the avenue, with a tent-fronted truck spilling out down-vested, coffee-wielding walkie-talkie wearers in the direction of a squat, nondescript bungalow.

Behind the distinctly indistinct house, which belongs to someone who has donated it for the brief independent-film shoot, another canopy--this one made of brightly coloured synthetic material--is keeping a sound recordist and various production types reasonably dry. Spools of wire and other technical gewgaws clutter the upstairs kitchen, which has been cleared of people because, in the room directly below, a climactic scene is about to be shot for Moving Malcolm, an intergenerational comedy about an old codger and the neurotic young buck who eventually comes to admire him. (The finished product opens here Friday, October 17.)

Down a back staircase and beyond a corridor that roughly resembles the passageway of your average U-boat, one of Canada's acting treasures is sipping a cup of tea. Or, rather, John Neville, the codger, is acting like he's sipping a cup of tea. He's rehearsing a confrontation with the younger man, played by Benjamin Ratner, an intense local hero who specializes in lovable losers with a Buster Keaton edge but here is driven by a more frantic quality. Part of that frazzled effect comes from the fact that Ratner is also directing the film, from his own script.

Neville, born 78 years ago in London, England, and a fixture on the Canadian theatre scene since 1972, is looking frail and even a bit lost in this cramped, damp basement apartment dressed by the art department with all sorts of knickknacks and mildewed effluvia. Tea is definitely needed by the titular Malcolm, who will soon be moving at the behest of Ratner's character, himself doing the bidding of a nightmarish ex-girlfriend played with manic glee by Elizabeth Berkley.

For his part, Ratner probably could have used a tranquillizer or two in the run-up to the shoot, which he also helped to produce. But now that everyone is on the set, Ratner is almost eerily calm, courteously offering his venerated, white-haired star soothing, almost inaudible directions before stepping back into his on-screen role as a nervous Nellie.

The scene is shot three times, with Neville displaying subtle refinements in each version, although he visibly sags between each take. Overall, Ratner is pleased.

A few minutes later, the novice filmmaker is sipping coffee on a ratty old couch under the tarp behind the house. "I'm okay," he says, much in the manner of a cartoon character who has just fallen down a manhole, "considering that this is the most responsibility I've ever had. I've been on plenty of film sets before, but I'm getting a new understanding of how everyone in the crew has their own world. A good day for the director can be a bad day for wardrobe, and vice versa. If nothing else, I hope this experience makes me a more cooperative actor. I just want to make the day better however I can."

The day is going okay for Neville, who retires to his streetside trailer when the scene is over. He's about to take a break--if you call flying to Paris for five days of pickup shots on a Michael Caine film a vacation--and can therefore sag as much as he needs to. The subject of the Stratford Festival, the Ontario Shakespeare institution he ran until 1989, seemed to be a bit of a downer for Neville, especially as regards its condition since he left. But he instantly perks up at the name of screen "daughter" Berkley, who finished the shoot the previous day.

"What a marvellous young woman," he intones in his plummy, Globe Theatre accent from the trailer's padded swivel chair. "We always called each other 'chief', just like the characters did. 'I love you, chief,' was the last thing she said to me." Still, it wasn't the chance to work with the Showgirls star that got him on a plane from his Ontario home out to damp Vancouver for a three-week shoot.

"I did it because Ben sent his script, and I thought it was terrific. It was fun and interesting, and it really got to the way older people, who are often very resistant to change, deal with difficult surroundings and do what they can to get through the whole rigamarole. Plus, he wrote it for me."

Back under the tarp, the director is about to comment on that assertion (the script was passed on to Neville by mutual friend Molly Parker) when he's interrupted by a voice crackling through the walkie-talkies: "Ben Ratner's mother has arrived on the set." He sinks almost imperceptibly lower in his seat.

Barely more than three months later, the digitally shot film is done, transferred to 35mm (all for less than a million dollars), and ready for its world premiere at this year's World Film Festival in Montreal. There, out of a field of a hundred or so international entries, it wins a special-jury mention for best first feature.

Ratner is buoyed by the resulting bonhomie, all the way into the Vancouver International Film Festival, where his film's key evening showing is to be at the Ridge Theatre on October 8.

"That's going to be the best screening this movie will ever have," he says in another meeting just as the festival gets under way. "Everyone will be there."

By everyone, he means his family, friends, lots of crew and cast members, fellow producers Paul Armstrong and Bridget Hill, executive producers Christine Haebler and Jayme Pfahl, and Rory Richards, his tireless publicist, associate producer, girlfriend, and "Rock of Gibraltar," in Ratner's words.

In a classic "Oh, shit" moment, this thought gives him an opportunity to contemplate how the movie will play to this particular assemblage when it's essentially an exorcism--with comically fictionalized flourishes--of his own stormy history with the folks and with a relationship that went particularly twisted.

"It's tragedy mined for comedy, man," he muses. "Or is it the other way around?"

Come the night of the big unveiling at the Ridge, most of the crew and cast are on hand, with the notable exception of Berkley. In her place, oddly enough, was Jennifer Beals, who had originally taken the part. (When a scheduling conflict came up, the Flashdancer recommended Berkley, just after the pals combined forces for Roger Dodger.)

After the sold-out show, the Moving Malcolm crowd travels to a downtown bar. During a question-and-answer period, Neville gets some laughs while talking about the movie's pot-smoking scene, little realizing that outside the club, other filmmakers who shall remain nameless--no, really; you could check their driver's licences--are smoking "a joint as big as a baby's arm", as Ratner puts it.

His parents are there too, but not for the controlled substances. This wasn't the first time they had seen Malcolm, but it was, apparently, the first time they enjoyed it.

"I showed them the film, on tape, when it was first finished. My dad held his breath for 85 minutes and then wouldn't speak to me for two hours after that. This time, he laughed his ass off! He came unglued in the manner of Paul Sorvino, who he actually went to high school with in Brooklyn. My mother? Well, to be honest, in regards to anything I've done, she hasn't stopped smiling for the past 38 years."

They say forgiveness begins at home, and no one ever said that actors, let alone filmmakers, were exempt.