By Glen Schaefer
October 17, 2003
This story really hits close to home

Benjamin Ratner's directing debut gets backing from parents, friends

You often hear of a story hitting close to home for a filmmaker but Ben Ratner's directing debut really did.

Ratner also wrote and stars in the new comic romance Moving Malcolm, about a writer with a family very much like his real family. And the movie's fictional Maxwells took up residence in the Vancouver house Ratner grew up in.

"The first four days of the shoot were in my parents' house and that was very surreal, having a film crew shooting scenes at my parents' table," says Ratner. "We sent them away to live at a hotel."

Ratner takes pains to point out that while the fictional Maxwells look a lot like the Ratners -- university-professor father, autistic daughter -- the real people were only the jumping-off point for a fiction embellished in Ratner's script and also by co-stars Jay Brazeau and Babz Chula.

"Those characters up there are not supposed to be my parents," says Ratner. "Babz and Jay took what I wrote and made it their own and reinvented those people."

Ratner peopled his first feature with friends and past collaborators, including long-time pal Nicholas Lea as main character Gene's long-time pal. U.S. actor Elizabeth Berkley and Canadian stage veteran John Neville are newcomers to Ratner's circle, playing ex-girlfriend and ex-girlfriend's father.

Is there a real ex-girlfriend who will see herself onscreen?

"That's an amalgamation of various catastrophes," says Ratner of the disastrous romance at the movie's centre. "Nobody -- I hope -- would look at it and feel like I portrayed them in an unfair light. There's little bits and pieces of different relationships in the film and people will recognize them."

Ratner learned his craft working on both U.S.-made TV and movies in Vancouver and around the city's independent scene. Brazeau has played Ratner's father before, and Brazeau and Chula have played onscreen husband and wife more than once. Ratner started writing his movie five years ago, with those two actors and Lea specifically in mind, and there's a lived-in ease to their scenes together.

"This was my film school," says Ratner, who came to acting in the early 1990s after forays into amateur boxing, music (remember '80s club band L. Kabong?) and stand-up comedy.

"One thing I learned from doing stand-up is rhythm," he says. "Absurdity, that's part of rhythm, pulling the rug out. Every time things get sentimental in Moving Malcolm, we try to get ridiculous."

Ratner takes some cues from the work of another former stand-up. "Woody Allen is one of my favourite directors. His greatest films are about people overcoming obstacles in order to find love, or to let go of love. They're relationship-based films. I don't know what else to write about -- the next project I write is going to be personal."

And, yes, his real parents are OK with that. They've seen the film and they joined their son on the recently-finished film festival publicity and party rounds.

"It's going to take several more viewings until we can really discuss the film objectively," he says.

"My parents have always been nothing more than supportive of my efforts, but it is a bit of a shock to see something . . . fictionalized but familiar. Nothing a little therapy won't take care of."