At Home With Markham Street Films

Dynamic doc duo Michael McNamara and Judy Holm

18 mins read

Here’s a scenario to consider: What if, instead of spending hours commuting to a job environment you didn’t like, you were just seconds away and your partner in work also happened to be your partner in life? And what if the things you most cared about were the very subjects of your films? To top it all off, you were a successful part of a creative community. For many, that’s a doggedly elusive dream in these tough economic times. This, however, is a story of two people who have made it a reality.

A stone’s throw away from the hullabaloo of the Annex in downtown Toronto, past assorted falafel shops and the campy glitz of Honest Ed’s discount emporium, is an old Ontario house with bikes and Muskoka-style chaises on the porch. Cottage country right in the heart of the city. Welcome to the headquarters of Markham Street Films and the home of Michael McNamara and Judy Holm.

Michael answers the door; he’s affable and soft-spoken. Judy, slim and blonde, appears and we settle in with fresh cafés au lait. Their living room is lined with bookshelves stacked with obscure first editions, vintage pulp fiction and poetry collections. Antique store and yard sale treasures fill the space like artifacts of comfort. Upstairs are the offices and edit suite, and, somewhere beyond, their bedroom.

When Michael met Judy reads a little like a fairy tale, all Danskin and destiny. In the ’80s, after years of being a fashion model, Judy opened an aerobics studio aptly named The Sweatshop. One day Michael came in for a class and a friendship was formed. Over several years they crossed paths, would make plans to collaborate, but something always came up. Judy went from fashion and fitness to publicity at The Toronto International Film Festival, then onto distribution at Norstar and C/FP (now Lion’s Gate), then over to marketing and distribution at PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.

Meanwhile, Michael immersed himself in television production at different stations in Toronto. From TVO to CBC, from Global to CTV, he’s worked the gamut thematically and structurally: writing and directing award-winning music specials (Holly Cole; Jane Siberry); children’s programming—166 episodes of Polka Dot Shorts for TVO; Just For Laughs comedy specials; Life and Times documentaries for CBC (Rich Little; Robert Munsch). His first foray into narrative filmmaking was the critically acclaimed, indie feature The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati (1998). Gemini Awards and film fest prizes mingle with books and photos on the shelves of their living room.

Documentary writer Michael Rabinger suggests that when you find your life issues, “exploring them sincerely and intelligently will deeply touch your audience and keep you busy for life.” Some may be drawn to do a film on Chiapas or Vietnam while others are compelled by magicians or drag queens. Judy and Michael’s interests are not so singular—they have a rich repertoire of subjects to choose from. As Judy sees it: “There’s the Michael thread and there’s the Judy thread. Michael was born in Windsor, across the lake from Detroit, and he’s a huge music, art and pop culture freak/aficionado. When I started getting involved with making films, the first one we did was about getting old, because I am. Both of us are just exploring our lives and the things that we know.”

Indeed, their tastes are varied. The tone of the stories mirrors the subjects themselves: from gritty and grainy for an impassioned mixed-media artist (John Scott—Art & Justice, 2000), slick and claustrophobic for a group of determined law students (The Genuine Article, 2003; produced by Markham Street Films (MSF), directed by David Bezmozgis), to funky and upbeat for a bunch of former radio DJs (Radio Revolution, 2004).

Projects are born from their lives—things they know and situations they find themselves in. Michael’s first concert experience was at age twelve; his dad Eugene took him to see Roy Orbison. After the death of this love-song crooner, Eugene McNamara, an acclaimed poet, wrote “For Roy Orbison.” Michael later turned the poem into a Bravo Fact! short in 2000 with his dad reciting on camera, sitting on a barstool alongside other literary notables like Alistair MacLeod. Oh, and Michael’s brother Chris shot it and Judy’s son Aaron did the music. Truly a family affair.

Out of Judy’s modeling days came Wrinkle (2001). It took aim at aging and the beauty myth. She gathered up a bunch of former top models to delve into their feelings about getting older and to “test their theories about beauty, power, age, menopause, gray hair and the media.” She also scoped out techniques and remedies to stave off that horror of horrors, sagging skin. “When we were pitching Wrinkle, we’d go to a broadcaster saying we wanted to do something on older women and we’d hear, ‘Oh that’s a bad idea, we don’t want to think about dying.’ But once you see the film, something positive and exciting comes through. It was fun to do and exploratory as well; I don’t think we’d do anything where we don’t find something out at the end.”

Several years ago, Aaron married Saira, a Pakistani woman, and as a wedding present, Michael’s brothers videotaped the happy event. Later, Judy, Michael and the newlyweds traveled to Pakistan to visit the bride’s family and along the way an idea emerged: why not tell the story of our cross-cultural experience? From this comes Meet the Sumdees (2004). Soundtrack courtesy of the groom, confetti not included.

Markham Street Films’ recent offerings are Radio Revolution—the Rise and Fall of the Big 8 and Flatly Stacked. Radio Revolution is the story of a little radio station that could. Michael literally grew up with this story, listening to CKLW as a teenager in Windsor. During the ’60s and ’70s, CKLW pumped out loud rock music, feverish tabloid-style news and was a happening place to work. The image was rock and roll with an edge. Interviews of CKLW alumni, music critics and cognoscenti are spliced with stock and archival footage and toe-tapping graphics. Variety magazine calls it, “exuberantly nostalgic…McNamara displays a fan’s warm zeal and a historian’s sharp eye.” The film takes us down memory lane to a time before corporate takeovers and formulaic pop songs.

At the core of Radio Revolution is Rosalie Trombley, a former switchboard operator and single mother of three, who became the tastemaker of rock and soul music with an ear for hits that was unparalleled. Bob Seger wrote a song about her called “Rosalie” and Tony Orlando was ready to cast his vote for her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For years Michael wooed Rosalie with letters and requests. She’s publicity shy and hadn’t talked to the press since the ’70s. To get her out of hiding they put on a big reunion, securing free hotel rooms and creating a whole weekend event. “The radio station did a live three-hour broadcast and we had a fabulous, upscale dinner for them afterwards.” Michael says. “And it was my chance to meet Alice Cooper!” This story is emblematic of the way they work. They put their hearts into the process and the end result is richer for it.

Sometimes it’s more than just heart. In Flatly Stacked (2004), Judy, with the right dash of vulnerability and her signature lightness, puts herself into the very centre of the story. The film asks the question, ‘Can a hooter-less girl find happiness?’ It’s a humorous look at women who are less than well endowed in a world fixated on big breasts. Acclaimed Canadian animator Ann Marie Fleming adds her playful touch to the mix with sweet stick-figure girls and snappy sound effects. Flatly Stacked ends on a high note with Lorraine Segato, of Parachute Club fame, leading a group sing-a-long full of clapping and irreverent lyrics. Great for young girls at summer camp and viewers at home.

Making docs for television comes with its own limitations. Work must fit a certain structure, contain obvious Canadian content and have subject matter that neither shocks nor rocks the boat. Michael almost always directs and they both write and produce. He tends to be more the creative producer and she tackles the financial end. While a certain conceptual spunkiness may be sacrificed, the stories draw you in and are entertaining rather than highfalutin’. Even better, “With TV, there’s something really quite wonderful about making work that people are going to see. It’s accessible.”

Accessible for the public, but not always for the producers. Michael is constantly frustrated by the fact that the best pop culture documentaries come from the BBC. “We’re geographically a hell of a lot closer (to the United States) and in a much better position to offer our own unique perspective; but there seems to be this desire to fly in the face of that and ignore the obvious connection.” The inherent obstacles of funding and licensing add to the problem, for unless there’s some direct application to Canada, “they’re stories we can’t tell.” To emphasize his point, Michael describes moving to Toronto in 1977 when there wasn’t as great a selection of ethnic restaurants as there is today. “If the same rules were applied to the restaurant industry as the ones applied to the television industry we’d all be eating McDonalds.”

And projects don’t always work out as planned. Go Ask Alice, a film about women and drugs, had 65% of the financing in place in the fall of 2003 but the project didn’t get through Telefilm. MSF was encouraged to re-submit; then the Federal Government took $25 million dollars away from Telefilm and all of the financing fell through. With Life and Times of Rush, it looked like a slam-dunk but then one of the band members got into an altercation on New Year’s Eve and charges were pending. The production ground to a halt.

Even a half million dollar, fully funded documentary isn’t a sure thing, so they’re conscious of having a lot of things in development. When one project is finished another is ready to go. “On a funding level, it’s becoming more possible and necessary to co-produce and complete your financing with chunks of money from outside the country,” Judy explains. “The whole entertainment industry is topsy-turvy these days.” Case in point, MSF had started to build relationships with some broadcasters in the States when suddenly, there was yet another wave of consolidation.

Though MSF is only two years old, Michael and Judy have thirty-five years combined experience, and they’re now ready to tackle a big-budget documentary. 100 Films and a Funeral is a juicy saga about the glory days and subsequent nose- dive of PolyGram. Judy has an insider view of the story; she’d been a VP of Distribution at a time when there were millions of dollars earmarked for Canadian productions. Hugh Grant, Mr. Bean, Jodie Foster and Robert Redford are all real-life players in what MSF describe as a “breathtaking tale of multi-million dollar ambition, greed and betrayal.”

This time, their timing may be perfect: “Genres are colliding, squidging back and forth,” as Judy says. “Feature-length documentaries on interesting subjects are becoming the new indie films, without the ‘stink of the serious’ tag docs had before. People are looking for stuff to see that’s engaging, intelligent and unexpected, like Spellbound and The Corporation.”

After spending time with Michael and Judy, I’m most struck by a kind of circularity: who they are as people affects their work and in turn their community. At this year’s Hot Docs, they participated on several different levels: as audience members, filmmakers and industry facilitators. On a rainy Sunday night, Michael, Aaron and Judy caught the Australian doc, The President versus David Hicks. The following day Judy moderates a panel discussion of local commissioning editors; Aaron and Michael are in the audience. Beneath a Gore-tex jacket, Michael is sporting a Radio Revolution t-shirt; he waves to Michael Burns, of The Documentary Channel, who’s producing 100 Films and a Funeral. All three are delegates at the Toronto Documentary Forum where Michael and Judy also serve as mentors to first-time pitchers.

Being independent cultural producers in Canada is a challenge during the best of times, but Michael and Judy undertake it with grace, humour and a lot of hard work. As Rudy Buttignol, TVO’s commissioning editor, expressed on the panel Judy facilitated, “Documentary is a relationship-based industry. You can look around and say, ‘These are the people that make up my community and I’m going to spend the rest of my career around them.’” That’s a sentiment which takes on deeper meaning with Markham Street Films.

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