Primitive Celebrates 15 Years

Primitive is a name and an attitude

43 mins read

Since their splashy beginning fifteen years ago with the “non-fiction movie” The Falls, Primitive has beena major force in documentary production. They’ve built their enviable reputation for integrity and innovation with such important point-of-view docs as In the Reign of TwilightIntelligenceCod: the fish that changed the world and McLuhan’s Wake. Kevin McMahon’s impressive skills as a writer and director have ably complemented by the organisational talents of Kristina McLaughlin and the charm, acumen and articulate nature of Michael McMahon. The three have built a company that has gone from strength to strength, co-producing with Rhombus Media and Barna-Alper Productions and creating their own doc series and features. POV interviewed the three principles of Primitive Entertainment, during their fifteenth year of independent production, as the features The Face of Victory and Four Wings and a Prayer near completion and the doc series Things That Move continues to be shot.

POV: Marc Glassman
MM: Michael McMahon
KM: Kevin McMahon
KL: Kristina McLaughlin

The Falls and Primitive’s Beginnings

POV: Michael, what prompted you and Kevin to start working together in 1990?

MM: I’m fond of saying that if I’d known what Kevin and I were attempting to do back then, I would have scared myself out of it! We’d always dreamed about making a film about Niagara Falls, where we grew up. Kevin had done a CBC radio series on Ideas on Niagara Falls. We thought that it would be a fun project to develop The Falls as a feature documentary.

We formed Primitive Features in January of 1990 and by August of that year, we were shooting the film. It took us about six months to raise half a million dollars! We went out and made The Falls as a theatrical feature.

POV: What are the origins of The Falls?

KM: I had mentioned the idea of making a film about the Falls to Geoff Pevere. He suggested that we talk to Gerry Flahive, who was at the Film Board in publicity then. Now he’s a producer and has worked with us on a lot of projects. We got a bit of development money from the NFB. I wanted my brother to edit the film. It was time for him to move on from the life that he was leading, even if it was great fun. He and Brian Dennis were really good friends; they figured they knew how to produce a film, and I knew I couldn’t, so we became a team.

We wrote a proposal, a full-on treatment, and they took it around and flogged it. Weird stars must have collided, enabling us to make The Falls as a feature film, which was mind blowing. Our attitudes shifted in a couple of months from, ‘if we have to make it on $10,000 on Super 8, we’ll do it’ to ‘it’s going to be a feature, with a 35mm blow-up.’ It was a remarkable confluence of good work on Michael’s part and good luck.

POV: What was it like, making The Falls?

KM: It remains the best filming experience I’ve ever had, because it was such a delight. When I’d done small films in Bristol, I was hauling gear myself, with maybe one or two people helping. Suddenly I had a well trained crew of six or seven people, who were used to working on big projects. It was standard that we had a gaffer and a grip. They called me ‘Sir’ even though most of them were the same age as me. They’d been raised in that tradition: ‘Yes sir! Yes sir!”


POV: Kevin, tell me about your background. Didn’t you start in journalism before moving into filmmaking?

KM: I did my undergraduate degree in literature at Brock, in St. Catharines, then studied law, because it was the practical thing to do. Really, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to do that, so I started working for the student paper. My good friend John Ferry, who’s now the city editor at The Toronto Star, was running the paper. We had a couple of glorious years there. He went to The Star and I went to The Standard in St Catharine’s. I worked there for five years as a reporter. I had the night shift for a couple of years; eventually, I branched into feature writing and they gave me a huge amount of autonomy.

I did that for five years, and then started to realize I wanted to go into film. I was with Angela Stukator, my partner, by that time. She wanted to do a Ph.D. in film and I figured I could do a one-year program on the technical stuff—but there was no place to go in Canada. We could either move to New York or England, so we applied to Columbia and NYU and Bristol. We got accepted at all of them and decided to go to England.

POV: You scored a success with your first student film, The Zoo. How did that come about?

KM: In Bristol we lived around the corner from an amazing, old zoo. It’s fabulous, visually. I had become interested as a journalist in the question, ‘where does the impulse to dominate come from?’ after writing a series of articles on nuclear weapons. I thought, ‘that’s a great metaphor to explore in a zoo.’ So that gave me the subject. In order to get a ‘graduation film’ made, I had to get my class mates and teachers to buy into it. Then, I had to sell the idea to the BBC, which would be supporting the film as a school project, with the intention of showing it on TV.

Everything worked out really well until we got to the main BBC executive and, damn if he wasn’t a f*c*ing expatriate Canadian! He looked at The Zoo and said, ‘we can’t put this on television! It’s too weird.’ He forced me to put a narration on it. So I wrote it in a very arched, mannered style but, I’ve got to admit, I’ve ended up writing quite similarly in a number of other films!

Then, I sent the film to Geoff Pevere, who I’d known for a while. I just wanted his feedback but he ended up programming it for the Festival of Festivals (now The Toronto International Film Festival) and the Grierson Documentary Festival (which was the precursor to Hot Docs).

It’s all a bit of luck because The Zoo established a set of aesthetic guidelines, which I’ve used ever since.

POV: Could you articulate that?

KM: The basic structural principles of my films really are apparent in The Zoo. For example, the drama is entirely driven by juxtaposition. In most of my films, there isn’t a ‘real’ story; no chronological unfolding through time. There is a kind of faux narrative, a fake story. Instead, I give a ‘sense,’ ‘an idea,’ ‘an attitude.’ I use narrative tools like a musician, not like a dramatist.

MG: Do you mean rhythm? Counterpoint? Contrast?

KM: It’s contrast; it’s variation; it’s juxtaposition. In The Falls, you return to the faux narrative of the river at least eight times. Every time, you register a change and you advance along a line, which is very prescribed: I’m holding it tightly within the narrative, to give you an emotional sense of flow, of movement, even though I might have shot scene one and scene eight a quarter of a mile apart on the same day. You alter what’s in the frame, you alter the speed, you alter the kind of amplitude, the colour, to create a sense of narrative.


POV: Michael, I understand that your background in film is radically different from that of Kevin. Can you tell me how you got your start?

MM: I started as an assistant editor and sound recordist at the infamous SC Entertainment, which produced a bunch of entertaining ‘B’ movies in the 80s. I had a lot of fun working with Nick Stilliadis, who was making action flicks, horror films and comedies for the international marketplace. Pretty quickly, I became one of their main editors. I traveled around the world quite a bit and cut maybe 10 or 12 feature films for SC, learning the game as I went along. They took me to Cannes two or three times and to the American Film Market. Besides learning about editing, it was a really good opportunity to get exposed to the bigger world of business. I left in January of 1990 and a couple of weeks later started Primitive.

POV: Kristina, what’s your background and how did you get involved with Primitive?

KL: My father was in advertising. He would take me on his commercial shoots when I was a teenager. We’d go to Los Angeles and shoot Midas commercials, and I thought that was fantastic. So I knew I wanted to do something in the media. After I graduated I worked at CTV for almost a year for Jack McGaw who had produced Live it Up which was one of my favourite shows growing up.
After, I went traveling, and then I got a job temping at a production office. A friend of Michael’s and Kevin’s who was working there told me she was leaving to production manage their second feature doc, In the Reign of Twilight. She asked me if I’d be the Toronto production coordinator. I set up the locations for that film in Toronto and Ottawa while Kevin and his crew were shooting in the Arctic. Then I went and met them in Ottawa with the grip and all the equipment. Things worked out and they asked me to stay on in an assistant capacity. That’s when I really started getting interested in documentaries.

In the Reign of Twilight

POV: Kevin, what are the roots for your second feature doc, In the Reign of Twilight?

KM: While I was in England, I had done a series with Max Allen, the CBC radio producer for Ideas, which came out of articles I had written on nuclear weapons for The St. Catharines Standard. Max and Ursula Franklin were concerned about the militarization of the Arctic. They asked me to participate in an Ideas series on it. The publisher James Lorimar was so impressed with the programmes that he decided to get a book written on the subject. Max recommended me. So I came out of filmschool in Bristol and was handed a book contract in Toronto. And eventually that book led to our second feature doc, In the Reign of Twilight.

POV: Michael, how did you pitch the film?

MM: By that time, Rudy Buttignol had started The View from Here on TVO. We thought we could do something with him. We decided to adapt Kevin’s book, Arctic Twilight, because he’s very much into the Aboriginal peoples and the landscape of the North. We took that to Rudy and he got on board straightaway. We made that film in ’94 and that got us back on track.


POV: Intelligence is obviously a personal project. What do you recall about the film?

MM: It was a tough one to make. It was the first time we did a lot of serious after-effects work. I remember, at the time, the marketing of everything was ‘smart.’ An intelligent house, a smart car, a smart everything. And we started thinking, ‘how smart is all this stuff?’ We wanted to have a real look at it: what did it mean from a technological point of view, from a neuro-chemical point of view, from an organizational point of view? I was expanding my editing technique to include more f/x; I had a lot of fun working on the film. I do recall that Rudy Buttignol didn’t care much for Intelligence but to his great credit, he accepted it as it was, even though he didn’t think it was fantastic.

KL: The film was shot over a five-week period. I think we went to 72 locations. We had the same crew every single day. We’d do four locations in a day; we were shooting on film—schools, and offices and car plants—and then we’d come back to the office and have beer and pizza and watch the rushes from the day before. Everyone in the crew did that because we were so intrigued with what Kevin was doing. Nobody had any idea how he was going to put the film together, but Kevin has a way of making everyone feel as though they’re a part of the process so it was important for us to see what we had done the day before.

POV: More than most docs, Intelligence is scripted. How much do you pre-plan before you go out and start shooting?

KM: It depends on the film. The FallsIntelligence, and McLuhan’s Wake were scripted and more or less storyboarded in advance. Because of the nature of the project, Twilight wasn’t storyboarded but it did have a structure before I went up to the Arctic for the shoot.

I need multiple stories and a plan. Not only do I have to know that ‘in this scene we’re going to see the river free and wild, and in that scene we’ll see the river start to be hemmed in,’ but I actually have to plan that ‘in the first scene water’s going to fill the frame, but by the second scene there’s going to be 10 per cent more land.’ In the script or the storyboard, I take into account colour and movement. Is the camera on tracks, or fixed, or on stead-i-cam or pan held?

I try to plan my essay films as much as I can. Now in recent years, two things have happened: one is I’ve gotten more confident, and the other is I’ve been in situations, on assignment films, where I simply can’t scout because of timing or financial issues. For Cod, we shot the whole thing in places I’d never been to before; I just had to land, in Portugal, for example, and start shooting. That was a different kind of project; it was much more straight forward than the more personal films.

Moving Into TV

POV: After Intelligence, which was cut like a feature, Primitive began to shift into TV productions. You did two shorter form docs for the CBCTruth Merchants and Lifting the Shadow and then Cod: the fish that changed the world, which is a major 3 part series. Were you rethinking how the company worked and what it was capable of doing?

MM: Yes, that was me, mostly. Intelligence was made in 1998; we were already 8 years into Primitive Features and we’d made 3 films. We’d spent years developing fiction features that never got produced and shooting a massive project called Deserts in the World that ran into completion problems. You don’t make a lot of money working on independent features, especially docs. But you’ve got to have an office, you’ve got to have a phone line and you’ve got to buy paperclips!

POV: An editing suite, cameras…

MM: Yes. And I felt that we that we needed to work with a wider range of broadcasters. Up until that time we’d been working with TVO exclusively. We’d never had any luck with CBC’s Witness slot. So, when we got the opportunity, we jumped.

POV: That was a big market to get into at that time?

MM: It was, yes. We produced those two films for them. Truth Merchants went OK, although we thought it was a little weird. Then we did Lifting the Shadow, and it caused some problems for us, because the editing equipment was changing to the non-linear desktop systems which are much more cost-effective. I finished it on Final Cut Pro. And I had the audacity to deliver it in a 16/9 aspect ratio, in other words letter-boxed, and the CBC got really upset, saying, ‘what the heck are you doing? Our audience will not tolerate black bands at the top and the bottom of their TV sets.’ They did not realize that Mark Starowicz was off shooting Canada: A Peoples’ History in 16/9 and now it’s de rigueur. So there’s benefits and costs being early to the game of technology. And we haven’t made another film with them since. Cod: the fish that changed the world

POV: How did Cod become a Primitive co-production? Didn’t Salter Street originally own it?

MM: Michael Donovan, then at Salter Street, loved Mark Kurlansky’s book. One day Catherine Tait showed up at our office and said ‘We’re going to do this big four-part series, it’s going to be $1.2 million, blah blah, and we want you guys to make it.’ And I said ‘We’ll do it as a co-production because we’re not guns for hire.”

POV: It didn’t feel like a Salter Street Film, except for the East coast sensibility.

MM: Yes and Mary Walsh, who narrates the series, was working with them on This Hour. They had access, and she was lovely. But there was no way $1.2 million was going to get raised for Cod, so we dropped it down to three hours, and the budget to $900,000. At the end of the day we were only able to raise $770,000. Fees ate a lot of that, so that figure dropped to $550,000. Cod was shot in eight countries; it wasn’t what I would call a lucrative undertaking. It did demonstrate that we could make a high-quality limited series.

KL: I went on the shoot. We shot for 6 weeks, in Spain and Portugal and Iceland and Norway and England and in Newfoundland twice, which was gorgeous. I researched on the Internet for production coordinators, because we couldn’t go over to Europe in advance of the shoot. We sent them a list Kevin had compiled; he had done a lot of research. He’d say, ‘I want to shoot in this church and speak to the priest’ because a particular Spanish church had a stained glass window of cod fish. We had fantastic researchers along the way who served as our drivers, guides and translators.

McLuhan’s Wake

POV: McLuhan’s Wake was a big project for Primitive. It’s a major film and one that required a lot of thought, editing and effects. Take me through that film’s growth: how did it all came together?

MM: It was a tough one again, another film about ideas. We had the strong support of Rudy Buttignol, who wanted a definitive piece on Marshall McLuhan. Rudy has a colleague and friend, David Sobelman, who’s a McLuhan scholar. He put David and Kevin together, and they spent a long time developing the script. The tension there was that David isn’t a director: he was more of a writer, more of an academic. And while Kevin was, and is, interested in ideas and films on ideas, he’s a filmmaker first.

POV: Kevin, what were you trying to impart in McLuhan’s Wake?

KM: I knew McLuhan as a theoretician. I’d read his books but didn’t know anything about his life story. Rudy Buttignol told me the story about McLuhan going to his office after he’d had a stroke and finding all his papers thrown out. It was heart-wrenching. And I said, ‘good for you that you’ve got the story and if you want a director, I’ll be there.’ And they wanted a director. So that was that.

We needed to make his ideas visceral because they’re really about the physicality of life, in a Thomas Aquinas sense. It was only with The Laws of Media that McLuhan came upon a metaphor that could make his ideas tactile for people. Then there was the Poe story, about a man being caught up in a vortex, which was McLuhan’s favourite tale. The notion of swirling worked very well with the four-cornered structure of the laws of media.

Primitive Features becomes Primitive Entertainment

POV: As you got more into the TV business, you restructured the company and renamed it Primitive Entertainment. How did that all come about?

MM: Tom Perlmutter had been with Barna-Alper and Cine Nova, but he was tired of being a hired gun. He wanted to have a vested interest in a company and be involved in helping us grow. And we accepted that argument. We had worked for a number of years with Ian Kelso in the new media realm. And we were hopeful that new media would be a serious part of our business. Kristina had been with us for about seven years by then, and it made sense to include her in our expansion plans. So we put together this team of five people. And we changed the name while rewriting the paperwork for the company. We weren’t doing features exclusively anymore, so we became Primitive Entertainment.

KL: Michael and Kevin had approached me and asked if I was interested in becoming a partner. In true fashion, I asked them ‘what does that mean?’ and we left it at that! Anyway, about six months later, Michael and Kevin started talking to Tom Perlmutter and Ian Kelso, and things moved pretty fast from that point on.

POV: The quintet didn’t last very long. How did you become a trio?

MM: As you know, Tom was offered the job as Director-General of the National Film Board for English Canada. It was too fantastic an opportunity to come up, a real legacy position. After Tom left, we came to the conclusion that new media was going nowhere fast and we didn’t want to be involved with it any more. I made the decision to go back to our core business, which is documentary features and limited series. So Ian went out and is now running the New Media Business Alliance. We’ve come to a point, with Kevin, Kristina and I, that there is a very good balance of skills and talent.

Creative Harmony and Disagreements

POV: Michael, do you and Kevin ever have significant creative disagreements?

MM: In most cases I treat Kevin like I would treat any other director. I’ll say, ‘It’s your film.’ (But) if you want to do something I don’t agree with, you’re going to hear me say, ‘I told you so!”

We have our biggest disagreements over the titles of our films. Kevin favours more poetic, perhaps long-winded titles. I tend to favour more marketable titles because I have to repeat them to broadcasters or distributors in a sexy, this-will-sell voice. We generally sort it out after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing.

POV: How do you define Kristina’s role in the company?

MM: We both produce everything but Kristina is, in a lot of ways, the nuts and bolts gal. I’m fond of saying that I’ll go and sell everything and Kristina can clean up the mess! She figures out the budgets, but in terms of financial structure, I’m very much involved in that, because you have to have that information in your head when you’re talking to people. Kristina production manages, because I’m not in the office; I’m on the road 3 or 4 months of the year.

There has to be some consistency at Primitive, so she does the business affairs. She handles the fulfillment, if you will, of the deliverables: all the tax credits, the CAVCO, the CTF, etc. It’s an administrative burden that’s really enormous.

POV: Kristina, does Kevin give you scripts to look at?

KL: Yes, he does, but what are my priorities? It’s getting the crew, it’s getting the travel in place, and it’s getting our contract signed so we can get money. Lately, I’ve tried to include myself inmore of the creative meetings, not because I have something to say about what direction we should be taking, but because it’s important for my role in the company. When someone asks Chanda Chevannes for something as the production manager and she realizes she needs to come to me, she’ll say ‘can we do this?’ I need to know to be able to say ‘no we don’t need it’ or ‘yes absolutely we need a helicopter because of A, B, or C.’ If I don’t understand the process creatively, I end up saying ‘no’ when I should be trying to find the money.

POV: Michael, how would define your own role as it’s evolved at Primitive?

MM: I’m more of the front man. I’m a guy who gets his hair cut and puts on a suit, and goes to the markets. I do the public pitches.

The Primitive Team

POV: How many people are working in a typical day at Primitive?

MM: Besides Kevin, Kristina and myself, our core staff includes Chanda Chevannes and Kristine Kleckner. On contract we have quite a few people working on TV series. On Things that Move, a doc series, there’s six directors, four production people, two editors, two assistant editors, so there’s 14 people right away.

POV: As the company has grown, you’ve ended up working more and more with other directors. What’s that like?

KL: They all have different personalities, needs, and ways of working. Working with an outside director, you never know, is this something they really need, or are they asking for it so I can say ‘no’ and then they can ask for something which is a little bit smaller. Each one is a different case study.

The Face of Victory

POV: Kevin, your new film, The Face of Victory, is a real departure. It’s an archival film, using photographs and a new score by Alex Pauk and Alexina Louie. How did it come about?

KM: Sydney Suissa, while he was at Barna-Alper, generated this project; he approached us to co-produce. And I had a lot of reluctance. There were obvious aesthetic limitations—it’s all stills—and business problems—it’s going to be expensive—and I also had to really wrap my head around a big question—what’s the point?

I thought it through and decided there is a point because photography is different from film. During the process of researching The Face of Victory, I found film footage of the same scenes for which we had photographs. And the feeling that you get is completely different.

Photography freezes that second. It sits outside of narrative. It’s a slice out of time. It’s unlike film, which contextualizes people—good guys, bad guys, right, wrong; all that stuff is stripped away with a photograph. You just see suffering or joy or love. Elizabeth Klinck, who headed up the research, co-ordinated a massive team. We ended up with six or seven thousand photographs. And I decided to let the images drive the project. I dropped the idea of just showing Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan Days; instead, we just stick to 1945. We follow the logic of photographs. People are happy, and then they come to terms with the ruin, with the death and the horrible things that had happened in the Holocaust and the aftermath of Hiroshima. And then they start picking it up. Brick by brick. And starting over. And all the while the politicians are saying, ‘God this was the most horrible thing that’s happened to humanity and we must never allow this to happen again.’

Then I had to pitch my partners and Laszlo Barna and Cindy Witten of History Television on ‘you know what, the way to do this film is with very few voices. Instead, we should have wall-to-wall music.’ They are understandably nervous, but generally supportive and that’s all that matters.

Primitive: It’s a Name and an Attitude

POV: Why the name Primitive?

KM: I had spent time with Aboriginals thinking about survival up North, and homelessness in cities and what’s real in life. We were looking for a company name and it just popped into my head, ‘Primitive Features.’ There was something about documentaries, too—about the primitive features of our life or our reality. Somehow that seemed to sing and it stuck. After we made The Falls, I wrote a drama called Primitives which was about the whole milieu of early 80s Toronto, about homeless people, and the rich getting richer. We spent years developing it as a feature and then, a week before we were to begin shooting, Telefilm refused to support it.

POV: Was that a tremendous disappointment?

KM: It was a kick in the head, financially and emotionally. Drama had status; it had the money. We’d spent all kinds of money, and we had a huge debt from it. The shoot was cancelled a week before my first child was born. It was a nightmare. Looking back at it now, I think it was all for the best. It’s funny. I saw Bill House recently, at a Rhombus party. He was the one at Telefilm at the time who could’ve said ‘yes’ and said ‘no;’ he and Anne Mackenzie were the band leaders in crushing my dramatic career. I said to him ‘you know for years I was angry, but in retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to stayin documentaries. And it’s turned out that I’m a lot better at making them. I would never have had the kind of freedom I’ve had and quite likely, Primitive would never have had the success that we’ve had, doing dramas. I mean, hardly anybody does.”

POV: What did Bill say?

KM: He just stared at me. I don’t think he believed me.

POV: Kristina, what do you think?

KL: Not that I don’t have respect for the industry but I can’t imagine working in feature dramatic films. I love documentaries so much and I love working on them, especially with these guys.

POV: Michael, will you ever go back to doing dramas at Primitive?

MM: I’ll never go back. I’ll never touch it. I don’t want the pinnacle of my career to be kissing the feet of a moron like Matt Damon hoping he’ll be in my next movie! I want to make a body of work that’s going to be taught on university courses, that’s going to inspire younger generations, and that will stand the test of time.

POV: Kevin, let’s leave the last word to you.

KM: The only things worth exploring are the environment, which we’re polluting, and the systems, which structure and control our lives in cities. I think it’s the job of documentaries in the 21st century to paint a picture of the world in which we live, and the dysfunctions in the fit between human culture and tribes and the biosphere. To me there is no greater subject.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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