The POV Interview: John Kastner

A candid conversation with the multi-award-winning director of Out of Mind, Out of Sight

42 mins read

John Kastner is a trickster.

He can talk about his life and works in so many ways. In the documentary world, he’s acclaimed for Life with Murder (2010), The Lifer and the Lady (2004) and last year’s hit NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, hard-hitting films about people in prisons and mental institutions. Lovers of classic Canadian television drama remember him as a forceful young actor who could hold his own among such thespians as William Hutt, Leslie Nielsen and Celia Johnson. Scholars of Canadian cinema will point out that Kastner and his mother, Rose, were co-writers of the multi-Gemini award–winning docu-drama The Terry Fox Story (1983). And those of us who go back to Canadian entertainments in the ’70s and ’80s recall him fondly as a comedic talent on Peter Gzowski’s disastrous foray into late-night TV, 90 Minutes Live, and a co-host with sister Kathy of the CTV children’s show Just Kidding.

Kastner is a proud member of a family that includes a father who was a sculptor; a writing mother; a brother, Peter, who starred in English-Canada’s first internationally acclaimed feature film, Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964); and two artistic sisters, one of whom (Susan) has been a producer on her son Jamie’s documentaries Kike Like Me (2007) and Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!(2011). He’s naturally multitalented—a director-producer-writer-actor with an innate understanding of storytelling. But what’s made him a documentarian—his true vocation?

In this and other interviews, John Kastner points to reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment as a “eureka” moment in his life. The intense compassion of the great Russian novelist and his understanding of the bereftness of society inspired Kastner’s art. He started making documentaries for CBC-TV in the 1980s, winning Emmys for The Lifer and the Lady, Four Women (1978) and Fighting Back (1982), the latter two about people fighting cancer. Starting with The Lifer and the Lady, which explored the unlikely romance between a career criminal incarcerated in a Kingston penitentiary and an attractive single mother, Kastner’s career took a critical turn. He began to explore institutions and the effects they have on people living in them.

Prisons and halfway houses and the justice system have formed the backdrop for such Kastner gems as Monster in the Family (2006), Hunting Bobby Oatway (1997), Prison Mother, Prison Daughter (1986) and Life with Murder. Retirement homes, hospitals and long-term care facilities are the locations for the Rage Against the Darkness trilogy. And the Brockville Mental Centre is at the core of his recently completed duo NCR and Out of Mind, Out of Sight.

POV sat down with John Kastner to talk about his films and career in late March, as he was preparing for the premiere of Out of Mind, Out of Sight at Hot Docs.

JK: John Kastner | POV: Marc Glassman

POV: John, your new documentary, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, completes a duo of films set in the Brockville Mental Health Centre—what’s been going on there, how they deal with mental patients, and what they do with people who are either not criminally responsible or certainly violent offenders in various ways. In the previous film, NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, you concentrated mainly on just one patient, Sean Clifton. Why did you make this film less of a portrait of one person and more about the whole environment in Brockville?

JK: The first film, NCR, focused mostly on what happens when a forensic psychiatric patient—what they used to call a criminally insane person—gets out of the hospital and all the public safety issues that raises. His victim, Julie Bouvier, and her parents, Andy and Noella, are almost as important to the story as Sean himself. The new film, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, focuses on patients who are still in the hospital, who are really sicker than Sean was: two men and two women, who we follow over 18 months through the course of their illness and the ups and downs of treatment. It could have been the prequel to NCR, because it’s almost entirely set inside the hospital. Sean gets out for most of his film.

Out of Mind, Out of Sight is a real slice of life of what a forensic psychiatric hospital looks like. You don’t get into these places. We read about the so-called “bus beheader,” the so-called “snow plow killer.” We see them looking sinister in the photographs and then they disappear from public view, and we never find out, “What can they do for these people? Can they help them? Can they treat them? Can they fix them? What happens?” Well, we got in. The whole project was actually about three-and-a-half years. I did both films at the same time.

You finally get to see, “My goodness, there is actually a great deal they can do for these guys.” They can do what I call the “Jekyll-and-Hyde” transformation, which, let me tell you, for a layman to watch is amazing. We saw the change in a patient who comes in with what they call a floridly psychotic state, speaking gibberish, ranting and raving, often not just suicidal, but homicidal. Then, in a relatively short period of time, thanks to the great progress they’ve made with antipsychotic drugs and other forms of treatment, you see this transformation. You see a guy who was “a raving lunatic” when he first came in change remarkably. You see the gibberish starting to recede. You see him calming down. He doesn’t have to be restrained anymore. Within a month or two, his speech hasn’t completely returned, but he’s kind of back down on planet Earth again.

POV: Did you intend to make two films?

JK: No, it was by accident. I was only intending to make one film, but I’d never shot in a mental health centre before. I knew nothing about it. I’ve done many films in prison but this was different. People said to me, “The patients are going to be really volatile. They’ll be up and down. You’ll probably lose some of them. You better shoot extra.” So we shot twice as many subjects—patients—as I’ve ever shot before. And, guess what? Yes, some of them did drop out, but they all came back. That’s how we ended up with enough material for two feature-length documentaries. I think of the two films as my Warrendale [dir. Allan King, 1967] or Titicut Follies [dir. Frederick Wiseman, 1967], an in-depth look at how an institution for people with severe mental and psychological disorders operates.

POV: How much freedom were you allowed in Brockville?

JK: We weren’t allowed to roam around the hospital. There was always somebody there from the staff breathing down our necks. There’s some very severe privacy restrictions. But I do have a long history of making films that de-stigmatize people and institutions. I’ve succeeded in taking criminals who’ve been demonized in the media and been able to show a completely different side to them. I gave the hospital administration a brochure, which I call “Changing Closed Minds,” which shows the before-and-after publicity that some of these guys have got. I said, “Everybody talks about, how do we deal with the stigma of mental illness? How do we do it? Well, I’ve had some success with this, why don’t you let me try it with patients suffering from mental illness?” They talked to me, read the brochure and watched my films, and it was that combination, which got me in.

POV: Did you show them Monster in the Family?

JK: I showed them several films but certainly Monster in the Family was the most striking example of a media turn. Martin Ferrier was on the front pages of the Sun chain, with claims like: “The monster’s loose, he’s going to be the next Paul Bernardo, he’s a serial rapist, he’s going to kill and hack up people. Lock up your daughters.” I got in there and found he was nothing of the sort. He was actually a really minor offender who was mostly a fraud artist who passed bad cheques. But he was a menacing-looking guy with a big mouth and a very problematic mother. After the doc was broadcast, the [Toronto] Sun, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star ran complete stories, almost recanting their original coverage. It was an amazing thing to do.

POV: Even with Life with Murder, which is a much more problematic story, you were able to reveal a more human side to Mason Jenkins.

JK: Well, to some extent, but in the case of Life with Murder, it was really the parents’ story, as far as I was concerned. Brian and Leslie Jenkins had been demonized in the town of Chatham after their daughter, Jennifer’s, death. They had been isolated and lived like hermits, because a lot of people found it hard to accept that they were supporting Mason. Life with Murder is the story of a guy who you eventually find out in the film murders his only sibling, his sister. The parents had to make a biblical, terrible choice: Do they break with him or do they stay with him, knowing that he almost certainly did murder their beloved daughter? They choose to stay with him. For this, they were vilified in the town of Chatham.

The film, I think, puts you in their shoes and makes you understand the terrible choice that a parent would have to make in a situation like that—probably the worst choice a parent could ever face in their lives—and it turned things around for them, too. The local newspaper, which had been very critical of them, published wonderful empathetic stories about them after the film came out. The church sent people to clean their yard. People dropped off turkeys and wine. They just had this amazing response.

POV: It shows your compassionate nature, which I’ve found in getting to know you over the years. Do you feel that that gets communicated as well? Not just simply your ability to tell stories, but that you seem like and are in fact the kind of guy who can listen to somebody and see their side of the story?

JK: It’s kind of you to say so. Sometimes, I think I’m a son-of-a-bitch, personally. I can’t judge myself. All I can tell you is what drove me. It’s for others to judge who I am. The turning point for me was reading Crime and Punishment when I was about 19 years old. At that time, we didn’t have a lot of homeless people in Toronto. We called them derelicts and when I saw one, I looked away. But in Crime and Punishment, which was my favourite novel for a long, long time, there’s a scene where the hero, Raskolnikov, is walking down the street, and sees a man he recognizes that he met at a bar, Marmeladov, who has been run over by a carriage. Everybody else is rushing past him. That’s what I would have done. Not Raskolnikov—Raskolnikov crosses the street, picks the man up, brings him home, and with his great genius of character, Dostoyevsky starts to tell you how this seeming nobody has a life. We hear his sad story—how he has become a failed civil servant, and that he has this lovely sweet daughter. You suddenly begin to care for this derelict, this guy that I would have walked by. I thought, “Wow, if I could ever do that—if I could ever create a work of art that could make people not avert their eyes to human suffering, that would be fantastic.” I don’t presume to be Dostoyevsky, but certainly it has been a motivating force for me in all of these films.

POV: In your past four films— Monster in the Family, Life with Murder, NCR and now Out of Mind, Out of Sight —you show us people who have been accused of terrible things. The stories start off as tragic, though in some cases, there is redemption. In Out of Mind, Out of Sight, the story of Michael Stewart continues that pattern. In fact, his story is the most tragic of all. I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about that, and about your own feelings about this young man?

JK: Well, there were 59 patients at this hospital, and we filmed with 46 of them. It was amazing; at various points, we also shot about 75 staff members. But the patient I wanted most of all was Michael Stewart. He was a heartbreaker. Michael Stewart was accused of killing his mother, who he continues to love very dearly, and he cannot and could not get past it. No patient touched the heart of the staff like Michael. They’d see him in the hallway, walking and talking to himself: “How could I have done it? How could I have done it? I loved this person. What’s wrong with me?” They were so moved by it, because he wears his heart on his sleeve. With Michael, it’s all there for you to see. I thought, “Wow. My mission is to destigmatize mental patients, and you see this man’s torment, his anguish, and you can’t be angry at him. You can’t hate him.”

I realised that if I could ever get Michael to be on camera, I could help to change people’s views of the forensic patients who commit these horrific acts—which he did do. Well, it took me a year. He dropped out of the filming twice. But his family came on board, and I was able to film this heartbreaking and yet uplifting story of this remarkable guy. Michael was quite ill. Part of the risk of filming in a hospital with people suffering from serious illnesses is that it’s a roller-coaster ride. Some days they’ll love you and other days there is great ambivalence. And on bad days, they’ll flee from you. So, to follow Michael was truly an emotional experience.

POV: The most remarkable thing, John, is that eventually you did get him to talk. Can you tell me how you accomplished that?

JK: It was a long process. We filmed Michael for 18 months. First of all, it was a matter of trust. Michael is a very wary young man. He and his whole family are very reserved. He wouldn’t talk at all about what had happened. He couldn’t bear to face it. He wouldn’t even talk with his family about it. It was just tearing him apart. You could just see it. For quite a while, we just filmed baby steps, non-essential things, hoping he’d come around to the big stuff at some point. Then, we got him to do this wonderful thing in the film. It was something that we didn’t dare ask of any other patient. Instead of asking the staff to explain everything, we thought, “Can a patient be our tour guide of this forensic psychiatric hospital? Who is bright enough? Who is articulate enough?” Michael Stewart. So, that’s how it began. I said, “Mike, would you like to try this? Would you like to try being our gracious host? We’ll just try one thing at a time. First of all, explain to us about the security unit. What’s the difference between the most secure unit here and the other units? Do you want to just try it?” So, he did. And this is a brilliant young man, an I.Q. of 130. He was tops in his high school. He was a high school superstar; handsome as a movie star. He was beloved by everybody. It’s so awful in the case of somebody suffering from schizophrenia; they are often highly intelligent.

The role we gave him didn’t require Michael to talk about himself. I think that was the key. So, he was able to quite lucidly set up one area of the hospital after another; one area of the treatment process after another. People who have seen cuts of the film have said to me, “If you hadn’t told me, I would have thought Michael was one of the doctors.” Well, he was so proud of this, because after all, what kind of a life did he have left? What did he have to be proud of after what he had done? This gave him something to be proud of. I was so happy to be able to do that for him, plus it was wonderful for the film.

While doing this over the course of a year, I’d say to him every once in a while, “Look, I don’t want you to talk about the events of that night. What I want you to talk about is your reconciliation with your family. Do you feel like it?” And he’d say, “No, no, no.” Then he’d say, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” But he would tell me absolutely nothing. He would deny that there were any problems. Finally—who can explain it, who can tell you why—one day he said, “Okay, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to give it a try.” I think it was trusting and bonding and all of that stuff.

POV: You started out as a child actor and have quite a wild sense of humour. It doesn’t take long for people to realise that there’s more to you than John Kastner, the serious documentary filmmaker. Do you find that your funnier side helps you in eliciting responses from your subjects?

JK: Absolutely. I’m crazy, too, but in a different way. I was Canada’s Mr. Candid Camera for a long time. I used to do a regular slot on [the CBC’s late-night TV show] 90 Minutes Live with Peter Gzowski. At the opening of every show, I’d do the stupidest things: walking out from behind one of the biggest churches of Toronto on Bloor Street in the middle of the business day, dressed as a clergyman, saying to people, “You know, I don’t want you to be alarmed, but a creature from another planet has landed in an extra-terrestrial vehicle behind the church. Now, there’s nothing to be concerned about, he just has a few questions about the planet Earth. Would you be so kind as to give me a helping hand while I just contact the authorities? I assure you, he’s absolutely harmless.” Well, if you can get people to do that—and, amazingly, about 50 per cent of the people that you approach agree to help out—you realise, the sky’s the limit. You can get anybody to do almost anything. There’s a clipping from Maclean’s [magazine] that I have that said, “There’s nothing people won’t do for John Kastner.”

Yes, I have a very silly side, and it works in documentaries. I wouldn’t recommend this to a lot of other documentary makers, but here’s something I do. As you know, Marc, getting releases from subjects is the bane of our existence, as documentary filmmakers. For Out of Mind, Out of Sight, I had to go up to the most secure unit, where the guys are still psychologically off and pretty dangerous. You give them the release. Well, we all know what these releases look like. They’re the most daunting legal documents ever produced. Or at least they look like that. You see some guy who’s done heaven knows what reading over the release; you see the wheels turning in his mind…and you know that you’re not going to get his signature. So, I go up to them—to the horror of my staff, I might add—and say, “Before you sign that release I should just warn you what we intend to do with the footage. We’re going to take the footage of you and put it into a porn movie and Photoshop a horse’s head on you. Are you okay with that?” The staff go [gasping noise, signifying shock]… And the guy gets this wild-eyed look that I’ve seen so many times, not believing they’ve heard what I just said. Often, they laugh and say, “Oh, screw it,” and sign the release. So, yes, I’m shameless.

POV: Right. And it works!

JK: It disarms people, absolutely.

I’ll give you an example of how my funny side helped me to make NCR. And the situation couldn’t have started out more seriously.

One of my first ideas when I started shooting at the Brockville Mental Centre was to look at the outreach programme: when do they get out and what do they do when they’re outside? I applied to film one of the hearings of the Ontario Review Board, which I thought would be a snap because I [was] the first person to film parole board hearings in Canada, which are parallel; they’re called administrative tribunals. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, so I thought it would be easy to get in. But I got this angry phone call—I was just starting with Sean Clifton—from Andy Bouvier, the father of Clifton’s victim. He left a message saying, “What the hell are you doing? You’re doing our story and you’re not talking to us. What’s the matter with you?” I felt so badly because we had just barely started with Sean and of course I was happy to talk to the victim and her family, but I thought I’d do it down the road—after a number of months. I called him back right away, saying I was happy to talk. The Bouviers are from Cornwall, and we were in Brockville, which is about an hour away.

Within a couple of hours, Andy was in my living room in Brockville to look me in the eye and have a talk about it. It turned out he was going to be the Crown’s star witness against us in this legal application. He told me the story: “We’ve gone through this horror and this ordeal and I think the law should be changed.” I said, “Andy, why don’t you put this in the film? It would make the story stronger.” I love ambivalence. I love complexity. I love showing both horns of a dilemma. I’ve got one horn—I’ve got the side of the patient. But I saw that there were two victims in the story. The next morning, Andy called up the Crown and said he was switching sides and that I could shoot the hearing.

Andy and I set up a time for us to meet with his wife, Noella. So, here I am at my first dinner with the Bouviers, to talk about this incredibly serious subject— their daughter Julie, who nearly died. The deal was if the meal went well, they’d invite me back to their house and open their scrapbooks and show me important documents. At the end of the meal, Noella says to me, “Okay. This has gone well, but it’s been kind of heavy. I’d like to invite you back to the house, but before I do I need a bit of lightness here. I’d like you to do the chicken look.”

In my film Sinner in Paradise [2008], there is a sequence where I’m down at Club Hedonism in the Bahamas and they’re all walking around naked. It’s a preamble to what they all do there every day and night. But in the film, which is a comic doc about spiritualism and hedonism, I’m the square boy from Toronto. I’m too embarrassed to look at nude women. But I realise that I’m on assignment and I’ve got to ask them questions. What am I going to do? Then I remember…the chicken! The chicken has a way of looking, but not looking at the same time, twitching its head from left to right, without looking straight ahead at anybody. I decide that’s how I’m going to conduct my interviews with the naked women of Hedonism. So, I have this sequence, right? It’s on my website. I had completely forgotten it was there because I’d made it about six years earlier. Noella Bouvier had checked me out, and fortunately, tragedy or no tragedy, she and Andy had retained the most wonderful sense of humour. So I had to do my impression of a chicken in the middle of the fanciest restaurant in Cornwall. Noella looked at me when I was finished and said, “Okay. You’re coming to the house.” We’ve been best buds ever since that strange meet-cute.

POV: The story of Sean’s redemption and the Bouviers’ acceptance of him couldn’t have been scripted. Was NCR a surprise?

JK: Absolutely. It was one of those happy accidents that happen if you’re prepared to go out and shoot a little bit by the seat of your pants. Some people go out and storyboard and script. I do a lot of prep before I go in but what I don’t do is storyboard. I always allow for the untoward, unexpected thing to happen, but I go in with a basic idea that if nothing wonderful and unexpected does happen, I basically have a strong story, which will be okay in any case. Of course, what you hope for is something like what happened on NCR.

Not only did I slowly gain Sean’s trust, I also got to know and work well with the Bouviers. At first, we were going to hide their faces completely. They took one look at what it would look like to have their faces masked. [Sounds of disgust] “Oh, this is a terrible shot.” Then, Julie, who was in fact the victim who Sean had tried very hard to murder, said, “Well, what about me, it’s my story. Don’t I get in?” This took several months. It was all about building relationships. These wonderful, wonderful people, the Bouviers, came on board, and suddenly we had a movie. We had a protagonist and we had an antagonist. We had an arc. We had a beginning, middle and an end: a climactic scene. I’d love to say that it was planned, but it wasn’t.

POV: You started your documentary career at the CBC, continued it at CTV and your last three films have been co-produced with the NFB. Your work has certainly been seen by a vast public. How do you evaluate the effects that you’ve been able to achieve through your documentaries?

JK: There are some films where you can almost put your finger on a specific impact. One of my Emmy winners, Four Women, is one of them. When we made that film, in 1978, breast cancer was still a taboo subject. We had reports that women saw the film, discovered lumps, went in and had procedures done, presumably saving their lives.

With NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, the impact continues to be astonishing. It’s being hailed as perhaps the most important film about mental health made in this country, and has helped to change people’s minds about the stigma of mental illness. It’s been praised by everybody from the chief justice of the Supreme Court to the wife of the prime minister of Canada to numerous leading mental health and legal bodies. Over the past year, we’ve had two separate day-long symposia built around the film at Osgoode Hall. At the last one many Superior Court justices were there. We recently screened in Ottawa at a special event sponsored by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, at which several parliamentarians and senators were present, because the bill that could liberalize the law was having a second reading. We certainly have been told many times that there’s clear evidence of the film’s ability to change closed minds.

POV: Early on in our interview, you compared your Brockville films to the works of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King. Of course both of those filmmakers have dealt a lot with institutions, as you do. Where do you think your work fits in terms of documentary practice in Canada and internationally?

JK: That’s a hard one for me to be objective about, to be perfectly honest. My biggest influence remains Dostoyevsky. He’s the one I identify with most strongly, without being pretentious about it. I think that I dig deep, deep, deep into the depths of the people that I deal with. I think that some of my films are very powerful, more powerful than a lot of stuff that’s out there. It’s not situational; it’s people talking about themselves, revealing things about themselves, sometimes going through a process that’s quite transformational.

I don’t know who quite makes films the way that I do. I have been criticized to some degree for not being interested in style. I think it’s a valid criticism. I’m not as interested in style as some people. I am interested in faces. I’m interested in talk. I think people reveal themselves to me, maybe because of my background in drama. Talk—conversation—is, to me, the backbone of my films. If I have a chance to do something visually interesting, it’s icing on the cake. The thing is, it’s so hard to get somebody sitting across from you to get to that point where they open up and reveal themselves. So much of my effort is put into that. If I’ve got that, then I’ll do what I can to illustrate what they’re talking about with visuals.

I love pictures. I love motion pictures, but not at the expense of content and talk and people. In that way I’m more like Errol Morris. At heart, I’m interested in the folks who allow their lives to be shown in my films. The people.

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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