EMAIL mj.morris@live.ca


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Canadian film producer Peter Elliott launched career with 'horror films' featured at coffee houses in Trinity United Church basement in Chapleau

Peter Elliott, writer, documentary film producer, director, editor, screen writer, cinematographer says "some of my most creative and prolific moments were spent in the basement of the old Trinity United Church" during the years he lived in Chapleau.Rev. Murray Arnill, who was the minister at the church in those years, was the guiding hand behind the very popular coffee houses in the early 1970s where Chapleau youth and many local school teachers and others would gather on a weekend evening. The coffee houses were the place to be and Peter who has now been doing media for more than 30 years, started his career there and at Chapleau High School.

Recently, Peter, who now lives and works in Newfoundland and Labrador,  took time to answer my questions, on his life and work and this week, I am delighted to share his answers about living in Chapleau and the role it played in leading to his career in media production. I

Michael: Share memories of growing up in Chapleau.

I have too many memories of my five and a half years in Chapleau. Chapleau is the place of my formative years; my sense of humour, my love of the outdoors and my film video career all originated there. I was lucky to be part of an incredible scout troop led by Manlio Spessot. We won every competition in scout events around Sudbury and the Soo. With the scout troop and later through work with the MNR I think I saw the entire district around Chapleau.
My family moved to Chapleau in 1969 from Cochrane. I was eleven years old when we drove south on the the partially paved Timmins highway in the middle of winter. My first impression of Chapleau was a steaming railway town bisected by mile long freight trains passing through. The town was beautiful to my eyes since it was laden with CPR colours. There still was equipment in the railway yards dedicated to servicing steam locomotives. The old ice house, the YMCA, the Horseshoe Bridge and the coaling tower still stood. The CPR shops were still in full operation and the whistle would blow at noon, for fire alarms and on Remembrance Day. And of course the treasured sight was the old steam locomotive number 5433 in front of the museum patiently waiting to be steamed up again.

The frozen river in front of our new home at the Forestry Point was busy with bush planes taking off and landing. I would purposely walk the frozen river to school to make life interesting. On especially cold days you could hear every train wheel squeak by the station from a kilometre away. The chimney stacks spewed smoke straight up resembling a scene out of Victorian London.

I would navigate my way through the mist until I arrived at the old high school which was defined by four rooftop air vents that resembled Mickey Mouse ears. My grade six teacher was Zita Evans. 

We played slot ball in the world's only slot ball court. Since the stone walled basement gymnasium was only about eight feet high there was nowhere to hang a basketball net so two opposing window wells were covered with a sheet of plywood with a square hole cut into it. There was a canvas flap in the back of the hole that the ball would be thrown into. 

We would have our teeth checked at school. After my checkup I was given a note that said 1 EXT on it. Deep inside I knew what it meant. One extraction; but I translated that to mean "number one excellent teeth". I wanted to avoid going to the Dental Car. I loved old tuscan red CPR railway coaches since I am a train buff but not one with a foot pedal operated drill in it. At least that is what I was led to believe. I never went inside it. Somehow my dental checkup notes would get blown away across the frozen river on my walk home.

Some of my most creative and prolific moments were spent in the basement of the old Trinity United Church. Those memories resonate with Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" blaring full volume while a group of us set up coffee houses that comprised of a "Monster Chiller Horror" crypt we created to entertain the local youth. During the coffee houses we took turns being the guide into the "crypt" where a wall full of hands would feather you. The guide would bang a steel pipe on the cement floor and lead you to a decorated room full of nylon cob webs amongst the dry ice fog and lurking creatures. If you weren't afraid of the haunted house sound effects then the site of David Doig as a vampire would have you running. On special days you could be treated to a screaming Rusty Deluce rigged up on a faked hangman's noose. 

We also made three horror films to show during the coffee houses that starred Ken Lane as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character. In one film Ken quickly kills his lab assistant, Rob Jardine then ventures out to kill others before being shot by Officer David Doig who is wearing my father's vintage Department of Lands and Forest uniform. That film titled "A Change of Terror" made it to the big screen in the form of the Fox Theatre on Birch Street as it was shown as part of the Last Quarter Rock Festival which featured Kebesquashising Riverboat. 

The sequel called "The Occult" was shot in the back field at CHS. That film never made the big screen due to the fact I forgot to write an ending or let alone a script. The film was shot at night and it featured Don Warren as a villain, and if I believe Rob Jardine, Teddy Burns and Janice Robinson were suppose to be put in a trance while Janice's sister Cheryl played a good victim. "The Occult" did make it to the coffee house screen, though "A Change of Terror" and "Hike to the Vampire" were the big hits. I had a entire collection of vintage cartoons we used to show between musical performances by Kebesquashising Riverboat.

The coffee houses were unique in the world I'd say. We gave the youth of a small town in the north something to do. It was better than hanging out in front of the pool room. 

When I travel to the James Bay Lowlands to teach media skills to kids, I speak of those coffee houses and our unofficial film club as an example where you can do things on mosquito sized budgets. I try to inspire the youth to - just do it! 

Michael: Related question -- CHS celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2012.. Favourite memories?

Chapleau High School was a real inspiration for me and to my present career. I had fun there and I learned. The grade eleven history class was the best one in the country since George Evans taught it. He would glance at my notebook and just smile at my drawings of Ionian, Doric and Corinthian architecture. Because of that class I eventually went to Greece and saw many of the things that George Evans taught.

Grade nine history class was the start of making audio tapes for all my history projects. I remember when my grade nine history teacher Michael J. Morris (thanks for this blog Michael) shared my first tapes with others and it became the norm to produce these for class presentations. We would form into groups, write scripts, edit music, create sound effects and perform the voices for theses tapes using Pink Floyd as the background music. 

I got involved in some school variety nights, I played some lacrosse and liked running cross country on a track through the bush. We had a large curling club mainly due to the successful recruiting tactics of Donald Warren. Don made membership in the CHS curling club mandatory, so to speak. Don was polite but persistent. He should of been a union organizer.

Michael:  After Chapleau, where did you go -- education, work, etc.

I attended CHS for three years then moved to Southern Ontario in 1974. My education became so scattered after that. No high school had a real semester system near where I lived so I got all mixed up with half courses, half credits and wasn't allowed to take certain subjects due to a lack of perquisites that begin back in grade nine. I didn't feel like going backwards at the time. A big teachers strike in York Region also ended the rest of my grade eleven school year. I always thought to myself…should of stayed in Chapleau to finish high school, maybe I would of joined the CPR since I loved trains. But the other end of that pendulum was me immersing myself in the film and video world and that is the track I followed and still do. 

We lived in Newmarket Ontario where I finished high school. I maintained my involvement with Scouting and attended a world scout jamboree in Norway as a Venturer. I still made Super 8 films and produced Shakespeare's MacBeth with kids playing the roles while working at a day camp. l met my first wife Cathy in a high school musical I performed in and I always found a way to produce Super 8 films with every student job I had or course I took. 

In 1976 I spent a great summer in Chapleau. I remember helping Pat Bamford with an official visit from a Federal Liberal Delegation to Chapleau. I was at Pat's house when one member of the delegation called for a ride since they arrived late at the Chapleau airport. On my own accord I borrowed Pat's car and went to pick up the delegate at the airport. I just got my driver's license a week before and never drove power steering before. I remember swerving all over the highway. I'm sure the delegate was as white as a polar bear once I got him to the Hublit Hotel where the delegation was meeting.

After that summer in Chapleau I attended Humber College in Toronto and received an Honours Diploma in Film and Television Production after three years and jumped right into the work world. My summer jobs brought me to Algonquin Park as a canoe ranger and later I worked as a film camera assistant, sound recordist, lighting gaffer and editor on two camping comedy film's for Ontario Provincial Parks. I had a chance to get a degree which would of been helpful in the later years of my career but I was too practical in my thinking. I just wanted to continue learning as I go along. I now recommend to youth I speak to, to work towards a degree if they can, since it opens up more doors for the future.

Michael: Tell us about the early years of your career.

I have shot and edited hundreds of video, films over the years. Mostly documentaries and television episodes. I freelanced for thirty years. It was a boom and bust lifestyle. I would sink all my funds into my documentary films and barely break even in the end. I would sell my films to CBC but never make enough money to keep making films. I would write grant applications and usually get them. But I was a bit of a rebel to my own demise. The film world relies on schmoozing and being in the right group and I refused to do that. I was too "bumpkinesque" or something. I hated big city life but was lucky that most of my work took me to places I would normally not go, like Haiti, Chile, Senegal and Guinee. I had my own 16mm camera equipment and it travelled with me throughout the north as I shot film for my own documentaries. 

I specialized in shooting and editing videos and films on topics that dealt with the outdoors, science, medicine, wildlife, tourism and Canadian history. I shot for CBCs Nature of Things, edited and shot for Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and worked on several projects over the years for Science North in Sudbury. As of writing I have three productions now playing in Science North. I also acted sometimes in films, usually playing lumberjacks or paddling a birch bark canoe in a CBC production.

I must admit that my interest in history caused me to have a parallel life as a living history animator at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto. I would run into people from the film industry and they would say, "Elliott what in the heck are you doing here?" I would say I am stuck in the past or on a Magical History tour. 

I later bought a large voyageur replica canoe and ran it as an eco-tourism business in Kingston and Toronto harbours for five years.
But the film television industry was always calling me back. I like the work. I hate the business and still wasn't a "schmoozer". But years later I still love editing, shooting and now writing.

Michael: Share some of your favourite projects from over the years.

I worked on a television series called Exhibit A, the Secrets of Forensic Science. They called me a "renaissance man" because I could do everything. Shoot, edit, supervise post production, act, make props and create special effects. 

I produced and directed a dramatic documentary on Jean de Brebeuf, Saint Jean de Brebeuf meant a lot to Pope Jean Paul II because he took my VHS tape back to Rome in his brief case after the World Youth Day celebrations in 2002. I originally had the tape sent to his lodgings on Strawberry Island in Lake Simcoe and heard later he liked it and kept it. The church apologized that they couldn't return it. That was my papal audience, sort of, I guess.

My first real professional film, a short documentary called "The Castle of White Otter Lake" is still my favourite. It was the innocent story of a man who single-handedly constructed a log castle in the wilderness west of Thunder Bay back in the early 1900's. It showed in the British Isles and all over Canada. I made a small profit on that one and even received an award nomination for it.

I edited Deadly Arts for National Geographic, The Surgeons for the Discovery Channel and the Designer Guys series for HGTV. I cut Tow Biz, Austin Stevens Adventures and produced commercials for the Canadian Continence Foundation and Trent University. 

I was in Haiti twice last year while shooting a documentary for Vision TV called The Real Voodoo. I was in the middle of over seven Voodoo ceremonies while avoiding the thrust of swords hitting me and the camera, but the music, the dancing and use of rum is fascinating.

Michael:  Peter, you seem to really like the railroad.. Explain. 

Trains are my first memories. My Great Grandfather was a steam locomotive engineer on the CPR in New Brunswick nick-named Pappa Toot. I remember steam locomotives running by papa Toot's old house in Norton. New Brunswick in 1959. I used to spend a lot of Saturdays in the railway yards in Cochrane, Ontario filming an imaginary television series that existed only in my head. I would hint for rides on the Ontario Northland yard switcher and succeed. I loved trains but wasn't really into the technical stuff. It is the poetry of railroading that attracts me to it. 

The railway locomotive is one of the great inventions of mankind. The idea that two accurately laid rails, crossing thousands of miles of our continent, can carry tons of fast moving freight and passengers is what captivates a railway buff. I had a bumpy ride in the cab of a steam locomotive in Alaska years back. It is for me is an everlasting memory.

I volunteered on a tourist steam railway and helped restore two locomotives and five miles of track. It was hard work but I built up my muscles and became accurate with spiking rails the old way. After a hot day of track work I would jump off the speeder and head to a creek for a swim. My boots would be caked in creosote. 

But that didn't get trains out of my system. I still build model train layouts and have a nice collection of 1950's CPR rolling stock, a Budd Car set and the Canadian all in N scale. I even have a model of the locomotive Pappa Toot first fired.

Michael: What are your present projects? 

I just finished a documentary called "Fill My Hollow Bones" for the organization, Darearts Foundation for Children which is the same not for profit group I teach media skills for. That film is about how an arts program combats a high first nations youth suicide rate. It premieres in Toronto this September. 

I now work at Best Boy Entertainment editing a series for the Discovery Channel called PetER which debuts next January. I am also working on scripts and writing kids stories.

Michael: What's next?
When my wife Melissa and three kids join me in St. John's, Newfoundland, I want to focus on having fun, seeing our new province and continue being creative in any way. My daughter is still young and my stepsons will soon attend post secondary education and I have to focus on making money. No more breaking even. Maybe my writing will help me fill the financial coffers. But no more freelancing. I am a staff editor now and love it. I have three dramatic film scripts that I am writing and two are based in Newfoundland. There is a growing television industry on The Rock and I am pleased to be part of it. 
Michael: Final thoughts. 
My dream is to someday return to Chapleau with a boat or canoe and take the family on a trip to down seven mile rapids to Henderson Lake. I spent a lot of time on the Chapleau River. I also many years ago created three or four false graves out of bear bones. They were convincing on a first glance. They are up behind what we called Doctor Young's Hill. I wonder if anyone ever found them. Anyone?

Years back I had a freelance job to film Bruce Cockburn as he moved from his Toronto apartment to Montreal. In the moving interview he said, "Here I am, a famous rock musician and I don't know where home is." I remembering thinking how sad that was.

When people ask me where I am from, I usually say Northern Ontario. But when they want specifics I say Chapleau. I lived in other places but that damn town represents home. I don't get the same feeling of home when I return to Cochrane, Bracebridge, Parry Sound, Newmarket or Toronto. Just Chapleau.

Right now I live in Newfoundland. I am feeling a sense of home here. Why I ask? Because Newfoundlanders are damn friendly people, just like Chapleauites. Maybe Bruce should move to Chapleau.

There is only one problem about living in Newfoundland. The last train left in '88.

1 comment:

Lloyd Walton said...

Peter, a man of huge talent, energy and imagination also wrote a story in the book, Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul.

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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