Toronto Star

‘The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff’: Interview with the Director, Antonio Saillant

In this interview, Antonio Salliant opens up about his most recent project, entitled The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff. The film encapsulates Ted Kotcheff’s journey from the Canadian Broadcast Company, in the 1950s, to his Hollywood directorial debut with Tiara Tahiti (1962), as well as many of his other works – Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978), North Dallas Forty (1979), First Blood (1982), Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) – to name a few.

The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff was conceived and developed as a medium to showcase the influence and creative genius that defines this iconic filmmaker; to construct an intimate portrait of a man that has greatly influenced both film and television.

What is your background?

I am an actor, producer, director, filmmaker, and energy/green activist and known to many as an energy Renaissance man. I am a graduate of the New York Institute of Technology with a degree in Aerospace/Mechanical Engineering. I was a top management executive in the energy field for over 12 years. In my original capacity as an aerospace/mechanical engineer in the late 90s I saved energy and dollars for the New York City hospital systems and universities (Columbia and NYU) and for pharmaceuticals—Hoffmann, BMS, and other major businesses including Radio City Music Hall, the old Yankee Stadium, the Hebrew Home for the Aged and the Jewish Home Lifecare System.

But my passion for the entertainment industry led me away from engineering and carried me into appearances in motion pictures. Most recently, I began my producing career forming Angel Light Pictures Entertainment Group to produce low-cost/high quality indie features and my project Planet GreenFest.

Tell me about you and your production company – Angel Light Pictures Entertainment Group?

The company expresses my vision and passion for creating energy efficiency in movies and television. In the past decade, I’ve combined my knowledge of the energy business with the entertainment industry in the hope of contributing to a greener planet. Angel Light Pictures Entertainment Group gives inspired filmmakers the chance to make their green, sustainable dreams into realities, and is committed to demonstrating that the movie and television industries can be environmentally responsible, providing filmmakers with the tactics and strategies for greener productions. The motion picture industry is such a large user of electricity for its sound stage shooting and diesel fuel for its location filming that it is a clear target for energy conservation.

Through Angel Light Pictures, I am actively working with small independent movie companies, helping them go green and following Governor Cuomo’s solar goal for New York. According my colleague Ron Kamen, chairman of EarthKind Solar Energy, “New York Governor Cuomo’s New York Sun Initiative is putting us on the right trajectory.”

Angel Light’s project, Planet GreenFest, is a nationwide film festival based currently in New York, which will show short films about “Being Green.”

About my Planet GreenFest. The festival had been prompted by my recognition of the planet’s peril. I believe that Planet GreenFest’s films could spread the word globally on “how to be green.” We live in a knowledge-based economy and education is our greatest natural resource. Planet GreenFest’s educational goal could bring the world to reflect on and reaffirm its environmental responsibility. The next generation of filmmakers and media might adopt the same goal, so that all communities will become safe and healthy. I believe that the festival could also make a tremendous impact on the economy.

Planet Green Fest will become a nonprofit organization to further its goals. The films shown in Planet GreenFest will not only be about “Being Green,” they will be green themselves- 100% ecologically safe. Planet GreenFest will thereby be a teaching tool.

In recognition of Angel Light’s accomplishments, I was invited to speak at Syracuse University in April 2012 at SU’s Showcase for Sustainability 2012 on greening the entertainment sector. SU Showcase is a campus wide, EarthWeek celebration of students’ work on sustainability and the future of a green economy across the energy, entertainment, and plastics industries. I was introduced to the students by Sherburne Abbott, who was shortly thereafter appointed Syracuse University’s Vice President for Sustainability Initiatives and Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy. Abbott, a leading expert in the field of sustainability science and policy, previously served as the associate director for environment of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

In addition, SU’s Coordinator of Sustainability, Rachel May, pointed out that Syracuse is a top school in Journalism, and my speech gave students an extraordinary understanding of the “green future of entertainment.”

In my speech, which was very warmly received by students and faculty alike, “The green initiative allows us to set a precedent to continue to produce high-quality productions with exacting standards, while minimizing our impact on the environment.” “This is our way of giving back to our planet.”

I clearly saw that students like those at Syracuse will be the next generation of green filmmakers and I am looking forward to working with them. Our mission at Planet GreenFest is to connect the world with a Green movement by building a bridge between filmmakers and people everywhere to unite them globally into a strong world of sustainability.

For those unfamiliar with his work, what makes Ted Kotcheff special as a director?

This documentary film will expose the new generations and present filmmakers to the artistic energies and influences that inspired Kotcheff. For fans it will be a unique look into the man they thought they knew. The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff highlights Ted Kotcheff’s journey over 50 years as he follows his dreams from Canada to London to the US with insights from Ted’s friends and collaborators, some of the biggest names in Hollywood and film.

Ted Kotcheff is not just a filmmaker, but also a master. Everything in history is a product of events and people before it. There are many stories, which have never been told, or even known. One dream to proclaim the facts has been launched.

Kotcheff mastered film, television, comedy and tragedy. Few can follow.

Certain films like Wake in Fright have had a huge impact on many filmmakers

Well big names have — like Martin Scorsese, who said this about it: “Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I’m excited that Wake in Fright has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.”

Wake in Fright is one of a kind. It is one of only two movies to hold the “Cannes Classic” distinction. 40 years after it’s first showing it has garnered rapturous press.

Believed to be lost for many years, Wake in Fright was restored after an exhaustive decade-long search. The film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, was able to locate the last remaining print of Wake in Fright in a storage depot, scheduled for destruction in two weeks, Had he arrived one week later, they were going to make room in the warehouse and Wake in Fright would have been lost forever. It took considerable work to salvage the print and to restore the film so that it would run smoothly and cleanly. The materials were then restored frame-by-frame at Sydney’s AtLabDeluxe with the aid of the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia.

In the case of Drafthouse Films, they saw the film at Fantasia Film Festival, following the creation of a stunning newly restored 35mm print. They were, awestruck by its nightmarish vision of masculinity and the way that, without classifying it as a horror film, it was more terrifying and sinister than most. Drafthouse decided to secure North American distribution rights and history was made.

Can you discuss the impact the film might have had on you?

I decided to screen it for Ted’s 80th birthday in 2011 at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which was actually the first time I ever viewed the film, Wake in Fright, and it was an immediate hit in my eyes. [True artwork of a genius.]

I introduced the film to a good friend of mine, Tony Timpone, editor emeritus of Fangoria and co-director of international programming of Fantasia Film Festival. He screened the film at his festival, and an audience full of new generation of filmmakers and movie fans and before you knew it the film began to build. In Germany they showed Wake in Fright to acclaim at the Oldenburg Film Festival, along with other Kotcheff films like Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?

What I did was create a domino effect. Australians were attracted to the amazing qualities of the film made in their own Outback. At the Fantasia Film Festival an explosion of interest has now established the film in New York, LA, and Texas.

And it’s long-term impact on films in general?

It’s always a little more of a magical viewing experience when the story behind the story is just as, if not more, intriguing. This is one of those movies. Considered to be “one of the films in the development of modern Australian cinema,” Wake in Fright, directed by Ted Kotcheff, follows a schoolteacher (Gary Bond) as he slips into madness while being stranded in a small town in the outback.

The opening 360-degree shot of the brutal emptiness says all you need to know about the version of Australia that we as the audience are about to be thrust into.

To people of my generation this film made quite an impact. It was perhaps the first time that a film had painted such a strong impression on me knowing that a lost classic of Australian cinema reemerges nearly 40 years later as electrifying an experience as it was when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. This is great news for films made in the past that we now have the technology to fully restore past films so we can appreciate and preserve the Art of Cinema.

What has his influence been on the industry?

Kotcheff, who began his life’s work at the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), at the age of 24, became the youngest drama director in the country.

Kotcheff’s directing career can be traced from Canada, to England and to the U.S.A. He has garnered dozens of prestigious awards including Canada’s only Golden Bear win from the Berlin Film Festival for the Canadian classic, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1973). The original script for the film, now digitally restored, written by Lionel Chetwynd was based on the novel by the Mordecai Richler, the “star of his literary generation.” Duddy Kravitz, which won the best Canadian Film Award (now Canadian Screen Awards), was declared a Cannes Classic in 2013.

Kotcheff’s career from the 1970’s onward. “Edna, the Inebriate Woman,” directed by Kotcheff, swept all the British Emmys in 1970 and was voted one of the British Film Industry Best “100 Greatest British Television Programs of the 20th Century.” His Australian film, Wake in Fright, which received extraordinary critical acclaim at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, was declared a second Cannes Classic in 2009. His many popular and critically acclaimed movies include: First Blood, North Dallas Forty, Joshua Then and Now and the cult classic Weekend at Bernie’s. Recently, Kotcheff acted as Executive Producer on the top-rated TV series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” for twelve seasons.

How did you come to meet him?

I met Ted at his NY apartment where we shared the same building. I learned that Kotcheff directed American films throughout the 70’s and 80’s such as First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone.

In addition, to directing and executive producing TV series such as NBC’s notable “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” We quickly bonded. Over breakfast I shared with Kotcheff the fact that my late brother Angel ‘s favorite film was Kotcheff’s North Dallas Forty, considered one of the best football films ever made.

The following week Ted had a lengthy conversation with me, sharing their admiration for Sylvester Stallone, a guy who knows the audience and gives the audience what they want. After this chat Kotcheff brought me onto the set of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as a guest and announced me as a “film producer,” so I may shadow him and learn the art of making a top rated television show.

I became Kotcheff’s “mentee.” I shadowed Kotcheff in his persona as a “Hollywood old school” guy. Other “old school” folk was late Sidney Pollack- these guys understand every minute detail of making a film.

Did you have an interest in film and directing before or because of meeting him?

I always had an interest in film and hope that one day I would finally direct. So much of my career was based on luck and dreams. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and your dreams will come true. My Mother always said that luck happens when the timing is right, but you must always be prepared. Preparation meets opportunity and I have been given extraordinary opportunities to work with filmmakers much before I even deserved to work with them. I learned so much along this road but the trick is to trace the dots along the way. I owe so much to my Mother and God as they are my source of luck.

My business consultant and good friend Dr. Dan Schaefer [Peak Performance Strategies] taught me, that many a good result will necessitate proper preparation, planning and strategy. Many professional athletes and executives use the ‘football team’ model as an example. Their preparation begins way before the game. They scout, review films, meet and greet and analyze the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. Then they create a strategy to ensure a win. You may find it helpful to think about the result you want, and then work to make it a reality. This should be a part of your preparation process. This is sound advice that can be translated and applied to networking.

I had the privilege to know the late Sydney Pollack, whose films received a total of 48 Academy Award nominations, winning 11 Oscars. Pollack directed more than 21 films and 10 television shows, acted in over 30 films or shows, and produced over 44 films.

Learning from Kotcheff and Pollack was definitely a stepping stone in the right direction. In order to gain someone’s friendship in the industry, when meeting a director or a producer for the first time, be yourself. Everything you read, learn or experience changes you and your goals for who you want to become. You should strive to constantly develop your relationship as you develop yourself.

From my experience in the entertainment industry as an actor and producer, I learned to respect my craft and training. Then, I went into the theatre and was able to improve my skills and expertise with the assistance of many colleagues, all the best in their fields. They were true artists. It is not so easy to be an artist, aspiring to a very high level of skill and expression, a genius level. I was and am fortunate to learn from a genius. That genius is Ted Kotcheff. I see people who lack the understanding of learning from everything. By being exposed to as much as possible, our studies improve our contributions. Ted taught me to appreciate this and much more, especially in film, a collaborative effort with the director, such as Ted, leading us all.

It is not often that we come across special people in our lives that can truly make a difference. Ted, for many others, and me had been a mentor and friend. By far, the most prolific film and television director and producer, Ted had taught me his creative style, sensitivity and knowledge, which has not only helped me to become a better producer, it has inspired me to be a more confident and sincere person in every day life. Ted’s leadership, direction and vision have affected not only me, but also hundreds of his friends, admirers and peers. When I consider all the time, energy, insight and talent Ted has shared with me, I want to graciously thank him. He has inspired many people through his devotion to both, work and family, his endless generosity, his kindness and his dedication. He has enlightened us with his creativity in film and television that has earned him the respect of peers and viewers.

He epitomizes the spirit of collegiality, of teamwork, of sharing his knowledge and sources selflessly as he stays positive and hopeful, always believing, “If I can survive this day, this week, this life, then you can too. If I can do it – become it – live it – love it – learn it – then you can too.” This special documentary on a film master will inspire all its viewers.

With a fifty-year career to work from, how did you choose what portions of his life to focus on?

Canadian writer Gerald Wexler, who has worked closely with Kotcheff for years, is writing the screenplay. Wexler has received the 1995 Genie Award for Best Screenplay, for Margaret’s Museum (feature). For The Hunger, produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, Wexler wrote thirteen episodes and was creative consultant for forty-four episodes. Wexler’s extensive film experience includes past and present development deals with CBC, Paramount, and Warner.

It has been decided between the writer [Wexler] and myself that the documentary, The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff will be an intimate portrait of one of the most influential filmmakers of our time as we follow Kotcheff’s dreams from Canada to London to the USA and back.

This biography features clips of Kotcheff’s path-breaking movies and candid interviews with Kotcheff’s colleagues and collaborators. Hollywood royalty, Ted’s admirers and collaborators include Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Alan Arkin, and Jane Fonda and many others. Richard Dreyfuss will be the narrator.

Interviews with directors inspired by Kotcheff will include Ron Howard, Mimi Leder and Martin Scorsese. These interviews will be interwoven with remastered film scenes and footage from Kotcheff’s pictures– rare film stills, accompanied by a soundtrack of popular music from the period.

What are the expectations for the film?

This is not just about making a film about a person, it’s about painting a portrait of a true artist who defines the meaning of the Art of Cinema…I am making this film to learn how [Kotcheff] thinks.

Did you have any doubts about the project while in production?

The project is actually is still in development and the writer [Wexler] has started writing the script that will involve many months of research and development. We are talking about over 50 years of Kotcheff’s history and works that are involved in this production. Interviews from Hollywood royalty, Kotcheff’s admirers and collaborators, will come from Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Alan Arkin, Jane Fonda, George Segal, Nick Nolte, James Woods, Andrew McCarthy, Terry Kiser, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Peter Leto, Dick Wolf, and Helen Shaver. Behind-the-scenes footage of Kotcheff’s films will also be featured.

In addition, Iconic film directors inspired by Kotcheff, including Ron Howard, Mimi Leder and Martin Scorsese, will be interviewed. These interviews will be interwoven with remastered film scenes and footage from Kotcheff’s pictures. Energetic montages created from rare film stills, accompanied by a soundtrack of popular music from the period, will enhance this exciting theatrical experience.

The narrator of the documentary will be none other than Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss played his first lead role in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, directed by Ted Kotcheff. Since then, from the late 1960s Dreyfuss has gone onto star in film, television, and theater, including the films American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, Stakeout, Always, What About Bob? and Mr. Holland’s Opus. Dreyfuss won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1977 for The Goodbye Girl and was nominated in 1995 for Mr. Holland’s Opus. When learning about this project Dreyfuss immediately volunteered to be narrator due to his close relationship with Kotcheff.

Were there times when the project was not conveying the message you intended to communicate?

Still too early to tell but so far everything about this film is very positive and all Cinema fans will recall that Ted Kotcheff is not only the director of the first of the four famous adventures of the intrepid Rambo, all released on the screen in the early 1980s, but that he is also the auteur of a feature film that is today considered as one of the greatest Canadian films of all times: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I believe that this project will convey the message that I intended to communicate which is to tell the story of a Master of Film, Television, Theatre and A Few Can Follow.

What did you learn from the project?

This project has been a labor of love: the challenge, finding a crew who were talented, and genuine, and who knew and loved Kotcheff’s work as much as I do.

Did you learn anything about Ted Kotcheff that you did not know before production began?

Yes, that Kotcheff took violin lessons, and under the tutelage of a young Slavic immigrant, he became one of the best young violinists in the country, winning a gold medal at age eight for his playing at the Canadian National Exhibition.

Kotcheff did everything – comedies, dramas, and documentaries. In the old days, it was live television, a new medium. He became a versatile filmmaker, and attributes his desire to work in different genres to his beginnings at the CBC.

To me that defines a pure genius.

What do you feel to be Ted Kotcheff’s good but lesser known or under-appreciated works?

Actually Ted Kotcheff made almost 20 movies during his career – but it was a pair of small films that really got critics to take notice.

Last year, the Cannes Film Festival named Duddy Kravitz a “classic” and invited Kotcheff to a screening of it. The designation is an honour best measured by the quality of the other films included among this year’s classics: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In 2009, another film Kotcheff directed in the 1970s – Wake in Fright, set in the Australian outback – was also screened at Cannes. Although directed by a Canadian, it’s considered one of the best Australian films of all time.

These two early films, both hits on the festival circuit, put Kotcheff on the international radar. In addition to significant theatre and television work, he has shot 19 feature films. He’s directed such A-list actors as Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda, Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman. His most well-known movies are a pair he did for big Hollywood studios in the 1980s: the Sylvester Stallone vehicle First Blood (the original Rambo movie), and the comedy Weekend at Bernie’s – both major commercial successes that spawned franchises. Kotcheff spent the 10 years before retiring – roughly the first of the new millennium – running the popular TV series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” (To find good actors for the show, he estimates he watched more than 23,000 auditions.)

What is the film’s release date and where are the initial showings being held?

Release date would be geared to sometime next year, but first our initial plans before releasing to theaters would be to submit to top film festivals in Canada since Ted is Canadian born, and then hit the United States in most prestigious festivals. I have put in a lot of my own funds to this film already because I believe in the passion that Kotcheff gave toward his films and to the audience, this is my gift back to him.

The Apprenticeship of Ted Kotcheff is planning to launch an online crowd-funding campaign through the websites Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Kickstarter has eclipsed the National Endowment of the Arts as the largest funder of U.S. cultural projects. I of course will also tap the resources of private investors. This special documentary on a film master invites all its viewers to contribute to its future.