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Q&A: Bill Brownstein on the legacy of filmmaker John Dunning

Dunning with David Cronenberg on the set of Rabid on Prince Arthur Street in Montreal in 1974. Courtesy of McQuill-Queen's University Press.

Dunning with David Cronenberg on the set of Rabid on Prince Arthur Street in Montreal in 1974. Courtesy of McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Behind some of the most celebrated Canadian filmmakers is John Dunning, a producer from the Montreal borough of Verdun who helped to kickstart the careers of David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, and Ivan Reitman. Dunning and his longtime partner André Link ran the Montreal production company Cinepix, which produced some of this country’s first commercially successful films. The duo found a niche in B-movies and cult classics like Valérie, Shivers, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, and Meatballs – not to mention, a knack for generating media attention as a result of their films’s prolific sex and nudity.

Dunning’s memoirs, released posthumously by McGill-Queen’s University Press last month, were co-written with author and Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein. You’re Not Dead until You’re Forgotten will launch at Toronto’s Ben McNally Books on Sept. 11.

Q&Q spoke to Brownstein about the life and legacy of John Dunning.

How did you become involved in this project? John Dunning called me out of the blue about 10 years ago and asked if I would help him with his memoirs. I found that interesting because when I had been writing reviews for the Gazette I had been particularly tough on his films, as a lot of critics had been. It was easy to take shots at the certain kinds of B-films he produced. Nonetheless, he said he felt I was honest, and he didn’t hold grudges. This was going to be just a book for his family, but after he passed away, I started to see that this was more than just a family legacy thing.

John Dunning is probably the most successful filmmaker in this country that no one has ever heard of. I think its only fitting that now people are starting to appreciate that without him, we wouldn’t have as distinct a film industry as we do, and in fact some of the creators that we have.

What was he like? As prurient as the films might have seemed, he was the most upstanding, very conservative-looking person. He was a humble man and very self-effacing. He would hire people to take his place on the red carpet. He didn’t want the glory, which is just the antithesis to almost anybody else I’ve met in this business. He was really in it for the craft. He was in his element giving young filmmakers a chance.

What was his role as a mentor? There was no commercial film industry in this country when he started out – so who’s going to give a break to someone like a David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, or Jean Beaudin? He’s often compared to Roger Corman in the States, who had huge luck with some of the biggest American actors [like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Robert De Niro] and directors [like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron] of our generation. It was the same with him. Certainly, Cronenberg would never have had a platform if it were not for John Dunning. He produced two of Cronenberg’s early films, Shivers and Rabid. Dunning also worked with Ivan Reitman, one of the most successful commercial directors around. They produced Meatballs together. At the time it was a bit of a lark, but when it became for a while the biggest-grossing Canadian film, people suddenly took him seriously – Bill Murray was launched as a result of that. Don Carmody is another guy who started out with him. He was asked to be an extra in some X-rated film, and then he ended up being a production assistant, and later went on to produce the movie Chicago.

What made Dunning a pioneer in Canadian cinema? He always anticipated what the next thing was going to be. Every time a niche came, he found a way to get into it. He produced a lot of what they called “maple-sugar porn” – it was very light, it was also self-deprecatory on a lot of levels. There was clearly a hole in the marketplace for that kind of entertainment before videos took over and before the internet took over. He saw an opening for that kind of racy [material]. That whole Ilsa series was as much parody as it was very soft kind of porn. They all became cult films later.

The 1962 film Valérie is credited with kick-starting the Quebec cinema industry. Why is that? This was a film that was considered risqué at the time, and it went to Cannes and held the Quebec box-office record for two years. For an Anglo producer to come out with this film that was a huge hit opened up the floodgates in a huge way. No one was doing very much – we were importing a lot of stuff, be it English or French, from other places. Because Valérie resonated so well with the market, not only was there a demand, there was a need to bring this kind of local film in. We have our own flavour here – it’s not from France, it’s not from the U.S., it’s not from England or Australia – it’s distinct to this province’s country.

Do you now see the appeal of the Cinepix films you panned as a reviewer? Yeah, absolutely. We’re all a little self-righteous and idealistic when we’re young. There was an element of humour that you might not initially see if you were an earnest young film critic. It wasn’t just me – the same people who had been tough on him and were later to honour him for all of his contributions to Canadian cinema.

Dunning suggests he didn’t make any “socially relevant” films, but the movies challenged censorship rules in a way that had quiet an impact on society. Well, he did in the end make something that was very socially relevant. Princes in Exile was about kids at a cancer camp, and it was a very sobering. He took everybody by surprise because it had nothing to do with other films that he had made. At the same point, he also distributed films of great social value, like The Crying Game, Piano, Belle du Jour, and so many others. He was a real student of cinema and a very deep thinker. He knew what was great, memorable cinema, and what was escapist. He was under no illusions. But he was limited by funding as to what he could make.

Why did Dunning never direct? He had so many health problems. He was subject to panic attacks, he had tachycardia, a heart issue, and he couldn’t be farther than 50 miles from a hospital. Toward the end of his life, he had all kinds of problems, from heart failure to cancer and a dozen other maladies. He could have directed, but he probably felt that he didn’t want to jeopardize the production of any film by him taking ill in the middle of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.