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Don Carmody: The Leading Man Behind the Scenes

The critically acclaimed producer of Chicago talks about his movies, his goals,
and his Hollywood North

By Jaimie Kehler

Don CarmodyIn the span of his award-winning career, producer Don Carmody has seen it all, done it all, and earned a chair with his name on it. He’s so good you almost forget he’s Canadian.

With over 80 movie credits to his name, the Montreal native has become the “go-to guy” in the world of cinematic moneymakers, bringing the production of international blockbusters including Chicago, Good Will Hunting and Resident Evil: Apocalypse to Toronto.

He’s possibly the most successful Canadian producer of English-speaking films, when you consider his long list of achievements. While Carmody knows what it’s like to start at the bottom, after 30 years in the business, he deserves his place at the top.

“So what you’re saying is that I’m really old, right?” laughs the 53-year-old from his cell phone in Los Angeles. Battling a cold and a busy schedule, the filmmaker is in the city to discuss movie options with Warner Brothers.

Destination Toronto

Carmody spearheaded the 2003 Toronto production of Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Shot in the aftermath of SARS, when “Hollywood North” was a virtual desert, the sci-fi thriller brought filming back to the city. The film took in $129 million worldwide and single-handedly kept the Toronto film industry on its feet.

“I started bringing films to Toronto in 1985,” he says. “And believe me, it was really tough.

“You practically needed dynamite to get the directors up here. They considered it like being sent to Siberia!” he says with a laugh. “That changed over the years as it became too expensive to shoot in L.A. Young directors started shooting in Toronto. They knew the city and liked it. They cut their teeth in Toronto.”

“When they finally graduated to bigger movies, they went ‘Oh Toronto – great, cool.’”

According to Carmody, films like Chicago, Cinderella Man, and X-Men, which were previously considered “too big and complicated to be made outside the U.S.,” are now being made in Canada thanks to these young filmmakers. In 2005 alone, 265 film and television productions were shot in the Greater Toronto Area.

“I make films in Canada because I like making them in Canada,” he says. “It’s less expensive and there are terrific crews, good locations and a great talent pool of actors who aren’t done to death’s door with overexposure.”

Carmody feels so at ease in Toronto that he lives here with his wife, Canadian producer Catherine Gourdier, and his 19-year-old son, Brendan.

“Toronto is where I feel most comfortable in Canada these days,” says Carmody. “I mean, in L.A. there never seems to be an off-switch. It’s an industry town that never sleeps. So, I like getting away – back to Toronto, where I actually have a normal life.”

Resident Canadian

Making his start in Montreal in the early ’70s, Carmody is a graduate of the communication arts program at Loyola University. With thwarted dreams of becoming a painter, Carmody reluctantly took a film course, to appease his father, and loved it.

“It’s an amazing life and an amazing business,” he says. “It’s always challenging and it’s always different.”

“You don’t go to a desk from nine to five – though there are days when I wish I had one of those jobs!” he jokes. “But you know, when it’s all over, the memories of the bad times fade faster than the memories of the good times.”

Carmody’s long list of credits is staggering – he was vice-president of Canada’s Cinepix (now Lions Gate Films), co-produced some of David Cronenberg’s early thrillers and even formed his own production company in 1980 – but it was his first box-office hit, Meatballs, which gained him instant national recognition.

“Very few of my pictures don’t work, thank God,” jokes Carmody, who is behind numerous hits, including Studio 54, Boondock Saints and Weekend at Bernie’s.

In 2005, he picked up his fifth Golden Reel Award, marking the highest grossing Canadian film of the year, for his work on Resident Evil: Apocalypse. His previous awards were for Meatballs, Porky’s, The Art of War and Johnny Mnemonic.

Still, many criticize Carmody and say his films are not truly “Canadian.”

“They’re more Canadian than some of these ‘Canadian’ movies,” he responds, criticizing films like Robert Lantos’ Being Julia, which was produced overseas with foreign actors.

“We did all the post-production of Resident Evil in Toronto and all of the shooting,” he continues. “Most of the actors were from Canada. But somehow, because it’s a horror movie or based on a video game, it’s not really Canadian.”

“Every year at the Genie Awards, they trot out Porky’s and bang on it, just crap all over it,” he says of his popular comedy, the highest grossing film in Canadian history. “But I didn’t make that movie for the critics, I made it for the kids. I made it so people would laugh. They laughed 20 years ago and they’re still laughing today. I’m proud of that.”

“A Canadian film is about the people involved and the talent behind it,” he continues. “It doesn’t have to be about Mounties or beavers in order to be Canadian. Is there a distinct Canadian culture? I don’t know. We like the same stories as Americans and we have a lot of the same experiences because of our close [proximity]. Why can’t a horror movie be Canadian?”

Bouncing between film sets the world over, Carmody maintains dual citizenship and keeps homes in both Toronto and L.A. Like many successful Canadians, Carmody gladly answered when the U.S. came knocking at his door.

“There’s no risk-taking in Canada, from a financial point of view, and to the risk-takers go the spoils,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why American film is so successful, because they’re willing to throw huge amounts of money at many different pictures.

“In Canada, there is almost no independent financing,” he continues. “The only hope of getting financing is from government organizations and that is to put a lid on creativity and the scope of the movies. So, quite frankly, until something changes, it’s always going to be the case that as soon as you get successful in Canada, or soon as you make enough noise to get noticed by the U.S., you go there. It’s an incredible vacuum of talent.”

The Art of Wisdom

Carmody is first to tell you that his rise to fame was no easy task. His son Brendan, a student at Toronto’s Humber College, wants to follow in his father’s footsteps but Carmody warns him of the struggles ahead.

“I keep asking him, ‘You sure you want to do this?’ He comes onto the set and wants to be me. But I wasn’t ‘me’ for a long time. I did a lot of crap jobs – it can be a difficult way of life.”

In spite of his reputation in the film industry, Carmody says finding financing for his movies continues to be an obstacle.

“It’s always a challenge getting the money,” he says about producing pictures. “I suppose if I was putting together a little four-million-dollar movie, I could do that relatively quickly.”

Carmody has not tapped into government funding for his pictures in nearly 20 years. He says while it’s helpful that federal and provincial funding is there, it is difficult for young filmmakers to access it.

“Government money is not doled out as it would be in a studio,” he says. “Rather than throw money at great ideas and talent, here, they want to know if it’s politically correct, is it controversial subject matter?”

In reference to his role in the first Cronenberg films, Carmody says there was a huge outcry that government money went into funding horror movies.

“But hey, most emerging filmmakers get their start with horror movies, because they’re easy to make and cheap,” he replies.

Though Carmody is a busy man, he still enjoys taking time to speak to young producers about their craft. He answers emails on a regular basis and tells emerging filmmakers it’s all about making connections and spotting rare talent.

Carmody explains that lack of funding and intense competition has made it more difficult for young directors and producers to get a foot in the door of the Canadian movie industry.

“All I can give them is the benefit of my experience,” he adds. “It’s a relationship business. Keep them. Nurture them. Realize that somebody you’re working with now, you might be with again in 10 or 20 years. So be careful of the people you meet on the way up, because you may bump into them on the way down.”

“Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle!”

Fans of Carmody’s work can look forward to a variety of big-screen thrillers in the coming months. Upon the April release of his films Lucky Number Slevin and the Toronto production Silent Hill, Carmody will begin shooting Sanctum for Warner Brothers. Fellow Toronto production Skinwalkers, the first collaboration between Lionsgate and Constantin Films, is set to hit theatres in October.

With his plate overflowing and his personal life scattered throughout North America, Carmody still takes on several side projects. Apparently, success doesn’t sleep.

“You never know which will reach the starting line first,” he says.

The credits don’t roll yet for Carmody, who vows to make a hundred movies before he packs it in. (That’s roughly 20 more, for anyone who’s counting).

“And another Academy Award would sure be nice!” he jokes.

With humble confidence, the Canadian powerhouse says he has no favourites out of his 80 or so movie credits. When the theatre lights dim and the film rolls, he still crosses his fingers and hopes audiences will approve.

As he says, in the words of one of his mentors:

“Our movies, they’re like our children – we dress them up in the finest clothes we can afford, send them out into the world, and just hope somebody loves them.”