Conversation: Filmmaker John Bolton Delivers a Strange Masterpiece at DOXA

DOXA, Vancouver’s Documentary Film Festival, consistently features films that stretch the bounds of traditional storytelling. This year’s run aptly opens with portraits of two extraordinarily ambitious characters ramping up for their distinct leaps of faith. Local filmmaker John Bolton explores the uncanny parallels between contemporary classical composer Mark Haney and his muse, Canadian stuntman Ken Carter (the Evil Knievel of the North), in the musical docudrama Aim for the Roses. We chatted with Bolton to learn how the film evolved from a performance piece (a choreographed interpretation of Haney’s underrated concept album of the same title) to a rich, eccentric and emotional character study that will tug at the heartstrings of all the dreamers of the world.

Aim for the Roses will screen at DOXA on Thursday, May 5 and Sunday, May 15 and at Toronto’s Hot Docs on Friday, May 6 – visit their websites for ticketing information.

When you first approached Mark Haney about making a film about his concept album Aim for the Roses, what sort of reaction did you get?

We were just getting to know each other and he invited me to the now legendary launch party at the Planetarium. I loved the music and everyone who went to the show got a CD. So I was listening to it and I found myself just fascinated – it really inspired me. I had a vision of a ramp and a car, I saw and heard all these characters singing and dancing in my head and I just wanted to bring the album to light in that way.

So I asked him and he was interested, but like a lot of us who get involved in several projects, maybe only one of them will actually happen. It certainly took a long time to come together. I spent about a year just putting together a proposal for it and we got a little of the money from the BC Arts Council, but a couple of years after that we got our money from Superchannel – they came on board as our broadcaster. Suddenly, we had enough money to build the runway and the ramp and to buy the car, to cast it and crew up.

I don’t think Mark really believed it was happening until he got to the set – he told me that he drove up and our Production Assistant led him to park and he says “Oh, there’s actually a crew!” And then he saw all the people, the ramp, all the gear and it was one of his first times on a film set. It was then that he realized the scale of it. He must have been terrified, but he came to play and he’s awesome in the film for sure. Then once we got all the musical numbers out of the way, then we did the interviews.

So all the performances laid down the foundation for the rest of the film?

That’s exactly right. Originally I just wanted to bring the album to life. I made a lot of classical music performance pieces, I love shooting musicians and working with them. We had singers and I knew I wanted dancing in the film and there was an aesthetic that I had in mind.

But as we were putting together the music, my editor and I realized that we needed some context for this. We need to know more about the making of the album so we shot all these interviews. And then we realized, we can’t just have Mark talking about himself, we need some experts. So we got Jocelyn Morlock (composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and Adrian Mack (journalist at the Georgia Straight) to talk about the music.

And then we realized, people should know the Ken Carter story to really appreciate the album and who better to tell his narrative than the Ken Carter Preservation Society. So when we made the pilgrimage to the original jump site, met these guys and saw the pieces of what was left of the car, that’s when it became real and we realized what the scope of this project could be. It all started with the music, and this is my interpretation of Mark’s interpretation of the Ken Carter story. So that’s where all the different levels came from.

Andrew and Cody from the Ken Carter Preservation Society and journalist Adrian Mack seem to make the case that Carter’s mission to leap his rocket car over the St. Lawrence River is actually more relatable than Haney’s vision. Can you relate to that perspective?

(Laughs) No one’s ever put it to me that way. It’s interesting, I know a lot more about music than I do about cars, so the album makes more sense to me than the jump does. I hadn’t heard about Ken Carter until I heard Mark’s album and that’s the great thing about art – you get to discover new stories.

As I got to know Mark, I realized that he was a pretty interesting character in his own right. It seems like he went through as many setbacks trying to make his album as Ken did try to make the jump. He called them “Ken Carter” moments – behind schedule, behind budget, his accident, his divorce. So I knew that there were parallels and that was my focus, but I was more interested in what was high brow and beautiful about what Ken was trying to do as a stuntman and what was lowbrow and ugly about what Mark was trying to do as an artist. What they have in common is an obsession, hard work, and sacrifice – that inspired me to push me as a filmmaker. To do justice to what they had attempted, I had to push myself as hard as they did. I had a few Ken Carter and Mark Haney moments as well!

I think that taking an artistic risk? The stakes can be just as high as that physical stunt. The difference being dying versus dying inside – which is worse? Broken bones versus broken spirit.

For sure! Haney described making the album Aim for the Roses often as struggling to get out of a “bottomless pit” – did you have any similar helpless moments when making the film?

Oh definitely! There were lots of times, even more recently, where I wasn’t sure if I would finish the film. But on the very first day of shooting, we got behind right away. I like to starting with big set pieces and getting the whole crew involved, where we jump into the deep end. But the first shot we were trying to do was a really ambitious jib shot with choreography and singing. And we were just having technical difficulties, it was pouring rain and I remember having my crappy mashed potatoes for lunch, everyone was shivering, and I started thinking, “Well, we gave it our best shot.”

But no, we got back at it, we got the shot. We rescheduled and from that point on, we were really on a roll. But with editing, we cut for about a year and a half. It was a really long process trying to see how it would all fit together, trying to tell two stories at the same time. The longer we worked on it, the broader, deeper and more emotional it got. I definitely also ran out of money but thank goodness the Canada Council came through and that just saved the whole project in post-production.

It was great because we got into both Hot Docs and DOXA but now suddenly we had a deadline for the first time in years. It’s a great problem to have, but whether it’s time or money or sacrificing other things, it’s been a journey for sure. I think we got a good landing.

I loved how the film revealed all the different layers of each character. I was particularly intrigued by this repeated reference to Haney’s obsession with Archie comics.

Honestly, it’s just something that came up on its own. I didn’t plan that. I asked Jocelyn about what she remembered from the first time she encountered Mark Haney and she told the story about meeting him at a party at her hours where he was talking about Archie comics. Then I asked Adrian about Mark and he talked about his obsession with Archie comics. And during the scenes where Mark’s on stage, I asked him to explain one of the songs and he talked about Archie comics. So when something comes up in three different descriptions, you have to incorporate it. You can see how he funneled that into the album. Believe me, there could have been more. He talked about Archie quite a bit!

I’m glad that you enjoyed it as a character study – I knew that Ken and Mark were interesting characters, but it also happened that Jocelyn, Adrian, Andrew and Cody from the Ken Carter Preservation Society, they’re all really likable, compelling and strange characters in their own right. You can tell that they’re all a bit obsessive and really bright. We got lucky – the whole film is populated with people you really like and are rooting for.

In between his laughs, Adrian’s commentary really does show us what a strange masterpiece Aim for the Roses is.

He believes that and I believe that. More than ever now, I feel like it’s a neglected masterpiece of composition and production. I know now that there are lots of people who watch the film who are not interested in contemporary classical music and aren’t interested in stunt driving – those are two pretty distinct subcultures. And yet, we can all appreciate their passions and their obsessions. Adrian became really important for the film. He really gave the audience permission to not take it too seriously, he’s not judgmental, he’s not snobbish – he acknowledges that there’s both something low brow and profound about the album.

There’s a line in the film where Adrian says, “Nobody’s trying to make a hit record. Obviously” Well, no one’s trying to make a hit film. Obviously. This is not a formulaic documentary and I think people are responding to it because it is ambitious and it is original. And creative risk-taking – that’s what I admired about Ken and Mark. They took risks. I think that taking an artistic risk? The stakes can be just as high as that physical stunt. The difference being dying versus dying inside – which is worse? Broken bones versus broken spirit.

-Ria Nevada