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“What are you watching?” a character named Chino asks his pal Toby, slumped in front of a TV set. “It’s a commercial,” Toby replies. “They just interrupt it every now and then with a movie.”
The scene is from Between Friends, an overlooked gem of Canuck cinema shot in Sudbury in 1972. It appeared in 1973, made a stir on the festival circuit, then sank like a stone.
It did resurface briefly in 1985, long enough for me to see it as an undergrad at Queen’s. I remember leaving the lecture hall — there was no theatre at the university, not then, but there were projectors that could unspool a 35-mm reel — in a kind of fugue state. I had never seen a Canadian movie as gritty or as good as Between Friends.
I still haven’t. A tale of betrayal, broken dreams and a bungled plan to rob the payroll of a nickel mine, the film’s action takes place between Toronto, looking rather grey and grim, and Sudbury, where things get greyer and grimmer.
The latter isn’t named, but couldn’t be mistaken for anywhere else: Multiple images of the Inco smelter and surrounding slagscape, yet to undergo a greening makeover, form a key part of the film’s tone, not to mention a metaphor for the characters’ lives, which are progressively stripped of hope and purpose.
It’s about as uncommercial as movies come, which is perhaps why Toby’s quip about a TV ad getting interrupted by a movie strikes me, all these years later, as a sort of inside joke or prescient comment on the fate of the film itself, which would never get properly distributed and languish in undeserved obscurity.
If there’s an interruption in the bigger story of Between Friends, it’s the one between its promising debut and its belated recognition — a delay that continues to this day — while so many lesser works, cloying and profitable and pointless, clutter mulitplex marquees and Netflix queues.
Don Shebib was still in his early 30s when he made Between Friends, but he was already an established talent. Three years earlier he had made Goin’ Down The Road, a naturalistic portrait of transplanted Cape Bretoners that wowed critics — Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, among others, praised it — and redefined Canadian film.
With Between Friends, his third dramatic feature, the Toronto-based Shebib had enough cachet to attract bigger stars, and originally had Warren Beatty in mind for the lead role. The Bonnie and Clyde actor wasn’t available, though, so he went with Michael Parks, a James Dean type who was already somewhat famous for his mercurial ways.
It was a choice Shebib would come to regret, as Parks, who plays Toby in the film, proved a handful on set. “Certain actors get on a picture, particularly if it’s low-budget, and think they can throw their weight around,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s what you can imagine working with Charlie Sheen would be like.”
His American lead ignored his lines and gave the character — a surf bum-cum-small-time crook — a cooler, more enigmatic turn than the script called for, forcing Shebib to switch gears mid-shoot. “He was doing his shtick, and I guess I was smart enough to mold the script to make it work,” said the director. “I think that comes from my experience making documentaries — you can’t change the character you are making a documentary about.”
Parks might have been a pain to direct but his performance made enough of an impression to intrigue Quentin Tarantino some 30 years later. The Pulp Fiction director “called me up about eight or nine years ago because had heard good things about Michael in the film,” said Shebib. “I sent him a VHS copy and he subsequently cast him in Kill Bill.”
Ellie and Chino, the other two lead characters, were played by U.S. actress Bonnie Bedelia, who went on to roles in Die Hard and the TV series Parenthood, and Chuck Shamata, a Canadian actor who has worked steadily since, mostly in television.
Shebib credits these two for holding the film together. “Chuck was great, but the real anchor was Bonnie,” he said. “She’s terrific in it.”
The character of Ellie, as played by Bedelia, is self-contained and somewhat lost, but also wise and tough. In one scene, a drunken Chino tries to embrace her and she fends him off. “C’mon, everybody else is having a good time,” Chino complains. “Everybody else is everybody else,” she replies. “I’m me.”
The budget for the film was $300,000, which wasn’t much but considerably more than Shebib had in his pocket for Goin’ Down The Road, made on a $27,000 shoestring.
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