Michael Spencer, Part 1: Forming the CFDC

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Montréal on July, 2010

Fraser. I would like you to begin by reconstructing the environment in Canada when the notion of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) first appeared in 1967.

Spencer. When the idea of CFDC first came about, the general feeling was that the production of English-language feature films was something that a few film people really wanted to do. But the general public was not terribly interested. You see, by that time, the American theatre chains had moved into Canada and really dominated the scene. There is no doubt that, although the theatres were often owned by Canadians, those theatres were there to make money. And the way to make money was to import American films. So there was never any discussion at all amongst the exhibitors and distributors that it would be great to have some Canadian films in the mix, because the Canadian public was very happy with what they were seeing. They had been getting the full effect of domination by the American film industry, which began in Los Angeles round about 1910 and never really slowed down. So, generally speaking, it was only when creators who wanted to make movies came on the scene, that anyone began to think maybe we should make some movies of our own.

F. Well, we had had the National Film Board (NFB) for some years by then. And we were very proud of it. They were great documentarians. And, as you say, Canadians making real movies was not top-of-mind politically. So, what I'm reaching for is what changed? What political, or economic, or cultural thing happened that led people to think that something like the CFDC was a good idea?

S. I think that the real motive for this comes from Québec. What I have just been saying, does not apply to them. Every year, some Québec movies were produced; about one a year, and the Québec public went for that. So, the two industries really just existed side by side. What I think made it possible for the whole thing to start was that we finally got a French Canadian film commissioner at the National film Board. I think that social connections -- conversations and parties and that kind of thing  -- carry a lot of weight; and when people like Michel Brault started to talk to Guy Roberge [the new Film Commissioner], things began to happen. Now, if Michel Brault had talked to Albert Trueman [the Film Commissioner prior to Roberge] or to Arthur Irwin [the Film Commissioner prior to Trueman], he would not have got any more than a “How Do You Do?” But when it was Michel Brault and Claude Fournier, and people like that, speaking to a fellow Québécois, it was a case of “Yes, let's do it.” And I would say that that was the beginning of it.

F. Of course, in Québec by that time, they'd had enough experience with storytelling on television, and had many television series that were very successful. So they had a base of people who knew something about making movies, motion pictures.

S. Yes, but they were actually in Ottawa, you see. The Film Board was in Ottawa at that time, and quite a few French Canadians went there, like Roger Blais, for example. They wanted to make movies and that was the place to go to make them. But there were lots who wanted to stay in Québec and make the movies there because of the audience. And, as you said, television made an enormous difference. So, at this point in time, which would be about 1965, I suppose, after Roberge arrived, we really began to think how we could do this. And it went very slowly, all of which is described in my famous book [laughter], Hollywood North.

F. And how did you get involved in this?

S. When I look back on it, I think I was very lucky. There were four units at the NFB, as I recall: three of them were doing movies that were paid for by the National Film Board; the fourth one was for the government departments. Grierson was smart when he was writing the National Film Act, he wrote a clause in it that said that all departments of the Government had to get their films made by the National Film Board. This made it possible for the Board to get money from other sources, like the Department of Labor and the Department of Fisheries. If they wanted to have films made, they had to pay for them. This was a very important part of the Film Board's income, say about a quarter of it, for full production. And I somehow found myself responsible for that sector. I thought I was a better producer than that. But there was the job and I was offered it.

F. What was your background in film up until that time?

S. My background as a filmmaker... When I was a boy, I owned a 9.5 mm Pathé camera. It was given to me by my parents and I remember boring my relatives by showing them movies of themselves. Then we all went for summer holidays to a place where friends of my parents were. And there was a guy there by the name of White. He was an engineer; I believe he was responsible for the concept of the Mulberry harbour, which saved the British when they were trying to land their forces in Europe. They needed a harbour and he was the man who invented it. Anyway, he also had a 9.5 mm movie camera and he said, “Why don't we get all our friends and relatives together and we’ll make a movie.” I was involved in that. So, I guess it fascinated me.

F. How old were you then? Were you still a kid?
S. I was about 18, maybe younger. Since I was a kid, I had always been a movie freak. I had gone to movies when I was very young, like Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush. My mother used to take me to the movies. Maybe there are genes at work that I don't recognize. When I went to school, I got interested in bird watching, but my father insisted that I should be a lawyer. So, I went along with that; but the war interfered with it. Anyway, when I arrived in Canada by accident in 1939, I couldn't get back to England because of the war...

F. What was the accident?

S. The war. I had come to America for holiday; I had done one year of law at Oxford. So, I came over, and I was visiting on the West Coast with my uncle and aunt, when the war began. So, I couldn't get back. I did return to New York, which is where my ticket finished, and I worked in my cousin's store for a while. Then I went to the Museum of Modern Art where they had a film section; they allowed me to hang around there. They didn't pay me anything, but they allowed me to hang around.

While I was in New York, I discovered that John Grierson had gone to Canada. So, I jumped on a bus and went to Canada and asked him for an interview, which he gave me right away. I asked if he could employ me; he said he really couldn't because he was head of the Film Board. But there was another agency, called the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, that would hire people. He sent me down to meet the man in charge, who said, “I'm not having any more of Grierson's young punks." So I went back to Grierson and told him that it hadn’t worked out. He laughed and said, “Well I just made a contract with Budge Crawley to do a film about Iceland on the Prairies. Phone him up and tell him he now has a new camera assistant.” So, I did. And I was learning all the time; I was fascinated how editing worked, how you could put a film together.