Interview: Michael Melski

Michael Melski (Left in white baseball cap) directs a scene in Charlie Zone

Sometimes it feels like Canadian cinema is comprised entirely of existential art films and broad comedies about donuts and hockey. But every now and then a movie like Charlie Zone comes along to serve as a reminder that the country that produced David Cronenberg and Canuksploitation can still be harsh and dirty.

The film follows Avery (Glen Gould, but not that one), who has sunk so low that he scrapes by off of money made through internet streetfights. He’s hired by a mysterious woman to track down a missing teen girl (Amanda Crew). This sends him on a trip through an East Coast underworld comprised of intravenous drugs, human trafficking, torture, bikers, gangs, and possibly redemption. It’s an intense and powerful thriller from writer/director Michael Melski, who cut his teeth writing award-winning theatre before making his film debut in 2008 with the pot distribution dramedy Growing Op. We got a chance to chat with Melski about the inspiration, production, and shocked test screening reactions of Charlie Zone. It’s a film not easily forgotten and well worth the effort of tracking down, if you think you can stomach it.

Dork Shelf: Where did this film come from? It’s such a harsh, cynical, and uncompromising vision of what I always thought was a delightful place.

Michael Melski: Well, in Halifax we have a reputation as a postcard city, a really beautiful little seaside tourist destination. It is that, but in the margins of Halifax we have areas that are very ghettoized and beset with drugs, addition, and gun violence. It’s a side of Halifax that really hasn’t been seen before. When I started working on the film, that was something that weighed heavily in my mind. It’s only getting worse and nothing’s really being done. For instance, one of the newspaper headlines in the movie says, “7 Swarmings In Halifax.” We actually had real headlines in Halifax saying “10 Swarmings In Halifax” one summer. From the outside people might not even believe it, so we toned it down a bit and even that is fairly extreme. So it’s a whole side of the city that hasn’t been shown. That was one of the main reasons we wanted to make the film.

DS: What’s a “swarming?” I don’t think I’ve heard that term before.

MM: Oh, it’s when youth gangs attack innocent people on the street. It’s very bloody, sudden and unprovoked. It’s another reason why the streets of Halifax are becoming less and less a postcard.

DS: Were there any specific events or people that inspired your story or did it mostly come from a certain tone or environment?

MM: You know, as much as it’s a story about a place or a milieu, we wanted to show two people who managed to escape and break the cycle of addiction, poverty, and racism and come together to make a stronger team. It’s about people who are able to help each other get through the panoramic of life they face. It really is a panoramic of everything going on in the dark side of Halifax from human trafficking to streetfights on YouTube. All of this stuff is real. We didn’t make any of that up.  That’s all based on true stuff.

DS: I was curious to ask about that streetfight website. Was that based on something you’d seen online?

MM: Oh god yeah. There’s actually a website called East Coast Street Fights that’s like an actual fight club. These guys mostly in Dartmouth get together and fight each other for real. It’s very bloody and nasty, but they put it on YouTube. The site still exists. You can find it: eastcoaststreetfights.com. It was a bit of a national scandal in 2007 and I was as shocked as anyone to find out it was happening in my city. It still goes on.

DS: How difficult was it to finance a movie with this sort of subject matter in Canada?

MM: Tough. Very tough. You know, I wanted to make a thriller with humanity that would be a twisted entertaining ride, but would also have a level of humanity that you don’t normally see in a thriller. The movie probably would have been easier to sell if I went more exploitative. There’s certainly an audience for those type of genre films. But, I wanted to make a thriller that had something else and would be real. You know, we looked at photos of guys who had been in actual street fights and used those for our make up. We always wanted to be real in our approach to the violence and not be exploitative for the sake of it. Not to do it in a documentary style, but to try and make a truthful world for the characters to live in. So all that makes it a tougher sell, but Telefilm Canada believed in the film and Film Nova Scotia supported the picture. We’ve sold the film all over the world and sold it to television here in Canada. Overall it worked out.

DS: I was curious to hear how you found shooting that level of violence having never done it before? Particularly the nail gun sequence, which was quite harsh.

MM: Yeah, I’ve never shot a nail gun through a foot before (laughs). I had a great crew that supported me all the way. I wouldn’t say they were “yes” people, they were teammates and a real collaborative force. The props team really deserves a lot of credit for that particular scene. They asked what specific shots I needed for the effect and we committed to that. It just came down to being really precise. The nail going into the boot was a real, just with no foot (laughs). So you get that nice spark off of the nail gun. Then you cut back to see a foot with the nail in it bleeding. Just a few shots to sell it and it was a real collaborative effort to pull it off. That’s true of all of the violence. Like the opening fight scene, I’d shot violence before but nothing like that. It was tough, but interesting and satisfying.

DS: And how did you find adapting to this tone as a writer since it’s so different from your previous film Growing Op. Did you have any specific films in mind as an influence for what you hoped to accomplish?

MM: Oh yeah. I was looking at other thrillers with humanity and a good story. Films like The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, the Canadian film Night Zoo from the 80s, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Neo-noir mostly. That was the benchmark. Every story is different and I describe it sometimes as Growing Op’s dark twin. It’s the opposite of that movie in so many different ways. Growing Op is a suburban film, this is an urban film. Growing Op took a lighthearted view of marijuana, while Charlie Zone takes a very harsh look at drug use. But the one thing that connects them is the search for identity. It’s the same theme in both movies: character having to face darkness to find their identity and earn their freedom.

DS: Where did you find Glen Gould? He’s incredible but I’m embarrassed to say I’d never seen him before.

MM: Glen was magnificent in the film. My producer suggested him early on and I had the same reaction everyone has, “Wasn’t he a pianist?” Then I went online and saw his acting reel and was very impressed. Right around the same Jamie Gates from Telefilm Canada recommended Glen as well. So I thought, “if it’s coming at me twice, I’d better at least meet this guy.” It turned out that he was from my hometown. We met and realized we had many mutual friends and were amazed we’d never met. I knew by the end of that meeting that Glen was the guy. He was Avery in every respect. He even brought some of his own backstory to the character. I was so pleased with Glen. His physical commitment was incredible. He bruised ribs, even broke some ribs. He went through all the hell of that character with just a total commitment to it. That’s the only way the movie would have worked, so we were very lucky to find him.

DS: And how did you find working with Amanda Crew? She’s got some really difficult scenes to get through that are far beyond what she’s be asked to do before.

MM: Well, Amanda was a suggestion from our distributor. I knew her work a little bit from her romantic comedies and a couple of friends had worked with her on a Canadian TV show. I asked them, “How’s Amanda?” They said, “She’s amazing. She’s scrappy. Don’t be fooled by the rom-com stuff, she’ll be ready for anything you throw at her.” So we had a couple of skype meetings. She really liked the script and came on bored. She was so pleasant to work with under really tough circumstances. There wasn’t a hint of LA diva about her. She was at our level and just a real force. Everyone fell in love with her on the set and she was a real angel to have with us.

DS: I read that you had some amusing test screening responses?

MM: Yeah, someone fainted at the very first test screening. It wasn’t very far into the movie and it was the first time I’d shown the movie to anyone outside of my editors and producer. I thought, “oh shit, what have I done?” (laughs). This young girl, she was about 24, was just very affected by it and her stomach rebelled. Then she cleaned herself up and I said, “You’re free to go if you want.” She said, “Oh no, I’ve got to get back in there and find out how it ends.” That’s when I thought we might be onto something. The reactions since then…you know, there have been people who have walked out or hidden their faces. I’ve heard gasps. But that’s all part of the experience of seeing the film in a theater and that’s why I’m glad we’re getting a release.

DS: What did you tell them they were going to see?

MM: It was a Halifax audience so they knew the general idea. I think they maybe didn’t expect faces being pounded into gravel and the kind of things we threw at them in the opening scene. Then we got into intravenous drug use and seeing addicts sprawled out. The overall sickness of the world we presented, I think just got under their skin. But the reactions to that test screening were over the moon and that’s before we took twenty minutes out. So, I’m glad people still respond the same way, but we got it under 100 minutes.

DS: So, what are you thinking you’ll do next? Do you think you’ll continue in this style?

MM: Well, I love all kinds of movies, so I’m not committing to any particular genre. I have some comedy stuff in development for television. I’ve got a horror feature in development, I’ve got a horror comedy, and I’ve got another thriller in very late stages. So, I’m interested in trying many different things. Because of how the industry has changed box office is a factor, so no one just gives you a million dollars to explore anymore. You’ve got to provide a script that will garner commercial interest. And you’ve got to keep many balls in the air because you never know which one will work out. This movie was a return for me to the theater work that I started out with. My first hit plays were very dark. They involved domestic murder and three kids torturing an elderly shopkeeper for $40 dollars. These are the plays that put me on the map, so I’ll always return to it.

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