Director , best known for his Canadian cult comedy Crime Wave (in which a silent screenwriter played by the director struggles to pen the ultimate “colour crime” movie in his quest to reach “the Top!”), graciously agreed to answer some questions for 366 Weird Movies about his homegrown Winnipeg masterpiece and other topics.

Questions from Gregory J. Smalley:

You, , and now are all Winnipeg natives, and all of you make movies that reinvent the styles of older films, with nostalgic irony but also genuine appreciation. Can we say there’s an actual “Winnipeg school” of filmmaking? If so, what brought this style about—is there something in the water in Winnipeg?

That’s a good question. Yes, it does appear to have become something of a thing regarding Winnipeg, this particular style of filmmaking. As for what brought it about, if not something in the water (which is an entirely reasonable supposition!), my next best guess would be possibly something to do with our winters. Have you ever spent a winter in Winnipeg? Though now thanks to climate change, this may never be provable, unfortunately!

What are “colour crime movies” in Crime Wave’s world? Any real-life examples of the genre you were thinking of?

Crime Wave (1985)
Behind-the-scenes photo from Crime Wave, courtesy John Paizs

The colour crime movie was simply the kind of movie that Crime Wave’s movie-maker protagonist, Steven Penny, aspired to make. Inspired by classic-era “noirs” movies, his idea was to reinvent them—supercharge them if you will—and all importantly, add colour! They were to be in colour, unlike almost all the real-life examples of the genre of course. As for any I may have been thinking of myself, none specifically. Though just last year I happened to catch one that if I had seen it back when I was first cooking up Crime Wave may very well have become key to my own inspiration. And its poster actually, coincidentally, hangs in Steven Penny’s apartment over the garage in Crime Wave! It’s a punchy little noir from 1955 called Hell’s Island. It’s packed with all the clichés of the genre, which of course we all love, and, very rare for a classic-era noir (and probably a lot closer to nonexistent at this one’s obviously a lot closer to nonexistent budget level), it’s in colour!

The protagonist of Crime Wave, Steven Penny, has no trouble writing the beginnings and endings of screenplays, but struggles with middles. So of course the obvious question is, is this an autobiographical comment?

In terms of screenplays in their totality—not just struggling with middles!—yes, very much an autobiographical comment. In fact completely. Just prior to writing Crime Wave I’d written a handful of feature-length screenplays, all of which did not work out for one reason or another. And on the night that I was sitting at my kitchen table, writing out the scene that would become the opening scene in Crime Wave (the first half of the first “The Top!” sequence), but not knowing where I was going with it, it was just a bit of nonsense that I was having fun with, suddenly when I got to the end of the scene and I was asking myself, “Now where could this go next?”, it all came together. The character of Kim, and the idea for a blocked, struggling screenwriter that I could play myself just came to me then and there. Possibly the best night of my creative life.

Crime Wave was difficult to find for a couple of decades after its initial release, despite having a cult movie reputation. What led to the 2014 restoration?

The University of Toronto Press had been doing a book series in which each of the titles focused on a different Canadian feature-length film. And they were partnered with TIFF, who were restoring and presenting at their festival each of the featured films in the series as they came out in the books. And so it happened with Crime Wave in 2014. The book is still available by the way. You can find it on Amazon, for one. It’s titled “John Paizs’s Crime Wave,” written by Jonathan Ball.

What did you think of the initial reaction to Crime Wave? Were you surprised that this low-budget experimental film gathered as much notice as it did, or were you hoping for a bigger breakthrough into the mainstream? And how do you view the film’s reception now, as an older man, compared to how you reacted as a young director first pushing it out into the world?

Honestly, I was surprised, but not surprised, about the initial reaction to the film. I did believe deep down that I had something different, something special, and that it was funny. Though I never imagined some bigger breakthrough into the mainstream with it. It was just too weird for that, I had no illusions about that. But I had hoped for some sort of maybe Eraserhead or Stranger Than Paradise or even Pink Flamingos penetration into people’s consciousness, if you will, with it. Which never happened of course, though possibly could have if my distributors, who in my complete naivety I signed with, didn’t just dump it onto VHS and pretty much forget about it, along with trying to forget about paying me my money. It was, needless to say, a soul-crushing entrée into the world of film distribution.

As to how I view the film’s reception now as an older man as compared to then, my view hasn’t changed. It was an amazing start. Like a dream come true, really. The reviews were fantastic. I just wish I could reach back in time and advise that excited young director about next steps, knowing what I know now. He really didn’t know what was hitting him.

Questions from Giles Edwards:

You have one of the keenest eyes for non-verbal (re-)action—and keenest “ears” for sound pauses—I’ve observed in late 20th-century filmmakers. What are a few of the specific films you’d recommend for honing “silent” skills?

Wow. Thanks for the compliment. That’s a lot to try to live up to! In terms of my own education on this front, there weren’t any specific films that I myself was directly trying to emulate, and which I could recommend. Though having said that, the films of , I think, would be an excellent place for anyone to start. They’d make for a first-rate primer I’d say for honing one’s “silent” skills. And I love their visual design. Formally Tati was playing very much in the same sandbox as I was, as I came to see. Someone else I’d cite is , the animation director. When it comes to “silent” timing, I’m not sure he could be topped. I just used to love it when he’d suddenly bring all the action to a stop—in one of his Bugs Bunny cartoons, let’s say—and hold on Bugs’ face for a perfectly timed beat, then pay the moment off with the slightest change in expression. Genius.

I recently had the pleasure of viewing the collected sketches from “The Kids in the Hall,” and found your “Mr Leadfoot” segments delightful. How did the Kids luck out in crossing paths with you?

Thank you so much. How we crossed paths was just dumb luck. It was about five years after I’d finished Crime Wave and it was playing on pay TV in Canada and Bruce McCulloch from The Kids just happened to catch it on there. Then soon after that from out of the blue I got this call from one of The Kids’ producers asking if I’d like to come to Toronto to meet and discuss possibly directing for them. I was living in Winnipeg at the time. I was still working the same seasonal job I had since I finished university, ten years before. The job was with the City of Winnipeg Traffic Department. I was part-time a car counter, which if you’ve seen Crime Wave you know what that is. And next thing I knew I was on a flight to Toronto, and my life changed. All because again Bruce just happened to catch my movie on pay TV. A very lucky happenstance for me!

While contemporary tastes (unfortunately) do not skew toward silent (or, as in Crime Wave, mute-protagonist) cinema, your particular manner of storytelling could work very well with music videos. Is this something you’ve ever considered?

It’s not something I ever actively pursued, though I did actually direct a handful back in the day, including two “faux” ones for the comedy troupe The Vacant Lot, who were going to be Broadway Video’s follow-up to The Kids in The Hall on the CBC here in Canada (one of the Vacant Lot members was Mark McKinney’s younger brother, Nick. Mark, of course, was in The Kids). But while they were fun to do, and yes, my highly visual storytelling style proved a pretty natural fit for them, if they hadn’t been offered to me I never would have done them because it just wasn’t my thing, finally.

Deep-dive question: Brock West from “Oak, Ivy, & Other Dead Elms” is a fascinating piece of work. Who was he inspired by? And how in heaven’s name did you come up with that sugar cone speech?

Deep-dive question is right! I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me about Oak, Ivy before in an interview! But I’m so glad you watched it and found it fascinating. The character of Brock West was actually inspired partly by William F. Buckley, Jr.! I just found him sort of fascinating, this archconservative old-money New England patrician, who wrote James Bond-type spy novels on the side (one I’d read back then actually had his super spy character, Blackford Oakes [!], bone the Queen of England, whom Buckley at least had the good sense to fictionalize in the novel!). And me being of Hungarian-Catholic descent and pretty darn far from that whole old WASP-establishment world of Buckley’s, I dunno, I just found it and him sort of fascinating.

The sugar-cone speech: I don’t remember where it came from, though I do remember liking it. And I did as a young teen work at an ice cream shop for a couple of years where I would ask every customer whether they wanted their ice cream on a plain or sugar cone. So maybe the seed was planted then.

Is there any chance of either “Nick” or Steven Penny coming back to the screen? I for one would be thrilled to enjoy new adventures from them. Failing that, might their collected adventures ever grace Blu-ray?

Crime Wave poster
Poster for the restored version of “Crime Wave”

Ha, I don’t know. If the cinema-going world wasn’t quite ready for one of my silent man characters back in the 1980s, I’m not sure how a silent senior citizen incarnation of them (which I think sounds much better than silent old men!) might fare today. Though I suppose they could be “deepfaked” and presented more “in their prime”? (Which in itself might be an extremely dubious proposition!) How about I’ll get back to you on that one? Though that you’d be thrilled to enjoy some new adventures from them honestly thrills me. Thank you!

As for them on Blu-ray, there may actually be some exciting news on that front coming down the pike.  Hopefully fans of my stuff who’ve been waiting ever-so-patiently- forever for a Blu-ray won’t have much longer to wait!



  1. Of course we get news abt possible blu-rays just a few days after I order the Crime Wave and the Nick trilogy DVDs from Winnipeg 😭
    Who am I kidding though I’ll buy em again, John Paizs forever!! Would love to see him come back and do another film, he’s one of the most unique cinematic voices I’ve ever seen

    1. Hear, hear.

      I, too, have the “official” editions from that Winnipeg group, but however I can funnel this guy money, I’m happy to do so. I think that “the Three Worlds of Nick” probably deserve Apocrypha coverage here, alongside his feature-length classic.

      More Paizs, please.

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