Interview by Jim Donaldson
Can we talk a little bit about your decision to become an architect and why McGill?
Oh, why McGill. I guess when I was in high school, I fell in love with painting and I thought My God, wouldn’t that be wonderful to be an artist! And being the son of an immigrant, my father said, “You’re crazy. You can’t be an artist. You’ ll never make a living”. And at high school we- at Loyola High School, the counselor said, “Well, based on what you can do and how you can- architecture, architecture was for you”. And I said, “Oh, okay. Fine”. It’s close to being an artist and McGill was in Montreal, a convenient place to go. And it was that horrible first year when we went through the school and we were with the engineers and couldn’t quite figure out why we were with the engineers.
So what year did you enter McGill?
’65. And in a sense, it was unfortunate. I was sixteen years of age. And probably if I had come in a little older and wiser, I would have stayed in architecture. But I think I was rather immature to get into the school at that age.
So did you actually stay in the school right through to graduation?
Stayed in school right through graduation. It was a terrific experience, I mean, it’s now twenty-five years, twenty-eight years. Whatever. Twenty-nine years now. And to this day, I look back with great fondness on that experience. I think it was a tremendous experience and just a real character-forming experience in the truest sense of making you what you are today in a sense. And I still rave about that school when I talk to friends.
But it was tough, I mean, the hours that you could spend there on charrettes and all the rest of it.
In hindsight, it was wonderful, yeah, and during the time, it was terrible. But it was great. It was grand. It was- made us all- there was a kind of a conspiracy going on. Everyone was- you had to work against the teachers and you know, it was the students against them. It was kind of a wonderful sense. And it was also the sixties, the late sixties, which was an extraordinary period of time. We experimented with all kinds of things in the school, and it was just a great, great character-building experience.
Do you remember any of the professors? For example, was Peter Collins there at the time?
Yeah, yeah, he was the terror. As everyone- Peter Collins, he terrorized people. He just- there was something about him. It was a demeanor. There was a- even his writing, I mean his script was so perfect. When you got a note from Peter Collins, you could read it and it was-
It wasn’t always good news, though.
No, it wasn’t always good news. He and those slideshow tests! I think I still have nightmares about those. Those slideshows! Oh! When you had to pick out what’s the difference between this piece of ornament and that? And I’ d say, “I have not a clue what the hell you want!” Well, anyway. He was scary. He was scary. And his books were almost incomprehensible to read.
And I still have his books. Ideal of-
The one I have I guess is on concrete. He wrote a book on concrete.
Okay, well I have The Ideal of Architecture and I sort of revisited the book I guess about ten years ago. And saying, “My God”. He’s talking about culinary things. He’s talking about analogies, all these kind of- I guess I just didn’t appreciate it during the time.
It might have had something to do with your age too, the fact that you were so young and probably graduated at about twenty-one or twenty-two. If you were ten years or five years older, you might have enjoyed the experience a bit more. But either people liked Peter or they didn’t and I think more on the latter, unfortunately.
I thought he was just an extremely daunting character. He felt and looked like someone on a pedestal. That accent, you know, the look, the clothes he wore. It was all very kind of-
No, not contrived. Dare I say anal? No, no, not anal! No it was- and here we were in the context of the late sixties when, you know, everyone was going crazy and here was this guy who wore very prissy clothing and was a real taskmaster. And he yelled and threw people out. He terrorized people.
He did know his subject and of course, his reputation was pretty extent.
How about some of the others? Was Stuart still there?
Yeah, Stuart was still.
What were your impressions of Stuart?
A true eccentric. I mean a wonderful eccentric. Again I- he was someone that I always thought would be great to spend a lot of time drinking in a bar.
And a lot of people did.
And a lot of people did. I guess- I don’t know how much longer he- I guess he taught for much longer after I left, but I thought I came in at the tail end of Stuart at his best. I would have thought that Stuart would have been gangbusters. I thought sometimes he- it felt like he was a little tired. Life had been long and hard for him. But he was a wonderful character, just a character. And in a way terrifying like Peter Collins, but much more benign terror with Stuart. He was someone that you felt he got angry and the next day he’d forget about it.
And go and drink with you.
Yeah, yeah, go drink.
And then say, “Hey, Ted, you should smarten up. Get out of architecture” or something.
Yeah, the great terror was that when Stuart says, “What are you doing here?”
You had students who were female?
Females. And again, I thought they got the short end of the stick quite often and Stuart was I think particularly harsh with women. It’s just you got that sense. I should say something else about the school. I mean, again, the period when I was there, the student body, I thought was divided very much on class lines.
Interesting. Class lines do you mean in terms of years or in terms of class?
No, no. In class. In real class. And you know Canadians and Americans don’t have class, but I thought the School of Architecture exhibited some- I’ll give you an-
Social- I mean what I saw is, again, I’m the son of an immigrant, D.P., we came to Canada. And there was a group of us. We were kind of the ethnics. And then there were the other class whose fathers were engineers or architects or professionals. And I’m not sure anybody- I sensed that there was a kind of division in the class, you know, that those who came from that profession class more often than not didn’t mix with the ethnics. And Stuart was very kind to both, to the ethnics, in a sense.
Yeah, the underdogs.
Yeah, you know, the guys whose fathers never went to a university, maybe didn’ t even graduate from high school, who are suddenly in the School of Architecture, you know, the immigrant’s dream. So their kids become professionals. And I thought he was very kind to us, who sort of didn’t quite-
I’m inclined to agree with you. I’m only thinking of the years that I was there and that certainly existed.
It did, eh? So it wasn’t-
And the irony, of course, is that the people who were sort of in the lower caste have all been very successful as they should be. I mean, there’s nothing to say that they’re not going to be better or equal as the people who were sort of the accepted professionals’ sons and so forth. Interesting phenomenon but I suspect that still exists.
Does it? I’m sorry to hear that. I would have hoped that that kind of sense- and you felt it right throughout the years that somehow- the other, the people who had parents in the professions had a great deal more confidence than I think those of us who were of the underclass.
Yeah, but it didn’t- it wasn’t a chip on your shoulder. Were you aware of that during your years at McGill or is it something that you thought more about after you graduated?
No, I thought about it even during the school. I found myself why wasn’t I friends with- you know, why didn’t we go drinking with this group? Why was this group always the guys who went down to the bistro on Friday night? You know, and you kind of wondered and you realized it was kind of on a class basis.
And the irony of the subject is that I was sort of in between both of those groups because I was not- my father hadn’t been a professional. He’d been a railway engineer, you know, the guy who drove the engines. And because I had worked for a number of years, somehow or other, I didn’t feel that way, maybe because I was born in Canada- but again, I didn’t know a lot of the people that, you know, the Dereks and the Scott Bromleys and a whole lot of these people who really came from the establishment. But somehow or another, it worked in my case. But I know what you said actually existed in the years I was there. How about- are there any other professors?
There was Bruce.
Oh yeah. Bruce was there?
Was he the dean then?
No, no. He was just- he was working with Stuart. Bruce is a complicated and complex man. And for a period, he was a friend of mine after I graduated. And for a period, he was a friend of mine after I graduated and I was a sessional lecturer at McGill, in fact, working with Bruce for a couple of months. He was a friend but not totally liked by everyone. And I think I owe my career choice to Bruce. Bruce is in essence I think was the one who made filmmaking make sense for me.
Did you take it at the university? Was it part of the curriculum?
Yeah, it was. The first time I made a film was thirty-two years ago in Bruce’ s course, Desperately Wanted Him, and I guess I fell in love with the siren call of the cinema. And then made another film again in Bruce’s course. And I had an opportunity to work at a number of architectural firms, including one in New York City, where I was part of a design team rather than drafting. And I suddenly realized after this- I had a green card; I could work in the States. And I said to myself: “This is something that if I were in Canada, I would never have had the opportunity to see what it’s like to be part of the design team”. And we were doing a theatre, Lewiston Theatres project. And I said, “but I really loved to make film”. And here I had a chance to do everything an architect could dream of, working on a theatre, you know, a real design kind of with real money. And I said, “Nah”. This is where my youth came in and I said, “Ah no. I love making films a lot more. So architecture became a fond memory”.
And what time-?
This is ’72.
’72 okay. So what happened then? Well, before we leave McGill, were there any other professors? You started talking about Bruce but then you got on to your career.
Well, Bruce- one of the things that I keep saying about why I thought the School of Architecture was tremendous, I have a friend, a close friend who went through U of T exactly- we became friends afterwards. And he described the U of T experience at the School of Architecture. And I said, “My God. I would have dropped out within the first year”. But McGill, it was that Bauhaus thing. It was tremendous. I think it was a gift. And I guess it was Stuart. I don’t know who it was that brought that notion that an architect had to do a lot more than just design, know how to draft, but to be able to, you know, whether it be Sketching School or what Bruce’s courses with the graphics, building furniture, doing all those things. This was wonderful. This is in the best spirit of Bauhaus. And I think that’s what McGill- that’s what I loved about the School of Architecture because it opened your eyes to photography, to graphic art, to design.
To sketching and Gerry Tondino was there at the time. We had Sketching School. There were many facets to the- you’re quite right. And I guess that memories that most people who went to McGill were very positive and say that it was so different from anything else that they’d ever heard of in other schools.
That’s right. I mean it truly I think in a sense made you into a Renaissance architect. It in a sense, you had to read, you had to- you couldn’t pigeonhole yourself into a narrow kind of existence at that school of architecture. There was just so many things that if you were going to be an architect, graduating as an architect from McGill, that you had to learn about. And I thought that was tremendous. What a tremendous, tremendous background. And I would- if I could be an emperor, I would force all students to have a kind of at least something of that where you have that kind of science and engineering part with the art.
It’s interesting, Ted, because years back, people into architecture, they inevitably when they graduated, they practiced architecture. It was a foregone conclusion. That was it and that was the career path they followed. And the people that I’m interviewing now, I would say probably ten to fifteen percent are people who have taken off a different path. But they all credit the architectural background to sort of doing the things for them as an individual that you just alluded to, which is fantastic.
Absolutely tremendous, tremendous. And I will to my dying day be grateful for that experience.
Well, we’ve got you on record for saying it. Let me ask you, before we leave McGill, there are other people there and I wanted to ask you if you remember them. There was Gerry Tondino and the Sketching Schools. I don’t know whether John Bland was there.
John Bland was there.
John Bland was there, yeah.
He was very kind. I took History of Canadian Architecture with him in a small class. John Bland, I remember John Bland. Derek
Yeah, Derek was teaching then.
Derek was teaching, I guess it was second year.
Did he teach you at all?
Yeah, he was my teacher in second year. I guess Bruce was in third year, I guess.
And then, of course, Maureen Anderson was there.
Mau- She was- well, as every- there’s something- Maureen was-
There, yeah. I remember her looking for a summer job for us. She was this matron that just oversaw the entire school. She knew everybody. She knew everyone by name; she knew everyone’s situation.
And when I call her, which I will do, and say that I interviewed you, she will say, “My God! How is Ted?” I can’t believe how she can remember everybody.
She is tremendous.
She was a- I popped in once. I was desperately looking for a job. And within hours, she was able to connect me with someone. She was terrific. And she was always there.
You were going to New York.
I was in New York. I worked in New York. Had a green card. I worked for a company called Vollmer Associates, which was a very large company. It was an architectural engineering company and that’s when like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, I said, “This is not for me. I’m going to pursue my other love of filmmaking”. And came back to Canada. And I worked briefly as a sessional lecturer at McGill and pursued trying to find work at the National Filmboard of Canada in Montreal, because at that point I thought I better learn my trade. I’ m an amateur so far. And in fact did get a job at the Filmboard and took an enormous cut in pay from what I was doing and then proceeded over the year to become an editor, writer, director, producer and worked principally on large series. Became a documentary filmmaker. Did and produced and directed and wrote a number of larger series, The Struggle for Democracy; I did The First Canadian Establishment. And did a whole bunch of series in Canada. Filmed in, I guess, I’ ve filmed in about forty-odd countries in the world. Had a terrific life. I’m enjoying it and continue to be a grizzled, now a grizzled veteran of documentary filmmaking rather than a new kid on the block.
Tell us a little bit about, in particular if you did- for example, I think you just completed, I know you just completed the story of the Weiders. Wieners.
Ben and Joe.
Can you just take that from the concept within a couple of minutes to the completion what was involved in that and so forth?
Well, we have a long- I’ve had a longstanding relationship with the CBC and we have a very terrific researcher who at one point suggested that the Weiders- there should be a documentary about the Weiders. And both my partner and I are ex-Montrealers. We had heard of Ben Weider and sort of knew about him. And I said, “So, there’s Ben” and we knew he was a Napoleon expert of some sort. But we didn’t know there was a brother named Joe, who was in LA. We did some research and thought this is a terrific story and discovered that Joe brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to America. And so we pitched the idea to the CBC and they said, “Terrific. Go ahead”. And then the awfulness begins, which is to try and get funding, trying to get the budget together for it.
Where does the funding come from? Mostly CBC or is it private?
It’s CBC and Telefilm, which is a federal agency. And we also have a distributor and they give us advances. So we went down; we shot over a period of almost eight months off and on because we had other projects. Shot with the Weiders and interviewed Arnold.
Just before you get to that, I’m curious because now you have the funding more or less and you’ve got the approval of the CBC and you’ve got a distributor, how do you make the contact with the candidate or the person-?
Oh, before that, that’s right. Well the Weiders have in fact- when we approached the Weiders, they said, “Go speak to a man named George Lengvari” who was in London. And my partner happened to be shooting something in London at that point and went to see George and they talked. And a number of people had approached the Weiders to do their stories and George said, “Two Montreal boys, ex-Montreal boys should be doing the two Montreal boys”. It’s a natural. And George recommended to the Weiders that we should be able to do the documentary on them. And we met with both Joe and Ben and they said, “Fine”. So we then proceeded on.
So in the process, you mentioned you never go in and do the whole, I guess the whole programme or the whole film or a documentary in one shot. I mean you come and go, I guess, eh Ted?
Well, I guess we call ourselves a high-end house. That if you don’t have a budget, then you go in there and you shoot, cut and run. You go in there for four or five days, but we believe that to tell a story, there are certain moments when it’s appropriate to be there, certain events, and those events don’ t all happen within some defined period. So- but that means that it’s a much more expensive proposition, and a much more expensive documentary, but we believe in the end a better product.
And I guess, do you and your partner write the storyline as to what you want to develop and so forth?
No, almost all documentaries are really made in the editing suite. We know when we have the goods, that is, when we have the material in hand from out of the camera. But once you get into the editing suite, that’s when you really, that’s when you as a director/producer come to the fore, because that’ s where you make the decisions. That’s where you structure the thing. And that’s where you beat your art- at least I believe my architectural background helps enormously. Because the way you structure it is in a way probably the way you structure or design a building, because what you’re trying to do I think in a building is an emotional experience. You know, how do you walk in? What does it feel like when you walk in? What is the experience that you have at this point? What happens when you turn a corner here? The same thing with a documentary. Believe it or not, there is an armature that you construct, that you say, “Okay, here are the high points. This is where you’re going to go in this chapter”. You know, you talk in chapters. “And this is how we’re going to leave the chapter because we’ re going to have to deal with this in this chapter and this is the experience we hope to get. And it should be a kind of- there should be all kinds of experiences. It shouldn’t be one, flat experience. And so that- and that all comes out of the editing room. All of that and that’s when you have- you know, that’s when you become dependent on a great editor. And it’s all collaborative. And that’s again an architectural kind of experience that it is collaborative. Although there are super-architects, by and large, the architectural experience is collaborative. You’ve got to talk about it. You’ ve got to discuss and people bring various strengths to the table. And that’s where it all happens. That’s in that editing room. And I go away and I write. I do the writing, which was never anything I really wanted to do.
There’s a voice-over all the way through this [unclear].
Yeah, I mean for a guy whose first language was Polish, English is not what-
Are you the voice-over in this thing?
Because you actually do have a good voice!
No, no, I don’t.
It’s your morning for compliments!
No, no, please, no. It’s a very- it’s an awful- you hire people who are professionals for it, or actors. But so and then you write it and then you rejig the thing. And it’s television and that’s the other thing that’s a little different than what I had thought. Television is a very different medium than watching something on a screen. And anyway, so that’s where we are. Right now, we’re now moving into the world of drama. Both of us have had a long, long experience with documentaries. I guess we have maybe about a hundred and fifty hours of television and documentaries between the two of us.
Now you say you’re going to break- you’re going to go into drama. What exactly does that mean?
It means that we’re going to try to shift our focus to do television drama. Not theatrical drama but television drama, because, again, at a certain point, you feel you’re ready to move on to another challenge and both of us want to tell stories.
That’s all, again, that’s all what this business is about.
Do the people who work in the media that – most of your work I gather then is for television.
All. Would you ever go into the film business, for example? I mean could you do a film? I would imagine you are making film, but I mean for the widescreen and so forth?
It’s hard. It’s a different world. Television is one world. Film- I mean people do make the transition. The big transition really is between documentaries and drama. Once you cross the Rubicon, then the drama world then opens up to the possibilities that you might at some point produce theatrical movies that aren’ t necessarily for television.