Truth and Lies: A Q&A With Montreal Film Producer Harry Gulkin
In 1976, the Montreal-made film “Lies My Father Told Me” became the first — and, to date, the only — Canadian movie to win the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film, beating out Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magic Flute,” among other nominees. The movie takes place in the mid-1920s and depicts the relationship between a young boy, David (Jeffrey Lynas), and his zayde (Yossi Yadin), in the then predominantly Jewish neighborhood surrounding Montreal’s St. Lawrence Boulevard, or “The Main.” Based on a short story by Canadian writer Ted Allan (whose screenplay for “Lies My Father Told Me” was nominated for an Academy Award), the movie was directed by the acclaimed Slovak filmmaker Ján Kadár, and it delves into the religious, political and generational conflicts that preoccupied many Jewish communities during the early 20th century. Recently released on DVD by Ergo Media, and screening on January 16 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, “Lies My Father Told Me” has become a classic of both Canadian and Jewish filmmaking. The Forward spoke with the film’s producer, Harry Gulkin, about growing up on The Main, the allure of communism, the birth of the Canadian film industry and the unlikely success of “Lies My Father Told Me.”
Ezra Glinter: One of the most remarkable aspects of “Lies My Father Told Me” is its re-creation of the Jewish neighborhood of Montreal in the 1920s. Did that portrayal resemble your own circumstances growing up?
Harry Gulkin: Well I’m 82 now, so I grew up more in the ’30s and the mid ’40s. But I did grow up in what was then the heart of Montreal’s Jewish district, which is not far from the area which [Mordecai] Richler celebrates in his novels. One of the differences would have been the effect of the automobile, which would not have been as strong in the ’20s and the ’30s, but we still had the phenomenon of the horse and wagon delivering ice in the summer for ice boxes; refrigerators were something we really didn’t become aware of until the late ’ 30s. Heating was done with coal, and that was again delivered by a horse and wagon, and it went up through the back galleries on the little shoots and ropes that were sent down to bring them up. There were these extraordinary teams of six or eight horses that used to thunder down the streets, pulling wagons for brewery companies.
In the movie, Zayde is a rag and scrap collector who drives a horse-drawn wagon. Is that one of the things that attracted you to the story?
Yes. We had a very, very large back yard, which went all the way down to the street east of and adjacent to The Main. We cleaned it up at my mother’s insistence and created quite an extraordinary garden in the middle of what was really the concrete jungle. But at the end of that yard was a blacksmith, and this blacksmith used to shoe the horses of the rag peddlers, and as a kid I used to stand there with my brother and watch them, so I was very familiar with [the peddlers] and with their cry. That was one of the elements that attracted me to Ted AllAn’s story.
What else about “Lies My Father Told Me” drew your attention?
The other thing was the love story between David and his zayde, the relationship between the grandson and his grandfather without the complications that exist in the relationship between parents and their kids. It’s something I didn’t experience, since it was only my parents who had immigrated to Canada and I never got to know my grandparents either on my mother’s or my father’s side. So I was very intrigued with the notion of that kind of love, which was untrammeled by the difficulties and strains of the relationships between parents and their kids.
In the movie there’s a character, Mr. Baumgardten who is played by Ted Allan and who is an ardent communist. Do you recall that kind of political fervor when you were growing up?
My parents were children of the Russian Revolution. They had devoted their lives to the overthrow of the czar; my mother was a great believer in the heroic leadership of Lenin in terms of what he had done for the cause of women and how he had also liberated Jews — none of which proved to be true finally, but those were the beliefs that were held, and they were passed down to us. And growing up in the ’30s, the capitalist system wasn’t exactly shining at that particular moment. The levels of unemployment were very, very high; people were suffering a great deal. I remember we used to go for picnics on the mountain — my mother, my brother and myself — and she used to bring a pile of extra sandwiches to feed to the unemployed people who were sleeping and living on the mountain.
Did you get into communist politics yourself?
At the end of 1944 I joined the Merchant Marines, and my experience going to sea certainly confirmed [communist ideas]. The situation on the Great Lakes was horrendous. People worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a pittance. I became a union organizer in the Seamen’s Union and an associate editor of the Seamen’s Union newspaper. I then became the Quebec correspondent for the Canadian Tribune, which was the communist weekly at the time. But I kicked over and left the communist movement in about 1956 and pursued a business career, which included functioning as a marketing researcher and marketing consultant.
What caused you to disavow communism?
The thing that really broke it was the realization of what was going on in the Soviet Union, and the questioning that arose from that. And from that questioning arose the determination that the system really didn’t work. I think there are all kinds of radical movements in which young people get involved, but I think that there was a greater innocence in those years and a belief in certain solutions, which were based on a very mistaken impression on what was taking place in real life. I think that innocence is not here anymore; there’s a great deal of cynicism that has replaced it. I think the same thing applies to Zionism, which had a much greater innocence about it than it does today, in which there are a number of problems that have arisen that one could not have conceived would happen, in the relationship between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East. So I think we are in an era in which there is substantial disillusionment with the idealist panaceas which we believed would solve all problems back in the ’30s and ’40s.
That was also during the McCarthy era. It seems like you were fortunate to be living in Canada then, rather than in the United States.
Oh, no question about that, although McCarthyism did have its impact in Canada. We certainly didn’t go through what you went through in the United States at that point in terms of McCarthyism, but people did lose jobs. Many of us were barred from going to the States, so, you know, I agree that our suffering did not compare in its depths or in its spread with what took place in the States, but we were touched by it, there’s no question about that. In fact, Ted Allan left Canada and went to Britain. He used to write for CBC Radio in those years, but he discovered that he couldn’t really write things that had any social content from his point of view in Canada, so he moved to Britain for about 20 years, and many others did, too.
How did you get into filmmaking?
The Canadian film industry was very much in its infancy then, and I thought that I had something to contribute to it. We had a very mature and developed animation and documentary industry, mainly because of the National Film Board, which picked up innumerable Oscars for that kind of work. What we lacked was a film industry that did dramas. There were a couple that were done here and there, but there weren’t many, and I had enough arrogance to believe that I had a sense of what would work, and I was able to persuade some investors that I could do it. I was a business executive at the time, I was bored to tears and, more than anything, it was my mother’s influence, which was that you had to do something for society, whether it was in the union or in art, and I guess I was arrogant enough to believe that I had that capacity, and I went for it. I had no training, I dived off the high board, and I learned as I was doing it.
How did you come to produce “Lies My Father Told Me”?
I knew Ted. He was living in Britain at the time, but he had come to Montreal and a mutual friend arranged for us to meet, because he heard that I had gotten into the business. We talked about various things, and in the course of it I asked him about this short story of his which had appeared, I think it was in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, and I said that I would like to make a feature film about it. He was a little skeptical, but he said if you want to try, go ahead, and he gave me an option for it for $1.
I subsequently took the material that he had — the short story and a first draft of a screenplay — and at the Canadian Film Awards in 1972 or 1973, Ján Kadár was on the jury, and I went to Kadár and I asked him if he would be interested in directing a film in Canada. He said, “Well, if the script is good, why not?” So I sent him the material and he said he was on, and then he called his friend Zero Mostel, and Zero was very interested in doing it, so I got back to Ted and we had this package together at that point, which was Ted with his screenplay, Kadár as director and Mostel as the zayde.
The zayde eventually ended up being played by Israeli actor Yossi Yadin. Why wasn’t it Mostel?
As it happened, Ted and Zero hated each other from an experience which they’d had some years earlier. Ted had written a play, and Ted and Zero had some disagreements over aspects of the script and the treatment, and there was a tryout in Philadelphia where it bombed. So Ted and Zero were very much on the outs as a consequence. I was very, very concerned about that. But then, as it happened, I had to go to [Los Angeles] to see Sam Arkoff of American International Pictures to conclude the agreement. So I went down there with a representative of the investors I had lined up, and I went into the AIP offices, where we were greeted by Richard Zimbert, a man who subsequently headed Paramount Pictures, and he said: “‘Sam is busy right now. He’ll see you in about 15 minutes. But here is the agreement, so sign that and then you can go in to see Sam.” He handed us a thick sheaf of 60 or 70 pages, and we said, “We can’t sign this, we have to read it,” so Zimbert said, “You know how many people want to see Sam Arkoff?” But we declined, and it turned out that they wanted absolutely everything for an investment that was a little less than one- third of the budget. So the project fell through, and we had to start reassembling the financial package again. Zero took a job in Japan at that point, so as we got the package together over the succeeding year, we were without a zayde. Kadár had seen Yossi Yadin in “Fiddler on the Roof” in Vienna and was very much taken with him, so there we had a zayde, and the rest of the cast we put together from Canadian talent. So the Ted-Zero problem sort of worked itself out and didn’t impact at all on the production.
Were you surprised when “Lies My Father Told Me” won the Golden Globe?
Well I must say I’m a little embarrassed by the arrogance that I had in those years, but I felt it was entirely anticipated. Although, I would have been absolutely delighted had we just been nominated, and I would have certainly been supportive of any of the other nominations that were there, had they won. As to why the Golden Globe jury picked “Lies,” I don’t know. Although it’s increasingly referred to by critics and others as a classic film, and I guess that is what it is.
Watch an excerpt from ‘Lies My Father Told Me’: