[Lunchmeat chats with Paul Kelman - T.J. in MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)]
Q: First off, the universal question: How did you get involved as one of the main characters in MY BLOODY VALENTINE?
Keith Knight, with whom I was working in the movie called GAS in Montreal, told me he was going to a film audition. He asked me if I wanted to come along! He was like that, share and share. Great guy. I miss him. So I crashed the audition. I got the part of TJ in MBV (MY BLOODY VALENTINE) and Keith got Holly.
Were you aware of the momentum the slasher film was gaining around the time of your audition? Did the cast know the identity of the killer, or did Mihalka try to keep this a secret for as long as possible?
I was a horror film fan at the time and no, Mihalka did not tell us who the actual killer was until we discovered it in the script at the end.
Q: What was George Mihalka like to work with?
It was only Mihalka's second feature and he was a young director wanting to make his mark. While we were still shooting, Paramount Pictures bought MBV, of course Mihalka was ecstatic but the pressure was on.
The bar scenes were among my favorite scenes. Was there any improvisations on your part during these scenes?
Everyone improvised in that scene.
In an interview with George Mihalka on another website, he stated that there was an accident involving someone getting clipped by a car during the 'chase into town' scene. Do you recall anything like this happening?
Yes. I was in the car accident there were also a couple of close calls in the mine too. That part was a fiasco.
My father has been in the coal industry for over forty years. I, myself, have been inside an operating coal mine many times. Was there any sense of claustrophobia on your part or any of the cast and crew that you can remember?
(a chuckle) Well, we were working in the only coastal mine under the ocean floor in North America! 600 feet below the ocean floor. So yes it was a little strange. The Sydney mine was a non-working mine and large parts of it were cavernous. We did experience a working mine nearby and went down to the "face" right beside the miners while they drilled through with the biggest drill I've ever seen. We were literally hunched over in a 5 ft. high space standing inches from this giant drill bit whirling like the Tasmanian Devil from Bugs Bunny cartoons! It was going at near supersonic speed! Dangerous work! We came up completely black faced! I don't know how men can do this kind of work. The conditions were deplorable.
Were you surprised that they were remaking MY BLOODY VALENTINE a few years ago?
Yes I was but, well, you know 3-D is the future in film. Granted they've got a ways to go. One of my favorite shows on TV is "Supernatural", and I think the two leads are just fabulous actors so it was a thrill to see them in the remake of MBV. I would have preferred a sequel, however that means there's still room to make one, which I would look forward to!
Were there any rituals you did before 'action' to get into character?
No. I just stayed in character the whole time. So I was, like TJ, defensive, bitter, moody and wanting to escape. A joy on the set!
What was your shooting schedule?
We only had six weeks to shoot. We went to Nova Scotia and worked straight through.
Where did you stay when you weren't filming and what did you do in your spare time on set before your scenes?
Most stayed at the Holiday Inn in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Christianne, my wife at the time, and I, had a suite with a weight room and a conference/party room. We went shopping, ate at the few restaurants. I had a car in my contract so we did some driving around and took the ferry to Newfoundland. While in international waters I played the slot machines for the first time and won over a hundred bucks in a flood of coins! Mostly we did a lot of drinking like a lot of people on the island. LOL. Keith and I loved Bushmills Scotch whiskey.
Q: The special f/x in the film were great. Not until the 'uncut' release did we get an idea of how great the scenes were. Were you around when any of the special f/x scenes were being set up. If so, can you tell us a little bit out it?
A lot of them, yes. It cracked me up to be sitting at coffee with "Happy", one arm holding up an axe pick stuck through his head with his eyeball hanging off the the tip! LOL! Each murder had molded realistic figures, heads etc. made from the actors. The scene with her head stuck on the shower head and water spewing from her mouth was especially effective as they were doing it. The scene where all the miners suits start falling on lines from the ceiling spooked us in real life when they did it to me and Keith as a joke when we were hanging out on that set before shooting it.
What was the hardest thing about the shoot?
For me personally it was making the adjustment to playing the lead role in a movie. You learn you're expected to lead the cast as well. After the director, the actor playing the main role is as responsible for the morale of the cast and crew while on set. So the tone of a shoot is set by those two. If they are in the early stages of their career like we were then there's a lot of trial and error. Mistakes are made, opportunities missed. It takes its toll. Live and learn.
Q: The general atmosphere on set: What was it like?
It was pretty tense on several levels. People were learning as they went. No one then had the kind of experience that comes from doing a dozen or two films so that things run smoothly, including me as I said. There were a lot of detailed sets as well as live locations above and below ground, SFX and of course filming in a mine which was dangerous of itself. I'd say it was the environmental factors and the logistics of scenes like the fighting in the mine with pick axes on moving rail cars and having a mine ceiling cave in on us at the end that added to that tension. It was an unusual shoot and hence a unique atmosphere. Sometime too, the horror aspect has an effect that creeps you out and creeps up on you.
Was there anything about your work in the film that you would have done differently?
(laughter) Oh, yeah! Just about everything! I've only done six or seven features and I never considered MBV my best work or anything. It's all hindsight now of course.
In the rec. room scene where TJ and Axel were fighting, it looked as if you really hit your head on one of the green overhanging lights. (elaborate)
(smiling) That's what you call an improvisational accident. A keeper.
Did you get to meet any of the head producers on set? If so, what were they like? Did you get to keep any memorabilia from the set?
No and no.
Sadly, Keith Knight (Hollis) passed away just sometime ago. He and Alf Humphreys (Howard) also added a welcomed vibe to the film. What were those guys like?
The three of us were close We all worked on the previous film shoot of GAS just a couple of months before in which we all played comedic characters. So we had something going before and came in with it. I think all in all the success of the film MBV and how audience responded had to do with the cast and their dedication to making each scene work. You knew the actors in the key roles were giving their all. So they came across as genuine. The audience could feel and see that.
After what seemed to be a great start in the acting business, you seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Any particular reason for this?
I've been very critical of the Canadian Film industry in the past. But there were many reasons that led up to my being absent from it.
In a nutshell. I had just turned thirty, newly married, working on only my fourth feature. I'd just finished GAS eight weeks before. It was my first lead role. I was well on my way to becoming an alcoholic. And I was Bipolar, though I didn't know it then, as I wasn't diagnosed until I was in my fifties. I'm fairly certain, looking back, that I was in the depressed phase of the current bipolar cycle. That's what bipolar is, way up for a period followed by another that's way down. Life like that can be seriously intense. You can lose real world perspective easily. Especially if untreated which was my case back then.
It's surprising how many actors have declared they are bipolar including some big stars. Even Cindy Lauper who was on CNN's Piers Morgan a week back. She and I befriended each other back in the early 80's just before her world tour.
I did do three features after after MBV and auditioned in New York for some big movies. All I know is that I'd had a rough go of it with MBV and in the years prior since I'd left the Theatre to concentrate on film. I was disappointed by my experience with the Canadian Film industry. I also wanted more autonomy in my life. I'd had an entrepreneurial streak since I was sixteen, so I started my own business, a funky clothing store called Plash, in the heart of Toronto's Fashion District on Queen Street West. I had designed clothes before and had been a theatre set and costume designer as well. So it was a good fit. Thing is once you start a business you soon find you have to give it 24/7 if you fancy succeeding. There came 'a time when there was no time' for my acting. I made the decision to give it up for the time being and concentrate on getting the business off the ground with my wife then. From there life took its course.
Can you give me an idea of how the fight scene was set up between you and Axel in the last minutes of the film? Was there any stunt men involved?
The actors always have to do the stunts though with less gusto and danger than when the stunt doubles step in and make it look good. But fighting with pick axes on an open moving car on a track in a mine going 10-15 mph is still pretty taxing and not without risk. You have to make it look good too!
And what were Hollis and the guys smoking? LOL And was that really you playing the harmonica? Where was this scene shot?
Nice try! They were Drum tobacco joints! I played the harmonica but they synced someone else playing better.
What were your thoughts on MY BLOODY VALENTINE not doing as good as expected at the box office in 1981? Do you think the murder of John Lennon had anything to do with it being severely cut?
The murder of John was an obscenity. A tragedy. It affected me deeply. I never made a connection between the two events and I was actually surprised at how well MBV was doing. I'd had few expectations of it at the box-office. But your premise may have merit. I'd never thought of it.
You and Lori Hallier (Sarah) had some good chemistry on set. Was there any method during non-shooting you guys did to keep up the great work on-screen?
Yeah, right! Did we do off set as on set ? Naughty, naughty! No "darling", (showbiz speak), that only happens on big Hollywood features. This is Canada!
The same question above applies to Neil Affleck (Axel). The tension seemed very real. Any methods off screen you guys did to keep the tension on-screen?
No. We naturally found our enmity. We both kept it bottled up so it could blow up in our scenes.
Was there any more info in the script that may have explained what TJ had done out west during his leave of absence, because it's made evident that you really 'fell on your ass out there'? lol
Axel mentions in the script that TJ left Sarah and the Bluffs, the mine and his father to get away and go to university where he didn't get very far. So he came back but everything was different. Sarah was with Axel, the mine survived fine without him and "the guys" were not quite as funny or appealing any more. It pissed him off even more.
Were there any re-shoots or add-ons after initial filming was done?'
Funny you should ask! Yep. In the bar scene, the part where I'm sitting at the bar and bartender, "Happy", is telling the story of Harry Warden and the Valentine's Day murders. It had to be reshot. Why? Because no one had noticed that I had gained weight. They originally shot this scene near the end of the shoot but it chronologically was supposed to be in the early part of the story when I was thinner! Suddenly from one scene to another I had a belly! The producers saw the belly and wanted it fixed asap.They built a copy of the set and reshot with no below the waist shots of me for continuity. I think I gained twenty pounds from all the beer.
Don Francks was already a very established actor. What was like to work with?
He'd already had a distinguished career. When he took off his clothes for the first time to change into costume, I gasped. He had a tattoo of an enormous eagle spread-winged in color across his back ! It was so beautiful. With his long hair braided down to the small of his back he was remarkable to to look at. He had the aspect of the Jazz musician which he was. Honorary member of a Native tribe, married to the daughter of a chief, actor, musician, social activist he was truly unique. Reminded me of Willy Nelson. Friendly, even folksy with that jazz edge. Easy going actor. Got right into it. I Liked and admired him. There was much more to him than was apparent.
Jack Van Ezra 'Happy' was a riot and very funny. What was he like to film with?
He was funny! His persona was a curmudgeon. He didn't trust production companies after decades in the business (as well as with his famous brother, TV comic actor, Billy Van). They knew the score. Anyway he demanded his monies for the movie weekly on set and in cash! He swore up and down like a sailor when it was late. He complained about everything about the shoot! He was a riot! He taught me a valuable lesson about trust and communication when it came to the film business.
Do you remain in contact with any of the cast in crew after 30 odd years?
Yes. Especially now with Facebook.
What were your thoughts on the finished product? Did you see the film in theaters upon its initial release?
In 1981, I attended the Grand Opening in Toronto complete with chauffeured Bentley and police motorcycle escorts, a red carpet, Search Lights in the sky, screaming adolescent fans (shills), and a C & W band playing at the front! No popcorn. They closed the confectionary for the opening. Saying it was in bad taste! That was the thing that said it all to me about the whole MBV experience. I didn't think they keenly understood their audience. You need to munch on popcorn to watch horror flicks at a theater! If they had I suspect they would've made a better slasher movie that appealed to more people who like the genre. I remember in my adolescence I'd go to the all-night "Horroramma" each weekend at the Capitol Theatre in Ottawa. All the Vincent Price classics and more! I cherished those weekends.
Would you have been up for a reoccurring role in a sequel if indeed the occasion arose?
Absolutely! I still would. I can easily envision it working. Especially now.
Were you offered any film roles based solely on your portrayal as TJ in MY BLOODY VALENTINE?
Not that I am aware of. But what did change was that now I was being called for lead roles to audition for. Trouble is there were few of those roles. At that time the competition was, Winston Reckert, Nick Mancuso, Booth Savage and Saul Rubineck. Any major role and that was pretty well who was seen. Most landed their own television series and went on to do films throughout their careers.
How about theater and stage work ... Did you become involved with either of these either before or after MBV?
I started in the theatre professionally in 1970. I have a BFA Honors, Acting, from U of A in Edmonton. I then worked with Paul Thompson and Theatre Passé Muraille of Toronto for the next decade. It was really the heyday of the creation of a truly indigenous Canadian theatre. It was a very creative and freeing time in Canadian Theatre history. From it were born more than thirty theaters many of whom exist today.
Did you ever consider that you might be the killer since it's rumored that Mihalka wanted to keep the killer's identity secret until the last minute?
Yeah he did, but I never thought TJ was the bad guy. It didn't make sense and the script was too predictable for that kind of turnaround.
What were the town folk like?
You mean the real people in the town? They were very nice to us and a little bemused.
Was that your green Camaro or was it furnished to you for the film?
No. The poor guy that rented his Camaro Z-28 to the film is the one who got hit by it in the car accident! He was a local.
Where was the scene between you and Lori (Sarah) filmed when you took her to the ocean?
The Bluffs in Sydney NS.
What were your family and friend's reaction when they saw the finished product on screen?
They were thrilled just to see me in a film that got worldwide distribution! My friends in New York City saw my name up in lights on the marquee in Times Square and called me in Toronto to let me know while they were going to see it!
What type of films do you enjoy watching? Are you a horror fan?
Of course, as I said. I'm very big on the SF genre. I do like the Twilight Series. Something about vamps and werewolves making war and love that appeals. All time SF faves are Alphaville, 2001, Star Wars series, Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Matrix and of course Star Trek (all). They all had profound influence.
Q: What are your top five horror films?
THE EXORCIST, THE THING, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, REPULSION and HELLRAISER. THE OMEN films also.
What are your top five non-horror films?
Aside from the SF list above I like the Fantasy genre. The Harry Potter films are great as are the books. I just watched Sleeping Beauty and the Huntsman which was great! There are others like the entire Godfather series which I consider are a collective masterpiece of American Film. I really love spy films, The Constant Gardner, and political satire like Wag the Dog, Primary Colors and so on. I'm interested in anything to with Samurai, Knights Templar and the Romans! Eagle of the Ninth comes to mind. There are so many good films made from so many countries. Life of Pi was genius, Avatar too. I love the films of Frederico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard and Bergman.
What have you been up to these days? Any future projects we can see you in?
After the fashion business I went into technology. For over ten years I devoted myself to the Virtual Reality industry, AKA the Reality Complex. I'm stay involved as a consultant and tech writer. I can see the future of it.
If someone called you tomorrow and asked you to participate in a sequel, would you do it?
If I thought the script and character were a fit. The hell I wouldn't!
Does anyone recognize you in public as TJ from MY BLOODY VALENTINE?
It still happens after all these years. It always puzzles me. How they recognize me? But I seem to have left an impression. I do have fans and some find me on Facebook. I'm pleased if I bring some smiles to people's lives. It's a privilege.
Do you ever watch the film from time to time for kicks?
I have the original on VHS, the Digitally remastered version on DVD as well as the 3D remake. No I haven't lately.
Is there anything you would have done differently regarding the acting process?
That would be a much longer discussion. But yes of course. Originally I wanted to go to New York and join up with Julian Beck
and The Living Theatre in 1969.
Trivia Q: what well known horror movie and sequel did Julian Beck play in? hint: You knew he was close by because you could hear him whistling an eerie rendition of a christian song.
In three words, describe what it was like to be a part of this classic horror film?
First off, yes it's a classic but its also a cult horror film. Three words . . . A broken heart!
Thank you so much Mr. Kelman for taking time to answer these questions. It has been a real pleasure.
Visit Paul Kelman's IMDB page.
Read the Hysteria Lives! review of MY BLOODY VALENTINE.