Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – “Leave Them Laughing” director John Zaritsky

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/05/10 09:22:18

“Leave Them Laughing is a musical comedy about dying, starring Carla Zilbersmith, a Vancouver native, singer and comedienne who has ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.It’s ninety riveting minutes of songs about life and jokes about death from the wheelchair of a woman who vows to exit laughing.” Director John Zaritsky on the film “Leave Them Laughing” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is my second film at VIFF. “The Suicide Tourist” screened at the festival three years ago and received a special jury citation. “Leave Them Laughing” premiered at Hot Docs this May and received a $10,000 special jury prize for Canadian documentaries. It was the fifth most popular film out of 170 in the audience popularity rankings. Over the course of my career, my films have been screened at over 40 festivals, including Sundance, Toronto, South by Southwest and the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. I’m a Vancouver filmmaker so I will be attending both screenings at VIFF.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I was an award winning investigative reporter at The Globe and Mail when the CBC offered me three times the money I was making at the newspaper to become a television producer. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and so purely by accident I eventually became a filmmaker.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

“When I grow up, I eventually want to be prime minister of Canada.”

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

It all started on December 31, 2008, when I was reading two pages of memorable quotes from that year in the Globe and Mail. And there in the midst of these quotes was a joke about dying that I actually found funny, a real “lol”. Curious, I Googled the author of the joke and discovered Carla Zilbersmith, an incredibly talented and gifted singer, songwriter, comedienne, performance artist and writer. I’ve always been interested in expanding the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking and for years I had joked that someday I wanted to make a documentary that was a musical comedy. My discovery of Carla presented me with an ideal opportunity to turn my jokey ambition into a reality. A few days later when I phoned Carla and explained that I wanted to do a musical comedy about dying based on a beautifully written blog she had authored, it was apparent that she and I were immediately on the same artistic wavelength. What resulted for the next year was a close and intense professional collaboration between a director and star that continued through production and post production until the film was finally finished.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

The biggest challenge was scraping together enough money to actually make the film. After meeting Carla for the first time, I realized she was already so ill that if I went after the traditional sources of funding for documentaries in this country, by the time the different bureaucracies finally made their decisions it would be too late and Carla would be too sick to be able to appear in the film. So for the first time in my career I decided to put my own money into a film and work for nothing.

Thanks to the generosity and support of the entire production team from the producer, dop, soundman, editors, p.a.’s, composer, lawyers, music clearances experts and interns, some of whom also put money into the project, others who worked for free or took deferrals on some of their fees, I was able to get a screenable film made. It truly has been a labour of love for the entire production team and I am deeply grateful to them. The film has also now received financial support from hundreds of individuals who have either attended fund raising events or heard of Carla and the project. I’m thankful to all of them.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Even though it was the first time I’ve ever worked with Ed Matney, the film’s brilliant cinematographer, we quickly solved the major shooting problem we faced, which was how we were going to work with a dying star without making her sicker than she already was. The solution was to basically turn Carla’s living room into a studio with a green screen set up daily so that when we were completely ready for her, Carla could make the short trip from her bedroom to the green screen without wasting any of her limited energy. In that fashion, we could work with Carla for a couple of hours and then she could easily return to her bedroom for a rest and some refreshments. I don’t want to any way suggest that Carla was difficult to deal with or unwilling to do anything she could for the film. In fact, the problem we always faced was deciding on our own when we felt she had had enough and calling a break. Artistically I’ve always been a big fan of the green screen because it gives the filmmaker a blank canvass he can put anything on. In this case, the circumstances resulted in a very fortuitous solution. On our occasional forays outside the studio, Ed was finally able to display his immense talent.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

I’ve had a number of people in audiences come up to me afterwards and tell me that they weren’t really very keen about seeing another documentary about a dying person but after seeing the film say how surprised they were at how different and inspiring the film was. I had a 23-year-old cocktail waitress tell me that no matter how bad her life ever is, she will never ever feel sorry for herself again. And I will always remember the gratitude of people who have said that Carla’s example will help them deal with their own or a loved one’s fatal illness.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

My inspirations have been the all time greats of documentary filmmaking: Albert and David Maysles, Fredrick Wiseman, and Errol Morris.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

A very tough question since I think documentary filmmaking is the best career you can possibly have so it’s hard to think of an alternative. But if you water boarded me, I’d say prime minister of Canada.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

If money were truly no object, I’d love to co direct a documentary with Martin Scorsese.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Critical-media response is crucial to any film these days. In the case of “Leave Them Laughing”, it will make or break the film. If the response remains as positive and enthusiastic as it’s been so far, then the film may finally get a television broadcast in Canada. If it’s negative, then it will only feed into the resistance of Canadian broadcasters, one of whom told me “there’s no audience for a film about a disabled person who is dying.” I’m hoping and betting the critics and festival audiences disagree.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The Tuschinski in Amesterdam would be easily my dream. It’s a wonderful old art deco cinema in my second most favourite city in the world.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

“Hey dude or dudess, if you’re looking for big laughs, see “Leave Them Laughing”. It’s way funnier and more entertaining than any of those dumb ass Holywood comedies you’re thinking of wasting your time and money on.”

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

I have no advice to offer since I still hope to continue working in the industry. But if I was waterboarded, I would refer them to Hunter S. Thompson’s classic observation. ”The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps roam free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

I love all my films like children. But the one I love most, my favourite child, is “Leave Them Laughing”. Why? Because every time I see it, it puts me back to the joyous time I spent with Carla, the funniest person I ever met.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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