I caught up with Mary Kerr, the director of Radioman, and producer Paul Fischer at a cafe while they were in town for Hot Docs. Radioman came too, but he flitted in and out of the conversation, sometimes getting shy and going to sit at another table, other times popping in to crack jokes and chat. Paul first became aware of Radioman when he was working on a film set in New York, and after hearing a bit about his back story, became interested in making the doc with his former film school colleague, Mary. I start by asking the filmmaking duo whether Radio himself was into the idea of starring in their doc right away.
“It wasn’t difficult to convince him, but I think at the point when he realized that it wasn’t just going to be a scrapbook of him with famous people, listing all the people he knew, then it became a bit of a challenge. We wanted to talk about family, things he wanted to keep private. Or it was like no, you can’t go see Queen Latifah, because you said you’d be here being interviewed.” Paul tells me. Mary chimes in “Just to get him to a sound stage would sometimes take hours.”
“He’s arranged his life so that he can live it exactly the way he wants to,” Paul continues. “So whenever we’d say ‘you have to stick to the schedule’, or there was a constraint or something he didn’t want to do right away, then it was a bit like telling a child that he couldn’t do something.”
At least the celebrities weren’t a problem. Mary tells me that they all agreed quite readily to be interviewed, and that the only obstacle came from publicists. “For example, one celebrity’s publicist told us to never call her back, that he’d never do the interview, and we then couriered a letter to him backstage when he was in London doing stand-up, and he said yes right away, so the publicist had to call us back and say he’d do it.” she chuckles. “I think you get lost, they get a hundred and fifty requests, and everyone says they’re so-and-so’s good friend, and so the publicist’s job is to say no and guard the door, but actually when it got through to the people, everyone was thrilled to do it.”
I ask Paul whether there was anything Radioman himself didn’t want to address in the doc, and he tells me that Radio “never drew a line’. “It was never that he didn’t want to talk about something, it’s just that you ask him about George Clooney and he won’t shut up for 45 minutes. You ask him about his childhood and he’ll mumble for sixty seconds. We had to explain why it was important. He’d never seen a documentary before, so we’d show him little clips and he’d say ‘oh, so something I said in January you can play over a clip of something I did in February, I see what you did.’ He was always really great, he’d point out people who don’t like him, and he’d say ‘that guy thinks I’m a sh*thead, talk to him.’ He didn’t want to control any of it.”
The first time Radioman saw the film was at the premiere screening at Hot Docs. I ask about the experience and Paul tells me “It was his choice. I’d given him the DVD and he’d put it in Harvey Keitel’s pocket without watching it. I think he just wanted to wait until it was finished. It’s been four years, and we were telling him any minute now we’ll be done. And you know, he’s had people who film him for a week and then he never hears from them again. So I think he wanted to wait for it to be complete.”
There are lots of genuinely funny moments in the doc, but I got the sense that the audience was laughing with Radioman rather than at him. I ask Mary about this. “We’ve had a few questions about whether we exploited him,” she says. “One of the kids in the screening yesterday asked us about showing the cockroaches in his house. I think, who are we to judge how he lives? We respect him enough to say this is the way you live, it’s not the way I live, and it’s more honest than him tidying up every day before we arrive.”
Paul interjects to say “One thing we wanted to show which we couldn’t do visually is that his apartment is exactly the way it was when his mother died, underneath all his stuff. His past is literally buried under all of that. It was a parallel we always wanted to show, but it felt too forced. The important thing is that Radio always knew everything we filmed, he knew about the cockroaches, he knew everything. If he’s happy to let us in, then exploiting him isn’t about showing it, it’s about deciding that he really should be embarrassed about how he lives. Just because he’s different, we should respect him enough to let him express himself exactly the way he is.”
Ultimately, the film does seem like an honest representation of what the man is like. Radioman himself, who’s been hovering at a nearby table eating breakfast, rejoins us and quips “Oh no, now I have to speak”. I start easy, asking him about what he’s been doing in Toronto. “It’s “Tronno, right? Not Tow-ronto?” He says it just like a local. “I went on one of the Bixi Bikes, it was fun. I went to the Humber River yesterday, that was really cool. It was a long ride, though. And today I cycled up a bridge with a valley below it, somewhere on east Bloor?” We determine that Radio’s probably seen more of Toronto than most visitors (especially those who jet in just for a film festival), and he quite liked it. “It’s a lot like New York,” he concludes.
Radioman is quite happy with the way he was represented in the doc. He was overwhelmed by the applause from a young audience that saw the film as part of the Docs for Schools program. “They all wanted my autograph,” he smiles. But even though the attention was nice, he doesn’t want to become a big movie star, he tells me. “I’d like to get a few more parts, but not to be famous, no. I couldn’t live like that. I’ll just be me, run around the movie sets, do my job and that’s it. Then I get on my bicycle and ride away. Just be yourself. Do what you have to do in life, pursue it as far as you possibly can, don’t let anyone discourage you.” A great sentiment to end on. As we wrap up, a group of teens walk by the cafe and one shouts “Hey Radioman! Where’s your radio?” He chuckles and holds it up (it was beside him on the ground, instead of around his neck as usual). I guess a little bit of fame is ok.
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