The Canadian documentary Aim for the Roses (which made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2016 in Toronto) has to be seen, heard, and experienced to be believed; a multilevel meta-musical about one man’s passion that becomes another man’s pet project.
Filmmaker John Bolton tells two stories in his latest film. There’s the story of Mark Haney, a classical double bass virtuoso who gets the idea to create a solo, classical concept album around the idea of remembering Canadian stuntman Ken Carter’s ill fated attempts to jump from Ontario to an island in New York State via a high powered rocket car.
Through archival footage, Bolton recounts Carter’s almost single-minded madness and the drive to ensure that the often delayed jump would happen no matter the expense (a jump that Evel Knievel thought was a terrible idea). The story of Carter and the memories his attempt left behind is paralleled by Haney’s similarly quixotic mission to make a strange, melodic, entertaining, and original album. Both men risked everything they had and spent years creating their vision, but only Haney was ultimately successful, delivering a critically acclaimed work of unlikely origin that Bolton has now crafted a musical around.
We talked with Bolton and Haney on one of their last days in Toronto before headed to the hometown premiere of the film at Vancouver’s DOXA to talk about Ken’s legacy, the meta nature of making a film about a concept album, and their own “Ken Carter moments.”
There was the exploits of Ken Carter, then the album by Mark, and now the film of the album that depicts the exploits, so I was wondering since Mark and Ken were told their ideas were crazy that your idea was even crazier?
John Bolton: (laughs) No, because I think it’s just an idea, and all I really wanted to do was bring it to life. I wanted to make a classical music performance piece. I got started making these artistic, short films. I started getting these grants for increasingly intricate classical music performance pieces. I guess I wanted to do one on a bigger scale, but it had to be on a bigger scale and with the right piece of music. This was that piece of music. I thought we would just try to raise money and do an adaptation the way I always did these kinds of films. There was a time where I think I told Mark to pick three tracks from the album, we would apply for three grants, and see which of those could get made or cobble them together. When we started spending time together during the pre-interview, I thought Mark was an interesting guy. I said there was some parallels between him and Ken, and he told me he definitely had some “Ken Carter moments,” moments when he could feel his project spinning out of control. The more you put in, the more you feel you have to follow it. At some point, you can’t admit defeat, because when you do, you admit you’ve been wasting your time for years.
No one said the idea was crazy, but where it really got crazy was when I sat down and saw we needed more footage. We had to make it broader and deeper than we thought it would be. That meant spending money that I didn’t have on more interviews. I had to go to the site of the jump. We ended up using more archival footage of Ken than we originally planned, and that we could remix and mash up this film of him that already existed on Ken. And even though we made it for the Arts Council and SuperChannel, there was no one to keep us on budget. It was very hands-off. We were left to try and make the film, and I think that’s why it turned out the way it has.
Mark Haney: The album was a lot like the film in a lot of those ways. Fun piece of trivia: When I was trying to fund the album, I actually applied to be on Dragon’s Den.
John Bolton: (laughs) What?!? You didn’t tell me this, did you?
Mark Haney: Nope.
John Bolton: How come that’s not in the film?!?
Mark Haney: One of their producers that I talked to who worked on the show grew up near Morrisburg and remembered the ramp from his childhood, so that was kind of my in. For kids that grew up there, that was a huge part of their childhood. I got an email asking for more information, and that was where it kind of ended.
John Bolton: What was the business plan you were taking to them?
Mark Haney: Why are you embarrassing me now that I brought this up? (laughs) I think I was asking for $10,000 in exchange for 50% of the profits, which considering what the record was, would have been a terrible investment for anyone. I thought I could have charmed them out of their money.
John Bolton: That’s such a great story, man! We could have had Kevin O’Leary, possibly my least favourite Canadian, as an executive producer.
Mark Haney: But I think John and I went through similar things that Ken did. There were moments for us all when things were falling apart, we knew they were falling apart, and we knew that we might not finish any of this, but we had to put the smile on and say otherwise. You have to put on the mask and say, “Oh, man! Everything is awesome! This is going to be wicked!” and the entire time, all you can really think about is, “I’m fucking doomed.”
John Bolton: For the film, things were just starting to go sideways right around the time when we got into Hot Docs, after the programs had been printed, after we found out about the upcoming Vancouver premiere at DOXA, and after I had booked all of my travel accommodations and flight. We had a problem securing the archival footage. I thought we could get what we wanted with all the rights we wanted at a good price. The worst case scenario that came back to us was that we almost didn’t get any of it. The best case scenario was that we were going to get all of it, but for a lot more than we expected it to initially cost for those rights. If we didn’t have the footage, it would have been a totally different film and we would have had to totally recut it right before the festival, and I briefly freaked out that if that happened, I might be forced to yank it, which would have been a catastrophe. That would have killed my career. I would have looked so unprofessional. It was brutal. I was dying inside. But Ken risked dying, and Mark risked dying inside, and which is worse? That’s why people want to go out in a blaze of glory.
Mark, a lot of the verbal components to the album and one of the things that works best in the film, is how you take a lot of the lyrics directly from newspaper ads. Did you create the music first or did you set out to find these bombastic ads that you could put to music later?
Mark Haney: I had what I thought was the skeleton of the narration in place, because everything Ken Carter says on the album is something that Ken Carter said in real life. I think I make him look better than the documentary The Devil at Your Heels does.
John Bolton: You definitely confer unto him a lot more dignity than that documentary did.
Mark Haney: But in doing that, I was researching newspaper archives for more information, and as soon as I saw these ads, I knew they were the missing pieces. Especially the ads for the jumps because they were made from almost the exact same template every time. “Ken Carter’s world record attempt,” and then they would just fill in the rest with “fifteen Chevrolets” or “twelve chuck wagons.” Once I found those, I knew they were the missing piece.
John Bolton: Did you notice in the film how many times we say “world record” in the film? We used any excuse to have him say “world record,” even though “world record” of jumping this kind of car over x amount of distance over x amount of some other thing means you could theoretically have an infinite number of world records that could never be disproven or broken. (laughs) You could have a Guinness Book of how many different world records a lot of these guys like Ken claimed to have. It’s all in the art and craft of the promotion that showcases Ken’s personality. He’s a natural character to create a kind of dramatic story around.
What are your thoughts on how Ken’s jump really went down and his tragic life that followed?
John Bolton: It really hit me today during our second screening just how fucking shitty that fucking pond he ended up dying in after his Morrisburg jump got screwed up,
Mark Haney: Yeah, totally. It was an ignominious death, for sure.
John Bolton: It was so unexceptional. It wasn’t even a pond. It was just a disgusting sinkhole at the edge of a racetrack. And yet, he went at it. He was always a pro who always wanted to put on a show. I don’t know if that’s what killed him. What probably killed him was that he couldn’t swim. That revelation early on gets way bigger laughs than I ever could have thought it would. He was more scared of landing in the water during all his jumps that involved that than he ever was about landing out of or on the roof of the car. The mix of high tech and low tech in those cars was really interesting. The rocket on the rocket car was real, but the roof hatch that was supposed to protect him was held in place with twine and binder clips. But I look at Ken and Mark in the same way: let’s celebrate what they did, not what they didn’t do. And you see what happens when Kenny Powers takes the rocket car and just destroys it, and it’s hard not to feel something for Ken Carter. As long as he had the car and the ramp, anything was possible and he could leverage that. But that dying inside, that was something I felt in those couple of months before Hot Docs – where I don’t think either of us could guess the response we were going to get – where I felt like we would sink. And the film is strangely a crowd pleaser when the story is anything but.