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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Will His 'Bacon' Sizzle? : Sure, Michael Moore can get a rise out of former GM honcho Roger Smith, but let's see how the documentarian does with his first feature

November 28, 1993|MARSHALL FINE | Marshall Fine covers entertainment for the Gannett News Service.

TORONTO — It's a brisk Canadian morning at an abandoned steel plant in one of Toronto's industrial neighborhoods--"in the 3s and 4s," as one local radio voice announces, which, with the wind chill, puts the temperature at roughly 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The kind of weather, in other words, that would send most movie directors scurrying for their trailers, asking to have their latte warmed while the crew readies the next shot.

Michael Moore, however, is outdoors on the set between shots, bundled in a parka and Minnesota Timberwolves stocking cap--and he's customizing a car. With a hammer.

This in itself is unusual behavior. Usually a director would simply mention to his art director that, gee, the car needs to be aged a little--and it would be taken care of.

But Moore doesn't stand on protocol. As lights and cameras are adjusted for the next take, he circles the car with an impish smile, vandalizing a perfectly good Chevy Suburban so that it looks like the beat-up police vehicle it's supposed to be for his first non-documentary feature, "Canadian Bacon." He whacks at a hubcap, leaving vicious dents. After he is finished, the nameplate that says "Chevy Suburban" hangs by a single screw.

Later, holding court over lunch, Moore laughs and says, "I think Hamper built that Suburban," referring to Ben Hamper, Moore's longtime friend from his hometown of Flint, Mich., and the author of "Rivethead," a chronicle of his years on the GM assembly line there.

Which makes Moore giggle maniacally: "If you don't think we see the sick irony in all this: You can't go to many movie sets where the people who actually wrote and directed the film are the same ones who built the vehicles. The AC spark plugs in that Suburban--my dad probably helped build those. We've probably got three family connections inside that Suburban.

"And that we'd all be here with John Candy making a movie? Hey, last week we took over the private residence of the founder of General Motors of Canada as a location! Last film, we couldn't even get up the GM building's elevator."

But then, that last film was "Roger & Me," Moore's unexpectedly comic 1989 documentary about the terminal American auto industry. Even as Moore made himself GM's Enemy No. 1 with his witheringly funny tale of callous corporate ineptness, he rocket-launched his own filmmaking career. His movie became one of the top-grossing documentary of all time ($8 million) and, in the tradition of successful documentaries of recent years, was duly overlooked for an Oscar nomination.

Now, four years later, Moore is finally stepping up to the plate again with "Canadian Bacon," a political comedy he has written and is directing.

In a scenario eerily reminiscent of anti-NAFTA feelings washing over both countries, "Canadian Bacon" is about an American President (Alan Alda) who, faced with plummeting popularity and a worse economy, decides to foment fear of Canada, creating a new Cold War to put America back to work. But Niagara Falls Sheriff John Candy takes the President's saber-rattling too literally and creates an international incident. The film features Kevin Pollak and Rip Torn as presidential advisers, Rhea Perlman, Bill Nunn and Kevin J. O'Connor as sheriff's deputies and Wallace Shawn as the Canadian prime minister.

It's the second week of the $11-million-plus production, and the mood on the set--well, if it were a scene from a movie, the background music would be "Good Vibrations." Moore, who has only 38 shooting days, is by all accounts working efficiently and effectively. Even the producers, shivering in a gaggle as they watch the dailies on monitors, are marveling; plainly, Moore has calmed whatever doubts there might have been.

"Anytime you do a movie with a first-time director, it's a huge leap of faith," says producer Steve Golin, head of Propaganda Films, which is teamed with PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. "Michael's an extremely convincing guy. But until the first couple of days are over, you just don't know. 'Roger & Me' was a documentary, and there's a huge difference. Four or five people working on something for a year is a lot different than 200 people working on something for two months."

*

It took a year and a half of writing and another year of taking the script around with producer David Brown ("The two of us were like Hope and Crosby," Brown says), looking for someone who didn't cringe at the words \o7 political comedy.\f7

"He's like a snake charmer; he's just an incredible performer, a consummate salesman," says the dapper Brown, the only person this day (outside of people in costume) who has chosen to face the weather in three-piece suit, trench coat and muffler. "I said, 'If you're such a good salesman, how come 47 studios and production companies have turned us down?' He said, 'They didn't get it.' They'll get it when the picture comes out."

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