Death in Winnipeg


Merrill and Wayne Osmond slump down depressed in their red-sequin-appliqué jumbo-spandex lobster suits while buoyant brother Donny touches his toes for no other reason than to thrust out the saddle-cut rear of his gaudy pantaloons, and in so doing, inflames an already sorry sibling situation. More later.

Winnipeg, November 2000. All is enveloped in a sad atmosphere. My city is plunged in the perpetual night of its notorious winter, lugubriously ice-encrusted, bedecked with crystalline stalactites and crosscut by great white ways of snow banks, all arrayed behind an intricate scrimshaw of frost. The city is a bleak and wind-buffeted Luna Park carved from a glacier—an Expo of melancholy. Here, we throng no midways, cavort in no pavilions. Winter pedestrians are less common than wild dogs.

Winnipeg is a Siberia, a skagway, a vast plain of ice. Its only hill is a mountain of garbage—50 years’ worth of civilian refuse—which in the winter children use for toboggan sliding. But sledding can be dangerous, for from this hill the permafrost pushes up odd items buried by our ancestors; I was once impaled there by the very same stag antlers my father had thrown out two decades earlier.

It is onto this drear landscape that ABC has descended to shoot Inside the Osmonds, its sweeps-week biopic (airing February 5), which follows the soaring and crashing fortunes of America’s favorite Christian rockers from 1970, the moment they cut the Andy Williams umbilical cord and went on to record 23 gold records, through to the early 1980s, when the family was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy beneath a darkling cloud of suspected unhipness.

Why come to such an arctic outpost to shoot a script set almost entirely in California? Probably has something to do with the tax credits we Canadians use to steal film work from Americans. But also, I’m told, because of the near-Branson-like proliferation of theaters here in Winnipeg, many of them deserted and available as dirt-cheap locations. Or perhaps because we have living here the “secret shag man,” who has been hoarding rug for half a lifetime, and could carpet all the highways in Canada with that deep-piled floor covering needed in daunting profusion by the Osmonds art department.

Whatever the reason, I’m thrilled ABC is here. As a filmmaker myself, I have my own mission of mischief. Having been given permission to hang around the set by Richard Fischoff, one of the show’s preternaturally gracious producers, I intend to conceal a Super-8 camera on my person and shoot my own subversive version of the script. While ABC’s camera rolls, so will mine. Simple. I get a $200 version of a $5 million movie. My secret filmography is bulging with projects exactly like this.

I’m also thrilled most of the shooting will be done within five blocks of my home, meaning I can still have lunch with Mother every day.

On the first day of shooting, I visit Winnipeg’s International Inn, which is today doubling as a Las Vegas nightclub where the legendary Osmond prodigies hone their act for a smattering of bored drunks. As I stretch in indolent repose at one side of the set munching a strawberry, I notice how remarkably the actors resemble the Osmond Brothers as I remember them. Being the same age as Donny, I remember them well, especially those fluorescent Chiclet teeth all loaded with Osmond DNA.

The fine young artificial brothers, looking warm and cozy beneath period-perfect wigs, are power-chording unplugged guitars and lip-synching to “Crazy Horses,” one of the Osmonds’ zestiest sorties into Mormon rock. These early-’70s proto-mullets are so natural I’m no longer self-conscious about my own new toupee, which I’m debuting on this occasion. Clad in buttery-soft, fringed white kid leather with matching macramé belts and white platform boots, the five counterfeit siblings retrace to perfection the famously wild and white choreography unleashed on a semiotics-ignorant public almost 30 years ago. These osmonoid performers are really caught up in the song’s feral rhythms, rudely beating on brazen vessels, bellowing like stags, and harmonizing like horny barbers: “What a show, there they go, smokin’ up the sky-y-y-y-y-y—yeah!!! Crazy horses, all got riders, and they’re you and I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I—I!!!” When the number is over, I forget myself and—this is inexcusable for a supposed filmmaker—applaud wildly, actually ruining the take, because the cameras are still running, and the sparse audience in the scene is supposed to be apathetic. Sheepishly, I promise to stopper my fervor. Fortunately, the next take is the keeper.

I’m astonished to find myself a fan of this music. I decide that this song wasn’t ready back in 1973, but it’s exactly the right vintage now!

After this scene I’m feeling not quite canny—perhaps a winter flu is coming on—so I wend my way to the washroom to shiver awhile astride a urinal in hope of restoring my comfort and vigor. Suddenly, a beaded leather bullwhip lashes my backside and wraps itself around my midriff. No, it’s not a whip after all, but just the long leather bugle-beaded fringe from the vest of one of the young Osmond clones—Donny it turns out—who has run in with fringes flying and now stands beside me, racked with shivers of his own.

I’ve never been struck so suddenly by an actor’s appearance before. I can’t help noticing the baby cloudlets that hang illumined in his eyes. His facial tint is ivory white against the ebon darkness of his clustering locks. He is a masterpiece from nature’s own hand. Not yet 13 years old! His name is Thomas Dekker. What parts he could play for me! (And I don’t even know what he looks like without his wig!)

At lunchtime I can feel my cold coming on for sure and, not wanting to infect Mother, I stay at the location and show Thomas my camera—just the Super-8—and assure him I use real 35mm ones for my official movies. Thomas is from L.A. and ripe and ready for a career. His credits include leads in Village of the Damned and Star Trek: Generations, series regular on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and the voice of Feivel in An American Tail III and IV. Thomas is very clever, too. By the end of lunch he’s pitched an intriguing script idea to me—the story of an underground therapist who cures an elderly man of his decaying memory by transplanting into his head the fresh brains of kidnapped children.

Over the next few days, I’m happy to fall into the pleasing monotony of the set, to bask in the mild soft tungsten glow while Thomas works himself hard. “One Bad Apple.” “Goin’ Home.” This little would-be Donny and the other mock Osmonds must mime out at least 18 songs in the picture, a fact which keeps workday O-pee-chee sweet in spite of the very long hours.

I’ve made it about halfway through the shoot and I keep forgetting to use my Super-8. Oh well. Today Thomas must practice his choreography for “Yo-Yo,” his favorite Osmond song. “Yo-Yo” is pop music perfected, with a lyric that gathers up the threads of many human destinies in the warp of a single idea. When Thomas sings it, the words actually seem to rise from his mouth and burst like bubbles.

There are so many great people working on this movie! I get a chance to speak with Veronica Cartwright, who plays Olive Osmond, mother of the famous brood. Veronica was also going on 13 when she was acting in The Birds. She says Hitchcock even brought a cake on set the day of her birthday. I also chat up Bruce McGill, the man playing clan patriarch George Osmond. Fresh from his stints in The Insider and Bagger Vance, McGill agrees with me that Thomas has a great future. The Osmond Story is very melodramatic. I like it when George Osmond, the father of some seven superstars, makes his son Merrill (Ryan Kirkpatrick) relinquish his theme color (purple) to Donny. Merrill is stuck with wearing black for the rest of his career.

Few people today realize how carefully the Osmonds dressed. Not only did Pa George assign each a distinct color—red, blue, yellow, green—but to each son also prescribed a unique talismanic belt buckle. Jimmy kept his pants up with a brass monkey; Wayne used a little steel airplane; Alan, an eagle. As Donny, Thomas gets to wear a special heart-shaped buckle—strange coincidence, since I too wear one of these. In fact, he wears the same metal valentine I got on a belt from Mother many birthdays ago! No matter where we first meet, Thomas and I start each morning by aiming our teeny “hearts” at each other—a private ritual that gladdens the hour of ungodly call-times.

Never have I been on such a happy set as this. I haven’t heard a single complaint from cast or crew in the two weeks I’ve been here. This afternoon, during “Sweet and Innocent,” the camera tracks between the legs of all the brothers, through a color-coded corridor of human thighs, until it halts in razor-sharp focus upon the craziest little horse of them all—purple Donny, who kicks up his heels and sends many a loose sequin through the rent air! At home in the wee a.m. I fracture Mother’s fragile drowse with a sneezing fit brought on by inhaled sequins. Even my insomnias are dazzling these days!

A peculiar revelation today. The part of Donny is played by not one but two actors; not just Thomas, who plays Donny up to the time of “Puppy Love,” but also by a perfectly nice boy named Patrick Levis, who plays Donny from age 14 on.

Thomas seems not the least bothered by this switcheroo. I guess he’s known about the other Donny all along. Still, I keep an eye on him to make sure he’s alright, to spot upon his good-natured face the first indication of this secret injury to his spirit. At lunch my vigilance pays off. One minute Thomas and I are happily double-dipping figs in our hummus, the next he suddenly excuses himself to pretend he’s fetching his Discman from his trailer. Dissembled in that winning smile he has parlayed into so many roles, Thomas dons a huge parka and plunges into the brutal night winds. Greatly concerned for my charge, I dash out after the boy, catch him in midstride, and, with both our coiffures flapping, I demand that he confess his grief at having his part cut in two. But, strangely, at this moment grief comes to me instead. Tightly wound up with overprotectiveness, I’m surprised to find tears springing to my eyes—tears that roll down my cheeks in the raging wind as I hug Thomas consolingly. Wigward the saltwater falls, down into the blast-beruffled plume.

Shooting will be finished soon and all the actors will be going back to their distant homes. Tomorrow is the last and biggest day. The sham Osmonds get to meet the real Osmonds, onstage at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre, in the picture’s climactic scene. If I know anything about movies, I know Thomas belongs in this scene, but the director has put the older Donny in instead. To Thomas’s credit, he gives not the slightest indication of disappointment, but I know he must be devastated. Ever the pro, Thomas intends to show up tomorrow and watch this final scene anyway.

To cheer him up, I ask Thomas if I may sit with him. As with all young actors, his sensitive instrument must be carefully guarded from clumsy outsiders. As a director always happy to discuss the craft of acting, I can use my profession as a pretext to ride shotgun next to little Thomas without his suspecting I sit there as a concerned friend, as one who would fall on grenades for him. In whatever emotional chaos that transpires, I can offer invaluable comforts to a troubled breast. Tomorrow!

O-Day at the Walker Theatre. I’m not even the director and I’m dizzy with fear. Since late last night, real Osmonds have been flying in from all parts of Utah, one by one: Virl, Merrill, Wayne, Jay, et al.—the first Osmond reunion in 17 years! The Winnipeg that awaits them this morning is locked in a cruel dome of permafrost—40 degrees below, and twice as cold with windchill! We Winnipeggers pride ourselves on moments like this. Compulsively, we muse about the impact our perfrigid town will have on the unsuspecting who visit us. How will the newly arrived celebrities cope with being here? Will they be frightened when their nose hairs are twisted out by the invisible pincers that stab into one’s nostrils at temperatures this low? What will Donny make of that first biting mouthful of air outside the airport when the cold rips into his lungs like a swallowed scissor? Will he wonder why his eyelids have frozen shut as he gropes toward his limo? And what will happen to the real parents, George and Olive, now elderly? Will the cold simply kill them? Will they be borne home in coffins, in the chilled cargo hold of the same plane that brought them here as warm and loving parents? Marie, the most reluctant to confirm her appearance in the picture, and her famously deaf missionary brother Tom are the last to touch down on our airport’s frost-heaved runway. Will the real Marie regret most of all her decision to come all this way to face the real Donny, with whom she is rumored to be fighting?

Since six this morning, the theater has been packed with hundreds of extras, 15-year-old girls garbed in the frayed flares and ill-fitting miniskirts that were so specifically 1973. All their hair is as straight as Marcia Brady’s, or as feral as Chaka Khan’s. All their shirts are plaid or denim or both. All corduroys are narrow wale. Eyebrows are plucked and repenciled in thin and arching cursives. The cumulative effect is eerie. It’s a velour goldmine! It is 1973!

The seaside sounds that rise from chattering hordes of girls haven’t changed since my youth. Suddenly, a redolent simoom of adolescent girl wafts up and over me. I suffer a brief flashback: As a well-groomed and courteous high-schooler I was completely invisible to all these cool prom-night smoochers; now, in a queer form of time travel, I’m reexperiencing this invisibility, but as a very confident adult in a Prada overcoat. This time, I’m just as glad to be a nonentity to these girls, these girls who look just a little bit raunchy with their chubby legs squeezed into rank white pantyhose and Naugahyde hot-pants ready to burst! I’m pleased as a seal to sit out of camera’s range with a solicitous eyebrow cocked toward uncynical Thomas.

Now, I hear a rumor: All Osmonds, as resourceful in middle age as they were precocious in youth, have arrived safely at our location. No frostbite, no gangrene. I’m told they’re tucked warmly away backstage.

Never have I felt so much excitement on a set in Winnipeg. My head burns, and little crisping shivers run across my clammy skin. We all know this last shot is the money one. The blocking is actually to be very simple: The fake Osmonds will stand six abreast upon the stage, mouthing out “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Halfway through the song, the real Osmonds will stride onstage to replace their doppelgängers and finish the number. Three cameras will cover them with every possible lens-length. Then, in a matter of minutes (if they get it in one take), all bona fide Osmonds will be picture-wrapped and freed to bomb outta here, straight back to temperate Utah. The end. I’ll take Thomas out for fries and a shake—our own little wrap party—and we’ll put our heads together over how we’re going to shoot his script.

Now the houselights go down and the first A.D. gets all the cameras rolling. I let Thomas hold my Super-8, tell him to go ahead and squeeze off a few shots.

Action! The extras start their teenybopper shrieking as directed. The imitation Osmonds go into their imitation singing. Suddenly, the lights go on behind a scrim at the rear of the stage to reveal a phalanx of gray-haired old men—it’s the real Osmonds! Alan, Merrill, Wayne, Jay. Not-so-old Jimmy and Marie are there as well. The scrim rises, the fake Osmonds discreetly disperse, and these genuine articles make toward their rightful place at the front of the stage, goldfishing all the while to their own 30-year-old recording.

At this awful moment, some sadistic god swings a huge wrecking ball at me from behind that scrim. That we all must age I’ve always suspected, but never has this fact been taught more dreadfully. So quickly did time hiccup ahead 30 years and thrust at me these actual Osmonds—Osmonds left bent and trembling by decades of mixed fortunes. Thin-thatched and achy, they brandish their white and wizened faces like so many death masks, their old Osmond grins the only things unchanged from moments before. Survivors of heart disease, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, wrecked marriage, and tithings—the terrors of the manifold earth—these Osmonds no longer dance, but hobble, creak, and drag themselves forward. They are unstoppable, like a tsunami of Time growing in fearsome height as they approach me.

Worst of all, these harmonists of the apocalypse are suffused with an intense love of performing—so clearly are they enjoying themselves in spite of their sudden aging—and an awesome love of each other, love for the skeletal ghost members of their cherished family, and a still unalloyed love for the old music which they joyously feign to perform. Somehow, it is all this enduring Osmond love that foreshortens my own life, frightfully so.

Unable to brake their momentum, the teenaged girls continue to shriek lustily at their suddenly aged idols, dizzy old semitransparent men who confusedly look about to find themselves reunited in Winnipeg, the last outpost. I stand gaping at my kindred spirits, the old, the infirm. I hear only the polar wind whistling outside. It whispers a death sentence in my ear. It sounds like “Puppy Love.”

In the aftermath of this one shot, Osmonds real and ersatz mingle about on the stage awhile, hugging, kissing, reminiscing. Elderly George and Olive totter out to be together with all their offspring at once, perhaps for the last time. I find myself studying the slow progress old George makes from son to son, stopping to pose for pictures, to extend a trembling and veiny hand to a young actor, before shuffling offstage where darkness and silence merge.

I’m left to ponder the inscrutable auguries of George’s footsteps, and the cryptic meaning of petrified bubble gum strewn across the decades like bird entrails. I wonder what undignified choreographies my own footsteps will trace upon the years left to me.

In the sky above frozen Winnipeg, with gum stuck to their hooves, and lashed into frenzies by colorfully beaded whips, the crazy horses rumble out of town, carrying Thomas with them.

Guy Maddin’s feature films include Archangel, Careful, and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. His short The Heart of the World was recently named best experimental film of 2000 by the National Society of Film Critics.