Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Michael Lennick (1952-2014) made his name in the entertainment industry as a special effects technician/supervisor and documentary filmmaker, who has worked on films like Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), and Dick (1999). Early in his career, Mr. Lennick worked on Kinji Fukasaku’s science fiction epic Virus (a.k.a. Day of Resurrection, 1980) as a set designer and builder. As a child, Mr. Lennick watched and was inspired by the sci-fi thrillers of his day, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956). In 2006, Mr. Lennick spoke with Brett Homenick about his work on Virus.
Brett Homenick: How’d you get started in the movie business?
Michael Lennick: I was raised by actors, so I had some familiarity with show business. My earliest career was in television. I started out doing various odd little functions, but ended up as a cameraman and editor, mostly on low-budget local news programs. This is the late ‘60s, early ‘70s we’re talking about. The film industry really took off around that time in Canada. It’d been around for some time, but commercial film production really got going at a great time for me and a lot of friends in television and theater, and many of us shifted over. It was a time of great opportunity. They were looking for local people who had some background in production, initially to start as drivers, and PAs, and craft service, and stuff like that. Now a whole bunch of us who are still friends came in with that first generation. I did about three or four projects as a driver and a production assistant and third AD. I think I was on a couple of those when along came a project that had a couple of FX shots in it.
The film industry in Canada back then often involved professional crews working for a few unprofessional producers — you know, dentists who suddenly decided they wanted to get into movie-making, and the government of Canada at that time had a lot of tax incentives for them, 100% write-offs in some cases, for investing in this burgeoning industry. So you had all kinds of folks suddenly out there making movies who had really no idea how to do it and real incentive to spend as little money as they possibly could. In one of those conversations that were always buzzing away on the corner of the set, I overheard a discussion among producers who didn’t want to have to go to Los Angeles to hire a matte artist and a guy who could do a couple of comps in a couple of shots, a couple of optical composites. I was young and cocky. Star Wars had just come out, and I’d pretty much memorized the American Cinematographer behind-the-scenes breakdowns, and was dying to expand on my own FX experiences, which ranged from basement Super 8 stuff as a kid to low-rez bluescreen comps for TV. So I strolled over and foolishly said, “Well, I could take a crack at that.” Now the most logical thing they could have said was “What makes this kid think he can do this?” but instead they said, “Great! How much?” (laughs) And a career was born.
I transitioned almost instantly from floor effects to post-production, moving into larger projects with more shots, and it went from there. This is almost embarrassing. I hate to trash the route of those who went through the mentor process or went through film school, which is a logical way to do this, and certainly the way I recommend to anybody to get into it, but the reality is I was in the right place at the right time and was cocky and stupid enough to volunteer for something having only the roughest impression of what I was in for. But I had more of an idea of what I was doing than the guys who had hired me. (laughs) It worked out quite well. It was sort of on-the-job training for my first two or three films, (for me) and the crew of fellow lunatics I assembled around me in those days. We sort of figured it out as we went along over about two or three projects until some bigger ones came along based upon what we were doing on the smaller ones. By the time the bigger stuff like (David) Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Last Chase, films like that, came along, we had enough of an idea of what we were doing that we could actually acquit ourselves without too much embarrassment.
BH: Now when you were watching science fiction movies growing up, did you watch any Japanese science fiction movies before you worked on Virus?
ML: Interestingly enough, one of the first films I ever saw theatrically was a Japanese science fiction film. It was The Mysterians. I think (Ishiro) Honda directed that one.
BH: That’s right.
ML: That was just one of these very strange situations. It came out around 1957. I was probably five years old at the time. My dad used to take me to movies on Saturday afternoons. We went to see double features at the theater down the street from us, and the double feature in this case was The Big Top, I believe with Burt Lancaster, and this odd little Japanese film called The Mysterians, which he wasn’t terribly interested in. In fact, I think he timed it so that The Big Top would be on first, and we could leave after that. He could sort of sneak me out. But he got the timing wrong, and the first film that came on was The Mysterians, and I just sat there enraptured. I had never seen anything like that. I was scared and enthralled and just fell utterly in love with it. (laughs) My dad sat there very bored through the entire thing, waiting for the circus movie, which bored the hell out of me.
When it came along, I wanted to see The Mysterians again, and I went on from there and started immediately watching a lot of that era’s Japanese stuff, which was basically Rodan and Gamera and films like that, all of which just knocked me out as a kid. Oddly enough, somebody sent me a really good print of The Mysterians a couple of years back, and it was the first time I’d seen it in 50 years or so! (laughs) I popped it in, and it had exactly the same impact on me. It looks great — it was a widescreen, original Japanese print, not the English-dubbed, and it’s remarkable. I have no idea how I would respond to the film if I saw it as a grownup for the first time, but I was suddenly five years old again, watching this thing. It was almost a relief to see that the stuff that impressed me as a five-year-old was still impressive.
BH: (laughs) That’s great to hear! How did it come about that you worked on Virus?
ML: At that time, we were doing a lot of those kind of projects where in some cases we’d be hired to do visual effects, and in some cases we’d be hired to build elaborate spaceship sets or laboratory sets or blinking-light sets. Virus was one of those. My team and I were hired on that one pretty much out of the blue. The set dresser on the project gave us a call, a fellow who had heard what we did and basically brought in us and everyone else in Toronto who had a pulse and some background on a film someplace. So, for (him), it was a huge project. It was shooting up in Kleinberg, which is a large studio complex just north of the city, and almost everyone I knew in the industry found themselves working on it at one time or another.
It had a $25 million budget, which was unheard of in those days. No one had spent money like that. Like most of the jobs that I got in those days, I was originally hired for a very limited period of time and a very small amount of work that just grew and grew and grew. I think I was hired originally just to build a radio room. I think it was the Antarctic or McMurdo sound radio room that was frozen over that they come upon; the disease has already wiped these folks out. It was a half set; it was a couple of walls with some equipment, and they just kind of kept coming up to me and saying, “Listen, we’ve got three more rooms like this. We’ve got a submarine; can you do a submarine?” As I’m working on the submarine, they said, “Well, you know what, we’ve got the War Room down under the White House. This elevator leads down to this massive, Strangelove-ian complex, and we haven’t figured out how we’re going to do that yet. You wanna take a crack at it?” So we just kind of moved from set to set. Basically, we moved into these large, empty expanses and figured out what we could put in there that would work and that would work for the director, Kinji Fukasaku.
We didn’t get a lot of direction from him or his team, largely because they were shooting around the world with a Japanese crew, and we were sort of these nebulous little characters in Canada who don’t speak Japanese and need translators. So the directions we got were very, very limited. It was along the lines of — I hope this doesn’t come across wrong, but this is exactly how we heard it: The translator would come up to us and say, “The director want compure.” We would not know what that meant. It was finally explained to us that Kinji wanted computers everywhere you looked. By computers, he basically meant things that lit up and blinked and did interesting stuff. So we literally filled every room with a lot of lights and buttons and interesting controls – all stuff Kinji referred to as computers, which basically meant anything that lit up.
We kept doing it until he was happy. It was this ongoing process, including while we were shooting. He would look around and be relatively impressed and then kind of indicate with a pointing motion, and what he would be saying is, grab a couple of panels from over there and bring them up here to the camera so we’ve got computers everywhere. So the set never looked the same in any two shots. (laughs) It just kept getting rebuilt. Everything was built wild, which means you can pull it out and move it around, and everything in that set basically got shoved into the foreground of the frame as well as the background for every shot no matter what the shot was. So I think you’d have a hard time if you watched that film following the geography of some of those rooms. But these were the shots Kinji was mounting and he was very, very happy doing them, so we were happy to oblige.
(laughs) I also recall this — this is a very behind-the-scenes story — but the set dresser who hired us was relatively new at his job as well and didn’t really know how to appraise things out or how to estimate stuff, so he had told production (after) they’d asked for a number what would he need to build and dress these various sets. He based that number on what he had done in the past on various low-budget projects and said something like, “Oh, I don’t know, $10,000 should cover it.” Well, this was a $25 million production, on which every department was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to do their stuff, and they were very surprised when he came back with that number. “Are you sure? That seems pretty low.” He said, “Nope, nope, we should be able to do it for that.” They said, “Well, that’s great!” (laughs) “We’ll finally save some money.” They probably figured he was going to just get surplus stuff. Well, he hired my team, and that was the number he gave us to do this stuff. We said, “This is really impossible.” He said, “Well, I’ll try to get you more. Let’s get started on the first set and see what you can do.” I think that first radio room set probably cost about four or five thousand dollars. It was the cheapest one we did.
We used literally half that budget at that point, but (he) insisted we’d be fine for the rest of the show, and we never were. In a sea of unheard of wealth, we were actually starving through that entire project, reusing stuff, so the War Room set has all kinds of stuff from various radio rooms. We went into a wild panic one day when they ended up extending the submarine scenes because we were planning on tearing the sub apart to recycle stuff from there. I think it was the British sub we had to tear apart in order to recycle stuff for at least the War Room if not two of three other sets just because we literally had no money, and we got no sympathy from anyone else on this because every other department was doing very, very well. So the atmosphere got tense, and the guy who’d hired us, whom nobody liked very much, utterly vanished. He was just never around. He would show up for the occasional production meeting but was never there in the trenches for anything we were actually doing, either in prep or on set. So we would be moaning and complaining and working our 24-hour days up there, recycling our knobs and buttons or whatever whenever possible. We did get the sense that other folks were having fun on that project, though, for what it’s worth.
BH: Now there are a lot of big-name stars who appeared in the film, and since you were on the set often, do you have any memories of people like Glenn Ford or Henry Silva, those sorts of people?
ML: Well, Henry Silva was actually a really interesting guy. He played the nasty villain on that show, which is mainly what he did. I remember him going all the way back to The Outer Limits, playing those kinds of characters, and he turned out to be a sweetie. Just a very nice guy who was utterly unlike the characters he played, but he was very good at playing them. The main memory I have of the actors on that show, apart from very few of them knowing what movie they were on and what was happening at any given time because, again, bear in mind it was such a big, sprawling shoot that went on for so long that most of these guys came in and did their scene or their couple of scenes, again with relatively little direction and without much idea how what they were doing fit into the overall picture. But (I have) two main memories I have of that cast.
One of them was George Kennedy’s floating poker game. In one of the dressing rooms at Kleinberg, tucked in behind one of the sets, George Kennedy had this poker game set up, and guys would show up there who weren’t on the movie. (laughs) Glenn Ford lived at that table. Now he was in the movie, but there were various actors who would literally fly in to play in George’s never-ending poker game, which had apparently been going on for about four productions at that point. The thing had just never wrapped; and there were a couple of actors, including as I recall Kennedy, who would get resentful of being called to set and do something because the cards were hot. (laughs) There was a lot more continuity in that game than there was out on the set.
The other thing that I recall in terms of the cast was Edward James Olmos, who of course would achieve great fame on Miami Vice and currently on Battlestar Galactica, but he was playing a scientist on this film, a character he would almost recreate a few years later in Blade Runner. He was a very nice, very quiet, thoughtful man. One day I entered the stage — I think we were building the War Room at that point, and this beautiful jazz piano is playing over in the corner, and I wasn’t sure if it was a radio or somebody’s tape or what was going on, so I wandered over, and it was Eddie, just sitting and riffing all by himself for about 30 or 40 minutes, during a lunch break. He smiled up and kept playing. Beautiful stuff. I know that’s an odd little memory. (laughs) Obviously not effects-oriented. Sorry about that.
BH: Oh, that’s no problem. I love, actually, the stories about the actors and what they were really like behind the scenes. Do you have any other memories of any of the other people who appeared in the film?
ML: One of my boyhood heroes was Chuck Connors. As I recall, (he) was in Virus for a couple of days. I was a big fan of The Rifleman as a kid, and what we had here was a guy at the end of his career. This was likely the only gig he could get, and he was deeply resentful of it, and that really sort of came across. You had the sense that this was a guy whose career hadn’t quite worked out the way he’d been told it would when he put down the baseball bat and started acting for a living, which I thought was kind of sad.
Well, let’s see. Who else do I remember? It’s amazing, the cast in that movie, actually. I should pick up IMDb and have a look at who all was in there. It was like every other day there was some other major actor who’d once won this award or had done this huge film, and they were all popping in to do a couple of days on this ongoing epic. None of them knew the overall story of the film or where it was going or what was actually going to come out of this. It probably was the first major epic that was shot in Canada. Big, huge, sprawling production, and it really was below-radar. If you weren’t working on it or weren’t aware of it, you just had no sense it was even happening. Oddly enough, I don’t recall any major release for it, either. I actually didn’t see the film for years until someone sent me a really crappy video dub of it. I’ve really never seen it in proper form. I guess I should also point out — not that this actually means anything — but we were doing about two other projects at the same time, as well as starting a massive television series that we’d been trying to set up for about five years, and of course, the way these things tend to work in the industry, it came through literally the same day that we got the contract to do Virus.
So if my memories are hazy, it’s certainly in part because we’re talking about an eight-month period during which I probably slept nine hours total. The TV series we were prepping was going to premiere live in about four weeks or so, down at the far south end of the city, and Virus was shooting about a half an hour north of Toronto, about 40 mies away. We were prepping a live TV series at night, and Virus, of course, shoots during the day. So I would work on Virus until eight or nine at night, and then haul ass down to the TV studio and work all night, then leave there and crawl up to Kleinberg for another day on the Virus set. That went on for weeks. So most of my memory of that entire period — and this has nothing to do with the quality of the project or anything else — most of my memory is pain. (laughs) And at least two bouts of pneumonia for me and my crew while we’re trying to live through that.
BH: Well, one last question about the actors, and I’m just particularly interested in this because I really don’t know anything about what they thought of the movie, but do you have any memories of Robert Vaughn or Glenn Ford?
ML: I don’t know if I actually worked on set with either. I remember seeing Glenn Ford there, but mainly at the poker game. I think Robert Vaughn was at that game as well. Actually, a number of my scenes were done with Bo (Svenson). Bo had this massive sequence where he had to break into the White House and climb down the elevator shaft and blow his way into the War Room after the War Room had been trashed, and that of course was all our stuff. The sets really were fantastic. I know this is an incredibly common thing in Los Angeles, and it’s certainly been my experience in films since this, but this was the very first time I found myself on a show where you can walk into a set that was continuous like the Nostromo on Alien. You walk into the White House through a front door, and there you were.
It was a four-waller with a ceiling. You’d wander through these corridors, through the various hallways, look into various rooms, and the elevator literally was at the back of that set, and as you left that corridor, you ended up in the corridor leading to the War Room set. You could actually have a pretty easy job of convincing yourself you were actually in this environment, which is really, really odd, certainly for Canadian movies where most of the time, you’re on a two-wall set, surrounded by plywood and warehouse walls. The actors didn’t have to rely quite so heavily on imagination as in the average Canadian shoot of the day, which probably meant less time away from the card table. In fact, as I recall that White House set got resurrected over and over and over again. It was used for Murder at 1600. It was used for the pilot of The West Wing, which was shot at Kleinberg, and it still comes up.
It was used in another film that I worked on, Dick. We had to create Washington, D.C., circa 1972, the White House and elsewhere, partially because the producers couldn’t get permission to shoot the real thing (I can’t imagine why), but mostly because the film was set in and around Nixon’s White House in 1972, which was different than the White House of today, and even if you get permission to shoot there, they don’t let you art-direct the place. So we built a 12-scale miniature of the White House and surrounding property among other things, and used motion-control and blue screen opticals to comp the actors into those locations. So we’re back at Kleinberg for the Dick shoot, and it’s the Virus White House! It just kept getting repainted and recycled. As far as I know, it’s still there.
(looks at the cast list) I see Bo here. Bo, as I say, was one of the guys we did most of our stuff with, a very nice guy. Nick Campbell, oh, Nick Campbell has gone on to have a hell of a career. He was the operator of Palmer Station. I think Palmer Station was one of the first sets we built. Chris Wiggins, who I worked with on Friday the 13th a few years after this. Olivia Hussey had, I think, either just won or just been nominated for an Oscar for Romeo and Juliet just a couple of years before this. Cec Linder was an old friend.
Edward James Olmos, we spoke about. Julie Khaner was (in) Videodrome. It’s amazing who was in this movie! I can’t believe this, this list of folks we got! This is the first time I’ve ever actually gone through the cast list, and I’m seeing folks that I knew before and since, who I didn’t necessarily know were there. Larry Reynolds was an old friend from my theater days, and I worked with him thereafter, and I had no idea he was in this movie!
ML: That’s how big the shoot was! Ken Pogue, Chuck Connors, we talked about, Gordon Thompson — wow! This list just goes on and on. Charlie Northcote? Wow. He was my agent for a few years. I didn’t know he was in there, back during his acting days. God, he was on the submarine we built.
ML: (laughs) I’m learning more than you are here! Wow, look at that list. I think the most elaborate set on that show, actually, was one that we didn’t have a great deal to do with, and that was the map that Jock Brandis built, the actual War Room world map. They had the thing lit up in the far corner of the set, and as I recall, Jock had no money on that show, either. (The same set dresser was doing the budgeting.) He wasn’t allowed to do any kind of neon or computer drives (or) any of that good stuff, so he basically built this whole display out of discrete little crystals, glass crystals, each one maybe eight inches long by two inches thick by one inch wide, glued end to end with thin pieces of black cardboard between them, and a light bulb behind each one. He built himself a nail board, so if he wanted to do something along the lines of tracing the path of a missile, he would literally run a wire along the nail board to light up little 3-watt, RU23 light bulbs behind these things, one after another to fake the idea of a computer-driven animated light effect. It was incredibly mechanical and dangerous as hell. But that’s what Jock came up with in order to deliver the goods on that shot, and it looked fantastic!
BH: Well, earlier you talked about Kinji Fukasaku. Do you have any other stories or memories of him?
ML: He was, as I recall, a very intense and jolly fellow, if that makes any sense whatsoever. He seemed to enjoy what he was doing. He was an old-style filmmaker in the sense that we had all kinds of equipment around there, cranes and dollies and so forth, almost none of which he used. If you watch the film, you’ll see that most of it is locked-off shots, big wide shots, sometimes even locked-off close-ups. We would build these very elaborate sets with ramps and places where you could really move a dolly in interesting ways. The mid-‘70s was the start of a golden age of camera moves. Garrett Brown’s Steadicam had just come along, cranes were getting lighter, cameras were getting smaller, and we were designing our sets to take advantage of all that. Kinji would come in and point to a corner and say the Japanese equivalent of “Right there!” and the camera would go on the sticks, and there it would sit. (laughs)
The whole set would be shot from this one angle, and we’d all be absolutely appalled. He would move it over to the other side and call for half our stuff to be shoved just underneath the lens, just kissing the frame really — “Compure!” — so that he had appropriate blinking lights bubbling in every shot. Not having really seen the final film, I couldn’t tell you whether he shot the whole thing that way, but that’s certainly how he shot everything we built. I mentioned that at the time we were mildly appalled, but I’ve aged somewhat since then, and in retrospect I can see his point. I think he was just telling his story without pulling a lot of fancy-schmancy moves, which is certainly a legitimate choice. But at the time my respect for him sort of wavered. It depended upon whether I was watching Tora! Tora! Tora! or The Green Slime. It sure looked like he enjoyed himself, though.
BH: (laughs) Absolutely. Do you have any other memories of the other crew members that you worked with?
ML: It was a large crew. It was an exhausted crew. This was a very tough shoot that went on for a very long time. We started it during an incredibly cold winter in 1980, and we were still working on it when this TV show I was simultaneously doing premiered in the summer of 1980. Hell, most of the crew was sick most of the time. (laughs) There were a lot of colds, a couple of pneumonias, and a lot of people walking around in very heavy coats, hacking and coughing. But I could give you really elaborate anecdotes, oh, about The Last Chase or Videodrome or The Dead Zone or any of these other things that I was really present for the event of, but the sad truth is, Virus demanded relatively little of me – mostly designing, sketching, and endless soldering, while the other stuff we were buried under required far more attention. Virus was one of those rare projects that was really just a time-consuming job, rather than an emotional investment. It was interesting because I’d never seen so massive a production before, and it was challenging and frustrating because we’d never had so small a budget for so much work, but frankly (it) was not the major thing I was working on at that particular point in my career. It was this thing that was taking a lot of time away from the major stuff I was working on. Boy, that sounds terrible, but that’s how it was.
BH: Was producer Haruki Kadokawa on the set at all?
ML: I’m sure he was, but I can’t give you details because it was so far beyond my purview. There was a bit of a demarcation between the Japanese filmmakers and us Canadian jerks who were basically hired to hammer the nails, place the lights, and make all this stuff happen. The Japanese folks were a huddled group who would talk to us through translators whenever it was regrettably necessary to talk to us. (laughs) Viewing it from my current perspective, I can guess it must have been very hard for them. We were just the local crew on one of their many locations. They were shooting in the Arctic. I think they were in Sweden. It was this kind of worldwide thing, and they came and parked in Kleinberg for six or eight months to do the studio stuff. We were just the locals.
BH: All right, and before we wrap up, do you have any closing comments or stories or just anything else you’d like to add?
ML: Well, I’m sorry you’ve asked me about the one film I have so few memories of, largely because I was barely awake through so much of it. It was a very, very tough show, but not for the usual or even any logical reasons. It was a tough show because of everything else that was going on for us at the time, and again the fact that in the midst of this great wealth — my God, the wrap party went on for three days (laughs) — we had so little in terms of resources to work with that we were swiping things from our basements, stuff from earlier shows — I think I even brought stuff in from the TV series we were prepping — just to have something to shoot. Virus was this endless, huge, fascinating, demanding project with every actor of my childhood, wandering through there at one time or another, just trying to get their scenes out so they can get to dressing room 7, and get back to the poker game.
Postscript: After the interview was conducted, Mr. Lennick contacted me via e-mail and added:
“During our discussion, I think I made mention of my crew, a bunch of talented irregulars who worked with me on most of those projects back in the day. Going through some old files I’ve discovered that I only had one full-time guy with me on Virus, and I probably didn’t even give you his name. I’d like to correct that now.
“My assistant on Virus was my good friend Robert Sher, who is now a production designer doing features, TV movies, and series in Toronto. Bobby worked the same horrible hours under the same conditions and with the same budgetary problems as I did, and since he didn’t have to schlep down to a TV studio every evening I’m sure he worked even harder than I did on Virus. He was largely responsible for the physical construction of many of those panels, and very little of that stuff would have worked (or even been ready when the crew showed up to shoot) without his efforts and endless (and under the circumstances largely incomprehensible) good cheer. Please don’t neglect Bobby’s invaluable contribution in anything you write about our department. Thanks.”