On the upcoming 2nd anniversary of the film (and the 31st of Exodus’ debut party!) I thought I might share a re-mastered version of the original. Here is the 4K version of The Legend of 23 Hop. This one contains actual footage from inside the venue which was only discovered a few months after the first release. I also wanted to share that I have donated this film alongside Back To The Zone – which also got the 4K treatment – to the City of Toronto Archives. Both films will eventually be a part of Toronto’s permanent historical archives for years to come – look out for an official announcement in the next few months. Thanks to everyone that helped make this, and to everyone else for watching and supporting. I’ll include both films at the end of this post, scroll down if you want to check them out now. If you’re interested in reading a little more about how I made these films, or why, continue reading.
How I Made This, and Why.
Leaside was the first Toronto neighbourhood I landed in after being kidnapped by my parents and thrown into the backseat of a dark blue coloured 1985 Caprice Classic. They were fleeing the language laws of Quebec in the early 80s. The escape route was along the unbearable highway of 401 boredom; a long stretch of concrete duct taped together by Petro-Canada gas stations peppered with McDonalds and Swiss Chalet accoutrements.
We finally found ourselves at the end of our seven hour journey in perfectly manicured tree lined streets as orderly as they once were when it was originally designed for Royal Canadian Air Force personnel. Leaside was a suburb situated in the East York borough of Toronto and in the 80s thought of as an ideal place for middle class families to set up shop. It still is today. Naturally, as an 11 year old boy, I found it dull and miserable.
Shortly after this move, I reluctantly made my way to the grade five home room on the second floor at St. Anselm’s; a Catholic elementary school located a mere block away from our new digs on Bessborough Drive. I stumbled into class clasping a maroon briefcase completely unprepared for my new life. The weather beaten case was a hand me down from my father, and in of itself was unremarkable. It would not have seemed out of place from the french speaking school I attended in Lachine. my former abode on the outskirts of Montreal. But in the decidedly more casually attired confines of grade school in Toronto, it did more than raise eyebrows. I was known as the guy with the briefcase for years to follow. It was that day that I learned how essential conformity was to survival in the Big Smoke.
About a year later, my parents separated. I was not only the weird kid with the briefcase from Montreal – I was now the weird kid raised by a single mother – an Irish Catholic immigrant to boot. I often found myself having trouble fitting in with the still largely conservative, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority that 1980s Toronto still seemed to be ruled by. Although the city was gradually establishing itself as the new economic powerhouse of Canada and attracting a large immigrant population, it took some time for it to learn to embrace diversity. Casual sexism, homophobia and racism was still commonplace in daily life.
It was not until my final year of high school in 1993 that I first discovered underground culture. It was a rave event that featured a DJ competition which was held at the Latvian House on College street. The experience was the only time I felt I belonged. Adolescent pangs of anxiety and depression that I had been experiencing would get decimated with each pounding, earth quaking bass line. I found that the music and it’s community offered me the best readily available antidepressant I could possibly hope for.
Under the collective canopy of sweat, artificial fog and strobe lights, the loneliness and disconnection that had been weighing so heavily on me was evaporated with each smile, handshake and hug from like minded misfits. I had finally discovered a community that was warm, non-judgmental, empathetic and completely off the wall bonkers. It was heaven. This pivotal time felt important and I knew I always wanted to document it in some form or another. I would continue to attend rave events alongside warehouse parties for years to come.
After high school, when I wasn’t on the dance floor, I was working as a gallery assistant in several artist run galleries. Soon after, I studied graphic design at the International Academy of design and technology. I began working for several television shows as a designer. When the planes crashed into the twin towers in New York and the dot com bubble burst a short while later, the TV show I was working on got the can. I made the decision to finally pull the trigger. A night course at Ryerson University in multimedia steeled my nerves enough to pick up a camera. How hard could shooting a documentary possibly be?, I naively thought.
The initial research phase for my project involved scouring bookstores, libraries and internet blogs. I gobbled up every documentary I could on blues, rock n roll, punk rock, hip hop and electronic music. I was struck with parallels between distinct genres. The D.I.Y. aesthetic was a large part of each genre’s development. I would learn to adopt that same methodology in making my own films.
I launched the production phase of the process around 2004. I was lucky to know several people (James Applegath, Yasna Mora and Marla Rotenberg, to name a few) well steeped in the relatively snug scenes who were able to put in a good word and connect me with the right players. With their help, I was gradually able to discover original, rare footage and secure interviews by sending an incalculable amount of emails, phone calls and texts.
I stayed up late on stakeouts to chase down leads inside bars, night clubs, back alley booze cans or dilapidated warehouses. I stalked DJs, cornered musicians and harassed promoters. I set up interviews with music journalists, club owners, promoters and scenesters that were instrumental in Toronto’s underground music scenes. Sometimes they showed up, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the interview did not happen for years. Patience, I learned, often paid off in documentary filmmaking.
In the first few years, I hired camera operators with their own equipment; most notably Jim Morrison and Chris Wardle. We would pile into my Mom’s Volvo to track down our interviewees. After some time, I realized I could not continue to afford to pay camera crews out of pocket. I eventually saved up some money to purchase my own camera. My first was a handheld, HD camcorder style camera with a flip screen from someone I met off Craigslist. Later on, I upgraded to a Canon DSLR and a Røde shotgun microphone. My sound technician and collaborator Buck Moore, supplied me with a camera case backpack. This made the process much simpler – I could hop on my beat up fixed gear bike (also purchased off Craigslist) and throw my camera gear into a backpack and speed off into the night.
It was often a long, horribly tedious and nerve wracking process. I made many mistakes. I recall my camera running out of power while interviewing a top DJ. I waited for him to finish a few thoughts before assuring him, that we got what we needed. I remembered to always carry extra batteries after that one. I remember trying to explain to my wife (who had unwittingly become my accomplice) while we were driving in a snowstorm to New York City that I had not actually secured the interview with David Morales, but it would probably happen. (It did, thankfully). The largest misstep was perhaps not realizing how long this project would take, how to tell the story or how to pay for it all. Well, that’s technically three missteps, isn’t it? There were many more, I assure you. I went through long periods of depression and anxiety fearing that I may not ever be able to finish or worse yet; that the final result would be terrible.
I took a grant writing course at Charles Street Video which helped secure a micro grant from the Toronto Arts Council. I was never able to secure funding from anywhere else – outside of a fledgling Indiegogo campaign. The majority of the film’s expenses was paid for by working dead end jobs for small businesses. As a driver for a community newspaper consortium, as a caterer for film and television and as a courier for a few high end florists. It was tough, often brutal work for near minimum wage pay, but I felt I needed to work somewhere non-creative in order to have sufficient juice for what really mattered to me.
It was only after being well into production that I realized I needed to find structure and narrative within my films. At the time I was living in a studio apartment behind a used furniture store around Queen and Broadview. I began printing out paper edits of the project and taping them with yellow electrical tape to the wall. It would resemble the same type of diagram that obsessed FBI agents illustrate investigations using red string and push pins. There was no doubt about it – I was just as crazed. But after nearly twenty years, I finally came out with something I feel proud of. More importantly, I think the films represent something that the whole city can feel a sense pride for.
Toronto is often known to disguise itself in Hollywood movies. It always seemed to be pretending to be something, somewhere else. But the underground scene for me and everyone else involved was the centre of our universe. I think of 23 Hop and the Twilight Zone as more than clubs. They were laboratories that used music, fashion and style as compound chemicals mixed in with elements of diversity, culture and sexuality. The results of these experiments are long lasting. They were more than memories for people like us. They helped make what Toronto is today.
Featured, top photograph courtesy Chris Gray