This week, the gang at How Did This Get Made? covered The Peanut Butter Solution, a mid-80s children’s fantasy film about a suddenly-bald 11-year-old boy who uses a peanut-butter-powered magic potion to try and grow his hair back
The key to understanding The Peanut Butter Solution is Rock Demers—the French-speaking, Canadian producer whose beloved Reading–Rainbow-like “Tales for All” series of films has been captivating children around the world since 1985. The same year, in fact, that The Peanut Butter Solution came out. So to get to the bottom of that film, as well as understand how it fit into his Tales for All vision, I spoke with Mr. Demers.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: the interview below has been lightly edited for clarity]
PART 1: The Solution? Peanut Butter
ROCK DEMERS: Unfortunately, I have to ask you to speak very slowly because my English—as you can see—is not fluent.
BJH: No problem!
ROCK DEMERS: Thank you.
BJH: I’m very curious to talk about your “Tales for All” films. But let’s begin by talking a bit about The Peanut Butter Solution. How did the project come together?
ROCK DEMERS: The director is Michael Rubbo. And Michael Rubbo at that time in the early 80s had a son of eight or nine years old. Michael was living alone with his son and every evening his son was asking his dad to read him a story. And one day he said, “Dad, instead of reading in a book, why don’t you invent a story for me?”
BJH: That’s great!
ROCK DEMERS: So Michael invented the story of Peanut Butter Solution. So: the boy went to sleep and he kept asking his father to read stories…and [kept saying to his father] “tell me that story about Peanut Butter!”
ROCK DEMERS: And once-twice-ten-times he asked his father from time to time to tell him again and Michael decided to put it in writing [in the form of a 15-page outline] and he had heard that I was starting my series of Tales for All. And he was working at the National Screen Board of Canada at the time, and he asked one of the producers there to get in touch with me and to introduce to me his 15-pages and see if that could be turned out into a movie. So that’s the really the beginning of that adventure.
BJH: That’s great. And when you read those 15 pages…what did you find fascinating about the story? What appealed to you?
ROCK DEMERS: What appealed to me?
ROCK DEMERS: It was…I would say a gentle frightening film. The ‘frightening’ aspect is, as you know, very appealing to kids. But given the age it has to be ‘gentle.’ And for me that was very gentle while frightening. So I thought that was interesting. And being from French-Canada, my first film had to be shot in French (it was The Dog Who Stopped the War). And I had decided that my second film—being Canadian—would be shot in English.
ROCK DEMERS: And then, being a citizen of the world, my third film would be shot in another country, another language; so the third one was The Young Magician shot in Poland. So I kept shooting in French and in English and in other languages. I went to China; to Czechoslovakia; to Romania; to Argentina; to Iceland; to England…and always coming back with a story in French written by a French-Canadian written in the meantime. And it gives, I think, a kind of international flavor to the 26 films that were made up to now [for the Tales for All series].
Demers mentions that a recent Blu-Ray release of The Peanut Butter Solution includes a lot of commentary from him about the making of the film; and suggests that for specific questions about the movie I watch that commentary (and offers to answer any remaining questions afterwards).
So instead of talking more about PB-oriented solutions, we conclude by talking about the origins and impact of his “Tales for All” films…
PART 2: “Life is fickle, but it is so worthwhile”
BJH: So where, originally, did the idea for “Tales for All” comes from?
ROCK DEMERS: I was 50 years old…
So this would have been in 1985 (two years before producing his first movie).
ROCK DEMERS: It was Saturday morning. I was sitting in my living room and reading a newspaper. And suddenly I saw an article about kids under 15 years old that were committing suicide.
ROCK DEMERS: And that struck me so much. I said: no! That is impossible! Life is fickle, but it is so worthwhile. What could I do with my experience of life to convince a few of them not to pass to the act. So I started developing the concept for what became Tales for All.
“Tales for All,”—or, in French “Conte pour Tous”—is a beloved, child-or-young-adult-focused series of French-Canadian films (all produced by Rock Demers). The first film in this series was the 1985 hit, The Dog Who Stopped the War. Since then, Demers has produced over two dozen films under the “Tales for All” banner.
BJH: Although your Tales for All films span many different genres and tell very different stories, there does seem to be a common thread throughout the films. A common feeling, you know? A sort of innocence, and sense of imagination.
ROCK DEMERS: Yes
BJH: So I’ve seen a few [of your Tales for All films] and I sense that common thread.
ROCK DEMERS: Oh? You’ve seen a few?
BJH: Yeah, I saw The Dog Who Stopped the War. That I saw as a kid, actually. And then I saw The Young Magician and I think there was one other (whose name I can’t recall). Anyway, I love the feeling. Those films felt so “pure” and “innocent” and “imaginative.”
ROCK DEMERS: Yes, thank you…
BJH: So I was curious how, exactly, you were able to create and maintain that sensibility?
ROCK DEMERS: There are basic “principles” [to Demer’s “Tales for All” films]. It needs to be a contemporary story—no science fiction; no historical—always contemporary because the main character in the film is between 10 and 13 years old and at that age in life we want to learn as much as possible about the environment. So to have contemporary story was very important for me. [I also stress] the importance of nature. The importance, even if it’s a sad story or a sad moment, the importance to have a big smile from time to time. And one very important thing for me: I never wanted the story to be based on the battle between “good” and “evil.” I don’t want the suspense coming from that battle between good and evil. For me, that was a center.
BJH: That’s really interesting.
ROCK DEMERS: So always contemporary stories…and without saying anything, [yet still] saying something important. Nature, very important. Some films very realistic; other films using more imagination. And no unjustified violence. So a certain number of concepts like that. And I can say that in China, or in Russia, or in USA or in Canada, when somebody sees a Tales for All, they know it without knowing that they are watching a Tales for All!
ROCK DEMERS: So with principles like that…I let people around me know that I was looking for subjects in those moods; in those areas. I did not know if anyone would be interested to present me a project. But within three months, I received about 60 proposals.
ROCK DEMERS: I read all of them and kept five. And out of the five, I decided that the first one would be The Dog that Stopped the War. And if that film does not work, I will stop there. But if it does work, I will be ready with The Peanut Butter Solution. I decided to develop those five films together because I know that it takes about 3-4 years from an idea to a script to a film to a launch of the film. And I didn’t want, if the film would be a success, to wait 3-4 years to come with the second one because the impact would be lost. So I was ready to go right away. And fortunately for me, the first one was a great success.
BJH: And fortunately for me too!
ROCK DEMERS: For you too? [laughs]
BJH: Yes! In fact…so, okay, I imagine that there are millions of people out there who, like me, have been moved by a Tales for All film at one point or another. Can you tell me about some of your favorite reactions that you’ve received from viewers?
ROCK DEMERS: Yes.
[Author’s Note: If you read just ONE part of the interview, read this part below…]
ROCK DEMERS: One day I was walking alone on the street in Montreal. And then on the other side of the street, on the sidewalk, two young people—a boy and a girl; I would say about 16-17 years old—with very strange clothes and colored hair and many earrings. [struggles to find the proper words] They were quite “frightening” in a certain way. And then those two young people were suddenly looking at me and they decided to cross the street and came to me. And I was kind of scared for a moment. And they took me in their hand and said, “you have saved our lives. Six months ago, we had decided to commit suicide. And then we saw your film, Summer of the Gold, and then we decided to keep living.”
BJH: [blown away] Rock, I have goosebumps hearing you tell the story. I can’t imagine what it was like for you. So what did you say to them? How did the rest of the conversation go? That’s so special.
ROCK DEMERS: I invited them to have a coffee. Because there were many restaurants on that street. And they talked about their… “anguish.” Is that an English word? The anguish of living in a small city. They told me more about their stories. The girl’s father had raped her when she was younger. And the boy’s father was drinking. And so they didn’t see, really, things worthwhile in keeping living. But with…have you seen Summer with the Ghosts shot in Argentina?
BJH: No, I have not.
ROCK DEMERS: That’s a great one. They had seen that one. And then they decided to keep going.
BJH: That’s obviously and extraordinary and very gratifying reaction. To know that you influence people in that way. In fact, that you actually achieved your [original] goal. But what are some of your other favorite reactions that viewers have to the kinds of movies you have been making?
ROCK DEMERS: Since you have seen The Dog Who Stopped the War…when we launched the film in Quebec, in the city of Sherbrooke, one little boy of eight years old went to see the film with his father. And they were in the balcony of the theater. And at the end of the film, the boy asked his father: could we see the film again; but from the orchestra downstairs. The father said, “Why?” [The boy said] “I want to know if when we are downstairs the dog still dies.”
BJH: Awwwww. So cute.
ROCK DEMERS: [laughs] So that was quite fantastic for me.
BJH: That’s wonderful. Let just ask you one last question: what about…when you were eight years old, or around that age, did you have special films that you felt so connected to?
ROCK DEMERS: I am a boy from the countryside. I was born on a farm in a very small village. And I saw my first film when I was…9 years old. And it was a propaganda film to convince Canadians to enroll and go to the war.
ROCK DEMERS: laughing] In the early 40s. And that film was shown outside in front of a church with a wide linen serving as a screen to show the film. But I was very, very impressed. And later on, at about 17, I came to Montreal for the first time. To live with one of my Uncle. And the second day I was in Montreal that Uncle invited to go to see a film with him. And that was Annie Get Your Gun with Judy Garland. And I was so impressed with that film that [throughout the rest of my life] I have probably seen all musicals ever made.
ROCK DEMERS: And I wanted that there would be a musical as part of my Tales for All. And there was one and it is Regína and it was co-produced with Iceland. And the people that composed the music and the songs worked with Bjork. You’ve heard of Bjork?
BJH: Yes! Of course! I’ve heard of Bjork.
ROCK DEMERS: Yeah, that was her gang that were doing the songs and wrote the music in the film.
BJH: That’s great. Thank you so much for your time, Rock. This put a smile on my face.
ROCK DEMERS: Okay, wonderful. All the best. Bye.
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