[On 6 July 2006, I visited the legendary Canadian bank robber and author Stephen Reid in prison on Vancouver Island to discuss adapting his 1986 novel Jackrabbit Parole for the screen. Here are my notes from that visit. Swing low, sweet squad car, and rest in peace, Stephen.]
Driving along the winding green trail through Sidney and Metchosin toward the William Head Institution, one must keep all faculties alert. A search for a radio station, or single glance at the map – which is always folded around the wrong way – could see you well into the trees. Stephen Reid was somewhere in there. I wondered if and/or how much he was anticipating our meeting? Had he done this sort of thing before; known all the right buttons to push, the right stories to tell? I entered the parking lot fifteen minutes early, leaving the rental in a far-away space, no other cars on either side, front or back. A white bubble-wrapped Toyota. A single-serving soul-sucking teleportation device for the up-start capitalist and travelers on a budget. Or perhaps a bank robbery. Sure, these inconspicuous little cars that looked just like every other car would have been ideal for two, maybe three guys who wanted no attention. But what do I know about fleeing police pursuit? I was about to find out. Johnny Cash’s new (posthumous) single was rotating on rock radio – “God’s Gonna’ Cut You Down”. I couldn’t come up with anything better than that. At any rate, it would have been fiction.
I put my smaller possessions – keys, cards – in a locker, and proceeded through the metal detector, assisted by good-natured cops. At a whopping 125lbs, they knew I posed no threat to anyone; except perhaps to myself. I brought things like chocolate, juice made from berries, cigarettes. I had a copy of the novel which one of the guards referred to as something Reid had written “Once upon a time”. They wouldn’t allow cameras, tape recorders, laptops. I had my notebook, like some pimply high-school newspaper reporter. Fuck. The visiting-and-correspondence officer informed me that he was in the shower, and would be around shortly. I sat waiting at a table in what looked more like a heavily guarded cafeteria than a prison visitation area. Lunchrooms for naughty little boys who couldn’t sit still. I’m not sure what I expected from prison, but there weren’t any cells with guys exchanging messages with mirrors and matchsticks – at least not that they would let the general public see. However, there were still chicken-wire fences and towers where, presumably, armed guards stood to keep watch. I wonder what would prompt being fired upon?
He rolled around the corner so effortlessly, wearing sunglasses, and slightly heftier than in previous photos I’d seen. Was I just another victim, fallen prey to a more intelligent marketing scheme?
After the obligatory handshakes and pleasantries, we talked. It didn’t occur to me, but he began initially with his family: Sophie, who was seventeen. Her boyfriend had been causing problems for the family. He suffered a head injury, and his behavior worsened when he drank. Associates of Stephen’s, who he’d managed to contact from the inside, had apparently removed him from the family property. But Sophie persisted. That’s what seventeen-year-old girls do, especially when their father has been arrested, and is now doing time for bank-robbery and attempted murder. The outlaw energy is apparently quite attractive.
Sitting outside for a cigarette, he talked about the wildlife on the property of the prison – there were sixteen deer that inhabited the area, he said, and we witnessed a raccoon chasing a rabbit beyond the hedges and into a thick patch of brush. Stephen said that the Creator didn’t give raccoons a mask for nothing. Another jackrabbit, paroled. We sat at a picnic bench and smoked, talking about his daughters, art, drugs; I wondered how such a gentle creature could have perpetrated such undertakings? He was once of a rare breed of high-energy young men, swept up by the adrenaline and the thrill. What was the sheer thrill like? I didn’t ask direct questions, I let him lead the conversation.
He told me that heroin was comfort for him – the place where he could be alone and away from any pain and bad memories. I told him that heroin was death for me, or as close as I could get to it. I wondered if prison was the same comfort that heroin had once afforded him. The William Head Institution was a very safe environment, for a prison, very beautiful – colloquially called “Club Fed”. And unlike narcotic stupor, he seemed to be in complete control of it. The other inmates treated him with respect bordering upon reverence, as did many of the guards. He was the inverted professor of the William Head Institution Underworld. I got the feeling I could have stayed on for a PhD.
Was he a back-biter? A bald-faced liar? I couldn’t think so. There was something defeated in his eyes, a spark that was conspicuously missing since being sentenced for the last time in 1999. I was sorry, or at least empathetic. Whose fault was it that he was there? It was ostensibly his – he had robbed a bank in his own community, breaking his own rules, firing round after round at perusing police officers. His daughter ended up dating one of the officer’s sons – a cruel, ironic twist of real-life fate, almost inescapable in a small community on Vancouver Island. The claustrophobic Canadian element was all around us, like the water that surrounded the prison, on all fronts. There was obviously nowhere to go. Stephen had written about messages washing up on the shore – once appearing in such an arcane container as a pink vibrator. This was the connection to the outside world for him – and those lucky bastards who obtain fishing licenses, casting off the wharf jutting out into the lonely bay. Stephen had a connection to the land that I could never understand. B.C. was his landed home – like Alberta, for me. His roots were deeply embedded into the soil – this soil. He explained how this land had been used before White settlers, as a banishing area where those ostracized would be cast a-sea in a birch canoe for unspeakable crimes against the community. Had the function of the land changed in years, generations?
If so, was it getting better? Was there a chance for Stephen Reid to rejoin his family and live on the Queen Charlotte Islands like Susan has said was the intention? I hoped so – that’s why I was there. I wanted for him to have an honest legacy, even if it was founded upon thieving from federal banking institutions. In all honesty, who hasn’t wanted to take down a bank, especially now with the automated tellers, the tear-jerking commercials, the endless telephone menus? Who were we to judge?
When we re-entered the prison cafeteria, our conversation took a more subdued turn, although it did not seem apparent that we were being listened to. Melanie was flirting with her co-worker behind bars and sheets of bulletproof glass. It seemed that the guards were – for the time they were at work – just as much prisoners as the convicts. What person would take this job? But Melanie was sweet as they come, and she was sweet on Stephen too. He winked at me as his head nodded toward her armed cubicle – “I can’t let you leave with this script, otherwise I’ll have to tug my bangs, and bashfully ask her permission.”
He spoke softly, almost inaudibly over the sound of the television in the corner. A young couple – the guy probably doing time for drugs or theft – was watching ultimate fighting. He was a tough kid, baggy jeans, tight t-shirt, tight brown curls. She wore streaked blonde hair and pink camouflage capris. I wondered what natural environment she would be camouflaged in – our own, I concluded. They were hamming up this dramatic moment together. The young man probably just made a mistake. Stephen made at least 150 mistakes that the authorities could make stick. And he was 56 years old – as old as my own father, who recently bought a new rolling home for his prosperity to tour the free world. The aspirations were the same, only the means of acquisition opposed radically.
Stephen had been abused as a child. A family doctor in Northern Ontario had taken advantage of a common illness by administering subcutaneous injections of morphine, followed by 20cc’s of semen. This continued until he had developed a habit for opiates, before reaching his 11th birthday. His daughter Sophie had also found altered states before the teenage years; years which for so many others were constituted by the awkward talk from parents about menstruation, boys, and maybe smoking cigarettes in back alleys during gym class. But these were the girls of Stephen’s generation – Sophie was of this time, and a place on an Island so far removed and insulated, almost as much as that prison. This was a place where it seemed so easy to become entangled in those dramas, which enslave the spirit. Here was a man who was quite literally housed in his, unable to escape the choices that he made in the face of the world he inhabited. I asked nothing more about Sophie.
Charlotte was living on the islands that bear her name, and “spinning” records. Stephen wasn’t sure of the terminology, but when I corrected him, he was grateful, and said that it would be good for him to remember. Like wining points for street credibility with your children. At least he took an interest. She seemed to feel less the affect of living with an imprisoned father and a famous mother. According to Reid, she was a beautiful kid – sexy like Susan – who now ate organic food and twisted herself into pretzel-like positions. It wasn’t too long before restlessly, I nudged the conversation toward the novel. I wanted to know what and how much was true, and if I could confidently move forward with his blessing.
He had brought a script measuring 120 pages, and flopped it down nonchalantly upon the visiting table in front of us. It looked just like a script, bound by metallic pins, which buckled out to keep the stack in place. It began with a fade from white, and featured a significant amount of voice over on the first page; dialogue which intends to privilege the spectator with the inner mind of the protagonist, but ends up cheaply giving away the mode of storytelling, insulting both author and audience. I knew I could do better. Stephen thought so too – otherwise they wouldn’t have contacted me. It appeared highly unlikely that, bored as Reid may be behind bars, he would allow me to fill out the paperwork and travel to such lengths to discuss a project that he didn’t want to happen.
I recalled Susan’s voice upon our first telephone conversation. There was something manic in her tone and pace of speech. She seemed less bothered when I informed her dutifully that I had only just graduated from film school and didn’t have any money. What bothered her more was the possibility that I was just another liar who wouldn’t follow through. She sounded genuinely hurt when I mentioned, almost accidentally, that I had made the remark about Reid’s novel offhandedly in an online interview. Accusingly, she remarked: “So you were just joking about this”? I assured her that I wasn’t, and from that moment forward, ensured that she understood – and made Stephen understand – that I was not joking. They were not (com)oddities, and their story is still awfully real and painfully true.
There was one particular thread with which I was obsessed as a point of entry into the narrative of Jackrabbit Parole: the robbery, which despite every bungled routine, and beset by every black omen, did not end in their arrest. It was the blurb on the first page of my edition, meant to hook the perusing reader into the style, and story. On one of their scores, they had simply driven – all ski masks and duffle bags – right past (and I mean right past) a patrol car on their way out from a back alley behind the bank that was recently made their victim. Stephen used two cigarettes on the table as a visual aid to illustrate how he had been graced similar fortune. Minutes following a job in Ottawa, they doubled back toward the bank in order to at once confuse any passing authorities, and morbidly survey the carnage of their own score. And there, right on a two-way street in the middle of downtown Ottawa was a sedan-full of bank robbers, passing a lone black & white cruiser headed in the opposite direction. Both sides were analogously aware of each other, but neither side made the first move. How was it possible that they were not apprehended – that the pig didn’t take them in a hail of lawman lead? I supposed that if I were a cop – the first to arrive upon the scene of a high profile, and very possibly violent crime scene – I would protect my own ass too. Maybe he was a rookie; maybe he was ready to retire to the manufactured home and the missus. How their luck could have been altered if that cop had read too much Raymond Chandler and decided to play greatest American hero? I wanted to begin with this ‘scene’. Reid said that he too wrote from the inside out, and liked the idea of plotting that strand of story right in at the beginning. We were off to a good start. He elaborated that this particular incident occurred for his father in France during WWII, whereby their battalion stumbled upon a squadron of German soldiers in the dead of night. He described the darkness from beneath his handlebar moustache, and further under his breath: it was so dark that before they became mutually aware, they were quite literally on top of each other. But neither side fired a shot. They just kept moving into the blackness, like ships in the night, not even making so much as eye contact. Some men are now alive because of that.
He didn’t have many questions for me. He asked what my parents did, and was interested in my recent graduation and awards. I knew it made him happy that a man, who could be his son, took an interest in his life’s work. He asked me what ‘experimental’ film meant, which found me answering questions that I hadn’t anticipated. In art school, should some lame-brain ask you anything about your ‘Art’, the proper response was to flail arms wildly and pull out some socialist defense like a tapeworm from the nether-regions. But I wasn’t out to defend, and what I had there in the room – body, mind, spirit, notebook, cigarettes – was, in all honesty, all I had. I wanted all the intellectual bullshit I’d read about and seen in film school: narrative intransivity, jump-cutting, rock’n’roll, starting from inside the story – tones and colours rather than dialogue and characters. Sound. Surreal poetic realism. I talked about using different formats (super-8, cheap surveillance video cams, super-16), and different filmmakers, and their films upon which I drew instruction. He carefully, thoughtfully picked up what I was laying down – he read my mail. He loved the characterizations of Guy Ritchie’s films, and of course, I brought up GoodFellas. We batted Oliver Stone around like a ping-pong ball, and Stephen mentioned Jonathan Demme as the intended director for ‘The Stopwatch Gang’, the Columbia Tri-Star (un)release. According to Reid, the demand dropped out for true-crime action films after 9/11. Truth be (probably) told, there are a zillion reasons for the American market to lose interest, not least of which was the lack of gunshots and bloodshed. But how ‘bout us Canucks though, eh?
Stephen said he loved the Trailer Park Boys, and they loved him. I could see our minds synching at that point, realizing that the idea of “Stephen Reid’s Jackrabbit Parole” wasn’t that far-fetched. He knew Bubbles, and we again found common ground on the cheap (Canadian) aesthetic of reality-based pseudo-documentary. The lobes were humming. I could sense the spark of enthusiasm and creativity coming from two guys scheming around a jailhouse. In glaring retrospect, we really should have been passing shanks and dope under the brown arborite-covered tabletop. But for Reid, I knew those days were well over; for me they would never begin. But secretly, I did wish that he would have his escape plotted and planned by the time I’d arrived – all he needed for me to do was pull the rental around front, and peel away seconds later, at top Toyota speed. The cat was charismatic, and I could see how he inspired confidence, and the love of true poets.
I did ask if he kept in contact with any of the old crew. Paddy is still in Leavenworth, suffering from throat and lung cancer, ready for St. Peter’s scolding any day now. XXXXXXX lives in XXXXXXX, opting for a quiet life as an XXXXXXX. Stephen is suffering stoically, attending AA meetings and powwows when he gets the permission. It somehow doesn’t seem fair that such a Canadian icon should be caged this way – that an institution should be institutionalized. But I guess he had his chances. That doesn’t mean, though, that his family loves or needs him any less. What seems more fitting is that we go to Canada Council and Telefilm and the rest of those fuckers, and take them for what they’ve got. It would just be so fitting for the Canadian Government to fund this film – as a final exclamation mark on the most successful organized, though independent gang in Canadian history. And with the provincial expenditures on the Trailer Park Boys et al., it’s not that far a stretch. Mr. Reid, as I was leaving, said he hoped that we could attend the premier of this film, together, at some festival somewhere. I hoped so too, but there were 15 million little steps – like so many illegally obtained notes of legal tender – between those two days. I took exactly 77 steps to the Toyota, and started back home.
[The last time I heard from Stephen was in 2015 when he emailed to let me know that he’d finally sold the Jackrabbit Parole rights to a TV producer in Toronto. “Thanks for your continued support and enthusiasm,” he wrote. “JR will make the screen some day.”
To be continued…]