The Untold Story of “Slaughter Nick for President”

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Rob Stewart as beach-bum detective Nick Slaughter, with Carolyn Dunn in “Tropical Heat” AKA “Sweating Bullets”

 

The indy documentary, “Slaughter Nick For President” follows Canadian actor Rob Stewart (most well-known for playing the ruthless assassin Roan on “Nikita”) on a trip to the Eastern European nation of Serbia, where he is a huge celebrity because of a TV role he played in the 1990s.

The Canadian late-night crime show “Tropical Heat” (aired in the USA as “Sweating Bullets”) followed the tongue-in-cheek exploits of beach-bum detective Nick Slaughter, as he solved crimes on a fictional resort island. Unbeknownst to anyone involved with the production, the show aired in Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, where it become an enormous cultural phenomenon, and inspired a generation of political activists.

In “Slaughter Nick For President,” Stewart and his friends, siblings Liza Vespi and Marc Vespi, travel to Serbia and try to figure out why “Tropical Heat” and Stewart’s character, Nick Slaughter, are so immensely popular. “Slaughter Nick For President” is available for instant viewing on Amazon and iTunes, as well as on Google Play, Vudu and DVD.

Fortunately for CrewOfOne readers, the film’s Executive Producer/Producer/Co-Director Liza Vespi was kind enough to talk to me about this truly one-of-a-kind project.

Backstage at the To Be Punk Festival, June 2009, Novi Sad, Serbia.

Producer/Co-Director Liza Vespi (middle) with Belgrade Co-Producers Verica Andrejic (left) and Dragana Tesic (right) backstage at the To Be Punk Festival, June 2009, Novi Sad, Serbia.

Q&A With “Slaughter Nick For President” Producer/Co-Director Liza Vespi

Liza, in the film, Rob explains that he and Marc had been friends since childhood, but that at the time this project got started, both men had fallen on hard times and were living in their parents’ basements. What convinced you that these guys – and this project – could be successful?

I think that when a fully-formed, compelling story comes your way, as an artist and storyteller, you simply have to listen to your intuition and then gather up the courage to charge ahead. So when Rob forwarded me that very first email from the administrator of the Serbian Facebook group devoted to Nick Slaughter I knew that there was a delicious sweet spot in the story. It was truly extraordinary and after the the three of us discussed it, we knew that the story needed to be told as a documentary. None of us had had any knowledge of the peace movement in Serbia — it was never reported in the Western media — and so we felt an obligation to get this inspiring story out into the wider world.

You, Marc and Rob are Canadian, but the film is listed as a Canadian/Serbian production, and most of the crew have foreign-looking names. How did you pull together such an international effort to get this film made?

Once the three of us had committed to doing the project, Marc set about getting in contact with the punk band Atheist Rap who’d written the song “Nick Slaughter, Serbia Hails You”. After convincing them that, yes, this was the real Rob Stewart, the band’s manager told us that there was an upcoming 20th Anniversary concert being planned in Novi Sad, Serbia, and that if we were able to get over there, Rob could perform the eponymous song on stage with the band. We needed a local crew and the band recommended a Belgrade production company headed up by Bane Antovic. The race was on. We had less than 6 months to raise enough funds, do our research and complete pre-production. Bane’s company ended up being the perfect crew for us as they had covered the student protest movement in the ’90s and had connections to student leader Srdja Popovic and other key people in the media.

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Rob Stewart good-naturedly cooperating with an absurd Serbian commercial production.

As a commercial director, I was very amused by the scene in which Rob stars in an outlandish Serbian TV spot for what appear to be black-market harddrives. Did you ever figure out what that product actually was, and is the finished commercial online anywhere?

Full disclosure. That scene was a genius set-up by Marc as an homage to “Lost in Translation,” essentially. Unbeknownst to Rob, Marc had contacted the Belgrade crew to ask them to arrange for a fake commercial to be shot. The hard drive itself is an actual product, as I understand it, but the spot was basically punking Rob. It was the only scene in which we, as storytellers, took some artistic narrative licence to ramp up the “fish out of water” aspect of the story. It always gets big laughs at the screenings and that’s been very gratifying for us to share the humour.

The trip to Serbia starts off as a gigantic ego-trip for Rob, but once it becomes clear that his work was truly meaningful to the people he meets, he becomes a real-life detective, trying to unravel the mystery of how and why “Tropical Heat” became so important to this war-torn country. Was this shift in tone something that you, Marc and Rob planned from the outset, or did it occur organically?

We really had no idea how Rob would be accepted once we arrived — in fact, we weren’t entirely sure that he was even as famous as we were led to believe by the Facebook fans. But we decided to go over to investigate, regardless. If he wasn’t all that famous and his arrival there was anti-climactic it would have been an entirely different film, perhaps more humorous. But the transformation in Rob, and all of us, that took place as we traveled through Serbia was quite remarkable. Listening to the hardships, the struggles and the inspiring stories of non-violent resistance really made a deep impression on us and we hope that comes through in the film.

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Rob Stewart basking in his celebrity status on a Serbian TV game show.

In the film, Rob mentions that the year is 2009. According to IMDB, the film was released in 2012, but it’s only just now available online. Clearly, it’s been quite a long process for you to bring “Slaughter Nick For President” to a mass audience. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you overcame? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

Six years in and I feel like Sisyphus. Rolling that indie film boulder up the steep hill is definitely not for the faint of heart. The journey began at the very end of 2008 when Rob first discovered the Facebook fan site. By January 2009, we’d committed to doing the film. June 2009, we had a crazy two-week shoot in Serbia. July 2009, we were pitching at a TV fest in Rome, trying unsuccessfully to get a pre-sale with international broadcasters. By the Fall of 2009, when we should have been in full-swing on post-production, the Toronto production company that had partnered with us to provide post services suddenly went bankrupt. Now what? We had a unique, compelling story, great footage, lots of enthusiasm… but no resources to complete the film.

Most of 2010 and half of 2011 we spent casting about with broadcasters and funding agencies, looking for completion funds. But we just couldn’t secure them. It was becoming horribly apparent that we truly *were* indie. The cavalry was not coming to rescue us. But I just couldn’t let the project die. So I talked to Rob and Marc and proposed that I take over as sole Executive Producer. And I committed $40,000(CDN) of my own funds to complete the film.

Now the race was on again. It was June 2011 and I wanted to have the film ready for January 2012 festival submission deadlines. I pulled together a fantastic post-production crew consisting of friends, Darrell MacDonald, Picture Editor; Scott McCrorie, Supervising Sound Editor; and Meiro Stamm, Composer. Other key people on my team were consulting producers and creatives, Steve Beinicke, Chuck Scott and George Flak. They provided tremendous moral support throughout the entire completion process. We completed the film by January 2012 and had our world premiere at North by Northeast (NXNE) in Toronto in June 2012 and our European premiere at the Cinema City festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, the same month.

A few months later the film won Best Documentary at the Zagreb Film Festival in Croatia. That win was hugely satisfying and humbling, given the troubled past between Serbia and Croatia. As a result of our festival run I was able to attract Canadian distributor IndieCan Entertainment to handle Canadian theatrical, Ryan Bruce Levey Film Distribution & PR to oversee US theatrical, and Passion River Films as our educational, home video and digital streaming sales agent. It’s been a very long, steep road to full distribution in this rapidly evolving marketplace and I’ve learned tons along the way.

Looking back, I know that committing my own funds to complete my first feature-length documentary was extremely risky. But when I’m philosophical about it, I realize that I would have spent that much at a top-tier film school only to come out with a student short. Would I commit my own funds a second time? Nope.

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A Serbian protester interacts with a security officer.

Here in North America, most people’s knowledge of the Yugoslav Wars, and the peaceful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, is extremely limited. What insights do you hope “Slaughter Nick For President” brings to Canadian and American viewers?

Right from the beginning, we hoped that we could bring this important and inspiring story of non-violent protest to the widest possible audience. This was a story that was completely ignored by the Western media in favour of running the high-conflict story of the tyrant Milosevic and his henchmen as they carried out their atrocities. In the process, the Serbian people as a whole were demonized by the media on the basis of the actions of their dictator — a dictator the majority did not elect, did not approve of and, in fact, actively protested against for a prolonged period of time. Most extraordinary is that they managed to oust Milosevic peacefully. Not a single protester died while carrying out their peaceful resistance. It can be done. Citizens of the world, take heart. Keep resisting tyranny in all its forms.

The archival footage of Serbian protesters interacting peacefully with riot police is truly remarkable, especially in contrast to the violent protests and clashes with police that we’re now seeing in many countries, including the USA. As you’ve been watching the news for the last couple of years after wrapping up this project, what has jumped out at you as being the parallels between Serbia in the ’90s, and the Eurozone/America today?

I read the news every single day. And every single day at least once I remark to myself that non-violent resistance is the one and only solution. The Serbians successfully achieved their goal of toppling a dictator by using their intelligence and sense of humour. Non-violent resistance leader Srdja Popovic coined the term “laughtivism” — those clever protest techniques used by Otpor, the student protest group he helped create in the ’90s, and present-day activists like The Yes Men. We need much more laughtivism in this broken world of ours.

Rob Stewart and Marc Vespi with Atheist Rap

Rob Stewart (left) and Marc Vespi (right) with Atheist Rap’s Radule (middle) at the tech check for the To Be Punk Festival, June 2009, Novi Sad, Serbia.

Looking at Rob’s credits on IMDB, it appears that his career took off, right after the trip to Serbia. What impact has this film had, personally and professionally, on the three of you?
I think that, after falling on hard times, finding out that Nick Slaughter was the most-loved TV character in an entire nation’s history was like a fairy tale for Rob. That sort of love and attention just has to raise anyone’s vibration to attract more good things. All three of us have had personally-enriching experiences as a result of making the documentary.

Now that “Slaughter Nick For President” has successfully been launched, what’s next for you and your colleagues? Any new projects we should be watching out for?
In addition to finishing a screenplay which had to be put on hold while completing and promoting “Slaughter Nick for President,” I’m currently researching (and looking for funding on!) my next documentary. My talented brother Marc is writing and painting. And the inimitable Rob Stewart can be seen in several new TV series, including the hit sci-fi show “Killjoys”. He no longer lives in his parents’ basement.

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