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Mock star 

Halifax icon Matt Murphy makes the move to mockumentary in The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico. Carsten Knox rocks out.

After years of couch surfing, Michael Mabbott is giving up his apartment in Vancouver and moving to Toronto. The Alberta-born writer-director put the move off, but he needs to be there for his career, especially as his first feature film is being released in theatres across Canada—the country-rock mockumentary The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico. It has taken more than seven years to get the film made. Mabbott says the inspiration for Terrifico came while he was attending King’s College in the late ’90s and living in a rooming house just off the Dalhousie campus.

“I was sitting there by myself with a lot of hash,” says Mabbott, on the phone from a Vancouver apartment full of boxes, “writing crappy three-chord country songs, and somehow they started becoming about Guy Terrifico.”

The movie, which showed at the 2005 Atlantic Film Festival and is screening on January 23 in AFCOOP’s Monday Night Movies series, is about a legendary (fictional) Gram Parsons-esque ’70s songwriter who burned hot for a few years then disappeared. The mockumentary picks up the trail years later, mixing “authentic footage” of Terrifico’s on-and-off-stage antics with present testimony from actual veterans of the period, including Kris Kristofersson, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins and Grammy award-winning music expert Rob Bowman.

The Halifax connection doesn’t end with a smoke-filled rooming house on South Street: Terrifico is played by locally born, Toronto-based songwriter Matt Murphy, known for his musical work with The Super Friendz, Flashing Lights and City Field. As well as playing the title role, Murphy took Mabbott’s song sketches and wrote the music for the film.

“Michael had an idea of what he needed for his film, and we had common ground,” Murphy says from a hotel room in Edmonton. “We could talk about Willie Nelson, great songwriting. We knew what we wanted it to sound like.”

He set to writing classic songs, not an easy task—he admits it took four to five years to really get the songs right—and taking on his first acting role. Mabbott looked everywhere for the right people to join Murphy, including musical casting trips to Austin, Texas. In the end, much of the soundtrack was recorded in Halifax with Ultramagnetic’s Charles Austin on the boards.

“We travelled the world trying to find the right guys to do this, but we were never happy until we climbed the stairs at the Khyber and did it there with Haligonian musicians,” says Mabbott. “It’s amazing that the best country musicians we could find on the continent were in Halifax.”

Many of the musical performers also appear on camera, which was important to Mabbott for the sake of continuity and authenticity. It made Murphy’s job easier as well, since they were all his friends.

“Dale Murray is the greatest musician you could possibly imagine,” says Mabbott. “But you look at him, dude, he’s totally a country musician from the 1970s. He’s too legit to quit. Everyone but Dave Marsh, Dave we had to put a wig on. But Matt, Dale—everybody else looked the part.”

Getting Kris Kristofferson and the other stars to be part of his project required some work, including “sending six-packs of beers to locations all over the world.” Musician Donnie Fritts became interested on the strength of a script Mabbott calls “reverential to their time period,” Fritts brought Kristofferson aboard, and Kristofferson brought in the others. These musicians just have a long-standing loyalty to each other. “Kris just told me to do this thing,” is what Hawkins, who showed up without having read the script, said to Mabbott.

Mabbott and Murphy’s collaboration isn’t ending with Terrifico. They’ll be neighbours in Toronto, and last summer, Mabbott shot his next feature film, Citizen Duane, in Hamilton, and Murphy is providing an instrumental score. Murphy wouldn’t mind further acting gigs, but he’ll have to fit it in between other musical commitments, some of which include, but are not limited to, his singing as Guy Terrifico in shows promoting the film.

“The Super Friendz are recording another record at the end of this month,” he says. “We’re playing a pseudo-release show March 11 at the Grawood. It’s pseudo because I really hope the record’s ready by then. And then, that same week in March, City Field will begin recording its full-length record, tentatively titled Digital Perm.”

The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico screens January 23 at Park Lane at 7pm.

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