Long before the Jackass crew began recording their silly stunts, St. Catharines' own Ralph Zavadil was doing the same thing (on a much smaller budget) for a Niagara-region cable access show called Cap'n Video. Now his antics, which include the neck-breaking incident that garnered him 15 minutes of international fame, have been collected in Jay Cheel's life-affirming doc Beauty Day, a hit at the recent Hot Docs fest. In person, Zavadil, given to cartoon-like growls (listen to the audio clips), is just as funny and spontaneous as he is in the movie.
What surprised you most when you first saw the doc?
How Jay had woven in my personal life and the interviews we'd done [two years ago]. It was scary having that raincoat pop open in front of 500 people [at Hot Docs]. But it was also fun and invigorating to hear people respond to my Cap'n Video stuff. I'd never had that before.
How did Cheel win your trust?
He asked pertinent questions and then shut up and let me answer, instead of leading me to where he wanted to go. We became friends, and he told me to talk as if we were friends sitting around. I said, "Well, when I'm shooting the shit with friends I'm usually having a frosty and a smoke." That's why it looks like I'm a beer-swilling alcoholic.
One of the things that's never addressed in the film is what good shape you were - and are - in. Did that contribute to your recovery after the accident?
Life's too short to sit around. I ski, golf, skidoo, swim and just enjoy life. I have a Y membership, but I've used it three times since January. If I'm going to walk on a treadmill or stairclimber, I better be going somewhere and seeing new stuff instead of looking at other sweaty, smelly people. After the accident, if I hadn't had the musculature around my neck area [I wouldn't have healed as quickly]. But then again, if I'd been in flabby shape I probably wouldn't have climbed up the ladder leaning against the fence of my pool in the first place.
What's your favourite stunt?
The telephone pole sledding where I go through the roof of the garden shed. It took about an hour and a half to set up. I took more than 400 screws out of the shed holding it together, poured a bag of flour on top and put some styrofoam inside. Every time I watch that video, I catch the momentary lapse of reason of jumping through it and I'm right back there.
In many ways the film's about creativity and following your passions, no?
It comes down to whether you're going to take the chance not to have the shiny shit at the beginning and follow your heart. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't follow their heart. They follow the paycheque.