Morgan White's The Slippers Hits Hot Docs

Ruby Slippers, 'Wizard of Oz' | © MGM
Ruby Slippers, 'Wizard of Oz' | © MGM
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Updated: 30 November 2016
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In his new documentary, The Slippers, Toronto’s own Morgan White pulls back the Wizard’s curtain to reveal the true story behind the most iconic footwear in cinematic history. Following its world premiere at SXSW in March, The Slippers is coming to Toronto as part of this year’s Hot Docs Festival.

Why did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?

Well, filmmaking was an easy choice. I grew up watching movies, and I think, well, when I was a kid I really wanted to be an archaeologist. And then I realized, as I grew a little bit older, that the reason that I wanted to be an archaeologist was because of Indiana Jones. So really it was movies; movies were always the thing, they were the constant throughout my life. And they were always my escape, and the best escapes are old movies, old, Golden Age of Hollywood classic films…

And then, in terms of documentary I never thought that I’d be a documentary filmmaker. It’s not something that I set out to do. I mean, I went to school for fiction, I wanted to be a dramatic filmmaker, and… I just kind of fell into it. Then I made The Rep, which was my first film, about the Toronto Underground Cinema, and really that just started as a web series. It was a scripted, fun little web series that spawned an actual documentary because of the situation that was happening there. And so, I guess I kind of fell into it in a sense, it just happened around me.

Morgan White
Courtesy of Hot Docs
Morgan White

And you enjoyed it once you did it the first time around?

I mean, it’s not easy to write something, but it’s less interesting to write something than real life… So, I was really shocked by the things that were happening around me… realizing that there’s so much story here that you couldn’t write, and that it’s just happening around us, and it’s really fun to play with that and figure out how to piece it together to make a story. It’s more fun to me.

More like a film archaeologist, uncovering stuff…

Yeah, exactly, it is like a film archaeologist… I never thought of putting those two together. Wow, that’s really funny. Yeah, so just like digging for stuff, totally.

The Slippers looks at the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and their cinematic and cultural significance. Why the slippers? Did you know about the story behind them ahead of time, or did you kind of just fall into this as well?

I kind of just fell into it. Really it was the shoes that started everything. I had been following the Profiles In History auctions for a little while, just because I thought it was amazing that you could own this stuff, like how is it that you can buy all of these things from movies? Then [in] 2011, the shoes sold at auction for $2 million. I obviously read that in the paper and online, and thought, ‘What the hell? That’s amazing.’ Like, how is it that these shoes are worth that much money? I went back and I looked on the website, and there was a little blurb that’s in the catalogue that talks about Kent [Warner], and talks about there being multiple pairs, and I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of interesting.’

So, I talked to my friend — who is the editor on the movie about it all — because he’s a Wizard of Oz fan and a Judy Garland fan, and I said, ‘Hey… the shoes sold for $2 million, this is really crazy.’ So he brought this book in [about the shoes]… [it’s] this weird, wonderful story of preservation that is something that I’m really fascinated by. I love the idea of preserving things. I mean, I’m a collector, I collect records, I collect movies, I collect that kind of stuff.

I was going to ask if you were into that…

I kind of was interested in this idea, and I was interested in this idea that these people, and namely Kent, were walking into the studios and taking things, and I thought that’s such a weird world. Like, who would’ve thought that that was something that was behind these shoes, these seemingly completely innocuous shoes, and so when I put down the book I just knew… I have to make this into a movie. And that was five, about five and a half years ago maybe.

Was it difficult to get in contact with all the people you interviewed? And just finding all that archival footage you found, which was fantastic. I couldn’t believe how much there was for you to use.

Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. That took me literally years to track all that stuff down. That was the hardest part… Getting the interviews was not the hardest thing. The people who have owned the shoes are in the hall of fame of collecting. They have achieved a goal that so many people wish they could by owning those shoes. So they were really gracious about talking.

Then as far as the footage, the archival material… I basically collected everything. Then I also worked with the people that are in the movie. The daughter of the auctioneer from the MGM auction she gave me a bunch of stuff… her husband, who also worked at the auction, had filmed all this stuff on 8mm and 16mm, and it’s all stuff that nobody’s seen. So I can’t wait for people to see it.

What do you think it is about the shoes, and about this movie, that just captivates people?

I don’t know. That’s the hardest thing to talk about, because it’s so personal for so many people. I think if you really break it down it’s that idea of home, it’s that idea of going home, and wanting to find that place that we all remember. The movie embodies that perfectly. And Dorothy, or Judy Garland, embodied that perfectly.

But those slippers are a talisman for everything that happens in that movie… for that idea of going home again to where things are warm, and safe, and fuzzy. I think people love the idea that they can go out and buy these items, and then somehow harness whatever that item meant in the movie.

Ruby Slippers at MGM auction
Courtesy of Hot Docs
Ruby Slippers at MGM auction

You said that the most challenging part of making the movie was finding the footage. What did you find to be the best part or most rewarding part?

The most rewarding day was the day that we filmed at the Sony lot [the old MGM lot]. It was an unbelievable day… I stood in front of the door of the entrance of Stage 27, which is where the yellow brick road and the MGM auction happened, and all of these pivotal things that had to do with my story happened. I stood there, and I filmed the door, and there wasn’t a soul around me… And then I got kind of emotional because I was there, I was in this moment, this place, where all of this had happened, and I actually somehow made it.

What do you think really happened to the stolen pair [of slippers]?

That’s the question that everyone wants to know. Chances are they really are at the bottom of that mine pit… But I don’t think it really matters anymore what happened. They’re gone, and I think the idea that they’re gone, and they may still be out there is the most interesting part of the story. Because that’s kind of the thing about the shoes, nobody knows how many pairs were made. So, I guarantee you, 100%, there’s another pair out there.

What do you think the advantages are of being in Toronto and in Canadian film, and what are some of the challenges?

I think the challenges and the pluses are kind of the same to some extent. This community is really supportive because it’s pretty small, which is a good thing and can also be a bad thing… I think it’s hard to get a movie made. It’s hard to find people to pay for that. I mean, you’re asking someone to put over a lot of money for you to tell a story.

But being in Canada there’s a lot of opportunities. There are good crews, there’s good production value, you can make a really good movie here. Like with a documentary, you can make a documentary anywhere; it’s just a handycam and your vision basically, and that’s all that you have to do.

I think it’s really hard to get movies out there — docs out there — because there’s so much stuff competing for people’s attention… But the beauty is now with the digital platforms, people talk about docs now — I think way more than they ever did — which is a cool thing.

And think how amazing Hot Docs is for that. You come to Toronto, and people literally travel to Toronto to go to the festival, and they line up, and they do rush lines — to see docs. It’s like TIFF, they treat it like TIFF, but it’s for documentaries. What an odd, cool thing to have happen.

How does it feel to have your movie playing here in front of a hometown crowd?

I’m super excited. It’s cool because so many people that I know are going to be able to come and see it in the best possible way. I’ve been talking about this for years, and now people are actually going get to see it and they’re not going have to wait for it to come out on Netflix… or wait for me to give them a link; they’ll get to watch it on the big screen.

What do you think it is about Toronto, with TIFF and with Hot Docs, that has made it an excellent place for filmmakers to show their films and get worldwide distribution?

I don’t know, I don’t know how that happened. TIFF had a lot to do with it, pushing the festivals. I guess this is a film community; it’s Hollywood North, right? People view this as being a film town, and I think there’s a lot of film lovers here. There are more film festivals in Toronto than there are anywhere else in the world, so that shows that people here love movies, and want to go to movies… I think that people feed off the fact that the festivals work, and the festivals feed off the fact that the people actually care about the festivals.

Just to finish things off, usually we end with quickfire questions, or what I like to call ‘6 on the 6ix’. So six questions about Toronto…

[Laughs] Thanks, Drake.

Favourite Toronto landmark?

Well, the CN Tower. I know that that’s cliché, but it’s the first thing I remember seeing when I was a kid coming to Toronto.

Rick Mercer or Rick Moranis?

Rick Moranis.

Ivan Reitman or David Cronenberg?


Rush or Neil Young?

Neil Young, 100%.

Poutine or street meat?

Street meat.

One word to describe Toronto?

Big. [Laughs] By comparison to what I was used to. That was always the thing that shocked me when I moved to Toronto, was how big it is.

Hot Docs runs from April 28 to May 8, 2016. Tickets for The Slippers are on sale now.

Fun Film Fact: The end credits of the film are in the exact same placement as the credits for The Wizard of Oz.

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