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VIFF 2016 Interview: SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE director Pete McCormack

by Jason Whyte

"SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE is about a fantastic, iconic and beloved Canadian band called Spirit of the West, whose supremely talented and charismatic frontman John Mann is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's at the age of 51. The film is that journey: heartbreaking, funny, full of courage and hopefully redemptive. I love these guys and I think anybody who watches will love them, too." Director Pete McCormack on SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE which screens at the 2016 edition of VIFF!

Great to have you back at VIFF this year! Tell us about your previous visits to this amazing film festival.

I was at VIFF in 2004 for my first feature film called SEE GRACE FLY, about a woman suffering with schizophrenia, which I wrote and directed. I was there again in 2009 for a documentary I directed called FACING ALI, about the inimitable Muhammad Ali, and ten great boxers who fought him.

The crowd responses for both films were wonderful and we were treated very well by VIFF. SEE GRACE FLY won a Special Mention Award and actress Gina Chiarelli won the Women in Film best actress award. She owned every frame. And FACING ALI won the most popular documentary film; it later was short-listed for an Academy Awards in the Best Feature Docmentary section. So both journeys were gratifying!

As you are from here, your favorite place to grab a bite of food or a drink in-between a screening?

I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old, and I live in Vancouver, so my favourite place for dinner is home with them. Getting greens in them, however, is a nightmare, kind of like post production. I would say East is East is my most regular restaurant in town to have a chai and grab a bite, or make eyes at my beautiful wife.

So tell me about how you got your start prior to these films!

I made music and then added novels and then added screenplays and then made films. I still do all those things. Music; my genre is music that is tough to sell, though I have had songs on film and television. Novels excluding the new one UNDERSTANDING KEN (Stephen Leacock Award for Humour Nominee) and SHELBY, a fictional coming-of-age story about a young man who masturbates way too much. Screenplays include a bunch of screenplays. Feature films include the Kevin Spacey-narrated UGANDA RISING, the feature film SEE GRACE FLY and more documentaries like I AM BRUCE LEE, FACING ALI, the HBO series SPORTS ON FIRE and now Spirit Unforgettable. All won this and that. And just last week I chickened out diving off a 5-metre diving board, in front of my son, no less. He cried. I will be back.

So how did SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE come together for you?

I have known the band for probably twenty-five years. I was a fan, for sure. I must have listened to the Faithlift album a thousand times. I was also a friend. The band had played on a few of my albums back in the day when I had big dreams and bigger hair. Vince Ditrich, the band's fantastic drummer and manager, played on all my songs and we became great friends. The idea of a documentary came up in our conversations, and once I said yes to it, as I actually didn't want to do anymore one-off feature documentaries, I had to move forward quickly, without any initial funding, because of John and the unknowns around the progression of the disease.

So I researched the disease intensely; I always research intensely which I think is vital for interviewing. And I dug deep into Spirit of the West, too. Then we did interviews in November of 2014 and continued to follow the band and the situation for just under a year. The guys in the band were so helpful, and gave me a few loads of archive. The team assembled was full of both talented and good people; I worked with Project 10's Ben Murray and Andrew Barnsley with Bell Media, with whom I also did SPORTS ON FIRE. Tony Kent edited; a wonderfully talented, creative guy, a great storyteller, and supremely tolerant of how much I also edit. Tony also edited I AM BRUCE LEE and SPORTS ON FIRE. To name names is to leave gems out, but Cynde Harmon also produced and vitally held all the financial information together. Karyn Nolan in legal and friendship. Josh Pratt helped set up the editing room and saved me several times late into the night. Composer Schaun Tozer (ALI, LEE, SPORS & THE ROMEO SECTION) added his usual magic. And Jon Ritchie doing the sound and the mix on Bowen Island is always so smart, detailed, accommodating AND musical.

In the end I didn't sweat over the film's objectivity or bias or anything like that. I made the most compelling and honest film I could that still carried the band's joy and humour and convictions. Spirit of the West represents, to me, so much of what is best about Canada, too. Making this film was a tender journey, and I am grateful for that.

While you are working on a movie, either SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE or any of your features, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

I am naturally compulsive and relentless. I want things to be beautiful and compelling and I want people to love me. It takes that obsessiveness for me to like the results of what I do. I associate my creative production with self-worth, which is not recommended for mental health. But I am always creating something. I still write songs all the time; last night, for example, another non-hit. And I am a hundred and five pages into a new novel that has J.K. Rowling huddled in fear in her castle in Scotland. It's just the kinda person I am.

So no doubt with John and the subject matter at hand, this must have been a really difficult movie to pull of. What was your biggest challenge with making SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE?

Nuts-and-bolts wise, the biggest obstacle was budget. This is de rigueur with most one-off documentaries that require time and care. But the biggest obstacle was watching a dear friend I adore be saddled with this god forsaken disease. The silver lining was just how magnanimous John has been. He taught me a lot about grace and courage, and how even the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's doesn't mean there isn't a lot of living left; there is, and I love him even more for that.

So with that, if you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

There's a 'fictional' play John's wife Jill Daum has written about living with Alzheimer's, and one section is based on things John had actually said in describing the way the disease feels. I changed the personal pronouns back to being from John's voice, and he read it out loud in the moment, and his response while doing so is intensely real, and heart-breaking, and the information he gives us so rare about the disease, that I was profoundly moved.

There is also a moment during the concert at Massey Hall. John lost track of words during the band's most famous song, HOME FOR A REST, and the crowd literally picked up John's burden and sang him through it. I was in the booth watching nine camera angles, and I cried like a baby, and I also punched the air at John and the bands' indomitable spirit.

Honourable mentions would go to filming my dear friend and the bands' drummer Vince Ditrich when he was in the hospital getting dialysis for his failed kidneys; the diseases in the band are multiple. That wasn't funny, but on the day we laughed like old men sitting in a steam room, and he gave some great one-liners.

And also another dear friend: Paul Hyde's beautiful performance of his song, and one of John's favourites, I MISS MY MIND THE MOST, which he sang against his will when I interviewed him. He hates performing live, and just to piss him off, I asked him to do a second take, and he did.

I must get tech on you, but I absolutely loved the look and feel of this movie. Could you tell me how you photographed it with Ian Kerr?

I can not state forcibly enough how essential a good, efficient and artistic director of photography is, and I have had that repeatedly with the meticulous Ian Kerr, who also shot both ALI and LEE on the Red Camera, an HBO Series I created called SPORTS ON FIRE on the Canon C-300, and now SPIRIT which was shot on the Sony FS7. He makes such a high percentage of the footage rich and evocative and detailed, with depth, whether it's sit-down interviews or on-the-fly verite, which translates to a greater amount of options in post. Ian elevates my creativity.

For students making films, or young filmmakers, get the best and most passionate cinematographer you can, who hopefully isn't an arse. It will make you immediately better than you are, you'll learn volumes; at least I do. And frankly, if you want to find a way inside the money machine as a filmmaker, your work has to look world class.

We shot a lot of Spirit Unforgettable, including the nine-camera concert shoot at the legendary Massey Hall in Toronto, using the Sony FS7. The considerations were three fold. First, picture quality, of course. Second, efficiency and ease of use and mobility. Third, budget. Or maybe first, budget. It's always fluid.

I shot certain parts of the film myself, specifically the scenes with John Mann and his amazing wife Jill, when they were inside the daunting medical system like MRIs, hospitals etc. For me, going alone was about protection of John and Jill, and the intimacy I thought the moments required. I would even pick them up and drive them to where they had to go, which was tender and deep for me. I didn't seriously ever consider bringing a crew into those situations. I took my old and worn Canon 5D which is now missing pixels with an essential small monitor to keep it in focus and a zoom recorder and some sticks and tried to be as "not there" as possible, while simultaneously trying to press the right buttons. The fact is with making documentaries, you simply need as much footage as possible for the editing and storytelling process, so you find a way to get it, whether crewed up or not.

As for using different cameras, it is not ideal to mix and match, for sure, though sometimes it can not be helped. Different cameras limit the options and extent to which colour timing can be enhanced. Having said that, like all roles on a film, which I never underestimate in their importance, I have also been blessed to work with a brilliant colorist, Andrea Chlebak (CHAPPIE, ELYSIUM, KONELINE, FACING ALI) whom I adore, so the film was in skilled hands. So important.

Also, the shots from today's digital cameras juxtaposed with breathtakingly appalling 1980s and '90s VHS transferred video archive, not to mention the mullets, even makes my shooting look decent.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences at VIFF. as well being a local premiere?

I live in Vancouver, but the most beautiful thing about showing it here is that the band Spirit of the West is from Vancouver, and truly adored by their fans. And John Mann, the lead singer, is not only a supremely talented artist struck by an insidious fucking disease, but a beautiful person. He has walked this dark path with inspiring grace and courage. And as the film shows, his bandmates, brothers, really, have done all they can to help him sing and play for as long as possible.

So for me it is a gift to share the band's journey and John's journey with people who don't know them, with people who may be living with or know people who are living with Alzheimer's or dementia, and also as a nod to the family caretakers whose job is so punishing yet overlooked, and finally, to show the film to those folks who have had parts of their lives sound-tracked by Spirit of the West, and who love John and the band so deeply. Hell, I am one of those. It will be emotional.

Where is this movie going to show after VIFF?

The film will be doing a good amount of Canadian theatrical screenings on the TIFF circuit, which is great; all of which will be mentioned on the website. It is also on HBO Canada and The Movie Network and on demand there, and we're looking into a select American run and other VOD platforms down the road.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I don't think about those kinds of things. I have realized, outside of making films and writing screenplays and novels and making music, I am strategically disadvantaged. My best laid plans hardly ever get laid. I have pursued what is before me and inside me so much, I have often in the process neglected the business part of show business. I do not say that with pride. It is a limitation. Do so at your own peril. I would be tickled to make a blockbuster that I loved and then field offers while burning paper money in my fireplace high in some chalet, preferably in a country I own.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I have never had that problem, except once I had a background extra trying to intentionally steal scenes in a church, by wiggling his fingers and moving his arms and so on. So I think I probably said, "Hey dick, stop being a dick," but it was a long time ago and hopefully I have matured. I carry too much shame and too many self-esteem issues to pull a Christian Bale who, by the way, was unbelievably great in AMERICAN HUSTLE, which I just saw. What a talent. I am more likely to yell at myself internally, "Get off your own set, you fucking moron!" But I hold it in and smile instead and yell, "Excellent work, Team! Moving on!"

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Start shooting. My son is six and knows more about colour-timing now then I knew at 30. And my two-year-old daughter has a jump on him. Start understanding the forms: film, TV, songs, whatever it is. Be brave. Making it in show business is just like making it into the NHL or the NBA; tough, man, except there is a little more leeway with age. You have got to go hard. Do great work. Get a great cinematographer. Make it look fantastic. Get people around you who elevate everything you do. In film, whether drama or comedy, anything other than compelling is a moral outrage and must be cut. Move to LA. Be more strategic than I have been, for sure. Get fantastic and grossly knowledgeable about what you do, and do it compulsively. And if possible, do a lot while you are young and before you have a family, because art for many people requires that kind of freedom. Oh yeah, eat well. And being kind is not a prerequisite, it's just way kinder.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I will take the fifth but say this; I am astounded by the talent and courage of filmmakers out there, and by how many stunning documentaries there are. Both DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE and THE ACT OF KILLING left my jaw on the ground. Being at Hot Docs with John Mann and his wife Jill in attendance for the first screening of SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE remains a tender moment in my heart. Sitting next to Muhammad Ali during a screening of FACING ALI was surreal. My first favourite film, I was ten, was JAWS. I still agree with Chief Brody: they need a bigger boat. The list is endless. Heath Ledger's character in Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN stayed with me for weeks. I celebrate in a whole bunch of movies now that I would not have otherwise, because of my kids, that I see through different eyes. Many filmmakers blow my mind and leave me jealous and inspired at the same time. Old films, new films, foreign films, commercial films, independent films, films of the masters. If the story grabs me, I am on board. I hate a lot of films, too. The one thing I know for certain is that it is so damn tough to make a film, so hats off. This question is fucked!

Be sure to find out more about Pete and the film at!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 10/08/16 20:56:33
last updated: 10/08/16 21:04:12
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