Whistler Film Festival 2015 Interview: AL PURDY WAS HERE director Brian D. Johnson
By Jason Whyte
Posted 12/04/15 22:18:43
"We have made a crowd-pleaser about a dead Canadian poet, which is no small feat. But then it's got an amazing cast. We've got performances by Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downie, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Joseph Boyden, Tanya Tagaq...the list goes on. This may be the most Canadian movie you will ever see. And what drew all these people to it was Purdy. He's an amazing character; a complex, charismatic, maddeningly flawed hero. He was a high-school dropout who rode freight trains in the Depression. He bulled his way into the literati after two decades of factory work and failed poetry. He became famous, at least in Canada, at a time when poets were our literary rock stars. And he was on TV a LOT. There's a wealth of archival footage. We also uncover an astonishing family secret. But it's not just a biographical piece. We tell a contemporary story about the restoration of Al's A-frame cabin as a writing retreat, and of a young feminist poet who moves in as Purdy's 90-year-old widow moves out. But the real treat is the music. We shot live performances of songs inspired by Al's poetry. Sarah Harmer's is to die for!" Director Brian D. Johnson on AL PURDY was here which screens at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival.
I am excited to have you as part of the 15th Anniversary at Whistler! I have met you a few times here in the past. How long have you been coming to WFF?
I have becoming to Whistler for over 10 years, mostly as a film critic for Maclean's but I also brought my two short films to the festival.
What is it about Whistler, either the festival or the town itself, that excites you the most?
Well, I'd be lying if I didn't mention the skiing. I'm not a great skier but flying down a mountain is as close to being in an action movie that I'll ever get. But aside from that, I always seem to have a great time at the festival. TIFF may be magnificent, but it's huge it's become an endurance test. And next to Whistler, I can't think of another compact festival in Canada that offers such an intimate, energetic gathering among film professionals, from both East and West. It's also defiantly Canadian. Which is why I feel my Purdy film will feel right at home.
For those not in the know, tell our readers a little bit more about yourself!
I have spent most of my career as a writer and film critic. I'm just another guy who got seduced by the DIY revolution in digital shooting and editing. Ron Mann, who's executive-produced all my films, encouraged me to pursue it professionally. My two BravoFACT! shorts, TELL ME EVERYTHING (2006) and YESNO were both experimental, poetic films. AL PURDY WAS HERE is my first feature-length work. It's more conventional, but it's about a poet.
So how did all of AL PURDY come together for you?
It fell into my lap! I knew nothing about Purdy. My wife, Marni Jackson, who is also a writer, was a fan of his. She began writing a play about Al's formative years, then got involved scripting THE AL PURDY SHOW, a 2013 fundraising concert we had at Koerner Hall in Toronto to benefit the restoration of Al's A-frame cabin. It was a star-studded event with Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent, Gord Downie...all the Gords. Marni asked me to edit a montage of archival footage for the show. Then at the last minute, I set up a shoot to capture the event for posterity. That was the germ of the film. And it just grew organically from there. But I didn't launch the project until nine months later, after leaving Maclean's magazine. That's when I cooked up THE AL PURDY SONGBOOK album, which gave the film project some life, and some stars.
With all this research and preparation, what keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
It's my first movie, so it's hard to generalize. But it's not unlike writing a book or an article. Except even a small film is so much bigger, it's a team effort and it involves a lot moving parts. What drives you is the story, the desire to get the bottom of it. If you've got a good story, it just keeps on opening up. The hard part isn't keeping going. It's knowing how to stop. Unlike a drama, a documentary doesn't come with brakes.
All projects are challenging in many ways and some more than others. What was your biggest challenge with AL PURDY, and the moment where you knew you had something?
Our biggest challenge was in the editing, in trying to create a symphonic balance out of so many different elements. We weave two narratives; Al's own story and the revival of his A-Frame. There's an intrigue involving his widow that ties them together. Then there's the poetry, the music, interstitial tweets from @thestatueofAlPurdy. It is quite the collage. The score was also a challenge. I was working with my son, Casey, who did a brilliant job. But a collaboration between a father making his first movie and a composer creating his first score is no cakewalk. It's hard to say when we knew we HAD something. Maybe the songs we commissioned started to arrive.
I totally want to get technical with you as there was not only a lot of archival footage, but also a very unique look to the doc as well. Could you talk about how the movie was filmed?
Nick De Pencier was our Director of Photographer. He's a wonderfully lyrical cinematographer, but he also has the eye of shrewd photojournalist. Nick was working on his own project, so he wasn't always available. With a documentary, your schedule is at the mercy of events, so we enlisted many other camera operators, including a drone crew, at various times. I did some shooting. And Nick had an amazing intern, Blake Hannahson, who shot some of our most beautiful scenes.
You and I both have been here many times in the past, but I was wondering what are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie in Whistler?
I probably won't sit through it. But I love slipping into the theatre in the third act and feeling if the audience is under the spell. And I enjoy the Q & A. With this movie, there's always a lot to talk about.
After the film screens in Whistler, where is it going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to show?
The same week it shows at Whistler, it opens in Toronto and Winnipeg. It plays Vancouver in late January. Thanks to the TIFF Film Circuit, it's being picked up by theatres in smaller communities across the country, about 25 of them so far. It will have its international premiere at the Havana film festival December 10. We're waiting on some U.S. festival submissions. And hoping to get into Berlin!
If you could show AL PURDY in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
The Lumiere Cinema in Cannes. Why? Because it's a huge, fabulous theatre. And it's Cannes! But it's too late for that.
What would you say or do to someone who was being disruptive at a screening you were attending?
Go up to him or her and say, "Shut off your fucking cell phone!" Or: "If you want to talk, go home and watch TV."
What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
"You better have a more compelling reason than wanting to get into the filmmaking business."
And finally what is your all time favorite movie? Or film festival movie?
I don't really have a high-art answer. As a default, I usually say THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
Check out AL PURDY WAS HERE at #wff15 on Friday, December 4th at 6:30pm and on Saturday, December 5th at noon, both at Village 8 Cinemas.
For more information on the film be sure to follow the official website, on Facebook and on Twitter at @alpurdywashere.
This is one of the many films playing at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website at whistlerfilmfestival.com!
Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two. You can also follow the festival on my Instagram at jason.whyte!
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com