Reviews include The Fabelmans, Glass Onion, and EO.
The President Makes A Movie: An Interview With Brian D. Johnson
September 9, 2015
by Norm Wilner, TFCA Vice-President
There are a number of Canadian film critics bringing movies to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Mark Slutsky, ex-film editor of the Montreal Mirror, has a dramatic short film Never Happened; Katherine Monk, formerly of PostMedia and currently running Ex-Press.com, has a documentary short, Rock the Box. And Brian D. Johnson is premiering his feature documentary, Al Purdy Was Here, celebrating the late Canadian poet through interviews with friends and family, archival footage and musical performances by artists inspired by Purdy’s poetry.
Full disclosure: Brian D. Johnson is also the president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, which makes covering his movie on this site a little delicate. So we sat him down at a pub with TFCA vice-president Norman Wilner and just let them have a friendly conversation.
NORMAN WILNER: Is this weird for you? After decades of interviewing other people about their work, now you’re the one who’s being interviewed about his.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON: It’s kind of fun. I mean, after a couple of years of doing this, you feel you actually do have something to say about it. And in some interviews it’s hard not to want to micromanage your own media. I’ll be listening to questions and sort of thinking, “Hmm, is he asking the right question here? Should I answer these questions, or should I try to steer it towards what I want to talk about?” I know all the tricks. But I also know that the best interviews are when you just kind of talk, without worrying about what you’re going to say. Without watching the sentences roll out. Because that kind of self-consciousness will not, in the end, protect you. It’ll just make for a boring interview.
NW: Yeah, I can always tell when someone is falling back on their talking points.
BDJ: I mean, even in the last little while as we’ve been talking, I realize I’ve been spitting out a few sound bites that I have polished just in the course of the last few days, and I feel a bit sheepish for doing that.
NW: But that’s bound to happen when you’re having the same conversation over and over again, promoting a project.
BDJ: There’s only so many ways you can formulate a particular truth. You find a good metaphor or a good phrase, you’re going to use it more than once. I’ve learned that from the best – when you interview Leonard Cohen, you come out floating on air, thinking you’ve been blessed with the most original, most profound, articulate interview of your life. And then a few weeks later, you see some of the same phrases crop up elsewhere. And you go, “Oh, I thought that was just for me!” But the best stuff, actually, is the stuff that you do think up in the moment. It does pop out, and it’s kind of flattering to have somebody even interested enough in your work to want to talk to you about it. It feels luxurious, frankly. I’m very happy about that. And also, I don’t just feel I’m here to promote myself and my film. I do feel that with a film like this, that there is – that I’m shouldering a bigger mandate. That I’ve got a certain responsibility, just as I did in making the film: I’ve essentially been making the film of record about Al Purdy. Which is not what I set out to do, but it’s become that. And I’ve thought, “Jesus, you’d better be good. Because it’s not just about your work, it’s about his work. And a lot of other people’s work.”
NW: So you’re filling a void, but that creates a certain expectation.
BDJ: It does, yeah. And you can’t help but sort of try to imagine the number of angles that could be approached around the film.
NW: Let’s start with the essential question: How did this come about?
BDJ: It started with my wife, Marni Jackson, who knew Al Purdy’s poetry and had interviewed him when she was a co-host on Imprint for TVO. She picked up The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology, which is this lovely little volume of reminiscences about Purdy and the A-frame by people like Atwood and Ondaatje and Dennis Lee and a lot of other people. It was published to kick-start the campaign to save the cabin and turn it into a writing retreat. Purdy’s life story is incredible, and she just thought that taking this slice of his life between building the A-frame and his first success would be a great stage play, and she started writing the play. And then she was drawn into scripting the Koerner Hall benefit [for the restoration of the A-frame], where people like Gord Downie and Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee and Gordon Pinsent performed.
She asked me to cut a montage of archival footage, and I do that kind of thing; I’ve done it for the TFCA. I love cutting montages. And I kinda fell in love with the subject through the footage. I thought, “This guy’s great!” And I knew nothing about Al Purdy.
BDJ: I had never read him. I’m of a generation that did not read Canadian literature when we were going to school. It didn’t exist in the curriculum. And then, a couple of days before the show, I said, “Is anybody shooting this?” They said no, so I arranged a three-camera shoot – just as a service for them, because I figured they could use it, and then they said: “Well, what do you want to do with the footage?” And that’s how it started. Literally, the night of the premiere, afterwards in a bar, I said, “You know what you should do next? You should do The Al Purdy Songbook. Because songwriters and poets are kindred spirits, and the songwriters have an audience; that would be a great way of celebrating the A-frame and raising money.”
I left it at that, and months passed – that was February 2013. And then after I left Maclean’s later that year, I started thinking about the Purdy project as a film. I thought: “Well, if I create the songbook that could provide fuel for the documentary. Juice it up a bit, make it more interesting. It would also help sell it, because if I actually got the people I wanted to get, it would have stars.” So that’s how the whole thing started, and then it happened very quickly.
NW: But it required launching yourself into an entirely different side of the industry.
BDJ: The neat thing is it made people think, “Oh, he’s ended his career as a film critic with Maclean’s, so now he’s going to make a big career move and make a movie.” But that’s not how it happened. It really evolved organically from an event that I got dragged into, and then it just – it was a movie that wanted to be made, and I thought at a certain point, “This movie should be made. And if I don’t make it, nobody else will.” So it was a bit of a duty, until all the talent started flooding into it. And then it became a real gift. When you’re asking Leonard Cohen and Sarah Harmer and Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood and Bruce Cockburn and Doug Paisley – all these people – to contribute to your film, and they do, it’s: “Wow.” That’s great. And that’s not because of me; that’s because of the particular attraction of Al Purdy.
NW: I think it’s safe to say you fell victim to that attraction as well. For the last year and a half, every time we’ve spoken you’ve been excited about some new element of the process. You were so thrilled to be having meetings with this musician or that editor.
BDJ: As a writer and an author I’ve had a lot of thrills in writing something and getting into print, and all the rest of it. But there’s nothing quite like producing.. There’s e-mails and pitches and it’s boring as hell but there’s a part of producing when you ask somebody to write a song, and you send them some poetry, and then two or three months later a song arrives and you listen to that song – well, that’s grand. You hear it a few times, and you can’t imagine that song not existing.
NW: Did any of those elements change the film when it arrived? Did anything reshape the narrative you had in your mind?
BDJ: Everything changed the film. I started out saying “I don’t want to make an archival documentary about Al Purdy, that’s boring” – without knowing quite enough about him to make such a flat statement. I wanted to make a contemporary film about artists inspired by Al Purdy, and the kind of barn-raising that was taking place around the A-frame restoration. We showed a rough cut to friends and some fairly prominent filmmakers, early enough that we could make changes. And everybody said, “We want more Al Purdy. He’s great. Give us more.” So Purdy’s influence over the film seemed to increase. I appreciated the way that Al’s voice took over the film.
NW: What sort of advice did people give you?
BDJ: There was a great note from Bruce Cowley, who was our executive at the Documentary channel, after we showed him the rough cut. He said, “You know, you’re allowed to make an art film. Don’t be afraid to give us more poetry.” There’s something inspiring about a broadcast executive saying that. I mean, it’s still a documentary; it’s not an experimental, cinematic equivalent to a work of pure poetry, which is something every filmmaker kinda wants to make. [laughter] But I was very encouraged by how everybody else was excited by Purdy’s poetry, as opposed to the poetry being the difficult part of the film. You know: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the poetry!”
NW: Yeah, I’ve seen a few of those movies. But Purdy’s poetry doesn’t really fit into that role.
BDJ: The poetry’s so direct, it’s kind of the fun part. And also as a filmmaker, it’s the fun part, because let’s face it: The story is the difficult part. All of that first-act exposition is always difficult. There’s too much to explain, it always feels too clunky no matter how you try to finesse it. What you look forward to is, “Well, what do we do with the poetry? What footage do we use for that? How can we use text?” Because people use the word “poetic” in a lot of different ways when it’s not actually about poetry. They talk about cinema and say “Well, that’s really poetic.” What they mean is it’s cinematic.
NW: Graceful, is what I think they mean.
BDJ: Graceful, lyrical. So obviously the film had to be as poetic as possible. [laughter] So that was the fun part.
NW: Purdy’s poetry is not poetic. That’s the thing that really struck me when I listened to it. Listening to it, having it read – even when he’s reading it, in the archival footage. It’s the literary equivalent of Stompin’ Tom Connors, really. It’s hoser poetry.
BDJ: There was a great quote that we cut from the film, from Bruce Cockburn. He said “He’s like Stompin’ Tom Connors, but with a brain!” [laughter] The reason we cut it, of course, is because it sounds insulting to Stompin’ Tom. But then Bruce went on to say “Well, not that Stompin’ Tom doesn’t have a brain –” and then you had to include the whole caveat, which kind of destroyed the quote. But a lot of people make that allusion. I’ve got a favourite analogy, which is that if the Group of Seven were a bar band, they might sound like Al Purdy.
NW: That’s a poster quote.
BDJ: [laughter] That’s a poster quote. He is more direct, but I think his poetry is more constructed and artful than you might suspect. It’s not like he’s just thinking out loud and slapping it on the page; he works those poems a lot. But it always sounds like you’re listening to his mind tick, and when his mind suddenly has a flash or a detour, you go down that road, you’re there with him. And there’s a sense of being with him in real time.
NW: It’s like Bukowski, but with more epiphanies. He’s understanding who he is in the poems.
BDJ: Well, he was a pen pal of Bukowski’s. There’s an entire book of their correspondence, which is a riot to read – I mean, a lot of it is two drunk guys admiring each other’s work and dissing other poets. You know, “Irving Layton? Well, I dunno.” But I like to think that Purdy, in American terms, is a bit like Bukowski meets Walt Whitman, because the side of Purdy that you don’t hear so much about is that transcendental, meditative side. Nobody writes about nature like Al Purdy, especially the Canadian landscape. That’s why I make the Group of Seven analogy.
NW: And, like the Group of Seven, he’s an artist who inspires a lot more goodwill than ill will.
BDJ: I think people really liked Al. We didn’t want to create a false equivalency of critics tearing him down and critics building him up. That’s not what the film is about. His reputation is pretty well established; we didn’t have to defend it. We were just looking for people to say interesting things about him. But there was a lot of love towards him. And I think because he was so fallible, in so many things. He was a drunken asshole, from time to time.
NW: He kinda got there first, confessing his bad behaviour in his work before anyone could accuse him of it.
BDJ: Yes! He’s got this characteristic that I like to call self-deprecating bravado – a uniquely Canadian form of machismo, which is to tear down your reputation at the same time that you’re building it up. And I loved the way that he embraced failure as passionately as he embraced success. Half of his life was failure. And when you look at what he went through: High-school dropout, rides freight trains as a teenager, works in factories, writes bad poetry for 20 years, works in mattress factories – two of them, in Vancouver and Montreal – and in a slaughterhouse piling powdered blood, which he turns into poetry years later. He’s a total outsider artist. This is in the film, but when he went to Montreal and ran into Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton – well, these are very educated people, but they took him in. Al has a lot of the arrogance of an autodidact, right?
NW: He earned his own stripes, sure.
BDJ: He basically busted into the literati as if it was a tavern. He found those swinging doors and kind of – but he is misunderstood. It’s his own fault. He played his hits. And anybody who knows his work likes to say, “Forget the hits. The real poetry is a little harder to find.”
NW: There’s some stuff about his personal life that his friends and family aren’t very comfortable talking about. Did that take an especially delicate hand?
BDJ: Oh, it was all delicate. Even before I knew that there were family secrets, talking to Eurithe, his widow, was a challenge from the get-go. She had never really done this before. Not because people hadn’t approached her, but – there’s no biography of Al Purdy. That’s extraordinary for a writer of his stature in Canada, and I think the main reason is that Eurithe is the custodian of the legacy, and she does not want anybody poking around in their private life – which was not always pretty.
NW: Well, the film goes into that.
BDJ: It goes into that. And I didn’t know anything about Eurithe when I first talked to her. I thought, “Well, let’s grab an interview with Eurithe. How interesting could she be? Let’s talk to the widow.” And I’ve interviewed a lot of people, a lot of celebrities, and Eurithe is the toughest person I’ve ever talked to. And that includes Tommy Lee Jones. I interviewed her four times. We just kept going back. And I found her really great. It only occurred to me when I was in the editing room that she might be performing, because she’s so honest and there’s no bullshit about her. She just doesn’t divulge very much.
NW: Yeah, I never got the sense she was giving up something she didn’t want to give up.
BDJ: And of course I was very nervous about exploring some of the family secrets with her. She didn’t want to go there, but even the way she doesn’t want to go there is interesting. Even her “I don’t want to talk about that” is riveting. And then of course I got nervous showing her the film.
NW: How did she feel about it?
BDJ: She wasn’t happy about the personal stuff, but she loved the film. Which makes me happy: I didn’t want to make the film for her, and I didn’t want to leave anything out of the film to protect her. But I’m glad that she sees the overall benefit of it.
NW: Journalistically, that’s a thing I worry about too – I don’t need people to like me, but I don’t want my subject to hate me, either. I’m there to capture their spirit as faithfully as I can.
BDJ: Well, certain people who are close to Eurithe who saw the film had a stronger reaction than she did. They were being protective of her, and they thought when I captured her freezing up around a question, that would be perceived negatively. But I think that to people who don’t know her, and who are not part of her inner circle, for them she’s just showing some steel. I mean, to me Eurithe is the heroine of the film; Al is the subject, but he’s dead. Among the living characters, Eurithe is the lead. And you talk about how documentaries develop, and how unscripted they are, she was not designed to be the lead. She earned that in one shoot after another. The footage doesn’t lie, and we had two very strong women in this film. One is the young feminist poet Katherine Leyton, who is – with her, we were incredibly lucky. She was the first poet to move into the restored A-frame; she’s beautiful, she’s articulate and she’s the antithesis of Al Purdy as a feminist poet. The other woman is Eurithe, who is 90 years old and is obviously full of mixed feelings about seeing her home transformed into a writing residence. Very supportive, yet this has been her home for over half a century.
NW: We really feel that in the scene where she just quietly comes in and just says to the latest residents, “Oh, I don’t live here anymore, you guys just do what you want with the place.” That’s clearly not true for her.
BDJ: This is a movie about what gets sacrificed in the name of art. Not so much what Al Purdy sacrificed, but what his wife sacrificed. She basically gave up her life for him. She supported him, and he took the glory while she was in the shadows. So what we’ve done unintentionally – because that was not what we set out to do – was bring her out of the shadows for the first time. The film is about artists inspired by Al Purdy, but his wife is a pretty inspiring figure, and I developed a real fondness for her. All of us on the film did. Even though she was tough as hell, and wouldn’t give an inch on certain things. As I told her, “Look, it’s not your job to answer me. You can do whatever you like. But I have to ask.”
NW: Which is journalism, but in a different mode. You’ve interviewed people on camera before, but now you’re also trying to create or develop the narrative of your film. Did that alter the situation for you?
BDJ: Well, it was a bit of a shift. First of all, when you’re interviewing on camera it’s not just about what people say, it’s how they say it. Secondly, you’re interviewing civilians, and I’ve always made the distinction between people who give interviews as part of their profession – actors, filmmakers, authors, musicians – and people who are essentially innocents. That doesn’t mean that Eurithe was not canny about the process, but you don’t want to exploit or take advantage of people. The other thing is, with these kinds of interviews, they’re very open-ended. You go until you’ve exhausted the possibilities, because you don’t know what you’re looking for. You’ve got an agenda – you have to have an agenda – but with a documentary, you know that a lot of your good stuff is going to come up through something else. You want it to go beyond journalism, as far as possible.
NW: You’d previously made short films that were more impressionistic …
BDJ: Two BravoFact shorts. In 2006, Tell Me Everything, which was a montage of hands at work, and the second one was an adaptation of Dennis Lee’s book of poetry Yes/No. That was a precursor to this in the sense that I took a book of poetry and I cast other poets to read it. So some of the same voices – Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje. They were all in Yes/No.
NW: Those shorts use a different cinematic language. Was it a difficult transition for you, making a feature documentary as opposed to more artistic short work?
BDJ: My plan was to cut up a rough assembly of the film and give it to my editor. Well. [laughter] I learned very quickly that cutting montage is very different from editing a complex narrative feature. And I couldn’t do it. In other words, I didn’t get the assembly to him in any kind of shape by the time he came on board. He looked at what we had, and looked at the amount of time that we had budgeted to cut the film, and he said, “We need twice as much time to do this.” And he was fast, too. He works on television. So I learned a lot of things. You learn about coverage.
NW: You sound like you’re regretting something.
BDJ: Just real beginner mistakes. I made a lot of them. But every mistake you make, you know you won’t make it again. Because it’s so horrifying. [laughter]
NW: And now the film is finished and you’re on the publicity push for it. How’s that going?
BDJ: We had a press screening and I’ve done a bunch of interviews. So far, so good. The responses have all been very positive. I think by the time we get to the premiere on September 15th, the reviews will have come out, and maybe some trade reviews, and I’ll have a sense of how the film has done and where we’re at. And then the premiere will just be a celebration. It’s not the kind of film that rises or falls on the strength of a premiere. With a film like this, what the press thinks, what the critics think, is crucial.
NW: Don’t you kinda have to say that?
BDJ: Well, it’s very hard to sell a movie about a dead Canadian poet. We’ve sold the film in Canada; it will be distributed by Films We Like, and it will be on television on the Documentary channel. The cast has a marquee value in Canada that is indisputable. But I’d really love to get it outside this country, which is a much steeper ambition. I’d like to see it at American festivals; I’d like to see somebody pick it up for American theatrical or television. And not just America; Europe, or anywhere. In fact, America may be the toughest market of all. Poetry’s a small world, and I’m beginning to realize that a film about a poet is not an easy sell. And this film is really Canadian. It’d be nice to think that the idiosyncratic nature of its Canadian-ness would have exotic appeal outside of our borders, but I have yet to discover that.
NW: Is it weird being asked questions, though, rather than being the one asking them?
BDJ: It’s funny, but the angle that you haven’t really gone after – which is interesting because this is for the TFCA website – but the most sort of immediate angle the TV people and the quick-hit media folks go after is “film critic makes film”, which is like “man bites dog”. It has a certain novelty to it, despite the fact that it goes back a long way, to people like Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol.
NW: Maybe that’s why I didn’t bring it up – I know we both know that.
BDJ: [laughter] And not that I’m comparing Macleans to Cahiers du Cinema, or myself to those filmmakers, of course.
NW: Of course.
BDJ: I do think that critics get a bad rap; people think that we’re just out there to tear things down, and preserve our own hermetic tastes. But I haven’t met a good film critic who isn’t really passionate about cinema, and who sees that the job is to cultivate great cinema and spread the word, and be empathetic about what the artist is trying to do if they’re trying to do anything interesting at all.
NW: I agree. I’ve always believed critics should be champions. Believe me, I haven’t watched thirty movies in the last two weeks hoping to be disappointed.
BDJ: [laughter] Right. So I think it is a natural progression. I think for a journalist to jump from that role to writing and directing a feature drama is a much bigger leap – and not something that I have any ambition to do.
BDJ: I just think it’d be presumptuous. At my age, I just think that it would be a big learning curve. And again, it would only happen if there was a particular story that for some reason I ended up being the custodian of. It wouldn’t happen because I decided to start making dramatic features or whatever, trying to find a script.
NW: Well, everybody says that about movies: If you’re willing to devote two years of your life to something, you’d better feel like the end result will be worth it.
BDJ: It’s true for documentaries as well. People are asking “What’s your next movie?” and I’m saying “Well, there may not be a next movie.” I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I wouldn’t willingly go back and do that again unless it was something that I just could not resist. A story would have to ambush me in order for me to want to do that again. I mean, when you’re making a film and you’re spending so much time on production details – you think, “God, I used to get paid really well just to go see movies and write whatever I thought about them.” You take it for granted. And the simplicity of the writing life, even as a non-journalist, just sitting in a room cooking something up out of your head with no technology and no budget. It seems very attractive. Yet on the other hand, the biggest change from what I was doing to making a film was working with other people. And to be proud of other people’s work is amazing. You don’t want to be too proud of your own work, or you start to look like a raving narcissist, but when your job is to basically corral other people’s talents into your work, then you’re proud of what they’ve done, and there’s no limit to how impressed you are. You can do that genuinely. It’s very different than writing a book.
NW: I imagine there’s a lot less control.
BDJ: In the end you’re the one who has to take responsibility for every aspect of the film, but you don’t create every aspect. Far from it. You’re there to let other people’s work thrive, for everybody’s work to make the thing sing. Especially a film like this, which is a film about art, featuring a lot of artists. It’s still secondary work; it’s still about other people’s art.
NW: But that’s what you do as a critic, really.
BDJ: Exactly! That’s why it’s not such a big stretch. The big stretch is more technical; it’s got to do with the logistics of financing, producing, shooting, editing, post-production.
NW: I think that’s why I’m so happy podcasting. I can do that myself, on my own time, with a recorder and some editing software. It’s still just one person doing the whole thing.
BDJ: That’s how I started out with filmmaking. It was only because of the new technology that I started shooting with cheap cameras and editing with iMovie. And I got hooked. But I was really just part of a trend, which was the whole DIY authoring revolution. I never would have become a filmmaker without the digital technology, because it would have been inaccessible to me.
NW: Fifteen years ago you’d have been cutting on film.
BDJ: Yeah. It would have been impossible.
NW: The movie is locked and about to make its world premiere. It’s officially done. What’s your next project?
BDJ: I’m gonna take a one-year sabbatical.
NW: You finally get to retire?
BDJ: No! A sabbatical implies that it’s a break – not a, like, take-me-to-the-graveyard-and-lay-me-down. No, I’m taking a year off as opposed to cooking up another project. Just to spend some time writing, traveling, thinking. Maybe something else will come out of it, but I didn’t want to go looking for another project because I feel I have to have a career. I’m fortunate – I worked for Maclean’s a long time, so I’ve got a bit of slack there, financially, and I don’t have to have a day job. It’ll be hard to resist if something comes along, but I just want to try not to go looking for it. I’ve always been very goal-oriented; I can’t sit still for two minutes before I have to go and do something. I think it would be mindful, even if I did want to do something, that I would do something better if I would just try not to do something. Just write for a while without an agenda; just start typing and see what happens. And I’ve just been in a situation where I’m always typing towards a goal, whether it’s a story or a pitch, there’s always a purpose to it. I want to do the kind of work you can do without the end already in sight.