An interview with writer/director, Paul Gross
Canadians are a humble people by nature it would seem. We care about our country; heck, most of us love it. We just don’t hang giant flags outside our front doors to say so. According to history though, the Canadian armed forces have always had a reputation for being tough, fair and effective. Canadians, despite having only been a legitimate country for a short time, were a major presence in the First World War. In later years, Canadians were trailblazers in the realm of peacekeeping. Canadian war efforts may be discussed at length in classrooms but it is rarely depicted in film. PASSCHENDAELE is sure to change this.
Paul Gross has been making PASSCHENDAELE in his mind for nearly 20 years. It all started when his grandfather, who had fought in the First World War, sat him down one day to talk about something he rarely talked about. He told him about both courage and horror and now, Gross has made a movie about both of these things and so much more. PASSCHENDAELE is not his grandfather’s story though. It is a story for all Canadians who are long overdue to know this aspect of their heritage. And in a day when any war film made must make some inevitable comment on the current global climate, Gross has managed to tell a story that is distinct and moving without the least bit of condemnation.
In the weeks leading up to the film’s Canadian release, beginning with the film’s impressive debut as the opening film for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Gross has been touring the country to discuss his past, his country’s past and the passion behind PASSCHENDAELE.
Joseph Belanger: Having seen PASSCHENDAELE, I can say that genuinely enjoyed it and that I left the film with a great sense of pride. Given that Canadian war efforts are not often the subject of mainstream cinema, I would think that pride is something you would hope audiences would take away from the experience.
Paul Gross: Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. It’s a funny thing about pride. I think so much of how we view patriotism or heroism or pride, they’re framed by war films. We did not want to push anything in particular but we did do these things. We were phenomenally good soldiers and there is no reason why we cannot honour that.
JB: And why do you think it is that we don’t claim this pride more often?
PG: I think that we are nervous to be seen as emulating what we believe to be false pride and being compared to our neighbours to the south. It’s horrible having these conversations – trying to define who we are by who we’re not. I think that our understanding of heroism is really on a level of human geography just because we’re smaller. Our heroism involves self-effacing, self-sacrifice. We don’t run around saying that we’re the greatest soldiers around and yet we were the fiercest fighting unit in the British order of battle. It’s funny; we would never say that but Lloyd George, who was the Prime Minister of England said that any time the Canadian corps came into the line, the enemy knew to expect the worst.
JB: I also had a strong sense of pride for PASSCHENDAELE from a Canadian film perspective. It is about Canada; it was made in Canada; you’re Canadian and you wrote and directed it. Was there a point in time where it occurred to you that this film was truly an important film to be made?
PG: You try to resist those thoughts because they tend to create a false vanity and expectations that will never be met. I always thought that if we got to make this film and that if all of us who worked on it thought collectively that our history, that this particular piece of our military involvement, was important to us, we would all take pride in it and it would take on a meaning on a larger sense than just being a movie.
JB: This might be all too simple to say but PASSCHENDAELE is clearly a Paul Gross passion project. You’ve been working on it for so long. You directed; you produced; you wrote; you act in the film.
PG: It’s so greedy looking.
JB: Right. And that’s the danger. On paper sure, it looks like you didn’t want to let anyone else do anything but that comes from not having seen the film. Once you’ve seen it, there is no ego up there on the screen. The story stands very firmly on its own. What drove this passion for you?
PG: It’s just something I’ve been living with since I was 15. It all started with my grandfather as he fought in the war. Like so many men, he came back and he never really talked about it; I think partly, this was because people didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to describe what it was like. One day though, on a particularly auspicious day as he had finally allowed me to drive the boat while we were fishing, I didn’t even see his face; he sat in front of me, with his back to me. The first story he told me became the first scene in the film. That story framed his life; it didn’t limit his life. It shaped him. That days has stayed with me ever since.
JB: There’s this great bit in the production notes about how horrible it was to shoot the war scenes. The cast and crew, waist deep in mud, were freezing in the trenches for so many days. Ordinarily, the floor would be open to so much complaining in that scenario but yet there really was no room for it because when you think about it, the soldiers these men were portraying actually lived through the real deal. They never got a break from it; there was no hotel to go home to at the end of the night.
PG: All movies tend to have this feeling that the set is make believe and it all pretty much floats into the back of your mind. It can be great fun. We had a lot of soldiers though as extras. Apart form the fact that it was brilliant to have these people on set because, first of all, they come with their own command structure, unlike extras. They all know which end of the rifle the bullet comes out of. And they don’t like sitting around so they would all life heavy shit and move it around. They choreographed their own fights; it was fantastic. It gave the film this resonance because they could conceivably die a month later in combat. But you’re right; we would start whining about the conditions and have to stop. We knew we would have reasonably good food; we would be out of there and showering.
JB: You must have been wishing at times when you were deep in the holes that you were making MEN WITH BROOMS 2.
PG: (laughs) It was the rain. It rained for months at Passchendaele. Just recreating the battle scene took months, all in Calgary. All the water came from the Elbow River, which comes from a glacier. We would set up the shot and when everything was ready to go, the assistant director would call for “Rain up” and you would see everyone shudder. It was brutal. You couldn’t use your hands after about 10 minutes. You would have to warm them in buckets of warm water. I would lose my feet about 20 minutes in and I wouldn’t have feeling back until the end of the day.
JB: How did you persevere?
PG: It may have been the worst shooting conditions I’ve ever worked in, or anyone involved in it had ever shot in, but everyone showed up for work with this extraordinary enthusiasm. Not just the performers but everyone in the crew too. I’ve never worked on anything where everyone seemed to take ownership for it. They took a proprietorship in the project. It was truly an extraordinary thing.
JB: Now that it is all done and behind you, do you feel you did the soldiers justice?
PG: One of the great things about my job is that you get to spend time in someone else’s shoes for stretches at a time. You get to experience their circumstances. I would have at least one glimpse a day of what it was like for my grandfather. Still, I don’t understand how they did this. They had to be a whole other breed of men.
PASSCHENDAELE opens nationwide in Canada October 17th. Once the theatrical run is complete, the film will be shipped to schools across the country and the passion will continue as part of a continued education effort on Canadian history for today’s youth.