From Critic to Filmmaker: Brian D. Johnson on Al Purdy Was Here

The first famous film critic I ever met was Brian Johnson. I was a student who talked my way into Cannes, covering my first festival, and he took time to talk to this long haired intruder into his domain with the affability and kindness that many who have met him can attest to. For decades he was the face of Maclean’s Magazine’s film coverage, writing pithy and witty articles about cinema, helming the Toronto Film Critics Association, and even being one of the primary documenters of the history of TIFF. 

At Toronto’s fest this year the tables were turned slightly as Johnson’s own remarkable film, Al Purdy Was Here, bowed to audiences. Tracing the life and work of this Canadian poet, the film exhibits Johnson’s love of music, his capacious address book to draw upon for participants and a deft touch at bringing the poetic into a cinematic landscape.

We spoke at length over coffee prior to his film’s first screening, delving into the change from critic to director, and how the journey of this film transformed over the years he worked on it. With the film set to begin a theatrical run in Toronto, and is being showcased at the Whistler International Film Festival, the time is ripe for audiences to take a chance on this doc.

Dork Shelf: Amusingly, perhaps shamefully, I’d not heard of Purdy before you made this project, despite once-upon-a-time being an English major at University. What was your introduction to the man and his work? 

Brian Johnson: I first encountered Al Purdy looking at archival footage of him to cut a reel for an A-Frame benefit show at Koerner Hall in February 2013. I really wasn’t familiar with his story or his work when I was growing up as they didn’t teach him. 

I owe the film to my wife, Marni Jackson, who is a writer. She did know Purdy’s work and had interviewed him for a TVO show called Imprint. When she picked up this volume called The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology published in 2009, some sort of lightbulb went off in her head. This was a little book that was put out to launch the campaign to save and restore the A-Frame, Al’s home for half a century, as a writing retreat. The book was full of all kinds of great interviews, essays, reminiscences from people who were habitués of the A-Frame – not just big names like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Dennis Lee, but all kinds of people. She read that book and thought Purdy would make for a great play. She started writing a work which would cover the period from the building of the A-Frame to his first success with his first Governor General’s award. In the process she got drawn in to the A-Frame campaign and scripted and helped organize the show at Koerner Hall. She asked me to cut a montage – That’s something I do as a hobby, and I’ve done it for years for the TFCA. 

That was really my first encounter with Al Purdy – They gave me a couple of documentaries and I thought wow, this guy’s really interesting. The footage was great, but I didn’t immediately say “I’ll make a movie!” It took a while. Right before the show I asked if anybody was shooting it for posterity, and they said no. I organized a 3 camera shoot the day before, very slapdash kind of thing, and then we had footage. So the question becomes, what do you do with the footage? I thought, well, maybe a TV half hour, but I didn’t know how you’d arrange that. It just lay fallow for a while.

At the benefit there had been people like Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip and the Skydiggers, various singers and songwriters at the show. I thought the next thing we should do is the “Al Purdy Songbook” – recruit these artists to compose and record music inspired by Purdy. Songwriters are akin to the poets – they look up to the poets, and they have an even larger audience. They could expand the demographic for the fundraising thing. 

I let it lay dormant and  continued on as a film critic for another 8 months and then I left Maclean’s at the end of 2013. I then  started thinking about the projects, with the idea of putting the two things together. I thought if we try to create a fundraising album I could then use the music to juice up the idea of a Purdy documentary. 

The idea of just doing an archival documentary about Purdy was not interesting to me but I thought there was a good story in the A-Frame campaign, with the idea of turning his home into a retreat for young poets. And I think that the idea that young poets and musicians and all kinds of people get excited by a dead white poet was interesting. 

In other words, I’d almost stated pitching the film as a project before I really deeply read Al Purdy. 


DS: What for you distinguishes a cinematic documentary vs just a television or journalistic documentary?

BJ: Well, people use the word poetic a lot to describe things other than poetry, and one of the things they use it to describe that way is cinema. When you say, “oh, that film is really poetic”, what they really mean is it was cinematic. It didn’t just tell you things, it didn’t just have a good story, it isn’t just like the characters, or that it told you things you didn’t know, it’s that it did something to you that was more metaphysical. It did something to you akin to what a poem would do to you. 

That’s the side of cinema that interests me most. It’s the way the image and the sound, the music, can move you in mysterious ways.

I think perhaps what most distinguishes a cinematic doc from a TV doc is the element of mystery. I think Errol Morris is really good about that. I mean, he basically is a metaphysical philosopher. The film that made him famous is the one in which the data that proved a convicted man’s innocence, The Thin Blue Line, the data was paramount. But I don’t think that’s what he found most interesting about his movie. It was more the way it looked, the way it played upon the emotions, what it did to your head. 

There’s many kinds of documentary. With mine there’s a strong kind of biographical element to it, it isn’t all sort of transcendent cinema, but definitely I looked forward to the parts where we could really have some fun with the poetry and the music and the landscapes, the photography, the text. The last thing I wanted was just talking heads. They’re necessary, but it’s not your favourite part.

DS: When you were going through the process of actually cutting the film down, did those more poetic elements come together quicker or did you spend more time tweaking the talking heads elements?

BJ: I think the most difficult thing about editing the film was the narrative. Just to figure out how to intertwine the contemporary narrative with the biographical, archival narrative. To keep those two storylines alive we developed them both chronologically in parallel, to try to tell both of those stories elegantly. I think that’s always the most difficult thing with a documentary – you’ve got a very short time where you have to convey a lot of information. Most of it has to happen in the first act, which is very difficult because it can feel really clunky and awkward if you’re not careful. The poetry was a gift, the music was a gift, and that’s where you get to fly, that’s the fun part. That wasn’t difficult, that was an opportunity. 

The difficult part was trying to establish the character, the story, why it matters, you know, the issues involved. And you always feel you have to establish everything at once, that’s the most difficult part. First acts are hard.

DS: Can you please talk about one of those moments where you felt, you hit that wall and you didn’t know how you were going to get through it and then you actually got through it?

BJ: There were many walls. I’ve heard other filmmakers who say the worst moment of making any film is the rough cut. You have put the film together, and that’s sort of as good as you can do up to that point, but the flaws become apparent even before you show it. 

You talk about my role as a film critic, well, after we showed the rough cut, my essay length memo to the crew was like a savage ripping apart of the film. I put my critic hat on and just went to town on the rough cut as a film critic. It was no different – well, I was probably not as kind as if I were a film critic.

Every filmmaker is a film critic at some point in the process of making the film. 

DS: How do you feel now that those critical challenges have been rectified?

BJ: Well of course, they say films are not finished, and documentaries in particular, are never finished, they’re just abandoned. We kept pushing the deadlines – originally, I think we were aiming for Hot Docs [in Spring 2015]. You just keep pushing and spending. The ultimate wall is lock cut when you can’t change another thing. And then you have to accept the result. But you would just keep making the film if you could.

DS: How has your connection changed to Purdy’s poetry?

BJ: I didn’t know his poetry before I started and we just kept reading and reading it all the way through production and editing. I read an awful lot of it when I was casting the songbook. I kept looking for poems for people to adapt or just presenting poems. I sent “My ’48 Pontiac” to Neil Young. It’s a wonderful poem set in an auto junkyard. Neil loved it, he liked the project, we asked him to write a song based on ’48 Pontiac. He didn’t write a song, or maybe he’s still writing one for all I know. But when it came time, you had this temp song on the soundtrack, the live recording of “Journey Through the Past” from Massey Hall in 1971, and we asked for permission to use it and he gave it to us for free.

That’s not your question! [Laughs]

The way things are supposed to happen is I would have devoured all of Al’s poetry, I would have researched all of his archival footage, and then I would have pitched the film. This is cart before the horse stuff – the film was underway and I was still catching up to Al Purdy.

I kept being amazed because just when you think you’ve got a bead on it, you read something else that is totally different and it shatters the view of him. He’s famous for his kind of bravado, Bukowski-like alcoholic posturing. He basically did everything he could to reinforce that persona, he played his hits. But if you go beyond the hits you realize there’s not just a Canadian Bukowski, but a Canadian Walt Whitman here as well. There are a lot of great, transcendental moments and you soon realize you’re inside a pretty amazing mind. 

Purdy had a knack for letting you see how his mind works within the body of a poem. You see the poetry being written almost as kind of live performance art. That’s not to say the poems aren’t very carefully constructed, because, as most writers know, when something looks like it’s been gracefully tossed off it’s often the 5th draft. My editor Nick Taylor was also reading the poetry – he majored in literature and film. I’d come in to the editing room, and he’s discovered “The Archeology of Snow”, and he’s shot a temp drone shot with his iPhone over the page. It’s there in the cut, and we end up reshooting it with a proper camera. Was that my idea? No! That goes above and beyond the call of duty of what an editor would normally be doing. He was digging into the archives, he was reading poetry, he was overstepping his bounds in a terrific way. 

It’s true that editors write films to some extent, so when your editor is helping in the authoring the film it’s interesting. It creates beneficial conflict.

DS: Part of making sure it’s good and not, uh, “not good” is to avoid hagiography. One way you do that is you bring in, fairly late in the film, the other side to the man. That’s obviously conscious – we have until then a very clear, bucolic view of him and his wife and this beautiful relationship and everything’s sort of OK, and then you bring that in to complicate things.

BJ: I was always worried about hagiography because you know, let’s face it, this film grew out of a campaign to preserve Al’s A-Frame as a writing retreat.

DS: …with the presupposition that it’s worth preserving.

BJ: Yeah, it came out of a promotional context. But as soon as I presented the idea of making a documentary, I very much knew I did not want to do a simple biographical or archival documentary. I wanted to make a contemporary film about  artists young and old inspired by Al Purdy and the A-Frame campaign. I thought the biographical stuff, you know, it’ll be there to sort of establish him. 

Films change as you make them, and I began to realize that Purdy was the most compelling thing about the film. Why ignore that? I showed a rough cut to an audience and everybody said give us more Purdy, give us more poetry. Al Purdy kind of took over the film to a certain extent as we were making it.

I don’t mean that in the sense that it turned into more of a kind of reverential portrait, far from it. I mean, I knew from the beginning that Purdy hated flattery. Somebody gave him a flattering introduction at a poetry reading, he’d like toss a bottle of beer over the guys’ head. That didn’t mean that he didn’t have a big ego, but a flattering portrait of Purdy would not even be Purdy-esque. It would be contrary to his spirit. 

There’s never been a biography of Al Purdy, it’s never been written, it’s never been published, nobody’s gotten near it. That’s partly because his widow, Eurithe, is so protective of their private life. She was fiercely protective. Then family secrets started to emerge. The major secret that did emerge, it actually was out there hiding in plain sight, it was on the public record, but it wasn’t part of the Purdy myth, it wasn’t part of his legend, wasn’t part of the official story, and Al had never alluded to it in his own memoirs.

When we dug this stuff up, it was like being presented with sort of a box of dark matter and it was very powerful. You don’t want to tilt the whole balance of the film off, but I did realize this could ensure the film would not be a hagiography and we would have a multi-faceted portrait of a complicated character. 

Purdy’s heroic, there’s no doubt. Anybody who is a high school dropout who writes about riding frieght trains and working in mattress factories, who busts into the literati by sheer force of will after two decades of writing bad poetry, there’s no doubt this is a heroic story. It’s also a tragic story because it’s about what gets left behind, what gets crushed and sacrificed along the trail of artistic ambitions. Eurithe Purdy, his widow, is the heroine of this film, really. We just found her increasingly compelling. 

So I thought, oh, we’re going to the A-Frame, I guess we’d better interview the widow.

DS: And she agreed to that without having story control?

BJ: There were no conditions. What I did was I didn’t negotiate for rights to the poetry. I made an offer which was very generous. I took a significant slice of our budget and I said, why don’t we pay this for the rights to use the poetry, and all of that should go to the A-Frame campaign. That way, I thought, we’ve paid our dues, we’ve paid handsomely for the poetry, and we’ve earned the right to make an independent documentary that is not beholden to anybody. Not to the A-Frame campaign, not to Eurithe. We’ve bought our artistic freedom here. 

I thought the worst thing for the film, and in the end even for the campaign would be if this came across as a promotional film for the campaign or for Al Purdy. I mean, I think there is an inspirational element to it, obviously, I think we like Al Purdy, Katherine Leighton is the first poet who comes in. She’s interesting – she’s a feminist, she’s the antithesis of Al Purdy. She’s young and beautiful, none of that hurts.

Al Purdy Was Here

DS: Did you get to a moment where you thought, well, maybe I shouldn’t incorporate this for political reasons, fundraising reasons, whatever the reasons, aesthetic reasons, whatever they are, you could have the confidence of knowing that you can go into a little bit of that hearts of darkness because it’s certainly what he does with his own poetry?

BJ: Purdy wanders in dark areas. We left stuff out – He wrote a poem about his son with Eurithe, not a very well-known poem. You have to dig to find it, and it’s not a good poem, but basically he sort of regrets his son. It’s an awful poem, it’s toxic. We talked about including it, and if it were a better poem I might have done. But I didn’t want a bad poem in this film. Also, it would have tilted the whole thing more than perhaps it deserved to.

DS: I’m much better adjudicating a good vs a bad film than good vs bad poetry. How did your own reaction to the poetry change?

BJ: Well, Al’s poetry is not coded. You don’t need a degree to figure it out. What you see is what you get. 

DS: So what counts as a bad poem for you of his? I don’t mean titles, I mean structurally.

BJ: Oh, in this particular case, it just seemed like kind of an outburst. It didn’t transcend its subject. 

When Al was recording his poems for the radio, and we went through a lot of audio recordings of his work too, he didn’t always read his poetry well. He often kind of throws it away. The readings we had in there from Al are exceptionally good for him. He would say his poems are are a kind of memoir, sometimes you are just reading a memoir. Even if it’s memoir of the moment, in the mind of a poet, looking at ice freezing at night in front of his cabin in the lake and what goes through his mind, or whether he’s in the Arctic, thinking about trees or rhododendrons, it’s where his mind goes. 

What makes it a good poem is if he’s honest with himself and he lets his mind go where it wants to go and it’s not just an attitude that is expressed. 

DS: It’s the ephemeral and the transcendent 

BJ: It’s how far the poem goes and where it takes you. One of the amazing things about Al’s poetry, is the way that it will go off in one direction and then sort of slam on the brakes and whip the steering wheel around and barrel off into another unknown direction. There are great moments like that where you feel that he’s writing in real time in front of you. It feels very active, not sort of something that, what’s the Wordsworth phrase? That sort of recollection after the fact. No, you feel that you’re there in the moment with him, which is what makes his poetry great.

There’s a level of detail with what he sees as a writer. I’m a writer, making a movie about a writer, and I find it exciting to try to see in terms of what he observes. So much of writing is what you decide to look at, what you decide to notice and what order you put it in, where you find a narrative maybe where none exists. 

DS: Leonard Cohen seems a key figure at least in that short period of time that he was in Montreal. Just as he was, you talked about in the film, going from a shit poet to an extraordinary one.

BJ: I think Irving Layton was much more important than Leonard was.

DS: And Layton’s included in a much more overt way.

BJ: Well, yeah, we didn’t get to, a longer film, more biographical film, we could have got more deeply into his relationship with Irving Layton. It’s interesting that Purdy’s legend has survived, whereas Layton’s not so much. Layton was the poet at the time. Cohen as well, but when Cohen became a songwriter, then he’s no longer just a poet, right? He’s in the tower of song. You can’t really compare Leonard Cohen to the rest of the gang.

I think for Purdy to meet these people in Montreal, he was definitely from another planet. They were very well educated and sophisticated. Leonard in particular was a creature unlike anybody. I think even back then, he had sort of a monk like aura about him. I think Al talks about it in his memoir, I think he was probably intimidated by Leonard and impressed by him, and then he went on to criticize. He reviewed one of Leonard’s books and gave it a mixed review. They were never close. 

Leonard I don’t think had influence on him. I think Irving Layton had some influence on him, on Purdy, but I don’t think Leonard had any direct influence because he was in another world.

DS: Yet at least Leonard could see in him whatever, a colleague, a compatriot, however you want to put it. He contributes a beautiful reading of one of his poems, which is much more than just sort of hey, man, remember that time on St. Catherine Street or whatever.

BJ: Leonard wouldn’t go on camera, yet it’s a blessing to have Leonard’s voice with the footage that we have. It is better than sitting in a room with a camera having Leonard reading. It wasn’t the first poem I gave him – originally I gave him a longer, more canonical poem, “The Country North of Belleville” and he couldn’t make head nor tail of it, having to pronounce all of these Scottish names. I said well, if you’re not fond of it, if the poem doesn’t work for you, I don’t want to , don’t want you to force yourself to read it, so I went back to “Necropsy of Love”. I though, oh, this is so much like a Leonard Cohen poem that it’s too on the nose, I can’t give him that, it’s too easy, too close, but you know, sometimes the obvious thing is the best thing and he makes it his own. If we didn’t have the title graphic saying that it’s Leonard reading the “Necropsy of Love by Al Purdy” people would just assume it was a Cohen poem. 

It’s so touching. Leonard has turned 80 and it seems so personal him. The poem’s about mortality and love, sex and death which are what he’s all about. In that poem you can see the connection between Leonard and Purdy which you might never guess is there. 

DS: What films did you draw upon to prepare for this work?

BJ: I wish I was one of those directors who did my homework like that and watched a whole bunch of films.

DS: You have a lifetime of watching documentaries.

BJ: I know, but I never really had time to do that. I had interesting conflicts with my editor in terms of what he calls a radio edit of the dialogue, in other words cutting the footage without regard to the visuals And then building visuals on top. The notion of b-roll and that became a real kind of aesthetic debate that we had. At a certain point I said I don’t want any b-roll in this movie, I want it to be all a-roll. I thought b-roll was like just the fact that visuals should be, should be considered secondary and I think that’s out of a certain TV documentary tradition. 

DS: Is there a film that you may appreciate and respond to but knew that wasn’t the film you were going to make?

BJ: I didn’t really have a precedent for the kind of movie I was making. It would have been great to have made a totally poetic film, not just a film about poets, in which it was all much more kind of, well, if there were no talking heads.

DS: All ethereal and transcendent?

BJ: Yeah, but you make the film that has to be made. I didn’t start out saying I have to make a film, oh well, I’ll find a subject. There’s this film that has to be made, and if I don’t make it, nobody else will. I was serving the film before I had even written my first treatment for it. 

The film develops a character and you push it this way and that, but increasingly, it’s a question of what does the film want to be. That sounds almost new age-y which is not what I mean it to sound like. I guess I’m just saying that it’s all about the material. 

To that extent, coming full circle, it’s not that different from journalism, where it’s really all about the material. It’s working with the material, and you’ve got to bring out the material in the way that best serves the story and the characters. That’s all you’ve got. Stories, characters and images. I’m always a sucker for image, you know, and the stuff I like most was, the stuff that I enjoyed doing most was putting landscape, music and words together.

DS: And some crazy drone shots over lakes.

BJ: Yeah, well, that was a directorial indulgence when I said let’s hire a drone crew. We talked these guys into giving us a great deal. We went out there for a day with a drone crew, I thought it was like my version of the crane shot. The director has to have his crane shot! Little did I know that it turned out to be invaluable and you can’t imagine the movie without it. It wasn’t indulgence because without seeing the kind of landscape that Purdy.. I mean, he’s so much about landscape that it seemed essential. 

DS: Could you have made this same film without being a film critic?

BJ: Well, yeah, I think so. You see, I don’t see myself as a film critic. That’s the first mistake. I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer. You know, it’s funny, it’s like the way you ask a Quebecois, how do you define yourself? Are you a Canadian first or a Quebecois first? Well, I’m a writer first, a journalist second and a film critic third. Film critic is the narrowest version of how I see myself. I was a journalist long before I was a film critic. I came to it somewhat reluctantly. It landed in my lap, I was a bit suspicious of the whole notion of slinging opinions around because I thought that was bad journalism. I got used to it.

DS: Do you love filmmaking in the way that you love writing?

BJ: I love it more than my writing because it seems like more of an actual thing, like an object. I can more easily love other people’s work than I can love my own work, and there’s a lot of other people’s work in this film. I can love Sarah Harmer’s song and Leonard’s reading, and Nick de Pencier’s photography and Al Purdy’s poetry. Although I’m trying to make a work of art here, it’s still secondary work. I’m making art about other people’s art and I’m conveying other people’s work to the screen, I’m performing a service. 

DS: In some ways, and in the best possible way, you’re being a critic, just in a differing idiom.

BJ: Yes, that’s related to criticism. Our only worth as film critics is bringing films to people’s minds. I’ve always thought the most important part of a film critic’s job is to bring a movie alive for someone on the page as a writer. Yes, we’re interested to know what you think of it, but if you don’t do that job to begin with, what you think of it doesn’t matter. Obviously if the art is not worth serving, then your commentary kind of trumps your perceptions, your conveyance of the material, but really your job is there to see the film and to notice things and put them together and make it interesting. 

It was the same thing with Purdy – Make him interesting.