Writer/director Michael McGowan has one of the most eclectic resumes in Canadian film, creating everything from a comedy about a 9-year-old attempting to win The Boston Marathon in the 1950s (Saint Ralph) to an introspective road movie (One Week) and a musical about hockey (Score: A Hockey Musical, obviously). Yet, his latest feature Still Mine might be his most unexpected project to date. Inspired by the true story of Craig Morrison, it’s about an 88-year-old man (James Cromwell) who decides to personally build a house for his dying wife only to face a bizarre series of legal battles with city councilmen.
It’s not exactly Iron Man 3 or like any other movie on screens at the moment, but it is deeply moving and unexpectedly funny story of overcoming adversity with far more universal appeal that the subject matter suggests. Even though the movie unlike anything the filmmaker attempted before, the project falls perfectly into McGowan’s skill set of subverting expectations and creating rich characters filled with life and complexity. Still Mine was a hit at last year’s TIFF and an award-winner at the 2012 Genies, yet makes it’s official theatrical debut this week and should not be missed by anyone looking for an alternative to the robo-suit battles opening on neighboring screens. We recently got a chance to chat with Michael McGowan who opened up about the origins, inspirations, ideas, and work behind his rather wonderful new little film Still Mine.
Dork Shelf: How did you first discover this story and what made you think it would work as a film?
Michael McGowan: Well, I read an article in the Globe and Mail in November 2002. I’d been working on a script with similar themes and thought, “this is even better and true.” The initial reaction was, “Holy smokes, here’s a guy that’s 88 years old who is starting to build his own house.” You could make a documentary about that. Then the building department was just irrational and insane. And there’s this love story, which is what the movie is about. So, I met Craig Morrison real family and they were charming. I spent a few weeks speaking to everyone from his lawyer to the reporter who wrote the article. It really felt like a gift. You’re always looking for the next thing and it had everything I was looking for.
DS: What was the story that you were initially working on that was similar?
MM: It was not good (laughs). It was about a guy whose wife died and he was wondering whether he should give up or move on. That’s what attracted me to Craig’s story. Here was a guy still going at his age.
DS: How involved was Craig with your film. Was it just initial research conversations or anything more than that?
MM: Well, I’d call him if I needed clarification, but it wasn’t a documentary. I very much approached it in a “based on a true story” way. If you read the article in the Globe, you’ll see there are tons of similarities and there are things that I wholesale invented. It’s interesting. You go ahead and make the story that you’re going to make and then you forget that it’s a true story. Then you realize that the family is going to see it and wonder how that will work out. To the credit of the family, Craig and everyone who saw the film really embraced it. Weirdly some of the stuff I made up turned out to be true and they’d wonder how I knew about it. Ultimately, I wanted the spirit of the Craig that I knew to be represented in the film and it was.
DS: The character in your film is very stuck in his ways and I’m not sure what Craig’s like, but it made me wonder if he would be concerned about the film deviating in any way from what happened?
MM: No, he was absolutely fine with that. I was very upfront and said, “I’m going to stay true to the spirit, but I’m going to change things.” Actually what happened to him in court and the legality of things was even crazier to the point that I thought if I didn’t change it, nobody would believe it.
DS: Like what?
MM: He went to court six times. Craig admitted that he got off on the wrong foot and that made things worse. He cut down the strongest wood there was in the area and they rejected it. Then he got a wind inspector to stamp it and they still rejected it. That kind of stuff. It was just crazy.
DS: Was it a challenge when you were writing it to avoid turning the movie into a courtroom drama rather than the love story that is the focus now?
MM: No, it kind of evolved that way. When I was writing, I never wanted the uplifting element of the story to come at the expense of a cliché. It would have been easy to make the story a rousing fighting-against-the-system courtroom drama, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about the dignity of the man and the exploration of the love story. That’s what I was interested in.
DS: When you bring someone like James Cromwell in to star as Craig, did you cater the script to him at all?
MM: Certainly we went back and forth on the script a bit. He’s a great collaborator. He comes as James Cromwell, but you get to know Jamie. He’s the type of actor that’s smart and not afraid to ask a question. But if the answer isn’t what he wants, he’s not afraid to say, “Oh, okay.” So the collaboration becomes about how to make the best film. It isn’t about someone proving they’re right. I really valued that with James because it made the film better. But you know, it’s Craig story and you don’t change that. It’s more just about changing words to make him comfortable speaking the lines and all actors do that. That doesn’t bother me at all. When I’m directing I don’t watch the script while they’re saying the lines. My words aren’t sacrosanct. The only thing I’m looking for is if it sounds right. It’s always fun working on those collaborations with an actor.
DS: Were you intimidated about working with an actor of his stature at all?
MM: You can’t be, really. I think with any actor, no matter how big or small, the key thing is to create an environment where they are comfortable enough to do their best work. That’s one of my most important jobs as a director. Every actor from James to Genevieve to Joshua Jackson to Jennifer Tilly want to be directed. So I just listen and comment. It’s about reading people and reading what they need rather than forcing anything on someone. To me, directing is like hosting. You want to make the actor and the entire crew feel like they can do the best work possible. Ultimately, it’s only going to make your life easier.
DS: It was fantastic that you got Genevieve Bujold because I was starting to think she’d retired.
MM: Well, she did The Trotsky a couple of years ago. I got in touch with the people who made that for advice and they told me, “Just send her the script, if she likes it she’ll do it.” It was incredible working with her. Once you have too incredible actors like that saying your words, you’re way further along in the process than most people. I think she just didn’t get that many opportunities by choice to do this type of role and it seemed to really appeal to her. I got lucky.
DS: How about the dementia aspect of her character? Did you two put a lot of effort into making that as accurate as possible?
MM: Yeah, my father-in-law has Alzheimer’s so for me, it was irrefutable that I knew the effects of how it went. I knew what could go wrong and used that as a template for writing her character. Unfortunately, I had enough firsthand experience to know how to write it.
DS: Was it tough for you as a writer to write for characters in such a drastically different stage of their lives than you?
MM: It’s interesting, I don’t really look at it like that. You know, I met Craig and I think I’ve got a pretty good ear for dialogue. I taped our conversations and tried to listen for rhythms and things until I had his voice in my head. I think the mistake most writers make when writing for old people is to make them grouchy cartoon grandfathers. For me, it’s easy. You just project yourself or you think of your parents. It’s not like trying to write for aliens. These are people who exist, you know?
DS: Did you consciously try to make a small and character driven film after Score: A Hockey Musical?
MM: No, I love the hockey musical. We didn’t have the success we were hoping for in the marketplace, but it’s not like I was running away from it or anything. You know, if you asked me what I was going to do next, I couldn’t tell you. It’s not like I think, “Now I’ve checked that off the list and don’t want to do that again.” This story just came to me and I thought it would be fantastic. To me, if you find the story that you think is right, you go down that path no matter what. This one was just easy to see how it could work as a movie. As soon as I read the article I wanted to run out to New Brunswick because I was worried there would be people already there trying to make the movie.
DS: In general, do you find it difficult to convince American actors to come up to Canada to work on smaller films like this?
MM: Nah, it’s pretty binary. If they like the material, they’ll embrace it. I think if you give someone a good script and they embrace it, they’ll consider it. The problem is that if you’re trying to go after the most famous person in the world, you’ll have to jump through all sorts of hoops. But if you’ve got a legitimate monetary offer on the table, then the agent will at least take a look at it and if they like the material, they’ll pass it along to their client. Shooting is a five-week process for them. So, I think it’s as simple as, if you have something that will resonate with the actor you’re looking for, it’s possible. If you don’t, it won’t happen. They get the drill. DS: Would you ever write a script and not direct it?
MM: No. I’m not writing scripts for someone else because I don’t need to. If I did, I would. But I love the idea of being at home and writing for a chunk, going out to make the film, and then returning to the cave and being away from people for a while. It’s a nice balance for me. I don’t think I could just write eight hours a day and that would be it. That’s just not my personality. But I love having period of that and then coming out of the cave to direct. But you know, if someone said, “We love your script but Michael Bay wants to direct it for $200 million, here’s a few million to go away” I can live with that disappointment.
DS: You know, I would be very interested to see Michael Bay’s version of Still Mine.
MM: (Laughs) Oh me too, but this was never out to other people. Maybe next time.