Was it Godard or was it Truffaut who said “critics make the best directors”?
A film critic by trade and a poet in his heart, Brian D. Johnson
began his film “Al Purdy Was Here
” as a fundraising tool to save the A-frame cabin in the woods built by Canadian poet Al Purdy and his wife Eurithe. As making the film progressed, Johnson began to see much more in the film than merely a vehicle [piece] to raise money. “Al Purdy Was Here
” soon evolved into something much greater, something deeply poetic by a writer who himself treasures poetry even as he critiques films….
Brian says, “It is about art and life and the fact that they are often in conflict as we try to make our lives. Poetry is my aim…finding poetry in cinema. But music was the reason I made the film.”
Canada's leading musicians and artists come together to tell the tale of Al Purdy.
The documentary features archival materials and first-hand accounts, including interviews with his publisher Howard White, editor Sam Solecki, widow Eurithe Purdy
, poets Dennis Lee
, Steven Heighton
and George Bowering
—and Bowering's wife Jean Baird
, the powerhouse behind the campaign to save and restore Purdy's A-Frame cabin.
Read Indiewire for more about the movie here.Gordon Pinsent
(“Away from Her
”), Michael Ondaatje
(“The English Patient
”), Leonard Cohen
(“Natural Born Killers
”), Margaret Atwood
(“The Handmaid’s Tale”) all pay tribute to him along with other well known writers, actors, directors and singers who adapt his poetry.
This film premiered, naturally enough, at Tiff 2015 but I only caught up with it at Iff Panama this year because Brian – whom I met one year in Havana and loaned him $100 to pay his hotel bill -- was at Iff Panama where his film was screening. With him was our friend-in-common, Latinaphile, Helga Stephenson
, so I tagged along as a friend to see a film about a person I had never heard of before. And I was entranced by what I saw.
Al Purdy was known to be a raucous, barroom brawling Canadian poet, something on a par with Charles Bukowski
. In fact they were friends and corresponded extensively, but there is some question as to whether Purdy’s character as a barroom brawler was put on as his persona to help popularize his poetry. Was he actually such a rough person? His wife, Eurithe Purdy
, who survived him and is featured in the movie said that at home he was quite a peaceable man (when he was not boozing it up with his pals). He was also a philosophical soul, enraptured by nature—Canada's Walt Whitman
as well as its Bukowski
Sl: How did you get these musicians?
I went to the pantheon of famous Canadian singer-songwriters and asked them to compose and record music inspired by Purdy's work. We paid engineers and musicians. But the artists licensed their songs to us for free, and in return they got to own the rights to the songs.
I got in touch with Neil Young
through his brother. I loved Neil's music, and interviewed him for one of his films. Remember Neil Young: Heart of Gold
directed by Jonathan Demme
I sent Neil a Purdy poem called "My 48 Pontiac", written from the Pov of a car in a junk yard—knowing Neil loves old cars. He never did get around to recording an original number for us, but he loved the poem, and the project. So when we wanted to use "Journey Through the Past" (from Neil's 1971 Massey Hall concert album) on the soundtrack, he gave us the rights at no cost.
We selected half a dozen songs for the movie but commissioned and recorded six more, and we're assembling all of them on an album called "The Al Purdy Songbook".
Meanwhile, the film's score was composed by my son, Casey Johnson
, who recorded it all with purely analog technology—in the spirit of Purdy's rough and raw esthetic.
The music played at a 2013 benefit concert to save Purdy's cabin in the woods become the impetus for me to make the movie. I remember leaving the show and telling the organizers, "The next thing you should do is an Al Purdy Songbook.") I didn't know I'd end up doing it myself. And as it turned out, it was the music that made the film possible. Musicians are more famous than poets. They have an audience. And this is a movie about a dead poet. How do you make a movie about a dead poet?
The music brings it to life . . . I suppose I could have made a zombie movie instead.
Sl: How did you cast the movie?
You get the most famous people lined up and then the rest follow. I’m friends with Michael Ondaatje
. I know Margaret Atwood
. I know Leonard Cohen
. So I started there.
Sl: How did you finance the film?
The CBC Documentary Channel gave us 25% of the budget and that triggered the rest of the financing. The Rogers Documentary Fund and the Rogers Cable Fund became the other principal contributors.
But Ron Mann
, who exec produced, got the ball rolling, and his company, Films We Like, came onboard as the Canadian distributor. We're still looking for international distribution.
The movie felt like a barn-raising, with everyone pitching in to help make it work.Brian D. Johnso
n is former film critic for Maclean's, Canada's weekly newsmagazine, is the current president of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Over the years, he also worked as a musician and published poetry, a novel, and several works of non-fiction, including a 25th-anniversary history of Tiff, "Brave Films, Wild Nights, 25 Years of Festival Fever. "Al Purdy was Here
” (2015) is his first feature documentary. Once again he'll be writing about film for Maclean's in May at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.