‘Passchendaele’ a labour of love
Paul Gross does not quit ñ and no, this isnít a reference to how he parlayed small screen stardom on the ë90s sleeper, ìDue South,î into leading man status in the 2002 romantic comedy ìMen With Broomsî through sheer grit.
Itís a testimonial to how he ambitiously wove the graphic First World War stories his maternal grandfather, veteran Michael Dunne, told him about life in the trenches at Passchendaele, Belgium, into an epic, feature-length film.
ìItís not Rambo or John Wayne, but itís our heroism,î Gross, 49, said in an interview days after the $20-million ìPasschendaeleî opened the Toronto International Film Festival. ìAnd I worry about us forgetting that history of the First World War, because the very definition of what it means to be Canadian was fought for in the slaughter yards of the Western front.î
A stark contrast to the countryís current role in Afghanistan, the Battle of Passchendaele saw Canadian troops waging a bloody 12-day campaign against German troops in a Belgian village. Tens of thousands were killed and the success of the victory was limited ñ the Germans eventually regained control of the territory. But the victory forged the idea that Canadian soldiers were something to fear.
ìWe are very definitely peacekeepers; we more or less invented it,î said the writer, director and star. ìBut weíre also warriors and we need to know weíre both these things. To suggest that we simply just run around keeping the peace is not accurate historically.î
But to give the battle the big screen treatment, Gross quickly found that the countryís meager film subsidies needed to be topped up by some deep-pocketed millionaires.
ìWe did begin to set it up as a UK-Canada co-production, but that proved to be too complicated. To do it that way, they wanted the main character, the one that I play (Michael Dunne, named after his grandfather), to be British.î
Admittedly intrigued by the idea of fast-tracking the film into development, Gross ultimately nixed telling his story this way. ìI wanted to make a film that was about us; not some hybrid story.î
So he abandoned the co-production route and was then faced with a problem: How do you raise $20 million domestically?
ìYou pretty much have to kill somebody,î he laughed.
After seven years, Gross cobbled together money from both public and private sources, with the Alberta government coughing up over $5 million from a centennial legacy fund.
ìThank God for Ralph Klein,î Gross said. ìThe first big stake came from Ralph Klein and the Alberta government. Without that, it would have been very hard to convince the private sector to fund this.
ìIím not saying we need to make $50 million movies every day, but some stories,î he said, pausing, ìcost a little bit more to tell.î
Money in hand, Gross began shooting the film on an aboriginal reserve outside Calgary last year. Of course seduced by big-budgeted American war movies, he may have been influenced by Spielbergís ìSaving Private Ryan,î but it was the conversations with his grandfather that dictated how he would shoot it.
ìI remember asking him, ëWhat did you know of the war? What was your war?í And my grandfather replied, ëMy war was 25 yards on either side of me.í So, the protocol for filming was; weíd only shoot those things that a soldier in a battlefield could arguably see.
ìThe immediacy of the combat scenes,î he continued, referring to a sequence when his character jabs a knife into a German soldierís head, ìhad to be effective.î
Recounting Canadaís heroism in the fall of 1917 also forced Gross to take a hard look at our current military involvement in Afghanistan.
ìI started writing this when the Russians were still in Afghanistan,î he said. ìSo, I didnít think of it in terms of contemporary relevance. It became that way when we were shooting because many of the extras in our film were actual soldiers who are in Afghanistan now.
ìItís very hard on a film set to not get sucked into the Peter Pan-y, make-believe world of it. But having soldiers with us, who were about to go into battle, made us realize the importance of the story we were telling.
ìIím not sure this will change the debate, but itís been interesting to me to follow the robust public discourse about our role in Afghanistan. And I think ultimately, no matter what your view, you can support our soldiers and honour what it is theyíre doing whether you agree with the nature of the mission they are on or not.î
ìPasschendaeleî opens across Canada today.
A labour of love, but it just isn’t a very good film!!
‘Passchendaele’ a labour of love