We’d been invited to accompany Margaret Atwood and her partner, Graeme Gibson as they headed to their island cottage during the height of the spring bird migration. Pelee Island is a favoured pit stop for migratory birds and the home of the annual Pelee Island Birdsong Festival. Teams of dedicated birdwatchers enter a 24-hour-marathon to identify the greatest number of species. The winning team receives the revered Botham Cup, and an even more coveted award, a rubber chicken, presented by the island’s queen of birders, Margaret Atwood.
We had our trusted film crew, John Westheuser and Peter Sawade, and drone team Chuck Taylor and Gabie Nadeau. We wanted to get an aerial shot of Margaret and Graeme on the ship’s deck, then lifting up to reveal the ferry steaming across the lake. Margaret and Graeme were jet lagged, having just arrived from Europe, but were game to brave the wind for the shot. But the drone refused to fly! The metal ship’s hull interfered with the GPS and remote controls, and threatened to crash the drone and its precious 4K camera into the lake.
Actors are used to waiting on set, as technical issues are sorted out, before ‘ACTION.’ But this was Margaret Atwood. No actor. She gently encouraged our little drone to fly, “Come on, drone,” she said. Miraculously, it rose off the deck into the sky and a beautiful shot was captured! That was our first taste of Atwood’s magical skills.
Thus began a two year adventure, following one of the world’s most celebrated and accomplished writers and her partner, on their world travels. The journey that began on Pelee Island, took us to Amsterdam, Wales, LA, Chicago, Boston, Cooperstown, New York, Vancouver and back to the Atwood-Gibson home in Toronto.
Our footage shot on location is woven together with personal photos, Atwood paintings and manuscripts, interviews with family, friends and excerpts from archival film and videotape unearthed from many sources. Editors Cathy Gulkin, Kathryn Lyons and Chrissy Papaioannou have done an extraordinary job putting together the feature documentary MARGARET ATWOOD: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power.
The film really began a year before that ferry trip, when two friends of Atwood and Gibson, filmmaker Peter Pearson and writer Ron Graham, suggested a documentary be made to honour their upcoming birthdays: Graeme would be 85 on August 9, 2019 and Margaret would turn 80 on November 18, 2019. Surely, their extraordinary contributions to Canadian and world literature warranted a feature film.
We were honoured to be asked, though also apprehensive. We had heard that Margaret could be “difficult” with journalists and filmmakers. But we knew we were being given an opportunity to document two remarkable Canadians. Graeme had been diagnosed with dementia (Margaret shared this difficult news in an April 2017 New Yorker article), so time was running out. We could not know that our footage would document the last two years of Graeme’s life.
We also didn’t realize the attention Margaret was about to receive as The Handmaid’s Tale TV series swept the 2017 Emmys and became an international phenomenon. The handmaid’s costume became the emblem for women rights activists around the world, especially in the US after Trump was elected. During our shoot, Margaret’s sequel, The Testaments, would be launched amidst enormous press attention and then named co-winner of the prestigious Booker Prize.
Our first task was to shoot an interview with Graeme, as his dementia was gradually worsening. We asked Emmy award-winning filmmaker, Shelly Saywell (Rape: A Crime of War) to direct the film and do the interview at Margaret and Graeme’s home. Shelley brought the brilliant cinematographer Iris Ng (Making A Murderer). Graeme was sometimes forgetful but a persistent and caring Shelly captured some lovely moments.
We pitched the film to the CBC, and, after a few months of proposal writing and meetings, they came on board, as did the Canadian Media’s POV Fund, Rogers, Ontario Creates, Telefilm Canada and Kew Media, our international distributor.
Shelley sadly bowed out of the production. She had lost her husband to cancer, and wanted time to grieve, recover and write about her loss. After considering several other directors, we decided to co-direct the film ourselves. We knew we had a terrific team: producers Connie Littlefield, Stephen Paniccia and Steve Ord, story editor Rachel Matlow, archivist Kathie McKenna and the amazing editing team of Cathy, Kathryn and Chrissy, who hunkered down for eight months in the cutting room to shape this complex story.
The main thread of the film is our journey with Margaret and Graeme as they traveled to speaking engagements, book signings and on a memorable family vacation: a circumnavigation of Iceland with their daughter, son-in law and grandson as well as Margaret’s sister and brother-in law.
The second thread explores their lives as writers and activists. Fortunately there is a goldmine of film and video footage and hundreds of photos, many from Margaret and Graeme’s personal collection. The Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at The University of Toronto is a rich repository of Atwood research materials, manuscripts, letters and artwork. Here we found Margaret’s childhood poetry and prose (her first novel, written at age eight, was the illustrated story of an ant. “It was not a great success,” Margaret admits.) We used some of her watercolours to illustrate poems from one of her best known anthologies, Power Politics. We did thirty-two interviews with Graeme and Margaret’s family, friends and colleagues, as well as a second interview with Graeme and two long interviews with Margaret, who only agreed to be interviewed after The Testaments had been delivered to her editors. We were nervous given her sometime testy responses in interviews we’d watched, but she was patient and kind to us. Her knowledge of history, politics, science and literature is prodigious. Atwood is alert to the most harrowing of today’s trends, but at the same time delights in mischief and humour. Our interviews were fascinating and fun.
At every location, she was gracious and helpful, always offering to wear a radio microphone, so we could pick up all her conversations. We filmed at public speaking events, but she also invited us to follow along when she was on her own time: exploring the streets of Amsterdam and the galleries of The Rijksmuseum; visiting Harvard with her college roommate (they discuss how Handmaid’s Tale is set on campus); at the wedding of childhood friend, Charles Pachter; in conversation with Johnnie Christmas, illustrator of her graphic novel Angel Catbird; and at home, in the kitchen, quipping with Graeme, who sips scotch as she looks through a box of old magazines and writes with a quill pen.
This journey has been an extraordinary privilege.
MARGARET ATWOOD: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power premieres in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Nov. 7
It opens theatrically beginning Nov. 8 and expands including Toronto beginning Nov. 14 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
It airs on CBC Docs Nov. 14 at 9:00 pm
Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont would like to acknowledge a host of people for their contributions to the film.
We are indebted to Peter and Ron for getting this film started. We are thankful to Margaret and Graeme for generously allowed us to intrude on their lives and hectic traveling schedule; always with a welcoming smile. And to all their family, who shared time, stories and photos. Margaret’s sister Ruth, brother Harold, Margaret and Graeme’s daughter Jess, Graeme’s son Matthew, Phoebe Larmore, long-time agent and friend, biographer Rosemary Sullivan, writer/friends Susan Swan, Rick Salutin, Sarah Polley, Charles Pachter, Margaret’s first husband Jim Polk, Harvard roommate Susan Milmoe, U of T classmate Adrienne Clarkson, publishers Louise Dennys and Liz Calder, and so many others.
Thanks to the CBC for their faith and patience, and all the broadcasters and streaming services in the U.S. (Hulu), Europe (ARTE), Sky-UK and elsewhere for acquiring our film. We hope our documentary is screened in theatres, and seen on television, on line and in classrooms for many years to come.
The film is dedicated to Graeme Gibson.
1934 – 2019
Sing on, Sing on