Veteran filmmaker Alan Zweig returns to the life and hard times of Steve Fonyo in Hope. The doc continues the story that began in Hurt, Zweig’s 2015 film about the fallen Canadian hero who once ran across Canada and raised awareness for cancer before descending into a trap of drugs, violence, and petty crime. Hurt, a tough and powerful portrait of addiction and mental illness is arguably Zweig’s most acclaimed film to date, having won the inaugural Platform competition at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Screen Award for best documentary feature.
The follow-up sees Fonyo back in his old routine. Zweig’s cameras accompany Fonyo to rehab centres to watch and see if he gets better. The result is an unexpected emotional journey as one rides along the ups and downs of Fonyo’s rocky and reluctant road to recovery. While the images of Hurt might be more raw and unflinching, Hope is the more challenging of the two films as it tests one’s limits and asks if people can ultimately change. Ahead of Hope’s world premiere at Hot Docs, POV sat down with Zweig to discuss his new doc and journey with Fonyo to date. It’s been a rocky trip, but one that reminds us that riding out a tough wave sometimes comes out all right in the end.
POV: Pat Mullen
AZ: Alan Zweig
POV: How was it going back?
AZ: I was really afraid that by the very nature of making a sequel, and doing something as static as a man in rehab, that I was going to do my very first genuinely bad film. I thought it was a trap because we made a good film and it had a nice ending.
POV: When we last talked at TIFF, you mentioned that this film was in the works or being planned. About how far after Hurt is Hope?
AZ: We came back from shooting Hurt in February of 2015 and Steve had been stabbed—everyone knows and it was in the news that he was stabbed in a home invasion—and [producer] Peter [Gentile] talked to Super Channel. I don’t know who pitched who. I was just starting to cut Hurt — they hadn’t seen a frame of it — but they said they would be interested in a sequel to see what happens next.
POV: Yes, the films have nice endings that leave you wanting to know more.
AZ: Some bits were shot by someone else the next year and I started shooting the sequel in June 2016. One of the reasons I pushed to have a different film was because not much changed. Steve went back; he wasn’t going anywhere; he was in jail; he was the same guy, but with brain damage and slurred speech. That would have been making the same film again. I didn’t want to do that. I thought the only way to do this was to make a film about trying to help Steve.
POV: Did you find Steve changed with the premiere of Hurt? He seemed overwhelmed at Toronto and in the footage.
AZ: It’s a difficult thing to talk about, which I tried to make an issue in Hope when I asked the doctor if the presence of the camera was hurting him. He made an interesting point and said that even when the cameras aren’t on, Steve still talks as if the cameras are on. Making him famous and well known to Canadians has very mixed blessings for him. He enjoys it, but I don’t think it makes him better. You could make the same argument for this film as you did for Hurt. I thought that this film wouldn’t get out there as much as that one—maybe it’ll be at Hot Docs or on TV, I thought—but I was saying maybe he shouldn’t be back on the hustings promoting this film. It’s pretty clear that recognising him as a hero didn’t help him much 30 years ago and I don’t think it’s helping him much now.
POV: You’re right.
AZ: On the other hand, him thinking that Canadians don’t hate him, aren’t disappointed by his downfall, and are still pulling for him, probably helps him a bit. He felt abandoned and hated by this country that made him a hero. It’s a mixed blessing, but five years from now, I hope he’s over it and that there are no more parades.
POV: I think that by the end, it seems like a baby step in terms of his recovery.
AZ: I think a baby step is true and is something that I hoped would happen when we started the film, but that I didn’t predict while making it. I think anyone watching the film would be surprised by that.
POV: What I found interesting about the film was that Steve let me down this time. I was really inspired by the last one and struggled with seeing how people were around to help him, but that he kept falling back into the same routine. Why did you stick with him? Many people might have walked away and said ‘screw you’ given some of his behaviour.
AZ: The one simple thing is that I was making a film and had a responsibility to a lot of people, including him, to finish it. The other reason is that he’s not as fucked up as he appears to be. I think he has a hard time taking help and accepting things. I don’t think that means that he doesn’t. What it comes down to is that I’ve had pressures in my life where I’ve felt under the gun to change and I’ve rebelled against that pressure. I thought it was impossible, but then seeing that a tiny change, even if it wasn’t enough for the other person, made a big difference to me. With Steve, I could almost call the film Hope Against Hope because I was hoping against hope that someone would say the right thing or that he would look at the right tree and that just a little click would happen. In Hurt, when we took him to Dr. Gabor Maté, it felt like there was a moment where his third eye opened, so I thought it was worth waiting. I’m very aware of the dynamic that audiences might be frustrated. It’s part of the story.
POV: It’s interesting because you don’t realise how much of a relationship you have with someone you watched two years ago. In a different, way, his girlfriend, Lisa Marie, has a much bigger presence in this film. I was surprised to see her even though she was at the TIFF premiere.
AZ: In the last film, I knew that people were going to see her as a sort of villain and I didn’t want to go out of my way to prove that she wasn’t one. In this film, she was playing a much different role and it was a much different relationship, and it played to her strengths. Their relationship becomes more significant. You could almost say there’s a love triangle with them and the dog.
POV: Yes, the dog is a great character!
AZ: I’m glad that people aren’t going to hiss when Lisa Marie shows herself in this film when I knew, and she knew, that they had a complicated, combative relationship in the first film. I’m glad she comes off better in this one.
POV: She’s a nice coincidence as a presence because no matter who frustrated you are watching Steve, you see Lisa Marie and she reminds you that people can change.
AZ: She is weirdly the voice of reason. She’d tell me that I was expecting too much but that something was possible. I’m glad she was there as a foil for me, so I could be a little pessimistic and she could pull me back.
POV: It seems like there was a lot of tension with Steven and you, like when he brings up money and hustled you to pay his rent. Have you experienced something like that before?
AZ: When we dominate somebody’s life for two months, I think we owed him a little something, but not quite that. Actually, we were going to give the money to the centre and say, “If he lasts and if you think he deserves it, there’s a little bit of money at the end.” It’s funny that you say that, though, because I’m making a film in Nunavut right now and everybody expects to get paid. It’s tradition. If you’re making a documentary in Nunavut, a half-hour interview is fifty bucks. An hour, a hundred.
POV: Oh really? Interesting. I haven’t heard that.
AZ: We pride ourselves that we don’t pay people, chequebook journalism, but I’ve given honorariums before. What’s more significant is that when I say Steve needs “help,” he thinks that I mean he needs “money.” A lot of what happened in Hurt and in Hope stemmed from a conversation we had about the Order of Canada where he said, “Why don’t they see what’s up with the guy? Why don’t they offer some help?” That was really significant for me because it’s true—don’t wait for the people of Canada to come and say, “Here’s a helping hand.” On the other hand—
POV: —why don’t we?
AZ: Why don’t we? In my lifetime, I’ve had to ask for money—parents, rent—so I get that. I don’t think he feels that way exclusively though.
POV: Treatment, support, rather than take it away.
POV: Can we go back to something you mentioned earlier, about the film playing Hot Docs? I was really surprised that this didn’t play TIFF with it being the follow-up to the big Platform winner. How do you choose which festival to go to, especially in Toronto? Is it like crossing the floor?
AZ: In my life, I’ve chosen on a purely practical schedule. I’ve had six films at Hot Docs and two at TIFF and I’m trying to get another one into TIFF. If you finish in the summer, you try to get it into TIFF because a broadcaster isn’t going to wait from September until May to show it. If you finish in the winter, then you go to Hot Docs because a broadcaster isn’t going to wait from April to October. Since broadcasters always commission the films, I’ve never asked one to wait. I’m reluctant to ask. The two films I’ve had at TIFF were finished in July and August, and the ones at Hot Docs were finished in early spring. At this point, although I recognise that there is a difference between TIFF and Hot Docs, I think that the audience for my films are going to see them in any case.
POV: And with the broadcasters, you said that Super Channel was involved. Did you experience any of the problems other filmmakers had in the big debacle?
AZ: No, I didn’t. We were waiting with bated breath as one project after another was disclaimed, but ours wasn’t. I think Hurt did very well on Super Channel, but I can’t say for sure that’s the reason we weren’t disclaimed. I think it was more TV series than one-offs that were disclaimed…
POV: Kevin Nikkel wrote an article about it in the new POV and the situation seems complicated beyond my grasp.
AZ: They’ve been really good to me. TVO has been good to me, but it’s good to have more. I’ve never had a film with “those other people.” The film I’m making in Nunavut would be my ninth feature doc. One was with Canada Council money, five with TVO and three with Super Channel. If both of them went under, I’d be done.
POV: It’s tough for filmmakers in that respect.
AZ: I’ve been thinking about what to say the night of the premiere and I think it’s this: “To all the people who’ve been asking me, ‘How do I see Hurt?’ Get Super Channel. Don’t make that face.” This film wouldn’t exist without them. They paid for it. They’ve been very supportive of Canadian docs. Other premium channels aren’t. I hope they survive.
POV: Should be interesting to see how it goes. And a lot of people in Canadian film, particularly Toronto, have been making a louder issue out of funding—younger filmmakers going on about veterans and Telefilm and who should get priority. Is it much harder for you to get a film made now?
AZ: I’ve been thinking of making a turn and going to fiction ever since I made my first doc—-since that was really a detour away from fiction.
POV: You started out with plans for fiction, yes?
AZ: Documentary was never the plan for me. I was writing scripts and getting scripts in development, etc. One reason I stay with docs is that the thing you’re talking about isn’t as big of an issue. In fiction, though, I’m never going to graduate to a $1.5 or $2 million film. If I went from feature docs that cost $450,000 to a feature that runs $2 million, that’s fine with me. I get it. My friends who’ve made films for one, two, five million, the fact that they aren’t ever going to get to ten or twenty million, or even back to five, that’s not that much money for them. But for me? If I can make features for 1.5, I’d be tickled pink. But I get it. It seems like there’s a new era of filmmakers making features for $30,000 and that’s great, but in a weird way, that’s changing the model.
POV: You mean, “If he made a film for $30,000, why can’t you?”
AZ: Right. My career has never depended on the economy. It might be a bad year for movies and a good year for me or the other way around. I don’t want to be aged out. I have to make films at the same pace for ten more years. Give me ten more years before I’m aged out! [Laughs.]
POV: And in terms of future films, will we see a third part to Hurt?
AZ: No. Not from me, anyways. There are at least four entities who started films on Steve before we started Hurt, so someone could see the success that Peter and I had and make a third film, but I hope it’s a boring doc about a guy in Powell River who goes for walks and to Jehovah’s Witness meetings and fixes cars. Listen, I made a film about guys in jail [ A Hard Name ] and talked to guys who found Jesus, but I don’t really care if they take a magic pill, find Jesus or the great gorilla in the sky. At least, they’re not back in jail. I hope this works for him.
-Saturday, April 29 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7:00 PM
-Sunday, April 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10:30 AM
-Saturday, May 6 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 12:30 PM