John Walker’s resolute independence and willingness to tackle new topics and technical issues has led to a creative output that’s remarkable in its diversity. Yet although he’s taken on subjects as varied as the tragedy of the Innu (Place of the Boss), the fate of Cape Breton’s coal miners (Men of the Deeps) and survivors of the Holocaust (Hidden Children), there’s always a distinctive quality to this veteran filmmaker’s oeuvre. Walker’s is the work of an artist unafraid to experiment with form and content as long as he’s given free rein to put his own perspective on the film.
Take Walker’s new film Passage. The film offers a fresh take on the famed Franklin Expedition, suggesting that Hudson’s Bay Company’s Scottish employee John Rae was an unsung hero who truly found the Northwest Passage. Telling the story in his own way, Walker creates a meta-documentary in which he follows an actor playing Rae who learns about the desperate fight his subject fought to save his reputation, fatally damaged by a British Imperial elite determined to protect the ill-fated Franklin, who was one of their own, even in death. The film has garnered the CFTPA Indie Award for Best Documentary, the Atlantic Film Festival prize for Best Director and the Writers Guild of Canada award for best documentary script.
John Walker’s roots as a young, talented Montreal photographer and early work with such notable figures as documentary legend Budge Crawley, actress Jackie Burroughs and photographer Paul Strand drives home the image of someone whose commitment to the social issue doc happened in tandem with a vow to remain an independent artist.
This concluding section of POV’s John Walker interview (read part one here) encompasses the director’s latest avant-garde narrative, Passage, the early Montreal days, his time being mentored by Crawley and the first “art” films, Chambers: Tracks and Gestures, A Winter Tan and Strand: Under the Dark Cloth.
JW: John Walker
MG: Marc Glassman
MG: When I mention Passage to people, everybody remembers the Franklin Expedition. It’s considered the classic tragic tale of the search for the Northwest Passage, with the additional horror of cannibalism thrown in. When did you first find out about it?
JW: Well, the Sir John Franklin Expedition has permeated our mythology. From poems by Gwendolyn McEwan to songs by Stan Rogers to E.J. Pratt poems. You think Northwest Passage, you think Sir John Franklin. So when I first came across Ken McGoogan’s book, Fatal Passage, which has a different take on it, I found it to be an eye-opener. It brought out the character of John Rae, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Scottish doctor, and was a whole alternative story. Rae had clearly been airbrushed out of history.
MG: Did he also appeal to you because of your shared Scottish roots?
JW: No question. I mean, this is a Scot who’s hard done by British Imperialist attitudes. So that’s going to get my rankle going. This is a story that I immediately saw had three stages. Three locations. It had a doctor in Orkney, Scotland. Then it moved to a landscape that is close to my heart: the Arctic. And finally, it reached its dramatic conclusion in London, which had been the heart of the Empire.
The imperialism of the British Empire is at the centre of Passage. I had just spent a year writing a treatment on Harold Innis for what I thought was going to be my next film. I see this story through Innis: the way he looked at imperialism; the blindness at the centre in relation to the margins.
Here’s John Rae from the margins. To this day, if you mention Orkney to most people in London, they would not be able to tell you where it is. Canada’s north is on the margin, like Orkney. And here is a story that at the time was played out in the media—like the moon landing in our time. Although it all went terribly wrong. It was a sensational story, spurred on by an article by Charles Dickens. It influenced public opinion against John Rae’s point of view and the Inuit—with Dickens claiming that they were murderous cannibals. History was rewritten by the media and by the Establishment, a falsified history.
John Franklin did not find the Northwest Passage. It was a lie. Didn’t happen. And yet his monuments in Westminster Abbey and in Waterloo Place and in his hometown state that he did.
MG: Whereas in fact, he had died before finding anything…
JW: He got stuck in the ice off the west coast of King William Land. The Passage was on the east side which John Rae finally realized on his last expedition.
MG: So do you feel that Rae wasn’t given credit because of the widowed Lady Jane Franklin?
JW: Well, the story is that Rae had been with the Hudson’s Bay Company for years and years. And employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company were encouraged to learn from the people of the First Nations. They learned the language and inter-marriage was welcomed. Again, another Innis reference: he often said that Canadians have not recognized the cultural contributions of the First Nations to the development of this country. Without the culture and technology of the canoe and the snowshoe, we would not have been able to expand the territory of the fur trade across the country. The Hudson’s Bay Company understood that—and John Rae was one of them. He had respect.
Counter to that, you had the British Navy, who held the belief that going Native was denying your Christian morality. At that time it was like becoming a Communist in the 1930s. It was not done. To go Native was to admit that these so-called pagan savages were equals. That was unacceptable. So the British Navy, under Franklin, came over to find the Northwest Passage—they’d been searching for 300 years—and they took no Inuit guides. They asked for no help. Their belief was “If these savages can survive in these conditions, so can we.” And that’s where they failed. It was their arrogance.
MG: And blindness.
JW: And blindness. So what hit me with this story is not only the film taking place in locations that I love, and a story that connects to my Innis research, it is also that it’s a very contemporary story. Because this blindness of the centre to what goes on in the margins is the same today whether it’s in Ottawa, Washington or Beijing. The blindness is still there. And the manipulation of public opinion by media.
And at the centre of this story you have Charles Dickens. The great social realist. Someone who I’ve read and admired. Who had fought for the underdog. Fought for the working class. And he turns out to be a racist. A product of his times who writes this diatribe against the Inuit, accusing them of being savages, cannibals. And he had no evidence. That was a big shock, that a respected artist and writer and journalist could be blind to what was going on in the margins resonates for me to this day. Are we not doing the same thing in our writing about Afghanistan or in other parts of the world?
MG: Why did you use actors?
JW: I always felt that the only way to do history was as a full drama. I’m not satisfied with the mix of the reenactments that people do in historical documentaries. When I read McGoogan’s story, I knew right away that I had some fascinating, larger-than-life characters. I had Sir John Franklin. Lady Franklin, an incredible character. Charles Dickens. John Rae. The British Admiralty. (Although I brought out the Admiralty. The Admiralty is not dealt with much in the book.) I had these characters and I knew right away that the only way I could do this film was with actors. I had to have actors to portray those characters. But how were we going to do this as a documentary? Not as a complete fiction. My first inspiration on how to do it with actors was Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard.
MG: Very interesting. I like that film a lot.
JW: Looking For Richard really inspired me because it’s a film about actors. The whole film, as you know, is about documenting the staging of a play with the actors discussing their roles and motivations and trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of these characters in the play.
MG: And a sense of history. Shakespearean times.
JW: It was wonderful. So that was the starting point. Based on that film, I thought, “we could commission someone who’ll write a first draft of a feature film script. Then we’ll have a property. We can have someone write the feature script as I’m researching the story. Which will, in turn, influence the script. And we’ll document all of that.”
I shot everything. The approach with this film was to make a “making-of,” but also to include elements of the “making-of” in the film. Because the other notion that I realized, and I’d wanted to do forever is that often the most interesting part about documentary films is the making of the doc. I’ve always wanted to turn the making of a film into the film. So that was another element.
The next thought that came was that there would be no re-enactments. I was totally against re-enactments where you dress people up, have them walk on the set back and forth and mumble to each other with no dialogue and place commentary over it. And you know, it’s wallpaper.
Well, in this film, there’s no pretence of “re-enacting reality” because all of the characters surrounding the post Franklin Expedition created a fiction. The history is fiction. So I had creative license to fictionalize these characters who fictionalized history. “We’re going to write a fiction story, but we’re going to search for the truth.” Where does the truth lie in this story with these characters?
So when I made the decision of no re-enactments, then the idea became clear. And it was based on the actual story. John Rae spent ten years in the Arctic, surviving in Canada’s north. And he came back to London with his news—where the Passage is and what happened to the Franklin Expedition. Rae comes back to the London Establishment—the Admiralty, Lady Franklin, Charles Dickens—and he doesn’t survive that. He gets eaten alive. Cannibalized in a way. And that story would be handled with the actors.
I didn’t take any of the actors to the Arctic except for Rick Roberts, preparing for the role of John Rae. This was all documentary. We took him to Orkney and to the Arctic. To all of those places that Rae traveled, and we showed him preparing his role—climbing the cliffs in Orkney, eating raw seal in the Arctic and so on. We uncover the backstory of the Franklin Expedition through inter-cutting Rick’s journey with the actors rehearsing the dramatic script back in London.
MG: You have the great gift of having a wonderful Inuit leader, Tagak Curley, in the film.
JW: We had a connection. A friend of mine knew Bernadette Dean. She was our interpreter and cultural advisor. And of course, Tagak Curley lives in her town in Rankin Inlet, and he is somebody who she highly respects. I mean, she referred to him as the Nelson Mandela of the North. Tagak had conceived of Nunavut, of self-government, back in the 1970s. And in the film, when you see him in the Admiralty boardroom, he’s got his Order of Canada on his lapel, you know? He’s representing the Inuit in our film.
He’s highly honoured and will go down in history as one of the most important negotiators of self-government in Nunavut. But the luck here, and this is documentary luck, is that it turns out his ancestors were guides to John Rae. So the oral tradition has been passed on from generation to generation of what actually went on during the Franklin Expedition and with Rae. I mean, we had somebody who had a direct connection to the story. Tagak had read all of the texts. He knew all of Rae’s journals and narratives. He’d read all of Franklin’s journals and all of the books that had been written about the Expedition. So not only was he immersed in the written text, he knew the oral tradition. I wanted to show the importance of Inuit oral tradition as history. This is something that wasn’t explored in the book.
MG: The other character who has a direct connection to this story is Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson. How did you find him?
JW: I was in London casting our actors and I thought I’d found a good Dickens. Then one of the casting directors said “Well, there’s another person here, coming in… We can’t vouch for him, but the agent insisted that you see him… He’s Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson.” My jaw dropped. I said “What? Are you kidding me? Send him in.” So in walked Gerald Dickens. And he said, “I was not aware of this aspect of my great-great-grandfather. It opens up a whole new perspective on him.” So we had this wonderful conversation. He was very open. And I thought “Wow. We should have been rolling the cameras.” I actually asked to have a camera in the casting session, but they wouldn’t allow that. Damn. Too bad, you know? So off he went.
I thought “Jeez. What am I going to do?” It turns out that Gerald performs his grandfather’s work on stage in sort of an amateur theatre. But he’s not an actor for the camera. I couldn’t cast him as Dickens. So I mused on this for about a week and suddenly it clicked. I’d put Gerald in the film as himself.
Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is standing in line and he’s getting very irritated with these two academics standing behind him discussing Marshall McLuhan? And Diane Keaton as Annie is saying, “Calm down, Calm down.” But Woody taps one of the academics on the shoulder and says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” “What do you mean? I teach a course using Marshall McLuhan’s theories at NYU.”
Well, Woody says, “I’ve got Marshall McLuhan right here.” And he pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a huge poster in the lobby. And McLuhan proceeds to tell off the academic! That to me is one of the great scenes in the history of cinema because it’s the marriage of fiction and non-fiction in a scene.
And I thought “this will be fun, right? This will be a fun surprise moment.” But what I didn’t realize at the time was the profound impact that this would have on Tagak Curley, whose ancestors were maligned by this man’s ancestor. For Tagak, in Inuit oral tradition, where history is a continuum, meeting Gerald was as good as Charles Dickens himself walking in the room. And the impact of that on Tagak, I did not anticipate. You could hear a pin drop when Tagak was speaking about the impact of Charles Dickens, the lasting impact for over 100 years. You know, it was one of those documentary moments.
MG: It was and I loved Gerald Dickens’ response. He was taken aback too, clearly, but at the same time I think he did the right thing.
JW: He handled it well. Extremely well. He handled it with dignity. I think all of us can sit in Gerald’s seat and be asked that question. Why did your ancestors do this, that and the other thing to our people? So I really felt for Gerald, I have to say. And I think an audience would subconsciously feel that empathy for him because they could just as easily be in that seat. Any post-war German could sit in that seat and so on. I had no idea that I could bring such a powerful conclusion to Passage. So that was serendipity.
MG: You’ve mentioned in several interviews that you picked up the camera when you were five or six. Do you have a memory of the first time you actually did pick up a camera? Love at first sight?
JW: Yeah, it was a little Brownie that you looked in from the top. Looking down. I can still smell the leather case.
MG: Did your dad encourage you?
JW: Oh yeah. Because he was an artist. And he was also into photography. He had a dark room in the house. Then when I was eight, I graduated to a Rolleiflex and became more and more obsessed with the camera. My father would go out and do some commercial photography and I’d go out with him with the Rolleiflex. And because I was a little guy, I’d sort of follow him and I’d take a shot, but my shot was a lower angle, a more interesting angle. So often he’d use my shots.
MG: Fantastic. So you were in magazines when you were a teenager.
JW: Oh yeah. My first cover was a shot I took of Trudeau in 1968, when he was campaigning for Prime Minister. I got this great shot of him and it was on the cover of Canadian Business magazine. My father was the art director. So I got paid for that. That was my first commercial job—and I was fifteen. So I fell into it naturally and I just loved the camera. The addiction really happened at eight when I went into the dark room with my father and he was making a print. And—this sounds very narcissistic, but—it happened to be a photograph of me that he’d taken. And here’s this image coming up in the chemicals. The magic of photography is in the dark room with that image emerging.
And interestingly enough, I did the same thing with my daughter when she was about eleven. I took her into the dark room. And Simone is now addicted. She wants a wet dark room, a traditional dark room. So there’s that magic. I ended up spending my entire teenage years, all through high school, in the dark room. Shooting and in the dark room. Henri Cartier-Bresson was my big influence.
MG: And from there, where did you go? Did you start thinking about doing cinema at all?
JW: Well, yes. In the late ’60s, there was a wonderful theatre, the Elysée, in Montreal. You could pick up Take One magazine there. And they showed foreign films. French films, Italian films, the occasional Bergman. And so I used to go there regularly with my friends, who were two and three years older than me. All through my childhood, we lived close to the National Film Board. I fell in love with cinema because I ran the projector when I was 8, 9, and 10. And we looked at Film Board films. A lot of Arctic stories. Constantly.
MG: What did you do when you stopped going to school?
JW: By the late ’60s, I was working at a photography studio in Montreal. The scene was right out of Antonioni’s Blow Up, with the models and the hair and the clothes. We were in a penthouse on Philips Square. I was a photo assistant for two years, and then in 1970, when the main cameraman went to New York, I was offered the opportunity to run the studio. So I was 18—and in charge of a studio! I took over all of the clients for a six-month period. I was shooting covers for Chatelaine and the French edition of Maclean’s magazine.
MG: How did you end up in Toronto?
JW: Pat Crawley, one of Budge’s sons, showed up at the photo studio one day. He was working for his dad from time to time, making films for Crawley Films. I had hired one of his old friends Fred Broomhall who had arrived from Australia to work in the darkroom. Pat had just got a contract to direct all the films for Ontario Place that was under construction in Toronto. Pat wanted his friend Fred to work with him. And Pat looked at my work and said “Oh, this is cool.” Fred and I wanted to go off to Toronto to start shooting. So that was it. We shut down the photo studio and moved to Toronto.
I got a contract with Ontario Place but after six months, they fired me. I had long hair and wore a black leather jacket, and whoever it was, the Provincial Conservative Minister I think, walked in and saw me, looking scruffy, with a camera on my shoulder and said “Who is this guy?” “He’s on your staff.” “Fire him.”
Anyway. I found a studio at 291A King Street West. Second floor with north light. It was an old button factory. Pat moved in to help me with the rent until he finished his gig. I stayed in Toronto for a year or two.
Strand (part one)
MG: Wasn’t it around this time that you got interested in Paul Strand? How did that come about?
JW: I wanted to do personal art photography. I was working with an 8×10 Deardorff large format camera. So I started driving down to Eastman House in Rochester. I found out you could call them and order up portfolios to look at. And you’d go down there and sit all day and look at these portfolios by great photographers.
So I started studying the history of photography on my own. I saw some great silent films there, too. I was looking at everything. I’d call them up and say, “I want to look at Edward Weston, or Cartier-Bresson or Paul Strand.” And I discovered that it was Strand’s work that was resonating. From his early abstractions to his more political work. Not just his photography but his films. I realized “This guy is a genius. He’s huge. And he’s a filmmaker.” A political filmmaker, who pioneered radical documentary in the 1930s. It was like “Okay, this is the guy I want to study.” I was inspired.
So around 1971, I wrote to him: “I want to come and see you and talk.” I went to see him in Paris with my photographs, with my portfolio. And we had a conversation and it was wonderful. Talking about photography and filmmaking. And the second time I wanted to meet him, he was coming to New York. I came up with the idea that I wanted to make a film about him. I’d never made a film. So I went down and we started talking about it. “I want to do this film.” And the first thing he said was “Well, there’s a film you should see. It’s the best biography I’ve seen.” He said “It’s called Bethune.” You know, the National Film Board film. So I had a look at Bethune, by Donald Brittain.
MG: And you hadn’t seen it before. Had you met Brittain?
JW: No. But I saw the film anyway—and that was very inspiring. I went back to see Strand after that, and I had my notepad. And I said “Okay. So what should be in the film? What are your masterpieces? Who should I put in the film?” And he said “This is your film. What do you see that matters?”
And I’m like “Oh my god.” I realized years later that as an artist, Strand knew that only by taking that approach could you come up with anything of interest. This wouldn’t be his film. It would be my film.
He said to me, “It’s not just about making pictures. You have to have something to say about the world.” So I walked out of there in New York, thinking, “What is it I want to say about the world?” He was a great mentor.
Strand set me up on two paths. You have to have something to say and it has to be your vision. This, from a great master. I was blessed, in that sense. And also I was lucky in that I was supported at home in becoming a photographer or a filmmaker or an artist. I was never questioned. You know, I had friends in Montreal who wanted to be musicians and their fathers wanted them to be businessmen. And they ended up very fucked up, you know? Destroyed.
Crawley and Chambers
MG: Around this time, did you return to Quebec?
JW: Yes, in 1972. Gradually, I realized that I could make a living doing cinematography and not have to do commercial photography. But I could still do my art photography. So I went into it full blast, cinematography, in the mid-’70s. I was doing a lot of stuff for Crawley. Budge handed me a 35mm camera and said “Go out and see what you can do. Just shoot some stuff and come back.” And he looked at the rushes and said “You can do better than that. Later he said, “you’re a shit hot cinematographer.”
MG: Sounds like the legendary Budge. What was he like?
JW: A total free spirit. At heart Budge was a cameraman, a cinematographer. I was educated in film at Crawley films. In 1975, they had a lab and their own animation department. They were a miniature National Film Board in Ottawa. 200 employees.
My initial influences in documentary film were, for narrative, Donald Brittain, who I finally met at Crawley’s—not at the NFB, and, for cinematography, Budge and Patrick. They taught me: “You can jump out of car and get a nice shot of a waterfall. Then you can climb down the hill and get a better shot of the waterfall. Or you can climb into the waterfall, take the camera off of the tripod and get right into the waterfall and get an even better shot.” So it’s the three-step process. And I still use that three step process to this day, which is “Yeah, this is fine. This is better. Now let’s really get the good stuff.” It’s just push, push. And Budge was all about pushing. Pushing the limits always and going that extra step with everything. His son Patrick inherited that and it rubbed off on me when we made films together.
MG: How did you get involved in making Chambers—Tracks and Gestures?
JW: Chris Lowry grew up in London, Ontario, where Chambers lived and painted and made films. He wanted to make a film about him—a local artist who had made an impact and died pretty young from leukemia. I was aware of Chambers’ experimental films and some of his art. Not in detail. I really wanted to start my film on Strand but Chris got me interested in Chambers. I realized that I could work out a lot of the issues about making biography with Chambers.
The big question in making a film biography of an artist is finding the balance between the man and the work. Where is that balance? I said to Chris, “Okay, let’s assemble all of his work, in chronology.” And I took it up north for two weeks and just sat with Chambers’ work. And looked at the transitions. And the films. I started asking, “What’s going on here? Are there patterns in his life and his work?
Everyone has dirty laundry, all kinds of stuff that’s not totally relevant to the work. We weren’t interested in any of that. Chambers was a wonderful artist and a filmmaker. Like Strand. The toughest part in both films was integrating their film clips into a bio. Because you really should see the whole film, you know? But Chris and I tried to integrate the films and the art and show how they related to each other—and to his life.
MG: And did you try to create a look that would somehow match? I’m wondering if you had aesthetic issues in terms of how you wanted to create a look for the Chambers film?
JW: Well, we started with his own, very curious, autobiography. It was written just before he died, right? And it was kind of a rushed, slightly romanticized, very Jack Chambers… sort of mythologizing. But it was interesting. It was written on his deathbed, more or less. So we used that as a basis.
Chambers romanticized his childhood. He wrote about it in a very poetic way. So I just went with that. The film starts, of course, with sort of the pre-visualization of his life. All of the various things that he went through. And then we start with his childhood and it’s very much how you’d like to remember your life on your deathbed. You don’t want it to be dark; you want it to be light. So the style just fits that light romanticism. I was shooting to his writing.
And then we get to Spain, where he’s moving into realism. That section was about his buddies. So the style there was very formal. Because he was a formalist at that time. My framing and stylization there was both formal—almost pictorial—and sometimes the opposite, using camera movement to convey the excitement of coming into a new place.
It’s a style that I’ve developed in my work where you see some very static framings, like John Ford, that just penetrate a space and allow you to explore a locale without having the camera influence it. And I contrast that with movement, using a handheld camera in a fluid dynamic. Because I find life like that, you know? You’re sitting in a cafe and you’re observing moments. Quiet, meditative moments. And then you’re out doing things, right? My life seems to shift from static contemplation to action. It’s very much in those two spaces. So I started to develop that style there.
Then it was important for the film to follow Chambers’ work. I really wanted to present his work, in full frame. The composition is important. Respect for the work. And then we did some matching, using a sense of place, like bridges and the 401 Highway, to show where his work came from. His work source was photographs. So we would go back to those sources. Go to those actual places. Just to see, you know the source of his inspiration.
So that was the whole strategy. We wanted to show and contextualize his work. And include his friends and the women in his life. Of course. It was influenced, certainly, by Brittain’s biographies—in particular Volcano, his film about Malcolm Lowry.
MG: How did A Winter Tan come about?
JW: John Frizzell and Jackie Burroughs had worked on a major gala against censorship, which was held at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. And Jackie did a performance—solo—about this single woman on vacation having sex with the natives in Mexico.
MG: I was there. It was brilliant, the highlight of the evening.
JW: Exactly. So after that there was a buzz with people saying, “Maybe there’s a short film here. We should film this performance.” I was approached by Jackie and John to shoot it. They also talked to Louise Clarke and Aerlyn Weissman. We all got together and the initial idea was to make a half hour film based on this performance. Louise Clark said from the start, “I think there’s a feature here.” We’d all read Maryse Holder’s book Give Sorrow Words, which inspired Jackie’s performance. The rest of us were saying “Well, maybe.” But the rest of us were all still thinking half-hour. Eventually the feature idea stuck—and we went for it.
Jackie went into it full tilt. She really did the screen adaptation. She gets the credit for that. So she started adapting scenes. We’d come in and we’d have afternoon sessions every couple of weeks for at least a year at John’s apartment. And Jackie would come in and we’d look at the script and talk about scenes—what should be cut out and where we’re going and how we do it. We spent a year doing that. Slowly getting it down.
MG: How would you characterize A Winter Tan?
JW: I call it a documentary film. Because we were documenting Jackie’s performance. She’d chosen this= character. I said to myself, “This film is perfectly cast.” And I always knew that the only way to a make a drama was by casting, casting, casting. I talked to Don Shebib and a lot of Canadian directors, and asked, you know, “How do you do it?” “Casting. It’s all casting.” Obviously you have to have a script. But casting is even more important to the script. So I thought, “This is perfectly cast. I’m going to do it.” We’re all working for nothing, right?
So in spending that year discussing the script, Jackie was the character, knew the character. There was no need for direction and motivation of character or whatever. We had the character. “Let’s go down and make a documentary about this character.”
And I pulled out the style of shooting from old John Ford Westerns. You know how they lit films in the old days out in the desert when there were no generators? Reflectors. Big silver reflectors. It’s the equivalent of massive lights, a massive generator. It’s bouncing natural light. You can’t beat it.
Anyway, it was just a unique collaboration. Jackie had the character, John was the writer, I was the cinematographer, Aerlyn knew great sound and Louise was the producer. So we all had very strong sub-disciplines. People say, “How do you have five people directing a film?” It wasn’t five people directing a film. It was a film by the five of us. I was the only one looking through the camera as it was mainly handheld. And with Jackie, there’s no big arguments about her motivation. So it just worked. And John, as a writer, was helpful in the script adaptation and in the cutting room and structuring and stuff like that.
MG: Tell me about the last scene, which is truly remarkable.
JW: It was at the end of the shoot and we were all just ready to kill each other. Everyone wanted to shoot late at night when there was no traffic in Mexico City. So it’s 3 in the morning and we’re trying to shoot this thing, but there’s still traffic. And I said “We’d better get this right.” I said to Jackie “You’ve got to get it in the first take. We’ve only got one roll of film.” It wasn’t a four-minute scene. It was written as a twelve-minute scene. And we had to cut it down right then to get it to 9 minutes. We timed it out so I could do it in one MAG.
I said “Jackie, you’ve got to get it in the first take. I have one roll of film left. If you don’t, we have to order film from Canada and it’s going to take a week and we’re going to be screwed.” Everybody wanted to go home, right. She said “Okay, okay, okay.” So we did one quick walkthrough. Just a walkthrough. Blocked it. Timed it. Okay.
When we shot the scene, a tingle went right up my spine. I was just “Oh, fuck. I now understand this character.” Jackie nailed it. And when she’d got through the scene, I said “Okay, we’ll put the second MAG on and do another take.” And she said “You bastard!” That’s what I call documentary tension—you have to get it the first time.
So we shot another take for protection. As it turns out, there’s a slam of the door and we used the second half of the second take. Mainly for sound. So we did two takes. That was it.
And really, that’s the film. Because you’re locked in for nine minutes. Single camera and it never breaks. And I knew the power of cinema that’s made like that. It’s like the last scene of Antonioni’s Passenger —if you don’t break the shot, it gives intensity. The longer you hold a shot, the more intensity a scene has because you’re there. You’re present. And that’s the scene that both makes and breaks the film. It broke it in terms of distribution because it’s so powerful and so moving and so tragic—it was too much for some distributors. Not a happy Hollywood ending.
Strand (part two)
MG: How did you restart the Strand project?
JW: Chambers won a lot of awards—at Yorkton and the CFTA (Canadian Film and Television Association); I got one from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. That helped—it really launched me. And it took me into biography: what it takes and how long it can take.
Even before I started working on Chambers, I reconnected with Hazel Strand, Paul’s widow. He had died in 1976. I went to France to see her and I said, “Look, I’d really like to do this film. What do you think? Do you support me in this? Is it a good idea?” And she said, “Yeah, it’s fine.”
So I started getting grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. I went down and shot an interview with Georgia O’Keeffe, and started putting together demos and trying to raise money for the film. I spent time in New York at the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] Archives and getting to know Leo Hurwitz, who had co-directed Native Land, the radical doc feature, with Strand.
MG: So tell me about doing it, finally. It had been your dream for so long.
JW: In some ways it was a film that I didn’t want to finish. You know? There was a side of me that wanted to keep on shooting. I’d do some cinematography for Rhombus or other companies and make a little bit of money. Then I’d have a couple of months and I’d go and work on the film and meet Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams and all of these wonderful people in New York that I got to know. That crowd.
MG: I guess doors were opened and a lot of people must have been impressed that you were doing the story.
JW: Yes. Absolutely. Although I had a lot of trouble with the fellow at the Aperture Foundation that had the rights to Strand’s photographs. I mean, he was trying to get control of the film. And that was a very long and complex situation. He refused to sign off on the rights. A week before Strand: Under the Dark Cloth was going to premiere at the Festival of Festivals (now TIFF), I still didn’t have rights signed. I was scared to death.
But I finally convinced him. There were scenes in the film that he didn’t like. Because I’m critical of Strand’s personality. You know, his wives were critical of him. He was a hard guy, right? His third wife said “I hate photography now” in the film. So I said “Look, if PBS (US’ main public broadcaster) wants to buy an hour version of the film, I’ll consider some of your suggestions for that shorter version.” So he signed. And PBS didn’t take it! I kind of knew that they didn’t want it anyway, because it’s too personal.
MG: Amazing. And the rights for Strand’s cinema?
JW: That was all Leo Hurwitz.
MG: Was that part okay?
JW: No, it wasn’t. He took me through the ringer. He had to see the film—and he had to tell me about this and he had to tell me about that. The first cut I showed him, he said “It’s a grab bag.” You know, he was negative. And I was negotiating with him, down to the last minute. I was in the final mix at the NFB, still changing narration to satisfy Leo. Oh, he put me through it.
But I admired Leo, because he had a long hard struggle. He’d been followed by the FBI all of his life and blacklisted and, you know, he was paranoid for good reasons. He was a crusty old New York leftie and I appreciated that and we got through it. I knew that he would sign in the end. I knew he was just being the curmudgeonly old filmmaker giving the young filmmaker a hard time. Fair enough.
MG: In the end, to balance it all must have been very complex. There are many strands of Strand.
JW: Yeah, yeah. There was a long process of thinking about it. You know, before Chambers, I had no idea how to really make the film. I was concerned about how to present Strand’s work. Should it be full frame? Then there were issues of how my cinematography works in relation to his. Is it going to compete with his work? I didn’t want to imitate his style.
The toughest part was my voice in the film. I ended up being in the film very subtly in the opening and under the dark cloth in the Hebrides. That’s where I reveal myself and tell the personal stories of my connection to Strand’s work in the Hebrides and my grandmother’s history.
I had so much respect for Strand and I didn’t want to be seen as tagging onto this great master. It was a very delicate thing. But Strand himself had tapped me on my shoulder and said “this is your film. So make it your way.” If he hadn’t said that, I probably wouldn’t be in the film.
MG: How did Strand affect you personally?
JW: Well, the film really forced me into questioning, “What am I trying to say about Strand?” I realized that there are strong autobiographical elements in the film, about being a photographer. It turns out his photography was detaching him from his world. From his life, you know? I talk about that in the film. “When you’re alone with the camera, you’re detached.” You know?
He was detached in his relationship with his first two wives. He was somewhat detached from the humanity that he was trying to capture. He was politically motivated and started to see the world in idealistic terms, but he wasn’t as humanistic as he could be on a personal level. So I started seeing those contradictions.
And then I started seeing that in my own life, I moved from photography to cinematography, in order to escape that isolation of the camera. You know, my girlfriends all complained when I was a teenager: “You’re spending all of your time in the darkroom. What’s wrong?”
I could see parallels there between Strand and me. I was thinking about my own life the whole time that I was making it. And what an influence he was having on me and my work. I was trying to go beyond Strand, too. To learn from his mistakes. To not be so isolated. It was a long process because I was so involved in who I was in relation to Strand. I think that was the toughest stuff to work out. And then finally, I found my voice in the film, as a filmmaker.
A SELECT FILMOGRAPHY
Passage (2008) JW: Director, C0-Producer,Writer, Narrator
Forgiveness: Stories for Our Times (2007) Johnnna Lunn, dir; JW: Cinematographer
Pegi Nicol: Something Dancing About Her (2004) Michael Ostroff, dir; JW: Co-Executive Producer
Men of the Deeps (2003) JW: Director, Co-Producer, Writer, Cinematographer
Years From Here (2002) JW: Director, Co-Writer, Narrator
Changing Ground (2001) JW: Director, Writer, Narrator
The Fairy Faith (2000) JW: Director, Producer, Writer, Narrator, Co-Cinematographer
Utshimassits: Place of the Boss (1996) Director, Co-Writer, Co-Producer
Tough Assignment (1996) Director, Co-Producer, Cinematographer
The Champagne Safari (1995) George Ungar, dir; JW: Executive Producer
Hidden Children (1994) JW: Director, Cinematographer
Orphans of Manchuria (1993) JW: Director, Co-Cinematographer
Shepherds to the Flock (1992) JW: Director
Distress Signals (1991) JW: Director, Co-Producer
The Hand of Stalin (1990) JW: Director, Cinematographer
Leningradskaya—A Village in Southern Russia (1990) JW: Director, Cinematographer
Strand—Under the Dark Cloth (1989) Director, Producer, Co-Writer, Narrator
Calling the Shots (1988) Holly Dale & Janis Cole, dir; JW: Co-Cinematographer
A Winter Tan (1987) JW: Co-Director, Co-Producer, Cinematographer
Blue Snake (1987) Niv Fichman, dir; JW: Cinematographer
Whale Song (1986) Barbara Willis Sweete, dir; JW: Cinematographer
A Fragile Tree has Roots (1985) JW: Co-Cinematographer
Making Overtures (1984) Larry Weinstein, dir; JW: Cinematographer
Sense of Music (1983) Barbara Willis Sweete, dir; JW: Cinematographer
On to the Polar Sea (1983) Peter Raymont, dir.; JW: Cinematographer
Chambers—Tracks and Gestures (1982) JW: Director, Cinematographer
Acid Rain—Requiem or Recovery (1981) Seaton Findlay, dir; JW: Cinematographer
To Sense the Wonder (1979) Judith Crawley, dir; JW: Cinematographer
The Food Connection (1979) Pat Crawley, dir; JW: Cinematographer
Winter Fun (1976) Pat Crawley, dir; JW: Cinematographer
Song for a Miner (1975) Pat Crawley, dir; JW: Cinematographer