Filmmaker Michael McGowan constructs a house and a film career
September 13, 2012
The long driveway winds through fields and trees, a small flock of birds – blue jays, cardinals & finches – flies up into the bright afternoon sky.
Filmmaker Michael McGowan is not part of Toronto’s über-urban cultural elite. You won’t see him grabbing a cab from a Lakeshore condo to arrive on time for a glamorous party at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). True, McGowan, 46, has been to his fair share of parties at TIFF – his film Score: A Hockey Musical opened the Festival two years ago – but the award-winning writer-director-producer is far more comfortable building an outdoor bread oven than hanging out with celebrities at a swishy gala.
As I pull into McGowan’s 32-acre property in the Mulmur hills, it’s easy to guess why the filmmaker chose to leave Toronto, the city where he grew up. The long driveway winds through fields and trees, a small flock of birds – blue jays, cardinals and finches – flies up into the bright afternoon sky. The driveway ends at a brilliant blue house. Waiting on the wrap-around verandah of the home he helped design and build is McGowan, dressed casually in shirt and jeans, enjoying a summer’s day.
“We think it’s the perfect location,” he says of his home. “It’s the best of both worlds. We’re close enough to the city, but definitely in the country.”
A former marathon runner, the lanky McGowan won the Detroit Marathon in 1995, and made the down payment on the Mulmur land with his winnings. He and his wife Shelagh McNulty still run at least five kilometres several mornings a week.
They say artists should make what they know, and it’s clear McGowan subscribes to that philosophy. The films he has written, directed and produced through his company Mulmur Feed Co. involve athletics, the outdoors, and most recently, home building.
His Writers Guild and Directors Guild of Canada’s award-winning film Saint Ralph (2004) dramatizes a teenage boy’s epic run in the Boston Marathon, a feat he believes will miraculously awaken his mother from a coma. In One Week (2008), an elementary school teacher diagnosed with cancer abandons everything and takes off across Canada on a motorcycle. It’s a road movie set against iconic Canadian landmarks and featuring not only an all-Canadian score, but cameo roles by several of the musicians, including Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip.
In Score, peaceful, artistic adolescent Farley Gordon is seduced into embracing the violence of Canada’s winter sport because he’s so skillful it would seem a waste if he didn’t play.
As a youth, McGowan played centre for the Leaside Kings and assiduously followed the Leafs until recent years. “I played a lot of hockey growing up,” he admits. Asked about the creative origins of the joyfully weird Score, he says, “I love music though I don’t play it. It seemed like a good fit that hadn’t been done before.”
The songs, most of them co-written by McGowan, are performed by such Canadian musicians as Nellie Furtado, who makes a cameo, and Hawksley Workman, who plays a small role. But McGowan also brought in a ringer in seventies Australian pop diva Olivia Newton-John as Farley’s hippie mom.
Mixing the sheer fantasy of old fashioned Hollywood musicals, a countercultural plot and a lot of hockey footage, Score was a decidedly unique. The genre-crosser had some critics scratching their heads and reviews were mixed, though the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell declared “McGowan scores” with a film that “slams doubters into the boards with an amusing, tuneful and even thoughtful tale.” Noting the movie “couldn’t be more Canuck” with its “men in jerseys, women in woolies, references to Kraft Dinner and Zambonis, and cameo appearances by notable hosers, including a certain père to a player beyond compare…” Howell reckoned, “Score is as deep as a Don Cherry rant, but it’s also a crowd-pleaser.”
With McGowan’s children – Henry, 13, Wiley, 11, and Frances, 9 – out with Shelagh, there’s an opportunity to quietly inspect the house. An English grad who worked as a carpenter, journalist and children’s book author (Newton and the Giant won the prestigious Silver Birch Award) on his way to becoming a filmmaker, McGowan designed his home with his architect brother-in-law Mark Franklin, and did much of the finish carpentry.
The result is a well-thought-out three-level dwelling that is an appealing combination of traditional – gabled roof, fireplace, library, sitting room – and modern. It’s an open-concept plan that features a concrete island bisecting the kitchen, wire-grate banisters, and an interior garage door near the foot of the basement stairs so the sound from the TV can’t overwhelm adult conversations on the first floor.
Outdoors, there’s the newly installed wood oven, inaugurated with a pizza (topped “with basil from the garden”) party held the week before on a cozy patio where tables and chairs are neatly arranged beneath a vine-covered arbour. A path at the edge of the lawn leads to a small forest where McGowan built a tree house years earlier for the kids.
There’s a tennis court too, and a swimming pond nearby. “My daughters want horses,” he says. “They take horseback riding lessons close to here. When they can take care of them, I think we’ll get horses.”
Asked how the children feel about living in the hills, McGowan responds, “It was easy to try it. Henry was only three when we moved out here and Wiley was just a baby. Frannie wasn’t even born. They go to Primrose School and it’s great. Shelagh volunteers over there. The kids know the city really well – they get exposed to lots of stuff, but there’s plenty to do around here. It’s a good balance for them.”
Before sitting down to chat about films, he shows off his pièce de résistance, a long pine table he built as a centrepiece for the dining room. It’s a place where family and friends can spend time, lingering over a meal and good conversation.
It may have been his own experience with house building that sparked McGowan’s fascination with Craig Morrison, the New Brunswick nonagenarian who inspired his new film Still. He first encountered Morrison’s story in The Globe and Mail two years ago. Morrison was trying to build a house to accommodate the needs of his wife Irene, who had Alzheimer’s, but he was suffering a litany of bureaucratic obstacles.
“I was so impressed when I read the story that I flew out the next day to meet him,” says McGowan. “He was a Jimmy Stewart kind of guy. At that point Craig was 91 or 92, and he took me all over his place and showed me everything, even the baseball he has that was signed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.”
McGowan clearly relishes telling Morrison’s tale: “It’s unbelievable. Here is this guy who has built stuff before, and is completely self-reliant. He broke ground on land overlooking the Bay of Fundy when he was 88 years old!
“I’ve seen his house and it’s really well built. But the New Brunswick building inspectors questioned everything. They were concerned about the wood. He hadn’t bought it. He’d used old-growth black spruce that he had cut and air dried – it was the best kind of wood you can use, but they said, ‘This wood is no good because it’s not [government] stamped.’”
Although the lumber was finally approved, it didn’t end there. McGowan pauses for dramatic effect, “Next they were concerned about the windows. I mean, windows aren’t structural. Windows let air in – who cares? But they said, ‘Your windows aren’t up to code and neither are your roof trusses.’ Morrison built trusses, like he says in the movie, ‘The way my father taught me to build them.’”
And on it went, but it wasn’t just Morrison’s age or his Kafka-esque encounters with bureaucrats that made his story compelling film fare. It was that he was doing it all for his ailing wife. “The love story and the building part dovetailed nicely,” explains McGowan.
For the love story to work on screen, McGowan knew he had to find the right actors. And despite working on a tight $3.2 million budget, he was able to cast a superb duo: the tall, taciturn American character actor James Cromwell and the fragile, beautiful Québécoise icon Geneviève Bujold. Directing them was his main challenge in making Still.
Cromwell is Hollywood royalty – his father John directed Bogart in Dead Reckoning, Ronald Colman in The Prisoner of Zenda, Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam and Bette Davis’s greatest performance in Of Human Bondage. James is a remarkably versatile performer. Among his notable roles in a career that spans nearly five decades are the devious police officer in L.A. Confidential, the happy farmer in Babe, Prince Philip opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen, and the quirky second husband of the Fisher clan’s matriarch in the cult TV hit Six Feet Under.
“The first time I really talked to James at length,” says McGowan, “we went through the script and he had notes on every page. Normally, I’d get my back up, but I quickly realized that his notes were either questions or suggestions on how to make a scene better. It wasn’t, ‘He’s a wannabe writer, he’s a wannabe director.’ It was, ‘No, I have questions.’ When you’re working with a guy like that, it ultimately makes you way better.”
He adds, “We didn’t have the budget to treat him like a star. We were in Northern Ontario – south of North Bay, near and in Powassan and Port Loring – and people would come by the set every day. Either they knew the caterers or they knew the cattle wrangler. If James was really particular about it, we would have kept them all away. But he didn’t care. He’d just talk to anybody.”
Bujold is one of the greatest stars to emerge from Canadian cinema. She won the Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her performance as Anne Boleyn opposite Richard Burton’s Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969). She played Jeremy Iron’s love interest in Cronenberg’s eerie and remarkable Dead Ringers, and has worked with such stars as Clint Eastwood, Robert Shaw, Michael Douglas and Charlton Heston.
McGowan seems slightly in awe of her performance. “I think she really identified with the character of Irene. Geneviève had a stillness about her that I’d never really seen in another actor. It comes out in the performance. She really lived the part of Irene. She took on the dementia and tracked it really well.”
Bujold gave up superstardom in the seventies because she wouldn’t kowtow to the powers that be at Universal and her refusal to “suffer idiocy” kept McGowan on his toes.
“Sometimes, she’d make a choice in a performance and I’d say ‘I don’t really see it that way.’ She’d say, ‘Well, I do. Let’s go with it, and see what we get, then we can keep tweaking it.’” She had very definite opinions and expected them to be heard, he says, but was also willing to listen and be persuaded by other points of view.
He shows me a scene from Still. In it, James Cromwell’s Craig Morrison has already had to put his wife Irene in a hospital. Seated at the large pine table he’d built for his family (a detail of artistic licence McGowan added from his own experience), his face is a mixture of anguish and love as he reflects on his life. There’s a distant murmur of voices and fleeting images of his wife, but it’s a powerful actor’s moment in a character-driven drama. When the scene ends, McGowan wipes a few tears from his eyes.
Still premiered at TIFF this month as part of the Festival’s high profile Special Presentation program, and top Canadian distributor Mongrel Media will handle its commercial release, expected in spring 2013.
McGowan reflects on the night his previous film, Score, opened the Festival in 2010. “It was a great night. Olivia Newton-John came into town. Nelly Furtado was there. There are a lot of people in Toronto that go to the opening film and party.
“The kids were old enough to come. They were in the limos and walked the red carpet. We did it as a family, which was great. The audience applauded the film. Hawksley Workman played afterward. As a filmmaker, I really enjoyed it, but ….” McGowan’s voice trails off and he shrugs. “It was pretty surreal. You’re very low-key here and then you go there and – especially if you open the Festival or something like that – you can look at it and enjoy it, but it’s not really your life.”