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Film opens tomorrow

October 16 2008 at 4:44 PM
Michael Dorosh 

Response to Passchendaele movie trailer in theatres

Premiere was in Calgary yesterday and was reported in the Calgary Herald.

Passion of Paul
How Paul Gross found cash for war epic in unlikely places
Eric Volmers, with files from Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald, Calgary Herald Published: Thursday, October 16, 2008

Right before Paul Gross was to begin a gruelling, 10-week shoot for his First World War movie Passchendaele, the filmmaker spent a sleepless night gripped by "blinding panic" and visions of curling.

The Calgary native was scheduled to start shooting at the Lantern Church in Inglewood the next morning, which would be subbing in for a university lecture hall for one of the calmer segments in his romantic and violent epic. The journey he was about to embark on would be a far cry from his directorial debut, the 2002 light-hearted curling comedy Men With Brooms.

But Gross admits his sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden thought process was a bit fuzzy during those wee hours in August of 2007.

"I didn't sleep at all the night before," says the 49-year-old Calgary native. "I woke up five or six times in a blinding panic. I stumbled over to my desk and thought, 'I forgot to plan out this camera shot.' Then I thought, 'Wait a minute, this shot has nothing to do with the movie. It's from Men With Brooms.' It had something to do with curling. It was absolutely ridiculous."

Stumbling around in the dark? Gripped by panic? Scribbling incoherent notes about curling? This is not the image most of us have of Paul Gross. He's the square-jawed TV Mountie from Due South; an enthusiastic cheerleader for Canada and Canadian film.

This is the man, after all, who is proudly marching across Canada presenting the most expensive film in the country's history, a stubbornly Canadian homage to our war heroes that has occupied 13 years of his life.

He pried more than $5 million from the tight fists of former premier Ralph Klein, battled federal bureaucrats at Telefilm and wined and dined some of the country's wealthiest people to get his movie made.

Yes, Paul Gross the fundraiser proved to be a confident and unrelenting force, even if Paul Gross the filmmaker was prone to the same panic attacks and crises of confidence that plague any artist.

"It doesn't matter what shot you are starting with," he says, in an interview from his office in Toronto. "They are all impossible until you find your rhythm."

By all accounts, Gross found his rhythm during the shoot, which took him from the rustic streets of Fort Macleod, to the muddy fields of the Tsuu T'ina reserve and the majestic backdrop of the Stoney Nation.

Even when dumping 10,000 cubic metres of rain on himself and hundreds of shivering extras to recreate the horrors of the battle-scarred fields of Belgium and France, Gross maintained a Zen-like calm during the 10-week shoot, says Peter Horn, the veteran location manager who worked on the film.

"The man is a brilliant writer and genuinely funny," says Horn. "I wouldn't say he's obsessive, but he wanted to get the details right. But he's still actually an easy-going fella and a joy to work with."

The road to getting Passchendaele funded, on the other hand, was not quite as easy going or joyful.

Gross first became intrigued with the plight of Canadian First World War veterans as a young teenager, listening to his grandfather tell the story of how he plunged a bayonet through the brain of a German soldier in France.

That harrowing scene arrives at the beginning of Passchendaele, which goes on to tell the tale of a soldier who returns to Calgary after being haunted by the killing. There he falls in love with a nurse before returning to the war near the Belgium village of Passchendaele, where the film chronicles one of the bloodiest battles fought by Canadian soldiers.

Thirteen years ago, Gross began working on the script. Two or three years ago, he embarked on the epic journey to get the film funded.

Some, like then-premier Klein, were surprisingly easy to convince. He ended up giving Gross $5.5 million of taxpayers' money based on a 15-minute meeting in 2006.

Gross said the conversation revolved around creating the film as a lasting monument to Alberta and its soldiers, but he also suspects Klein saw the project as a wise investment.

"The money that Klein gave us was five or five-and-half million and we spent $16 million in the province," he says. "That's a better rate of return than you'd get out of the oilpatch."

But while Klein saw the economic and populist potential of a Canadian First World War film, the federal bureaucrats at Telefilm were harder to convince. Gross didn't want to comment on rumours that they didn't like his script, but co-producer Niv Fichman acknowledges it was a tough sell.

"Their analysts said it was not to their tastes," says Fichman, a veteran producer who first read his friend's script nearly a decade ago. "It took a long time for them to come around. This film is a populist film. It's not an art film and it's not meant to be an art film. Telefilm looked at a Canadian populist film as almost an oxymoron."

Still, even with the government funds, Gross and Co. were woefully short of the $20 million they needed. So Gross and Fichman began criss-crossing the country looking for investment from Canada's financial elite.

While it wasn't exactly unchartered territory, Gross says our arts funding system in Canada is not exactly set up to entice private investment. Not since the controversial "tax shelter" days of the 1970s and 1980s had a Canadian filmmaker gone after private investors with such gusto.

Nevertheless, two or three weeks before filming was to start, it became clear that they didn't have the money they needed. Gross credits a single investor for saving the day, pledging much more than what he had initially agreed to. When news hit of the windfall at Gross's production office in Toronto, the entire staff began to weep, the filmmaker recalls.

The trick, of course, was to convince businessmen to invest in something where they were not likely to make much profit, if any.

Surprisingly, it often worked.

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was a really important project on a variety of levels," says David Asper, executive vice-president of Canwest Global Communications Corp. and the man Gross identifies as the aforementioned financial saviour. "Not only because it's a great story -- it's art and it's great art -- it serves the national interest in my view. Just the whole approach to marketing and promoting the film. I think it's sort of a coming out for the Canadian feature film."

In the end, the film had 10 private investors and other corporate sponsors (Canwest Global Communications Corp., which owns the Calgary Herald, was also a corporate investor).

Gross's approach to funding has provided journalists with a handy metaphor -- "the battle to film the battle of Passchendaele" -- but he dismisses the notion that his efforts will have any long-term impact on changing how Canada funds film or culture, a process he refers to as both "byzantine" and "calcified." Those changes need to be made within the system, he says. One film, even the most expensive in Canada, will not be enough.

"It's not that simple," he says. "I was flying back and forth across the country having dinner with the very wealthy, trying to get them to give me money. That model is not very useful unless you are psychotic enough to want to do it that way."

The private investors, for the most part, came on board because they believed in the project, Gross says.

George Melnyk, a Canadian film historian at the University of Calgary and author of 100 Years of Canadian Cinema, has no doubt this was the case. But while the funding of Passchendaele may not have been a commercially sound endeavour in terms of financial reward, he believes there were political motives behind making this movie at this point in the country's history.

"I think (investors) may have had ideological reasons, which makes this film very much one of the historical moment," says Melnyk, who has yet to see the movie. "They may have felt that it was necessary at this time to define Canada in terms of its war history. There is a conservative agenda to downplay the peacekeeping thing of the last 30 years and bring back the idea of the Canadian as warrior."

For his part, Gross rejects that there were deep ideological reasons behind funding the film. Passchendaele certainly does not come off as pro-war. The violence is unrelentingly brutal and Gross' character often pontificates about the pointlessness of global battles.

But he acknowledges the film may coincide with a change in how Canada feels about its military, which he hopes will spread as Passchendaele finds its way into schools across the country after its theatrical run.

"After Vietnam and Watergate, there was a long period where doing honour to those who sacrificed in military engagements was seen as the same as being a militarist and wanting to invade countries for no reason," he says. "Clearly, you can honour the sacrifice of soldiers without being a militarist.

. . . But at one time is was very unfashionable to discuss military matters, in the education system and across the country. . . that may have changed."

In any case, Gross says he looks forward to children and teenagers learning about Canadian involvement in the First World War through a Canadian perspective.

"It's about time we had something of our own," he says.

Eric Volmers, with files from Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald, Calgary Herald
Published: Thursday, October 16, 2008

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