Paul Gross (right) headed due west – to Alberta – to film his labour of love, Passchendaele.
PASSCHENDAELE written and directed by Paul Gross, with Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Dinicol and Gil Bellows. An Alliance release. 90 minutes. Opens Friday (October 17). For venues and times, see Movies.
As Paul Gross walks into the small room at the new Alliance offices, he's looking down at his Blackberry and muttering under his breath. He smiles wearily and says, "Just got it and have no fucking idea how it works. I'm a Luddite, you know."
The description fits with his near-retro image: square-?jawed, old-fashioned leading man and, in Passchendaele, his labour of love, First World War hero.
Passchendaele, part war pic and part romance, grew out of his grandfather's stories - grudgingly given - of his experiences in the trenches.
The film seems to have its own visual divide. The First World War, says Gross, came at the cultural turning point between the Old World and modernity. That's why the scenes set in Alberta are large and expansive and the war scenes set in Belgium are chaotic and terrifying.
"It's the difference," he says, "between Vaughan Williams and Igor Stravinsky."
Whoa, I think to myself, looking straight into his very blue eyes. Not just a pretty face.
But that's obvious from the movie itself, which Gross wrote, directed and stars in. The film, the opening night gala at last month's Toronto Film Festival, shows immense craft, especially in the battle scenes, and great passion for its subject.
It might not press the big box office buttons, but Gross thinks it's a story that deserves major attention.
"We sent 640,000 troops into that war, and 60,000 died in the trenches. When you think about how huge the reaction is now to losing 100 soldiers in Afghanistan, you get a sense of the extent of the impact then," he says with intensity.
"We only had 8 million people in this country at the time of the First World War, which means that almost one-10th of the entire population went to fight."
Gross had to recreate the brutal conditions in the battlefield, fabricating rain and flooding trenches where hardworking actors definitely suffered for their craft. Since the film was shot in Alberta - Gross credits Ralph Klein and his province as major funders - temperatures weren't exactly tropical.
"The water was so cold that in five minutes you couldn't feel your fingers," he says, flexing his hand to demonstrate.
Just days before our conversation, Gross's trip to Afghanistan, where he was set to show the film to Canadian troops, was cancelled.
When I suggest that a film that questions the virtue of war might not fly over there, he makes the familiar distinction between supporting the troops and supporting the mission, and goes on to explain that he wanted to show the film to Canadian soldiers because many of them appear in the movie itself.
"We actually had people from the Canadian armed forces as part of the shoot," he explains. "They were great - they're just so damned organized. You say to most extras, ‘Move over there' and they go all over the place.
"Tell soldiers to move over there and they're there as a unit" - he snaps his fingers - "just like that."