Michael McGowan and James Cromwell
It's the day after the Canadian Screen Awards in March, and James Cromwell and Michael McGowan have hung around Toronto to do a little promotion for their movie Still Mine. This has turned into a teeny bit of a victory lap, since Cromwell was named the year's best actor at the ceremony the night before.
I say "teeny" because the towering Cromwell quickly brushes aside any attempt at congratulation; awards are nice and everything, but he wants to talk about the work. So that's exactly what we do, with writer/director McGowan settling in on the couch next to him.
The character of Craig Morrison is an interesting contradiction. He's devoted to his wife, but in every other aspect of his life he's fiercely independent. Can someone be self-reliant while still leaning so heavily on another person?
JAMES CROMWELL: He relies on other people. He would build his house happily, there would be no problem. Society has a problem; society has to impose rules because we don't behave ethically with each other. And those rules become a constriction on what we are as human beings. He would leave well enough alone; [trouble] came to him.
He resents having to comply with regulations because he believes he knows what he's doing.
JC: Yeah, that's right. He went down, he paid his money - he thought it was absurd, but he's willing to pay $400 to build a house on his own land, for what reason he can't tell. "Okay, I understand it, everybody needs a job, they should get paid. You want to inspect it, that's wonderful." Then, when they say, "No, no, it has to fit a certain form, and that form has nothing to do with your capabilities, your talent or what it is you want to accomplish, or your desires or your needs." It's the society's needs, but not in a good sense - in the worst sense, in the standardization. You know, everybody has to fit in a box. And he doesn't fit in a box exactly.
Do you think Canadians put more value into the concept of the safety net than American audiences might?
JC: Well, we had a safety net, but we threw ours away. We strip-mined it. And I'm concerned by Canada strip-mining theirs, by the way.
Yeah, so are we. But back to the film. How closely did the two of you work to define the character Craig? Did you rework the script once Cromwell was on board? MICHAEL McGOWAN: Well, there's one draft where James had some... Jamie, you tell the story [laughing].
JC: No, I wanna hear you do it. I tell it all the time; you tell it.
MM: Basically, as Jamie says, he sort of gave a cursory read to the script and had some ideas about it that were somewhat wrong, but he's too harsh on himself. I did a pass on the script that took those notes into account. It wasn't a radical change; just certain things. And then he had a closer examination of the script, and some of the things he didn't like were basically his own suggestions.
MM: He's too hard on himself. However, some of the suggestions he made really improved the script. I mean, you want people to have input on the process. And where Jamie was great, as a person who's done this for a long time, was that he was a collaborator in the effort. We can disagree about stuff all day on set - not that we do - but the disagreement is simply [over] how to make the best film possible. The disagreement isn't whether I need to be right or he needs to be right. So for me, there's lots of great stuff. He was a true collaborator. And that's what you want. If somebody's thinking about a lot more than just their performance, it does ultimately make the film better. And when you're working with these seasoned actors, they do want to be directed.
MM: Like, it's not a question of just working with Jamie and saying "Oh, that's wonderful." And it's not a question of him saying "That's great directing - aren't we all geniuses?" It becomes a great collaborative effort, which is a lot of fun because it's not ego-based. It's simply, "Hey, okay, he's sitting here in this scene - what does that really say?" "Oh, I'd never thought about that, let's have a discussion." And you might end up in exactly the same place [afterward] or you might not. And Jamie gets the constraints of making film, and time and all that kind of stuff. If you say to Jamie, "You know what? I know you want to walk there, but it's actually going to jam us up," he'll say "Totally, I get it." But if he says, "I need to do this for this specific reason" - that part of it, you want to have that dialogue. On all my sets, I love to have that, especially when we're working with smart people.
How much time did you have? How long was the shoot?
MM: Twenty-four days.
That must have been tricky, since so much of Still Mine is shot outdoors. Did the weather cooperate?
MM: When we flew into New Brunswick it rained for two weeks solid. It was foggy. We were looking at it, wondering, "What's going to happen if we get there and this is the weather?" When we got back there at Thanksgiving, people were saying "We haven't seen this weather in months!"
MM: We swam in ocean at Thanksgiving. It wasn't a long swim, but we swam.
How does the film play for audiences outside Canada? Other than the money and the odd government logo, it's not really specific in terms of its location.
JC: Yeah, a lot of people say New England. In America, they don't see it as Canadian - and that's nice, because it's quintessentially Canadian. If it were an American story it would have been quite different.
More and more, people are talking about Canada as the salvation for the sort of mid-budget, modestly scaled films that struggle to find an audience in America.
JC: Yay, Canada! [chuckles]
MM: I mean, it's great that this film is gonna have a U.S. theatrical release. Goldwyn Films picked it up during the festival; it's going to be released in Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea. I think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel proved that there's an audience - it did great business with an older audience. You know, we were in Miami on Saturday night. I've been to lots of screenings, and audiences respond to the film. It's a demographic where what you see is kind of grim or not represented at all. It gives them hope.
Saint Ralph and One Week are films about people who set heroic goals for themselves. In Saint Ralph, a boy decides to run a marathon in the hopes that winning it will bring his mother out of a coma, while One Week is about a guy who learns he has an aggressive form of cancer and decides to ride a motorcycle across Canada before beginning his treatment. And now we have Craig Morrison in Still Mine, battling his wife's decline by building her a house. Is that a thematic continuity in your work?
MM: He wouldn't look at himself as a hero, but I do think there's a heroism for me; it's a similar theme. Here's a guy, at 88, who said, "I'm not taking a mortgage; I'm doing it [on my own] because I can." And it's the right way. And he does it. And in spite of everything that goes on, he's heroic - in his dignity with his relationship, in his ability to take a road that's harder than sitting on your couch.
Is that what drew you to the part?
JC: That, absolutely. The relationship's important, but that essential element of the character, his perseverance - his unwillingness to compromise and to let it go. You don't have to give up just because you get old. You don't have to give up in a relationship because part of it goes south. You can persevere.
Did you spend any time with the real Craig Morrison?
JC: I actually didn't meet Craig until we went to New Brunswick. It was at the very end of the picture. Michael went out on the truck with him, but I didn't - I didn't see him mill those [logs], how he would have handled it, how he conversed - so I just made it up. And I hope it is representative. He didn't object; he seemed to like it.
MM: Oh, he really liked it. I know he loved the film, [and so did] the family. I've obviously fictionalized stuff, but when you take a life you do hope that the end result is that they're happy with what you've done with it.
You obviously felt a responsibility to do his story justice.
MM: Well, I feel like you do because these are people who let you into their world and were very generous. I was certainly upfront that I was going to fictionalize things. However, karmically or ethically, you wouldn't want to represent yourself as a person who was going to do justice to the spirit of Craig Morrison and then [have his family] feel like they got the rug pulled out from under them. To me, that would be just wrong.