FORTUNATE SON (Tony Asimakopoulos). 80 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (August 17). For venues and times, see Movies.
Tony Asimakopoulos didn't expect to be a documentarian.
He started out wanting to make dramas, but life - and a crippling drug addiction - got in the way. Rehab followed, and with that a determination to restart his career. Now he's made Fortunate Son, a personal documentary examining his rocky relationship with his parents and fiancée.
It's a searching, somewhat confused work, but there's no doubting that it's a very personal project for its director. And as Fortunate Son prepares to open in Toronto, I reached Asimakopolous at his home in Montreal.
What was the genesis of Fortunate Son?
The film started as a short, actually. I'd just come back to Montreal, I'd been away for years, I was having dinner with my parents, and my mom told me a story. She started talking about how she and my dad had sort of struggled, back in the beginning, when I first got clean from drugs. These are things that she'd never really talked about, and I kind of opened my mind to this whole other dimension of that story.
I thought, "I really want to explore, just as a little portrait, them as a couple dealing with this thing that is very shameful." They were very secretive about it; they didn't want to tell anybody. To older people in the community, it's a very heavy-duty shame thing. So I thought it would be good to make a short film, and maybe get a half-hour TV doc slot, you know, and give it to Greek families to see it. And that was really it; it was just meant to be a portrait of my parents, about that period of time when they were just finding out about my drug problem.
And it grew out from that - and got me into a lot of trouble four and a half years later. I never thought it would be a feature. If I knew how difficult it was gonna be [laughing], we wouldn't have done it in the first place.
How long have you been clean?
Uh, 17 years.
Congratulations. That can't have been easy.
It was tough in the beginning, but the staying clean part is easy now. It's everything else that's hard. [laughing] Life is hard. For people like myself who expected it to get easier, I guess, on some level that's the underlying [issue]. "Well, it should be easier." Who ever said it was supposed to be easier? I dunno.
You said you'd been away from Montreal for years. Where were you?
Well, rehab was in Ottawa, and after I got out I decided to stay away from Montreal. I found a place to live, I got involved with a video co-op there. There was a strong 12-step recovery community, and I got really involved with that. I figured, "I'm just gonna stay here until I'm ready to move on to somewhere else." And that ended up being seven years. It was a safe enough distance from home and my parents - in the beginning, emotionally, I totally walled them off. A lot of people seem to do that, you know, at the beginning [of recovery].
I think that's part of why, when I came back home so many years later, so many things surprised me about their lives. But I was just in Ottawa, a couple of hours away. And then I was in Toronto for a couple of years. I made a film at the [Canadian] Film Centre and then I came back to Montreal for work, just chasing work around. I never intended to come back home at all.
It took you four and a half years to make Fortunate Son. How did you keep yourself going?
For the first year I didn't really have any money; I was just gonna try and finish it on my own and try to get a broadcaster interested for a half-hour [slot]. Then we got some grant money, and so I thought, "Okay, take some time to edit it." Then when we got SODEC [funding], I did a demo and I started to see that it could be more of a story.
Basically, if I wanted to get more money to work on the film, it had to be a feature. And at this point, some of the most intense stuff hadn't been shot yet - it was still [me] dealing with the past. All the stuff about me and Natalie in the present day and my father's illness really hadn't factored into the film yet. So I thought, "Okay, let's go for it. Try and get this money and turn this into a feature." And then that whole summer happened, the second half of the film happened. How did I stay committed to it? What choice did I have? [laughing]
It's like you passed a point of no return.
I mean, a short film you can walk away from and put it on the shelf; a film like this, at a certain point I had to stop shooting. And from that point onward, bearing down on the editing and trying to find a structure for it, to get it done. That was the hardest part, knowing when to stop. And honestly, I think my wife had something to do with that. Just, like, "Look, you can't shoot any more. You're driving yourself crazy. I don't think you exactly know what you're doing." And that was kind of partly true at the time.
Documentarians have said that the most important part of any project is finding the characters. How did you find yours, since they're people you've known all your life?
Once I locked down on what I was trying to say about my mom, then it was clear. And what I was trying to say is that she's got it all. She's got the love and the madness, she has everything. In some ways she saved my life, and in some ways she created the conditions that drove me to the brink, you know what I mean?
There's no blame or anything, but when you look at somebody that closely, in terms of a relationship, there's so much to it. I really do believe she's stronger than my dad, and in some ways stronger than me. She's incredibly strong, and I tried to reveal that gradually throughout the film. You think you kind of know her: she's a smothering mom, this typical Greek mom, she's funny, she's kind of crazy, she's this, she's that. But at the end of the day she holds it all down. And it's kind of true, emotionally.
Your father is diagnosed with a serious illness in the second half of the movie. Obviously that's going to weigh on you, both while you're shooting and while you're editing. Was it helpful to have the movie to work on during that time?
People kept asking me, at the Q&As in Montreal, "Was it therapeutic for you, was there a catharsis?" And I'm like, "No, it was just really hard work, and sad near the end." I wouldn't do it again. I wouldn't advise it, I wouldn't recommend it for anybody. But what I'm starting to pick up in the screenings is that it sort of seems to be therapeutic for [other] people.
That makes sense. People see your family dynamic playing out and realize everyone goes through this sort of thing, on one level or another. It's an expression of the human condition.
It's good for me to realize that that's what it's really about - that it's not about me. [laughing] Making a movie like this, it becomes an identity thing. "What am I getting out of it? What am I getting out of it? This is driving me crazy." And then you spend some time actually getting feedback from people - I've been doing Q&As every day [in Montreal] for, like, three weeks - and just getting that feedback helped me understand why I did this. It's not for me at all. That was actually the best part. The best part is now. [laughing]