Back to IndieWire

Brian D. Johnson’s Documentary ‘Al Purdy Was Here’ Finds Poetry in Cinema

Brian D. Johnson’s Documentary ‘Al Purdy Was Here’ Finds Poetry in Cinema

Was
it Godard or was it Truffaut
who said “critics make the best directors”
?

A
film critic by trade and a poet in his heart, Brian D. Johnson began his film “Al Purdy Was Here” as a fundraising tool to save the A-frame cabin in the woods built by
Canadian poet Al Purdy and his wife Eurithe.  As making the film progressed, Johnson began to see much
more in the film than merely a vehicle [piece] to raise money.  “Al Purdy Was Here” soon evolved into
something much greater, something deeply poetic by a writer who himself
treasures poetry even as he critiques films….

Brian
says, “It is about art and life and the fact that they are often in conflict as
we try to make our lives.  Poetry
is my aim…finding poetry in cinema. 
But music was the reason I made the film.”

 Canada’s
leading musicians and artists come together to tell the tale of Al Purdy. 

The documentary
features archival materials and first-hand accounts, including interviews with
his publisher Howard White, editor Sam Solecki, widow Eurithe Purdy, poets Dennis
Lee, Steven Heighton and George Bowering—and Bowering’s wife Jean Baird, the powerhouse behind the campaign
to save and restore Purdy’s A-Frame cabin.

Read Indiewire for more about the movie here.

Gordon Pinsent (“Away from Her”), Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient”), Leonard Cohen (“Natural Born Killers”), Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) all pay tribute to him along with other well
known writers, actors, directors and singers who adapt his poetry.

This
film premiered, naturally enough, at TIFF 2015 but I only caught up with it at
IFF Panama this year because Brian – whom I met one year in Havana and loaned
him $100 to pay his hotel bill —  was at IFF Panama where his film was screening.  With him was our friend-in-common,
Latinaphile, Helga Stephenson, so I tagged along as a
friend to see a film about a person I had never heard of before.  And I was entranced by what I saw. 

Al Purdy was known to be a raucous,
barroom brawling Canadian poet, something on a par with Charles Bukowski.  In fact they were friends
and corresponded extensively, but there is some question as to whether Purdy’s
character as a barroom brawler was put on as his persona to help
popularize his poetry.  Was he
actually such a rough person? His wife, Eurithe Purdy, who survived him and is
featured in the movie said that at home he was quite a peaceable man (when he
was not boozing it up with his pals). He was also a philosophical soul,
enraptured by nature—Canada’s Walt Whitman as well as its Bukowski.

SL: How did you get these
musicians?

I
went to the pantheon of famous Canadian singer-songwriters and asked them to
compose and record music inspired by Purdy’s work. We paid engineers and
musicians. But the artists licensed their songs to us for free, and in return they
got to own the rights to the songs.

I
got in touch with Neil Young through his brother. I loved Neil’s music, and
interviewed him for one of his films. 
Remember Neil Young: Heart of Gold directed by Jonathan
Demme?

I
sent Neil a Purdy poem called “My 48 Pontiac”, written from the POV
of a car in a junk yard—knowing Neil loves old cars. He never did get around to
recording an original number for us, but he loved the poem, and the project. So
when we wanted to use “Journey Through the Past” (from Neil’s 1971
Massey Hall concert album) on the soundtrack, he gave us the rights at no cost.

We
selected half a dozen songs for the movie but commissioned and recorded six
more, and we’re assembling all of them on an album called “The Al Purdy
Songbook”.

Meanwhile,
the film’s score was composed by my son, Casey Johnson, who recorded it all
with purely analog technology—in the spirit of Purdy’s rough and raw esthetic.

The
music played at a 2013 benefit concert to save Purdy’s cabin in the woods become
the impetus for me to make the movie. I remember leaving the show and telling
the organizers, “The next thing you should do is an Al Purdy
Songbook.”) I didn’t know I’d end up doing it myself. And as it turned
out, it was the music that made the film possible. Musicians are more famous
than poets. They have an audience. 
And this is a movie about a dead poet.  How do you make a movie about a dead
poet?

The
music brings it to life . . .  I suppose
I could have made a zombie movie instead.

SL: How did you cast the
movie?

You
get the most famous people lined up and then the rest follow.  I’m friends with Michael Ondaatje. I
know Margaret Atwood. I know Leonard Cohen. So I started there.

SL: How did you finance the
film?

The
CBC Documentary Channel gave us 25% of the budget and that triggered the rest
of the financing. The  Rogers Documentary
Fund
and
the Rogers Cable Fund became the other principal contributors.

But
Ron
Mann
, who
exec produced, got the ball rolling, and his company, Films We Like, came
onboard as the Canadian distributor. We’re still looking for international
distribution.

The
movie felt like a barn-raising, with everyone pitching in to help make it work.

Brian
D. Johnson is former film critic for Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly newsmagazine, is the
current president of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Over the years, he also
worked as a musician and published poetry, a novel, and several works of
non-fiction, including a 25th-anniversary history of TIFF, “Brave Films,
Wild Nights, 25 Years of Festival Fever. “Al Purdy was Here” (2015) is his
first feature documentary. Once again he’ll be writing about film for Maclean’s
in May at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , ,