When Canadian journalist and film critic Brian D. Johnson retired from fulltime beat work in 2013, he set his sights on filmmaking. Specifically, documentary filmmaking, which he naturally saw as an extension of his journalistic background. But the subject of his latest effort, Al Purdy was Here (making its world premiere at this year’s 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival), was a subject Johnson wasn’t as schooled in as one might assume.
Johnson (who remains the president of the Toronto Film Critics Association) employs a three-pronged approach to examining one of the most celebrated and controversial Canadian poets, writers and pundits to ever live. Johnson first looks at the restoration of the A-frame house, in Prince Edward County, ON, which Purdy (who died in 2000) built for himself and his wife, so it could be used by future generations as a writing retreat. From there, Johnson enlisted the help of a wide range of singer-songwriters, authors and artists to help breathe new life into Purdy’s material. And in what he thought was originally only going to be background information, Johnson explores the intriguing, but sometimes murky mythology that makes Purdy such a charismatic literary figure.
We caught up with Johnson prior to the start of the festival at a coffee shop on the Ryerson University campus to talk about his growing knowledge of Purdy, the poet’s appeal to younger readers and separating myth from legend.
How familiar were you with the work of Al Purdy before deciding to make a film about him?
Brian D. Johnson: I didn’t really know Purdy at all, to tell you the truth. I knew of his work, but I discovered him through archival clips I had been watching and assembling for a benefit show. At first, I thought he was just really interesting and that he was great on camera.
I owe most of this to my wife [and co-writer], Marni Jackson, who’s a writer and artist as well. She came across an anthology of Al’s poetry — a slim volume put out by his publisher, Howard White, launched basically as a way to save and restore the A-frame as a writing retreat. It was full of reminisces from people like [Margaret] Atwood, [Michael] Ondaatje, Dennis Lee — lots of people that spent time at the A-frame and around Al. She read it and thought she would write a play about it, so she started working on that. As time went on, she got drawn into this campaign to work on the A-frame and she ended up scripting this show that helped put that campaign over the top.
It was this benefit at Koerner Hall, in Toronto, in February of 2013; she said they needed a montage and they brought me in to work on that. I had all this archival footage and I started cutting this montage. I like making montages a lot, actually; I’ve been making them for the TFCA for years, and I get a kick out of it. You spend a lot of time with the footage when you’re cutting a montage, even something as small as this, but I never got bored watching Al. I just wanted to learn more and more.
Of course, a couple of days before the show, I asked if anyone was filming it, because they had people like Gordon Pinsent, Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood and the Skydiggers. There was just this pantheon of writers, poets, artists, singer-songwriters and talents of all kinds that I thought someone would want to have on tape. They didn’t have anyone doing it, so I threw together, very quickly, a three-camera shoot of the event, but then the question became, “Well, what do we do with the footage?” That footage alone might be a good half-hour, if it aired on TV, but I don’t know how you would sell or make that.
After the show, though, seeing all these people made me think of turning to singer-songwriters first, because they’re akin to the poets: they look up to each other and they’re practically joined at the hip. They also have built-in audiences. I wanted to see if we could do an album of songs inspired by Al Purdy, called The Al Purdy Songbook. That was back in September, 2013.
Then, nothing happened. I was busy and I still had a job, at the time. When I left Macleans in late 2013, it all started coming back to me. I always thought that if I made a film, it would be a documentary, thanks to my background in print journalism. Documentary is really just journalism by other means. I wanted to make a documentary about Al and for it to have this musical aspect.
Both of the projects were launched. The film is finished and the album is almost finished, but we’re still looking for some more funding on that. We need to pay a few artists and record a few more that have songs written and ready to go.
Although in the film you find some young people that have little clue who Purdy was, there’s something about Al’s work that speaks to a more youthful audience. Any guesses as to why?
Purdy has crept into the school curricula, to the extent that a lot of young people who study poetry have an idea of who he is. His story isn’t known, but it’s an epic one and he’s an iconic character. He’s not just a great poet; he has a great story of hard times, riding freights, working in mattress factories and writing bad poetry for about two decades with such persistence that he eventually found his voice and became a great poet. As a portrait of an artist, and guy that just wouldn’t give up, he has a compelling story. He’s interesting in the Canadian sense that he had this beer-swilling, cigar-chomping bravado, yet he’s so self-deprecating. It sounds paradoxical, but there’s something so Canadian about that; we don’t take our heroism straight on. Even though he cuts a heroic literary figure, he undercuts that at every opportunity.
It’s like when someone first picks up Catcher in the Rye. There’s something about Purdy that teenagers like because he’s a rebel; he’s a dropout and delinquent. When young people discover Purdy, he represents this story of lost age. Purdy wasn’t really a counter-culture figure, because he was too old for that when he became popular, but he’s a bridge to this Canadian culture that’s in danger of being forgotten. Younger people are looking for things like Purdy more than people my age — there’s a romance about it. People my age rarely have the same fire in the belly.
You don’t approach Purdy as a straight on biography, mostly because it’s hard to separate the myth from legend. Was it difficult trying to find out who Purdy was in his private life?
The myth is part of the man and the man is part of the myth. There’s never been a biography of Al Purdy. When his memoirs came out, that was what people took as his story, but they are very selective. When people conducted interviews with him, they would often just turn the cameras on Purdy and let him tell his stories how he wanted to. We go a bit beyond that, but we were never looking to do a definitive biography. You couldn’t do a film of that size and scope and still maintain the other missions we had, with the music and restoration of the A-frame. The contrasts between the public and private Al Purdy — between the iconic persona and the hardworking, diligent artist — are both him. That’s contradictory, but also what makes him interesting. If Al added up neatly as a person, he wouldn’t be half as interesting.