tV: How did you choose this topic for your film?
SG: I was introduced to David (Suzuki) by Laszlo Barna, the executive producer of the film. Laszlo is an old friend who wanted to make a film with David. He didn't know what, just that he wanted to do something with David, so he asked me to come for the meeting.
I didn't know David but you know those under-grads in the archival footage, I could have been one of them: I was an under-grad at UBC when David was this rock star professor. Even though I was studying English Lit. and was reading romantic poets and David was talking about genetics, he might as well have been talking poetry: he was talking my language way back then.
He was always kind of a folk hero, but I didn't know him, I'd never met him, and thirty years had passed. I didn't really know what I could do with David Suzuki that hadn't been done: it's not like he's under exposed. I wanted to meet him because I'd always looked up to him and so we started talking.
We had a lot in common: we're both BC boys; we've both experienced the sense of the numinous under the British Columbia sky, and it changes you; we both like to fish.
David was on fire when I met him because on the one hand he was criss-crossing the country trying to get the message out: he had this tremendous sense of urgency. I think it was partly because he had a grandson that was about to be born and so this need to make people “get it.”
At the same time he was at this very reflective moment in his life: he was contemplating his own mortality and taking stock and wondering what his life was all about.
I found the tension between those two ideas very compelling. At the outset we started off talking about big metaphysical ideas: David wanted to make a film about the history of time, the birth of the universe and all that kind of thing which we had a lot of fun talking about and I found very stimulating.
But what I kept gravitating towards was him as a human being and I realized that nobody had actually done that. For the hundreds of hours of David Suzuki audio visual content, nobody had ever treated him as the subject of a film, so that's what excited me. That was the birth of the idea for me so that's what I proposed to David and Laszlo: that we do something where David is the subject of the film.
I think David was quite skeptical at first. Firstly, I don't think he understood exactly what I was proposing and secondly, I think he's uncomfortable being the subject as opposed to the interpreter.
In the beginning when I'd ask him questions he'd turn to the camera to answer, you know, “the host.” And so the first little bit of shooting felt like The Nature of Things.
Eventually we built up trust and at a certain point I realize we were on track. After we hiked the mountain in Slocan, that was a real turning point. It was a three day intense hike and we got to a place of respect and it all kind of unfolded from there.
tV: What were some of the challenges you faced making this film?
SG: My great concern going in was could I get beyond “franchise Suzuki”, which I respect, but... When I was with David one on one there was another person there that I had never seen before, and I thought “would it be possible to capture that person on film.” The was a more intimate human being there.
The first big challenge was getting to that place of being able to make a very intimate film with somebody like David.
The other challenges were just work. I felt like in order to make a film like this, you have to have an active present tense and I didn't see it as being a purely cinema verite film because there wasn't anything happening at that moment that was dramatic enough to provide it with that engine.
So I thought well David is such a great speaker let's build it around a lecture. I'd filmed some lectures with him but usually you're in a Chamber of Conference hall and you can't make it look like anything: it is what it is. All you've got is a great performance but you don't have anything to look at. So I thought, let's create an event that we can anchor the film in.
When I called David, the first thing that came out of his mouth was “let's make it a last lecture.” He said that universities do that when a professor is nearing retirement: sort of if you had one last thing to say what would it be. He said, “this will be my last lecture. It'll be my legacy: what I want to say before I die.”
I thought that was great so we started working towards that but I put it at the very end of the schedule so that we spent nine months before the lecture going to all these key places: Japan, Slocan, Haida Gwaii, both to film places which were meaningful turning points in the evolution of his body of thought.
I thought we'd do that because it would give me the opportunity to shoot the visuals that I'll use at the lecture, it would give me the opportunity to get to know David, and it would also give David time to distil the lecture.
Over the course of the nine months there must have been thirty iterations of the lecture and he would give it to me and I would act as an editor: I would edit and he would go back and forth so that in the end the lecture was something that by the time the lecture happened I already knew what the biographical pieces were and I knew where they'd live in the lecture and so I was able to ensure that the lecture had the right segways in and out of it.
tV: That's what I was going to ask you next. How did you choose what to tell, because seriously you could have a five hour film if you wanted, with a man like him. The editing process alone must have been insane trying to keep and what to leave out.
SG: I also saw it as biography of ideas. I never saw it as a strictly biographical film where you go back to the baby pictures: he was born here and then this happened. For me it was identifying those key turning points: what were the moments in his life that made him who he is or that caused the distillation of this body of thought.
That's why we went to Slocan and all those places. We didn't go there because things happened to him there, but that they were turning points. I think in David's life there are so many dramatic turning points and each of them is marked by a kind of quality of... it's like Sheba, it's creation out of destruction.
In all of the turning points there's sort of a destruction out of which comes something new. But it's not really new, it's the next iteration. He has his home torn away from him: his home is destroyed when he's six and it leads him to nature. He's horny but he has no Asian girls he can go out with and it leads him to genetics and to the swamp. His birth place as a scientist, his career is born in the place that enriched the uranium that destroyed that land of his ancestors.
Every single step has that sense of destruction and creation. It's interesting. And I think that's why he's an inspiring figure: there is always something hopeful that comes out of everything destructive.
Let's face it, this is a hopeful film about the end of the world (laughs). It's like a feel good movie about the end of the world. Because in his view there's still mystery, there's still so much we don't understand and that things are still possible.
tV: Was there anything that you filmed, that in the end you couldn't keep but wished you could?
SG: There were lots of wonderful details like in the tent when David's laying there and he just giggles. He's giggling because I said, “David, tell me about the first time that you went camping with your dad.”
It's such a great story. When David was about five years old they went down to Japan-town, they bought a tent, they spread out the tent on the floor of the store and David and his dad crawled into the tent in the middle of this store and his dad said, “David, we're going to go camping.” There were lots of details like that, that didn't make it just because you have to keep the momentum up.
I think it would have been nice... I think Tara (Cullis) is such an important part of his life and he's so lucky because he found somebody who was turned on by all those very qualities that make him the enemy of the status quo. He found somebody who is able to create an order out of the chaos of his enthusiasm. He's a very lucky man that way.
It would have been nice to incorporate her more fully into the film but the nine month period when we were making the film, there was nothing really going on and you can't create it. That would have been nice. That wasn't something I had, that I wished I could have used, it's something that I wished that I had, which I think would have made it a better film.
tV: Absolutely. She's an extraordinary woman. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like her.
SG: Yes. I've got a lot of time for Tara.
tV: Where did you have the most fun making this film?
SG: Fishing! (laughs) I mean come on, we got to go hike in Slocan and go fishing: we got drunk on trout.
Up in Haida Gwaii Diane, Severn's (David's and Tara's daughter) mother-in-law said she would be happy to prep the fish and smoke them and stuff like that. We were past the Sockeye season: there were no fish so David and I had to go out and catch them. We caught all those salmon that she was filleting in the film.
I think all of the outdoor-ness of it, the opportunity to re-connect with British Columbia was great. I spent a lot of my youth out in the bush and now I live in Ontario. I still do a lot of backwoods canoeing and stuff like that but it's not the same as British Columbia.
tV: What has the response been to your film?
SG: Oh, jeeze, it's humbling. I didn't realize, I had no idea it had such a hopeful message as it seems to have. People have really responded to the film emotionally. Everybody's really surprised. I mean, you tell them that it's intimate but they don't get it until they see it, and people come away from it quite moved. That's been great.
We won the people's choice award at TIFF and we're running already in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal and it's doing quite well, which is remarkable for a documentary film: especially a film about the end of the world (laughs).
I knew that the film had warmth because it was made with love but it's been quite humbling to see how strongly it translates: how emotionally people respond to the film. It's been really great.
I was concerned because I have a reputation for being a bit edgy, and I kind of drank the Kool-Aid on this one.
tV: Have you heard any feedback from David about the film?
SG: Yes, I think he was quite moved by it. I think he was scared, but I think he was quite moved by it, and so was Tara. She said at TIFF, “I didn't really understand what you were doing until now.” I think both of them feel that it was done with affection and respect. As Sarika (David's and Tara's daughter) said to me, “I know this doesn't sound like praise, but there were no cringe moments.” (laughs)
tV: What's in the future for you?
SG: I'm working on something about Omar Kader but I call that my “good works” film because it has no commercial hope whatsoever. People in Canada don't care: that's sort of what it's about, the fact that civil liberties don't really mean anything if you only extend them to people you like.
There's a screenplay that I'm trying to suspend my disbelief enough to mount as a feature.