Authenticity in a movie – it’s a crazy concept. A film is an exercise in fakery: angling lights on a soundstage to shine like the sun, gluing on prosthetics to simulate a scar.
But when I sat down in Toronto to talk, separately, with the writer-director Don McKellar and the actors Brendan Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch about their new comedy The Grand Seduction, the idea of authenticity was on all their minds. (It opened across Canada on Friday.)
A remake of the 2003 Quebec film La grande séduction, the new, English-language version is set in the fictional village of Tickle Head, Nfld., whose residents, led by Murray French, an out-of-work fisherman (played by Brendan Gleeson), conspire to charm a big-city doctor (Taylor Kitsch) into moving there, which will in turn persuade an oil company to build a recycling plant.
McKellar does his best to channel Preston Sturges; Gordon Pinsent, Mark Critch and Mary Walsh are on hand to make sure the jokes land; and the vistas are gorgeous – the eight-week shoot used a number of picturesque villages, including New and Old Bonaventure, English Harbour and Red Cliff, with its purple rocks and green water.
But underneath the humour lies a hard economic reality: How do you keep a fishing village alive when there’s no fishing?
“The story has a cynical side, and a tragic side,” McKellar says.
“It’s about necessity. In that way it’s not sentimental. We were all cautious going in about it being corny, false or shticky. We didn’t want the characters to be rubes. We were conscious that there is genuine hardship in those outposts.”
Many of the extras are locals, and while filming one flashback scene, some were moved to the point of tears, remembering what things were like for their fathers.
And one thing Newfoundlanders all agree on, McKellar added, “is when you get them wrong.”
Gleeson – who’s like the Irish Gene Hackman, in that he never strikes a false note, whether he’s doing comedy (In Bruges), drama (Gangs of New York), or a kids’ film (the Harry Potter series) – was equally determined to be respectful.
“Being Irish, and seeing a lot of paddywhackery on film, I was committed to not teetering into [a tone] where the whole culture is patronized. This story is about the survival of these communities. Because you’re going to miss them when they’re gone, and there’s no bringing them back.”
Gleeson wrote to Mark Critch, a native of St. John’s, who sent him a mass of background material, including audio clips of different accents; Critch also read him the entire script aloud.
“You can read whatever you want, but getting in touch with people is important,” Gleeson says.
“I’d always been curious about Newfoundland, because of the Irish connections and the music” – he plays violin – “but there are so many accents there it’s insane. A lot of it is West Country English; you can’t just assume it’s Irish.”
He also threw in a dollop of his own late father, a hard-working, strong-minded civil servant from Tipperary, who had a “left-field sense of humour” that always made his late mother, who was a Dublin girl, laugh.
She was always surprised by his particular take, a wicked sense from having a skewed view, Gleeson says.
“There are bits of Murray in that. You can’t always tell what he’s up to, and he ain’t gonna tell you.”
Gleeson grew up in Dublin, but summered in Tipperary. He fondly recalls how the locals there greeted one another on the street: by saying “well” instead of “hello.”
“You’d walk by, and it’s” – he gives a brief nod – “‘Well.’”
He brought a bit of that to The Grand Seduction, too, along with his own background: At age 34, married with four children, he left a secure job as a teacher to pursue acting full time.
(His father initially was worried about that choice, until Gleeson played Churchill in the TV movie Into the Storm. “He was into historical stuff, he was taken with that.”)
“Once I could believe in Murray, I could bring him into all sorts of places,” Gleeson goes on.
“This story is made up, but it mightn’t be. I know guys who tell fibs, don’t you” – he laughs a high, giddy laugh – “who are up to all sorts, by way of getting through.”
Kitsch’s role was more straightforward, in that he was playing an outsider, and he himself had never been to Newfoundland (he grew up next to an apple orchard near Kelowna, B.C.).
But he, too, believes in authenticity: During the shooting of The Grand Seduction, he was training to play a Navy SEAL in the war film Lone Survivor, running the rugged five-kilometre Skerwink Trail in a weighted vest every day, and packing on 15 pounds.
During the promotion of The Grand Seduction at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, he was striving to lose that 15 pounds, plus 15 more, for his role in The Normal Heart, the TV drama set during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.
Changing his body like that “changes everything,” he says, “your walk, talk, cadence. That’s what this job is all about.”
He also radiates a mellow openness that brings things to him. When he was unable to find a spinning rod at a local shop, a passerby simply gave him his own.
“Where would you get that, anywhere else?” Kitsch asks. “That’s ridiculous. But that’s the kind of people we were dealing with. Incredibly generous.”
One afternoon, a local crew member took him whale watching; on another, he started an impromptu baseball game with the detritus lying on the beach, driftwood bats, stone balls, Critch doing a play-by-play.
“I thought: ‘This is one of the good days,’” Gleeson recalls. “It’s not every day you get to work like that.”
McKellar also had a stealth weapon in his fight for authenticity: Newfoundlander Gordon Pinsent.
“Gordon’s like the Pope out there,” McKellar says. “He has the keys to the province.”
For exampe, the woman who owns much of Red Cliff didn’t want the production shooting there – until she realized Pinsent was in it, and was willing to come to her house for tea.
“We really pimped him out,” McKellar says, grinning. “He went in and charmed the hell out of her, which he can do to a stone. And we got our location.”
On the most challenging night of the shoot, McKellar had to move his entire cast from one building to another and back again, as part of an elaborate ruse the town was conducting.
His producers were worried; they thought it couldn’t be done, that the night would run way over-budget.
But what made it work was one final thing they didn’t have to fake: Although they had elaborate lights, a natural one appeared for them: the moon, huge and luminous, right on cue.