It took Halifax filmmaker John Walker a year to figure out how, and if, he could make a movie about what really happened on the Franklin Expedition.
Ultimately, Walker decided to create a documentary around the making of a feature film, without actually making the feature film itself.
The main motivation behind this unorthodox approach was to examine the long-dead historical figures in the Franklin tale in an innovative way: through the actors' preparations.
So he commissioned a draft of a feature film with the sole intention of filming some scenes and using them in his documentary.
"I love the way actors research their characters, get into their characters," he said over tea in Vancouver last week. "So I [figured]the best way to get the actors excited and involved is to write a feature film."
The result, Passage, screens this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (It premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto in April and screened last month at the Atlantic film festival, where it won awards for directing and cinematography.)
Based on the book Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan, Passage focuses on a lesser-known player in the saga: not Sir John Franklin, whose disappearance with his crew of 128 men in search of the elusive Northwest Passage made headlines and shook the English-speaking world in the mid-1800s; but John Rae, a doctor from Scotland's Orkney Islands and employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, who was dispatched to search for Franklin and his men or their remains.
When Rae returned to England with word not only that Franklin and his men had perished, but that his crew had descended into madness and employed cannibalism in a desperate attempt at survival, the news was hardly welcomed. The film argues that despite Rae becoming the first to discover the last missing link through the Northwest Passage, he was sidelined to the margins of history as an odd, Inuit-loving outsider.
Rick Roberts, a Toronto actor, was cast as Rae. He travelled with Walker to Canada's North and the Orkney Islands. The film documents their discussions about Rae and his motivations, and Roberts's work learning the tricky local accent.
Interspersed in the documentary are scenes from the unproduced feature film (one Walker isn't sure he'll ever go on to make): Lady Franklin urging her husband to go in search of the Northwest Passage, Rae presenting his disturbing findings to a disgusted naval admiralty, and author Charles Dickens, who turns out to have a role in the story as he wrote scathing portrayals of the Inuit in support of Lady Franklin.
When asked whether this documentary was Walker's way to set the record straight and erase the mythology of Franklin by recognizing the heroism of Rae, he says no. "I didn't want to replace one dead hero with another," he insists, adding that the true hero of the film is Inuit elder Tagak Curley. "Tagak's the star."
Curley, from Rankin Inlet, served as a consultant on the film. He travelled from Nunavut to London, England, to take part in a two-day script read-through with Walker and his actors.
And it is around that static table that the film reaches its unlikely climax.
When casting for the role of Dickens, Walker received a response from a surprise candidate: Gerald Dickens, amateur actor - and the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens.
Walker didn't want to cast him in the Dickens role, but he recognized a great opportunity. He just wasn't sure what to do with it.
And then he found inspiration in Woody Allen.
Specifically, the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are in line to see a film and overhear a fellow patron's dissertation on Marshall McLuhan. Rolling his eyes, Alvy brings in the actual McLuhan to disprove the obnoxious line-mate's theories.
Walker calls it one of the great scenes in the history of cinema. And it inspired him to bring the Dickens descendant to the script read-through - as a surprise.
"It's the marriage of fiction and non-fiction, right?" Walker says. "Truth and reality. Clash."
The clash - and it was much more of a clash than Walker had bargained for - was between Gerald Dickens and Curley, one of the descendants of the people Charles Dickens called "savages" and "covetous, treacherous and cruel" in a controversial 1854 essay written in response to Rae's findings.
"What I didn't realize," Walker says, "was that for Tagak, who's coming from an oral tradition where history is a continuum, an unbroken continuum, [Gerald Dickens]comes out of the wings [and]for Tagak, this is Charles Dickens. This is the guy that maligned his people."
The confrontation - and resolution - are both tense and moving.
"You could hear a pin drop in the room," Walker says. "A lot of the actors were weeping. It was incredible."
The exchange brings another level of complexity to an already layered story in an already high-concept film.
"That's documentary at its best," Walker says. "The documentary gods were with me."