Like a lot of people, Alan Zweig hadn't thought much about Steve Fonyo over the past years. And if he'd been reminded that Fonyo was the one-legged teenager who, back in the 1980s, ran across Canada to raise money for cancer research, he might have thought what at lot of us might, at least at first: "Wasn't that Terry Fox?"
No, Fox was the guy who tried to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research but didn't make it. Fonyo did, all the way. But Fox outran Fonyo in a couple of significant ways: he tried first and he's remembered better. In historical terms, he's gone the distance and Fonyo hasn't.
Indeed, go to the spot in Victoria where Fonyo finished his coast-to-coast marathon in 1985 and nearby you'll find a statue – of Terry Fox.
"He really was not on my radar until he lost the Order of Canada," says Zweig, whose non-fiction movie about the life and hard times of Fonyo, Hurt, premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 14. on Monday.
"Then somebody wrote me a note and put a bug in my ear. 'He just lost the Order of Canada. I think you should make a film about him.'"
The bug bit. "There was something about losing the Order of Canada that made me think there's a lot of stories we like about characters' lives going downhill, but seldom does the government of a country sort of officially say, 'You blew it.' That's what made me think of him."
Anyone familiar with the Toronto filmmaker's work will know Zweig has never shied from subjects who, in one way or another, might be said to have blown it. From his earliest cult perennial Vinyl, which probes obsessive record-collecting as a kind of life-avoidance pathology, to the all-star crank cast of I, Curmudgeon, the post-institutional ordeals of ex-cons in A Hard Name and even the funnier players of When Jews Were Funny, Zweig is singularly adept at involving us in the lives of people who prickle. People who aren't buying any bill of goods selling happy-ever-afters, bright horizons or square deals. Zweig would probably never have made a movie about Fox. But Fonyo? There was a movie he wanted to make.
By the time Zweig and crew caught up with Fonyo in British Columbia, the man boasted a C.V. of unfortunate incidents almost as wide as the nation itself: flamed-out relationships and legal scraps, pharmaceutical misadventures and financial ruin, stretches of near and not-so-near homelessness, arrests and beatings. (One of which appeared right before Zweig's cameras.) Still, all that being said, despite outward dissimilarities between filmmaker and his subject, Zweig and Fonyo had one thing in common: Both believed there was a movie in Steve.
"He's very confident," Zweig says. "It's a bit cute, but I could say 'Steve, I could give you a fish or I could teach you to fish,' and he would always say 'Give me the fish.' Like always. And you'd say 'What are you going to do tomorrow?,' and he'd say, 'Don't worry, I'll get a fish tomorrow.' But the thing is tomorrow he won't get a fish."
Over four visits, Zweig and his crew followed Fonyo around for nearly a year, almost precisely coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the dates Fonyo began and finished his run. Zweig never grew bored of the guy, as exasperating, stubborn and willfully self-sabotaging as Fonyo might have seemed. Indeed, those were precisely the characteristics that made Fonyo such a riveting subject for a feature-length doc: You could count on him to be himself no matter what happened, even when becoming someone else was so clearly the more reasonable option. Like the old fable about the scorpion on the frog's back, Fonyo couldn't help it, and he didn't really want to.
"He's been homeless a lot," Zweig says. "He was homeless when he got married to his first wife and he's essentially homeless now. His confidence that 'Don't worry, I'll find something,' is pretty much unfounded. But it's founded in the general sense in that he's been living like this more or less for 30 years and never spent more than a few months in jail.
"The time we knew him he was in jail twice, but for like three, four days. I think the beating you see in the movie is probably the worst thing that happened to him. He was down on Hastings [Street] in Vancouver for a while, but ever since he got out of that, he's still been in a hole, but never that deep in the hole. So he has survived. He's just never flourished."
As of this writing, Fonyo hadn't seen Hurt. But if you asked Fonyo, the movie itself was foreordained, a case of destiny calling the shots.
"He kind of expected it to happen eventually," Zweig explains. "He has a sense of fate and destiny. He feels he was chosen to do the run. Sometimes he'd say it was God's voice in his ear, and sometimes tell a story about a gypsy in Hamilton who told him his future and it all turned out to be right. So he'd say he knew we were coming. So yeah, I think he thought it was his fate to eventually have a movie tell his story."