Twenty years later and many Canadians still think of Paul Gross as the hunky Mountie from Due South – proof of the enduring allure of a man in uniform, since Gross has worked on several compelling projects since his big breakout. The latest is the Afghanistan war drama Hyena Road (new on DVD and on-demand this week). The Calgary native says that making the movie (which he wrote, starred in and directed) required equal parts grit and ingenuity. Here he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why he's totally down with the silver fox thing.
Stubbornness is a virtue
I think I have a certain amount of stubbornness built into me, which is great, because, with a project as monstrous as a film, there are going to be so many times where you just feel like quitting. Stubbornness is really my greatest ally, because that's how you get things done, especially in the financing period, which is typically the most frustrating part of filmmaking. I figure that's the work we do and, when you get to actually shoot the film, that's the holiday. The financing of Hyena Road was bizarrely complicated. At one point, we were even considering getting money out of Afghanistan, which was probably filthy and skirting close to something like money laundering. That's how insane you get. Mercifully, we backed away from the edge of the cliff and we made it work [another way].
Take your cue from combat talk
A lot of the dialogue in Hyena Road came from actual soldiers. One great line came from from a sniper consultant who said, "You piss with the dick you've got." He was just saying it in a passing way, and I said, "Well, that's going in the movie." It means that whatever your situation is, that's what it is. There's no point in imagining that it might be any better. That idea applies in combat, but it can also apply across the board. Pretty much every project I've ever worked on has not suffered from an abundance of money. On Hyena Road, we had to shoot the whole thing in 30 days, which is preposterously short. But that's what we had. I could weep and moan and wish I had another 15 days, but that wasn't going to change anything. Once everybody accepts the circumstances of a situation, we can put our brains to it and figure it out.
I started dyeing my hair while I was still doing Due South. My mother was fully grey in her 20s, so that tells you something. It didn't go all at once, though. I was salt and pepper, but CBS didn't want that. That went on for years, and then we had this family vacation to the Sahara and there are no salons in the middle of the great sand sea. I was there for almost two weeks and it just went. I had never felt a more wonderful burden lift off my shoulders. I don't think I'll ever dye it back. I am as old as I am, and I would rather play parts where I'm not pretending that I'm 30. It's a tragedy of our industry that it's only really men that are allowed to make that decision. Like people complaining about how Carrie Fisher looks in Star Wars [The Force Awakens]. She looks great, she looks like herself, she is a great actress and she adds gravitas to the section [of the movie] that she's in.
Nobody knows it all
Movies are collaborative ventures and, as a leader, it's so important to give everyone in it a sense of ownership. You want people to feel like the project is theirs as much as it is yours. I can't begin to add up the amount of fantastic ideas that came from up and down the chain. Those ideas don't come forward if you don't create an environment where people feel like you genuinely welcome their contributions. I learned that early on in my directing life. At first I thought I was supposed to know everything, and the greatest lesson you can possibly learn is that you don't know everything and that's okay.
There are no small explosions …
Working on the Battleship movie was like wandering into an utterly foreign world. [Gross was brought in to work on the script before the project got the green light.] There really are two kinds of movies: independent films, which is what most of the world does, and studio films, which are a world unto themselves. Everything is so big and so wacky, and lost in there somewhere is the fact that you are still supposed to make a good film. If I go to see one of those gigantic $200-million-plus movies and it's good, that is a miracle. As a filmmaker, I've learned that I'm just not that comfortable in that world. Sure, it would be fun to have oodles of money and blow up an entire city, but most of that is done in a dark room using computer graphics. I like to see what we're shooting, even if that means a smaller explosion.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.