Toronto International Film Festival : All My Puny Sorrows / Interview with Actress Alison Pill , Actress Mare Winnigham and Director Michael McGowan

Toronto International Film Festival : All My Puny Sorrows / Interview with Actress Alison Pill , Actress Mare Winnigham and Director Michael McGowan

Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in All My Puny Sorrows, directed by Michael McGowan. Image courtesy of AMPS Productions Inc

Synopsis : Based on the international best-selling novel by Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows is the poignant story of two sisters-one a concert pianist obsessed with ending her life, the other, a writer, who in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about her herself.

Q: Michael, obviously this is based on the book, but during the research process, did you talk to any of the family who lost a loved one, because often people feel like they didn’t do a good enough job and can never forgive themselves. What kind of stories did you actually hear from the family aside from the book?

Michael McGowan: It’s a novel, but it’s based on Miriam’s experience, so I just talked to Miriam. She had her father and sister both experience loss through suicide. She was just a great collaborator, very generous. Giving information, it was obviously incredibly painful, but she read drafts of the screenplay, she commented on it, and all the actors including Alison and Mare, our heads of department, and she attended the premiere last night. That really gave us – at least me – enough confidence that this story is particular, but the theme is so universal. I didn’t want to make it an amalgamation of a bunch of stories. I wanted to really focus on what Miriam had presented.

Q: Alison and Mare, when an actor’s role ends when you wrap on set, you can go months or years between having to do public relations stuff. Was this a story that stuck with you, and what about it made you comfortable in these characters that they kind of lived on with you?

Mare Winningham: Yeah, this movie and the experience of working on the scenes with Alison and then shooting them was very deep, and I thought about it a lot when I went home and left North Bay, which we were kind of in a bubble, a sort of white, grey Ontarian bubble. And I sometimes wondered when I got home, did that happen? And it seemed, because we were in the pandemic and right in the middle of it, that it was remarkable that we even got to work. And then also I felt like we only saw people’s faces from here up, and so there was a disconnect between everything in the film except my fellow actors and actresses, and with Alison, seeing the full thing.

And I thought about those scenes a lot when I got home, and did we do them justice because they’re so powerful in the book, and they’re so powerful on the page, and they’re important. Seeing them last night, to reiterate with the two sisters, seeing Sarah and Alison just hit those so hard and out of the ballpark, and then seeing the scene that was very important to me, the one with Lottie and her daughter and Yoli at the end, when Yoli has to face life, the reason why I wanted to do the movie, so yeah, it has remained with me.

Q: There were two films of yours, your work in Georgia, another story of two siblings, and your work more recently in Brothers, where you are another pragmatic mom between two siblings, brothers in that case. What has drawn you to these domestic dramas and how do you work through your process of looking at these complex family relationships, because that really struck me watching it.

Mare Winningham: Whatever I’m reading, the overlaps that you’re mentioning here, the commonality is three great screenplays. Probably the familial is going to give you the most in drama, and certainly with Georgia and the two sisters, of which I was one at that point, 25 year old movie, there’s a better parallel between All My Puny Sorrows and Georgia in that one is self-destructive, and one is trying to survive that or work with it or around it. I’m happy to revisit it in All My Puny Sorrows as the mother, because I was really struck seeing the movie last night. It was one thing to read it on the page, but it’s another thing to see those scenes between the two sisters on screen, and it just got me good.

I felt like it was worthy of everything. The depth of one wanting to live and one wanting out. How do you allow for both sides to come out in dialogue? I was just really floored by those scenes last night. And now if I think back to Georgia, I think Jennifer Jason Leigh and I had a couple of similar scenes. It’s like a battle, a battle of love and hate, really, because they come together, those two things, when you’re in sisterhood.

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And with Brothers, I think I just came into that. That movie was made during the writers’ strike.

And so it was an odd situation where Sam Shepard and I were the parents of the two brothers, and it was a Danish film that I had seen that I was mad for, and then found myself on a set of the American version of it and I was admittedly a little lost as to what my place in it was. I wasn’t lost in terms of how the two brothers were also navigating that same theme as you pointed out, of love and hate and is a collision between the two.

Q: One surprising thing about the movie was that, for such a heavy topic, the film was humorous in some unexpected and surprising ways. And I know the thing about humor and drama is that sometimes literature is a lot easier to navigate with that. When you were adapting the book to the film, how did you work through keeping that line between the very tense and stressful topic and then keeping it light? And for the actors, how did you navigate that? There are moments where it’s so dramatic and then there’s a quick moment of humor. It must be such a tough line to walk through as a performer and as a writer, too.

Michael McGowan: For me, the humor was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I just thought it was such a beautiful thing that Miriam had done in the book, and I thought it just made the film relentless. There are so many places that it goes, I feel like there’s an uplifting quality to the film and Mare’s line at the end, we’re meant to move on, is such a powerful affirmation. And so, always in trying to figure out humor for Mare or Alison or Sarah, there was never going to be any wink or nod. The humor had to feel like it was rooted in the humanity of hope.

That was always a line I was interested in exploring. It doesn’t matter if the audience laughs, or has to feel like this is part of the world that they live in. Even in screening it last night, it was interesting watching it, because the line, can we talk about my placement on the suicide note, it really gave the audience permission at that point to go, okay. That then allowed other parts, the parts that I was sort of surprised that they laughed at, but again, it was never like, laugh here, they should laugh here.

It was part of the language that I was interested in bringing in the writing and then watching how great it came out. There’s a line explaining writing in the septic tank, and there’s a humor in Alison’s reaction that, to me, only Alison can do that. It was humorous, but it just killed you in the, oh my god, here’s where my life is at. I’m dealing with all this other shit, you know, septic tank cleaning might not so bad. It’s just a complexity that added such a layer to the film.

Alison Pill: For me, I think life isn’t just sad. It’s just not. It’s the reason why, at the funeral, the idea of this toddler coming up and starting to eat the ashes, it is that, that’s also part of it. I think the ability to see that is the way through and the difference between Yoli and Elf and Lottie, and navigating those moments is what allows me and Yoli to go on. And in meeting Miriam and talking to her about her mom, it is just overwhelming. And so to be able to find those moments, and to enjoy those moments with every ounce of your being, and to be able to know in your bones that you can make your family laugh. That’s enough to be able to keep you afloat.

Mare Winninghamin All My Puny Sorrows, directed by Michael McGowan. Image courtesy of AMPS Productions Inc

Q: Mare, when Alison’s character, Yoli, reads Fernando Sola’s book, your character initially brushes it off but then just bursts into tears. What kind of preparation did you do to perform that powerful sequence?

Mare Winningham: Yeah, how do you prepare for something like that? I mean, the experience of that moment for that character is in one place in her mind and suddenly the sorrow and overwhelming fears situation come in in a flood. I don’t know, when I have to do those kinds of things in film, because I have had to do those kinds of things before, I listen to music sometimes, mostly since it has to happen mid-moment, mid-scene, staying focused and allowing fear to flood your mind is I guess something that you must draw on from your life in order to perform that. But I was with Alison that day, and she was checking in on me and how I was doing. So I had a paddle and a good director.

Alison: As moving as it is in the film, in the scene I’m in the other room and kind of distracted, so to then hear this embodied sadness, Mare just went to a place. It was spectacular and moving to be a part of that scene.

Q: Michael, when it comes to adapting the book, I really liked the scenes with the arguments between the sisters. They’re raw and passionate and also intellectual, as they’re sharing barbs about quotes and soliloquies about sorrow. How much is that coming from you, and how much is that directly from the book? How was it bringing it from the page to the book keeping that rawness that a movie needs but a book can get by without?

Michael McGowan: It definitely came from the book. And then it was a process through the writing right after filming of really making sure the progression of each of those scenes was as precise as it would be. A big contributor to that were both Alison and Sarah, so I was a little bit looser than I needed to be by the time they started doing it. We started doing rehearsals and it was great to go, okay, is this repeating this? By honing the work that I had started, they finished getting the scenes to almost the focus of shining a diamond or whatever.

We were really precise about everything that mattered and why it mattered. And that was almost like an editing process. I think that preparation really allowed both Sarah and Alison to let go on the day, and then, as you say, the rawness comes out. That’s the wonderful thing about being a director with great actors, that you’re just tuning the instrument, you’re making little suggestions. I’m just a witness to what they’re doing. My role is maybe to just tweak it a bit. But really, it’s wonderful to watch their performances.

Q: The film oscillates between timelines, and it’s slightly narrated by Yoli. For Alison, there’s a big responsibility because you’re acting in the scene, but also you’re writing the novel in a way, How do you process that as an actor – is it really her in the narration? For Michael, in adapting the novel, did you have any hesitancy about over-narration and the nonlinear plotline? I’m sure that was a big decision in moving the work to the screen.

Alison: It’s such a great question, because, in reading the screenplay, that’s always my first hesitation. You see voiceover and you’re like, uh oh. I think the thing that was grounding about it for me is, that final scene tells you, the book is about us. I think we get more clearance on narration, because it’s in the book, because these are scenes from the book. And so it’s not so much even that Yoli the narrator is not herself. It’s almost like everything else is a self conscious memory.

The entire movie is her looking at her life. For me, it was really helpful both to speak to Miriam about it, and to think about, she’s just an incredible human, and her groundedness about it, and her availability to keep her alive in this way, and to have her immediately there. In the conversations I had with her, she’s so there to her. She’s so present. And that was the part that, for me, felt like, in that voiceover, as far as she may come with the novel, it’s also her way of keeping her sister.

Michael McGowan: I think for me, I remember when Alison was doing the voice scenes and I was like, I don’t know if these are gonna work or not only. Let’s use them as placeholders right now.

Alison Pill: We recorded it like in a closet in 20 minutes. It wasn’t even post. While we were shooting, we just were like, we have 20 minutes while they were loading up the car. We just went into this weird closet, and I really thought I would rerecord all of them. We had to rerecord one, I think.

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Michael McGowan: Yeah, it was interesting.

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Because I looked at it on the page, and, really, this could or couldn’t work. I said that to you, and said, let’s just record it. Let’s see, and we’ll probably do a lot of different stuff. I’ll take different stuff. You’re like, okay, I’ll do it. And did it well, obviously. And then the idea of nonlinear time that you asked about and as Alison touched on, it’s the memory of keeping her sister alive, it’s the past, the present, the future continuum. And I really wanted to explore that because, as Alison said, Miriam was keeping her sister and her father alive through her writing, and this voiceover is earned because it is the book. And the book, ironically, Miriam wrote this beautiful piece of art about terrible things. So there’s so many layers in it that I found fascinating to explore, and not in a meta, un-emotional way, but really the opposite, a totally emotional, visceral way, coming out of her lived experience.

Q: Watching this film, we’re obviously in the middle of a pandemic, and people often feel isolated. During the pandemic, and now that the film is finished, what kind of relationship do you want to have with your friends and your family? Is your approach different based on this film, and is there anything you’ve applied to your own life?

Mare Winningham: The movie and the pandemic make me want to throw my arms around my family and my extended family. Choosing life, I think that the movie resonates even more than it did when it was a book because of the pandemic. Miriam’s love story that she’s written for her family, the pandemic heightens everything right. It heightens our fear, it heightens our sadness, it heightens our love. I think there were a couple times last night when we were having a party after the premiere, and Michael was saying that he was hearing certain passages from the film with new ears because of the pandemic. So, yeah, it’s all enmeshed and I hope it’s towards the light.

Q: Mare, since there’s so much dialogue in the film but your character is so often silent, as an actor, how did you navigate dealing with the grief from your husband and your daughters and all the quippy dialogue?

Mare Winningham: Lottie, in the screenplay, I did have to fill in a lot from what I read in the book and the screenplay. This is a very busy woman that I got from the book. I think Miriam is writing a book now about her mother. That relationship is so singular, and it’s so beautifully humorous. Her mother is an endless source of humor to her and amusement, and totally rooted in love, but the outrageousness of the terms that her mother takes, I think was a really good counterpoint for what the sisters are navigating in those scenes. I did have to fill it out a little bit, I think some of it’s on the cutting room floor, but this idea of the person, the things in the cards, the books, the sewing, she’s always got something going.

I think of being a busy bee, and you know, the gates of hell opened for this woman. She had to walk through them. And so I think, all the more attuned to the pleasures of life, the pleasures of her mothering of her daughters, and the pleasures of a book, of a shower, of sitting and playing cards. I think those things are all heightened, not the puny sorrows, but the big ones that came through. So I hope I filled it out all right. I saw it for the first time last night and I was tossing and turning last night thinking of the ways that I could have done more, but that’s the nature of performing, right?

All My Puny Sorrows Filmmaker MICHAEL MCGOWAN

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