Paul Gross already knew when he was 16 years old that he would tell a bloody and courageous First World War story about Canadian troops in Passchendaele, Belgium. He just didn’t know that it would be an epic war film timed to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Remembrance Day and include a love story.
‘I was quite young when my grandfather started talking to me about the war – not far off the age he was when he went to fight – and his stories really gripped me,’ says the 49-year-old director, producer and star of Passchendaele, which opens TIFF tonight. ‘I didn’t know at the time if it would be a play or a short story or what,’ Gross recalls, ‘but I knew I was going to do something with it.’
Alliance Films has timed the picture’s Canadian theatrical release (Oct. 17 on 200 screens) to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War (Nov. 11, 1918), as it was commonly called before the world knew that WWI would have a sequel.
The core of the film is based on the 1917 battle in which more than 50,000 Canadian troops, along with Australian and British forces, fought the Imperial German Army in Ypres, Belgium. It was a bloody battle waged under atrocious conditions, but ultimately the Allies triumphed.
Passchendaele is the fictional story of a wounded Canadian army sergeant, played by Gross, who falls in love with a nurse (Caroline Dhavernas from Surviving My Mother), culminating in the legendary WWI battle.
Gross’ first battle, however, was getting this $20-million war epic – the most expensive movie ever financed solely in Canada – from script to screen. From funding through to the shoot, the production has been fraught with daunting challenges.
The veteran writer, producer and actor, best known for Men with Brooms and Due South, wrote the initial scenes for the movie 13 years ago, then worked on the screenplay in his free time over the following decade. It then took another eight years to secure a budget.
Gross says the financing process was ‘fantastically complicated.’
Initially, Gross and his producer partners – chiefly Niv Fichman – planned the film as a treaty coproduction with the UK, but they eventually opted against this route.
‘These coproductions are difficult to maneuver, and if your story is purely domestic, as this one was, you have to deform the story to satisfy the interests of both sides of the treaty,’ says Gross.
So it appeared that funding the film solely in Canada was the only option – although a long shot at best.
Traditional Canadian funding sources (tax credits, Telefilm Canada, The Harold Greenberg Fund, an Alberta Film Development Program grant, a license fee from The Movie Network and a distribution advance from Alliance Films) capped out at $8 million, leaving a whopping $12-million gap.
So the producers invented and discovered alternative financing methods. They launched a limited partnership income fund and sold shares at $250,000 per unit to investors, ultimately raising $6 million from the private sector. And they tapped into a one-time legacy fund set up for Alberta’s centennial, nabbing a special $4-million grant from the province. They also accessed funds from Canwest through its benefits package from its purchase of the Alliance Atlantis specialty channels.
Then the producers got downright creative in an unprecedented partnership with The Dominion Institute, a charitable historical organization eligible for tax receipts through private donations.
The irony, says Gross, is that securing the private investment wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding a way to invest that private coin into the film without jeopardizing the government funding.
‘We had to go through a lot of legal accounting hoops to figure out how to bring the private money in so that it didn’t grind down the tax credits and other traditional financing systems,’ explains Gross. ‘It’s Byzantine the way we finance in this country. Our funding system is hermetically sealed to private investor participation, which is something we need to look at as an industry. It’s nuts. I think some form of return to a tax-deferral program makes sense.’
Shooting the battle scenes as realistically as possible was another huge hurdle. The battle of Passchendaele took place in a muddy, rain-deluged area of scarred land. This required plowing and burying more than 250 acres of land in Alberta and then soaking it for a month to achieve the swamp-like conditions.
‘It was a massive undertaking and we were restricted in terms of money,’ says Gross. ‘There were times it was close to the wire and people were biting their nails. I really wanted to put the audience inside, to see what it must have felt like to be on the battlefield. I think we achieved that, and it was not easy.’
Although Gross previously directed Men with Brooms, he admits that being in front of and behind the camera on such a large-scale project was intimidating.
‘It was a big thing to bite off,’ says Gross, who also confesses he wasn’t his own first choice for lead actor. ‘Every day as we were leading up to the shoot I kept trying to give my part away. I kept trying to get Canadian guys in Hollywood to take the role, but I couldn’t find anyone.’
Interestingly enough, Gross didn’t try to engage another director.
‘I figured I should direct it because it was something I had been living with for so long,’ says Gross. ‘I knew it really well, I knew what I wanted it to be. That is not to say I had any confidence that I could direct it, but I had an extraordinary crew who helped make it happen.’
Meanwhile, Alliance is busy on the Canadian promotional campaign that began last Christmas with a teaser trailer in theaters. That was followed by a full trailer that hit screens in May (unspooling before the latest Indiana Jones movie) and a TV spot during the Olympic Games.
Passchendaele is being marketed as a mass-appeal, big-event picture, according to Alliance, which says it should play to women and men of all ages thanks to the romance, action and historical nature of the storyline.
A full TV, print and outdoor campaign will roll out in September to take advantage of TIFF timing. And a companion study guide has been sent out to high schools and universities to draw their attention to the 90th anniversary. A ‘novelization’ of the movie is also being published by Harper Collins, and star-studded gala premieres with cast from the movie will take place in major cities across Canada leading up to the film’s commercial opening.