Allan King: Finding the ‘Grace Note’

Knowledge Network president & CEO Rudy Buttignol commissioned four films from Allan King during his tenure at TVO, and was instrumental in finally getting King's classic Warrendale onto the small screen. Here he eulogizes the filmmaker.
July 8, 2009

Knowledge Network president & CEO Rudy Buttignol commissioned four films from Allan King during his tenure at TVO, and was instrumental in finally getting King’s classic Warrendale onto the small screen. Here he eulogizes the filmmaker.

Of the four films that Allan King and I worked on together, Dying at Grace (2003) is the one I’ll remember most, the one I love most. Often, I’d tell Allan that I thought of Dying at Grace, along with his two earlier masterpieces, Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), as the third panel of his ‘family of man’ triptych.

Ironically, when Allan first came to the network to pitch the project, I spent three hours trying to talk him out of it. With his advancing age, Allan was confronting his own mortality, as much out of fear as curiosity, and wanted to know what happens at the very end of one’s life. I, on the other hand, wanted to avoid the subject at all costs.

However, I had promised Allan that, as a master, whatever he wanted to do next (after 1998′s Dragon’s Egg) I would commission.

It was a promise I had made a few short years earlier when I had the good fortune to help bring Allan back to the documentary world. We loved working together because we spared each other the producer-broadcaster BS; where the broadcaster offers suggestions on how to make the film, and the producer pretends to listen. There was one condition I insisted on, however; that Dying at Grace had to have humor or a laugh at least. Otherwise the weight of the experience would be too much to bear. Allan agreed.

Allan and I first started working together when he came to see me, looking for a broadcaster to support a documentary on a community-based social experiment in post-Soviet Estonia. Dragon’s Egg was to be Allan’s first documentary in two decades. I wasn’t so sure about the subject’s appeal, but decided to go ahead with development funding.

What I was really excited about was acquiring A Married Couple for a retrospective series that I was planning. Warrendale was also available, said Allan of his controversial, groundbreaking masterpiece about a home for disturbed kids. The CBC had commissioned it 25 years before; it had never been broadcast in Canada and he held the rights to it.

Warrendale is in grainy black and white, and its 100-minute running time is filled with foul language, yelling and screaming. I was skeptical about it finding an audience on television; Allan was sure it would. Warrendale‘s broadcast broke all records for our network. The press was overwhelmingly positive. Allan King was back and so was his unique form of storytelling, the ‘actuality drama.’

Our relationship was based on trust. The proposals for Allan’s projects were always sketchy at best. Instead, he preferred long, long conversations on philosophy, politics, or whatever. Eventually we got around to the subject at hand. Dying at Grace was going to follow a few individuals in palliative care to their very last breath. Our discussions centered on two issues: how to ensure access and co-operation by the hospital, and how to ethically engage the patients and their families at such a difficult time. This was critical and Allan wasn’t going to go any further until everyone signed on.

A year after Allan started researching, he came to see me with good and bad news. The good news was that he could see that what he wanted to do was indeed possible. The bad news was that the hospital was not going to give him what he needed. What to do? I asked. Start again at another hospital, said Allan. And that was that. Eight months later the cameras were rolling at Grace Hospital.

Dying at Grace premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the last credit rolled, the audience was dead still. Not a breath, not a word. After an eternal silence, long, long, long applause filled the theater, and the audience’s questions and comments to Allan flooded in and never stopped.

After the broadcast, there were countless phone calls, emails and letters from people who had lost loved ones 10 years earlier – the year before, a month ago, last week and the other day. They all wanted to let Allan know that the film had helped them face their fears, had lifted the burden of guilt from not knowing what happened at the very, very end. I remember sitting at my desk, trying to read emails through my tears, while strangers poured their hearts out, thankful for what Allan had offered.

After the Toronto festival premiere, in the lobby, Allan was surrounded by adoring fans showering him with praise. As soon as he saw me, he asked if I had noted the burst of laughter from the audience. Of course, I had. At that point in Dying at Grace, when the audience was chocked up with emotion, that laugh let us catch our collective breath and exhale. It was a grace note. Allan smiled at me, tilted his head ever so slightly to one side and said, ‘That was for you.’

Thanks Allan. Thank you for everything.

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