Day of the gopher

For Arcola, Saskatchewan, ‘Who Has Seen The Wind’ is the best thing that’s happened since the 26-bed hospital

David Cobb November 1 1976

Day of the gopher

For Arcola, Saskatchewan, ‘Who Has Seen The Wind’ is the best thing that’s happened since the 26-bed hospital

David Cobb November 1 1976

Day of the gopher

For Arcola, Saskatchewan, ‘Who Has Seen The Wind’ is the best thing that’s happened since the 26-bed hospital

David Cobb

Two aging men are sitting inside Ed Hanna’s garage on Main Street, Arcola, Saskatchewan, as they have done many times before and will do many times again. “It’s been a helluva summer,” says one. “Oh yes,” says the second, “won’t see another one like this for a time.” A pause, while this is digested in the measured strophes of two prairie lives. “No,” the second one picks up, “won’t see many of this kind of summer.” “Nope,” says his friend with finality, the crux of the debate coming clear, “don't get this kind of summer too often, and that’s a fact.”

Outside an early fall wind whips up the dusty gravel and blows it in wayward spirals down the street, reminding Ed Hanna of the summer days in the Thirties when he couldn’t see across the street for dust, and grasshoppers darkened the sun. “The dust drifts everywhere,” Sinclair Ross wrote in As For Me And My House, an account of small-town Saskatchewan life in the Depression. “It’s in the food, the bedclothes, a film on the book you’re reading before you can turn the page. In the morning it’s half an inch deep on the windowsills. Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening. Sky and earth are just a blur. You can scarcely see the elevators at the end of town.”

Only now the dust, though real enough, is temporary. Areola (population 539 at the last census) has had an oil-treated Main Street for two years; the dusty top has been laid in, at two dollars a cubic yard, by Souris River Films as part of its design to transport the town back 40-odd years for the film version of W. O. Mitchell’s novel Who Has Seen The Wind. The people of Areola bear the wind and the dust with a kind of bitter satisfaction. As far as they’re concerned, the film people can do no wrong: they’ve treated Areola well, they’ve put up a few false fronts to hide blatant Seventies anachronisms, painted “Bluebird Café” on the deserted Chinese eatery once owned by Wong Dong and his

brother Happy Dong, and generally gone out of their way to blend in, as far as city people can. Already, half-way through shooting, the film is attracting visitors, and before Areola had catered only to Arcolans. Best of all, the making of the film in and around their little community has given them a large fat plus over their neighbors 10 miles east in Carlyle, a town they hate with passionate irrationality. “If we built a two-hole outhouse,” observes Calvin Ingram, a retired farmer helping out in the Areola hardware store, “Carlyle would be wanting a four-hole outhouse.” What bugs Areola most is the sour knowledge of its own decline, a sense of cosmic betrayal that is a minor theme playing through W. O. Mitchell’s novel: that no matter how hard they worked, God or the politicians were there to render their best efforts futile. In 1912, when Ed Hanna came to live in Areola as a teen-ager, the town had a population of 1,250, about double Carlyle’s; today the position is reversed. True, Areola has the prized 26-bed hospital for the region where 80 years ago its first doctor was a notorious drunk who inspired extraordinary loyalty among the locals, one of whom remarked that he “would rather have Dr. Watkin drunk than any other doctor sober.” But mostly Areola’s history in the last half-century has been one of decay: the brickyard folded, the flour mill closed, the courthouse and the land titles office were taken away, rail passenger service stopped for ever on October 25, 1959—and all the while hated Carlyle, sitting sassy on the junction of two highways and two railroads, waxed while Areola waned. “The hospital and the movie are the two things we have over Carlyle,” says Hanna, “and the buggers are trying to get Regina to take the hospital away from us.” Across the street Cal Ingram putters around the hardware store masquerading as the Royal Hotel, one of the false fronts for the movie. “This place’ll never die,” he says, “as long as there’s a Carlyle. We’ll fight to the bitter end, it gives us something to do.”

They call it next-year country, and it’s a fair metaphor for the film, too. Allan King, the director and producer, made his name in documentaries (Running Away Backwards, Warrendale,A Married Couple), but his last documentary—Come On Children, an examination of why the optimistic glow of the Sixties had burned out—has never been released. In 1972, the year he completed the film, his firm declared bankruptcy. “It was a very low period of my life,” he says. Since then he has directed dramas for cbc-tv—among them Red Emma, Last Of The Four-Letter Words and A Bird In The House, which won four Canadian film awards last year including best TV film and best screenplay (by his wife, Pat Watson). But Who Has Seen The Wind is his first feature film, and the pressures on him must be fierce. “The most remarkable thing about Allan is his courage,” says Stan Fox, who has known King since their high-

school days in Vancouver and is now chairman of the film department at York University, Toronto. “He’s survived bankruptcy, though he’d lost everything he’d built up in all those years. In middle age he had to start again on nothing but his talent. He’s always been independent and it’s damn hard—almost everyone has some kind of tit to suck, know what I mean? And now here he is directing a million-dollar feature.”

The wonder is that Who Has Seen The Wind has been made at all: before shooting began the production was wracked with doubts and dissensions at the top; it is only King’s commitment and single-mindedness that have pulled it through. Mitchell’s book posed certain difficulties as a movie property, since the story of the prairie boyhood of Brian O’Connal—similar in many respects to that of Mitchell, who was born in Weyburn, 65 miles west of Areola—covers half a dozen years and all the seasons. To convey it all in a movie would pose problems in casting and filming and would be prohibitively expensive. This was at least part of the reason why the CBC, which had been optioning the book for 10 years, had done nothing about it.

In 1972 the CBC dropped its option, and King picked it up. For a time it looked as if he, the CBC and the Canadian Film Development Corporation would make not only a TV series from the book but a feature film as well, Pat Watson writing all the scripts. But the plan ran aground early in 1975 on the shoals of money—a budget of at least $1.5 million—and the CBC pulled out. King got the show back on the rails last fall as a $900,000 feature—with $300,000 from the province of Saskatchewan, $300,000 from the CFDC, $100,000 from Famous Players Limited, $200,000 from private investors, and F. R. (Budge) Crawley, producer of Janis and The Man Who Skied Down Everest, as executive producer (or budgetary chief).

Crawley says now that he had reserva; tions from the start that Mitchell’s book was not focused enough for a film treat-

ment—“and Pat Watson’s screenplay did not change my point of view.” In May, barely two months away from the start of shooting, Crawley flew to Calgary to ask Mitchell to do a rewrite. Says Mitchell: “I wasn’t happy with Pat’s screenplay and I wrote a 240-page treatment. But Allan preferred to use his wife’s. Allan is the boss, after all.” Neither King nor Watson likes talking about the episode, though King does say that Mitchell was involved from the very start, when it was still mainly a television project. “He liked all the scripts,” King maintains, “and he liked the first draft of the feature. He was upset because we’d compressed time into one summer and lost his cycle of the seasons. That was a budgetary concern: to have made the film his way would have cost fully twice the money.”

June 16 was the date when the completion guarantee—which would have obliged executive producer Crawley to produce up to $200,000 if the movie ran over budget—had to be signed with the CFDC. King went to the CFDC offices in Toronto; Crawley did not. Instead he reached King there by phone. He said he was sorry, Allan, but he was going to withdraw from the film, and it was best for him to leave then rather than later. A shocked King replied, with some restraint: “1 think you have an appalling sense of timing.” Says Crawley now: “There’s nothing I’d like better than for the film to be a great bloody success ... But I did not want to be connected with a film that would be a commercial failure.”

King quickly bounced back off the ropes—after all, Who Has Seen The Wind is his movie property, W. O. Mitchell being paid $11,000 for the rights, plus a percentage—and with the help of CFDC executive director Michael Spencer he signed Pierre Lamy, the prolific Quebec producer, to fill Crawley’s vacancy. Lamy, who has an enviable record of delivering his films on budget, went to Areola fresh from produc-

ing the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games: budget, five million dollars, plus a cast of thousands. The culture shock must have been considerable.

It is difficult for an outsider to judge the commercial chances of a film in production—the budget for Who Has Seen The Wind is now up to $1.1 million and it will have to earn about four times that at the box-office to break even—but it is quite impossible not to respond to the care and zest with which it was made. Partly this was due to its being a kind of Allan King road show: many of the cast had acted for him before on television and the key members of production and crew were old King hands (production manager Gwen Iveson, sound man Chris Wangler, cameraman Richard Leiterman ... the finished film to be edited by Arla Saare, who edited King’s first documentary, Skid Row, 20 years ago). Partly it was due to the presence of the squad of Saskatchewan film trainees who were part and parcel of the unique deal that King hammered out with the Saskatchewan government. In return for its $300,000 investment—thus making it the only province (and a socialist province at that) to have directly backed a feature film—Saskatchewan intended to encourage some lasting benefits for its own, so Souris River Films, King’s new company, hired 35 trainees, mostly in their twenties, to work on the production.

Word of the experiment got around before the shooting started; some people in the industry found the idea absurd and did not hesitate to clue King in on their findings. “It’s hard enough to make a movie at the best of times,” was the line, “How the hell are you going to make a film with 35 trainees littering up the landscape?” But King has a generous view of human nature; he knew that Chris Wangler and Richard Leiterman had both started working with him in joe-job capacities in the early Sixties. “If people want to learn, they will,” he said one day on location, “and these people had applied." He remains in awe of a provincial government that would make such a deal a condition of its $300,000, but suggests that it is squarely within the province’s populist tradition, born of harder times than most, of communal help. “In the Thirties you’d cut your grain and stock it,” he says, “and then the guy who had the thresher would come by and thresh for everyone.”

For their part the trainees, or threshees—with the possible exception of those working on Areola’s false fronts, who complained mildly that they weren’t doing anything they couldn’t do on a stage show—marveled at the opportunity (for which they were also being paid $250 a week): from the American draft-dodger who remarked that “everything I’ve gained from Canada I hope to give back,” to Colin Gregory, 24, from Saskatoon, who worked the clapboard (“there’ve been times when the pros have resented us because we were too slow, but on the whole

they’ve been extraordinarily helpful”), to Elise Swerhone, a baker’s daughter out of Canora, who worked as a camera assistant. Swerhone, 25, gave a new twist to an ancient Canadian tic one day at lunch: “People in Saskatchewan are always asking ‘If you’re so good why do you live here?’ ” she said. “We have this feeling that anyone from outside is better than we are—even Manitoba, because it’s that much closer to Ontario. SaskTel has just hired some people from Manitoba to make commercials for them, people they could just as easily have found in Regina.” It would be nice to report that Swerhone intended to stay in Saskatchewan and fight the good prairie fight. She did not. “1 want to be a camerawoman,” she said, “and there just aren’t enough people here with that kind of experience. Many of us’ll have to go east if we want to continue. But the thing is to start and to stay in Canada... although,” she added , “1 doubt if the Saskatchewan government thinks that way-” The people who live in the gentle hills of southeast Saskatchewan, in and around the long ridge known as Moose Mountain, are fiercely proud of their part of the world: almost anyone might like to live in

it for a time, but they can’t imagine living anywhere else. Madge McCullough, wife of Ed McCullough, a farmer and a CCF MP in the Forties and Fifties, saw the sea last year for the first time. “And it was marvelous and exciting,” she says.

“But the prairie pulls you out to the horizons, it stretches you. And farmers are a different breed of cat—you own a little piece of land and you’re kingon it, a king.” (Mrs. McCullough is having a copy of Who Has Seen The Wind autographed by the cast and crew; she will give the book to a museum when she is through.) Mrs. McCullough tells the story of Captain Pierce who in the 1880s founded Cannington Manor as a ritzy agriculture college for wealthy English remittance men: it foundered in 1900 when the CPR ran its track 10 miles south. “Not your usual agricultural college,” she says. “They imported race horses, played cricket, rode to hounds. The trouble was, they looked down on the people who were here before them, and they didn’t understand the prairie.” Mrs. McCullough plainly does: 40 years ago she

was the schoolteacher during the worst of the summer dust storms and was paid $1,200 the first year, $900 the second, $600 the third (which she has not received to this day). “That was Depression,” she says, “but we never minded. You have to depend on your own hard labor, and then God. Eternal optimism. Next-year country.” King was shooting interiors this day in a house just down the road from the McCullough farm. Years ago, before she was married, Madge McCullough used to step out with one of the owner’s sons. The house is boarded up now and decaying. It depresses her; it represents history neglected, nextyear denied.

One of the prairie plagues of the Thirties was the tiny industrious gopher. They bred by the millions and would ravage a vegetable garden while you were hanging the washing out to dry. A gopher hunt is a key scene in Who Has Seen The Wind, but these days, thanks to four decades of poisoning, shooting, drowning and strangling, the gophers are not what they were. A bunch of them were needed for the gopher hunt, and who better to round up a few than a kid? Kenny, a local 11 -year-old, was approached. “Well..he said. His grandmother, Myrtle McMillan, was nearby and volunteered. “No way would Kenny have had the patience,” she later explained. “No

kids do these days.” So Mrs. McMillan went out and caught 18. It took her a week. “Sometimes it’d be five minutes, sometimes an hour. One of them took longer. It was down there but there were six holes. I had two snares [long pieces of twine with loops in the end of them], and each time I put them over two of the holes it would come up through one of the others. So I blocked off four of the holes with cow manure and snared the two that were left. Sure I got him!” Souris River Films paid her a dollar each: it doesn’t sound much for a week’s work, but one gets the impression that Myrtle McMillan, avenging the havoc gophers wrought in her vegetable garden during the Thirties, would have caught them for nothing. Besides, in the Thirties, the town paid her only three cents a tail.

Mrs. McMillan’s gophers were turned over to Norman Edge, a Cochrane, Alberta, rancher who looks the part and doubles as a wrangler for movie production companies. A gopher in a cage looks undeniably cute, even pettable, and Mrs. McMillan’s 18 brought out the bleeding hearts among the trainees and crew. Edge, a bluff quiet man who walks as if he’s in the saddle, would have no truck with such citybound softness, and would occasionally tell a looker-on, out of the corner of his mouth, the most bloodthirsty ways to kill them. Not that it was true, since it wasn’t his job, or necessary.

The hunters in the scene were Brian, the movie’s central character, his two young friends, and Jappy, the dog. The screenplay called for a gopher to be flooded out of his burrow, whereupon Jappy would seize it, one of Brian’s buddies would retrieve it, then snap its tail off by whirling it around and then flinging it— tail-less but still alive—out there somewhere on the windswept prairie. In both the book and the film the incident is a lesson for Brian in the sanctity of life—a lesson taught by the Young Ben, a wild untamed older boy whom Brian hardly knows but who watches from the sidelines, then rushes in and beats up Brian’s buddy for his thoughtless cruelty. “And Brian,” Mitchell wrote, “quite without any desire to alleviate Art’s suffering . . . was filled with a sense of the justness, the rightness, the completeness of what the Young Ben had done—what he himself would like to have done.”

Unfortunately, film has to show what a writer merely describes. Throughout one long afternoon and one morning, King and his team went through at least eight gophers, since most of them didn’t understand what King and Leiterman expected of them. Either that, or they understood too well. First, a dead one—“strangled itself trying to get out of the cage,” Ed muttered, squinting—was dragged around a deserted gopher hole so that Jappy the dog would know where to run to when they stuffed a live one down. Down went the live one, Jappy caught it, and it was saved just in

time for re-use. Another was held just out of mouth range, so that Chris Wangler could record Jappy yelping and salivating; eventually Jappy got him and killed him. But the real trouble was getting the gophers to perform properly getting out of the hole after the boys had poured water into it. Heavens, all they were asked to do was be half-drowned, bubble a bit for verisimilitude, surface, and make for the open prairie—there to be pursued by children, adults, and a dog, for re-use later. Unversed as they were in the show business arts, they’d come up all right, but they wouldn’t run. Terror froze them in their tracks. One did run, though, straight be-

tween Leiterman’s legs. “Get out of there, ya little bugger,” he said, his $ 170,000 Panaflex teetering on his shoulder. Another, after the second or third dunking, refused to come up at all and drowned. “Damn fool gopher,” said a member of the crew. One of the trainees turned away. “1 can’t stand it,” she said. In the background Norman Edge grumbled sourly: “If people can’t stand it, why do they watch?”

In the end Souris River Films probably got what they wanted, and on the screen it will all be over in 90 clean-cut seconds (or less), but it wasn’t a good day-and-a-half for gophers. Nor for Allan King. Twice he got testy with his young actors. “Shit,” he

said later, looking like a beachcomber in search of a Somerset Maugham short story. “I hate days like that .Animals and so on. Pat’s always said she’s dubious about the cruelty there must be in those animal films. And here she’s written one and I’m directing it. I know they’re pests and I’ve no sentimentality about it, but still . ..” Pat, to whom he has been married since 1970, not only wrote the screenplay but was also the movie’s casting director. “It’s an awful job, just awful. Imagine casting for Brian! You go through all these hundreds and thousands of kids, and you wonder if you’ve passed him, the Brian, the pivot of a million-dollar movie. I’d only have done it for Allan. In fact, I wouldn’t do it for Allan again, either.”

Because Brian is the pivot, the movie in large part will stand or fall on Watson’s choice. She went to 35 Regina schools in all, and her choice—from grade six at Deshaye school—was Brian Painchaud, son of a radiologist. She found him doing gym classes and later asked him if he had ever been sad (in the movie his father, played by Gordon Pinsent, dies). “Yes,” he replied gravely, “I don’t like it when my cousin hunts gophers and kills them painfully.” That certainly didn’t hurt his chances, and to judge by only a few of the rushes that were screened nightly, her selection of Painchaud may prove to have been inspired. Her choices for Brian’s buddies were Christopher Raum (Artie), son of an assistant professor of musical theory at the University of Regina, and Billy Hunter (Forbsie), son of a laborer at the Regina Exhibition Grounds, both 10 and also products of the Regina school system. For the Young Ben, the unfettered spirit of freedom, she cast a wider net. Doug Junor, 13, was waiting with his mother at the Regina airport for his grandmother returning from Toronto when Watson, also arriving, caught sight of him. She asked Doug’s mother if he could try out for the movie. “Well,” said Mrs. Junor to her son, “what do you think?” Doug didn’t know what she was talking about, but he soon learned. Once his ambition was to be a pro hockey player; now he wants to be an actor.

The choice of José Ferrer (Moulin Rouge, Cyrano de Bergerac, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Caine Mutiny) to play Ben’s wild drunken father was not Pat Watson’s but Famous Players’. They wanted an international name, and since they were a major investor in the movie they got one. King had hoped for an all-Canadian cast, because he thought it would be hard to integrate a foreigner into a production so specifically Canadian. Still, the elder Ben is a kind of a raunchy odd-man-out, and Ferrer, an actor given to overflowing his roles, turned out to fit the part well. One evening Brian Painchaud, having had nothing to do all day, was called on to display rapture, time and again, for a late scene. It was not one of his best performances, and Ferrer, hearing about it, took him aside to explain the importance of re-

laxation, how it was impossible to stay up all the time without wearing the acting process thin, how he personally always slept or read between takes. For some days afterward—well after Ferrer had finished his cameo role and departed—Painchaud was to be found between takes in the production Winnebago, reading.

Not everything went so smoothly. There was some friction—this being a distinctively Canadian film—between the francophone contingent (numbering at one point nine, a production group around executive producer Pierre Lamy) and the anglophones, who were all the rest. Lamy was responsible for the production meals, having imported two chefs from Quebec. The first produced food so awful, in the words of one anglo, “that it had to be eaten to be disbelieved.” He was fired, and the second did better, but was the recipient of some surly residue, like acidic burps, from the memories of the first. Sample: “Why don’t you go back to France?” For their part the French contingent (Lamy excepted) mixed with no one but themselves and tended unsettlingly to speak French to each other even when there were anglophones taking part in the conversation. “You always think we’re talking about you when we talk in French,” a Québécois production assistant remarked coolly and in limpid English, “—and we are.”

But all this passes. What will remain is Allan King’s movie—that and a handful of images that stick in the mind ... of watching a 1925 Model-T boil away on an Areola sidestreet waiting for a retake and hearing Alex Gervais, its 56-year-old owner, explain that “they boiled all the time anyway, but old Henry Ford put all his marbles into ’em, they lasted forever.” Of Ken Mitchell, playwright and lecturer at the University of Regina (but no kin to W. O.), coming to watch the rushes one night and mentioning that that very day he’d discovered that from 1929 to 1932 Sinclair Ross had lived in Areola with his mother, worked as a teller at the Royal Bank and been generally known as Jimmy. Of Gordon Pinsent, short-haired and almost unrecognizable, explaining between takes how much he preferred writing to acting—“jobbing myself out,” as he called it. And later of watching him stroll down a prairie road playing Brian’s father as he plays all his roles, as if it had been written for him alone.

The result of all this work will premiere next spring, in Areola, heart of next-year country, at the Princess Theatre, where the usual run for a movie is Thursday through Saturday and where Jaws holds the record (Wednesday through Saturday). The Princess is just about opposite Ed Hanna’s garage on Main Street, which will no longer have its topping of dusty gravel. But in the morning the regulars will gather at the garage, because they always do, and like as not they’ll say that the premiere, anyway, will be one thing they don’t have down at Carlyle.