Company of women

A largely female crew shoots a Canadian classic

VICTOR DWYER June 15 1992

Company of women

A largely female crew shoots a Canadian classic

VICTOR DWYER June 15 1992

Company of women


A largely female crew shoots a Canadian classic

In a warehouse on the outskirts of Winnipeg, on a film set constructed to resemble a youth hostel, two of Canada’s most memorable fictional characters were engaged in a heated quarrel. “Get out of my life,” shouted Métis teenager Pique Gunn, played by actor Jennifer Podemski. Morag Gunn, portrayed by Sonja Smits, replied with a scowl, “You’re talking to your mother, you know.” “I don’t have a mother,” yelled Pique, turning her back on the bitter, barely audible reply: “Wishful thinking.” That brief exchange is part of an ambitious project to adapt Margaret Laurence’s controversial 1974 novel, The Diviners, for the small screen. And along with Smits and Podemski, some of the most talented women in the Canadian film industry have come together to bring the indomitable Morag, Laurence’s darkest and toughest heroine, to television. The team includes director Anne Wheeler, co-producer Kim Todd, scriptwriter Linda Svendsen and story editor Anne Frank. Declared Todd, pointing out that filming of the $2.8-million production will be finished in mid-June: “There has been a real drawing of our experiences as women to understand Morag and to try to capture the essence of the book.

It’s been a marvellous and certainly an unusual experience.”

Todd, 37, works for Toronto’s Atlantis Films Ltd., which is co-producing The Diviners with Winnipeg’s Credo Group. The 21/2-hour special is expected to air in early 1993 on the CBC. Created in 1978, Atlantis has had some earlier experience adapting Laurence for television: the company’s first dramatic production, in 1981, was a half-hour show based on Laurence’s short story “The Olden Days Coat.” After petitioning the author for several years for permission to adapt The Diviners, recalled Atlantis partner and vice-president Seaton McLean, in 1987 the company received a letter from Laurence giving the go-ahead, three days before she died of lung cancer on Jan. 6. “You people are the only film company I would trust to do a film on the novel,” she wrote. “How’s that for a recommendation?!” Added Laurence, who was 60: “I wish I weren’t so damned ill.”

As they discussed their work in a series of interviews last week, the women behind The Diviners spoke frankly about the frustrations and rewards of re-creating Laurence’s semi-

autobiographical story of a writer from smalltown Manitoba, her doomed marriage to a university professor, her decades-long affair with a down-and-out musician and her stormy relationship with her illegitimate daughter. Each acknowledged that the film has a uniquely

female stamp, but they pointed out that it was purely accidental that the drama became an almost exclusively female production. And many of them emphasized that the men involved, including co-producer Derek Mazur, who joined the scriptwriting process in its final stages, as well as actor Tom Jackson, are also leaving their mark.

All the women clearly share a sense of the project’s importance. Said Toronto-based Smits, 37, who is best known for her role as Carrie Barr on the TV series Street Legal: “Portraying Morag is wonderful and fun, but you feel a real responsibility. The receptionist at my hairdresser said, ‘I love that character. She’s my favorite.’ And I just want to say, ‘Shut up.’ It’s terrifying, really.”

Indeed, Vancouver screenwriter Svendsen, 37, maintains that many Canadian women identify with Morag. Comparing the fictional character, whose parents were killed when she was a child, with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Svendsen said: “Morag is

Canada’s other orphan.” However, Laurence’s character appeals to women at a more fundamental level than Montgomery’s, she added. “We all love Anne,” noted Svendsen, “but Morag’s story rings truer to women. Morag is a bit deeper, a bit more real.”

Wheeler, too, says that she finds Morag to be an utterly believable character. “I can relate to her inside and out,” the director said. “For me, she’s not an object but an extension of myself and of other women.” The Saltspring Island, B.C.-based Wheeler, 45, a mother of 12-year-old twin boys, said that although a man could have directed The Diviners, she feels that her own experiences have helped her to bring depth to the film. She added: “When I make certain decisions on the set, I know I’m right—I know Morag would feel like this at this particular time. I guess being a woman gives

me a certain confidence to feel that way.” Wheeler has worked with Laurence’s fiction in the past. In 1985, she scripted and directed the half-hour TV special To Set Our House in Order, based on a Laurence short story about a young girl’s passage into adulthood, and soon afterward struck up a friendship with the author. At the time, recalled Wheeler, the novelist refused to make any comment on the film until seeing the finished product.

Soon after she had completed production, Wheeler recalled, she received a telephone call from Laurence at about midnight while working in her Edmonton studio. Laurence had prescreened the drama. “She said, ‘Hi, it’s Margaret. I loved it.’ ” Wheeler then told Laurence that she had heard the author liked scotch, and Laurence suggested that they each grab a bottle and keep talking. “We were on the phone for three hours that night,” said Wheeler. “We talked about that film, and its main character, and what Margaret does with characters.” Wheeler said that what she learned from

Laurence that night, and in subsequent conversations, has influenced her work on The Diviners—especially her contribution to the script. Late last summer, Wheeler and CBC story editor Carol Hay joined Svendsen, who had been working with Frank and Todd since the spring of 1990, to hammer out the final product. Recalled Svendsen, a short-story writer (her first collection, Marine Life, will be published next month by HarperCollins) who had never before written a feature-length script: “It was, dare I say it, a nurturing process—but also a strong, smart piece of teamwork.” Among those doing the nurturing was coproducer Todd, who said that the four women felt apprehensive about adapting an important

work by such a revered author. “Finally,” she recalled, “we said, ‘Let’s just all admit that we’re scared shitless here.’ ”

Helping them overcome that fear, she said, was the fact that they were women working with other women. “There were so many critical scenes where we had what I called pyjama-party script meetings,” recalled Todd. “You would say, ‘Now what would Morag be feeling here?’ And someone—we’d all take our turns—would say, ‘You know, I had such and such happen to me,’ and we’d feed it in.”

The sense of female teamwork was most evident, according to Todd and others, when they were writing the three scenes involving Morag’s sexual relations with her husband, a dashing professor named Brooke (Geordie Johnson), and her longtime lover, Jules (Tom Jackson). Those scenes, said co-producer Mazur, “will push the limits of CBC standards, but involve no full frontal nudity.”

In fact, the novel, a mainstay on high-school reading lists, has been banned in some commu-

nities because of its sexual content and offcolor language. Todd says that the film-makers have broken with traditional perspectives on Morag’s sex life. “When The Diviners was first published,” she said, “many male reviewers said it was a book about a woman discovering her sexuality. But the whole idea of Morag is of a woman who never lost it. That’s the one thing she never tried to cover up or hide.” As a result, said Todd, the writing team was determined to keep that part of Morag intact—while using the character’s unabashed love of sex to help illuminate her as a person.

Referring to Morag’s highly sexed but unhappy marriage, Todd said that the writing team was trying to convey “why women submit to that kind of control, which all of us have

ât some point, to some degree.” Noted Smits: “Having a female writer and a female director and a female producer, you are going to have a different take on the character’s sexuality. It’s not, ‘Let’s stop the story and watch two people make out and then go back to the story.’ ” Also central to Morag’s life is her volatile relationship with her teenage daughter—a relationship that Smits, who is married to Atlantis vice-president Seaton McLean, says has made her think more deeply about their 19month-old daughter, Avalon. Referring to the scene set in the youth hostel, Smits laughed and said: “You do these scenes and then you think, ‘Well, my daughter’s quite a wonderful person now, but she’s a baby.’ ”

Smits also said that portraying Morag has also made her think hard about the responsibilities of being a parent herself. “Seeing where Morag is at,” she said, “you realize that the decisions you make today are affecting your child. You’re inevitably going to hurt them, because you’re going to f--k up. You’re going to

be incompetent, because you simply can’t see everything.”

Despite Morag’s faults, most of the women involved in The Diviners said that they see her as an essentially heroic figure. Todd described The Diviners as “a feminist story,” and added: “Morag follows her own path, and it’s certainly not a path that’s followed by many women.” For Smits, Morag’s determined self-reliance is a role model for both sexes. “Morag lives life on her own terms, right or wrong,” said Smits, “and that’s hard for anybody to do.”

Still, Smits said that she is reluctant to classify The Diviners as a woman’s story. “I have problems with that term,” said Smits. “Is a woman’s story a classic? I think this is a classic, which means it has universal truths.”

She added: “Of course, those truths are specific to a woman’s experience. A man can’t choose to have a child. Obviously, there are things that happen to her because she is a woman.” Wheeler, too, expressed discomfort with the woman’s label: “As soon as I say it’s a woman’s film, whether or not it is, it’s like hurting my own child. You start printing, ‘It’s a woman’s story,’ and I’ll lose a lot of the audience.”

Last week, following a sixth gruelling take of the hostel scene, Wheeler left the camera to give a gentle hug to 19-year-old Podemski, who, as Pique, is taking on her first major screen role. “She tells you very gently what she wants,” the Toronto actress said later. “I think the fact that she is a woman has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not feeling intimidated here.” Just as Laurence nurtured her characters into compelling life, the film-makers involved in The Diviners are carefully transporting her vision to the nation’s living rooms.

VICTOR DWYER in Winnipeg