Maybe it's because of our national humility, but there's never been a truly epic Canadian film. We're a nation that creates intimate art house fare, not big blockbuster battle sequences. Passchendaele is ambitious because it aspires to be unlike every Canadian film and its scope can truly be described as a formula for an instant classic.
Written and directed by Canadian favourite Paul Gross, there are strong Albertan roots running throughout the film. The unit of soldiers portrayed in the movie, the 10th Battalion, were an Albertan battalion in the First World War. The majority of the film was shot in Alberta mostly in and around Calgary and if you strain your eyes, you can see all sorts of local actors fighting and dying in battlefield sequences.
Meredith Bailey, who plays Cassie Walker in the film, is a pleasant surprise. She is a Mount Royal College alumnus as well as a recent graduate from the University of Alberta acting program. Bailey explains that one of her teachers helped plant the idea in her head to audition for the role she would ultimately get.
"I got to read the script early because Francis Damberger, who is one of the producers on this show, taught me film at U of A," she said. "He told me that I should audition for the film and I just loved [the script]. It was so beautifully written and so simple. I really, really fell in love with the character. Cassie is so saucy and really innocent. It was so moving and powerful and I really just wanted to be in it."
Growing up in Stratford, Ontario, Bailey's co-star Joe Dinicol is a third generation theatre brat born into acting. His grandfather managed the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and his father worked in a theatre company in Stratford. He's also acted under such directors as Sofia Coppola in The Virgin Suicides and George A. Romero in Diary of the Dead. He explains his idiosyncratic method for getting the role of David, Bailey's character's love interest.
"I remember saying to my girlfriend as I was going off to this [audition] that I was just going to keep talking until [Gross] gives me the job," he says with a wry smile. "I was going to wax philosophical as long as I can. I took a shot of Jack Daniels, went in to the meeting and just talked until I had said everything I could. I told them how I read the script over and over again and how I felt I had a certain kinship with the character that I felt no one else could have."
Always ready to whip out a quote about acting or film from luminaries like John Cassavetes and Al Pacino, Dinicol shows a deep fountain of knowledge about the craft of acting. He explains that the best moments on film were usually found in the little unscripted moments.
"Like life, acting is a collection of happy accidents," says Dinicol. "They say some of the best moments in film are those happy accidents. That scene with Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy where he screams, 'I'm walking here!' was an accident. John Cassavetes said that if he gave straight-forward directions to an actor, they'd translate that into a cliche. He said that he couldn't just tell his actors to be in love in a scene, because then they'd act like the cliche version of love."
The actors are both effusive in praise about the film and its director, Paul Gross. This is Bailey's feature film debut, so she was still a greenhorn to the process. Even though some of the nights were tough, she says she was inspired by the energy that Gross brought to the project.
"It was really easy to be infused with his passion because it was so personal," she explains. "It really put a lot of things into perspective. There were some days where I felt like I didn't know what I was doing and then I'd see Paul walk to his trailer, say hi to everybody on set and know everyone's names. He was so busy-- he'd be doing rewrites in his trailer and then in 10 minutes go direct another scene. I would sit there and see how busy I was and say, 'Oh, I'm fine.' "
Passchendaele is the highest budgeted film in all of Canada, a telling aspect of the Canadian film industry. Clocking in at around $20 million-- which is about the craft services budget for some films-- it was funded almost exclusively by private donors from across Canada. The Albertan government also put some money in the pot, dishing out a heaping helping of cash totalling $5.5 million. The big worry now is making sure that these businessmen can have their coffers refilled.
"If you can show those billionaires of Canada that they can make their money back by spending it on film, then that should help open the door," says Dinicol. "Luckily we had Paul Gross, who is very charming, persuasive and well-loved in this country to persuade these billionaires to part with their money."
Being one of the first Canadian epics, there is hope riding high that it can be a box office smash in the sea of American blockbusters. Dinicol remains hopeful about the film's chances and what it could mean for the always precarious Canadian film industry.
"The great thing about filmmaking is that, if you tell a great story, it will transcend borders and language," he says. "Hopefully people will recognize [Passchendaele] as a good movie first and as a Canadian film second. That's the hope with any Canadian film-- or any film from anywhere-- is that it will be seen as a great piece of art first and then the specs of the movie will be looked at afterwards."
Bailey adds she believes a normal film-going audience wouldn't care so much about where a particular story is from.
"Most audiences don't see films in the terms of being Canadian or American," she says. "They're more concerned with whether or not they're enjoyable to watch."
Throughout the entire hustle and bustle of promotions, there's always one great climax for the cast of a film to be happy about-- the single shining second where an actor feels his feet on the red carpet, smiling and waving at the waves of pushy journalists. Dinicol, who seems unaccustomed to the red carpet treatment, remains sly about "who" exactly he was wearing to the red carpet ceremony.
"I didn't get my suit at Sears," he says with a laugh. "I actually spent some money."