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INDIE SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with 'All My Puny Sorrows' Writer-Director Michael McGowan

Michael McGowan shares with Script his adaptation process, overcoming self-doubt roadblocks, working with the actors in terms of character motivation and scene work to his personal writing routine.

Based on Miriam Toews’ best-selling novel All My Puny Sorrows unexpectedly infuses wry humor into this heart-wrenching story of two loving sisters: one a gifted pianist (Sarah Gadon) obsessed with ending her life the other a struggling writer (Alison Pill) who in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about herself.    

[intro - exploration of grief - adaptation - character development]

Filmmaker Michael McGowan delicately approaches and examines loss and grief in this adaptation of All My Puny Sorrows. There's a wonderful harmony of life metaphors and humor, greatly crafted from Miriam Towes' book of the same name. 

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Michael McGowan about the adaptation process, overcoming self-doubt roadblocks, working with the actors in terms of character motivation and scene work to his personal writing routine - that I'm certain fellow writers and screenwriters can easily relate to and similarly can use a reminder to go easy on yourself during the writing process.

Alison Pill as Yoli in the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Alison Pill as Yoli in the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What initially attracted you to this story as a filmmaker?

Michael McGowan: I'm a fan of Miriam's. I just read the book and my wife had read the book and I didn't actually when I read it, I didn't really think about it as a film. I don't know why. And then my wife said, ‘I think it would make a good film.’ And I was a bit hesitant, and then the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘OK, well, there's three really castable roles that for an indie film would allow us to punch above our weight in casting.’ And I hadn't seen the depiction or the argument for suicide the way it was depicted in this book and because it came from Miriam Towes' own lived experience, it was quote, unquote, a true story, even though she made it into a novel, I thought that gave it a certain weight that was important. For those sort of three reasons, I reached out to Miriam to see if I could option it.

Sadie: And once when you were beginning that adaptation process, did you find any kind of emotional connection to it for yourself?

Michael: I always put myself into it for sure. I mean, I think you have to. I can sort of point to what I actually wrote that was me in there separate from the book. I think, at least in my process, I'm in the character's head when I'm writing their point of view. But obviously, there was a fantastic blueprint from the novel, but the adaptation didn't come quickly. I was surprised because it's pretty straightforward and I'll be able to do this quickly. It was kind of the opposite. I was really stuck. I couldn't figure out who's film it was and how to map the adaptation. I was kind of ready to give up on it and I was like, ‘I'm going to let the option expire.; And then I talked to Miriam again, and not that she gave me the key to it, but that unlocked me to do it. And then I wrote a first draft really quickly.

Director Michael McGowan in a behind the scenes image of the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Ken Woroner.

Director Michael McGowan in a behind the scenes image of the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Ken Woroner.

Sadie: What did she say to get you back in the writing mindset?

Michael: I think it was just admitting that I couldn't do it. [laughs] I just figured out that I came away from that dinner saying, ‘OK, so Yoli is trying to restore balance in the universe as almost a through-line.’ That allowed me to pick what I wanted from the novel and leave other stuff and just figure it out - it's weird, it was a key for me that did it. I sort of figured that out just having a conversation with her.

Sadie: Sometimes that's all it takes. I'm curious in terms of the character development, how were you mapping that out with, especially with the two sisters, and how they're approaching grief in these two different ways?

Michael: Yeah, it was interesting, because, I mean, again, it was a bit of math to sort of understand where especially the hospital scenes were and what was the point of each one of these scenes because it's the backbone of the film really. I had done a number of passes on it, and then Alison [Pill] really was adamant in a great way that we should rehearse and because we were all quarantined, anyway, we had nothing else to do, we had time to do that. And it was a great process because her and Sarah are very particular and they're really smart, but it was a big help to me, they almost think like story editors. Sarah would say, ‘Oh, you say she's sleeping in the start of the scene. Would she be sleeping at the start this scene? Why would she be sleeping?’ And those conversations were really great to have because the little things sort of set off the larger themes, the implications of the scene. It wasn't a huge rewrite, but it was a very particular rewrite that every line, every gesture, hopefully, it feels like because they're so great in those scenes like it's off the cuff but there's a real precision in those scenes that we worked on pretty hard before it went to camera.

[L-R] Mare Winningham as Lottie, Alison Pill as Yoli, Sarah Gadon as Elf, and Aly Mawji as Nic in the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

[L-R] Mare Winningham as Lottie, Alison Pill as Yoli, Sarah Gadon as Elf, and Aly Mawji as Nic in the drama film, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Sadie: What was the editing process like on this one for you?

Michael: We had two editors, Orlee [Buium] and Michelle [Szemberg], and they were there the whole time. It actually turned out great, because we had three voices in the room. And because we all knew the film intimately, I think we explored way more stuff. I've worked with these people before and I'm like, ‘Don’t cut the film to the script,’ meaning make some decisions because for me, watching the first assembly has always been just absolute hell. And I think most filmmakers will tell you that because it sort of walks and talks like a film and then once it’s in front of you, it’s slow and shitty, and you think you're a failure. [laughs] And I mean, it's almost like you need therapy. And they did a great job, it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. [laughs] I'm like, ‘Oh my god, this is just terrible.’ And it's happened on every single film. [laughs]

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I love editing. You get into this intellectual exercise. It's always amazing to me what you take and change and move around and all the things, all the tricks that you do. Whatever works in service of the film is the right answer. So like, for example, there's that scene where Alison freaks out in the parking lot. And she goes nuts, and I think it was just an amazing performance by Alison. And then she comes out of the elevator and says to her mom, ‘I had a little trouble parking.’ And I always liked that joke, but when in editing we really had to sort of intellectualize. Why is that joke there? Why is that scene there? Is it there for the joke? And we took it out. And then we realized by taking it out, Yoli just seems unhinged. And I think the audience's interest goes back to, ‘I hope she doesn't go crazy too.’ But the self-awareness of the joke allows her to go, ‘OK, I just lost my fucking mind. And I recognize it and now we're back in regular land.’ That is a fairly long and involved discussion that arises and then, ‘OK, this should be there. It's there for a reason.’ We know why it's there and it works for the film we're trying to make. I really enjoy that process.

Sadie: What initially hooked you into wanting to become a writer and director?

Michael: I started off sort of as a failed novelist, and then I did magazine journalism, and then I sort of wrote a screenplay just as an exercise. I never thought I would direct. It didn't even enter my head. And then I saw Clerks at the Toronto Film Festival. I love Clerks, but it wasn't like, ‘oh my god, I don't know how the hell they did that.’ And so, a friend raised some money, and we hired a director to direct this screenplay. We realized we're kind of in trouble with this person. So, my friend just said, ‘Why don't you direct it?’ And I was like, ‘I don't really think I can.’ [laughs] Because I've never been on set. And so, I read a couple of books, but it was like directing a student film - but I liked it. I sort of look at directing as hosting a party. Like, you're trying to make all these different people happy. What do the actors need? Then every actor is different. What does the crew need to perform their best and then how do I move everybody in the direction to get what I want? I learned a ton on that one. And then I did a much bigger film, it was over 6 million bucks, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ [laughs]

I realized as I did it more and more that I was fairly comfortable doing it because like I said before, I could see the cuts. And I mean writing is just ridiculously hard for me. And it induces all kinds of neuroses, ‘Why are you doing this? This will never see the light of day. It's just a piece of shit.’ All those kinds of things. But with directing it’s like a train is going to go out of the station every day. It's going to go to the next station and you always feel like you've accomplished something, regardless of what might have sort of gone off the rails during the day. I realized that probably personality wise, sitting in a room for 40 years as a career trying to be a novelist, which I probably wouldn't do anyway was not the best use of [laughs] not all of my talents, but probably wouldn't make me the happiest. It's been fun sort of to go back and forth to spend time on set. And then retreat to a completely different place where you're just trying to figure out words on paper or on a computer.

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Sadie: You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head on what it’s like being a writer. Are there specific themes or stories that you're personally drawn toward?

Michael: I mean, no, because I kind of do a bunch of things, but I do think that there's a common theme - the idea of heart and humor. I'm not looking for these big emotions, but like this one, most people just can't get through without breaking down but then you're laughing at the next minute and I think that juxtaposition between those two emotions was interesting to explore, but it's not like I'm sitting there going, ‘OK, on page 60, they're going to do these two things at the same time.’ But even if you're sort of wrestling with these bigger themes, like the meaning of life, death, and all this kind of stuff, that it is undercut with a sense of humor, and not for the easy joke. The resilience of human beings is what I find interesting to explore.

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Sadie: Do you have a daily writing routine for yourself? Or does it dependent on the project?

Michael: It is dependent for sure. If I'm working on a screenplay, I'll be like, ‘OK, try to write two pages a day.’ Or 500 words or 1000 words or whatever. Getting back to the more personal stuff, in the actual film like that idea that when she says the words were coming easily, ‘I felt like a productive member of society.’ That's sort of the most autobiographical probably for me, because it's like when you get to a point where you don't feel like you're pushing the rock uphill where actually you're kind of thinking about it for me, at least when you're thinking about it all the time, you're like, ‘Oh, I can almost finish the puzzle. That makes sense. OK, I can put this little thing in here, and then I don't even worry about it because you're just writing so well.’ And it comes and that goes back to even not being able to adapt, I mean, I was working on other stuff as well, but sort of in and out of trying to crack the code for the adaptation. And then when it came, I sort of spat it out fairly quickly.

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I do find I have to sit there and do it every day no matter how much time I waste looking at stupid websites and procrastinating. [laughs] Like, I'm writing something now. If you write 500 words a day, it should really take about 45 minutes, and if it takes you 10 hours - too bad, it's going to take you 10 hours. And I've kind of learned over the years that procrastination is part of my process and not to sort of lament lost time because it's going to take time to do it. Your best writing time might come at five o'clock, when you know, [laughs] I’ve wasted the other eight hours of doing stupid things that you could have just gone and lived your life but that is all the sort of weird psychosis of being a writer I think.

All My Puny Sorrows is available on Digital and On Demand on May 3, 2022.