Michael McGowan is a screenwriter, director and producer known for tackling complex material for the screen and making it effortless. In his latest film, the Canadian filmmaker adapts the internationally acclaimed bestselling novel All my little sorrows by Miriam Toews.
The film, like the novel, unexpectedly injects tongue-in-cheek humor into a harrowing tale of two sisters: one a gifted pianist (played by Sarah Gadon) determined to end her life, and the other a struggling writer. (Alison Pill) trying to understand her beloved brother’s decision and in the process makes profound discoveries about herself. The film also stars Mare Winningham and Donald Logue as the girls’ strict Mennonite parents.
Previous McGowan movie, 2012 Mine, starred James Cromwell, and was a New York Times
choice of critic. It has received accolades worldwide, including six Canadian Screen Award nominations, including Best Picture.
With Music: A hockey musical, McGowan was not only a producer, writer and director, but also a lyricist for the 2010 film. It was the opening night film of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and won the top prize at the International Festival Chicago music and movies. His other award-winning feature films include 2008 One week and the critically acclaimed coming of age feature St. Ralphcreated in 2004.
Reached by phone about “an hour and a half north of Toronto”, McGowan reveals that he is working hard to develop his next project, which he prefers to keep secret for the moment, lest it bring him bad luck. He was, however, willing to talk All my little sorrowswhich debuted on TIFF last year and takes its title from a line in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Moose Pictures’ All my little sorrows will be available on demand and digitally on May 3, which coincides with National Mental Health Awareness Month.
Angela Dawson: What drew you to this popular novel and why did you want to make it into a movie?
Michael McGowan: I’m a fan of Miriam (the author) and had read some of her other stuff. I read this and loved it. My wife, who had read it too, told me she thought it would make a great movie. He certainly has three amazing, castable roles. We often hear that it is more difficult for actresses, once they reach a certain age, to get good roles. So, I thought that would allow us to throw over our weight in the cast because of the roles that were in that book.
I had never seen suicide – the desire for suicide – written that way, and the fact that it was from Miriam’s lived experience made it a trifecta to want to go ahead and try. to adapt it.
Dawson: Did you have any trepidation about adapting such a beloved book because obviously some parts have to be left out and other things have to change to make the story more cinematic?
McGowan: Not really. Once you start down this path, you need to leave (those concerns) behind. I thought the adaptation would be quite easy but it turned out not to be the case for various reasons. I hesitated to adapt it. I was almost ready to give up because I just couldn’t crack. It really surprised me.
While I was finding my way around, I talked to Miriam about it all the way through – she had read the script and spoken with all the actors and heads of departments (about the production). I was very worried about whether Miriam would like it, and she loved the movie. She could not have been more generous in her praise and enthusiasm for what we had done. It really was the biggest compliment we could have received about the adaptation.
Dawson: Did she visit the set?
McGowan: She would have come on the set but her mother, Elvira, is older and we shot it during the Covid. I showed the (unfinished) movie to Alison (Pill) and Sarah (Gadon) and got great feedback from them, but I didn’t want Miriam to see it until it was finished. At first, I asked her if she wanted to write the adaptation with me, and she didn’t. She was busy with other things and was generous enough to trust me enough to do it (on her own). I wanted her to see it in the form I was happiest with. She therefore came to the opening at TIFF with her mother, her daughter and her companion.
Dawson: While you were writing the adaptation, did you visualize the actors for these roles?
McGowan: I never write for a particular actor. First of all, it took six years from the time I chose (the book) to the time we got to the camera, so we didn’t know who was going to be available, what the budget would be – the factors usual. I hadn’t (previously) worked with someone I thought was capable of playing this role. In the casting, the actors playing the two sisters could have been 10 years older, but we finally arrived at Alison and Sarah. We had an excellent casting director from Los Angeles, Heidi Levitt, who is actually Canadian.
We went through a bunch of lists and it always depended on who our Yoli was, and it was going to affect who Elf was and the mother. So once Alison signed, Sarah was a natural fit. I had spoken to Sarah about the script a few years earlier, and she had excellent notes on the script. I was hoping she would be available and she was. Then when we considered mom, we had pictures (of actresses) on a board, and it was clear that Mare was the obvious choice.
Also, Alison and Mare had worked together (previously) and Sarah and Alison had worked together. The fact that they all know each other helped with the on-screen chemistry.
Dawson: Despite the grim subject matter of suicide, the film has many humorous lines and the conversations between the characters feel very real.
McGowan: It was the strength of the book. Miriam’s sensitivity to undermining (dramatic tension) with humor matches my own. That’s one of the things that really appeals to me: it wasn’t just that hard two-hour job. There is hope in the film, surprisingly. There is light juxtaposed with darkness. That, to me, was really interesting to explore and bring back in the adaptation.
Dawson: As a director, what were the challenges of following all the protocols and keeping everyone on the cast and crew healthy while filming during the pandemic?
McGowan: We were a bit isolated in this northern community. It helped. The protocols were good, really. We found a way to make it as safe as possible without really eating into our filming time. The great sword of Damocles hanging over us was that if we had three positive cases, all production would have been shut down, and there was no guarantee that wouldn’t happen.
We shot with one camera for 20 days. We were able to get around quickly because it was a wonderful place. We ended up with three positive tests that turned out to be false positives, so they all came out negative, including myself and another crew member. I was extremely careful. We were pretty sure after the first test that we really didn’t have it, but there’s no guarantee, so we had to shut down for a day.
We kept thinking, “are we tempting fate by shooting this movie during this movie during Covid?” We just felt lucky to be working when so many people had lost their jobs. It was truly a blessing to just work. I really felt like people took it seriously. People knew our margin of error on Covid was very slim and thankfully we didn’t have any real positive tests.
Dawson: After the positive critical and audience reaction to TIFF, was this finally the time you could relax?
McGowan: I sat in the audience and watched it, which is always torture while waiting for the audience’s reaction. But now we know this movie works. I received some of the best reviews I’ve had in my career with. It touches people in a very deep and emotional way. I’m excited for more people to see it when it’s released in May.
Dawson: What are you working on next? Do you plan to adapt your books for the screen?
McGowan: The stuff I’m working on right now, I can’t talk about because it’s in development. I have a bunch of stuff that I hope will go away soon enough.