Hot Docs: Spirit Unforgettable had its world premiere at the 2016 Hot Docs Festival. In the film, emotions run high during your interviews with Spirit of the West lead singer John Mann and his bandmates. What was it like as a director to balance the need for authentic emotional reactions while being sensitive to a difficult time in people’s lives?
Pete McCormack: In artistic endeavours, there is always a so-called balance in how to approach sensitive subjects—a balance, but no rules. So, I approached that question within my own ethical, moral and artistic beliefs and desires, which probably fluctuate with a lack of sleep. Interviewing John and his family, I brought my own artistic desires and needs, of course, and with them tenderness and empathy and a cursory understanding of the Golden Rule. Of course, the Golden Rule of filmmaking is “be compelling,” so it’s a dance.
One big goal of the film was to bring forth John’s disappearing voice, but how do you get inside the brain of a person with a brain disease? Especially one as insidious as Alzheimers? So, I pushed that to the extent that I didn’t hate myself because it was essential to the film. And John—this charismatic, talented, poetic frontman—deserved to have every opportunity to express himself as fully as possible, not only how devastating it is to have Alzheimer’s diagnosed and ticking at 51, but what the disease itself actually feels like inside. To do that, I approached the interviews in a lot of different ways. I used music to try and prompt memory, the written word (things he’d said earlier in the disease’s progress), I left questions with him with a pen taped to big sheets of paper, that kind of thing.
Also, I felt honoured to be allowed into hospital and medical settings with John and his incredible wife Jill Daum. I brought my 5D camera and small Zoom audio recorder, no crew, and then just shut the hell up. Those were profound interplays that are still in my heart, just to be allowed to be a silent fly on the wall. But the richest part about that process was simply being able to pick up John and Jill at their home and chauffeur them to whatever appointments they had to go to and be there with them, to support them and try to love them, and film what felt right. They were inspiring. Alzheimer’s is a cold-blooded disease. As of 2016, we don’t know its cause or its cure.
HD: You move fluidly between new and old archive performances. Did you have a specific way that you wanted to contrast the band then and now?
PM: Balancing the two eras, and deciding when to switch back and forth, was a vital process. The contrasting visual feast between the ‘80s and '90s and today was a gift: inherently entertaining and, at times, powerfully dramatic and sad. Youthful exuberance and innocently big dreams juxtaposed with the challenge and heaviness of aging and hateful diseases. It’s touching and sad. There were also other health problems in the band: Vince Ditrich, the drummer, had kidney failure and diabetes, and Geoffrey Kelly had serious Crohn’s disease.
But with all that—and life so often does this—there’s this glowing, beautiful through-line of what really matters: courage, integrity, the good fight, love of family, the unquenchable desire to continue to create beautiful things, Spirit’s music, the necessity of friendship and love. That’s the inspiration and, to a degree, the nutrients of redemption in the film. With relentless optimism, John reminded me that the diagnosis of dementia does not mean life stops. There is life after the diagnosis. John has courageously displayed that in spades—and the band supported and backed that all the way.
HD: What was it like to film musical performances? What aspects of your documentary directing experience required more or less emphasis in this environment?
PM: The Massey Hall shoot, with all the hall's splendour and history, was a nine-camera undertaking. It was also the backdrop for this relationship between a beloved band and their fans and the reality of what was going down, which was deep. I will say I had never before been in a booth calling shots from multiple cameras, and that situation was all because of wonderful director of photography Ian Kerr. The booth was small, like two phone booths, definitely not built to for two big lugs surrounded by screens. Nonetheless, it was exhilarating to know the set list, have a plan, source all camera angles at once and make choices on the fly. Just watching the spectacle of the show, feeling the music and so wishing for John and the band to pull it off, was emotional. For example, when John stumbled and, incredibly, the whole crowd just took up his burden and sang for him. It was amazing. I was crying. John dug deep into the synaptic well to give everything he had. It was sublime. I was honoured to be a part of it.
HD: Were you a fan of the band before deciding to make the film? How do you think that informed your filmmaking?
PM: I was a big fan of the band. I must have listened to the Faithlift album a thousand times. I was also a friend. I made a few records myself back in the day and I still write, and Spirit of the West’s drummer Vince, who is a great friend, has always played the drums for me. The multi-talented Hugh McMillan and the brilliant Geoffrey Kelly have also played on several songs. And John has been a great friend for years, a wonderful supporter in my earliest days of writing novels. In the process, I didn’t ruminate over bias or objectivity. I just found the best story I could, with as much tenderness and love as I could. They are a very loving band. It wasn’t rocket science. It was just listening.
HD: You received Corus-Hot Docs completion funding for the film in 2015. Can you talk about what the final stretch to completion was like for you and your team?
CM: Completion funding like the Corus-Hot Docs Funds is essential. In general, trying to make a full-length feature doc in Canada, or maybe anywhere, borders on moronic—monetarily and emotionally—unless it involves some wildly marketable subject, like a very famous person, or a shipload of luck. One-off feature documentaries remain only tenuously connected to the money machine, a Fahrenheit 9/11 blockbuster notwithstanding.
So what I do during the completion run is simply hunker down with a small, committed team—we co-produced with Project 10 and Cynde Harmon, and Tony Kent was the wonderful editor and a gem to work with. I do a lot of editing myself and just keep hacking away on the narrative and scouring landfills for archive and pulling hair out for effect and try to laugh instead of whining until the story resonates somewhere inside, all the while ignoring bills and a lack of sleep and growing debts and human relations. That could also be a syllabus for Documentary 101.
As for the vital funding, we had on board Bell Media as a broadcaster and Creative BC on top of the Corus-Hot Docs Funds, and we were so grateful for those contributions. The truth is, it feels great to finish a documentary. At the end of the day with Spirit Unforgettable, I know I will always be grateful I could tell this story and make this film with such wonderful and inspiring friends.
Learn more about Spirit Unforgettable at:
Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.
December 09, 2016