Watched over by an angel

Although it has taken four decades for the movie version of the Canadian classic The Stone Angel, screenwriter and director Kari Skogland feels the timing was perfect.

“It felt like Margaret was with us though every step of the process,” Skogland said.

The author even seemed to guide the filmmakers to shooting locations within Manitoba. When the crew scouted one of many churches for a wedding scene, they found records of Shipley’s and Curries, the two main families in Laurence’s story.

“So, I’d have to say she’s been helping me,” Skogland said.

The film, like the book, follows 90-year-old Hagar Shipley, who is played by Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn. Hagar refuses to enter a nursing home when her son Marvin and his wife bring up the idea. Instead, she runs away to a place that holds happier memories. Flashbacks guide the viewer through her tumultuous life.

Skogland knew she had to be careful about adapting a that so many people love. But she also believed that some changes needed to be made.

“I did update the story, as it was written in the early sixties,” Skogland said. “I felt in order to be relevant to a modern audience it had to reflect how the feminine experience had changed.”

Skogland feels that events throughout her own life lead to a deeper understanding of the story. Like many Canadians, Skogland first read the book in high school. Though it resonated with her at the time, she said it was very different reading it as an adult.

“Everybody I know is going through something like this with their parents. When you start thinking about how they are going to die, emotionally it can be a complete mind melt.”

She believes this is the reason the Marvin storyline was so interesting to her and important to delve into. In her opinion, it is another element of the narrative that many can relate to.

“We are all so motivated by our pasts, our parents’ past, the legacies that come with each generation. Even on the set, my crew were coming forward and sharing their experiences. In a way, it was cathartic.”

Skogland’s debut as a writer-director was Liberty Stands Still in 2002, which earned her a nod from Hollywood Reporter as one of its “Ten Directors to Watch”. Her current project is another writer-director turn, with 50 Dead Men Walking, based on the true story on an IRA informant.

There are no immediate plans to adapt another Can Lit classic, but Skogland does believe it is important to revisit these narratives.

“If we don’t have new ways to tell these stories, we can lose our sense of culture,” she said. “They are universal on some levels, but they do embody the Canadian experience. We need to take more proud ownership of our Canadian culture.”

The Stone Angel opens across Canada on May 9th.