Officer & Gentleman

When Paul Gross set out to produce an epic film based on Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, he quickly learned that making the most expensive Canadian movie ever was a battle of its own. Andrew Clark goes into the trenches with the star, director and producer

If Paul Gross is nervous, he’s not showing it. Seated in a darkened movie theatre illuminated by the light shimmering off half a dozen monitors and the luminescent glow cast by a huge movie screen opposite, he’s surrounded by assorted sound guys and assistants who are arrayed at various keyboards. The sound of an 80-piece orchestra booms through loudspeakers.

Onscreen, a scene from his movie Passchendaele plays. The film is a $20-million epic romance that tells the story of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, one of the bloodiest and most futile clashes of the First World War, a melee in which Canadians played a decisive and costly role. It is a much-hyped movie. Passchendaele has won the coveted opening night slot at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, but that gala opening is two months away and its mid-October theatrical release even further in the future.

Right now, Gross is simply trying to finish the film and is deep in the music mix, a critical period for any movie. He watches the scene intently and finally makes his decision, opting to rein back the musical accompaniment a tad. His crew moves on to their next task. This will be Paul Gross’s day. This will be his week. As Passchendaele’s director, writer, star and producer, he will be called upon to make hundreds of decisions that will have a direct effect on a film that arguably represents the culmination of his career.

Passchendaele is also a test for the Canadian film business. It was funded by public money and a sizable amount of private investment. “It marks a radical shift from the hothouse model of Canadian cinema financed primarily from the public purse,” says Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson. “It may be a fluke. But if it succeeds, it could embolden the private sector to take more risks on English Canadian cinema, which has never been seen as a commercial opportunity.”

“The industry needs a film that has a mass appeal and is unapologetically Canadian,” says the film’s producer Niv Fichman. “It’s crucial if we are going to move into another phase.” The private money was available because Gross put his celebrity behind the film. He travelled the country convincing investors that “you need to do this for the country.” They did.

“A star is an actor who has larger-than-life charisma and popular appeal, and who can help get a movie financed by sheer force of reputation,” Johnson observes. “Paul Gross is one of the only Canadian actors who fits that description, but Gross has opted to make his career in Canada and tell Canadian stories. He’s become a kind of one-man cultural industry.”

As you watch Gross work, it becomes obvious that you are observing a filmmaker so immersed in his project that he has disappeared. Later, he will confirm this fact. “It is a peculiar thing,” he’ll admit. “When I get to the end [of production], I can’t see the movie. I have no idea what it’s like. I just see little tiny details.”

After a trip to another editing suite to check on the state of Passchendaele’s end credits, Gross is free to lunch. He suggests a nearby Italian eatery and as he steps out into the July sunshine, he lights a cigarette, which lasts precisely the time it takes to stroll to the restaurant. A star changes the nature of a room when he enters it. This is true for Gross. At lunch, though he seems oblivious to the attention, you notice that some diners adjust their behaviour to accommodate his presence. At a nearby table, a young man in his early 30s begins to speak loudly about film distribution, hoping, perhaps, to gain some attention. Others seated further away steal long glances.

Then there is the look, the look women get when they greet him. You will see this look often as you spend time with Paul Gross. Women regard him with what  can best be described as muted glee. They giggle reflexively. He is so cordial, he is so tall, his hair so rightly cut, his eyes so blue. There is an ageless hint of Dorian Gray to him. Witness the fact that, at 48, Gross pulled off playing a soldier some 10 years younger. Yet there is nothing oily about his appeal. Married to actress Martha Burns for more than two decades, the pair met while performing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. They live in Toronto with their teenage children.

While Gross’s charisma is right out of central casting, his dedication to Canadian stories is unique. At the core of this commitment is the belief that films such as Passchendaele can preserve Canadian history that could be lost. The need is there. If asked, most young Canadians would probably identify Passchendaele as a flavour of exotic ice cream. A 1997 Angus Reid survey showed that among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 33 per cent knew that Remembrance Day marks the end of the First World War.

“When we started trying to get Passchendaele made, we looked to do a co-production, but the question was always, ‘Does it have to be Canadian?’ They wanted the characters to be British or be all American, despite the fact that the Americans did not fight at Passchendaele,” Fichman says. “We realized that it absolutely had to be entirely Canadian. It was Paul’s passion and patriotism, his singularity of belief, that drove everything.”

This passion has its roots in family. Gross is an army brat whose father was an officer with Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) and served in Korea. Passchendaele was inspired by Gross’s grandfather, Sgt. Michael Dunne, who served in Alberta’s 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion during the First World War. Though wounded three times, Dunne survived and later recounted his wartime experience to his 16-year-old grandson Paul, the eldest of two boys. Gross was intrigued by tales of battle in Belgium. “Those who fought were 15 or 16 when they enlisted,” he notes. “They were closer to my age and there was something compelling and elusive about that war, its rightness and wrongness; there were no easy definitions.” He may have been hooked by the First World War’s theatricality: Civilians-turned-soldiers wore costumes (uniforms) and played out roles that would have been unthinkable during peacetime. During the First World War, the Allies referred to an attack as a “show.” Even the expression “over the top” has its origins in the War to End All Wars.

After high school, Gross attended the University of Alberta’s theatre school and displayed many of the attributes that would later make him an effective moviemaker. “Paul was a kingpin,” recalls Francis Damberger, a classmate who became a lifelong friend and who worked as a co-producer on Passchendaele. “It was a very competitive program. It felt like we were all playing for position. Paul was always at the front.”

After three years, Gross left the program and quickly found work as a stage actor. But as dedicated as he was to the theatre, his natural talent and charisma made a shift to the screen inevitable. After work on various CBC dramas, in the early 1990s, Gross signed a three-picture deal with the Walt Disney Co. — a logical next step for a Canadian actor who oozed leading-man potential. His first film was Aspen Extreme, a buddy movie set against the world of Colorado’s ski culture.

Released in 1993, Aspen Extreme wiped out and Gross, who describes his time tied to Disney as “interminable,” stewed in Los Angeles reading scripts. He came across the pilot for a television series created by Canadian transplant Paul Haggis. It was a fish-out-of-water cop show with a straight-arrow Canadian Mountie as the lead. “I had no idea how you’d do a part like that,” says Gross, who loved the script. “But I thought, ‘I’ll do this and get out of here.’”

The show was the CBS/CTV venture Due South and it became the hit Gross needed. He played Const. Benton Fraser, a Mountie who works at the Canadian Consulate in Chicago, solving crimes with a crusty, fast-talking Yankee sidekick. He and Haggis spent hours discussing how to make such a virtuous character, whom Gross called “the straightest man that God ever made,” into a real person on the screen. Their effort paid off. Due South became a hit not only in Canada and the United States but in Britain and around the globe. Fans flocked to the show and Gross was dubbed “Studly Do-Right.”

It was at this time that the dedicated actor and serious playwright began to grapple with life as a sex symbol; viewers were smitten by the hunky bloke who could do no wrong while looking so right. At times Gross was irritated by the focus on his looks. Once, while fielding questions from a reporter who wanted to know what “the new hunk at CBS” would do about “all the women lining up at his door,” he replied that he would have his way with all of them, “starting with you.”

Due South ran from 1994 to 1996, was cancelled and then brought back by CTV, after it was cancelled by CBS, from 1997 to 1999. Once it finally ran its course, Gross partnered up with Frank Siracusa (a Due South producer) and formed Whizbang Films in 1999. Their first big-screen effort was the romantic comedy Men With Brooms. Quintessentially Canadian, the film mixed curling and small-town life, telling the story of prodigal son and ace curler Chris Cutter (Gross) and his efforts to woo his ex-girlfriend and win the coveted “Golden Broom.” Men With Brooms opened in 2002 and set a record for the best opening weekend for an English-Canadian film, bringing in $1 million.

Throughout this period, the First World War lingered in his imagination. He’d never forgotten his grandfather’s stories. Gross wrote scenes, cobbling together images and scraps of dialogue, trying to brainstorm a way to get a movie made. In 1998, he and Siracusa took a trip to Belgium and walked the battlefield.

Though the success of Men With Brooms finally established Gross as a star who could leverage a film from start to finish, the most he could expect to raise from conventional sources was $8 million to $9 million. So he and his partners set to work, barnstorming for cash from unorthodox places. He convinced Ralph Klein’s Tory government in Alberta to kick in $5 million and canvassed private investors. By 2006, the money was somehow in place. “Paul was the brand,” Fichman says. “He was so committed and so dedicated. He pitched it as a kind of living monument.”

Ironically, Gross had chosen to make a monument of a battle that most Canadian politicians and bureaucrats (Ralph Klein aside) were less than enthusiastic about. In April 2007, the federal government spent millions honouring the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. A live television gala was broadcast by the CBC and Prime Minister Stephen Harper likened Vimy to the current Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan. A few months later, The Globe and Mail reported that the same administration commemorated Passchendaele by sending a couple of cabinet ministers and erecting an “interpretive display,” spending less than $60,000.

Their reticence is understandable. Considered the definition of military futility, the Passchendaele offensive was the brainchild of British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who thought his “big push” would end the war. Instead, it arguably prolonged it, and though, in October and November 1917, the Canadians broke the stalemate (winning nine Victoria Crosses in the process), the cost was astronomical. Canada suffered 15,654 casualties. The Allies captured eight kilometres, at a cost of 140,000 lives, and this gain was lost a few months later to a German offensive.

Principal photography on Passchendaele started in the summer of 2007 on the Tsuu T’ina First Nations reserve in Alberta. More than 400 extras were enlisted (around 60 of them from Canadian Forces and reserve units) and military advisers and experts were on hand to ensure the authenticity of the shoot. After blowing “the shit out of the ground” in order to recreate the cratered battlefield, Gross and his crew faced a challenge that those who fought at Passchendaele would have thought unthinkable: namely, how to keep the field wet. The solution? More than 53,000 litres of sub-zero water, drawn from a glacial river, were poured through rain towers. Frostbite was a concern and many on set were treated for hypothermia. “We would be there, whining in wet suits, and no one was trying to kill us, and we knew we’d be able to go back to a hotel room,” Gross says. “It was then that you’d think: ‘How did they do it?’ I have no idea how they survived.”

Along with climate and conditions, there was enormous pressure on Gross as a director. There were only three days in which he was not on-camera. “There was no room for mistakes,” Siracusa says.

For Gross, the process was sobering, especially given Canada’s current military efforts in Afghanistan. One morning, he and his cast arrived to find the soldiers and reservists holding a memorial for Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, a 24-year-old mechanic with The King’s Own Calgary Regiment, who was killed Sept. 24, 2007 during a mortar attack.

“When you are working in films, the unreality of the world you are working in seems to stray out to everything around it,” Gross says. “Having a reminder like that, that many of these guys were going to Afghanistan after the shooting, showed us that there was a direct line between the soldiers of 1914 and the men and women in Afghanistan today.”

On a warm September evening, you are at Roy Thomson Hall for Passchendaele’s gala opening at the Toronto International Film Festival. A moneyed crowd hangs about the foyer snacking on crudités and sipping cocktails. At 6:30 the cast appears for its first photo opportunity. Gross strolls in accompanied by his wife and kids, and spots you as he enters.

He gives you a warm hello, but, as he does, you can sense in his greeting the tremble of the press-weary. It is a combination of genuine cordiality mixed with a loathing of one more bit of small talk.

Later outside the theatre, Gross and company make another entrance, disembarking from Cadillacs onto a red carpet. Gross heads toward the line of press assembled along the red carpet, teasing the fans who lined up for him, and then he walks back, joining them for a brief chat and a few snapshots taken from cellphones and digital cameras.

Here is glamour, adulation, gushing, a star and his fan base. It is positively Hollywood.

Someone tugs you on the sleeve. You turn and see a small man in a grey baseball cap and beige check shirt. He is grinning and fumbling with a digital device. “Who is that?” the man says. “Who?”

“Paul Gross,” you reply.

“Oh,” he says, gazing dreamily out toward the flash of cameras and the clamour of the bright festival world across the street. “Oh.”

Meanwhile, the star straddles the red carpet and addresses a television reporter, his trademark smile in good working order.

If Paul Gross is nervous, he is not showing it. And why should he be?

Everyone loves Paul Gross, even those few people, it appears, who have no idea who he is.

Zoomer magazine, Nov 2008