lived, breathed, died a goalie: adriana maggs on putting terry sawchuk on film

Man In The Mask: Mark O’Brien plays a tortured Terry Sawchuk in Adriana Maggs’ new film.

The successes of Terry Sawchuk’s goal-guarding years can be expressed in a notional array of the trophies that rewarded his best efforts — a Calder from 1951, his five Vézinas, the four Stanley Cups. There’s a narrative to be found, too, in numbers that delineate his career: the 63,444 minutes of NHL hockey he played over the course of 1,077 games, the 499 wins, the 115 shutouts. He faced 20,902 shots in his time in the league, which lasted from 1950 until 1970, of which he deterred 18,919.

The numbers speak for themselves; the trophies reflect a bright gleam. For a deeper understanding of the life of the man and of the sport he played — and of the agonies he suffered — there’s a world of it in Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems (2008) by the Corner Brook poet and academic Randall Maggs. As of this past Friday, when it opened at theatres across Canada, there’s also Goalie, a feature-length biopic that takes Maggs’ portrayal of Sawchuk as its inspiration and guide. Mark O’Brien plays the lead in the latter, under the direction of Adriana Maggs, who also wrote the screenplay with her sister, Jane Maggs. Adriana made her debut as a writer and director in 2010 with Grown Up Movie Star, which was nominated for a 2011 Genie for Best Screenplay. Yes, that’s right: Adriana and Jane are daughters to Randall.

I traded e-mails with Adriana Maggs last week: I sent questions, she had the answers. Here they all are:

I’ve talked to your father about Night Work and the intensity of his relationship to Terry Sawchuk’s life and story. How did yours develop? What was the process by which you decided that you wanted to make Goalie

My sister and I were looking for a project to do together. I had just come back from Sundance with my first film and met with producer Daniel Iron, who was asking what I was hoping to direct next.  At the time I was immersed in my father’s exquisite and haunting exploration of this beautiful, complex man and it just wouldn’t leave my mind. The truth is it was already forming as a film in my head. My sister felt the same way. We asked him about adapting it and he was into the idea.

The film does strike me as a kind of visual poem — an anthology of images and perceptions and sensations, of phrases, of qualities of light. How did the fact that your original text was a volume of poetry shape the form of the film?

My father interviewed so many players who watched Terry both on and off the ice for so many years and had such beautiful insights about him with the unique perspective of their understanding of the pressure and the game; their unique perspective after twenty or thirty years to reflect and ruminate on their own feelings of once being warriors. My father stood back and let those interviews become poems and the book creates a complex narrative of the game and of Terry. One I hadn’t thought of before. The poems dig into Terry’s struggle with happiness despite being the best person to ever play the position in the NHL. Terry’s story seemed to end so tragically, yet the poetry sought to explore more than that.  It ended with so much hope and redemption. A biography of Terry Sawchuk can’t do that, because a recording of the events of his life, they just don’t add up to a happy life, but we can’t know Terry’s private most inner thoughts. The poetry, the reflections of my father and the players with their age and wisdom lent us the ability to get inside his head in a way that straight up events can never could.

“I have come to accept the idea that factual history is simply too elusive,” your father writes inNight Work. As a writer and filmmaker, what was your approach to the importance of cleaving (or not) to the historical record?

A film is a different medium, obviously, and we were fortunate enough to have Terry’s son Jerry Sawchuk with us. I have a deep affection for him and we wanted to stick to his and his mother, Pat Sawchuk’s real experience as we sewed scenes together.  This led us to a second, very important book, Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie, a biography by David Dupuis.  There are a few biographies of Terry Sawchuk but this one was done with the Sawchuk family, who were brave and honest and wanted the real story told.

One more Night Workquestion: how much did you consult with your father over the course of your writing and the production of the film?

Oh, loooong discussions about themes and central ideas. I wanted the movie to feel like the book. I wanted it to track the events in Terry’s life but for viewers to come away feeling the way I felt reading the book.

Mark O’Brien’s performance is remarkable. Can you tell me about finding your Sawchuk and how you knew he was the one?

It was always Mark. Mark and I are friends from years back. He was in my first film, he was in my sister’s first play, we both are floored by his ability to possess another person. He understands what it is to be human, he navigates drama and levity and darkness and humour so seamlessly. He is a hockey player, himself. All the hockey in the film was him. Not a stunt goalie. Not a professional player. All I heard when gearing up to direct this is “the hockey can’t suck, it can’t be amateur, it has to look like the NHL.” And yet, in the early years, before Mark’s career had taken off, as we were piecing together funding, we were asked to look at actors who had apparent cache, but who didn’t have a fraction of what Mark had nor the hockey skills. There was a time I started to lose interest in the project. To be fair, these were early days and when we were getting close to being funded, and we actually started to seriously talk casting, we brought up Mark’s name and everybody was on board and thrilled.

I’m always interested in seeing how the spontaneity of a sport like hockey is dramatized. What were the challenges of directing hockey players, and of translating the fast, fluid disorder of actual NHL hockey (from another time) for the screen?

Shooting a lot, shooting with actors and professional players, shooting choreographed plays, over and over with two excellent camera operators on skates, on dollies and we even had a little robot camera on ice that the players kept tripping over.  The only issue is we couldn’t use the footage where the robot was in the scrimmage — ’cause that would’ve betrayed the period.

Hockey is obviously so dear to us as Canadians, soaked deep into our national psyche. Goalie offers up a fairly bleak vision of the game and its torments — not just in the blood and teeth that Sawchuk sheds, but in Doug Harvey’s testament (“in the end it’ll kill you”) and in Sawchuk’s own Newfoundland outburst (“Fuck hockey …”). Do you see the film as having an editorial element — and maybe even laying down an indictment of the darker aspects of hockey that we don’t always acknowledge?

Hockey is dear to Canadians. We’re a young country. The Greeks have their gods and the Norse have their gods and we have our original six who pour out onto the ice like Mount Olympus opening up. Indigenous people invented it. It reflects the sheer strength it takes to survive and thrive in a climate that makes warriors of us all.  At the same time I know ex-NHL players. My uncle was in the NHL and I listen to what he says. I’m proud of our hockey history but I’m not deluding myself, I’m not shutting out stories that conflict with the accepted narrative. I love the real story that celebrates what deserves to be celebrated and criticizes what needs to be criticized. Checks and balances keep us on top, relevant and strong, right?

Director Adriana Maggs_{62a086d9-0419-e911-944c-0ad9f5e1f797}

On Ice: Goalie director and co-writer Adriana Maggs with Mark O’Brien on the ice in Sudbury, Ontario during production.