“If the work reaches an audience and is successful, there’s a ton of people who have played a part in that… I think it’s delusional to think that your success is solely a result of yourself.”
There aren’t many people who are as good at so many things as Michael McGowan. He’s a runner, with the 1995 Detroit Marathon title (he finished in 2:18:11) and two showings with Team Canada (including the 1992 World Cross Country Championships) under his bib. He’s also a writer, with a slew of articles (The Globe and Mail, Saturday Night, Toronto Life) two children’s books (Newton and the Giant and Newton and the Time Machine) and a children’s television show (Henry’s World) to his credit. Oh, and he’s a filmmaker (he wrote and directed the feature films My Dog Vincent, Saint Ralph, One Week, Score: A Hockey Musical and Still Mine).
More will be revealed throughout the course of this article, and certainly throughout the course of Michael’s life. But for now, I’ll just say that he’s incredibly multi-talented—and incredibly driven—and leave it at that. Because I want to take a time-out to focus on the last of his noted achievements: filmmaking.
I first heard of Michael when I saw his second feature film, Saint Ralph, at the 2004 Summer Institute of Film and Television (SIFT). I absolutely loved the movie. You can read the Saint Ralph review on my film blog for more on that, but in a nutshell, it was funny and charming and revolved around running, which I also love. It was right up my alley, and got me curious to know more about its creator. After reading Michael’s bio, I was all the more impressed to learn that, on top of being a great filmmaker, he’d been an extremely accomplished runner.
Fast-forward to 2013 and my most recent encounter with Michael. I’d seen one of the two films he’d made in the interim (One Week) and learned more about his varied career, which included teaching English and working as a journalist. The more I discovered about him, the more impressed I became. So I was pretty excited when this latest encounter brought me face to face with Michael.
It went like this: My short movie, Bliss, was chosen to screen before his latest film, Still Mine, at the 2013 Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF). You can also read about my experience at the fest, and the Still Mine review, on my blog. But the important things were that: I learned of even more great things about Michael, including his knack for carpentry, his commitment to Canadian film and his utter lack of pretence or attitude; and Still Mine is a wonderful film (it won the festival’s People’s Choice Award—and later that same weekend, picked up the Canadian Screen Award for Best Actor for its lead, James Cromwell).
Feeling out the course
It’s fair to say that my head has been spinning when thinking of how much Michael has accomplished. He seems to leap fearlessly from one thing to the next, and to excel at whatever he puts his mind to. Case in point: When asked why he decided to write his first children’s book, he says, “I just thought it would be an interesting challenge.” (That book, Newton and the Giant, went on to win the 2004 Silver Birch Award; his next book was nominated for it.)
In talking with Michael, it becomes clear that his wide range of interests was evident right from the start—even if he wasn’t always sure how to apply them. “I don’t think, as a kid, I really had any concrete notions of what I wanted to do,” he says. “(Writing and running), along with a lot of other stuff, were things that caught my attention. (But) I never thought about them as careers when I was young.”
Maybe he didn’t, but others did. The University of North Carolina recruited him for his running talents, so, after graduating St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, Ontario, he headed to the U.S. on an athletic scholarship. He spent his time there studying English and competing in “everything from 1,500m to 10,000m.” Then, when Michael graduated with a BA in 1989, he headed back to Canada, where he went to teacher’s college at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC) before returning to Toronto. But after a year of teaching English at his alma mater, St. Michael’s, he realized that he wanted to be a writer, and promptly dove into his career as a journalist.
Running down a dream
Michael also kept up his running, which paid off in spades when he won Detroit six years later. The winnings, he says, bought him another year in his pursuit of more creative writing. “I used it for the down payment on my land (in Mulmur, Ontario),” says Michael, who has since built up the property to house his production company, Mulmur Feed Co., not to mention his wife of more than 20 years, Shelagh McNulty, and their three children, Henry (14), Wiley (11) and Frances (9).
Michael hadn’t gotten into film and television when he bought the land in Mulmur, but his thoughts had already turned in that direction. It all started when he saw the movie Clerks in 1994. “I thought it was fairly accessible,” he says. “It seemed like a different way of making films, and one that I could sort of comprehend and thought I could maybe possibly do.”
So he did. The fact that he’d never before written for the screen didn’t phase Michael. He just sat down, applied the same discipline he used as a runner, and wrote the script for My Dog Vincent.
A friend of Michael’s who worked on Bay Street raised the money for the film ($150,000), and suddenly, they were off to the races. Michael hadn’t intended to helm the project, but it became clear that he was the best person for the job, so “I sort of ended up directing it, and then all of a sudden, you’re a filmmaker,” he says.
There he was, in 1997, the writer/director of a Canadian feature film. But as most newly minted filmmakers know, it’s not a steady gig. So Michael kept himself busy as a carpenter and journalist. And, with all that on the go, why not also create a stop-motion children’s television? He wrote Henry’s World, about a boy who has the ability to make his wishes come true, and Alliance Atlantis (now Alliance Films) happily picked it up and put it into production. By the second season, Michael had set up a stop-motion studio and was showrunning the project.
All the while, of course, Michael’s never-idle hands got busy writing the script for his next film, Saint Ralph. “I was already working for Alliance, so they produced Saint Ralph and it took off from there,” he says.
So far, the flight has entailed 2009’s One Week, 2010’s Score: A Hockey Musical (for which he also wrote most of the songs’ lyrics) and 2012’s Still Mine. Not to mention directing for several television shows, including Being Erica and Aaron Stone. Oh, and lots of running—“just to keep in shape,” he says, but you get the idea that he’s still remarkably fit.
Tapping the source
Looking at Michael’s films to date, they seem to serve as tributes to various periods of his life and his many pursuits. There’s the reluctant Catholic schoolboy, but devout runner, in Saint Ralph, the dissatisfied English teacher in One Week, the passionate hockey player in Score: A Hockey Musical (as a child, Michael was obsessed with the sport), the meticulous carpenter in Still Mine. Even the boy with the amazing ability to make his wishes come true in Henry’s World seems to intersect with Michael’s life. It’s hard to overlook the recurrence of strong male protagonists who fearlessly run down their dreams.
Yet when I mention this to Michael, he disagrees. “There certainly are some parallels, and I could certainly place some of the things in my life in the films,” he says. “But, I mean, with One Week, I didn’t motorcycle across the country, I didn’t have cancer. Or with Saint Ralph, I knew running and I knew the background of the world Ralph lived in, but it was 40 years or so before my time. And I grew up in a big family [Michael is the second of six children]; Ralph was an only kid. Still Mine is based on a true story. The fact that I knew the carpentry probably made it easier to tell, but that’s Craig Morrison’s story.
“So there are intersections with my life, and I’m always looking for a story that I can relate to, for sure. But (in choosing my projects), I don’t think, ‘This is me at this age or that age.’”
Still, Michael has no problem with people associating the films’ stories with his life. “I’m glad they feel personal, or that they feel like they could be my story, or part of my life,” he says. “I think that means that there’s a believability there, which you’re trying to achieve as a filmmaker.”
Riding it out
Michael’s ability to create such a personal connection between the audience and his movies is a big part of his success as a filmmaker. His work has garnered a lot of attention worldwide, and a number of awards. To name a few (that I haven’t already):
- Saint Ralph won Outstanding Achievement in Direction from the Directors Guild of Canada (2005) and the Paris Film Festival Grand Prix (2005), and was nominated for several 2005 Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Adam Butcher) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Campbell Scott and Gordon Pinsent).
- One Week took home the Best Feature prize at both the 2008 Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) and Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF), and earned its lead, Joshua Jackson, a Best Actor Genie Award.
- Score: A Hockey Musical was chosen to open the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), among many other festivals across Canada, and won the top prize at the 2010 Chicago International Music and Movies Festival (CIMMFest).
But although his achievements are mind-boggling, don’t think for a second that his success has gone to his head. After all, you have to keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times.
“Film is a roller coaster,” say Michael. “You get your highs and your lows in every film… I realize that you have to get lucky to be successful in anything, but especially in the arts. It didn’t come overnight for me. It was a struggle that, in hindsight, maybe appears easy, but it wasn’t, and there were a number of years where I didn’t think it would work. So, as a default, I appreciate and can enjoy the success and also maybe understand that it could be fleeting. I try to just focus on the work, and if the work reaches an audience and is successful, there’s a ton of people who have played a part in that, especially in film. I think it’s delusional to think that your success is solely a result of yourself.”
With that in mind, Michael’s approach to all his films is to “treat everybody the way you want to be treated.” The philosophy applies to the entire cast and crew, from grips and caterers, to A-List stars like James Cromwell, Geneviève Bujold, Gordon Pinsent, Campbell Scott, Joshua Jackson, Olivia Newton-John and Jennifer Tilly.
Staying the course
With Michael’s eclectic career path, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he veered off in another direction altogether one day. But it seems as if the filmmaker’s life suits him. “I like the cycle of it,” he says. “It’s nice to disappear for awhile and go and write and sort of live a fairly normal life, and then come out in the world and try to make the film and edit and promote it.”
He’s currently on the second half of that cycle, busily promoting Still Mine. Having already played in several film festivals, it’s slated for a special screening on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on April 17, 2013, hosted by Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore. After that, it goes on to open publicly in Canada, the U.S. and Australia in May.
Once Still Mine has been properly released into the world, Michael will go back to the deep well and come up with another story—one that’s “proudly Canadian,” as always, but also one that’s universal. “I’m proud of how (my films) have translated internationally,” says Michael. “That’s really important to me.”
So that seems to be that. Michael may have hung up his competitive running shoes, but he’s just getting started when it comes to flexing his many creative muscles. It’s been a great run so far. And fortunately for the rest of us, Michael is an endurance athlete.