By Jim Slotek
Birds want to swim, fish want to fly, and many documentarians secretly want to make dramatic features.
Peter Lynch has spent most of his career making docs with a signature quirkiness, his most famous being 1997’s Project Grizzly, about Troy James Hurtubise’s attempt to create a bear-proof suit. (The movie got the ultimate pop culture thumbs-up when it was spoofed on The Simpsons).
But very quietly, Lynch has let go of the genre. His last outright doc was a segment of the NFB’s National Parks Project in 2011. Since then, he has devoted himself almost entirely to movie scripts, making shorts, and producing and directing a noir murder film called Birdland. The movie, which opens this week, gets a Directors Guild of Canada gala launch at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Tuesday, Jan. 23, with a Q&A moderated by Atom Egoyan.
Birdland stars Kathleen Munroe (Resurrection, Call Me Fitz) as an ex-cop who’s being interrogated, while her ornithologist husband, played by David Alpay (Ararat) sits in jail accused of one or more murders. Also connected: a corrupt oil mogul (Stephen McHattie) and his eco-activist daughter (Melanie Scrofano).
We talked to Lynch in his West End Toronto home.
ORIGINAL-CIN: Why, at this late date in your career, did you decide to make your first dramatic feature?
PETER LYNCH: “It’s partly because, in this country it’s getting harder to make documentaries. But I started to look at my characters in my documentaries as actors, with a sort of a performance, like dancers and actors in a play doing things on my canvas.
“What I’ve learned with docs is that everybody lies. Everybody conceals, everybody is only prepared to reveal certain parts of themselves, and you’re always looking to break through for that moment of truth. So why not make a drama?
“The thing with a drama is it’s just a blank page – and that’s humbling and terrifying and exhilarating.”
OC: The fact that Paul Quarrington (the late Governor-General Award-winning writer/musician) has a (story editing) credit in this film says something about how long it’s been in the works. He died in 2010.
LYNCH: “It goes back farther than that. I was in Montreal just before 2000, and I was sitting in a café on Saint Catherines waiting for a meeting. And I saw a woman go by who was like an apparition of a woman I’d gone out with about 10 years previous to that, who had committed suicide.
“It was very compelling. I wanted to get up and follow her. It was almost like this sex-and-death charge. So, on the way back on the train I wrote a short story. I told this other writer Lee Gowan about the story, and he said, 'Let’s turn it into a short film.'
“We kept showing (the story) to people, and everybody was like, ‘This is a feature!’ So we wrote it into a feature and Paul was going to be the story editor on it. And then sadly, he died.”
“He had written these bullet points, like to shoot it in New Orleans with a Toronto ornithologist who goes down there looking for the extinct ivory billed woodpecker.”
OC: That all got changed, it’s now clearly set in Toronto. But the husband is still an ornithologist surrounded by dead birds.
LYNCH: “The bird motif. For some reason, every film I’ve made has some kind of animal in it. And I don’t even consciously start out that way. If you think of The Herd or Project Grizzly, or this film called Animal Nightmares, or Whale of a Tale… Arrowhead had a mythic mastodon.
“I guess I’m interested in that primordial state of us being animals. Also, birds represent the fragility of existence, the canary in the coalmine. And they’re known mythically as messengers from the underworld, moving between worlds.”
OC: The element of surveillance runs through the movie (Hood had cameras in her bedroom to try and catch her husband in an affair).
LYNCH: “I wanted to blur the lines between the surveilled world and consciousness. In the interrogation part of the story, she’s being interrogated based on her own surveillance of her marriage, and her own footage becomes evidence against her husband. But it also raises questions about who she is.”
“I’m very interested in that terrain where people present themselves as what they prefer you to see them as. That’s the thing with noirs. They’re not so much gumshoes and detective stories as they are psychological portraits.”
OC: So now that you’re a dramatic filmmaker, what’s next?
LYNCH: “I’ve got three or four projects. – one is based on Paul Quarrington’s Galveston, which is about storm chasers. We’re in the stage of trying to attach a cast to it.
“And I started shooting an experimental jazz movie with Bruce McDonald, which is called A Love Supreme. It’s based on a book that’s a love letter to Little Italy where both Bruce and I lived. It’s about a guy who has a midlife crisis and he’s a music writer and he decides to write the great jazz novel about Mingus, Monk and Coltrane. And as he moves on to John Coltrane, he has a crush on a neighbour that he doesn’t act on. It’s this expressionistic portrait of Little Italy though this meditation on Coltrane.”
OC: How do you feel about me calling your style Lynchian? (As in David).
LYNCH: “It’s flattering, but I have to tread lightly with that adjective. He sort of dominates the brand.”
Birdland. Directed by Peter Lynch. Starring Kathleen Munroe, David Alpay and Stephen McHattie. Opens Friday, Jan. 26 at the Imagine Cinemas Carlton.
FIVE OF PETER LYNCH’S FAVOURITE NOIR FILMS AND LINES
5. The Third Man (Carol Reed) - “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”