TIFF 2021: Director Michael Mcgowan On All My Puny Sorrows

DGC Ontario Director Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ beloved novel All My Puny Sorrows will premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th, 2021. Revolving around the women of the Von Riesen clan as they confront grief and trauma, we follow former Mennonite sisters Yoli (Alison Pill) and Elf (Sarah Gadon) as they attempt to navigate their great love for each other despite their own separate inner demons.

Revolving around the women of the Von Riesen clan as they confront grief and trauma, we follow former Mennonite sisters Yoli (Alison Pill) and Elf (Sarah Gadon) as they attempt to navigate their great love for each other despite their own separate inner demons. 

Ahead of the premiere of All My Puny Sorrows at TIFF 2021, we spoke with Director Michael McGowan about adapting a bestselling novel to film, telling Canadian stories, his collaborations with the post-production team, and more. 

Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in All My Puny Sorrows
Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in All My Puny Sorrows

How does it feel to have your film premiere at TIFF 2021?

Michael McGowan: The festival has been very kind to me over the years. Starting with Saint Ralph in 2004, this is my fifth film at the festival. I couldn’t ask for a better place to debut the film and given the source material, it feels like the natural place to premiere. That there will be (fingers crossed!) larger in-person audiences this year makes it even better.

Can you tell us more about the process of adapting Miriam Toews’ bestselling novel to a film?

MM: I thought it would be easy to write given how rich the story was and then I got completely stuck in trying to adapt it. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that made sense. I was ready to let the option lapse but went out to dinner with Miriam to basically apologize for optioning it in the first place and during the course of that dinner, through admitting my failure, figured out a thematic idea that made sense and then the writing was fairly quick after that. 

What makes “All My Puny Sorrows” a uniquely Canadian story?

I don’t know if it is actually a Canadian story (maybe the humour that was unique in the novel for such a potentially bleak subject) but instead a unique examination of suffering that Miriam beautifully portrayed because it came out of her lived experiences. 

Can you tell us more about the creative collaborations between you and the post-production team?

On the editorial side, I have worked with Michelle Szemberg and Orlee Buium for years so it was great that they were available and such good friends and could co-edit seamlessly. We were in a little editing bubble for most of the winter and I think the insular nature of the working environment really helped with shaping the film. For sound, I have worked with Jane Tattersall and Lou Solakofski and their team for almost twenty years on various film and television projects. We have a shorthand for working together and they understand my sensibilities. They also happen to be incredible at what they do. For example, this was the first time we did ADR remotely and post-COVID I don’t think I would do it any differently as it’s a much better process having the dialogue editor (in this case Martin Gwynn Jones) essentially run the session and I could weigh in occasionally. With the mix, watching Lou and Joe Morrow fix problems and shape the film and serve as the final gatekeepers and QC is such a luxury. 

What do you love most about working in Toronto/Ontario?

Well, this is for the DGC, so I’d have to say our crews! There is such a level of professionalism but also a passion for trying to make something special. We had a number of people on our crew who had been working on big American projects and All My Puny Sorrows was a much smaller production. That they could pivot so seamlessly without and work without all of the extras that they were used to because they believed in the project was incredible. There was never a sense of grudgingly doing a job but instead embracing the challenge of trying to make a great film in a much, much cheaper (and quicker!) way.

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