Documentary filmmaker Brigitte Berman jokes that the subject of her latest film, The River of Dreams: A Profile of Gordon Pinsent, is "more Canadian than maple syrup," but on second thought, she's not wrong about that.
The man himself, an icon of this country's stage and screen for over half a century, illustrates the point with an anecdote about going to see Blue Rodeo at Toronto's Massey Hall with his daughter, actor Leah Pinsent, just the week before.
"I went backstage, and in came Gordon Lightfoot, who I know, and then came Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip," recalls the native Newfoundlander in the familiar gruff voice of more recent years. "And suddenly, people were snapping their cameras like crazy, 'Look! The three Gords!'
"I was thrilled, and when I got home, I did a sketch of the three of us, and now I'm going to paint it. So that's the greatest thing that's happened to me in the past week. I've been feeling good about it ever since, the Meeting of the Gords."
One can just imagine the spirits of Front Page Challenge's Gordon Sinclair, Gordie (Mr. Hockey) Howe and recently departed Hee Haw star Gordie Tapp looking down in envy.
But as icons go, Pinsent is a most unassuming one. He tells tales to you like you've been friends forever, even if you've only just met. And the stories captured by Berman in her film are full of luck, pluck, triumph and loss, as a childhood love of make-believe forms the stream that becomes the titular river, flowing through our lives in films like The Rowdyman and John and the Missus, and TV series ranging from the 1960s' Forest Rangers and Quentin Durgens, M.P. to Due South and Republic of Doyle.
The River of Dreams: A Profile of Gordon Pinsent begins a weeklong run at Cineplex Park Lane Theatres in Halifax with a special presentation of the film Friday at 7 p.m. with Berman in attendance. The event, with a post-screening Q&A, is a co-presentation of the Lunenburg Doc Fest, First Weekend Club and Women in Film & Television-Atlantic.
An Academy Award-winner for her profile of a big band legend titled Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got, Berman felt like it was time for a Canadian subject after making films about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and enigmatic jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. At just the right moment, she and her late partner, Victor Solnicki, met up with Pinsent at a Toronto International Film Festival party in 2013, and immediately became wrapped up in the conversation.
"He just kept telling these incredible stories, and I was watching him and thinking, 'Wow, this is an incredible person!' And I was just ripe inside, looking for the subject of my next film, and it just clicked in my head," she says.
"I spoke to Victor afterwards, and asked him what he thought, and he agreed it would be a great idea. I rang Gordon up the next day, and it took a little while to convince him because he's very much a man of his own integrity, but after lots and lots of meetings and cups of coffee and pizzas, he said 'Yup, OK, I'm with you.' And it was an incredible journey."
It wasn't without a bit of goading. With a career that began onstage in the 1950s in Winnipeg and Toronto, continuing through Canadian TV in the 1960s with a sojourn in Hollywood toward the end of the decade, before creating his own projects like The Rowdyman and A Gift to Last in the 1970s, Pinsent already felt like he'd been profiled several times before.
And he wasn't sure there was room for another.
"The thing about lasting as long as I have in the business, I may have a lot of stories to tell, but having told them all, I feel a bit sheepish following my own pathway all the way through again," he explains.
"But thank God for Brigitte, because the people she's assembled here have put a new look on it, and let the chips fall where they may. It was not meant to be a work of expose, as it were, but they wanted to try out a few new things, and I thought they could include my paintings and other things that I've done. So I thought that maybe they could show me in a different light."
The film gets beyond the standard talking heads and clips format by utilizing motion-capture animation to recreate moments of his early life in Grand Falls, N.L., in the years before the island joined Confederation. The story is bolstered by Pinsent's own artwork and poetry to underscore events as he crosses the Cabot Strait to North Sydney as, essentially, an illegal alien at age 17, before winding up in Winnipeg with the Canadian Armed Forces, where he also takes his first steps onto the stage.
It's also where he has his first marriage, with two children, which he leaves behind to pursue his career in Ontario, eventually meeting the love of his life, actor Charmion King, with whom he stays until her death in 2007. In her approach to making the film, Berman divided up her interview sessions into two parts, dealing with Pinsent's work and career first, before delving into "the inner Gordon" and matters of family and friends, and love and loss.
"It's like peeling an onion. You want to get down to the inner layers, and you take your time doing that," she explains. "It's always very important that I gain the trust of the person that I'm interviewing, and it's not easy.
"Interviewing his son and daughter from his first marriage, and his daughter, Leah, as well, they were right there for me. Gordon was a little more hesitant, because this was very painful material for him, so Victor and I had a long talk with him on the phone the night before we began those interviews.
"He was a little bit nervous about it, but I took the time to talk it over, and talk about being the father who left, but also the father who managed to bring it all back together again, and how that shows an extra incredible layer of love on his part, which many fathers are not able to do. In fact, my father was not able to do that, and I shared that with him, and we talked about how he was able to show us that it is truly possible to come together and make the family unit work, and deal with the pain in a positive way."
As a creator who's drawn on his own family experiences for personal projects like the feature films The Rowdyman and John and the Missus, which he wrote and directed, Pinsent knows that getting into one's personal life can be "tricky territory ... it's not the most natural place to be."
But, at the same time, he recognizes the importance of having that well to draw on, in both his Newfoundland roots and his family circle, which he is happy to see brought together by the project.
"Oh, they've been pleased, it's a 'There he goes again ... ' kind of thing," he says with a throaty chuckle. "They were asked to say a few things in the film, and they were free to say whatever they wanted. That's fine, and if they didn't want to, that's OK, too. The main thing was for me to keep my nose out of that part of it, that's part of the journey, and it'll all add up to be, as Dylan Thomas used to say, like all the Christmases rolling together into one great big ball at the water's edge.
"The same will be true of all the aspects of this career, I guess, and this documentary will become part of all of that. I feel as though I've got a route that I can follow in my memory, as to how I spent my life, misplaced or otherwise."