Editor’s Notes: The following interview is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
After losing a leg to cancer at the age of twelve, Steve Fonyo was inspired by Terry Fox and in 1985, at twenty years old, Fonyo completed his own run across Canada. Nonetheless hampered by the shadow of Terry Fox, his feat went well recognized in its own right. For his endeavor he was given the Order of Canada.
Throughout the years Fonyo found himself in trouble with law that included assault and fraud. Unfortunately, his repeated offences caused him to lose the Order of Canada. The Alan Zweig’s film paints the life of someone who’s had his fare share of bad luck and continual deals with the consequences of self-sabotaging decisions. I recently had the honor of interviewing Steve Fonyo and Alan Zweig about their documentary, Hurt. (You can read my review of the film here).
Jacqueline: I saw you complete that run on television. Do you remember that day?
Steve Fonyo: I remember pretty much everything.
Jacqueline: Have you thought of doing something like that again?
Steve Fonyo: No way. No thanks. * laughs * I took the bus down here and for three days steady on the bus. I’m looking out the window and thinking it was unbelievable that I did that. It’s a really long way!
Jacqueline: How did you feel about all this attention you’re getting now?
Steve Fonyo: It feels good. No problem.
Jacqueline: Is there anything you’d like to do different now with your life?
Steve Fonyo: Well, considering what happened, life is like that. You learn and you move on. You see that you’ve made mistakes.
Jacqueline: How are you right now?
Steve Fonyo: I’m still recovering. My voice has been affected. It’s the main thing I’m working on. I’m getting better, but that will take a full year.
Jacqueline: How was it for you seeing yourself on the big screen?
Steve Fonyo: It was a little weird to see myself on screen. The first time I saw it was last night. It’s a little weird to see yourself up there. The stupid mistakes I did and thinking I said that. The stuff I said. I don’t know. You look at it and you learn from it.
Jacqueline: Do you think about losing that Order of Canada?
Steve Fonyo: At this point, I’d rather not get it back. What if I make another mistake? Are they going to take it away again? And I’m not perfect or think I am, but you know what I mean, it’s dumb.
Jacqueline: Anything you want to work on now?
Steve Fonyo: Putting my house together. Get my voice back. But that’s about it.
Jacqueline: You like a nice simple life.
Steve Fonyo: I do. I have a great girlfriend and I love her. Despite ups and downs she’s still here and I still got her.
Jacqueline: What brought you to Steve Fonyo’s story?
Alan Zweig: I can’t remember which happened first. I read an article about him. The writer painted a nice, kind of sad, but not too sad story. Then a friend of mine pointed out to me that he lost the Order of Canada. I couldn’t get that out of my head because I had read enough to know that his life for the past twenty-five years had not been easy. Then to have the government come in and say, “We officially declare that we don’t like you anymore.” They had every right to do so by the terms that the Order of Canada has. It’s not like a medal, or a medal of freedom, where he did something amazing and he was given a medal. The Order of Canada is an order; it’s a club.
I can’t overstate how much the fact that the story had the bones of a good fictional story. It would be a good Canadian film noir or a pulp fiction. It’s the kind of fiction I grew up on.
There are a lot of movies that you see that say they’re based on a true story. If the right things happen then I can tell a great sad story.
Jacqueline: What was your biggest challenge working on this film?
Alan Zweig: My biggest challenge simply was that we were going to be there and shoot for 20 days. We sort of decided the way the money came in we decided we would go every three months. I guess the biggest challenge there was in hoping that when we went that enough would happen that there’d be a story.
Jacqueline: Just talking to Steve I find that he’s really open about himself. It was almost like we were having a therapy session at times. Did you find that happen while making the film?
Alan Zweig: I didn’t feel like it was like therapy. In some ways it’s because the guy could really use some therapy and I didn’t really change him.
A lot of friends have this experience where their friends suddenly have a psychotic break. It takes them a while to realize they’re probably out of their minds and they should take them to the clinic right now. But for a little while they’re talking about being psychic, messages from outer space, and you’re thinking, “I can talk him out of this. That’s silly talking about you being psychic.” If you’re a talker and an arguer you think you can talk people out of their craziness, but you can’t.
I know there were times I was talking to Steve that I thought, “Hey jerk!” It’s not like I can find the perfect metaphor to describe how bad his decision was. It’s not really going to help, like saying, “Think of it this way.” Then all of a sudden he’d get it. No. That’s not how it works.
Jacqueline: I just love his reaction of watching himself on screen and saying, “I can’t believe I said that!”
Alan Zweig: I hope he remembers that next time he’s about to say something again!
Jacqueline: * laughs * Most of your films are very personal. They’re either about something that interests you or they’re about you. Did you find yourself learning something about yourself while making Hurt?
Alan Zweig: Well, a bit. I related to Steve and his problems right from the beginning. That’s why I made the film. Though my life when it wasn’t working out wasn’t working out as badly, for me it was bad. It felt horrible and tragic. I know what it’s like to have things not work out for a really long time and be pretty convinced that there’s something somebody didn’t tell you. Why do they tell us the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? That story ends with a boy saying, “You don’t have any clothes on.” And the epilogue would be, “All the townspeople stoned him to death.” They don’t tell you anything beyond that.
All this encouragement to go out on your own, be independent, make something of yourself, but you’re going to be a very lucky person who gets to do that and succeeds.
I didn’t really make the film in order to spike sympathy for Steve. I feel sympathy for him. I just thought I am going to show as much as I can in order to allow you to feel genuinely sympathetic rather than being manipulated into sympathy.
In spite of that, there’s a certain point when I thought, Canadian documentaries in particular, but documentaries in general about a guy on the bottom are about redemption. I can see there isn’t going to be redemption in this film and in the end on an opposite note of redemption. Can you enjoy this film that has no redemption if you don’t feel sympathy for him? That was a big fear of mine. Why am I showing him saying these things? Why am I showing him losing his shit, especially if I’m worried if the audience won’t feel sympathy for him? I gambled with that. I included something about the run, something about the past, about the courage he showed running through the Prairies in the winter, et cetera, would slightly mitigate the negative feelings the audience would have against him.
To be honest, I think it worked. Had I known it was going to work that well I might have pulled back on it a little bit.