TORONTO — When documentary makers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont were asked to do a film on life partners Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, it was meant to be a celebration marking the authors’ milestone birthdays.
Gibson was turning 85 on Aug. 9, 2019, Atwood will be 80 on Nov. 18, and two of the writers’ close friends suggested a piece about their relationship and their contributions to Canadian culture and literature.
“That was something that Margaret really wanted, too,” Raymont said in an interview at the office of his Toronto-based production company, White Pine Pictures.
“Margaret knew that Graeme wasn’t going to be with us too much longer. He had dementia and that had been reported and announced, so she really wanted the film to be about the both of them.
“Little did we know that we captured the last year, really, of Graeme’s life.”
They also didn’t expect whirlwind that would precede the film’s release.
In theatres Friday in Hamilton and Waterloo, Ont. — with more cities to follow — “Margaret Atwood: A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power” comes less than two months after Gibson’s death on Sept. 18. He died in London after suffering a severe stroke.
As Atwood copes with the loss, she’s also busy with “The Testaments,” which recently co-won the Booker Prize and is a sequel to her acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The new doc details her life and illustrious career as well as that of Gibson, whom she met at a party at Toronto’s Grossman’s Tavern in 1969, where they gushed over each other’s work.
Their relationship took off when Gibson did a photoshoot with Atwood for his early 1970s book “Eleven Canadian Novelists” and became mesmerized.
“In the film he talks about that moment where he looked through the lens and he saw these eyes and this beautiful woman and he fell in love,” said Raymont, who won an Emmy Award in 2007 for “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire.”
“It’s kind of a love story between Margaret and Graeme.”
Lang and Raymont, who co-directed and co-produced the doc, said they didn’t know Atwood before embarking on the project in the summer of 2017 and were “rather intimidated” by her before cameras rolled.
“The only thing we knew was that in some of her interviews she didn’t suffer fools, so it only made us a bit more apprehensive,” Lang said with a laugh.
“But she was so kind to us and generous. Graeme was as well.”
Lang, whose previous docs include the award-winning “West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson,” re-read some of Atwood’s books and pored over her archives at the University of Toronto.
The filmmakers also used archival video footage from the National Film Board of Canada, which gave rich insight into Ottawa-born Atwood’s childhood, when her family gave her the nickname “Peggy” to differentiate her from her mother, who was also named Margaret.
Another gold mine: About 14 boxes of personal items Atwood had in the basement of her Toronto home, which she let them search through.
“She’s a pack rat,” Raymont said with a laugh. “Fortunately, for filmmakers and biographers and others, she kept all this stuff.”
The filmmakers travelled with Atwood and Gibson around the world to various literary, environmental and social events.
Cameras captured the two in some sweet moments — holding hands, teasing each other and bonding over a mutal love of nature and literary causes.
“I asked him once what keeps her going and he said that she feels she has a mission, that she has a role now to alert people and keep certain subjects and conversation out there, and especially to engage with young people,” said Lang.
“That was what we were surprised at in various events we went to. You’d think an 80-year-old woman would attract a certain demographic, but she attracts all ages and particularly young people.”
The filmmakers said they were also surprised to discover Atwood’s “delightful sense of humour.”
“Everyone knows that she’s brilliant and intelligent and whip smart, and this dystopian sensibility that she brings to her writing,” said Raymont.
“But her sense of fun and her playfulness, we hope it comes out in the film. She’s just a delight and a lot of fun to be with.”
Interviewees in the film include “The Handmaid’s Tale” series star Elisabeth Moss, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, artist Charles Pachter, and “Alias Grace” series director Sarah Polley.
The film will also air on various CBC platforms, including “CBC Docs POV” on Nov. 14. It’s been sold to nine countries so far, including to Hulu in the U.S.
Lang said she’s concluded that Atwood is a “philosopher queen.”
“She’s not just a writer; she’s a very, very deep thinker and reflects on what’s happened in past history in order to better understand what’s happening now,” Lang said.
She’s also as just relevant today as she was early in her career, added Raymont, pointing to Atwood’s prolific presence on Twitter and the huge success of “The Handmaid’s Tale” series.
“She always seems to be at the cutting edge of things,” he said.
“Boy, if I or you or any of us could be as sharp and as with it as that when we’re that age, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2019.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press