Filmmaker Michael McGowan brings “All My Puny Sorrows,” his adaptation of beloved writer Miriam Toews’ novel, to the Toronto International Film Festival. The book, which McGowan adapted for the screen, tackles family bonds, religion, grief and suicide. The film stars Alison Pill, a writer dealing with a creative block, a divorce and a teenage daughter, her successful but suicidal concert pianist sister (Sarah Gadon), their mom (Mare Winningham) and the remains of their Mennonite upbringing and dad’s suicide. Despite the heavy themes, there’s love, hope and lots of black humor threaded throughout the film, and strong performances from the three leads, obviously relishing the act of bring these complicated characters to the screen.
What attracted you to this story?
I was taken by an examination of reasons for committing suicide, and wanting to die. I hadn’t seen that examination before, and I think it’s three roles that I thought would make for great cinema. And in the process of trying to adapt the book it just felt like this could universal and it just has the potential for these great performances.
Was Miriam involved in the film at all?
She was very encouraging and, you know, she was fantastic throughout the whole process and so I felt like I wouldn’t have gone ahead with it if she wasn’t supportive of the adaptation. she was supportive throughout the whole process from the beginning, allowing me to option the novel to reading drafts and talking about the struggle of trying to adapt, having conversations the actors, giving us ideas for set design and just generally being sort of a great supporter of the whole process.
Do you have any experience with the Mennonite community?
No, but I think that this idea of prevalence of religion over society — I mean, I grew up Catholic in a big Catholic family and I could relate to it from that point of view. I went to Catholic grade school and high school so you do sort of understand the universality of religious effect on a community and personally.
What about the humor in the film?
I think I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for the humor, but that really was a function of the novel and I can carry that through. Because in a strange way, I think the film is uplifting, even though it goes to places are probably not uplifting.[It’s] also really a shorthand for the language between the two [sisters], and even in the most raw desperate times, they can find … a language of humor. It’s almost a release and I think that was one of the beautiful things about the novel. Even in the editing process, there was never trying to be a joke for the sake of a joke — this is not that type of story —and just always making sure that that it felt like the language that the three characters [would use]. It’s what makes them so close.
Suicide is a tough subject.
I think that’s what is really what attracted me to the novel is because it came out of the truth of life, and it was presented with empathy, and in a way that I hadn’t really seen before, and especially during a pandemic with everything that’s going on it just feels more relatable. That was an interesting thing to examine cinematically.