At this point, it kind of goes without saying that Paul Gross looks good in a uniform. The World War I drama Passchendaele, which has been selected as the Opening Gala at the Toronto International Film Festival, finds the 49-year-old Calgary native trading in his iconic Due South getup for military duds. Not to mention several hats: Gross wrote, directed and stars as Michael Dunne, a Canadian soldier who is wounded in battle overseas. Sent home to convalesce, he becomes involved with his nurse, Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). But this Hemingway-esque idyll is short-lived. The film returns to the battlefield, more specifically to the muddy swath in Belgium that played host to one of the most brutal-and crucial-clashes of the entire war.
Passchendaele is based on your grandfather’s experiences in World War I. Is the romance between Michael and Sarah similarly grounded in reality?
“The love affair is entirely fictitious. My parents had their 50th anniversary a few weeks ago, and I found out that my grandfather’s daughters had been quite concerned that I had inside information or something. They asked me, ‘Did our father have a long-standing affair with a German nurse?’ I said, ‘Well, not to my knowledge, but I suppose he could have….’”
Did you develop the love story to reach female viewers?
“I don’t know if that was conscious. I was sketching out scenes 12 or 13 years ago, with no real sense that I’d be making the movie anytime soon. There was a long, leisurely evolutionary period where I slowly started realizing that the story was condensing around a romance. That seemed to be in keeping with where I wanted the film to go, which was away from being a history lesson and toward being about the casualties of war on a domestic level. But I also knew that the film had to get out of Canada and see the full scale of what these guys endured. So I think both of these elements worked side by side.”
How significantly did your grandfather’s stories affect you as a teenager?
“They totally reframed my thinking. My father was in the army, and his war was Korea. I grew up on military bases. I was surrounded by all things military most of my life. I wasn’t thinking seriously about these matters at 15. So my grandfather’s story was one of those hinge moments in your life where a door swings open. I think what it opened on to was adulthood. My grandfather didn’t have an easy time of it when he came back from the war. It marked him. One particular event he told me about, where he bayoneted a young kid in the head, shaped the rest of his life.”
How would your grandfather feel knowing that his experiences were the basis for this film?
“I think that for someone like him, it might have been liberating to know that people were paying attention to what had happened. By the time soldiers were returning home from the war, the rest of the world had leaped ahead into another era-flappers, fun and frivolity. There was no counselling for men like him; they had to pick up the pieces on their own. And he wasn’t unique: There were 620,000 of these guys – almost a tenth of the population at the time. The cut through society was enormous, and society sort of turned its back. It seems like we do that at the end of every war.”
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Image from Passchendaele courtesy of Alliance Films
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