I used my father’s giant LaserJet to make copies of the screenplay for How Heavy This Hammer. It was back in 2012, before the Canada Council for the Arts went paperless and they still required you to box up and mail out five copies of your application and support material. Carelessly, I left the files on my father’s desktop. He called me a few days later to say, “This film is about me, isn’t it?” I couldn’t deny it. Details were taken from his life—most glaringly, the rugby and video game. But while there are details that parallel his life, to say the film is about him would be false. What it is is a meeting point between us. The video game Erwin plays in Hammer is based on a video game to which I was addicted, and which I introduced to my father. It’s an addiction we shared. I was in my late 20s; my father in his 60s; and Erwin… in his mid 40s. I wanted to portray a character who was large and imposing, but also vulnerable. And who is bigger and more imposing than one’s father?
By the time we began production, my dad was fully on board. In fact, he was helping us find actors. I wanted to find an actor with a large physical presence. It was crucial that he was a believable rugby player. At callback, we had actors screen test on a rugby field with my dad, who tested them with training drills, teaching actors how to ruck and maul. Erwin Van Cotthem, who came to star in the film, was there that day playing rugby. My father was not an actor, and definitely no cinephile. Nor was he innately introspective like me. For him to trust and participate in a creative process so outside his comfort zone meant so much to me. It’s a special memory for me, and one which I hold onto, because three months later, he passed away.
When my father began to approach old age, I feared he would die of a heart attack. He was a large man who played full contact rugby. Every doctor who spoke to him advised him against playing, for fear he would collapse on the field. But instead, my father died of cancer. A rare, highly malignant form that acted swiftly and took his life before my family or I could process it. I felt unable to continue with production of How Heavy This Hammer, and postponed the shoot. I wasn’t sure if I could still make the film. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted be a filmmaker.
When we returned to production in 2014 it was a strange process. All Erwin’s scenes at the computer were filmed in my dad’s office, on the same computer used to print the scripts. Many of the players on the field in the rugby scenes used to play with my dad. Erwin is an unlikeable character, somewhat based on my father, but I made this film at a time when I loved my father more than ever. His courage to help me make the film after reading the screenplay and knowing it was about him gave me the confidence to want to make it after his passing. It is a film about a frustrating character who some may call unlikeable. But it is not a film about cause and effect, nor a simple portrait of someone behaving incorrectly. It’s a character I relate to, and whom I find painfully human. While it’s not a prerequisite to know any of these biographical details while watching the film, I hope they set the stage for a more generous reading of Erwin.