Pirate’s Passage took Sutherland back to his Nova Scotia youth
TORONTO — It was Matthew McConaughey and a long chain of acquaintances who brought Donald Sutherland to his new passion project, Pirate’s Passage, which he says captures his youth in Nova Scotia.
The animated film, debuting Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV, is based on the Governor General’s Literary Awardwinning novel by William Gilkerson of Mahone Bay, N.S.
Sutherland, who produced, co-wrote and voiced the lead character for the film, says he hadn’t heard of the book until he was in Australia making the 2008 film Fool’s Gold with McConaughey.
“When I met him he was there with a brown-paper-wrapped book and he said, ‘A fella I know knows a fella who knows another fella who knew a fella who was the son of another fella in Nova Scotia, and a friend of his gave him this book to give me to give to you,’” said Sutherland, 79.
“So I took it from Matthew and I said, ‘Thank you.’ I had nothing to do that night because my wife was not yet in Australia, so I read it and I read it again and I phoned Bill in Nova Scotia — it’s not something that I do — and I said, ‘Certainly I don’t read books twice.’ I was in love with it,” said Sutherland.
Set in 1952 Grey Rocks, N.S., the story follows 12-year-old Jim (Gage Munroe), who suffers from bullying in school and the worry that the inn his widowed mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) is struggling to maintain will be bought out by a rich and powerful local family. Enter Captain Charles Johnson (Sutherland), a mysterious seaman who comes ashore in the town that was once a favoured port of pirates to help Jim and his mom. Other actors voicing characters in the story include Paul Gross, Gordon Pinsent, Megan Follows, Colm Feore and Sutherland’s actor-son Rossif.
“It captured everything about my youth,” said Sutherland, a two-time Golden Globe Award winner who was born in Saint John, N.B., and also grew up in Nova Scotia.
“It captured everything about what I thought Canada was about, what I thought the CBC was about.”
Sutherland recalled listening to the CBC Radio show Jake and the Kid while driving home from his job as a teenage news correspondent at a radio station in Bridgewater, N.S.
“I wouldn’t go home,” he said. “I would sit there every Sunday night and listen to Jake and the Kid, and this Pirate’s Passage, for me, captured that — captured the desire to participate in that kind of dream, of our country, of that province, of our hopes, of our belief in the future, and it was perfect for me.”
The story also touched on Sutherland’s love of sailing, which he did when he was younger — albeit not very well, he admitted.
“I nearly drowned a bunch of times,” he said, recalling one particular incident off Lunenburg. “I was out on a little 16-foot Lightning (sailing dinghy) and the fog came down. I had no idea which way was England and which was Nova Scotia, and there are 365 islands there. It was tricky but I got home.”
When Sutherland moved to California for his career that has seen him star in films including Dirty Dozen and MASH, he “hated it,” he admitted.
“I hated seeing the sun sink into the sea every night and die,” said Sutherland. “I kept having dreams about lying on a gurney in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles thinking my life was a complete failure because that’s where I was dying. I had to be close to the ocean on the east coast, so I left California.
“I had to be in the United States because I’m a green card holder, but I looked at Maine, I looked at New Hampshire, every place, and then I looked at Miami Beach and it was the same ocean, it was just a little warmer, so I went there.”
Pirate’s Passage is rich in Canadian history and has the same artistic feel of the book’s illustrations. Sutherland said though the story is about pirates from the 18th century, it also points to pirates from today who are “called ‘gentlemen.’ They’re capitalists but they’re pirates.”
He hopes families will watch it together and “that it will be a catalyst that will say: ‘ This is maybe a Canada that I forgot about.’”
“People in Canada, we’ve lost something, we’ve lost something, and I hate that we’ve lost it,” said Sutherland. “This maybe will remind people of why our country is so important and that we cannot try to become a clone of some other country.
“We have to be who we are, and who we are is who we were, not who we are now.”