Foreverland director Maxwell McGuire lives in the moment—and with the same disease as his film's hero
The first thing that strikes you about filmmaker Maxwell McGuire is how different he is from the lead character, Will, in his new feature, Foreverland. Sure, there are some similarities, major and trivial: both have the degenerative lung disease cystic fibrosis, and both obsessively make fresh pancakes for themselves every morning.
But Will, for the beginning of the movie, anyway, is caught in limbo. He sees no point in investing in a career or a relationship, and he’s so resigned to the fact that he’ll die young that he even spends time “test driving” coffins at the local undertaker’s. McGuire, on the other hand, is upbeat and animated, and he’s a busy working artist. When the Georgia Straight meets him at a West End café, he’s just spent the weekend hosting a charity screening, getting raffled off to the mother of a child with CF (“I tried to reassure her that I’m a fully functioning human being, so don’t worry”). Next, he’s headed to a TV interview before flying back to his home in Ottawa.
But McGuire has had darker times, and he drew on them when he penned Foreverland (which opens Friday [June 15]) with screenwriter Shawn Riopelle.
“I address myself as a post-Foreverland Will,” the 31-year-old jokes. “It’s so easy to potentially fall into saying: ‘It’s all futile.’ ”
McGuire found himself facing his mortality head-on in 2005. “I had lost the last living peer of the CFers we grew up with in the hospital, and my sister and I kind of looked around the room and said, ‘We’re the last two left’ and ‘Who’s next?’ ” says McGuire, who has an older sister with the inherited disease and a younger one without. “There was that, and also the doctors had showed me a chart showing that I had lost 20-percent lung function, just incrementally—one or two percent every few months. And you look at the chart and you see that and you think, ‘Holy crap, I’m no scientist, but you can’t have too many more two years like this—there won’t be anything left to do.’ I went, ‘I feel fine, I look fine, I still have a life, but is this how it happens? It slowly creeps up and it just ends?’ It made me wonder.
“With that wonderment came the other side of me, which is to deal with it with humour.…And so I joked, ‘Well, should I go buy my own casket?’ ”
Will’s morbid sense of humour, McGuire admits, was probably based on his thoughts at that time. “So Shawn and I worked on the script to build that into an arc, where he goes from this dark place where he learns to live, love, and hope again.”
From the outset, he and Riopelle knew they didn’t want to make a “disease movie”. They wanted it to be more about a 20ish guy deciding what he wants to do with his life, told through a road movie. In the film, Will travels with the sister of a friend (who has died of CF) to a healing shrine in Mexico. Because of Will’s disease, it’s the 21-year-old’s first trip away from home.
The other challenge for McGuire was that Foreverland would have to ring true for the large number of people with CF who were, inevitably, going to see it.
“I didn’t want to make a movie that glossed over the seriousness of it; I wanted to make something that resonated for my peers or my family,” McGuire says. “CF is such a personal disease. Every person with CF is going to watch it with their own scope. And if you haven’t experienced the dark side of CF, this movie could feel a bit alien.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Foreverland, other than its subject matter, is that it went so far from being the small, “shot in the back yard” project that McGuire first thought it would be. Once word got out about the project, the stars starting getting on board: aside from Max Thieriot as Will and Laurence Laboeuf as Hannah, Juliette Lewis signed on to do a cameo as a whacked-out aunt the pair visits on the road trip; Matt Frewer took the role of the undertaker; and massive Mexican star Demián Bichir would play a key part in scenes south of the U.S. border.
The shoot took place here on the West Coast, in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island (aside from the scenery, McGuire liked the metaphor of the ocean—the salt water, which plays on the famously salty skin of people with CF), and in Baja, Mexico. It would be gruelling for anyone, but McGuire knew he’d have to take special precautions.
“For my first student film, I lost 15 pounds and was borderline diabetic,” he says. “This time, I really took care of myself; I worked out a lot beforehand and knew I’d have weight to lose.” During the shoot, McGuire sacrificed his morning lung therapies to get extra sleep: “That’s how you stay fuelled.”
He made it through, and the movie is now set to open nationally. Not bad for someone who was born at a time when people with CF were never expected to live beyond their teens. McGuire’s parents found out he had the disease when he was two. The director credits his mother’s intuition; she was the one who knew something was wrong and insisted he be tested. He can’t remember whether or not it was the taste of his salty skin when she kissed him that prompted her, like it does Will’s mother in the flashbacks in Foreverland.
McGuire credits his relative longevity to working out and staying healthy, a supportive family, and just being “one of the lucky ones”.
Perhaps most amazingly, he has no regrets about his disease. Something about having CF, he insists, allowed him to pursue his dream of being a film director with his family’s full support. Unlike the protagonist in his new movie, he knows how to live for the day instead of preparing for the end.
“In my mind, everything is a gift: I’ve always said if I didn’t have CF, I’d never be doing this,” says McGuire, who has clearly gotten to a place that Will can’t see yet. “I get to do what I love to do.”
Fifth Avenue Cinemas will host a Q & A with Foreverland producers Christine Haebler and Trish Dolman, along with Vancouver actors Matt Frewer, Sarah Smyth, and Chris Shields, following the 7:15 p.m. screening on Friday (June 15).
Watch the trailer for Foreverland.