“I don’t want to die alone. I don’t want you to die at all.” This concept of life and death is the conflicting dynamic in All My Puny Sorrows. Directed by Michael McGowan (Still Mine), the film chronicles the relationship between two sisters: Struggling writer Yoli, played by Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), and concert pianist Elf, played by Sarah Gadon (Alias Grace). Their sisterly bond is put to the test when Elf fixates on ending her life, forcing Yoli to contemplate this stunning revelation as her life slowly starts to crumble around her.
Based on Miriam Toews’ international best-selling novel, All My Puny Sorrows is an authentic examination of the inner workings of a family struggling to overcome tragedy. The film’s use of dry humor to offset sensitive subjects like suicide, mental health, and depression injects a unique viewpoint into a tragic story. Digital Trends spoke with Gadon and McGowan about their relationships with Toews, the challenges of exploring controversial topics, their strong chemistry with Pill, and the absurd humor of life.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: How did you first come into contact with this project? Did you read the novel beforehand?
Sarah Gadon: Oh, yeah. I was a big fan of Miriam’s work before I signed on to do the project, and when Mike sent me the screenplay, I thought to myself, “Wow. I can’t even imagine how he was able to distill this novel into a film.” But when I read the script, I was moved to tears. And I just thought this is such a beautiful story. The relationship between Yoli and Elf is so beautiful. I have to be a part of this film.
Michael McGowan: Well, I just read the book. I mean, I’m a big fan of Miriam’s, and I just read it because I was interested in it. Then, my wife read it as well, and she was the one that said, “I think it’d make a good film.” I was like, “I don’t know.” I sort of sat on it for a while and then I realized there were three great roles. So then I contacted Miriam and sort of began the process that way.
The book is a novel, but it’s based on real events that happened in Miriam’s life. It’s very autobiographical. Did you feel this added pressure to tell as authentic a story as possible?
Sarah Gadon: Well, yeah, of course. But also, I think as an actor, when you’re playing a real-life person or you’re exploring something as controversial and common as depression or suicide, you feel a tremendous responsibility to accurately represent that state of being. And so often we see portrayals of depression that are very kind of one-dimensional, you know, just someone who’s sad, who’s on the couch, who can’t get out of bed. But one thing that really resonated with me when I talked to Miriam was that her sister was funny and creative and hid her depression very well at times. She was so dynamic. That was one of the things that I really kept pushing to Mike that she’s allowed to laugh. She is allowed moments of levity. She doesn’t have to just be this one-note all throughout the movie. she has to really go on her own journey and advocate for her own goals and wants, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.
Michael McGowan: Maybe. But, I felt like it was a beloved, best-selling book that I didn’t want to screw up that way. I felt like people had fairly strong opinions about it [the novel], and loved it. But, you also can’t really think that way. I mean, you just try to go, okay, here’s the puzzle. Let’s see what I can do, and hopefully, I can do a good job and then go down that road and either succeed or fail.
What role did Miriam play in the development of the film? Were you able to speak with her throughout this process and bounce ideas off of her?
Sarah Gadon: I felt a tremendous amount of imposter syndrome because not only is it a very difficult character to play but the character is based on Miriam’s real-life sister, who is no longer with us. So I was actually pretty spun out when it came time to shoot the movie. And luckily, Miriam and I live in the same city. And I reached out to her and she offered to meet up with me and chat about her sister and her family. I’ve done a number of adaptations. It’s so interesting when you meet authors because you never really know who or what you’re going to get because I think a lot of authors kind of have these personas where they deflect a lot. So I was kind of thinking that I don’t know who the hell I’m going to meet.
Then, we met and she was so open and generous and just talked to me for hours about her family, father, and sister. By the end of our time together, I really felt like I had a better grasp of what I was going on to do, and a lot of the questions that were unanswered felt answered for me. I came away from that meeting with a grounded kind of confidence to go on and take it on.
Michael McGowan: She was really supportive. I asked if she wanted to write it with me. She’s like, “Listen, I’ve done the book. I don’t want to go back to that place. I’m working on other stuff.” She read drafts and was incredibly supportive. All the actors talked to her. Our heads of department talked to her. We were keeping her updated on the filming. She would have come to see it, but because of the pandemic and her mother, it just wasn’t the right time to do it. She came to the screening at TIFF. I had dinner with her a couple of weeks ago. She’s just been a great supporter of the film throughout the whole process.
What really stood out about this film is the amount of humor used to tackle tough and sensitive subjects like suicide, mental health, depression, and grief. Did you find any challenges when it came to balancing humor with some of those aforementioned subjects?
Michael McGowan: Not really. I mean, it was one of the things that really attracted me to the novel was the humor… this idea that you can juxtapose sort of humor and, you know, a darker subject matter. As I said, it [the humor] was there in the novel. In editing, it was really just a matter of “is it too much of a juxtaposition. Does it work?” It’s just that balance of everything that you sort of throw against the wall when you’re editing.
For example, that scene where [Yoli] freaks out in the parking lot. The tag is when Yoli says she had trouble parking to her mother. That’s probably one of the biggest laughs that we’ve seen. Yet, we really had to wrestle and intellectualize. Are we just playing that for a joke, or what’s the point of that scene? The point is that if we didn’t have her self-awareness at the end, I think people would wonder whether Yoli is losing her mind as well. So it always served a purpose rather than just, “Okay, here’s a joke.” We try to make it feel germane to the world that we were creating.
Sarah Gadon: Well, I think that that mirrors what life is like, you know, especially with intense familial relationships. I mean, I often find myself in dynamics with my own family members where things are heated, and the only thing to really break that tension is humor. For me, that’s just very realistic. That’s what life is like, and I think that’s what Miriam does so well in her writing. She captures the absurd humor of life. I was so happy that Mike was able to kind of transfer that tone into the film, too.
You have great chemistry with your costar, Alison Pill. I know you had a previous relationship with her growing up in the same city. How was it working with Alison throughout this experience? Did that previous relationship help your chemistry throughout the film?
Sarah Gadon: Yeah. And it goes beyond just kind of knowing each other. We went to the same schools. We went to arts intensive schools from the time we were eight years old, all the way through high school. Then, we were both child actors in Toronto together. And those are, you know, experiences that shaped who you are. I think artistically speaking, they shape how you work and what your work ethic is, and how you approach the material. So all of that was just so similar between the two of us. It’s like being cut from the same cloth.
I think that was really huge for us to have that foundation before we even started working. I’ve always just admired Alison since the time I was a kid. She’s always been so unique and immensely talented. I’ve always just loved watching her. I think that dynamic, coincidentally, is going on between Elf and Yoli. You know, Yoli is like this bleeding heart, this open wound. She’s just walking around inside of her emotions and Elf is always kind of watching her kind of in awe of the capability that she has. So I felt like there are just so many things that I just think naturally translated to the dynamic between the two sisters.
What is the biggest takeaway you want people to walk away with after seeing this film?
Michael McGowan: Because it came from Miriam’s lived experience, unfortunately, I think there’s a truth there. The truth of the novel was what really attracted me. It was making a logical argument for somebody wanting to die, and I think that I’d never read it before and I’d never seen it in film before. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t really seen it from this point of view. As much as it sucks, and it’s terrible for the people that love the person, like I said, there’s a logic to it that I found interesting to explore. “You want to die. I want you to live. We’re enemies who love each other.” That’s a really great dramatic place to plan.
Sarah Gadon: I think that in the past few years, we have been so intense and we’ve been thinking about our relationships and what really matters to us. We’ve gone through difficult times. We’ve contemplated our own mortality. And this film, I think, gives you space to really think about and explore everything that we’ve kind of been feeling over the past couple of years. It also opens up a space for me to feel, which I think we’ve been trying to soldier on and carry through and not let ourselves feel things. One of the things that I love about watching films is that it becomes this conduit for you to really just explore your own feelings.
All My Puny Sorrows is now available on demand and digital.