In October 1975 Roy Lowther was charged with the murder of his wife, Pat, a gifted and renowned Canadian poet, when her two young daughters, Chris and Beth, were seven and nine. In this film, the two women revisit the circumstances surrounding the violent death of their mother and try to make sense of their father’s brutal act and its aftermath.
BATTLE OF WILLS tells a story of obsession and intrigue in the art world worthy of Shakespeare himself. It travels from the high-tech labs of North America, to the art galleries of Bond Street and the windswept castles if the English midlands to unravel the mystery behind a painting that shook the art world.
Q. How did you choose the subject for your film Water Marks?
A. I was in British Columbia, about ten years ago now, and I found a book called Furry Creek written by Keith Harrison, which was a fictionalized biography of a poet, Pat Lowther. It included her poetry, the story of her murder and references to her daughters. I was immediately attracted to the story for a very personal reason. My brother Alex had been a west coast lawyer and his very first law case was to represent Roy Lowther, Pat Lowther’s husband. Alex was a young lawyer starting out and she was a much beloved Vancouver poet. The whole arts community was outraged at the murder. I remember my brother telling me about this case and how high-profile it was for a young lawyer. I knew the back story from my brother’s point of view but I hadn’t yet investigated the larger story, the story of Pat and her husband and her children. And of her poetry. I had studied English literature at Mcgill was going to be a English professor until I got side tracked into film. So a lot of things came together in the subject matter. I wanted to do a film on the west coast, because it is a second home for me. My brother had lived there, my parents. I grew up in Montreal but everyone else in my family had migrated west. Pat Lowther was a great poet of the West Coast landscape, much of her imagery conveys that rain forest feeling of the West Coast. I read her poems when I began that film. There were a number of levels that interested me, there was the tragedy of two young girls, the West coast, poetry. There was a lot of creative room for me to explore. Plus it was a strong feminist story, a story of the two daughters of Pat Lowther trying to reclaim their childhood which was robbed from them and to reclaim their family history.
Q. How long was it after Pat Lowther was killed that you did the film?
A. She was killed in the mid-seventies and I did the film around 2001. It is a story that has continued to resonate in poetry circles in Canada. There is the Pat Lowther prize that is given to an emerging female poet every year. She had been active in the League of Canadian Poets and a much beloved figure in those circles. I would not have considered doing the film without that. She was an important figure in the mythology of the West Coast literary circles. The seventies had been a particularly fertile period for writers. With the aftermath of the sixties, the West Coast was laid-back, bohemian and people drifted to that area. Visual artists as well.
Q. Where did Pat Lowther live?
A. She lived in the city of Vancouver. She and her husband owned a tiny rudimentary cabin on Mayne Island, which is in the film. After Roy Lowther murdered her, he took their two children over to this cabin and hung out there until he was arrested. And that was another way in which the story overlapped with my own life. My brother had a rustic cabin just off Mayne Island. So it was a place I knew well. There were all these resonances for me and it seemed that I was supposed to do it. So I did.
Q. Was the murder more important than the other aspects, the children, the poetry and the family context.
A. I would not like to think it was more important. One cannot sum up the life of an artist by a catastrophe that happens to her in one instant. That would be diminishing her, but I cannot deny that as a film maker I am always trying to find the drama and murder, of course, heightens the stakes. Particularly in documentary, you are trying to find some element that is going to give the drama of fiction. So, yes, the murder ended up being an important dramatic element. I tried very hard not to fall into that “Allo Police” kind of mentality, which is all about blood and gore, so there are no scenes of the body or anything like that, instead I let Pat Lowther’s voice come through, by using her poetry, her voice is present on the screen, in a collage of images. I was giving a sense of who she was. The end of the film, doesn’t end up with her murder, it ends up with her daughters who put together her collective work, a beautiful book – a heartfelt attempt to reclaim a painful history and to move on from it.
Q. What I mainly remember from the film, which I saw quite a few years ago, is the lushness of the scenery and the colouring.
A. The entire film was tinted blue and I had never done that before. I worked with a genius cinematographer, Marc Gadoury. I wanted to film some scenes underwater – we have scenes of jellyfish floating, and a scene where the camera is underwater and Chris Lowther is swimming above. Both the daughters are writers too, not as well known as Pat, but Chris has published a collection of poetry. All these women’s voices come through. When I told my cinematographer that I wanted the film to have this watery feel to it, images of water, the wetness, the fog of the west coast, he suggested that we tint it blue. I was terrified, I thought it would look hokey.
Q. The second main memory, other than the fluidity and lushness, was the daughters, their emotional sense that came across.
A. They are fascinating. They have a complicated relationship. In the aftermath of that kind of tragedy, where both parents are missing, the mother dead, father in prison (where he died), it is not surprising. The younger resented the older because she was the surrogate boss. But they are of course very close even though the relationship is complicated. They are opposites. The older one, Beth, was urban, edgy, lived in the east side of Vancouver, part of the bohemian milieu. The other had escaped to a wilderness part of the west coast, in Tofino. She and her boyfriend had an apartment in Tofino but even that was too urban for her and they lived on a houseboat most of the time in a bay off Clayoquot Sound which is all rain forest and many uninhabited islands and bays. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can spend ten thousand dollars on a houseboat, take it out, moor it in a bay and you have a mile of waterfront. That’s what Chris Lowther and her boyfriend had done. Living in this paradise, growing organic vegetables on the deck of her houseboat. That was interesting to me, the differences between the sisters.
Q. What did you most like about this film?
A. I always like stretching the creative chops. As a documentary film maker, you are essentially a story teller trying to create a narrative using music, imagery, poetry, character. How to be true to your subject and how to create a story that will engage and this one was rich with those elements.
Q. Eight years later, is there anything you would do differently?
A. Yes. I have never done a film where I have felt one hundred percent satisfied. I will never be the type of film maker who says “that was just right”. I learned one thing in that film. The subject was charged because the daughters had so many emotions about what had happened and because my brother had represented their father. I was walking on eggshells during the time I was making the film. Because of this somewhat tense situation, I pre-interviewed them a lot before we ever shot. Their best interviews, their best responses, were before the cameras were on. When I repeated the questions on camera, they didn’t have the same freshness, spontaneity. I could have done better interviews if I hadn’t been nervous and over prepared. That is tricky about documentary. It is so much about creating trust and comfort with the person you are interviewing. If they are trying to respond to the question, they are having to think harder because it is a new question, they can get distracted from the camera. I should have trusted my instincts as a film maker and not over prepared. I don’t do that anymore.
Q. Do you like Pat’s poetry?
A. Yes. Some of it’s quite challenging. She writes a combination of poetry that is an homage to the west coast. She writes political poetry, about Chile, and poetry about women’s lives; she worked for the NDP, and her husband, Roy, was a quasi-communist, they were always left-leaning and that comes through in her poetry.
Q. Is there a poem of Pat Lowther’s that would represent her?
Under the wharf at Saturna
the sea anemones
open their velvet bodies
they grow as huge
as flesh chandeliers
under the warped
and salt-stained wharf
their translucent mouths
even the black ones
have an aura
like an afterimage of light
Under our feet
the gorgeous animals
in the sky
© Pat Lowther
Q. Were you changed in the making of the film?
A. I am changed by every film I make. It was not an easy film to make as the daughters were quite prickly. I cannot fault them considering the circumstances. But I felt that I had to keep them happy. Documentary film making can be intrusive since you are asking personal questions.
Q. What was their reaction to Water Marks?
A. I think they were happy. Initially they didn’t quite know what to make of it because it was so personal to them, but they received a huge amount of feedback. It went to different festivals, to screenings and it brought attention to their mother’s work, their mother’s life and to her book which they had just brought out, which was a labour of love. We are still in touch, it goes on. Allan Safarik, a Canadian poet who was in the film because he was Pat Lowther’s best friend wrote his memoirs and sent a chapter about Water Marks to me. he said that participating in the film, was a huge catharsis because he had kept so much emotion bottled up about Pat and the children and he had felt guilt, and seeing them again and giving them some of her work was incredibly important.
Q. Your latest film Battle of Wills is about Shakespeare. Both films have something to do with writing and literature.
A. In the film I just did, I used Shakespeare’s poetry and “his voice comes through” in the sound track. Like Water Marks, it is about a writer and also about landscape, this time about England. Battle of Wills tells the story of two portraits that are duking it out, both claiming to be the only image of Shakespeare painted from life. It is a deconstruction of two portraits, from the point of view of the outsider, the long shot; the Sanders portrait is owned by Lloyd Sullivan an elderly man in Ottawa whose family has owned this portrait for four hundred years, passing it from generation to generation. It’s an engaging face, an authentic 17th century Elizabethan portrait. Sullivan has spent almost all his lifetime savings vetting this portrait and it is 100 percent Elizabethan painted on oak. But is it Shakespeare? The contending portrait is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, a huge, august institution and it is the founding portrait in their collection and they have a huge stake in it being Shakespeare. The film is about the politics of the art world, the dishonesty of the authenticity debates, the hidden agendas in the world of Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is an industry. The film is about the mysteries around him, because we know his works so well and absolutely nothing about his life. He is a big cypher and there are theories upon theories about him. This film plays into those theories. And I have some sexy people in it, like Joseph Fiennes and Simon Callow. It was filmed at Yale University in Ottawa, Toronto, London, Stratford-upon-Avon, the British Midlands and Montreal.
Q. What was your push to do this film?
A. It was a series of articles from the Globe and Mail dating back to 2002, about a new portrait of Shakespeare that had been discovered. It was a big story and then a book by Stephanie Nolen came out. I always thought there has to be a good story here. There were three or four film companies that were competing to tell the story and I lucked out. I love Shakespeare. Water Marks is a serious film, Battle of Wills is tongue-in-cheek. It was my chance to make fun of English pomposity and the art dealers from Bond street with their noses stuck right up in the air – a romp with serious questions.
Q. Is there anything else you want to add about film making.
A. Making documentaries is the most wonderful thing imaginable, except I only get to do it five percent of my time, the rest of the time I am looking for money to do it. It is not for everybody. Young film makers starting out think they will be going into the film industry and spend all their time making films, it is just not the case.
The Last Room
I am waiting for you
In the lowest room beneath the building
I am smooth as a gourd
my shape spreads
seeking the lowest
centre of gravity
I spend hours memorizing
beneath our skins
by which I came
waiting for your long shadow
in the passage
I am green as a gourd
but inside I am red
All through the folded hours
I am burning
I am becoming a red hollow
a gourd for drinking
Only now do I recognize
shards patterning the dust
between my legs
they are my former skins
How many times
have I come here
How long have I been waiting
© Pat Lowther
Everything here’s a weapon
i pick up a meat fork,
imagine plunging it in,
a heavy male
in two hands
i heft a stone-
ware plate, heavy
rummage the cupboards:
red pepper, rape-
seed oil, Drano
I’ll wire myself
into a circuit:
the automatic perc, the dishwater, the
socket above the sink
i’ll smile an electric
me is dead.
© Pat Lowther
For further information on Battle of Wills by Anne Henderson: http://www.informactionfilms.com/en/productions/battle_of_wills/index.html
For further information on Pat Lowther:
Anne Henderson has been writing and directing documentaries for 25 years, with many international titles to her credit. Her documentaries encompass a wide variety of subjects concerning culture, human rights, history, and the environment. She likes to tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. She makes her home in the midst of Montreal’s vibrant arts community.