The Golden Spruce ponders the big questions

John Vaillant speaking at Rio Theatre on Monday as part of VIMFF

The Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival presents The Golden Spruce, Monday, Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 6:30 p.m.) at The Rio Theatre, 1660 E. Broadway, Vancouver. The evening will feature guest speaker John Vaillant and a screening of Hadwin's Judgement. Tickets and info at vimff.org.

Several filmmakers approached John Vaillant about the possibility of turning his award-winning 2005 book The Golden Spruce into a documentary, but none of their pitches grabbed his attention.

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That is, until British director Sasha Snow asked.

The two had collaborated previously. Vaillant's second book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, is based on Snow's 2006 documentary, Conflict Tiger, an environmental thriller about a man-eating tiger in Russia's Far East. It was a "stunning" film, Vaillant says.

"I don't know why more people didn't pursue it as a book after seeing it because it toured the world."

Snow had hoped to reverse their creative exchange and adapt The Golden Spruce for the screen. Now it was Vaillant's turn to sit back and give Snow free rein to interpret his work.

"After seeing (Conflict Tiger) I really had no doubt that he was trustworthy and esthetically and intellectually capable of doing it," says the Vancouver author. "I think each of us trusted the other to do justice to the material and to the story."

Turning The Golden Spruce into a documentary was no easy task. The book is rich with historical detail, meticulously setting the scene to tell the true story of Grant Hadwin, a logging engineer turned eco-activist who worked in B.C.'s remote forests.

In 1997, in an inexplicable act of destruction that seemed to go against all his environmental values, Hadwin cut down a 300-year-old Sitka spruce held sacred by the Haida people of Haida Gwaii.

Released last spring, Snow's 88-minute docu-drama, Hadwin's Judgement, weaves together dramatic re-enactments with interviews (Vaillant is among the talking heads). Though based on the same historical incident, the film is "a different animal" than the book, Vaillant explains.

"There's things you can do in a book that are harder to do in a film, and vice versa, and so it's really interesting to me to see how another medium interprets it," he says. "What a book allows you to do is dig into dark corners and follow tributaries upstream and explore side stories and backstories and really lay out the context. You just have a lot more room, and that's what I like to do."

A film is limited to very brief asides and has to stay focused on moving the story forward in a linear fashion, Vaillant says. "On the other hand," he adds, "there is a kind of intimacy and immediacy to film that is very hard to reproduce on the page."

Shot mostly on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, Hadwin's Judgement features Vancouver actor Doug Chapman in the role of Hadwin. Incorporating dramatizations was a bold decision that could have easily gone sideways, Vaillant says, but the casting choice couldn't have been more perfect.

"I knew whoever played Hadwin would have to be an athlete, someone who moved really well and exuded that kind of physical charisma and confidence and Doug Chapman does that. He's really got it," Vaillant says. "I think those scenes are particularly successful, it really enlivens the film."

The Golden Spruce started out as a 2002 magazine article for The New Yorker. When Vaillant was fleshing out the story into a book, he realized he didn't fully understand the setting or the context in which everything took place.

"I had to go back and read a lot about botany and read a lot of history of the West Coast and the history of logging across the Northern Hemisphere," he says.

What initially interested him in pursuing this story was the complexity of Hadwin's character and the extremity of his journey.

"What drew me to him was his arc, from a really dedicated, competent, well-respected company man to an eco-activist-slashsaboteur - and that's a long journey to take," Vaillant says. "And then, of course, just the magnitude of logging on the West Coast, the size of the trees, the rapacity of the industry, the violence of the act. All of that makes for pretty compelling reading and also research."

The Golden Spruce was not easy to write and Hadwin's Judgement was not easy to make, he says, and neither is particularly comfortable to read or watch because both raise questions about the relationship between man and the natural environment.

"It's not an easy watch in that you can just get up and walk away and say 'Oh, what a fascinating story that was,'" Vaillant says of the documentary. "We're in it too and our behaviour has influenced elements of the film and our behaviour as a species continues to do so."

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