During his seven years in office, Danny Williams was unlike almost any other Canadian politician to date: loud, brash and infamous. He was also considered a hero to countless Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, for whom his signature blend of pugnacity and stalwartness prompted the reimagination of a decades-old underdog culture.
But Danny’s extreme tactics earned him more than a few critics, too. Elements of the hockey-loving, fast-talking politician just didn’t add up: Why were his solutions to Newfoundland’s problems always aggressive? How did a rich criminal lawyer win the hearts of blue-collar Newfoundlanders? Was diplomacy desperately needed during his years of headbutting with Stephen Harper?
In their latest documentary Danny, co-directors William “Bill” MacGillivray and Justin Simms attempt to present a holistic portrayal of a man that has polarized the east coast of Canada. It’s a useful starting point into the life of a man that changed the political face of Canada’s east coast, so we sat down with Danny and Bill to discuss the film’s genesis, politicians in the information age and why they feel Newfoundland is misunderstood.
What were your initial goals for the film?
Danny: My goal was to come out alive. My life was very public, so doing a documentary wasn’t in itself a giant leap. But when someone is going to assess your life and put it out for the whole world to see, I admit I had some trepidation. There was some nervousness. Finally after some soul searching and time, I agreed — I figured, people are watching anyways. It wasn’t an easy decision but I hope people sit back and decide for themselves how it all turned out.
Did you find that there was a difference in how you presented yourself in politics and how you presented yourself on film?
Danny: It’s a fascinating question because I feel that when you get more time to explain yourself, it’s great. I much prefer a long interview over a sound bite. When you get a chance to explain your position, you get five or ten minutes that will be heard in their entirety. A movie allows you to spread out your life over ninety minutes. Bill, Justin (Simms, co-director) and the producers did a wonderful job of using Newfoundland and Labrador’s history as a backdrop to my life and my career. (I was born in 1949 when we joined Confederation.) And they included my mother, who is healthy and kicking and ninety years old, a collection of my friends and colleagues. They understood that Newfoundland and Labrador, its culture and history, is what shaped me.
The electorate gets it more than we maybe think they do.
Bill, were you a fan of Danny’s before you started this film? Did your opinions of him change over the course of the film? Did you find it difficult to present a neutral viewpoint?
Bill: One is always wary of politicians. Politicians in our culture always have a motive that is not necessarily upfront. We know lots of politicians like that. One of the things that one can sense when you watch Danny operate up close: he’s not your average politician. He would do things that other politicians wouldn’t do, like taking down those flags. He took economic risks as well, like thinking beyond the immediate situation and seeing potential for growth. One of the things I really wanted to do with this documentary was to rip away the soundbites and the newspaper clips and find out who is this person actually. Those elements of a person’s life that inform a greater understanding of them, and it provides depth to their political selves.
Danny, your politics depended on your “open book” type of persona. It’s what gave your supporters the feeling that they knew you, that you were one of them. Did you find it difficult to open up even further with this film?
Danny: Once I was in, I was all in. Bill and Justin conducted long interviews over three years, and dug further and further. There was also a sense of professionalism with them both, I didn’t feel a fear that this was simply exploitation or that they were looking for a totally negative story. On the other hand, there is the good the bad and the ugly. It is what it is. I wasn’t concerned. When you’re doing a one on one interviews with one person, your relationship evolves. You begin to understand one another.
Understanding the influence of festivals like Hot Docs across the nation and worldwide, were you looking to inform the average Canadian about Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural and political history, as well as its current struggles?
Bill: The goal was to criss-cross two things: to have Danny be an exemplar of Newfoundland, and to have Newfoundland inform Danny. The two ideas ran parallel. We believed that the average person wouldn’t understand some of Danny’s motivations if they didn’t understand Newfoundland’s reality, and what Newfoundlanders had gone through as a people. When you see Danny fighting, perhaps you’ll then have a greater understanding of why he felt moved to fight. The perceived and actual wrongs are all there. The goal was also to make a film that would resonate with anyone, even someone who had no real insight on Danny or Newfoundland. Just a story. A guy who comes from a particular place, and how that environment made him.
Danny: From my perspective, I was very proud of the end product. I got into politics because of Newfoundland and Labrador, it wasn’t an ego thing for me. I love the place, and I felt there was a job that needed to be done. I was hoping I could make a difference. If my story highlights Newfoundland and Labrador’s history in any way, and perhaps make the average person interested in that history and what we’re all about, that’s great. People may have just seen me as a hothead or an idiot who just couldn’t shut his mouth, but there was strategy to all of my decisions. In an earlier interview, I said that I don’t go looking for fights, but if someone was trying to test our metal, then we will stand up and be counted. There are a lot of personalities in the film as well. It’s not just me and my mom and people who like me. There are independent characters and people who have objective viewpoints.
They understood that Newfoundland and Labrador, its culture and history, is what shaped me.
Bill: One of the great discoveries that I made is that some of the funniest people in Newfoundland, who became national stars through groups like CODCO, were in grade four with Danny. They told us that Danny was the bad boy in class and they were relatively good kids, and they became the satirists and Danny became the politician. It was a nice little addition. I feel like Newfoundland is one of the few places where something like that can happen, maybe Ireland too. The thing about island culture, whether it is an island through culture or geography, being insular and self-contained gives you a fundamental understanding of who and what you are. And that is a good and a bad thing. It’s not the case in a less homogenous society, for better or for worse. There is that positive element though: we share a common language, a common sense of humour, we’re all in on the joke.
How did a successful lawyer and businessman, who is seen driving fancy cars and living in beautiful homes throughout the documentary, become a “folk hero” for a culture that is insistently (and hilariously) self-deprecating in it’s humour and its attitude?
Danny: We’re a very adaptable group of people. We’re misunderstood in some respects. I felt part of my job was to make us more well-known. Our comedians and satirists have given us a profile nationally but I don’t think people ever really understood what we’re all about. We’re a proud people, we’re very proud of our culture. But one of the negative parts of Confederation was the extent to which we were suppressed and pushed back, considered the weak cousins of Canada. During my time in office, I sat down and calculated our contributions to this nation, not only on the cultural side but on the financial side. We make a massive contribution on a per capita basis. And it’s interesting because I love self-deprecating humour! I think it works marvelously. It endears you to people, people don’t think you’re an obnoxious snot. If you’re able to make fun of yourself, it shows you’re not too caught up in yourself. People warm up to us because of our frankness and openness and honesty.
Bill: One of the things that I regret most about the film is that we didn’t get the chance to include a lot of the streeters we shot. One of the ones that made it to film is this older woman who has this incredible, thick accent. She’s fantastic. Some people said, “She’s a bit of a character, you sure you want to include that?” And I said, that’s exactly who we should show. She knows herself better than most people, and that’s what Newfoundlanders are about. That confidence, that sense of self. If you can’t see the person behind the facade, then you can’t trust the facade. Like Jean Chretien, for example, you always trusted him — even though, I mean, he was a wily old cat.
Danny: But I think, people just see through the facade now anyways. Because of all of the exposure, the social media and the 24-hour television, people can see it. The electorate gets it more than we maybe think they do. Sometimes they can be shifted because of circumstances or whatever, but in general they understand a person.
One is always wary of politicians.
What’s next for both of you?
Danny: I tried to retire and I couldn’t. I’ll die working. I’m still involved in hockey, so I’ll continue to work on that for at least the new couple of years. I’ve decided to get into a real estate development project on the outskirts of St. John’s named after my mother’s maiden name. That’ll take quite a bit of time. I hope to make it a legacy project and a master plan community, one that the people will be proud of.
Bill: Right now, I’m working on a television series called Studio Black. It’s a collection of stories from Nova Scotia collected by a guy in the 1920s from the United States. We have four stories that we’re doing with an ensemble group of young black actors and three black directors. It’s an entirely black experience. Hopefully, if it goes well, we’ll do lots more.