Working icons: Ron Hynes

This month, two documentaries will examine the lives of two Newfoundland artists whose dedication to their work has brought joy to their audiences, but, occasionally, pain to themselves and their families. Why do they do it? What’s it like having a camera focused so closely on their private lives?

Interviews and photos by Elling Lien

Click here to read an interview with actor Gordon Pinsent.

Ron Hynes

…has a new CD, Stealing Genius, hitting stores October 12. Written while he was on a writing sabbatical in Woody Point, the record takes inspiration from the work of Newfoundland poets and authors.

…is the subject of a documentary by Newfoundland filmmaker William (Bill) MacGillivray, The Man of a Thousand Songs will close this year’s Women’s Film Festival on October 30. In the film, Ron talks about his thirty-five years on the road, his failed relationships, battles with his alter ego (ominously called ‘The Man’), his near death from drug overdose, and his recovery.

So when were you first approached by Bill to do a documentary about your life?
Oh, it was a couple of years ago. More than a couple of years ago now. I actually wasn’t that thrilled about the idea. I didn’t think it was such a great idea, you know. I’d already done a documentary over in Ireland with Mary Sexton’s Rink Rat Productions done by Rosemary House. We went over there to do that documentary on me and I thought I had kind of talked enough about my life.

But Bill has different ideas. He had another approach that he wanted to use. So between the jigs and the reels, with my schedule and his schedule, we had to do it piecemeal. We had to do it whenever I was available. Whenever I was in Halifax or in St. John’s or in Toronto, whenever we could pull it together, we’d find time and get a crew and get it done.

How did he first pitch the idea to you?
Well, basically he was just saying “We’d like to do a documentary on you.” I don’t know. I’ve never really thought I was that interesting a person. I think that people like the songs. I’ve never thought I was that interesting a guy, so when somebody comes to you and says, “Listen, we’d like to do a documentary film on you,” you just kind of go, “What for?”

Well, people want to know where the songs are coming from.
Well that’s actually my favorite thing about the film, is how the editor did such a good job of connecting the dots between the anecdotes and the stories and the songs.

So you’re sitting there, you have a camera on you and you’re told to reveal your past and your secrets. How does that feel?
Well, you feel like really naked. You really, really do. But after a while, Bill was really good to work with. We—Christ—we shot thirty-four hours of film footage. For a ninety-minute documentary, we shot a lot. And after a while it got easier, and I was just able to relax with it and open up and talk about stuff that I normally never would. It was a small crew, and it’s a very intimate situation. It’s only when it hits the silver screen that it looms rather large. [laugh] But you do, really, initially, you just feel really naked.

Have you been to any of the screenings?
I’ve been going to some of the screenings. We premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, and it was all adrenalin and media and photographs and interviews and my children were there and my girlfriend was there. [laugh] My kids were worried about what I was going to say about them on the film, and I’m worried about what they’re gonna think about the film. I couldn’t even really watch the bloody film because there was so much pressure surrounding me, so I was able to go on the second day, wear just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and be invisible in the audience. To just watch the film.

It’s hard for me to detach myself from it, and it’s hard to be objective. I’ve never liked myself on film or on television or you know over the years when the Wonderful Grand Band used to be on TV, I could never watch the shows, because I would always second guess myself. “Oh don’t say that,” or “Don’t look that way,” “Don’t turn like that,” “Don’t wear that shirt ever again!”

But with this film, at the end of the day, I’m really pleased. I’m pleased with the work and I think that Billy and Terry did an incredible job. I think the crew did an incredible job. The editor (Andrew MacCormack) especially did a wonderful job. I’m more than pleased with the results.

Everybody seems to be making a big fuss over the fact that it’s me in the film, but it’s a Bill MacGillivray film about me. At the end of the day it’s his film. It’s not mine. It’s his work. I’m just the subject. So I’m able to remove myself from it and I’m really happy for them because they work really, really hard for this and it seems to be paying off.

Do you have a favourite part of the film?
I think my favorite part was my nephew Joel Hynes’ contribution. He connected a lot of dots. He was able to say a lot of things about myself that I wasn’t able to say.

My favorite part of the film was him.

It was really affecting.
It really was, yeah.

And I love when he said, “Even if nobody knows who the man of a thousand songs is,” he says, “when Ron Hynes walks in a room, or he walks down the aisle of a plane everybody’s going ‘who the f*%k is this guy and what the f*%k does he do?’”

Between this film and your new record you’ve got a lot of things going for you these days.
Yeah. On the one hand I feel swamped and on the other hand I feel like, I don’t know, like I woke up to a brand new life suddenly. I didn’t expect to.

I just got off the phone with Gordon Pinsent, who also has a documentary about his life in the festival. He told me to tell you he’s a fan.
I’ll tell you two interesting things that I have in common with Gordon Pinsent. We are the only male artists from Newfoundland to ever win a Genie: I won one for best song in the film Secret Nation, called “Final Breath” and Gordon won [three acting Genies, most recently Best Actor for the feature Away From Her.]

And the only female who won a Genie here is Mary Lewis, who won for When Ponds Freeze Over some years back.

The other interesting thing about that I have in common with Gordon—you’re going to laugh when you hear this—is that at one point we were both instructors for the Arthur Murray School of Dance.

Absolutely true. [laugh] That is an absolute truth. For a brief period in my life when I was in Victoria, BC, I needed a job and it was the only job available. I was on the street, I was hungry. I couldn’t get a gig for love or money out there, so I went and answered this ad and ended up being a young trainee ballroom dance instructor for a few months. I just made enough money to get the hell out of there, but apparently he worked there as a serious instructor for some time. That’s a little known anecdote about Mr. Pinsent’s and my career. At one point we both worked for the Arthur Murray School of Dance. [laughter]

I didn’t know you could ballroom dance.
Yeah I can’t. [laugh] I can’t. I didn’t know what I was doing then and I don’t know what I am doing now. What is that Leonard Cohen song? “…And the white man dancing?”

So for this record, Stealing Genius, you say much of it was inspired by local writers. How did that happen?
A lot of it has to do with my involvement for the past few years with the Writers at Woody Point Festival, so I became more and more acquainted with all the poets and writers and the novelists here in the province, people like Stan Dragland and Randall Maggs and Des Walsh, and the late and great Al Pittman… Donna Morrissey, Michael Crummey… It was really exciting to be able to just go into all of that work and write some songs based on them all. It was a different approach for me. It’s like I’m really stepping out of myself all together.

So what was the process like?
I was given a house up at Woody Point in September of 2008 by Dianne Martin, who’s the editor for Random House Publishing, and her partner David Stromberg. I just wasn’t getting the writing done at home. The phone was ringing, the TV was on, the dog was barking, people were dropping by. I wasn’t get the work done.

I went through a really, really long period where I hardly did anything and I was starting to suffer from it, so I was talking to Dianne about this and she said, “Why don’t you just take the house after the Writers at Woody Point is over? Take the house for the whole month of September and just get the work done.”

I just read Randall Maggs’ Sawchuck Poems, and I had one song called “House”, which was based on a work by Stan Dragland called Stormy Weather. That was the only piece I had. So I thought, you know, I was thinking of writing something bases on Randall’s book about Terry Sawchuk and the whole thing just opened up for me: “Why not go to all the writers? Why not just go into all of the work that’s available here and go spend thirty days in isolation. Read like a son of a bitch, write like a son of a bitch.”

I really, really worked hard. I was out of bed at six o’ clock in the morning, wrote till ten thirty, had lunch, wrote until six o’ clock in the evening, had dinner, wrote until ten thirty at night, went to bed, got up at six o’clock in the morning. And I just did that for thirty two days and wrote this record.

It was a great process. It was really fun. It was fun to do and it was a real labour of love and I am really proud of this work. I think it’s my best work to date.