Steve Fonyo and Alan Zweig on "Hurt"

Steve Fonyo lost a leg to cancer as a boy, but went on to complete a cross-country run raising millions for cancer research. He ran further and longer than Terry Fox, but his legacy was tarnished by run-ins with the law and struggles with addiction. Brent speaks with Fonyo about his drug use and life today. And with director Alan Zweig, whose documentary on Fonyo, "Hurt", opened to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
Fonyo dips his artifical limb in the Pacific Ocean in Victoria after completing his cross-country run in 1985. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Steve Fonyo lost a leg to cancer as a boy, but went on to complete a cross-country run from Newfoundland to BC, raising millions for cancer research in 1985, but his legacy was tarnished by run-ins with the law, struggles with addiction, and most recently he survived a life-threatening stabbing incident that left Fonyo in a medically-induced coma earlier this year.

Brent Bambury spoke to Steve Fonyo and director Alan Zweig, the day after Zweig's documentary on Fonyo, "Hurt", opened to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Brent Bambury: Steve, last night you were in a packed theater for the premiere of the documentary "Hurt". What was that experience like?

SF: A little weird at first. Of course it's awesome, but you watch a movie of yourself on the big screen. It's a little different.

BB: When it was over, they gave you a standing ovation. You stood up. Everybody in the audience stood up. What was that like for you?

SF: It was great. It's a feeling I can't express to you, but it's... it's wonderful. What can I say?

BB: Was it emotional for you?

SF: Little bit. Sure.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: Steve we're listening to you this morning. Your speech is different now than it was in the film.

SF: Of course it is.

BB: How has your life changed since you were attacked?

SF: It's changed quite a bit. My voice is screwed up. It's getting better, but very slowly. I'm a little scared of people. Stuff like that, eh?

BB: Alan, this is the first time Steve saw the film. How did you expect Steve to react when you were in the theatre with him last night?

Alan Zweig: You know, whatever. Steve is... I don't want to say media-savvy, but he spent a year of his life in the spotlight. On some level, he has seen bad press and stupid stories about him, and I thought he could gloss over parts of the film that might be a little embarrassing to him. Yes, I was worried that some of the things that I showed in the film would be overwhelming to him. My hope was he might be shocked today, but two weeks from now or whatever, by the time we go to Vancouver, he'd be over that. He'll just concentrate on the good part which is the audience loved him.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: Steve, we see a lot of your life in this film. We see good and bad, and one the things that struck me is there's warmth and tenderness in your life. There are people who care about you. But we also talk about you being homeless and hitting the bottom, breaking the law and using drugs. When Alan and his crew approached you, what did they say to you to make you believe in them?

SF: Well, they wanted to do a documentary and they wanted to be honest and I said OK. I went for it. I said, "Yeah, you'll get the real Steve."

BB: "The real Steve." So you were prepared to be honest with them. Alan, did you feel that Steve was honest with you while you were filming?

AZ: Well, we're in the same room together. I'm not going to throw him under the bus completely. We were not the first people to approach him to make a film, nor were we even the first people to start filming. So I think that on some level, to Steve we were just the latest Johnny-come-latelies with an idea. He basically said yes to most of them, but most of them and it's like first past the gate. I said to him, "Yeah, other people started, but we're the ones that are going to finish."

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: Were you always sure you were going to finish, Steve? Was there ever a point in making the film where you said, "I'm done with this."?

SF: No. In fact, when they started I trusted them. And I think that's very important. I realized I could just do whatever and not worry about it. I trusted them.

BB:Why did you trust him, because what we see in this film is there's a lot of people that you think betrayed you.

SF: Yes.

BB:So why did you trust Alan?

SF: Just a gut feeling.

AZ: I think the biggest thing, the reason Steve did it, is because he had a sense of destiny. That someday, somebody was going to come and make a film and resurrect him on some level, and he had to take a chance. He trusted us, but he still had to take a chance that the film we would make would be the film we did make.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: But you're taking on a huge responsibility if you're taking on the resurrection of a fallen person in the making of the film. Steve is struggling with a lot in this film. Did you ever worry that he was unable to make the best decisions for himself while you were making this movie?

AZ: Listen, I don't think I saw Steve make a good decision in the year that I met him, except saying yes to us. That extends to what he ordered at the Boston Pizza or the Tim Horton's.

BB:But that puts you in a position where you're actually maybe looking after this person. You're responsible for this person if you're the only good thing in his life. Are you crossing a line there as a filmmaker, where you're becoming an advocate for the subject of your film?

AZ: OK, you know what? There are lines that people say you don't cross that don't mean anything to me. I don't think I cross... I have a line and I didn't cross it. I'm not going to make a film where I drive around for a year with a guy and get to know him and get to like him and then pretend that I don't know who he is and that I don't care about him. My responsibility was to make an honest film that didn't hide the truth, but my own personal sympathy for him I'm not going to apologize for that.

BB: Steve, in this film, you talk about using crack cocaine and crystal meth. We don't see that in the film.It's not something that's shown to us, but you talk about it. Are you are you still using drugs?

SF: No, I'm clean.

BB: You've been clean for how long now?

SF: To be honest with you, since the assault.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB:Since you've been assaulted... Because Alan you brought Steve together with an addiction expert, Gabor Mate...

SF: Who is an awesome guy, by the way.

BB: And that's  a really compelling scene in the film. Why did you decide to connect Stephen and Gabor?

AZ: Well, you know what? Initially, somebody wanted us to meet him and to talk about Steve and at the time for my own aesthetic reasons, I was against the idea of him being in the film. But when we went for that last visit - when things were going as badly for Steve as they were - I just thought I owed it to him. Whether it goes against my aesthetic or not, I owe it to him to have this experience. I really think Steve doesn't have anybody in his life on a regular basis that calls him on his crap.

SF: No, I don't.

BB: But Gabor did. I mean Gabor basically said that you are responsible for your life. Do you believe that? Do you buy it?

SF: I totally believe that.

BB:So why is it that it took so long? How old were you when he said that to you? You're almost fifty years old when he said that to you.

SF: I'm fifty now, just turned fifty. Yeah, I know. Some people take awhile. I'm one of them. Some people just see the light right away, some people don't. It took me longer.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: When you watch that scene in the movie with Gabor, could you see the light in your eyes when he was talking to you?

SF: Yeah, I could.

AZ: That's why we put in the film ultimately because we had a moment where we saw Steve realize something. He just had a moment of clarity that what so beautiful.

BB: Earlier in the film, Steve says that he blames the Canadian public, that the Canadian public let him down. Did you buy that when he said it?

AZ: Well, I know that you're not going to endear yourself to the Canadian public by saying that, but just because that's not a very political statement to make doesn't mean that there isn't some truth to it.

BB:You're thinking about the Order of Canada, right, the removal of the Order of Canada?

AZ: Yeah.

BB: Steve, when you saw yourself say that in the film, what did you think? Do you still believe it?

SF: No, I don't. I believe that my actions have a lot to do with the way things are going. Period. I don't blame people for giving up or whatever. It's all up to me. But there were a lot of times where I felt alone. When you're in a bad mood, sometimes you say things you don't mean, right? Very simple.

(Courtesy MDF Productions)

BB: What's it like for you when you go back? We see pictures of you from 1984, from 1985. You ran the equivalent of a marathon every day...

SF: I know.

BB: ...for months, and that was an extraordinary thing. 

SF: Thank you. 

BB:What kept you going then? What was it that drove you then?

SF: However way I did it, I did it. Believe me, it was trouble. It was hard. Very.

BB: And that took resilience and that took self-confidence, so so do you think you can find that strength in yourself now?

SF: Of course. It's still there.

BB: You can? Because it was missing for a long time. 

SF: Yes, it was.

BB: So what makes you think you can find it now?

SF: I think I had to be ready, I guess. I hope.

AZ:  I think Steve - and I've told Steve this - I think his problem is he's very resilient and he's very optimistic, but he's somewhat unambitious in his survival instinct. If you push him under the water and then you let him up, and he just gets his nose out and he takes a breath, he's good. And you're like, "Get all the way out of the water, man!" and he's like, "Nah. You know, I'm good. It's fun."

BB:What do you think of that, Steve? You just survived an attack on your life. What do you think of what Alan just said?

SF: He's right.

BB:Alan, I want to read you something that you had to say about about this film, about Hurt, "The opportunity to tell a story about a fallen hero in Canada doesn't come along very often, because we don't have many heroes to begin with." Do you think Steve is a hero?

AZ:  Yes, I think Steve is a hero.

SF: Thank you. I'm surprised to hear that from you.

AZ: I've said this before and it's kind of inarguable. Terry Fox is a hero. OK, why? Because he ran from St John's to Thunder Bay. He didn't do anything else to make him a hero. He did that. Well, Steve ran from St John's to Victoria. So on some level, Steve is being penalized for living. I understand why people have forgotten about Steve. I understand why they stopped writing about him. But if Terry Fox is your hero, Steve Fonyo should be your hero.

BB: Alan and Steve, thank you for being with us.

AZ: Thanks a lot.

SF: Thanks a lot.