The broad strokes of the Dunsmuir story are well known around Vancouver Island, given the family’s status as quasi-Victorian royalty.
Some of the more intricate details about the family, including the ultimate fate of James Dunsmuir’s children and the construction of iconic Hatley Castle, might be less known. It’s those fine details that Asterisk Productions founders David Springbett and Heather MacAndrew were hoping to uncover with their new documentary, Whatever the Cost – Hatley Park and the Dunsmuirs, which was produced for Royal Roads University.
The film explores the family’s rise and fall and the legacy they left behind in the form of Hatley Park, which remains one of the West Shore’s most famous symbols.
It’s an engrossing film that promises to take the viewer inside the lives of the famous family, telling the story of James’s estrangement from his mother, the tragic death in the sinking of the Lusitania of his favourite son, Boy, and the expansive, almost hedonistic construction of Hatley, of which James memorably said, “I don’t care how much it costs, just build it.”
For Springbett, the film’s director and co-producer with MacAndrew, who wrote the screenplay, the Dunsmuirs are a fascinating study that quickly drew them in.
A lot of the research involved uncovering old photographs of the family, and the nature of those pictures was particularly striking for Springbett.
“Yes, they were probably the richest family on this coast, but their interests as reflected in their albums are like everybody else’s albums. There’s costume parties, lots of photographs of the great big snowfall in 1916 or so, lots of pictures of little kids holding dogs. It’s amazingly ordinary and yet they’re amazingly wealthy,” he said.
For MacAndrew, a particular point of interest was the information they discovered about the Dunsmuir daughters, including Kathleen’s relationship with Hollywood and her failed feature film that was shot at Hatley Castle, long before the property became a popular movie set.
“We had no idea about any of that,” MacAndrew said. “We kept hoping that a copy or print of (her) film might turn up somewhere.”
Significant contributions came from archivist Bruce Davies at Craigdarroch Castle and Jenny Seeman, museum and archives specialist with Royal Roads.
Seeman was interviewed in the film, but also helped the producers from a fact-checking and research point of view.
“What was difficult was separating hearsay and rumour and gossip, as all of those stories are kind of well known around Victoria about the Dunsmuir family,” she said. “What I really wanted to get to is what we know, what are the facts that we can tell without letting the rumours become the story?”
The immense amount of material that producers had to work with made it particularly challenging to edit the film down to its final running time of a crisp 35 minutes.
“It was originally supposed to be 30 minutes or under … there was so much to try and tell and it really wants to be an hour at least,” MacAndrew remarked.
Seeman believes the family history is so fascinating that their story could work as a Downton Abbey-style drama series.
An interpretive space for the Dunsmuirs, including viewing opportunities for the film, will be set up at Royal Roads in the near future, but the university has yet to determine exactly how that will look.