05/28/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Filming "The Lesser Blessed": Freezing and Burning in the Northwest Territories

Six herds of bison (carrying the expression of a barfly at the end of a very long night), three foxes, two black bears and one wolf with a rabbit in his mouth. This is the account of all animals we saw on our 552-kilometer road trip across the Northwest Territories, looking for Larry Sole. Who is Larry Sole?

To answer that question I must take you back to the late eighties, to a time when Iron Maiden and Van Halen ruled, when the greatness of a man was measured by the vertical feathery grandness of his hair, and seizure-inducing magenta was the colour of everything. In this questionable moment in history, a gorgeous man named Richard Van Camp -- in the minus inhumane cold of Canada's north -- picked up a pen and started writing a novel about a skinny, self-deprecating headbanger named Larry Sole. It became an ode to the burning, twisted, romantic hearts of the world. The Lesser Blessed was published in 1996 and in 2006 it found its way into my clammy hands, via a woman named Shelley Niro. We were hanging out in Banff, Shelley -- the wildly talented visual artist, Zarqa Nawaz -- who went on to create Little Mosque on the Prairie and I. We were inseparable, fused together during a filmmaking workshop by our mutual weirdness and dislike of bad chocolate. In between breathless planning, shooting and editing, high on the altitude of the Rockie Mountains, we got to know each other very well. So well indeed, that Shelley knew I would fall in love with the book and want to turn it into a movie.

Cut to January 2008: Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. It hurts to breathe and my spit freezes into a ball of ice immediately upon departing my mouth. Ravens the size of turkeys fly overhead and road signs address skidoos instead of cars. In the moments I question what the twisted hell am I doing in a world where the thermometer measures minus 55, I remind myself that I'm here to research The Lesser Blessed. I'm in the hometown of Richard Van Camp, where places and people inspired his unforgettable novella. I'm here to understand the very North I'm trying to make a film about. And a visceral understanding does hit me when a local friend spreads out a Northern map on a bar table. The centre of this map is the North Pole encircled by all the Northern countries above the 60th parallel: Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Alaska and Russia. I get it. The heart here is the magnetic North. It is a Northern-ness that unites people, a shared battle with extreme elements, an operating reverence for nature and its ultimate power over humans.

Here, the First Nations in the line of ice are the Tlicho, the Cree and Chipewyan, North and South Slavey, the Gwich'in. Here, there are guys from Somalia driving cabs to support families far, far away, plaid-shirted geologists rolling tobacco and post-hippies jamming in plush basements, comfortable only in a northern isolation. There are myths of albino caribous and chipped plates of darkly stewed moose meat. There are scars on flesh, holes from fists punching walls and screams hanging heavy in the air. The music of the soul is heavy metal, loud and fast, turning spines into steel. Richard Van Camp took all this and sand-blasted it through the irreverent mind of a 16-year-old Tlicho headbanger named Larry Sole. The result is something dark, painful, hilarious, sweet and raw all at the same time, something that dropkicks you in the heart. It's a privilege I get to turn this all into a movie. I better not fuck it up.


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I finish the first draft within a month and drag my frozen ass over to the beach of the dead in Oaxaca, Mexico to thaw. Sitting in a hammock schizophrenic with colours, the first person I meet holds up a beer and says: "Indio, like me." He is a Zatopek guy drinking the cheap and delicious Indio brew, a friend to this day. Little do I know but in a few years from this moment I would be meeting a Qechuan guy in a Mexican restaurant in LA, talking about the film I made in Mexico in between, and The Lesser Blessed movie. Benjamin Bratt became the first actor to sign on to the movie. All this because I was lucky enough to have a fire-breathing dragon of a producer, in the skin of a beautiful woman named Christina Piovesan.

When Christina and I embarked on our seven-year journey to make the film, we were both single and fresh out of film studies. Now we have babies and husbands and all sorts of movies in our hobo bags (well I'm the hobo, Christina is a much more refined woman). Truth is, as I got lost in the writing and dreaming and all sorts of pom-pom clouds of The Lesser Blessed, blasting death metal into my crumbling ears, it was Christina who refused to take no-freaking-no for an answer and never lost faith in the need for this movie to be made.

Once again, I'm back to the Northwest Territories, to face bison herds and the wolf with a rabbit in his mouth. Iron Maiden and Van Halen are still around, hot magenta has been exiled to hipster irony land and the hair -- well, we still have issues with our hair. I'm here with my casting director Jason, my partner Adam and our baby boy Tian, on a roadtrip from high school to high school, looking to cast Larry Sole, the lead character of the film. I am determined to find him in the Northwest Territories and I do not care whether he has any acting experience. Likely, he will have none.

Our last stop is Fort Smith, the author's place of birth, the town where I spent a cold and inspiring few weeks researching for the script. We've auditioned 120 kids over five days in five communities, in libraries, gyms and rooms overflowing with stuffed animals, staring at us through their glass eyes. We are about to pack up our casting circus show, considering a few kids for a callback, when I spot a gangly teen cracking up his friends in the hallway of the PW Keaser High School. I'm instantly hit with two realizations: one, this is Larry Sole as I've seen him in my mind for the last six years and two, this kid did not bother coming to audition.

Turns out he had better things to do (prepare for a math test) and my instincts about him were right. When he finally does audition (after we get his math test pushed to another day) he nails it. He has that thing filmmakers search for with diamond-encrusted magnifying glasses -- raw, unadulterated talent. Joel Evans, a kid from the Northwest Territories with a fondness for volleyball, bacon and ironic shirts becomes our lead actor. He joins Chloe Rose, a blithe creature stolen from Degrassi, Kiowa Gordon, a Hualapai Berliner Twilight Wolf, packing the most legitimate dose of danger, Adam Butcher, the Saint Ralph who, saint no more, quietly turned into one of the most powerful actors of our country, Tamara Podemski, a woman whose face displays ten thousand flickering emotions... and that Quechua man whose activist mother took him to Alcatraz in 1969, as a five-year-old, to participate in the historic Native American occupation of the island -- Benjamin Bratt.

There is a lot of waiting involved in the process of making a movie. Waiting for yes's, for funders, waiting for locations, for actors' schedules, for the stars to line up. And then, we burn. Once there's a green light, every moment counts, every waking second is spent fully focused on the creation and perfection of the film. As a director, you cannot tire, you cannot show doubt and weakness, even as your brain threatens to pop out and run for cover. Your most important job is to remember your vision under all circumstances while being agile, inspire people to do their best work and establish a safe environment for the actors -- the blood and skin of a movie. When actors feel safe they can immerse in the life of their character and disconnect from the exterior world, the machinery of filmmaking. This is that sweet spot when emotions are pure and lines are delivered with meaning. I live for this.

Three cameras are rolling, I'm operating one, the RED Epic at 300 frames per second. The A camera, the ARRI Alexa is on the broad shoulders of Brendan Steacy, our cinematographer. Brendan and I have known each other for years, fast friends after a short film we made. God knows how long we've been whining to each other, wondering when we would get to do a feature film proper. And here we are, in Ojibwa Whitefish Lake First Nation Reserve near Sudbury, in the dead of winter, focused on a hot flames lashing at the sky, in the very film we've been dreaming about. We have one chance to set our custom built shed aflame with two fearless stunt guys inside. The fire is roaring. Two men are burning, falling to the ground as the building cracks and crumbles under the heat. An anxious team is behind us, watching in awe and fear. Cut. The medics rush in to check on the stunt men while the FX team puts out the fire as a magnificent cloud of white smoke blossoms into the tar-black sky. Day 12 of 21 is complete. We had been blessed on the first day of production by drummers from the Tlicho Nation, and now I really feel the effect of their gifts.

Just yesterday, Brendan and I were sitting in a small helicopter, getting up in the air for a complicated shot as our deliriously awesome props team, Davin and Tyler installed a bison crossing sign to replicate the NWT. I had my headphones on connecting me to the helicopter pilot and to Brendan, and a walkie-talkie to Pierre, the irreverent Quebecois Assistant Director. I had to not shit my pants as the tiny machine dangled in the wind just above the trees while directing the pilot on speed and direction, Brendan on when to go and the actor how to go, all through separate communication devices. This was about the very limit of my brain's processing power. After 10 passes, we got the perfect fly-over shot, gliding above the desolate landscape with precise timing to come upon Larry walking on the edge of the road. This guy Joel Evans, we put him through some intense things in the 21 days of production. I mean, he got punched, he was set on fire, immersed in water for hours, made to cry real tears, got scars applied to his skin, got to kiss a babe, learned stunts and faced hungry wolves. He is my hero. I dream of a great acting career for him, one in which he gets to play a spaceship captain, a small time robber, a sleazy lawyer and a romantic conqueror (preferably not all at once). But first, he must finish high school and win some volleyball tournaments.

On the last day of production, alight with the relief of having avoided major accidents, disasters and actors storming off the set, knowing that powerful moments have been captured and the cast and crew did brilliant work, I strap my six-month-old child to my back during the morning preparations. He has been the set baby, hanging on my boobs at lunch breaks during meetings with the very understanding crew. I could not have done this, any of this, without my supportive and brilliant man, Adam, my partner in crime and fellow dreamer.

The camera rolls on the last shot: Benjamin as Jed and Joel as Larry, sitting by a makeshift fire, after Larry survived being ostracized, alone in the wolf-infested Northern wild, his mind torn apart by visions of the past. Benjamin as Jed expertly skins a martin and places it on the fire while Joel as Larry displays fear for the first time in his life. Jed takes him in and tells him: "A person has maybe three chances in life to stare down the devil right in the eyeballs. This is your most important one. Don't turn your back." Cut. The entire team breaks out in joy. Some weep. We embrace and head for celebratory beers, knowing we have something special.

And then the waiting and the months of post-production work. Originally, I envisioned the film to carry a gothic, operatic element inspired by Larry's heavy metal and the ravens of NWT. Now, I have to let go of it because it does not work within the rugged, naturalistic frame of the film. Our mechanical CGI raven is digital dust, but I work our composer Paul to the bone trying to find the metal in the score, grinding guitars into emotion. Time passes. The scent of a papaya tree hits me as our toddler plays in the small courtyard of a Brazilian city named Belo Horizonte. We are here to co-organize a TEDx conference with Adam while I work on locking the film with our editors Geoff and David. As the hot Brazilian sun cuts through a passing loudspeaker advertising fresh cheese, my mind strains to place itself in the cold North, feeling a sense of hope in the bleakness. In the last minute, we decide to get rid of the final scene from the film and end on a simple, silent shot, full of something I cannot give away -- you have to see it.

When the lights go out and in cathedrals of 24 heartbeats per second and The Lesser Blessed begins to roll, I hope you feel what I felt in that moment of locking the film. I hope you feel what Joel Evans felt walking towards the unknown. And I hope more than anything, you get to enter a world otherwise unknown and emerge with fire in your veins, and a joy at having gained intimacy with Richard Van Camp's amazing story.

The Lesser Blessed hits theatres May 31st in Toronto and June 7th in Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Ottawa.

WATCH: The Lesser Blessed trailer