INTERVIEW – Miranda de Pencier on THE GRIZZLIES

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The Grizzlies is based on the inspiring true story of a group of students in a small, struggling Arctic town and centers around the experiences of a recently graduated White teacher, Russ, working his first job as a high school history teacher in the isolated Inuit town of Kuluktuk, where the hardships of life far exceed its joys. In this inspiring tale, Russ and the students are transformed by the power of sport and hope. Canadian filmmaker Miranda de Pencier is an award-winning actress, producer and director. She’s the founder of Northwood Entertainment. The Grizzlies, which premiered at TIFF and for which she won the DGC Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, is her feature film directorial debut.

Jennifer Merin: What, in your words, is The Grizzlies about — both in story and theme?

Miranda de Pencier: The Grizzlies is based on the true story of an extraordinary group of Inuit youth in a small Arctic town who overcame their grief and pain through sport. That’s the simple answer. The greater story is that it is really a film about a group of Indigenous kids who had the strength and resiliency to overcome decades of colonialism – which make the particulars of this story both more heroic and more complicated. Thematically the film explores hope, the importance of true human connection, shame, humility, forgiveness and love.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

de Pencier: My aim was always for the film to have a documentary level of realism (both intimate and epic) so that audiences could truly immerse themselves in the specifics of the world – and feel as close as possible to the characters – but at the same time show the stunning beauty of the Arctic. My visual references were everything from Once Were Warriors to La Promesse to the Dutch Baroque painter Vermeer – but more than anything every scene was shot and built visually starting from the emotional language of what is going on underneath the surface in each scene. I had all these plans to shot list the entire movie before going on location, but I was still busy raising money and casting while we were in prep so ultimately I entered principal photography with images and feelings that would translate into a rough emotional shot list in my head which cinematographer Jim Denault and I would then work out onto paper practically every morning before call time. Sometimes with the actors during blocking, the whole plan would be thrown out and a new plan would emerge in the moment. Most of the actors had never even been on a film set before so truth and authenticity always ruled over style for me. I stand by the motto that if you aren’t feeling it – it doesn’t matter how good it looks.

Jim and I also had a general rule that the camera and framing would be more formal and classic at the start when the kids are more shut off emotionally – but as they begin to open up and we witness more intimate connections and emerging joy – the camera becomes more hand held, playful and alive.

I don’t like a lot of color and prefer a more muted look but with highlights, bold contrast and inky blacks, so I worked with Leah Carlson (Costume Designer) and Zazu Myers (Production Designer) to limit the color palette. We leaned into darker blues, grays and greens – and stayed away from red and brighter colors until the end of the film when life for the kids gets more hopeful.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

de Pencier:  This is such a hard question for me to answer in a soundbite. I learned so much making this film and my knowledge, heart, and the direction of the movie changed and evolved over the 10 years it took to make it. What started off as a genre sports movie became a much deeper and more complex film about very specific, real-life individuals surviving and rising above. I had never met an Inuit person when I first went to the Arctic to do research for the movie but in that the first visit, I met with a few of the real kids who very generously and bravely shared their past traumas and truths with me. The poverty and pain I witnessed from that very first visit to Kugluktuk, Nunavut made me immediately aware of how massive the responsibility was to get this story right, do it justice and honor the young people who relied on me to tell their truths with respect.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

de Pencier: The Grizzlies. Now I know these words – but – like the rest of the world and most especially in support of my Inuit friends – I’m still longing to see governments and citizens in Canada, the US (and globally) much more actively right the ongoing wrongs of colonization.

I also learned about the benefits of pushing through pain and shame to get to hope and joy. I grew up in a WASPy family where emotions and problems were kept hidden and yet if you keep things buried, they will eventually come back to bite you. The young people I met all over the north during years of development and production taught me that sharing feelings openly can be incredibly healing and freeing.

Finally, I learned to listen better – to know when to shut up and give someone else the space to speak. This film was a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and I was certainly grateful for the opportunity to work with such talented people in the north – who were willing to generously share their culture with me so openly – but it’s more than time to give space and support to Indigenous voices to tell their own stories.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

de Pencier:  I had all the elements you should probably shy away from in a first film: First time actors (some who didn’t speak my language), a remote location, challenging weather, action sports, stunts, fights, and animals. But the great thing about making a movie is that it’s not a solo sport – and the team that made The Grizzlies, from our extraordinary writers Graham Yost and Moira Walley-Beckett to my fearless AD Sorcha Vasey to the brilliance of composer Garth Stevenson & all the insanely talented Inuk musicians we discovered in the north – and everyone in between – came together because they believed in the importance of the story we were all telling.

I also learned that the more invested the crew is, the more the whole machine can become that intangible collective creative element the audience (hopefully) ends up feeling when they watch the film. We made sure that a local person was trained in each and every department and 33% of our crew was Indigenous which helped us ensure authenticity was being considered in each and every aspect of the film. Perspective, representation and diversity matters not just because it’s the right and respectful move – but also because it makes the world (and art) a better, more interesting and more understanding place.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

de Pencier: Besides raising the money and shooting in one of the most challenging environments on earth, our casting process and working with first-time actors was definitely the most challenging part of making The Grizzlies. We couldn’t just call a casting director in New York or Los Angeles and say: “Find me 5 of the best Inuit teen actors on the planet”. They just didn’t exist. Not because of a lack of talent but because of a lack of access and opportunity. So, we had to go to the Arctic and find them and then train them. It was a huge and expensive process – ultimately costing over $300,000 to cast the film when taking into account the search, the training and the support. We ended up auditioning about 600 kids all over the Arctic Circle and then we flew 60 to the eastern Arctic for a series of acting workshops. The amazing Inuit Producers on the film, Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril were pivotal partners in helping to facilitate and execute the search and training. They taught me that it wasn’t enough to just cast the film. That if we were gathering kids for a week of acting classes then we also had to give them more knowledge to take back to their communities. We added Inuit teachers to the program who taught Inuit throat singing, drum dancing, mask work, photography etc. Casting the film became less important than the benefits of the process.

The other huge challenge was to ensure there was consistent emotional support for these youth actors who had to access painful emotions in a safe way. When you’re dealing with a film about suicide – it’s imperative to know that the process for the young actors is helpful and healing – not triggering. The workshop experience and having access to mental health workers throughout the shoot helped us ensure we had young actors who remained stable and strong enough to go the distance. Many of the actors had lived with depression and suicide in their own lives so we couldn’t ever take any chances with anyone’s mental health.

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

de Pencier: I never know how to answer that question. I have no idea what it feels like to be a man, so I don’t know if I would’ve handled it differently if I wasn’t a woman! There are a lot of important conversations happening right now that are long overdue, and I am definitely all for supporting more women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ filmmakers– but that doesn’t mean I want to start shitting on all the white dudes out there. There are some good dudes! It’s just that we’ve been hearing from them for a while so it’s about time that there be equal opportunity for all voices. Movies would become so boring if they all continued to be from just one POV.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

de Pencier: I feel like I’m still emotionally recovering from directing my first film! So, for now, I’m focused on producing and currently supporting a number of filmmakers – including several Indigenous filmmakers – in helping them bring their visions to life. I do have some ideas though, so when the need gets strong enough I can imagine myself back in a director’s chair.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

de Pencier: There are so many different kinds of filmmakers that inspire me. I’ve been a longtime fan of Jane Campion, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Niki Caro who fulfilled a dream of mine when she agreed to direct Anne With and E. And I continue to be in awe of the unique talents of filmmakers like Taika Waititi, Steve McQueen, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Ava DuVernay, David Cronenberg, Andrea Arnold, Ritesh Batra, Pavel Pawlikowski, the Wachowski sisters and Peter Weir. Sydney Pollock also made a few of my favorite films. And when I need to laugh? Mike Nichols and Billy Wilder. I could go on and on…aren’t movies a wonderful thing?

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

de Pencier: Trust yourself. Be willing to fail and fall. You will survive. But if you don’t start making things then you can’t get better! Boys learn to go for it no matter what. They are taught from a young age that it’s OK to get messy and dirty and climb high. If you fall? Get up, dust yourself off and keep going. Instead, girls are taught to stay neat and tidy, be polite and kind – and “don’t climb trees because you might fall and hurt yourself”. So, I generally find that as women we resist and think everything needs to be perfect before we take risks and activate. Well, fuck that! The only difference between little boys and little girls (or between male and female film school grads) is confidence. Women need to help each other push through the shame, fear and doubts – and just take the leap. Start making things however you can – with your friends, in your backyard, on a shoestring budget with your cell phone: Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you are ready to do it. I’m telling you right now: You can do it. And your perspective matters.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Grizzlies is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for August 14, 2020

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