Original-Cin interview: The producer and director of The Grizzlies talk airfare to Nunavut, Graham Yost and flipping the white-saviour-teacher trope

Nunavut-born filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has fielded many film offers from “Southerners” since her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk debuted at Hot Docs and upended the narrative about Indigenous people and the seal hunt. 

And she has a simple method for weeding them out.

The gang from The Grizzlies

The gang from The Grizzlies

“I say, ‘Have you looked up the cost of flights to Iqaluit? If so, I’d love you to come up and talk.’

“Most often don’t hear from them again,” she says with a laugh.

Her bluff was called by Toronto-born, sometime LA-based Miranda de Pencier, who has gone on to direct the inspiring Nunavut-based true story The Grizzlies with Arnaquq-Baril as producer.

“Miranda came up, and was scanning the landscape, and she was like, ‘Okay, do you have crew, do you have actors, do you have producers, writers? Who is there here we can work with?”

“Obviously, our backgrounds are very different,” de Pencier said at a joint interview on the day The Grizzlies debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. “But I feel like, honestly, we come from the same place in our hearts as filmmakers.”

The Grizzlies was a team of novice lacrosse players from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, assembled in the early ‘00s by Russ Sheppard, a school teacher from Saskatchewan, as a response to a youth community stricken by poverty, substance abuse and suicide. His determination, and theirs, eventually helped take the team to their age group’s national finals.

The story inspired a short feature on ESPN, which in turn inspired de Pencier, who was then the director of development for Robert Redford’s production company, and an aspiring producer and director herself.

The Grizzlies’ director Amanda de Pencier

The Grizzlies’ director Amanda de Pencier

“It just burst through the bullshit to be honest,” she says, referencing typical Hollywood stories. “And I’m very attracted to stories about anyone overcoming challenges. And this one was an extreme set of challenges and extraordinary youth that overcame it.”

Next up was another Canadian-born Hollywood player, Graham Yost (Justified), who ended up writing the script. “Ignorantly, I had not considered looking for Indigenous writers,” de Pencier says. 

“I just wanted the best writer to tell this story. Graham was one of the top writers in Canada and I thought he might be someone who could write the drama and know the sports genre. As he tells it, he wasn’t really interested. But when he saw the ESPN news piece he was deeply moved, bawling his eyes out. And one of his kids played lacrosse, and he just thought, ‘I have to write this movie.’”

“So, we began the journey with Graham. He and I went up to Kugluktuk, we met the original kids, did a bunch of research in the North and then went back to Hollywood and wrote the drafts.

“He was actually going to direct the movie, and then he got busy on Justified and ended up having to leap off The Grizzlies, but not before looking at me and saying, ‘Miranda, you should direct this.’”

The finished product stars Ben Schnetzer (Entebbe), as Sheppard wrestling with frustration from day one, with students who don’t bother showing up, and who might as easily be ice-fishing as attending school. He sees them in the streets getting wasted and begins to see them as beyond his ability to help.

“It’s a genre picture, it’s not re-inventing the wheel with its story,” de Pencier says when I mention similarly-plotted real-life-based movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. “What’s unique is the setting, and these extraordinary performances from these young actors, most of whom had never been on a film set before. 

“I think often these narratives are driven from the teachers’ point of view, and we wanted to play with that. You think it’s going to be the trope movie about the teacher who comes up to save the day. And then we wanted to f--- with that and flip it on its end and have the kids really save Russ.

“He’s about to fall apart. He wants to leave. It’s too much for him, and the kids end up really becoming the heroes.”

Casting the picture was out of de Pencier’s comfort zone too, as she recounts in casting first-timer Paul Nutarariaq in the key role of Zach, a natural player who is passionate about protecting his brother from the fallout of their parents’ addictions.

“I was looking for kids and a bunch of kids weren’t showing up for auditions. And I went to a co-op and talked to a bunch of kids that were working in the store. And they were like, ‘Nah, not really interested in a movie.’ 

“Finally I went to this youth centre and there was like 20 kids hanging out playing video games, and in the back was Paul whipping this ping pong ball against the wall with an insane amount of energy. And I thought, ‘Who’s that kid?’

 “And I got the head of the centre to introduce me to Paul, and I said, ‘Have you ever been in a movie?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Are you interested in acting?’ and he said, ‘Maybe.’ And I said, ‘Here’s the script, come back and see me tomorrow at the high school.’

“And he came back with the script, performed off-book, completely in character and was brilliant. And Stacy, my co-producer and I, were there. He made us cry. We were blown away.”