By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)
Bringing North Mountain to the screen: Bretten Hannam on Colonialism, Two-Spirit Narratives & Manhood
Bretten Hannam, the thirty-two-year-old writer and director of North Mountain (2015), describes his film as “a slow burning action-thriller set in the early 1980s.” Shot over 14 days, North Mountain is a film about Wolf (Justin Rain), a young Mi’kmaw hunter and trapper who helps a fugitive ex-con fight a gang of dirty cops. It starts when Wolf comes across a wounded man, Crane (Glen Could) in the middle of the woods. Wolf nurses him back to health. As their relationship deepens, Crane reveals he double-crossed Sylas (Gary Levert), a crime lord from New York, and stole 2 million dollars. Shortly after, one of Sylas’ henchman shows up looking for Crane. Wolf acts without thinking – killing him and starting an all-out war. Sylas shows up with the rest of his forces, trapping Wolf and Crane on the mountain. Their only hope is to lure their enemies into the woods and ambush them one at a time in a desperate effort to survive. A subtext of the film is the romantic attraction between Wolf and Crane.
North Mountain boasts a talented cast with several First Nations and Métis actors. Prolific actor Glen Gould (Crane) is originally from Membertou, Cape Breton. Plains Cree actor Justin Rain, who played a Quileute Warrior in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010), shines in the starring role as Wolf. Gharrett Paon is Métis from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and provides a convincing moustachioed villain as Kirby. Bretten Hannam is also Métis from Nova Scotia, with Mi’kmaw and Ojibwe roots. Katherine Sorbey, known for Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) and Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994), is a Mi’kmaw Elder and actor from the Eskasoni First Nation in Eastern Cape Breton. Sorbey plays Nukumi (pronounced Nugumee), Wolf’s paternal grandmother, or “Nan” as she is sometimes called, in East Coast vernacular. While her role is non-speaking, her facial and body expressiveness is riveting. Hannam says, “Katherine Sorbey was a fantastic presence on set.”
Meredith MacNeill, also of Nova Scotia, delivers a stellar performance as Wolf’s aunt (his Caucasian mother’s sister), Mona, the proprietor of “The Black Rabbit Trading Post”. When Wolf gets his weekly supplies and food, she offers gentle support to her brooding young nephew, shares memories about his parents, and occasionally, hot meals.
Award-winning Tarek Abouamin was cinematographer and director of photography for North Mountain. North Mountain was shot outside of Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia, in the communities of Albany New, Pleasant River, Caledonia, Mersey River, and Graywood. The cinematography is stunning: snow-laden hemlock, sugar maple, and yellow aspen trees adorning the shores of meandering rivers; Wolf setting rabbit snares at the base of these trees, and saying a prayer in Mi’kmaq over the sun-dappled carcass of a deer he has hunted and killed; Nukumi slowly rising from her chair by the orange light of the hearth, to check on the wounded Crane, her colourful blanket in hand; the stark, wintry lakes where characters give chase on skidoo; an authentic convenience store of yesteryears where the multi-coloured objects on shelves fade to a bejewelled canvas in one shocking scene; a rustic cabin that eventually is caught on fire by the crooks, casting Wolf’s home and sanctuary into a deathtrap. The interplay of light and shadow in North Mountain is exquisite and breathtaking.
The music of North Mountain is an acoustic marvel. Cathy Porter recorded the featured percussion: Crane’s theme is a big drumbeat, and Wolf’s a fainter drumbeat, cleverly lending suspense and atmosphere to this must-see movie. The film was given the award for Best Atlantic Original Score (Lucas Pearse and Mike Ritchie) by the 35th Atlantic Film Festival. Furthermore, at the 2016 Screen Nova Scotia Awards, North Mountain won Best Feature Film.
I caught up with Bretten Hannam at the Opening Gala Party of the 26th Inside Out LGBT Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 26, 2016, to ask him several questions.
In North Mountain, it struck me that characters often use the term “Indian”. Can you tell me about this choice of word, please?
Hannam: It’s not as common as it used to be, but it still comes out when people are relaxed, and not watching what they say. It does come out. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but that was one of the things about the film. The proper term is First Nations, Inuit and Métis but in the reality of the film, because of the time period, in particular because of the characters who are speaking, it’s treated more as a derogatory thing, or a colonial term. I felt that if we were using all the proper terms that would be a progression of time to where we are now, but that wasn’t exactly true to the reality of thirty years ago.
Brett, this is your first feature length film, and you’re both the writer and director. Tell me about the challenges of writing a full-length script, and what you wanted to accomplish?
Hannam: I wanted to step up to the challenge of doing a feature to see if I could sustain a story for that period of time, as well as manage the personal dynamics of the characters. It actually started as a kind of Western. We set out to make something around 1984-1985. Time is a little ambiguous. There’s an old skidoo. Some of the cars are a little bit older, some more modern.
It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was writing this script for five years. Then to do filming in 14 days was very frightening. We had three snow days. We shot for 13 days, and a bit of another day, a half day. Tarek Abouamin shot Deep End (2011) with me. We designed a particular look for how things were going to be. We shot just outside of Kejimkujik National Park, in some of the small communities there. The cabin and convenience store are real places. It’s an authentic convenience store. The cabin, we really burned it down. We tracked down the owner of the cabin. We told him we’d burn it down, have the fire department there to do it safely, and fill in the hole for him, so that he could build another cabin.
We had limited time with certain actors, or we had limited time with certain locations. Then the snow was going to fall and bury everything. It was extremely stressful and then after you’re finished, it’s like, “Okay, let’s do it again! This is great!” Certainly, as far as the content and the subject matter goes, it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I want to continue exploring and developing these two-spirit narratives.”
Why is it important to you to develop stories that have a two-spirit theme, or two-spirit characters?
Hannam: As far as movies and narratives regarding two-spirit characters, there are a couple of documentaries that are out. It’s becoming a more visible thing, that people are discussing more. A lot of First Nations are exploring and reclaiming their own connections to that, and their own history, which is fantastic. But by and large, in the settler world, or the colonial world, it’s something that for the most part, remains unknown. Even in the gay community, it’s fairly unknown. A lot of people think two-spirit means, “That’s a gay Native.” Sure, it can mean that but it’s more in-depth and different, and varies from nation to nation. I think usage is incredibly important to promote two-spirit traditions and two-spirit stories in this current era. So much culture and tradition were lost over the last 500 years due to colonialism. Amongst the things that were lost are two-spirit traditions, and alternative gender expressions are quite threadbare in some places. The internalized homophobia within some First Nations communities is extreme, and it’s very sad to see. So it’s actually very joyous to see when there are two-spirit stories. There’s another film that was made last year called Fire Song (2015) that deals with two-spirit characters, and a two-spirit story. It was grounded in a drama perspective, which was fantastic.
Glen Gould convincingly plays Crane, and Justin Rain excels in the role of Wolf. Their characters share a mutual attraction. How would you describe their dynamics in North Mountain?
Hannam: The dynamic between them is unique, due to the age difference for one. They’re kind of different aspects of one character in a way. Glen’s character, Crane, grew up in the same place, vaguely connected to Wolf through his father. Crane had lived this unsuccessful life. He escaped to the city, and it didn’t really pan out for him there. He made some bad choices, got fed up with it, stole some money and returned home. He never found love.
Justin Rain’s character, Wolf, is very conflicted, growing up in a rural, isolated environment, in a place where there’s a lot of homophobia. After one teenage fleeting love affair, this is the next person he’s ever been in love with, or attracted to. Crane comes from away, and sees a lot of himself in Wolf. I think Crane grounds Wolf a little more. He’s a bit more restrained. There’s a kind of guidance and mentoring that happens. Wolf sees Crane as strong, independent, and self-sufficient. He’s a man’s man.
How did you envision the two-spirit nature of their romance?
Hannam: We just let it play out just the way it would happen without saying, “Okay, this is two-spirit, and we’re going to directly speak about this.” It felt a little weird to directly talk about it like that, so it wasn’t mentioned, exactly. My goal was to make a film that was more of a genre piece that had gay characters, instead of making a movie that was about being gay. That’s a part of the characters that informs everything that happens. That was a more conscious decision, to keep it more subtle.
Crane and Wolf are rather stoic, subdued archetypes of manhood, I would say. Why?
Hannam: On one level, there’s the film that you watch, when you sit down and say, “Let’s just watch a movie and be entertained.” Then there’s the whole metanarrative beneath it. There’s this church, there’s a place of business, there’s all sorts of things going on. It terms of the characters, they represent the potential, or the different points of life in the four sacred directions. Basically, there’s more of a father figure and a son figure. One is at the beginning of his life, and still has the potential to be, and do, and go places. Then you have someone who has done all these things, and made all these bad choices. So, together they have strengths and weaknesses that kind of compliment. Wolf is impulsive and full of energy and life. Crane, maybe not so much, but he is more balanced and grounded in his choices. Wolf’s reaction is like, “I’m gonna go down there and kill all those guys.” Crane reaction is, “Don’t go. It’s beyond what you can do. You’ll get hurt”, and then, of course, Wolf doesn’t listen, because that’s how movies work. The intention was to show not the same character but I guess, the same idea of a man, at different ends—so starting out and, then, not finished but more advanced.
So when you say “man”, you yourself are a very articulate man. Yet, Wolf and Crane don’t say much. Although there are moments of vulnerability, especially in Wolf’s character, they largely conform to the strong, silent male prototype. They are not what I would term verbose.
Hannam: No. Which is probably the opposite of how they [Rain and Gould] are in real life. It was definitely part of the idea for the strong, silent type in the action-thriller genre. Wolf’s character is also part of his isolation. He doesn’t really have many people his own age. He spends most of his time with his grandmother. We had initially intended to have more lines for Nukumi, too, but that’s part of the challenge of creating a 78-minute narrative, and the short time we had for filming.
North Mountain premiered in Toronto on Monday, May 30, 2016 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Director: Bretten Hannam
Writer: Bretten Hannam
Executive producer: Thom Fitzgerald
Producers: Bretten Hannam; Kevin Kincaid
Cinematography: Tarek Abouamin
Editor: Christopher Cooper
Music by: Lucas Pearse; Mike Ritchie; Cathy Porter
Sound: Lucas Pearse