One of Canada's most beloved novels of the modern time is now being made into a movie, with a local youth at centre ice for the action.
Indian Horse is a best-selling novel by star writer Richard Wagamese. It was featured in the 2013 edition of Canada Reads on CBC Radio championed by celebrity advocate Carol Huynh (Olympic gold medalist from Hazelton) where it won the reader's choice award.
It was also in the running for the similar Turtle Island Reads (by the Quebec Writers' Federation) with actor Heather White as its champion. Indian Horse was the eventual winner of that event.
Now it is getting a cinematic production as well. Super Channel has commissioned a movie version with major Canadian film figure Stephen Campanelli calling the shots. Campanelli is the director behind the recent thriller Momentum starring Olga Kurylenko, James Purefoy and Morgan Freeman. He is also a 20-year veteran of Clint Eastwood's production crew, working the camera for such masterpieces as Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, Mystic River and American Sniper.
Now Campanelli is telling a quintessentially Canadian story with the adaptation of Indian Horse. It's the story of some aboriginal youth ripped from their families by the residential school system. The anguish and injustice of their brutal disconnection from home and culture is balanced by one bright spot: they do manage to find hockey. The main character is young hockey star Saul Indian Horse.
Braeden Crouse, 14, never had to go to residential school, nor did his parents, but they grew up only about an hour's drive from Lejac that profoundly affected older generations in north-central B.C.
Crouse did grow up well aware of his aboriginal background, however, and well aware of hockey. He is a stalwart member of the Burns Lake Minor Hockey Association, and although he is typically quiet, he is quick with his wit and a wry sense of humour. This inner churn got the attention of Campanelli and his casting crew when they put out a call for auditions.
It was Crouse's dad, Rene, who spotted the notice. There were only two days left before applications had to be in, but Crouse was instantly interested so he hastily got it completed and emailed in time.
Then the family had to drive to Kamloops (where Wagamese now lives) to do live auditions, when his application was shortlisted.
Crouse went to Prince George to spend some holiday time with his mom, Rhoda.
"My mom actually took away our wifi because my brothers weren't doing their chores, but after awhile she gave me the password because I was doing my share," said Crouse. "The first thing that popped up when I logged back in was a message from the film company saying they wanted me in the movie."
The filming was all slated for Ontario. Crouse and his dad trekked to the Peterborough area where the cast and crew assembled for several days of shooting. For two weeks they became a thrown-together family.
"We felt so close. I didn't like leaving," said Crouse. "At first I was nervous but then I got used to it. It became a natural thing."
Some of the work was a tedious chore. Filming often takes large blocks of time to get what, on screen, looks like the simplest scene. Other times, the action was so busy, hours would fly by in what seemed to him like minutes. He would then do his homework back at the hotel, sometimes falling asleep with the script in his hand.
There were a lot of young actors involved in the cast. He got along with the adults, but it was the collection of kids who really bonded, he said.
"I remember on the last day we had a scene with a snowball fight," Crouse said. "Eva (Greyeyes, 14, cast member and daughter of famed performer Michael Greyeyes) said she was going to wreck everybody but by the end she was totally covered in snow. She got attacked. It was hilarious. That was my final day on set, so it ended on a good note. Everyone was laughing. I miss it; I miss them."
Some of the other kids in the cast were Lisa Oopik Minich, Skye Pelletier, Sladen Peltier as the 6-year-old version of Saul, Forrest Goodluck (he was Leonardo diCaprio's son in The Revenant) as the 15-year-old version of Saul, and many more peers with whom Crouse shared the experience.
The adults in the cast ranged from well known veterans like Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones, Nashville, World War Z), Michael Murphy (Manhattan, Batman Returns, Away From Her, White House Down), Martin Donovan (Ant-Man, Weeds, Insomnia) and Evan Adams (Lost In the Barrens, Da Vinci's City Hall, Smoke Signals) to newcomers like Will Strongheart, Ajuawak Kapashesit, Daina Barbeau, and Melanie McLaren.
Crouse is one of the latter. He had never been in a film before. He had only been in one school play, portraying Bill Sikes in a Grade 7 production of Oliver With A Twist at William Konkin Elementary School in Burns Lake. He is currently playing Piggy in a Lakes District Secondary School production of Lord of the Flies. He said his favourite class was drama with director/choreographer Rayanne Charlie and teacher Jim Mellen, but he never anticipated that interest would rise to this level.
"I always loved watching movies, and I'd also watch all the special features on the DVD to hear the commentary from the directors and how they built the sets and designed the costumes," he said. "Now I understand a lot better what they are talking about. I'm already watching movies differently than I did before, thinking about how they made the scene and how they got the shot."
Part of the learning he received was knowing that the direction team was interested in casting him in one role, then changing their minds and slotting him into a different character. He didn't get dropped from the project, he got reassigned based on the way his mannerisms jived with the crew's vision of a boy in the script named Lonnie.
"It was surprising. It was an honour," he said. "I think 95 per cent of my lines were in Ojibwe. I don't speak Ojibwe. I had to study hard. I think they could have cast an actor who already knew the language, but they wanted me. That felt pretty awesome. Lonnie's trademark phrase was 'ninigiiwe niin' which means 'I want to go home.'"
Real home was a long way from Ontario. Crouse had never been that far east before. He had never flown on a jet before. He'd certainly never been around film stars of all descriptions.
Now he is interested in pursuing a performance career, but he is far from the centres where that industry happens.
"There are some pros and cons to living in a small northern town," he said. "If you live in a big city, there are more chances for you to be seen for acting opportunities, more jobs in acting, but in Burns Lake there's no better place to be for fun on dirtbikes, hockey, fishing, there's just lakes and lakes and lakes. It's amazing."
Indian Horse is in the post-production phase, during which all the film is edited together, sound is finalized, music is overlaid, and so forth.
There is no public announcement as yet on when Indian Horse will hit movie screens or televisions. The novel is readily available on the book shelves of the nation.