Kathleen Hepburn's signature project has been ever changing, constantly evolving. The Vancouver writer, camera operator and director has reworked Never Steady, Never Still a number of ways on the page, and three different treatments on film. Finally, after a couple of on-location shoots in her adopted town of Fort St. James, she has the final feature length version ready to hit the national screen.
A small appetizer version - bigger than a trailer but less explanatory - was shot a few years ago starring Rudy Novak as protagonist Jamie and Nola Augustson as the other main character, Jamie's mom Judy. It was little more than two scenes, but still a wrenching emotional journey, especially through Augustson's performance.
The storyline revolves around Judy developing Parkinson's Disease, and teenaged Jamie coming home from working in the oil patch nursing some secretive emotional wounds.
Hepburn wrote the script for the full-length film, but had to write miniature versions to shoot the short versions first, and attract production funding in that reverse engineered kind of way.
In 2015, Never Steady, Never Still was fleshed out into a full short-film with a solid cast that included notable character actors Beverley Elliott and Philip Granger, the role of Judy was handled in award-winning way (a Vancouver Short-Film Festival honorable mention for Best Female Actor) by Tina Hedman and a 2015 Leo Award for Best Performance By a Male In a Short Drama went to Dylan Playfair in the role of Jamie.
Playfair and Hepburn were unaware until well into the production process that both had connections to the end of Highway 27.
"My mom's family grew up in Prince George so my grandfather - he was in forestry - bought a bunch of land at Stuart Lake and also some on the Nechako. He built a cabin there in the '50s. We love it up there," Hepburn said.
Playfair is connected to a significant forestry family as well, and they've also made a name for themselves in hockey. His father Jim and uncle Larry both played in the NHL. He was a strong player himself,but his path turned towards the arts and soon Playfair was a regular cast member for shows like Some Assembly Required, Letterkenny, and he is about to join the Disney family with a featured part in Descendants 2 coming out later this year.
Playfair wanted to reprise his role as Jamie when Hepburn announced she was able to expand the short-film into a feature movie, but she and Playfair both understood that too much time had gone by for him to portray a troubled 18-year-old anymore.
"You know, Kathleen was really awesome about the whole thing," said Playfair. "She said, you know, there is an energy behind an 18-year-old's eyes. I'm 24 now. That's cool. I told her I plan to be a director one day and (casting choices) aren't something you can put on yourself (as the actor)."
The part of Jamie was instead taken over by one of Montreal's buzz-actors, Théodore Pellerin, who projects on film like a young Adrien Brody. Pellerin has gotten critical applause for his parts in projects like It's Only The End of the World, Endorphine, Les démons and other credits. This is his first English-language film.
"He's so emotionally intelligent and such a brilliant young actor we couldn't say no to him," said Hepburn.
It did take a considerable amount of work with an accent coach, but the actor taking on the role of Judy also needed her regional lilt buffed into a central B.C. kind of voice. She was portrayed by Scottish performer Shirley Henderson. That's right, Moaning Myrtle herself came out of the Hogwarts lavatory to the wilds of central British Columbia for this project. Henderson has also played Claire Salter on the gritty miniseries Southcliffe, she's a regular in the Netflix original series Happy Valley, she was Jude in the Bridget Jones Diary franchise and she is reprising the role of Gail in the Trainspotting sequel.
It will be a race to see which of those Henderson projects comes out first. Never Steady, Never Still is also set to hit the screen sometime within the month as is Trainspotting 2, although Canadian/United Kingdom distributor Soda Films has Never Steady, Never Still slated for a limited release initially. Hepburn said about 10 cities are on the first-run list. She had hopes for special showings in Fort St. James and Prince George where she and some others involved in the production could be in attendance and have some public discussions about the show.
To see the 20-minute short-film version (starring Playfair and Hedman), visit the CBC's Canadian Reflections website. As much as it is an acting clinic put on by the tight knot of performers, it is especially a visual love letter to the landscape around Stuart Lake.
The feature length version goes even deeper, said Hepburn. It was what she had in mind all along.
"This was written with the Fort in mind," Hepburn said. "Not for shooting, because logistically that seemed complicated, but as we were scouting and as global warming has come higher and higher into B.C. we couldn't find any lakes that would freeze that had that massive feel that Stuart has, so we felt we might as well go to the real place and go all-in with it. It was very challenging, but the community was awesome, so helpful."
Elliott retained her role in the movie cast. One of the main actors in another local film production, Hello Destroyer, also made a return to this area for a part in Never Steady, Never Still - that being Jared Abrahamson.
Others who joined the on-screen team included Mary Galloway, Jonathan Whitesell, Corner Gas alumnus Lorne Cardinal, DaVinci's Inquest lead actor Nicholas Campbell, and Blackstone strongman Steven Cree Molison who finally got to act in a film project shot right in his home region. Molison is from Prince George.
"I told them I was around, if I could help out at all I'd be happy to be part of it," said Molison.
He got slotted into the role of the small-town sheriff. After years of playing a mohawk-haired television heavy, it was a joy to don a badge and let his white beard grow out.
"And if Kathleen had as much fun as I think she did making a movie around here, she'll be back again," Molison said.
"It was so nice, so different than shooting in Vancouver," Hepburn confirmed. "It's so fresh to them (northern residents). Here (in Vancouver where she lives most of the time) people are jaded because they see so many American productions come through. It becomes more of an annoyance to your day-to-day as opposed to something exciting."
The new friends she made in and around Fort St. James was an unexpected surprise, she confessed. She had no idea the Fort St. James National Historic Site was also a commercial caterer, or that the little coffeeshop Soup Wallah was such an oasis but they were called into service of the film.
"Normally we would just go up and stay on our property, whereas now, I feel like we actually did get to be part of the town. I feel we've crossed that barrier about being engaged and getting to know people (in their adopted community)," Hepburn said.