Article Update (March 16, 2020 at 5:27pm ET): Unfortunately, due to the current recommendations around the COVID-19 virus, film distributor Elevation Pictures has decided to postpone ‘The Grizzlies’ from opening in theaters this weekend. We will keep readers updated on the movie’s new release date when the company makes another announcement.
Original article precedes below (published on March 16, 2020 at 8:15am ET:
Tragic stories are on an endless cycle in the North American news rotation, and many reflect the dark legacies, and lingering effects, of racism and colonization. While the continent tries to contend with the difficult subjects, there are some inspirational stories that emerge, which are crucial to society’s collective healing. The new sports biopic, ‘The Grizzlies,’ showcases how a group of indigenous students were able to improve the environment of their whole town.
The movie is based on the inspiring true story of a group of Inuit (Eskimo/Indigenous/Native) students in a small Arctic town. The Canadian teens, who were once struggling with structurally-imposed barriers and inter-generational trauma, prove that there is always a way to overcome obstacles and gain confidence, despite steep odds.
‘The Grizzlies’ was produced by Miranda de Pencier, who also made her feature film directorial debut on the drama. She knew that a movie based on the Kugluktuk Grizzlies lacrosse team was not only something that she wanted to make, but had to bring to the screen. She also felt that the teens, who were once riddled with one of the highest teen suicide rates in North America, were transformed by the power of community through sports-so much so that the suicide rate fell to zero. She felt that improvement was both deeply moving and universally inspirational. She was drawn to the community’s idea that hope is always alive, even in the darkest moments of life.
Elevation Pictures is set to release ‘The Grizzlies’ in select theaters across the US this Friday, March 20. The biopic is set to opening in New York City at AMC Empire 25, and in West Nyack, New York at AMC Palisades Center 21, as well as in LA at Orange 30, Regal Irvine Spectrum 21 And Regal Aliso Viejo Stadium. Additional markets include Anchorage, AK; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Denver, CO; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Minneapolis, MN; Nashville, TN; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia, PA Phoenix, AZ; Raleigh, NC; Reno, NV; Salt Lake City, UT; San Antonio, TX; St. Louis, MO; Tampa, FL; and Washington DC.
‘The Grizzlies’ follows the Inuit students as they’re initially resistant when a naive and culturally ignorant white teacher, Russ Sheppard (Schnetze), introduces them to lacrosse. But gradually, as they begin to connect with each other as teammates, the students find inspiration to make profound shifts in their lives. Together as the title team, the players learn to lead each other, gain the support of a deeply divided town and look to compete in the National Lacrosse Championships.
The students’ ultimately discover that success doesn’t lie in the outcome of a lacrosse game. Instead their triumphs lie in their awakened spirits and the awareness that even in the toughest of circumstances, there’s always the possibility of transformation and hope.
de Pencier generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘The Grizzlies’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that while she knew little about the lifestyle of the Inuit community before she became attached to the biopic, she felt like she could make her feature directorial debut on the project after she met the real kids who inspired the story in the movie. She also expressed that she felt it was important to shoot the drama in the Arctic North, because the crew had invested a lot of time and energy in there, and a lot of the native communities invested a lot of time in the film.
The conversation with de Pencier began with the filmmaker discussing what convinced her to bring the script, which was written by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost, to the screen. “I actually wasn’t supposed to direct it in the beginning,” she admitted with a laugh. “I was just a producer on the movie. I was the boots on the ground producer. Graham Yost, who we hired to write the script, was attached to direct it in the beginning.”
“Then Graham got really busy (writing and executive producing) ‘Justified.’ When he left to go do the show, he turned to me and said, ‘I think you should direct.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?!? I haven’t directed a movie in my life.’ He said, ‘You’re an actress, so you can do it,'” de Pencier added. The director “was then sent an ESPN piece about ‘The Grizzlies’ from (producer) Zanne Devine, who had gotten it from (executive producer) Frank Marshall, who had gotten it from (executive producer) Jake Steinfeld,” she shared.
Once the filmmaker began to consider helming ‘The Grizzlies,’ she started realizing that she could potentially take on the job. “We were up in the Arctic, scouting, and we decided to do acting and audition workshops with kids up there. During that time, Graham saw me work with the kids, and do a lot of improv. So he said, ‘I think you can do it.'”
de Pencier then “made a short film with my Inuit co-producers on the feature. We ended up winning a Canadian Screen Award, and we were short-listed for an Oscar. So the team gained the confidence to make the feature, and for me to step in and direct.”
Following up on the fact that she watched the ESPN news piece about the real-life team, and that the movie is based on the true story, the director delved into what kind of research she did into the community. “I knew nothing about the Arctic before I started making this movie,” she revealed. “But I became interested in this subject matter because I thought I was making a sports drama. I had suffered from depression in high school, and sports really helped me get through it.”
When she arrived in the Arctic for the first time, de Pencier “met the real kids who inspired the story in the movie. I realized the complexities of their trauma of colonization and residential schools, and that history.”
The filmmaker further explained that “I didn’t know about, and understand, a lot of the problems in the indigenous communities as an outsider. I’m a white girl from Toronto, so I’m as far removed from that community as you can get. It was a big wake-up call for me.
“So I realized early on that there was no way that I could tell this story without Inuit collaborators. So I found two awesome women who are young filmmakers-Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. They became (producing) partners on the project, and would read drafts,” de Pencier shared.
“We did a number of youth workshops, and got feedback from members of the Inuit community through a 10-year collaboration. So my research was really done through living and developing the film over the 10-year period,” the helmer shared.
de Pencier then delved into what the casting process was like for the biopic. “About 90 percent of the Inuit kids in the movie had never acted before. So we couldn’t go to a casting director in New York or L.A. and tell them to find us the best Inuit actors. That wasn’t because they didn’t exist; there are talented people in the Arctic, but there just wasn’t a platform or possibilities for them,” she added. “Now there’s a change happening, and there’s a lot more indigenous filmmakers being supported than when we first started making this movie a decade ago,” the filmmaker noted.
“I had this vision that every kid in the North to audition for the movie,” de Pencier added. “So we reached out to about 25 communities in the Arctic, and these towns are only accessible by plane. So I was joined by my casting director and some of my staff when I visited 15 of the communities, and we contacted the rest of them online. If they didn’t have a camera, we sent them one, and we gave teachers instructions on how to put their students’ auditions on tape. So in the end, we ended up with about 600 auditions.
“We then flew 60 kids to the Eastern Arctic to do a series of workshops. We didn’t want to make the casting process just about getting into this movie; we wanted it to be something that lasted,” the director explained. “My Inuit co-producers taught me that it was important to do these workshops so that these kids could learn about a variety of skill sets, and bring those new abilities back to their communities beyond the film…At the end of the week, we told the kids, if you want to audition, you can.”
Once production on ‘The Grizzlies’ began, it was shot on location in Iqaluit, Nunavut and Guelph, Ontario, Canada. de Pencier then discussed what her experience shooting the feature on location was like overall. “I definitely wanted to shoot in the Arctic, but I didn’t realize how insanely expensive it was going to be when I started out. I could have made the film three years earlier than we did, if I shot it completely outside of Toronto,” she revealed.
“But at that point, I felt like I had invested a lot of time and energy in the North, and a lot of the communities invested a lot of time in the film. So I felt like we owed it to them to tell the story with a cast and crew in the North,” the filmmaker further explained.
“You can’t beat that location; it’s one of the most spectacular locations that I’ve ever seen on screen,” de Pencier gushed. “We wanted to shoot in Kugluktuk, which is the town where the story took place. We spoke to the mayor about it, but in the end, we decided against it. It’s so remote that there was a fear that if there were weather or equipment issues, it would have taken two or three days to replace equipment or people. So it was too high-risk. Plus, there’s a housing shortage there, so housing and feeding the crew would have been exorbitantly expensive,” the helmer revealed.
“So we ended up shooting in Iqaluit, which is in the East Arctic. There’s a population of about 6,000 people there, so it’s the biggest town in the Canadian Arctic Circle,” de Pencier added. “It was so visually beautiful, and there was a lot to capture.”
In addition to serving as the director, the filmmaker also served as a producer on ‘The Grizzlies.’ She then delved into why she decide to also produce the drama. “I think in general, I would rather just wear one hat. But in this case, it took so much time to raise the money for the movie, that when we started shooting, none of the other producers were available to be on set full-time. So I had to take on more of the producing duties than I would have liked.
“Having said that, I see the benefit of being a producer when you’re also directing. I got the piratical and financial aspects of producing in my head, which helped me push things through as a director on set when we needed to, since I was so connected to all aspects of the filmmaking,” de Pencier revealed.
The biopic premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, and has also screened at the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Calgary Film Festival and the Vancouver Film Festival. The director then shared what her experience of bringing the drama on the festival circuit was like, and how audiences responded to the movie.
“It was amazing. It’s really important when we traveled with the film to make sure that there was an Inuit person associated with the movie at every screening. I can only speak from my perspective, and this film was such a collaboration with the Norther Inuit community. So that journey has been extremely enlightening,” de Pencier pointed out.
“We’ve been across Europe and Canada, as well as to Palm Springs. At these festivals, I found that white audiences are changed, because they’ve been enlightened, and learn about the Inuit culture. There’s also things in the movie that are universal,” the filmmaker stated.
“The Inuit community has been very grateful that there’s a version of themselves on screen. The indigenous youth don’t get a lot of versions of themselves in the media. It’s been exciting to see them get so happy to see themselves be the leads in a film,” de Pencier concluded.