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Calgary Herald: Alberta-shot sci-fi feature The Northlander examines identity with a Metis twist

It’s a testament to the infectious enthusiasm of filmmaker Benjamin Ross Hayden that actor Corey Sevier’s skepticism about the scope of his vision faded so quickly.

While he is only 32, Sevier is a former child actor (Goosebumps, Little Men) who has been in the business for 25 years and is aware of the limitations of low-budget films. For his first time out, Hayden was intent on making an otherworldly, action-packed sci-fi parable with spiritual leanings and allusions to the history and culture of his Metis background.

But given that The Northlander was to come from a Telefilm Canada program titled “micro-budget,” it was clear that resources were not going to be infinite.

“You are, as an actor, in the hands of the filmmakers and the people you are working with,” says Sevier. “And, of course, it crosses your mind if a film like this would have the budget to really put what needs to be there on screen. So  I always say the first thing I need to do is talk to the director. Ben being the writer, director and producer put me at ease. In our early discussions, he would send me shots of the sets and the set design. He presented such a thorough vision. Not only vision, but they were well into their pre-production so he had a lot of material to show me, which of course helps.”

No one could ever accuse Hayden, who at 25 was the youngest filmmaker to ever receive funding from Telefilm Canada’s micro-budget program, of lacking vision or ambition. He shot in Drumheller, the Bow Valley Ranch west of Calgary and Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park near the Alberta-Montana border last year. Sevier plays a futuristic hunter named Cygnus forced to save his tribe from a mysterious danger while battling bloodthirsty heretics along the way.

Set in a post-civilization 2961, The Northlander has a certain Mad Max vibe, with its hostile, post-apocalyptic feel magnified by the rocky and beautifully bleak terrain of Drumheller and Writing-On-Stone. There is also plenty of action sequences. Sevier and the other main actors did many of their own stunts, which gives it all a certain rawness and, the actor admits, led to a few bruises here and there.

There are also scenery-crunching villains, medicine men and a mysterious matriarch played by Michelle Thrush, who all speak in riddles about journeys, questions, fate and survival.

 But while all of this is entertaining, the film also has deeper philosophical leanings about the search for identity and self-determination, which is meant to resonate with the modern-day reality of the Metis and other indigenous groups. Hayden said the film makes clear allusions to history as well, particularly the plight of Metis leader Louis Riel and the Battle of Batoche in 1885.

“I found that the more I wrote, narratively the history of Riel became fused with Cygnus and his search,” Hayden says. “It became important to the story because we definitely were shooting at the very southern tip of Alberta in Writing-On-Stone. There are a few shots in Northlander where we are actually pointing the camera at the very mountain range that Louis Riel stayed on the other side of in recluse before returning to fight for his people.”

Hayden partnered with The Adam Beach Film Institute, founded by the actor to provide resources and training to indigenous filmmakers. He also attracted an impressive cast of actors, including many that starred in the award-winning Alberta-shot First Nations drama Blackstone. Thrush and fellow alumni Roseanne Supernault, Nathaniel Arcand and Julian Black Antelope all have key roles in the film.

On Wednesday, The Northlander will have its gala Western Canada première at Landmark Cinemas Country Hills Studio 16, following by a VIP industry night Thursday. It will kick-start a theatrical release through Landmark Cinemas and Raven Banner Releasing  across Canada in the next two months. 

Hayden, a Southern Alberta Institute of Technology grad who dabbled in futuristic worlds with a number of ambitious shorts, plans to stay within his Northlander universe for the near future. He is currently developing a six-part miniseries based on the premise. He is also writing other projects that blend sci-fi elements with indigenous culture.

“I enjoy setting movies in different possible times on planet earth,” he says. “It gives a liberty to answer important questions of now while still being in a narrative that is appealing and accessible.”

The Northlander opening galas will be held Wednesday and Thursday the Landmark Cinemas Country Hills Studio 16 at 7 p.m. The film opens Friday.



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