First time feature film directors don’t usually turn to period pieces to ease their way into the filmmaking world, especially in Canada where funding for such ambitious projects is often in short supply. Yet writer-director Nathan Morlando remained undeterred, debuting his labour of love Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster at TIFF last year to thunderous buzz and widespread acclaim as the film picked up the prize for the best Canadian First Feature.
The film, opening this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and expanding across Canada in the upcoming weeks, tells the true story of a down on his luck Toronto area WWII veteran (Scott Speedman, in the title role) who turns to bank robbing to provide for his family. With his charismatic demeanour and a crew of loyal cohorts, Boyd became a media sensation that fell in line with his one time dreams of becoming an actor.
Shot mostly in Sault Ste. Marie in the dead of an incredibly snowy winter, Morlando had to find creative ways to mask a modern day city and make it look like the 1940s and 50s. Morlando talked to us last year during the festival about those very challenges, landing a great cast (which also includes Kevin Durand, Kelly Reilly, and Brian Cox) on a small budget, and what drew him to the story in the first place.
Criticize This!: I know this was a bit of a labour of love for you. When did you first begin to familiarize yourself with the legend of Edwin Boyd?
Nathan Morlando: As a boy, from my uncles and my mom. I grew up in Toronto in the East end and my uncles were much older than my mom, so they were closer in age to Lenny (Jackson, played by Durand) and Val (Kozak, played by Joseph Cross), and they were enthralled as teenagers by the Boyd gang. That’s how that started. There’s just so many different things. They’ve been to so many different places and affected so many different people.
CT: What made Scott Speedman stand out as the potential lead for you?
NM: I don’t know if you have met Scott, but he’s got great charisma and screen presence and charm, and Eddie Boyd had those qualities, which is what made him so popular with the press and the public. It was important for an actor to have those qualities. Another consideration – and this oddly wasn’t as important – was that he actually looks like Edwin Boyd. Most importantly, he was committed to going to the distances that the script would ask him to go. He was just perfect.
CT: This is definitely a smaller movie and a period piece. What’s it like trying to mount a period piece today on a very “Canadian” budget?
NM: It’s really hard. (laughs) It’s a real challenge. There were a couple of things, but we had to embrace every challenge as a potential opportunity, and we got into bad moods and we got discouraged at times even during the script stage. I committed to directing this and I had sold this to a Canaidan production company years ago, and then they started going in a certain direction with it and it never got made. Then Alison Black, my producer and creative partner, and I acquired the rights back about three years ago and I knew I was going to direct it. So we knew that as a first time director, we weren’t going to get much money to begin with. So that was going to be a challenge right away.
Second, was that it was going to be a period piece. How do we approach that? Well, we had to make some truly psychological decisions on that. What’s important here isn’t the outside world, but the characters. So, that was really what we should have been doing in the first place, anyway. So we started with a page one rewrite and made it a much more internal film. So that helped quite a lot.
So the exterior shots, if you noticed, are very minimal, and if we kept a focus on the psychology of the character, you aren’t going to miss very much of the outside world. Michael Mann and Scorsese and guys like that do that kind of filmmaking so well that I can’t match that or reproduce that. I can’t recreate an old Toronto street and have this giant crane shot with old streetcars and a thousand people in the street.
What became psychologically true in the film as a result of those limitations is that this world didn’t even exist for these guys. Once you become a criminal, that’s all gone for you. It only reinforced the themes of the film.
From a narrative point of view we had to start there, and for production we went to Sault Ste. Marie and not Toronto to shoot this for the same reasons. To reproduce Toronto in the 1950s would cost way too much money now because the storefronts have all changed and the streets are harder to navigate. There we found beautiful streets that are well preserved, so that worked out really, really well and made everything possible.
CT: Could you talk a little bit about the scripting process for the film since there is all of this historical detail that you had to pull together?
NM: I got to know Eddie Boyd by striking up a relationship over the phone, and eventually I went to see him. This had so many stages of writing. The biggest challenge was that there were so many characters and so many things happening in this story. It was hard to distil the essence of their arks, and Alison who has a background in script consulting was my go to for both research and how to fit everything together. She knew what was necessary and what needed to be cut and which directions to go in, and the script she got when I got it back originally was so big and went into so many different directions that it wasn’t possible to build. That’s what she did and it couldn’t have been easy for her, because as a writer I would fight everything, you know?
And as a director I do, as well, though. (laughs) We had to fight about a lot of things, but they were very creative things we fought about. Shooting was definitely like that because we only had 25 days and 5 bank robberies and 2 jail escapes. The production designer said he had never worked on a film with this small of a budget with so many different locations. Everyone kept on saying “You’ve got to cut more locations.” I can’t cut any more locations! Everyone just had to work so hard. The last bank sequence in the film in the 1960s was rough. The paint on those counters was still wet. The production designer was there with his lawyer wife, who’s a prominent Bay Street lawyer, but she was up there visiting, and they were together and up throughout the night painting the counters and when we arrived it was still wet and there wasn’t much we could do. He was pushed to such an absurd extreme, but he did it. Everyone was pushed so far. It was just really hard conditions.
CT: Plus, you were also battling the weather in the dead of winter, which couldn’t have been easy.
NM: Ideally it was always going to be a winter story, but that was one of our first fights. “You can’t do winter because it’s going to be too hard.” Then it’s like, okay, it’s going to be a summer shoot because that would have been the easiest, and you could rationalize it and find some sort of metaphor there. We could make it really hot so there’s all this pressure and the external world is really oppressive. Then we got pushed to fall, and then it eventually became winter anyway, and I got what I wanted. Yay! (laughs) But it’s going to be hard, and originally what I had wanted to do was to make a black and white film, but it had to be colour. So the snow itself turned the entire world into black and white. It was such a beautiful gift, so it was worth the challenge of the winter for the look.
But it was hard. We were all in artic gear and it was extremely tough on the crew. Then there were the actors who were wearing next to nothing most of the time. They were incredibly tough and never complained. They were falling and running in the snow while we were in arctic gear and they were in jackets and running shoes or dress shoes sometimes, so that was hard. But again, we were blessed with such an amazing team of people who just never complained. Everyone just did it and worked. Everyone was a filmmaker on this. We were all in this together, and while it was really hard and fast, but it was an awesome time. It was really amazing.
CT: There’s a real challenge in getting historical Canadian films like this made. What was it like trying to convince people to get this movie made?
NM: The big challenge with this story was to get the right budget amount for a first feature. That was huge. Telefilm responded really positively to the project, as did eOne, so we were fortunate there to be working with such great companies that believed in this so much. (Producer Alison Black walks into the room) Maybe you could answer this one a little better than I could.
Alison Black: It seems like at times when making a movie like this in Canada, you have to have more of a passion for the source material than your American counterparts might. It’s really interesting because it has to be something that you really, really want to do.
NM: But these groups of development people at E1 really wanted to do this. E1 and Telefilm were really in this from the start because they could tell that this was a really Canadian film.
AB: We went to Toronto for meetings with them and they seemed to get it instantly. I also think that this was a story that should be told, but if you were ever to take the Canadian aspect out of it, it would lose its identity.
NM: Which is funny, because Americans really responded to the script, because he’s a war vet and that’s on their minds even more so than it’s on the minds of Canadians, and also because the bank crisis makes it even more relevant. But fortunately so did Canadians.
Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster opens in Toronto this weekend. Check out the trailer for the film below.