Interview: Director Anita Doron talks ‘The Lesser Blessed’

A scene from The Lesser Blessed.

The Lesser Blessed is a feature film about Northwest Territories high school student Larry Sole. Familiar teen themes – such alienation, lust and coming of age – are examined from the perspective of a First Nations teen, caught between his cultural heritage and the modern world. I got a chance to ask writer-director Anita Doron about bringing Larry’s story to life onscreen, and why it has a universal appeal.

Tell me about Larry and his journey in this film.

Anita Doron: At the beginning of the story Larry is locked inside himself, watching life unfolding but never taking part in it. He’s a silent observer, brooding into heavy metal and dreaming about the high-school slut, Juliet, whom he would never approach with his romantic interest. His inner life is rich, his observations are amusing, but from the outside, you see nothing but silence and darkness. When a new kid blows into town and takes Larry under the proverbial wing, Larry has to open up, he has to start engaging with life and inevitably face his past. And when he faces his past and breaks open the darkness repressing him from breathing, he becomes a gothic hero.

What was it that drew you most to this story?

AD: I fell in love with the character of Larry – someone original, well, drawn and complex, dark and brooding yet full of romantic light. I love the teen world, when life decisions seem monumental, when every act is part of a heavy metal soap opera. In this world, feelings are intense and are given due attention, without restraint. I’m also very interested in stories off the margin, about people who live on the edges of societies and develop their own bubbles. I love giving voice to and creating intimacy between the audience and the lesser seen, the lesser understood.

Your screenplay is an adaptation of the Richard Van Camp novel. How did you find a balance between staying true to the spirit of the book, and giving the film its own unique voice?

AD: Richard Van Camp pummelled the book into a fine powder and I drank a brew made out of it, which kept me pretty balanced. But seriously, once I read the book and I was inside its world, it was easy for me to stay true to it while creating a filmic version. I became Larry during the writing of it, and in a way I was Larry once, in a different world and for different reasons, but the colour of the feelings I had, the experience of escaping into heavy metal was the same. I identified and started from there.

What type of research was involved, to lend authenticity and accuracy to the script?

AD: To understand the place and the people Richard wrote about, I spent a couple of weeks in the Northwest Territories, in the middle of January, in below-fifty, freezing-your-skin cold. There were a few instances that really solidified my understanding of rural Northern life and the life of a First Nations teenager in this setting. I was a giant sponge, observing and absorbing… And the smallest detail – the way people looked at maps, prepared their food, or listened to music – told me countless stories which helped me understand the world of The Lesser Blessed.

How did you find lead actor Joel Evans, and what made you know he was the one for the part?

AD: I was adamant about finding someone from NWT for the lead role. I wanted that authenticity. I had worked with non-professional actors before, and knew it would not be a problem combining seasoned actors with a newbie. Luckily, my producer Christina Piovesan believed in the vision and went along with my crazy ideas. We went on a roadtrip, my casting director Jason Knight and my little family – my partner Adam and our son Tian, travelling 552 kilometres through 5 communities, auditioning high-school kids, Looking for Larry Sole. On the last day, just before we left Fort Smith, the home town of the author, at the very high school where the novel is set, I spotted this kid who did not bother to audition. He had better things to do (he was on his way to Math class). But he was the Larry I envisioned, and I had an instinct. Luckily, he turned out to be brilliant.

Evans’ character Larry is contrasted by a mentor figure played by Benjamin Bratt, who has expressed he was instantly moved by the book and very excited to work with you. What do you think made him connect so deeply with this project?

AD: Benjamin told me that he had been looking to do a project about the First Nations experience – which of course means many things and is a very wide spectrum, but he was especially taken by the setting of this particular story. When Benjamin was 5 years old, his mom and him were part of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz. I think that experience was fundamental to forming the extremely intelligent, clear thinking and passionate man he is today. In The Lesser Blessed, he saw and opportunity to make a stand as well, and to tell the story of a Northern journey.

Your cast is diverse in age, cultural background and acting experience, ranging from beginner to seasoned celebrity. How did you create an environment to bring out the best of each actor’s unique performance?

AD: The seasoned actors were humbled by the authenticity Joel Evans brought to the role of Larry, and Joel was very impressed by their talent and experience. As a result, there was a real sense of mutual respect and love among the actors. They are the beating heart of the film and they bring their own, personal emotions into it – which is brave, generous and precious. I’m extremely protective of my actors. I try to take them to that emotional place when they trust me and once there is that bond, we become a family. I worked quite differently with each actor – developing an individual language that is most effective. With Benjamin, who brought so much understanding and research to the role, it was about shading. For example, just before we started a scene, I would tell him what happened to Jed, his character, in the moments before the scene, which would then give him a kind of emotional base to jump off from and do his brilliant work. These were always surprises, and just enough information to get him to a place where his imagination got sparked. With Joel, we used experiences from his own life as starting off points. With the amazing Tamara Podemski, I used visceral references to take her into a feeling and then let her get lost in it.

The Lesser Blessed has been well received with both critics and audiences. What do you think makes this story universal to viewers across age groups and cultural backgrounds?

AD: Everyone, at some point in their life has felt alienated, betrayed and alone. The events that take us to that place are individual, but the emotion in this place is universal. When that shared emotion is evoked in the audience and something from their own lives, even subconsciously, resonates with the experience of the main character, there is a surrender. As hard as we resist it, I think we’re always in search of opportunities to surrender.

The Lesser Blessed is currently playing in Toronto.

Isabel Cupryn

About Isabel Cupryn

Isabel Cupryn is a freelance writer and film blogger in Toronto.