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Director says it's important to give back to next generation of filmmakers

The director of "Mean Dreams" and "Citizen Gangster" says he was given similar opportunities early in his career
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Bill Paxton and Sophie Nélisse seen in this promotional still from Mean Dreams (2016)

The director of two movies filmed in Sault Ste. Marie says he finds it rewarding to give young filmmakers the opportunity to work on productions with Hollywood-calibre talent, an experience they might not otherwise get while starting out in northern Ontario.

Director Nathan Morlando will be at Sault College tomorrow for a free screening of his movie Mean Dreams, which was filmed in the Sault and shown at the Toronto International Film Festival late last year.

Morlando said about half of the crew for Mean Dreams was made up of locals and passing on his knowledge to that next generation of filmmakers is important to him.

Early in his career, Morlando was offered a similar opportunity when he was able to work with and shadow Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa.

“It’s a real opportunity to learn so much just being able to stand next to the camera and just watch. Otherwise you’re just reading it in textbooks and you’re learning in the classroom setting. It’s very different to being on set,” said Morlando.

The film is described by Morlando as a coming of age fable and intentionally not set in any specific time or place.

It was filmed over four weeks in Sault Ste. Marie, Echo Bay, Desbarats and Garden River First Nation and stars teenage actors Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, with Hollywood veteran Bill Paxton playing a darker villain role.

Morlando said viewers can expect to see the Sault portrayed in all of it’s glorious beauty, while enjoying powerful performances from the actors.

The film was the final performance by Paxton, known for his roles in Titanic, Twister, Apollo 13 and in the TV series Big Love. 

Paxton plays the role of abusive-father to Nélisse’s character, who is then spirited away after meeting the character played by Wiggens.

The role was attractive to Paxton, said Morlando, because of an experience in his own life when he rescued a girl from an abusive relationship while he was a young man.

“He was compelled to rescue a girl from a similar situation that he portrays now as the older villain. He was confronting a ghost from his own earlier life,” said Morlando.

The teenage leads have already made fantastic film performances, said Morlando, even before their roles in Mean Dreams.

“People have shared with me they think Sophie is a young Kate Winslett and Josh is a young Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon—and I really believe that,” he said.

Paxton and the director were developing a close personal relationship before the actor’s death just one month before the US release date for the film.

“His death came as such a shock to everyone. It was unexpected and quite tragic,” said Morlando.

“He was really proud of his performance. He was looking forward to this next stage of his life, personally and professionally,” recalls Morlando.

The opportunity for the crew—many of whom were Sault College students—to work with Hollywood actors was a great gift, Morlando said.

“Here are these young students committed and contributing their time and they are getting this really fantastic and rare experience to work with these fine actors, some of the best in the world, and be equals with them,” said Morlando.

He said Paxton treated everyone on set with a great deal of respect.

"This team of Sault College students made a film—literally—with Bill Paxton. I’m hoping it will encourage them to pick up a camera and start writing a screenplay,” said Morlando.

Morlando said Paxton arrived in Sault Ste. Marie during Canadian Thanksgiving.

“He was excited to explore the Sault. He was driving around on a Monday and everything was closed and there was nobody on the street. He was thinking, ‘what have I done? I’m in a ghost town,’” Recalled Morlando.

That night, Paxton celebrated the holiday with the film’s crew.

“We had this beautiful Thanksgiving dinner at a laundromat. That just gave him the energy to feel he made the right decision,” said Morlando.

“He loved the Sault and really enjoyed his time there,” he added.

Morlando said Paxton was genuinely touched and honoured to work with the film’s crew.

“When he did his last scene and was literally laying in the mud—and it was raining all day in the woods—he got up and made a beautiful tribute to the crew. He called us ‘film animals’. He said he had never worked with such a committed, talented crew working under such physical conditions and (he) never once complained,” said Morlando.

Mean Dreams is being screened at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Sault College’s Multi Media Centre as part of National Canadian Film Day, tickets are free by registering here.

Morlando will lead a question and answer session with other members of the production team immediately after the screening.