Part of the Whistler Film Festival’s (WFF) allure is its ability to shine a light on certain films, and the stories behind the making of those films that might have slipped through the cracks at a larger, glitzier festival.
This much is true in the case of David Mortin and Patricia Fogliato, the husband and wife team behind the subtle Depression-era epic Mad Ship, one of eight films that was nominated this year for the WFF’s coveted Borsos prize for best Canadian feature.
The filmmaking couple had their hands full with their dream project, both serving as co-writers of the screenplay, with Mortin directing and Fogliato producing the feature-length film set in the unforgiving, dust-strewn prairies of Manitoba.
The film depicts a recently emigrated Norwegian family of four as they struggle through a harsh harvest season, willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to keep their family together.
The story is very loosely based on a Scandinavian man named Tom Sukanen, a folkloric figure throughout the Canadian prairies, who tried to build a steel-clad steamboat during the Depression so he could sail the Saskatchewan River back to his native Finland. Constructing the ship in three parts over several years, he eventually sunk his life savings into the boat and was found, starving, alone and mentally unhinged, by neighbours who committed him to a nearby asylum where he died just 18 months later.
“The aspect of the story that we took was just about a man building a boat and wanting to drag it across the prairies to sail back to Scandinavia,” said Fogliato, explaining that they made the film’s protagonist, Tomas, a more family-oriented man that Sukanen, lending the film a more positive outlook than it would have had it followed the source material to the letter.
“We were really captivated by that image of this guy pulling a boat across what’s become a desert,” said Mortin. “We took that image and worked backwards as to what would bring a man to that point and we knew that we wanted it to be something that was very emotionally accessible and that he was doing it from the heart, for love.”
Mad Ship is perhaps the most gorgeous depiction of the Canadian prairies ever put to film, featuring expansive panoramas of rural Manitoba that effectively reflects the physical and emotional isolation the family must have felt thousands of miles from their former home.
With a stellar cast featuring a mix of established Scandinavian and Canuck actors, including Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption, Passchendaele) and Rachel Blanchard (Clueless, 7th Heaven), the film breathes life into a specifically regional story that carries universal appeal, something Mortin would like to see more of in Canadian film.
“When we’re making dramatic films we’re not trying to make documentaries or literally depict a historical figure or event, but what we’re trying to do is distil that thematically and tell it in a universal way that can travel beyond the borders of the region or the country,” said Mortin, adding that they watched several classic American Western movies when producing the film in order to glean some insight into how those pictures mythologized a certain era in the U.S. so well.
“There’s this knee-jerk reaction to Canadian historical figures or characters as being dull and that nothing exciting ever happened here, but of course exciting things happened here, it’s just the frame of reference that you approach them from,” he said.
Mortin and Fogliato, a longtime couple from the Toronto area who have previously worked together producing documentaries for the CBC, spent the last six years trying to get Mad Ship to the silver screen.
“For a couple of years, there wasn’t a lot of interest in it. Then 2008 happened, and people started losing their homes and there was a lot of talk in the air about the return of the Great Depression. That, combined with the growing awareness of climate change and increased areas of drought in the world, and things started to come together. It seemed like all that was relevant again,” said Mortin.
It’s hard not to draw some parallels between the almost insurmountable struggles that faced the Norwegian couple at the heart of Mad Ship and those encountered by Mortin and Fogliato in making their pet project.
Building a steamboat and producing a film can be seen as similar in some ways; both require a significant contribution of time and money and demand an extreme commitment to craft to go along with a meticulous attention to detail. Working day in and day out from their shared home office, it’s no surprise that Fogliato and Mortin’s relationship rests on a solid foundation.
“We’re not getting divorced, not yet,” joked Fogliato. “In the beginning you’re worried about how it’s going to impact your relationship, you think you’re going to be together too much, but you get used to it.”
That strong relationship is mirrored in every scene featuring Tomas and his wife, Solveig, played brilliantly by Norwegian TV star Line Verndal in a performance that relayed the character’s inner strength and undying commitment to her husband.
“We didn’t want (Solveig) to be two-dimensional and we also didn’t want her to be a victim at all,” said Fogliato. “The character in the story is feminine, but she’s strong and she does take control of the situation herself … to keep the family together.”
Enjoying its world premiere last week at the Whistler Film Festival, Mad Ship will have a limited release in at least five cities across Canada starting late February. They hope the exposure the film garnered by being part of Whistler’s lineup this year will result in more festival entries and a wider theatrical release in the future.
“Our idea of what makes a really great film is one that takes you on an amazing, emotional journey and takes you to a place that you maybe wouldn’t expect to go,” said Mortin.
Here’s hoping that emotional journey ends better for viewers of one of 2012’s best Canadian features than the one Tom Sukanen embarked on one dusty day over 60 years ago.