Hollywood is bringing an inspirational story to the big screen that has a connection to a Cranbrook resident.
A script has been written and a lead has been cast in the production of a film that focuses on the challenges faced by northern Inuit youth and how a school athletics program in a Northwest Territories community helped them realize their potential—both in sport and in life.
That school program was headed up by Russ Sheppard, who taught at the high school in Kugluktuk and used a lacrosse program to help youth tackle attendance issues and reduce incidents of teen suicide.
Sheppard, who stayed at the school for many years and spearheaded the program, moved to Cranbrook two years ago and switched careers to the legal field, where he now works as a lawyer with Rockies Law Corporation.
He had signed the rights to the to the movie over 11 years ago, however, it’s only recently gained traction to getting into production.
“When I first signed, I was pretty excited about it, but then it’s kind of a funny industry—it’s a hurry up and wait industry, so after it didn’t really come on board the first three or four different years, it went to the background,” said Sheppard.
“Every year I had to sign a renewal and every year there’s a process that happens.”
Miranda de Pencier, a former actress who moved into producing, will direct the film, titled The Grizzlies, while Ben Schnetzer (The Book Thief) will play the lead role.
Graham Yost, who has credits such as the movie Speed and TV series Band of Brothers to his name, wrote the original screenplay. Moira Walley-Beckett, who worked on the TV series Breaking Bad and wrote the episode Ozymandias—considered one of the greatest TV episodes ever aired—completed a revision, with Sheppard signing off on it.
“I have read the new script and it’s great, but it’s been a process, for sure,” he said.
Jake Steinfeld, one of the founders of Major League Lacrosse and Frank Marshall, an Academy Award-nominated producer, are executive producing the project.
The story itself will focus on the experiences of Sheppard, who arrived in Kugluktuk in 1998 to teach at a local school. The community had been plagued by one of the highest rates of suicide in North America, while the school had rampant absenteeism and substance abuse issues with students.
Sheppard took the lead on setting up a school athletics program—with a heavy emphasis on lacrosse due to his own personal history with the sport—and gave out memberships to students who showed up to classes, put in the effort to their academics regardless of marks and kept up a healthy lifestyle.
The program managed to set up some community fundraising, which allowed the lacrosse team to travel throughout the U.S. to attend clinics and championship tournaments.
“The basic idea is they are focusing on the program, the story of this program, giving these kids opportunities and that’s what I did in that scenario, was helped open the door,” Sheppard said.
“But it’s about the kids’ character and how the kids’ character prevailed and how they go from the door opening to walking through it and how they use lacrosse to do that.”
The film is not an exact chronicle of Sheppard’s experiences in Kugluktuk, however, it’s based on true events as the writers crafted the story.
“Does it perfectly follow the timeline up there? The first thing that happens is seven years becomes one year, so of course, it can’t,” Sheppard added.
“I can say I fully endorse the work of the writers on this and Miranda, the director, is the perfect person to do this.”
Sheppard first got involved with lacrosse through Al Luciuk at the University of Saskatchewan, and has worked and coached with guys like Brodie Merrill and Chris Sanderson, both professional lacrosse players who have competed in the National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse.
He is currently involved with the local Cranbrook Lacrosse Association with their box programs and has taken the lead in setting up the Cranbrook Badgers—a field lacrosse program.
Shepard will be out of town from the middle of April to the end of May to help as a consultant with the shooting of the film, which will be done in Nunavut and in Toronto. He will also be involved with selecting lacrosse players who will serve as sports doubles to the actors playing the Kugluktuk students.
Mongrel Media will release The Grizzlies in Canada, while The Movie Network has the Canadian pay TV rights.