Kari Skogland had no political axes to grind in making Fifty Dead Men Walking, the tale of an IRA informant
Kari Skogland is known for her intense loyalty to Canadian storytelling. Just last year, the writer-director released her dense, thoughtful adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s CanLit classic The Stone Angel. Now she goes further afield for Fifty Dead Men Walking, set in the violence-torn Belfast of the 1980s.
The taut film, which opens here on Friday (July 31), stars Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland, an initially reluctant IRA informant handled by a British intelligence officer played by Ben Kingsley. Red Road’s Natalie Press is the informant’s almost-wife, and Canadian up-and-comer Kevin Zegers is the much tougher best friend who begins to suspect his lifelong pal is a “tout”, in the local parlance.
For Skogland, the true-life tale, which she adapted loosely from a book by McGartland and Nicholas Davies, yanked her out of her comfort zone. Over the years, she has directed a lot of episodic TV, with shows ranging from Traders and Queer as Folk to brand-new installments of The Listener. The Ontario native previously handled some stereotypically masculine fare, most obviously in 1997’s Men With Guns, a drug-world face-off with an international cast. But she had never done a slick action movie with docudrama flourishes. (The resulting work, coproduced by Vancouver’s Brightlight Pictures, was named best B.C. film at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards, won best feature film at the Leo Awards, and nabbed the Citytv western Canadian feature-film award at the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival.)
Watch the trailer for Fifty Dead Men Walking.
“They say it takes a village,” the director says in a call from her Toronto office, “but in our case it took a city to make a movie. Belfast really opened its arms to us, on both sides of the controversy. They all wanted me to get the story right. As a Canadian, I didn’t come in with the usual Hollywood gloss, and they knew that. We went in as fish out of water, and could not have made this movie without the community being totally involved.”
Such multilevel engagement would surely have been impossible before the political agreements of 2007, which finally saw regular meetings between Protestant and Catholic leaders in the war-torn country and the evacuation of British troops.
“While we were there, the final parts of their peace plan fell into place. But, most crucially, there’s a whole generation of young people that has no real recollection of the violence.”
Religion there may have lately lost its sway as an emotional motivator, but it was still important not to advance anyone’s political agenda, says the director, who talked to the secretive McGartland by phone at times.
“I felt that he had a great story but, frankly, he also had too many axes to grind, and that’s not what I wanted to get across. What was fascinating to me is the role of the informer, who is close to all sides and far from them as well.”
Certainly, if Skogland was plunked in the deep end it must have offered some continuity to bring Zegers, one of her favourite young actors, along for the swim. The former child star, best known for the Vancouver-made Air Bud movies, played Ellen Burstyn’s beloved younger son in Stone Angel, and the director was anxious to see the Ontario-born actor try something more grown-up. Gaining weight for such a macho part meant breaking with the pretty-boy roles that have followed from his Disney association.
“I literally went heavy for the film,” Zegers insists with a laugh during a call from Los Angeles, where he has lived for a number of years. That Guinness-and-Irish-stew diet paid off with actorly dividends when he met the U.K.–based Sturgess in Belfast about a month before the shoot began.
“He got there about a week after I did. By then, Kari had showed me around and I’d met the gentlemen who were, um, keeping us out of harm’s way. Then we had almost a month to go to pubs and house parties in Belfast and become the people we were playing. When we started shooting, we didn’t need to pretend to have a certain dynamic; we had that—we were that.”
In fact, the young men kept their Northern Irish accents the whole time they were abroad, for more than three months.
“I had never heard him speak with his dainty British accent until we got to the Toronto Film Festival last year,” Zegers recalls. “And it terrified me. He’s so proper! And then he heard me, and it was like, ”˜Who’s that?’ We had to reintroduce ourselves, and I realized that I didn’t necessarily know Jim; I knew a guy called Martin. Neither one of us, I think, had done quite that much research before, nor felt so much obligation to deliver a performance. Taking the time to find my character was really rewarding, and the work isn’t always enjoyable to me.”
Which brings us back to the young Canadian’s conscious break with the past, and with his image. Skogland, in fact, started off by making him cut off his long locks the day he arrived in Belfast.
“Honestly, I think of her almost as my mother,” he admits, “and the level of trust is really high. With any other director, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do something like this. They would have cast more to type. And I felt a huge responsibility to Kari to make it work. I mean, she really said, ”˜You don’t look or act anything like this guy, but I still think you can do it.’ We’ve known each other a long time, and she knows where some of my frustrations lie in my line of work. I just feel that the obvious choice is almost always the one that’s made. But the movies I enjoy are those where people are doing unexpected things.
Of course, Zegers did crack the mould slightly opposite Sarah Polley in the campy Dawn of the Dead and Felicity Huffman in the oddball road movie Transamerica. But at age 24, he’s trying to walk the thin line between offbeat character actor and rugged leading man.
“This is my job, and I’m going to be doing this for as long as I can. I just don’t feel like being ”˜good’ is good enough anymore. Being on kind-of-good movies and doing kind-of-good jobs is boring. For me, it doesn’t have the lustre that it used to, so in order for me to get off on what I’m doing, it really has to challenge me. Being on a movie set or going to a premiere—well, they don’t give me butterflies. So my sole focus is on doing my job better than I did the time before.”
Next up, he’s attempting some live theatre, and he’s already shot leads in The Perfect Age of Rock ’n’ Roll and the snowbound thriller Frozen. He’s prepping for what you’d have to call the Warren Beatty role in The Story of Bonnie and Clyde. And, of course, he lost the weight and grew back his hair.
“Yeah,” he says with a chuckle, “I’m back to my usual buck-fifty.”
For Skogland, this was an adventure all around, and part of that was seeing this “old soul”, as she calls him, come into his creative maturity.
“I think Kevin is nothing short of phenomenal,” the director declares. “And he really rose to the occasion here. At moments, I wondered if he would have it. But in the end he was so perfect, it couldn’t have been done better by anyone. It wasn’t exactly a reckless call on my part, but you never really know how an actor will respond when you drag him to a new place, make him learn an incredibly difficult accent, and see just how uncomfortable you can make him.
“That was important, because this was such a galvanizing process, telling this story as outsiders looking in. It made us all lifelong friends. We experienced something that was unique to that time and place, and we lived to tell about it.”