[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
This Wednesday, CBC launches Trickster, a unique and special new drama series co-created (with Tony Elliott), written, and directed by Michelle Latimer and based on Eden Robinson’s trilogy of novels. The series is the first creator and showrunner credit for Latimer, who cut her teeth in the industry as an actress and later, an award-winning documentarian. I spoke with her about the series, and TIFF’s inclusion of it and her latest documentary, Inconvenient Indian, which received the People’s Choice Documentary Award and Amplify Voices Best Canadian Feature Film Award at the festival last month.
A thoroughly Indigenous project behind the scenes and on camera, the series focuses on Jared (Joel Oulette), an Indigenous teen who’s seemingly the only source of stability for his fractured family — mom Maggie (Crystle Lightning), who’s struggling with a variety of internal and external forces and dad, Phil (Craig Lauzon), who’s estranged from Maggie and not terribly motivated to do much of anything.
Jared balances them with Maggie’s erratic dealer, Richie (Joel Thomas Hynes), attentive new stranger in town, Wade (Kalani Queypo), a relationship with new neighbor, Sarah (Anna Lambe), going to school and running bullying interference for his BFF, Crashpad (Nathan Alexis), and an after-school job that also happens to be the perfect cover from his side hustle running Ecstasy through his community. He’s already got a pretty full plate when things take a turn toward the supernatural and magic realism starts bleeding in.
As the series is set to air, Latimer is grateful for the attention it’s receiving, and especially its inclusion in TIFF. “[It’s] overwhelming a little bit. I think it was certainly unexpected, of course. And then very strange to also be celebrating that in the time of COVID when the festival is shifting and changing,” she shares. “You just make something and you hope it hits, but every time I’ve worked [and had a project] accepted into a festival or recognized a certain way, it feels like a huge gift. It’s not something I take for granted and I certainly have no expectation around it.”
“It’s just so lovely because you work so hard on something and often you don’t really expect any return and it’s so nice when the returns happen.”
The good news for fans of the books is that the series is already renewed for another season, and when we spoke, Latimer was just ramping up on that. “I’m now breaking season two. And we’re writing right now and there are things that are in the [first] book that I just was so sad that I couldn’t put into the first season that I’m bringing into a second season. [The concept] was loosely based on one season per book, [and] fans will see things they loved in book one. [For anything missing], don’t be disappointed if you don’t see it in season one, because [you] could very well be seeing it in season two.”
Latimer faced the challenge of translating the book to screen for a tight, six-episode season, and looked to themes to help drive the narrative. “Six episodes isn’t a lot. It’s not like a 10-episode arc, and Eden’s books are sprawling and wonderful. So it’s just [about] reining it in. And for me, it was really Jared’s story and tracking those emotional arcs of the characters,” she explains.
“Sometimes, you have a gut feeling. I work very thematically, so I’ll break the season down into themes and [explore] what articulates this theme [and ask], ‘Do we need a new character [to] embody this thematic thing?’ And so I do that. And then the intuitive part is … there are parts of the book that I love that I just want to see on the screen. And so you have your wish list and then [ask], ‘How do I translate this wish list into the actual storytelling?’”
Latimer had already made the decision to segue out of the business and acting when the universe nudged her toward finding another way to tell stories. “I was pretty disillusioned by acting. It didn’t take me very long doing it. I’d done a number of series leads [that] were fun and interesting. I just felt like something was missing and I didn’t feel like I was contributing in a way that maybe I wanted to,” she recalls.
“I actually did my medical school pre-med courses and interviews. And in that process of waiting to see if I would get into medical school, I was hired as a researcher on a project about Doctors Without Borders. When I was doing research, I met a doctor who, in the middle of his research interview, stopped and grabbed me and said, ‘Why are you going to medical school?’ I said, ‘I want to help people.’”
“And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re an artist. The world needs its artists. And there are many ways to heal. You don’t have to do medicine to work, to heal.’ It was a life-changing moment. I walked away from that interview and [realized] he’s right. I’d been thinking so narrow-mindedly, and it just changed my path. And that’s when I started to get behind the camera.”
Trickster boasts a largely new and untested cast, and that was part of the joy for Latimer in putting the series together. “My favorite thing in the world is young talent. I just love working with green, young talent. It’s kind of like working with a dancer or an athlete [and] rooting them in their body and in their intuitive emotional sides. And that’s really fun for me,” she says. “And coming from an acting background, I have a language so that I can actually use those tools.”
“It’s not an intimidating arena for me to be working with actors.”
“The most important thing is an actor who is present and listens and allows you to see them and not just see them for their beauty, because often lots of actors are gorgeous people [but] inside of them, seeing their soul. Are they brave enough to let you in? Do they trust you as a director to open up and to rip it open and to show everything — the ugly, the beautiful? And that’s what I was looking for. And I feel like we found it our cast.”
The series, filmed in the traditional territories of the Haisla people in Kitimaat Village, BC, as well as the Anishinabek territory of the Nipissing First Nation, the Antione First Nation, and the Mattawa/North Bay Algonquin First Nation, marks a rare foray into a wholly Indigenous story, and in 2020, especially, presents an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the culture. Latimer welcomes that. “If they had no awareness of [the Indigenous culture], I would hope that it shows them a well-rounded, nuanced point of view and experience. And that it shows them a multi-faceted, layered, complex culture that’s exciting and maybe deserves some more attention,” she explains.
“Maybe it will spark their curiosity.”
“If they are somewhat versed in the Indigenous culture, I would hope that the show challenges stereotypes that maybe the viewer might harbor or have heard about or questioned and challenges some of those and subverts some of those in a way that celebrates our community instead of adding to the negative representation that we have more than enough of already out there.“
Latimer has used the series to expand hiring among the Indigenous community and pay her own success forward. “I’m trying to create capacity in the Indigenous community. It’s not just about hiring anybody. It’s also about creating training programs and paid opportunities to train people up so that they can move forward and [we can] create an Indigenous cinema future and have an Indigenous crew that we can hire [and] that it’s not just a few people, it’s as many people as any other community might have.”
“We’re working pretty extensively with the Indigenous screen office in Canada to create paid training programs, which include cultural competency training, but also include mentorship and pre-production and post-production training as well. So there’ll be more announcements on that soon, but that’s one of the things we’re doing right now in prep for Season 2.”
2020 has certainly put a spotlight on the younger generation, and Latimer felt that acutely while filming a scene in Season 1. “There are so many moments [that were special], but I do have one memory that was humbling. And it was a day that we had a protest at the high school. The kids were supposed to be having an environmental protest. At one point, the character of Sarah yells, ‘Okay. Everyone die,’ and they all lay down [on the pavement],” she recalls. “And we showed up on set that day and it was torrential rain with 70 young people, high school age [as extras].”
“I got on the megaphone because there were so many, and it was pouring. And I talked about the significance of why we stand up for our beliefs and why we have to do that to see change. And I was actually blown away at the extras. Not one of them left. They were out there for hours in the rain. And every time Sarah would say. ‘Die,’ they would just fall into the water. And afterwards I walked up to them and [thanked them. It was] amazing. I’ve never experienced this. And they were all these young people who I think [are] indicative of this generation. And it was a moment that I thought], ‘Oh, this is why we’re doing this.’ It was exciting.”
“I’m really, really inspired by this generation [who are saying], ‘Enough’s enough. We are going to recreate this future that we want. We’re not going to just inherit the shit, we’re going to build our future.’”
Trickster airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on CBC and will be available the next day on CBC Gem. Here’s a sneak peek of Season 1.