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Stephen S. Campanelli on directing the adaptation of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse

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Richard Wagamese

On Sept. 15, the Toronto International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Indian Horse, a Canadian adaptation of the late Richard Wagamese’s 2012 bestselling and award-winning novel about an Ojibway boy who discovers hockey as a way to escape the horrors of residential school. The Ojibway author, who hailed from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, was the author of 12 books. He died at 61 years old on March 10, 2017.

Adapted by screenwriter Dennis Foon (On the Farm), and directed by Stephen S. Campanelli, a frequent camera operator for Clint Eastwood, Indian Horse retains all the power and poetry of Wagamese’s novel. Q&Q sat down to talk with Campanelli about the film before its premiere.

Were you aware of the novel before you become involved with the film?
I wasn’t, but boy, once I was aware of it, it changed my life.

How so?
I connected to the book so deeply as a human being, and, as a Canadian, it angered and saddened me. I was ashamed. How could this happen to our country? Look what we did to our own beautiful Indigenous people. I just felt like I have to tell this story. This is part of our history. Every country has a blemished past and blemished history. We got to learn from it, we need to correct it and I’m hoping this movie is a part of that reconciliation and learning and keeping the dialogue going.

What was it like adapting Wagamese’s work?
Richard Wagamese’s words are incredible. They’re very cinematic, they’re very poetic, and I just thought, “Well, he’s made my job that much easier by writing so eloquently so that I can take those images, and put them on the screen.” When I got involved, we got together, and I said, “Your book is so phenomenal, I want to get more stuff from it and put it in the script.”

How involved was he throughout the production?
My producers were wonderful about keeping him involved in our day-to-day process of what was going on and where we were in staging and pre-production. So he was always aware of what we were doing.

The residential school abuses shown in the film are slightly more restrained compared to the novel. Did you scale back because of concern of including too much?
There was definitely concern. I actually wanted to do a little more, but my producers had me pull back a little bit. We did have a couple other scenes that we eliminated [from the screenplay] and didn’t actually shoot. In the script we just realized, “Let’s not hammer them over the head.”

Many readers outside of Canada don’t know Richard. Do you hope the film will introduce him and his work to a new audience?
We dedicate the film to Richard. We say in all our press releases, “Based on the bestselling novel.” So people will definitely come around on him. I’m hoping not just in the U.S., but around the world, people will say, “Wow, who is this guy? Let’s read the book. Let’s read Medicine Walk. Let’s read his other books.” He was just such a prolific writer that I’m hoping more of his novels get turned into films.

Would you adapt another of his novels?
Oh my gosh, in a heartbeat. If someone said, “Here’s another Richard Wagamese,” I would say, “Yes. I don’t even have to read it, I’m in.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.