Winnipeg will always be special to me. I lived there for 8 years and have seen it evolve and grow. Songs have been written about Portage and Main, where both roads meet. They have brutal cold winters and humid hot summers with hungry mosquitos. Little known fact; it is the slurpee capital of Canada. The famous Red River runs through it and it is also known for it’s historic buildings that make it very attractive for film productions depicting the early 1900’s period.
Robert Adetuyi is an extraordinary filmmaker with a knack for making dance movies. Best known for the Bring It On franchise, Stomp the Yard, Honey: Rise Up and Dance and soon to be a blockbuster, Stand. The film is a historical musical that uses music to address some very serious issues. The story takes place in Winnipeg in 1919 during the violent anti-immigrant riots and a general strike that altered the course of history. The films cast is extremely diverse and the story could not be more relevant in today’s political climate. The story addresses immigration while stressing the importance of unity and loving thy neighbor. Movies have the power to move us, to influence us and promote change. I cannot wait for this film to hit theatres because it has the potential to heal.
I spoke to Robert Adetuyi from his home in LA and he was incredibly candid about his inspiration for film. I guess you can say, it runs in the family.
“I couldn’t help but notice that you are not the only one in the family involved in film and the Arts. How does that happen?”
“We’re all very close in age and we all grew up in Sudbury, Ontario. They have a really good Arts program up there which we all specialized in with some focusing on TV and film and others on photography. After high school we all went to different colleges. Some had gone to France and London, my brother did the TV Program at Canada College in Toronto and I went to York University. Four of us are involved in film.”
“Have you ever worked together on productions?”
“In the earlier days we all worked together. On some projects it’ll be my brother Alphonse and I. We actually have a movie coming out on Netflix in February called Love Jack, which I wrote and Alphonse directed and produced. We all worked on High Chicago. My brother Tom has been a camera operator for over 25 years and he worked on a new film with me called Trouble Sleeping that should be coming out soon. It was one of my favourite films to make because I had full control and we’re currently in the process of finding a distributor. It has some incredible talent in it and we’re hopeful that we’ll find the right deal, possibly with Neflix.”
“That’s amazing that so many of your siblings are also working in film. I find that fascinating.”
“My sister is an art dealer in Toronto. She works with Indigenous Art in a gallery on Dundas St. in Toronto and my youngest brother went into Juvenile Corrections, which is a completely different direction but he loves working with kids. He’s a happy guy, so there’s some diversity in the family.”
“This film, Stand is a historical musical set in Winnipeg in the year of 1919 at a time where there were violent anti-immigrant riots and a general strike that altered the course of history. Why did you choose this particular piece of history?”
“The script came to me and I immediately identified with the immigrant story, especially the father and son aspect. My parents are both immigrants so I know what it meant to be a first generation Canadian. I was trying to fit in as a young boy but there’s always going to be conflict, especially back then. I come from a working class family and my dad worked in the mines. I remember that the mine had gone on strike for an entire year. It was one of the biggest strikes in Canadian history and I remember how difficult it was to live through that. It was very hard on the family and there were struggles in trying to keep the people and communities together and back then unions were stronger. When I read this story about the strike of 1919 where 30,000 people walked, I really identified with the aspects. Our story is slightly different with a love story and about people uniting. When I read the screenplay I assumed it was inspired by recent anti-immigration policy going on in the US and Europe. I was surprised to find out that it was actually written 15 years ago. The story is so relevant today with immigration being a hot topic and it really struck me that I have an opportunity to say something to young audiences that don’t know that history. They need to understand the importance of uniting and not getting conned into this anti immigrant divide and conquer attitude, which is the world that we see now.”
“I agree that the story truly parallels todays political climate around immigration policy and that it is a perfect time for a film like this to come out for optimal impact.”
“We need to be reminded of this. The working class needs to unite and see themselves as one and not be divided by groups that focus on colour or different ethnicities. This is a time to come together and I really hope this movie can help people to look at the issues through fresh eyes, seeing themselves as part of the entire group rather than just part of one group.”
“I’ve seen some comedy films that use laughter to shine a spotlight on a serious issue to get information across. By making this film a romantic musical, does it make it easier to address a serious issue?”
“It’s interesting that you point that out cause often when I describe the story and then inform people at the end that it’s also a musical, they’re surprised. It has heavy and serious material but just like Hamilton (theatre play) does, it addresses a very important time in history while drawing you in with the musical numbers. We’re putting a mirror on a lot of different groups that are fighting with each other because they’re divided. The music allows you to soften a little and listen and identify. Music is universal and you catch yourself listening to a catchy tune while listening to the words that are telling you to open up to your neighbours. Music plays a big part in drawing people into a story that has something to say.”
“What is the biggest difference when making a musical in comparison to a conventional film?”
“For me, I like to approach things a little more grounded and dramatic. When I’m making a musical it still has to be grounded. In this film, even though people are singing I still want it to be seamless and make sense. I try to make it stylistic and integrated in an organic way. The approach is the same when I make a dramatic film but as a filmmaker I treat a scene with singing the same as I would a scene with dialogue. There’s interesting camera moves and different in the way the story is told but overall it’s very stylistic.”
“When can we expect to see this amazing film?”
“It’ll be in a number of festivals in the next few months and in Canada we are looking at Oct./Nov. for theatrical release followed by a theatrical release in the US. We’ll be at the Canadian Embassy in Washington in October for a big screening because this film is being described as an ambassador on the human rights issue. It’s a real honour and it really is a human rights story. From there we will be moving forward with the theatrical release.”
“Since you filmed it in Winnipeg, did you cast a lot of your actors from there?”
“We did cast a large number of people in Winnipeg and I was really surprised at the depth of talent there. Winnipeg has a great history in terms of theatre and other than a couple of the leads, Gregg Henry (Guardians of the Galaxy, Scandal) and Marshall Williams (Glee and How to Build a Better Boy) whom I didn’t realize is not only Canadian but he’s actually from Winnipeg before making the move to LA. Lisa Bell plays the role of Rebecca, who is an African American, whose family comes up from Oakland and travels to Winnipeg because they were escaping the lynching that was going on in 1919. Lisa Bell plays the character and I believe she is the next Jennifer Hudson. Laura Slade Wiggins (Shameless) is from the US and probably the only one that isn’t Canadian. It’s a city with so much talent and I went to a number of plays while shooting that I consider world-class productions. It was a real privilege to be able to work there for that amount of time. Making a film that takes place in 1919 was trying to capture the right look but Winnipeg’s historical district is pristine and totally resembles that time period.”
“Do you see yourself as a visionary or a storyteller?”
“I like to think that those two things go hand in hand. I think what makes a storyteller lasting is being a visionary. When this story first came to me, all the characters were white. I really wanted to make it relevant today, so knowing the history of the maid and the historical significance, I wanted to bring more diversity to the story as a visionary. The writer, Danny Schur wrote the song Stand for Lisa Bell to sing. It’s a very contemporary song that’s speaking to todays issues, from Black Lives Matter to Times Up, it’s really that kind of a song yet we put it into a story in 1919. That to me is where the visionary aspect of the storyteller is in me. It’s the same thing in the case of Gabriel, who was written as an Irish boy that goes to war and comes back. There were so many Metis in Winnipeg that went to war; why aren’t we telling their story? There is such a strong Indigenous community in Winnipeg that I think it needs to be represented, so we changed Gabriel’s character to Metis and it changed the whole texture. During the war he was accepted because he was fighting but when he returns he’s treated like a second-class citizen. That’s the visionary aspect of filmmaking, when you can look deeper and speak to things that are relevant today and find those connections.”
“With more attention focused on diversity in film, do you always have that in the back of your mind when you approach a story?”
“For me everything has to happen organically. When I spoke with the writers they told me that all the photos in the history books were all white people. Back in those days the person behind the camera focused on the white people but if you widened the lens you’d suddenly see the black folks over here, the Metis people over there, the women who aren’t being represented and everything else. As a filmmaker, I like to widen the lens. As a filmmaker of colour I’m aware of the fact that many groups are not being represented and I try to include them whether it’s a period piece or contemporary. When I directed the Bring It On franchise I integrated the cast with different races. The next one I’m going do will address the issues of LGBTQ. Sometimes it’s about colour and other times it’s ethnicity or gender.”
“Do you have a preference between writing and directing?”
“If I could only do one, it would have to be writing because that’s where it all starts. Directing is fun, you’re on a visual stage and to me it’s the fun time. Writing is a part of work; you sit there working through a blank page to come up with the characters in the story. Writing is the harder part but it’s the most important part.”
“What types of stories impact you the most and cause you to get involved?”
“Stand is really the kind of film closest to what I want to be doing in the near future as well as movies that follow a story that supports social relevance. Action and comedy are also movies that get made so I’d also like to do more of those too.”
Robert Adetuyi obviously has his finger on the pulse of relevant issues and his films have the power to bring people together. In a time where indifference is front and center, it’s inspiring to see stories that embrace our commonalities and celebrate our diversity rather than exploit it.