Dana Gee/ The Vancouver Sun
When writer/director Kathleen Hepburn thought about the lead in her first feature film, Never Steady, Never Still, Scottish actor Shirley Henderson was first to come to mind.
But with a resume that includes co-starring performances in Trainspotting, Bridget Jones’s Diary, 24 Hour Party People and Harry Potter, you wouldn’t think the actor would even see the script.
“We sent her a letter and a script to her agent and crossed our fingers,” said Hepburn.
Those are some good fingers as Henderson got the script, loved it and agreed to play Judy, a 50-something woman who is living with Parkinson’s disease and trying to maintain her independence after the sudden death of her husband.
Hepburn thinks the raw, stripped-down and very challenging role of Judy gave Henderson a shot at carrying a film and not playing the quirky girlfriend, the quirky best friend or a Muggle-born, bathroom-haunting, moaning ghost.
“I think she plays a lot of character parts and this is a lead role, and I think she connected with the material and felt that it was a good part,” said Hepburn. “That’s how that went down. I was very surprised.
“It was the moment when I felt like the film was really happening.”
Yes, Hepburn was going to have a multiple BAFTA-nominated actor at the top of the call sheet for her first feature film, which is in theatres now.
“It was scary. I hadn’t worked with an actor that had that much experience, that kind of resume before,” said Hepburn, who first did Never Steady, Never Still as a short. “I was terrified, but she’s an angel. She’s so sweet. As soon as I talked to her on the phone I felt much safer.”
There was a lot to talk about as Judy’s condition — the body tremors, lack of strength, slurred and muffled speech — called for a lot of work on Henderson’s behalf.
“She was exhausted,” said Hepburn, when asked about the toll playing Judy took on Henderson.
In the film, Judy lives just outside of Prince George on a remote lake with her husband (Nicholas Campbell) and her 19-year-old son (Théodore Pellerin). Her son goes off to work on the gas rigs in Fort St. John and her husband expectantly dies, leaving Judy on her own as her Parkinson’s advances. After some time on her own, her son returns home and tries to help, but is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and where he fits in the world.
For Hepburn, writing about a woman living with Parkinson’s was a very personal exercise as her mother Margaret de Grace, 70, has been living with the disease for 25 years.
“Her first words when she watched it in the theatre were, ‘You hit the nail on the head,’ ” said Hepburn. “I think for us it is not just about the difficulty of the disease, but the affect it has on our relationship and how she feels people perceive her. The carrying on — you have to continue on and you can’t make a big deal about everything.”
Hepburn’s mother actually shows up in the film as another member of Judy’s support group.
“I didn’t intend to tell a story about Parkinson’s. I think I was just writing a family story and it just made sense to do it that way,” said Hepburn. “It wasn’t hard to write it or shoot it. I think it was emotional, but it’s so much a part of my life. When I watch the film I don’t see what other people see in terms of how difficult it is because it just feels very normal. That’s every day.”
What Hepburn has found a bit tough is enduring the responses from people who have seen the film.
“It’s hard now to show people the film and then hear their thoughts on your work. I find that a bit more overwhelming then it was to actually create the thing,” said Hepburn. “It was pretty overwhelming to go through the whole process. It was such a personal film, but I feel really proud of it. Really proud of the creative team, the cast, everyone.”
Shot mostly in and around Stuart Lake in the Fort St. James and Binche Keyoh reserve areas in northern B.C., Never Steady, Never Still is like looking at a series of beautiful paintings. Cinematographer Norm Li has truly captured the staggering landscapes and incredible light of the north.
Hepburn knows the area well, as her mother grew up there and she spent many summer vacations in the area.
“The locations I think were very particular in my mind when I was writing,” said Hepburn. “It was written for that place. We had scouted out locations that were closer to Vancouver, but none of them felt quite as right as that place.
“I know the area very well. I know the light really well. It’s so beautiful up there, so it is kind of hard to go wrong.”
The film, which was also shot in Fort St. John and Calgary, has made the festival rounds and just recently earned eight Canadian Screen Awards nominations. In January, it was named best Canadian feature film by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.
“Everyone was 110-per-cent committed to this film and put so much of their own sweat and tears into it. It just felt like everybody’s baby, so that was really rewarding,” said Hepburn. “So when I look at it now I think about all that work and how proud we are of what we put into it.”
Right now the Simon Fraser Film School graduate is prepping a new feature with co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. The film, says Hepburn, is a real-time story about two Indigenous women who have a chance encounter in East Vancouver when one of them has just run away from a violent partner. It’s the story of the two hours the women spend together.