On one level, Thunderbird is a compelling mystery thriller about a man’s search for his missing sister in a small fishing village in the Pacific Northwest.
But on a deeper level, it’s also a story about racial tension and guilt – both societal and personal – and the continuing need for reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the descendants of white settlers.
Providing a strong theme underlying the story arc of Will Brook, and the search for his sister Sarah, is the legend of the Thunderbird – a winged, supernatural being, traditionally considered a saviour of the Coast Salish people.
The B.C.-shot Canadian feature – now available for streaming online via Vimeo on Demand – also marks a significant and prestigious step into the world of independent production for South Surrey-raised Michael Morrison, who co-produced with Colten Wilke (who stars and wrote the original story), Gabrielle Adelman and Ben Plamondon, under the Ocean Twilight Films banner.
“The project took about four and a half years to complete,” said Morrison, who over the last decade has racked up numerous behind-the-scenes credits in the B.C. film industry including working as a field producer.
That’s how he met Nicholas Treeshin, who makes a noteworthy directorial debut (he also scripted and edited) with the well-crafted suspenseful film, which also benefits greatly from the cinematography of Alfonso Chin.
“There’s always something new you can learn every day – filmmaking is such an interesting medium,” Morrison said.
It wasn’t something the Edmonton-born producer (his family moved here when he was 16) had anticipated as a career when he graduated from Elgin Park Secondary in 2003.
“I tried a number of things and went into the trades for some post secondary training, but ended up going to film school from 2009 to 2012.”
Filming for Thunderbird – most of it completed pre-pandemic – did include one location in South Surrey, he said; a deserted former church retreat in Rosemary Heights which provided a perfect atmosphere of ominous devastation and desolation for some key scenes.
“We wanted the sense that something really terrible had happened there, and the partially destroyed location made it look as if some monster had been through there,” he said.
Morrison met Wilke through his brother, Adam Morrison, a professional hockey player, he said.
“We connected on filmmaking and our fascination with all the different elements of it,” he added. “In fact, everyone involved in the film has a deep passion for filmmaking. We wanted to support Colten in bringing the film to life.”
But there were inevitable delays in bringing the production together, he said.
“It’s so much of a battle in finding financing,” he said, adding that the long process of shooting and editing the film amounted to “four years of ups and downs.”
All the hard work seems to be paying off.
In a major accomplishment for a Canadian independent feature, Thunderbird, in addition to theVimeo streaming in Canada, has also got a similar streaming deal through Amazon in the U.S. and the U.K. Distribution windows have also been negotiated in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for this October.
The project started life as a story that Wilke wrote while working on a commercial fishing boat.
Will (Wilke) finds himself overcome with guilt when he finds out that his sister Sarah has gone missing. Haunted by a recurrent nightmare, he leaves the fishing boat he calls home and heads to their hometown to find her.
But his return is fraught with danger – his family has a history of conflict with First Nations locals that may be placing his life in jeopardy.
At the same time, a newly-reinstated police detective, Ivy Seymour (played by co-star Natalie Brown) is sent from the city to work on a homicide case connected with an alarming number of missing women in the area.
When the victim in Ivy’s case turns out to be Sarah’s roommate, Ivy and Will’s paths cross. Together they follow clues to catch the killer – hopefully before Sarah becomes the next victim.
Driven to find his sister, Will must also confront his family’s troubled past – and his own personal demons.
Also featured in the film are Julian Black Antelope (as Chief George), Aaron Douglas and William Belleau.
“We’ve been very lucky to have established, well-known and successful Canadian actors in the cast,” Morrison said. “When you see these kinds of actors connecting to the material, being interested and engaged, it’s a really cool part of the process.”
Morrison said that, particularly in light of the theme, it was important to the production team to present the culture of the First Nations accurately in the film.
Scenes with Chief George were shot in a Kwakiutl big house in Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island; the extras were all members of the local First Nations community, and dancers wore their own sacred family masks. Cultural guides during production were Latash-Maurice Nahanee, an elder from the Squamish Nation, and Chief David Knox (great-grandson to world-renowned artist Mungo Martin) from the Kwakiutl First Nations.
“We’re very fortunate to have been able to build a meaningful relationship with elders in the (indigenous) community,” Morrison said.
“It opened my eyes to what their culture is really about.”