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With 'The Mountie,' Wyeth Clarkson gives a Canadian icon a reboot

Canadian Director Wyeth Clarkson poses for a photo with his dog, in the place where he writes, in Toronto's High Park, on June 28, 2011. His movie "The Mountie" will be released on Canada Day in select Canadian theatres.

Michelle/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Indie filmmaker Wyeth Clarkson grew up in a movie-mad household where westerns from the likes of Sergio Leone and John Ford were staple viewing.

Clarkson, the son of former Telefilm Canada head Wayne Clarkson, loved the genre's dusty, spectacular scenery and their flinty heroes who tamed the North American wilderness. But he felt the lack of one thing: films that paid homage to those red-coated Canadian icons - the Mounties (first called the North-West Mounted Police, later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) - who were a pivotal force in the foundation of this country, not to mention its national identity.

"I remember when I was 5 or 7, running around playing games that kids do - like cowboys and aboriginals - and always looking for the Canadian icon that reflected the same thing as the American sheriff," says Clarkson, who used to spend hours with his father (also a former director of the Canadian Film Centre) watching classics such as Phillip Borsos's The Grey Fox and Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. "I knew there was this thing called the Mounties, and I knew they played a big role in the creation of the nation, but I never really had them reflected back to me in a serious way. Rather, it was in a silly Dudley Do-Right kind of way," says the Queen's University film grad.

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"But I knew to conquer the Canadian West, these guys had to be tough as nails. And I don't think Canadian film has played the resilient qualities of the Mounties up enough. My parents have always encouraged me to tell Canadian stories, and even if we don't always have the money to tell stories on a grand scale, we certainly have the determination and landscape to do so."

A few years ago, Clarkson sat down with friends Charles Johnston and Grant Sauve to write a script he hopes accurately depicts the struggles of these early law enforcers as they tried to protect settlers and instill order in an untamed land.

"The Mounties were key in creating, geographically, what Canada is today. The Russians and the Americans wanted as much land as they could get their hands on, and the Mounties rode in there, and said, 'Here's the line. Don't touch it,' " adds Clarkson. "I wanted to see our history reflected back to us, and from an early age I was frustrated not seeing our stories put up on the big screen to represent us, faithfully."

Shot for under $1-million in a remote location west of Whitehorse, The Mountie stars Montrealer Andrew Walker as the 1890s tortured lawman Wade Grayling, who encounters crooks and unco-operative Yukon locals at every turn. The film also stars Jessica Paré, who plays a badly scarred beauty, as well as John Wildman, George Buza, Earl Pastko and Tony Munch.

Clarkson says he was lucky to cast Paré before she caught the eye of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who gave the Montreal-born actress a role in AMC's hit drama as Don Draper's fiancée. "I think Jessica is as close as we have to someone with the kind of transcendent beauty I needed for that part," says Clarkson. "She's got the looks, as well as the acting chops."

As for his leading man, Clarkson says Walker (who has appeared in episodes of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, as well as ER) "just jumped off the screen for me.

"He sent me an audition tape, and Andrew just embodied what I imagined the Mountie to be. There is a fearlessness to him ... and he also was a punt return football player, so he actually is pretty tough. I talked to Andrew about how much I wanted Canadian kids to be able to celebrate their icons and their history, and one day he raised his shirt and showed me a maple-leaf tattoo on his chest. Then he said, 'See, I'm true red Canadian too.' "

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Clarkson angled hard to get theatres to screen The Mountie on Canada Day, when it kicks off in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, followed on July 8 by screenings in Winnipeg; Kelowna, B.C.; Abbotsford, B.C.; Whitehorse, and Grande Prairie, Alta. "I think it's only fitting that Canadians can see a film that celebrates their roots on this day," adds the filmmaker.

That said, he knows he's got an uphill battle for eyeballs, given that his dark, low-budget film is up against Hollywood behemoths, such as the latest instalment of Transformers and the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts drama Larry Crowne.

But a recent facebook/e-mail campaign in which followers of The Mountie have been texting and tweeting complaints that the film won't be on screens in smaller towns and cities like Thunder Bay and Owen Sound has encouraged Clarkson that there is an appetite out there for films that celebrate Canadian history.

"I am really irked that I couldn't get this movie into a single theatre in Ottawa - our nation's capital - on Canada Day," says Clarkson, whose other films include Sk8 Life and "One RCMP veteran e-mailed me to say he's driving in from Ottawa to see the film in Toronto this weekend, and he sent a protest e-mail to his War Vet group of over 500 members.

"I get that we're not going to outperform Transformers, but I sincerely think there will be one of the 20 films being screened in these multiplexes that we can outgross. Mel Gibson's The Beaver recently ended a multi-week run in Ottawa and has only done $960,000 in total box office. I think we can beat that."

Editor's note: The Mountie opens in Vancouver on July 1 and Whitehorse on July 8. The original version of this article did not contain this information; this version has been updated.

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