Gunless, eh?

Only in Canada could Paul Gross star as a Wild West gunslinger — in a town with no gun

Dust and mud come with the territory when you’re a gunfighter like The Montana Kid (Paul Gross) who unexpectedly finds himself in a pioneer town in the Dominion of Canada with a murderous American posse in pursuit of his hide

Photos courtesy of Alliance Films

“Clean air, common sense, horses and guns — a perfect combination.” So says homegrown movie star Paul Gross of Gunless, that rarest of cinematic confections — a Canadian Western — due to hit theatres this April 30.

He plays The Montana Kid, an American gunslinger on the run in 1882 who stumbles into Barclay’s Brush, population 17, in the southern tip of British Columbia.

But here’s the twist of juicy Canuck comedy: The Kid challenges the town’s gruff giant of a blacksmith to a sundown showdown only to discover there is not one other working pistol in town. (Hey, this is Canada, eh.) So The Kid — constrained by the “Code of the West” — is stuck in town until he can fix a pistol for his gunfight. Without giving anything away, it’s an experience that will change his life forever.

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Ruthless posse leader Ben Cutler (actor Callum Keith Rennie, foreground) won’t hesitate to plug anyone who comes between him and his target — The Montana Kid

Gross — whose star rose in the ’90s as upright Mountie Benton Fraser in the hit TV series Due South (where he patrolled the mean streets of Chicago with his wolf Diefenbaker), and more recently as star/writer/director of the First World War drama Passchendaele — is a Canadian icon. The fact that he plays a notorious American bad boy is another clever shift by Canadian director William Phillips.

To say getting a movie made in Canada is hard is a wild understatement. To make a Canadian Western and build your own pioneer town is unheard of. “We wanted a real sense of isolation,” says Phillips. “We wanted iconic imagery: dust … big sky … and openness. To get that, we felt we had to pick a location first — and then put up a town.” And so they did.

On the set of Gunless, just outside of Osoyoos, Gross found himself last summer walking the dusty street amid a handful of buildings plunked in the middle of rolling dry grasslands and even drier hills beyond. “This is really what it was like,” he says, “a few buildings, people scattered across the land and all you had was your own wits, sweat and each other.”

“Underneath, there’s a story about redemption here,” adds director Phillips. “It’s not about his frustrations in trying to get a gunfight, it’s about him coming to terms with the fact that he’s lived by a gun for a long time. Maybe … he made the wrong choice in his life.”

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N’Kwala (Oscar-nominated actor Graham Greene) is a native adviser and interpreter to the North West Mounted Police (as well as the source of some wild humour
in Gunless)

Early on, producers had to scout the location in winter, and were worried there wouldn’t be enough dust in summer to give Gunless the authenticity they craved. Phillips laughs: “We were all there, the producers and I along with the production designer, hopping in and out of the truck, grabbing photos and video, and then getting back in to warm up, and I said: ‘Do you think we can get the FX people to make sure there is enough dust?’ The local people with us smiled and said ‘don’t worry’ — and boy were they right!”

When summer came and cameras rolled, the crew braved wicked dust storms that forced them to shut down production. “They quickly learned that the cowboys didn’t wear boots and bandanas just for show; they needed them to keep the dust out of their lungs and out of their shoes,” says Phillips. “Within days of beginning the shoot the crew was decked out in bandanas, boots and cowboy hats as shelter from the dust and the sun. It was sweltering hot, the dust got into everything. It was absolutely perfect for the story.”

Striking up the romantic sparks opposite Gross is Sienna Guillory as Jane, a Brit immigrant and his feisty and unlikely love interest. She’s starred in movies such as Inkheart (with Brendan Fraser), Eragon, Love Actually and The Time Machine.

“When I read the script it made me giggle,” she says, “and I loved Jane right from the start. I mean, I could totally be Jane. I like to do things my own way, I like being on my own. I don’t like being told what to do. Jane is ballsy and I like that. I think I would have enjoyed living back then — things happened and you had to make decisions! I also love horses and ride all the time so I was very good at working with the mule — the corsets are a different story though!”

Rounding out the cast are: Tyler Mane (Rob Zombie’s H2) as Jack the enigmatic Blacksmith; Dustin Milligan (90210) who stars as Corporal Jonathan Kent, a zealous junior North West Mounted Police officer; and Callum Keith Rennie (Battlestar Galactica, Californication) as Ben Cutler, a ruthless posse leader hunting down The Montana Kid.

It’s no easy thing to get used to the weight of a Colt .45 in your hand — let alone twirl it like a lethal baton to intimidate your foes. Without a big Hollywood budget to pay for a gun trainer — Gross had to train himself at home with a replica. “When I first started to practise, I lost control of the gun on several occasions. It’s actually a fairly heavy object, and when it slipped out of my hand it would hurtle across the room and go through windows or other breakable items.”

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The Montana Kid (Paul Gross) gets in some gunfighter bonding time with the headstrong Jane (Sienna Guillory) who says: “I love the sound of cowboy boots and spurs on a wooden floor; you know there’s going to be trouble one way or another.”

In time, Gross got to where he could spin the gun while on the phone, watching rushes, or talking with a friend. It became such an extension of his finger he would, at times, forget it was in his hand. As he and a friend were leaving his Toronto home, Gross walked with him out into the front yard, still unconsciously whirling the gun. The next thing they heard was a booming: “PUT DOWN THE WEAPON!” Gross looked up to see one of Toronto’s finest — with his hand hovering over his own weapon — tensed for a possible armed standoff.

Says Gross: “It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. I had just gotten so used to having the gun in my hand. I tried to make light of it but the officer was having none of it until I had put the gun on the ground and stepped away from it. Then he listened to me and once he understood what I was doing he picked the gun up and said, ‘Oh you need to be able to do this’ — and twirled it like a pro in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. I tried to get him to stay and give me some pointers, but he said he had to continue on his rounds.”

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Gunless director William Phillips reflects on the allure of the Western lifestyle: “In this age of technology and iPhones — you can fall behind and be out of date in six months. There’s something consistent and grounding about having a simple home built out of the land — and it’s going to work no matter what. I think it gives people a sense of stability as well.”

Produced by Brightlight Pictures, Alliance Films and Rhombus Media, Gunless reflects its Canadian modesty, too, when it comes to budget. While no firm figure is available, when it’s suggested to director Phillips that securing a $3 to $5 million budget in Canada is like hitting a home run, he replies: “We hit a home run – and then some.”

Reflecting on taking the role, Gross adds: “The lure of doing a Western is almost primal for an actor, and although the heat, the dust, my costume and makeup were uncomfortable at times, the whole experience was great. I got to ride horses in spectacularly beautiful country, play with guns, and play a gunslinger who has made his life with a gun and now that doesn’t apply — and he’s confused!”

Gregory Kennedy is the editor of WHERE Edmonton magazine as well as a well-produced screenwriter.

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