By Tara Bradbury
and Lesley LeRoux
Special to The Telegram
Fourteen-year-old actor Avery Ash may not have any film or TV experience, but he knows his way around an outboard motor and could teach you how to snare a rabbit — and that’s perfect for the producers of “Hold Fast.”
Avery, of Hants Harbour, plays the lead role in the screen adaptation of Kevin Major’s classic coming-of-age novel, produced by Rock Island Productions and Markham Street Films.
The feature movie began shooting last week and will film in locations across the province, like St. John’s, Tors Cove, LaManche and Gros Morne, until the end of the month.
The cast features Molly Parker (“Rare Birds,” “The Firm”) and locals Aiden Flynn, Andy Jones, Des Walsh, Jane Dingle, Pamela Morgan, Dave Sullivan and Mack Furlong, as well as a significant group of young talent, all from this province including Avery, Douglas Sullivan, Tim Myles and Ethan Martin, all of St. John’s, and Taylor Vincent of Springdale.
Though Avery’s got plenty of acting experience on stage, in school productions and drama festivals, this is his first foray onto the screen. His naiveté when it comes to film is one of his charms, Major said.
“He really has what I’m looking for, the naturalness,” he explained. “I think what Rosemary (House, producer) was looking for and what I wanted to see as well, was a kind of naturalness around the script and he certainly brings that. He’s a very astute actor. He observes very well and takes in everything that’s going on, and I think he comes to a very smart conclusion to how he fits in and what’s expected of him.”
Avery plays Michael, a teenager from outport Newfoundland whose life is uprooted after his parents are killed in a car accident. He and his brother are split up among relatives, and Michael is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in town. He eventually decides to run away, and his cousin goes with him.
“I have read the book,” Avery told The Telegram. “What I found really interesting was I can relate to him really easily. For the more challenging stuff, I just kind of put myself in Michael’s position.”
Film work is a lot different from acting on stage, Avery’s learning. You don’t have to project your voice, for one, he explained.
“It’s going to be kind of weird seeing myself on screen, but it’s going to be cool,” he said, adding he’d love to have a career as an actor, or a member of the RNC.
“Hold Fast” has sold more than 225,000 copies since it was published in 1978, and is the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, among other prizes. The idea to turn the novel into a film came from House, who, in addition to co-producing the project, also wrote the screenplay.
The story has been updated to modern times.
“It’s such a wonderful story; such a great imagining of six or nine very tumultuous months in a young man’s life. There’s a lot of very strong emotional moments in it, and it’s a journey; an adventure,” she said.
“It’s a test of friendship, a coming of age, and it just has a lot of classic elements to it that seem to me to be right for a movie.”
Major agrees with the screen value of the story, and said while he didn’t necessarily have a film in mind when writing the book, he has long thought it might make a good film. “Hold Fast” once had a life as a play.
“It’s very much a universal story, but retains the flavour of Newfoundland, which is so important,” he said.
“The story of a young fellow losing his parents and having to move on and fighting to stay true to what he believes in could happen anywhere, and for that reason, it translates nicely on screen.”
House’s first goal was to have a cast made entirely up of local actors — with the exception of Parker, with whom House is working on another project, and whom she thought would be a good fit for the role of Aunt Ellen — and if she wasn’t able to find the perfect people, she was prepared to hold off on doing the film. The role of Michael was the last one cast, after the producer put out an audition call on the radio.
Another of House’s aims was to sign Justin Simms on as director as soon as possible.
Simms is an award-winning writer/director/producer who has worked on films including the screen adapation of Joel Thomas Hynes’ “Down to the Dirt.” As an avid reader of Major’s novels and a filmmaker with an interest in projects based on human drama, Simms said he’s excited to give “Hold Fast” new life on-screen.
“I was a big fan of ‘Hold Fast,’ the novel, when I was a boy,” he said.
“I think I read it back when it was out for the first time, or pretty shortly after that. I’m a big fan of Kevin’s work, always. I’ve read all of his books. So when the chance came to be a part of ‘Hold Fast’ as a film, I thought it was a great opportunity.
“I think Michael’s story is one that we’ve all sort of gone through on some level. It’s about kind of finding your place in the world. I think that’s a very universal thing that we all have to deal with at some point. So I kind of hope that when people see the film and see Michael’s story, they’ll be able to see some of themselves in it.”
Simms said that he has enjoyed seeing Major watch his iconic novel transform into a feature film, and is confident that he can reach audiences in much the same way that the novel has over the years.
“I think I have a really good understanding of the book and the kind of emotion that’s in the book,” Simms said.
“So, really, it’s about trying to give that level of emotion to the film.”
Major has been on the “Hold Fast” set on and off, more out of curiosity than anything else. He hasn’t been offering input, and insists it’s not his place to do so. He’s content leaving it all up to Simms.
“I’m very conscious of not getting in the way and being more of an observer,” he said.
“Just like with a stage play, there’s a point at which you step away and let somebody else do their thing.
“There’s a thrill in seeing what you wrote 35 years ago in a small house in Eastport still have this life after all this time, and it’s going to find a new audience and a broader audience.”
The “Hold Fast” feature film, financed in part by Telefilm Canada and the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation (NIFCO), is expected to be released in 2013.