We talk with the writer and director of Canadian true-crime biopic Edwin Boyd.
What distinguishes Edwin Boyd, a biopic of the amiable Canadian bank robber, is its welcome dearth of nostalgia. Though set in Toronto in the 1940s and ’50s, the film seems refreshingly of-the-moment. In some respect, we can probably thank Mad Men, and its revival of mid-century fashions, for this. But more directly responsible is Boyd writer/director Nathan Morlando. It’s his first feature, and it grew out of a nearly lifelong fascination with Eddie Boyd and his gang.
A veteran of the Second World War, Boyd turned to crime after growing frustrated with his menial jobs. An aspiring actor, his bank robberies had the quality of theatre, with Boyd donning greasepaint makeup, hopping over counters, and (if the film is to be believed) soft-shoeing on the countertops while tellers stuffed bags with cash. In and out of the Don Jail throughout his adult life, Boyd’s status as Canada’s public enemy number one ended in 1952, when he surrendered to police following a lengthy manhunt. Paroled 10 years later, he changed his name and moved out to British Columbia, where he drove a bus. It’s one of the rare stories of folksy sensationalism in Canadian history, spurred by Boyd’s reputation as a dashing bad boy, an image the national press propagated.
In Morlando’s film, Scott Speedman wonderfully captures the charisma of Boyd. And Speedman’s grinning good looks further heighten the film’s attendant senses of fealty to both the past and the present. Powerfully acted and gorgeously shot, Boyd never really feels like a “period piece” in the pejorative sense. More than a costume drama of dapper fedoras and three-piece suits, Edwin Boyd nods to luridness in the contemporary media while hinging on the eternal appeal of the anti-hero.
We spoke with Morlando about his film, his relationship with the real Eddie Boyd, and how, in a pinch, Sault Ste. Marie will make a fine mid-’50s Hogtown.
Torontoist: I understand that you had a long-time interest in Edwin Boyd and the Boyd Gang. How did that come about?
Nathan Morlando: Yeah, well my interest goes way back to my childhood. My uncles, who grew up in east-end Toronto, would reminisce a lot about the Boyd Gang. They were teenagers when the Boyd Gang was active. Then when I was in university I had a professor who knew someone who knew someone who knew Edwin Boyd, under his new identity. And he reached out to Edwin Boyd on my behalf and asked if I could call him. This started a phone conversation that lasted many years. Eventually I went out to see him and we developed a very trusting relationship that led eventually to this script.
So he knew that you intended to make a film about him?
Yes. That was my original pitch when I reached out to him. I’d always wanted to make the film, way back when I was student. He was a little skeptical, I think, because he’d been approached since the ’70s. As you may know, Gordon Pinsent did a docudrama back in I think ’76 or ’77. But it wasn’t a full feature. He was skeptical that a film could be made in his lifetime. And unfortunately he was right, because he passed away in 2002. But he must have been interested enough to begin the dialogue with me.
Did knowing him so well affect how you developed the character? Going in, you might expect the film to be more of a caper, with more heists and stick-ups and all of that, but it’s more of a character study.
Well, that was the goal. I didn’t want it to be a typical cops-and-robbers story. I was more intrigued by what motivated him and what the consequences of his actions were. As I grew up hearing about the story, there was all this exciting drama. But I suspected that there was a deeper story behind that. Which is, well, like any story. As my conversations deepened with Edwin Boyd, I realized that he had suffered an immense amount of loss. He had lost his family. It was a tragic love story. And that angle was, for me, the most important to explore.
What about Scott Speedman reflects Edwin Boyd, both as folk hero and as the man you knew?
Well, one, Scott has an incredible amount of charm. It was very important to find an actor who could equal Edwin Boyd’s charm. That was very important. More importantly, I needed an actor who would be committed to going to some very difficult places, and Scott was committed to that. Together we explored those depths.
Was the film shot in Toronto?
It was shot in Sault Ste. Marie, actually.
Oh, wow. Because it has this feel of a mid–20th century Toronto.
I know. Amazing, right? Well, first of all, looking to shoot a period piece in Toronto is difficult. Because so many storefronts have been renovated, and there’s lots of signage. So it becomes very difficult, and very expensive, to shoot a period film in Toronto. So we had to look elsewhere. The Sault was perfect in that it seemed to be this untouched place, just street beyond street that resembled late-’40s, early-’50s Toronto.
Did the bitter cold up there help? Help the drama, I mean. I can’t imagine it helping the process of making the film itself.
Well, it certainly was an interesting challenge! But it provided some really gorgeous landscapes and heightened the essence of what I think a Canadian, and especially a Toronto, winter would have been like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I think Toronto’s been warming up in the last 20 years. So I think the Sault resembles what Toronto would have been like. The cold also brings everyone together. Like a big huddle.
Another interesting choice is how the film’s soundtrack features a lot of contemporary rock songs, like stuff by the Black Keys, but it’s overlaid on a pretty straight-ahead period piece. What attracted you to these songs?
It’s the Black Keys and the Strange Boys, yeah. What drew me to Edwin Boyd was that I find him a very modern character. He’s this 20th-century anti-hero born and inspired by film noir. James Cagney was his role model. His relationship with the media, I thought, was very, very contemporary. I wanted the film to be authentic to the past, but at the same time, feel like it’s happening now. So it was important for the music to bridge those two time periods. So the Black Keys and the Strange Boys are both cutting-edge, contemporary bands, but they’re both very inspired by the past.