Hilary Swank as Louisville, Ken., hairdresser Sharon Stevens in Ordinary Angels, a faith-based movie filmed in Winnipeg for its climactic snowstorm sequence. The film is from Vancouver-founded studio Lionsgate. (Lionsgate)

Can Canadian-filmed Ordinary Angels kickstart a moribund film industry?

To create the climactic snowstorm sequence so central to the upcoming faith-based film Ordinary Angels, Director Jon Gunn and his team turned to Winnipeg. He told Canadian Catholic News that accurately depicting Louisville covered in snow like it was on Jan. 17, 1994, during the North American cold wave was logistically challenging.

“There was a lot of snow there, which was great, but the big challenge is even when you have a lot of snow, you have to control that snow,” said Gunn. “We have traffic jams with half a mile of highway shut down, two feet of snow and 70 cars stuck. I think it took us about four days to transfer 150 truckloads of snow to build that traffic jam.”

Ordinary Angels, debuting in Canadian theatres on Feb. 23, depicts how struggling hairdresser Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank) discovers a new purpose for her life when she encounters widowed father Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson) and his two young daughters. With the youngest girl critically ill and in need of a liver transplant, the fierce Stevens single-handedly rallies the entire town of Louisville, Kentucky, to help save the child in the aftermath of the infamous cold wave.

This true story has long been a passion project of Lionsgate, a mass media and production company originally founded in Vancouver in 1997. Gunn, who has collaborated with Lionsgate and the Kingdom Story Company on I Still BelieveAmerican UnderdogJesus Revolution and The Unbreakable Boy (coming out in 2025), instantly became captivated by the script.

“It was instantly a very moving project and kind of hard to believe it is a true story because of how much this family went through and overcame,” said the 50-year-old. “I just loved, specifically, that it was a story of community coming together. It was a great story to tell at this time with so much divisiveness in our culture. It is a wonderful reminder of what it’s like to live in a culture where people selflessly help one another. It is charming, funny, heartbreaking and inspirational – it just had all of it.”

Meg Tilly, who once earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for 1985’s Agnes of God, worked on the screenplay for many years. Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director of 2023’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, also contributed to the script.

This script was clearly a draw for the talent in front of the camera. Swank, a two-time best actress Oscar winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, has gravitated toward gritty roles like Stevens throughout her 30-year career. Meanwhile, Ritchson’s role as Schmitt is a departure for the performer who has primarily starred in action television series and flicks like Reacher and Fast X over the past decade.

For Gunn, he said collaborating with Swank – he saw Million Dollar Baby in theatres three times – and Ritchson was “such a gift.” He also praised the supporting cast, which includes Amy Acker, Skywalker Hughes, Tamala Jones, Emily Mitchell, Drew Powell and Nancy Travis.

To capture an authentic characterization of Sharon Stevens, whom Gunn hails as “such a dynamic woman who can move mountains with sheer will” required Swank to nail her voice and accent. Stevens recorded herself reciting the dialogue in the script. The actress then studied the tape to uncover Stevens’ essence. Swank and Jones also completed beauty school to learn how to cut and style hair properly.

Ritchson spent some time working with some professional roofers to inhabit Schmitt.

The buzz surrounding the film leading up to its release suggests that Gunn and his team’s grounded and inspirational account of this real-life event is playing well with test audiences.

“People are coming out very uplifted and encouraged to act out their faith,” said the 50-year-old. “It is a great reminder of how one person can make a difference in a life and how putting your faith into action is not only impactful to the person you are helping but also meaningful for yourself.”

The big question that looms is whether Ordinary Angels will be successful financially. This is difficult to portend considering the North American box office is off to a feeble start in 2024.

January produced a total haul of $513.6 million. According to the media measurement and analytics company Comscore, this marks the worst performance for the first month of the year since 1999 outside of the COVID era.

And while getting patrons into cinemas is always a tricky proposition during Super Bowl weekend, this year’s crop of movies, led by Argylle and Lisa Frankenstein, totalled around $38 million. Again not counting the pandemic years, it’s the most anemic haul for a weekend coinciding with the big game since the $37 million amassed from Jan. 26-28, 1990.

Undeniably, the film industry is desperate for a good news story. Most of Hollywood has fixed its gaze on the mega-hit prospects of Dune: Part Two, which opens on March 1. But perhaps based on recent precedent, Ordinary Angels could emerge as one of the very few early-year winners.

During the same weekend frame in 2023 (Feb. 24-26), the Kingdom Story Company and its partner Lionsgate basked in a robust $15.8 million showing for Jesus Revolution, budgeted at $15 million. This strong launch catapulted this based-on-a-true-story film to a final total of $54.3 million.

Box office forecasting suggests Ordinary Angels is tracking to secure a similar opening. Its success will depend on solid word of mouth.

Gunn said he is delighted to hear that churches are buying out theatres or arranging large groups to see Ordinary Angels when it comes out on Feb. 23 (some larger markets will have Feb. 22 evening screenings). He said these faith-based films “must be supported in a meaningful way” during opening weekend.

“It makes a huge difference to the success of this movie and the opportunities we have to make more and more of these movies.”


Scroll to top
Skip to content