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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Little Wing’ director on filming with Brian Cox and Kelly Reilly in Portland, a city ‘full of texture’

From left, Brooklynn Prince as Kaitlyn and director and executive producer Dean Israelite on the set of “Little Wing,” which filmed in the Portland area.  (Allyson Riggs/Paramount+)
By Kristi Turnquist

The new movie, “Little Wing,” which began streaming on Paramount+ on Wednesday, offers viewers performances by such high-profile actors as Brian Cox (“Succession”) and Kelly Reilly (“Yellowstone”), glimpses of Portland-area locations, and a story about the unlikely bond that forms between a troubled teenager and a gruff Vietnam veteran.

Beyond those qualities, “Little Wing” is also likely to make even the most bird-averse person appreciate the distinctive qualities of pigeons, specifically racing pigeons.

“Little Wing,” inspired by an article by Susan Orlean (a former Portlander who went on to write such bestsellers as “The Orchid Thief”), tells the story of Kaitlyn (Brooklynn Prince), a teenager who feels alienated and unhappy about her parents’ divorce.

The fact that Kaitlyn’s mother, Maddie (Reilly) is selling their house because she can’t afford the mortgage payments on her own, drives Kaitlyn to do something desperate. She enlists her friend Adam (Che Tafari) to help her steal a valuable racing pigeon, in the hopes she can sell it to raise enough money to keep the house. But when Jaan (Cox), the owner of the prized racing pigeon, discovers what Kaitlyn has done, the situation gets even more complicated.

It’s no accident that the pigeons in “Little Wing” come across as fascinating, considering director Dean Israelite’s connection to the birds. As he says in a statement, in the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Israelite’s father and grandfather raced pigeons, becoming, as Israelite says, “the preeminent pigeon fanciers of Johannesburg.”

In a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles, Israelite said, “I think what’s great about the movie, and what we tried to do, is celebrate these animals. We took a lot of care and time photographing them in the right way to really try and elicit onscreen the majesty of these birds that people don’t fully understand.”

Working with local animal handlers, Israelite, 39, said he was surprised by how many shots the crew was able to capture of real birds, not birds created by using a visual effects process.

Being able to convey what makes pigeons special was key to “Little Wing.” In the film, Kaitlyn receives two pigeons as a gift from a coworker of her mother, who is a detective with Portland police. As the film goes on, Kaitlyn becomes more attached to her pigeons, while also learning more about Jaan, and his passion for pigeon racing.

The beauty of the birds also underscores one of the central themes of the film, which is the uncanny ability of pigeons to find their way home, which echoes Kaitlyn’s own desire to stay in the house that has been her home.

While the birds may be unexpectedly impressive, the stars of “Little Wing” come with already notable reputations. Cox, whose long career includes his powerful performance as a fierce media mogul in HBO’s “Succession,” brings subtle dimensions to the character of Jaan.

“It’s hard to describe how talented he is,” Israelite said of working with the Scottish actor. “He is so completely in the moment when he’s in every scene, and it feels like he’s fully experiencing and living it. It all feels just so truthful.”

In addition, Israelite said, “He makes choices that you don’t expect,” and would do things with the character “that I didn’t anticipate, and that I found genuinely moving.”

Reilly, who is English but is likely best known to viewers as the strong-willed Montana rancher’s daughter Beth Dutton in “Yellowstone,” is not at all like her TV character, Israelite said.

“From my experience, she couldn’t be more of a different character than who she plays on ‘Yellowstone.’ She is so sweet, and so generous in terms of the time she will give to the project, the time that she will give to the character, to talking about the character, and thinking about the character.”

“She came to the whole project with so much warmth and tenderness,” Israelite said, “with very clear and strong ideas about who this character was.”

As for Prince, Israelite said that he has worked with a lot of young actors, and was impressed by how prepared the 13-year-old Prince was. “I couldn’t really keep up with her,” he said. “She came with such a depth to this character, who she had thought about, and brought to life beyond what was in the script.”

Though Orlean’s original New Yorker article is set in Boston, “Little Wing” filmed on location in the Portland area in 2023.

Israelite says he isn’t quite sure what prevented the production from filming in Boston, “but once we started looking at other cities, Portland rose to the top of the list. It felt like a place that was so full of texture and character, and felt like it really fit the lives, the DNA of these people, and the themes in the film. From the moment I saw the location photos, I was in love with going to shoot in Portland.”

“I like the Pacific Northwest in terms of the weather for a movie like this,” Israelite said. “There’s a real mood to everything.”

The Northwest setting also influenced the decision to feature music by the Portland-born Kathleen Hanna and her bands, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. “In the script, Kaitlyn is very into hip hop,” Israelite said. Filming in Portland, he said, made him decide to embrace a more punk rock, riot grrrl influence for Kaitlyn.

“Honestly, I loved shooting up there,” says Israelite. “I loved the crew, everyone was so collaborative and passionate.”

When not filming, Israelite said, “I drank more coffee than is allowed by a human being. I love coffee, and I would sample coffee everywhere. I tried to go to the restaurants that people talk about, but I spent a lot of my off-time walking around.”

He was also impressed, Israelite said, by “how integral the (Willamette) river was to the shape of the city. The river, and the bridges became a real visual motif for the movie, and that came out of being in Portland.”

“Little Wing” is streaming on Paramount+