Royal OakDecember 04, 2013
Legend of Nain Rouge returns in books, possibly movie
By Robert Guttersohn
In a photo taken in March of the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a man dressed as the Nain Rouge — French for “red gnome” — taunts a crowd of people marching him out of Detroit.
ROYAL OAK — When Joseph Bastian, 46, first began to write the “Nain Rouge” series, it was late 2008, and metro Detroit and much of the country was dipping into the recession.
“I was born and raised here, and I had never seen it as bad as it was,” he said recently of that time.
Bastian had a career developing educational training programs, but like many during that period, he was laid off.
“We almost lost everything,” he said of his wife and four kids. “(The book) was one thing that gave me that form, that structure, and gave me that reason to get up every morning.”
With time to fill, he drove to various downtown Royal Oak coffee shops and sat among other unemployed people. Some were working on their résumés and job searching. Others were simply passing time to get out of the house.
Bastian, though, was bringing back to life the local legend of Nain Rouge — a tale that dates back to the founding of Detroit more than 300 years ago.
With tangible signs of what the recession was doing to people around him, he retold the tale of the gnome who cursed the founders of Detroit and their ancestors.
“People had been talking about it for 300 years, but only in little pieces,” he said.
After completing the manuscript nine months later, he had in mind two more books to complete the trilogy.
What he didn’t know was that a local movie producer and actor out of Birmingham would read his book and want to make it into a movie. He didn’t know that the producer would attract a Hollywood star to play the red gnome and an Academy Award-winning makeup artist to conceptualize Detroit’s harbinger of doom.
The folklore surrounding Nain Rouge — meaning red dwarf in French — says he was keeper of the land that would become Detroit. When French settlers arrived at what would be Detroit in 1701, their leader, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, ran the gnome out of town. Nain Rouge, the legend says, cursed Cadillac and Detroit.
In Bastian’s research, he found several other stories about the Nain Rouge reported in newspaper articles. Utility workers, he said, claimed they spotted the Nain Rouge just before a huge storm. Others claimed to spot him just before the 1967 riot.
And at the height of the Great Recession, the legend returned with the Marche du Nain Rouge. Locals band together in Midtown, don odd outfits and march the gnome out of the city.
While organizers were hoping to put together the march, Bastian saw a topical story developing.
“All this bad stuff was happening, and I’m experiencing it myself with my family,” Bastian said. “At the same time, there’s this harbinger of doom legend where there’s bits and pieces, and it’s existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. All of the sudden, as a writer, I’m saying, ‘Wow, this is really fertile ground that I can do a lot with.’”
“And I had the time,” he said with a laugh.
In his series geared toward tweens and teenagers, the story starts with Elly and Tom, and a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, the two Royal Oak Middle School students spot Nain Rouge and later learn that they are both descendants of an officer in Cadillac’s expedition. Nain Rouge, made powerful by all the bad things happening in and around Detroit, has chosen to exact his revenge on the pair.
With the help of the knowledgeable DIA curator Dr. Beele, Elly and Tom work throughout the series to bring down the gnome and end his reign of doom. Along the way, Bastian pulls from his career as an educator and tosses in tidbits of local history.
Both the first and second books are relatively short. Neither is longer than 140 pages.
“I did that on purpose,” Bastian said. “The whole point is I want it to be accessible. I never want a child to be intimidated by the size of the book.”
Bastian said he is aiming for a 2014 publication for the final book but is waiting to see the fate of the film adaptation before making a decision.
Selling the tale
Paul Lang, a producer from Drunken Muse Productions, based out of Birmingham, heard of Bastian’s novels through a friend who was involved in the Midtown march and blogged about the Nain Rouge.
Lang read Bastian’s book in the spring and recognized its potential as a movie catered toward 10- to 14-year-olds.
“I just emailed him offhand and told him it has the elements to be a good tween movie,” Lang said in a phone interview.
Bastian called the experience of seeing his own adaptation of a 300-year-old folktale interpreted by others into a movie as “surreal” and “humbling.”
“This is not my story anymore,” Bastian said. “This is everyone’s story. This is something I wrote and put it out there, but it’s something for everyone to take.”
Lang has been seeking funding for the film project. In Michigan, he said that can be difficult. While there is plenty of talent in front of and behind the cameras, there’s not a large investing class here geared toward movies.
“That’s been the most difficult part of it,” Lang said.
So he’s drawing help from local people with international Hollywood fame to put together a three-minute film as a proof of concept. The film will provide the overall story arc. So far, Lang said he has signed on Martin Klebba, who is from Troy and known most notably from his role in Pirates of the Caribbean, to play Nain Rouge. He’s also attracted Joel Harlow, an Academy Award-winning makeup artist, to conceptualize the red gnome.
Lang hopes to begin shooting in a month. Afterward, he plans to float the short film in front of investors.
Like Bastian, Lang is excited to see the movie succeed — first, because it takes place in Detroit, and second, because it’s simply a great story.
“It’s a cool story above and beyond regionalizing it,” Lang said. “As far as being placed in Detroit, I would think that’s more of a plus than any kind of detriment.”
“Nain Rouge” and “Nain Rouge II: The Red Tide” can be purchased on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.