Filmmaker Dale Hildebrand explores our cultural connections with his heartwarming indie comedy Road to the Lemon Grove

It’s 2019. Political factions are attempting to stoke public fear ahead of an upcoming election with third-party billboards aimed at Canada’s immigration policies. Donald Trump wants to spend billions to build a magical wall that will restrict those so-called Mexican “criminals” seeking asylum. And Britain has voted to leave the EU largely fuelled by irrational xenophobia.

Yes, it’s been decades since the world has seen this level of myopic and ethnocentric insecurity. What the world needs now is a really good immigrant story.

Well, the new indie-comedy Road to the Lemon Grove may just be an ideal antidote to all that paranoia about the dangerous onslaught of immigrants today. A heartwarming tale, Lemon Grove follows the final request of a deceased traditional Sicilian father to his reluctant son: return to Italy, spread his ashes in the lemon groves of the country and mend their feuding family. Starring such legendary character actors as Burt Young (Paulie from the Rocky movies) and Nick Mancuso (Ticket to Heaven, TV’s Stingray), Lemon Grove aims to point the spotlight on the beautiful way culture and heritage is tied into the heart of all of us. 

We caught up with writer-director Dale Hildebrand ahead of the movie’s release this Friday at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook to discuss the film, becoming part of the “familia” and just how funny serious thespians can really be. 

Q: Forgive my ignorance, but Hildebrand isn’t a very Italian-sounding name. What drew you to write and direct such a specifically Italian film?

A: Let me just say I married in to it and I became part of the “familia.” Or to quote my wife’s father, when you marry, you don’t just marry the man or the woman, you marry the whole damn family. Truth is, I love telling stories about other cultures. I feel it helps us understand who we are as individuals and as a society. By creating a better understanding of our neighbours or countless others we encounter every day, who may be from a completely different cultural background, it helps us appreciate and embrace them; for in the end we are all the same – we live, we love, and hopefully we can still laugh. 

Q: In such a volatile time when certain political groups are attempting to vilify immigration, how important is a film like this to show the heart of the immigrant experience?

A: This is what it’s all about. The Italian immigrants were not looked upon fondly when they arrived in Canada and the U.S. I’ve heard stories saying it was illegal for more then four Italians to congregate on a street corner in Toronto. Many Italians were interned during WWII. But those same immigrants became leaders and nation builders. They are part of our fabric. But that took time. It took commitment. It took patience. And it took a lot of labour. That’s why we are opening on Labour Day weekend. It’s a tough weekend to open. Nobody opens on Labour Day, but in homage to all the labourers who took this journey, we hope they come to the cinemas to watch their story being told. 

Q: Nick Mancuso is certainly not known for comedy. In fact, I think this is his first foray into comedy. Why did you feel he was right for the film?

A: You are right on the money with that question. This is his first comedy after 200-300 movies. Counter-casting him really worked. We were playing with stereotypes and at first glance, Nick can really fit the mood of his character but the audience quickly learns that he’s a bit of a wannabe and he is seeking meaning and purpose, just as our other leading character is. But by the end of the film, he breaks that mood as he discovers a whole other side of himself. Nick was wonderful to work with. He’s a real professional and his scenes cut themselves. He knows timing, he knows cadence and he’s a perfectionist who always delivers. I would work with Nick again in a second. 

Q: This has drawn comparisons to such classics as Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino. Did you borrow anything from those films or other Italian films?

A: I’m not sure “borrowed” would be the right word; it’s more of an homage to these films but also the classics, old-school storytelling, and even spaghetti westerns. However, both Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino carry a lot of weight in my soul. A really interesting factoid – Road to the Lemon Grove won an award at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. One of the judges came up to me after the awards and told me how much she loved the movie and how much she loved my leading lady, Rossella Brescia. That judge was Maria Grazia Cucinotta – the leading lady from Il Postino. 

Q: Most of your work has been involved with documentary work. What aspect of that type of filmmaking did you bring most to Lemon Grove?

A: I do have a lot of documentary work behind me, but I started off producing features, then docs, lots of kids’ shows, and back to features again. I’ve also had a number of screenplays optioned and did writing for U.S. clients. The main thing for me, no matter the genre or type of filmmaking, is about storytelling and I always like to try to tell the story in a different way. But the ultimate goal is touching people’s hearts, with the hope that they in turn can touch the earth, in order to better understand the world we all share. 

Road to the Lemon Grove opens Friday, Aug. 30 at Scotiabank Theatre Chinook. For times please go to

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.