Consider this a minor spoiler: In the course of the literary hoax movie JT Leroy, Guy Maddin appears... for about a second.

Beyond the cameo, the Manitoba filmmaker may have played another small but pivotal role in the film being shot here at all, at least according to the film’s director Justin Kelly.

"All I knew was about Winnipeg came from what I had seen in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg," Kelly says over coffee during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. "I didn’t know much about (the city) at all."

The movie, which opens Friday at the Towne cinema, stars Laura Dern as Laura Albert, the author of "memoirs" written by an invented male hustler named Jeremiah Terminator Leroy. Kristen Stewart plays Savannah Knoop, Laura’s sister-in-law, who steps up when Laura requires an actual person to pretend to be the author. Their adventures together mainly take place in San Francisco, but also Cannes and Paris. It was a tall order for a film primarily shot in Winnipeg.

"I was skeptical, but we scouted away and made it all work out," says Kelly, who premièred the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last September as the festival’s closing-night film.

"It came about because the producer, Cassian Elwes, did a film there with Keanu Reeves called Siberia," Kelly says. "With the whole tax-incentive system in Canada, we were looking at Vancouver and Toronto and (those cities) were booked up with projects.

"Vancouver had 50 projects shooting (in the summer of 2017)," Kelly says. "So it would have been difficult for crew and equipment. So that’s what led us to Winnipeg, and also Cassian had just come off Siberia, and it felt like some of that crew could have rolled over onto JT."

Kelly, who co-scripted the film with Knoop, came to the project steeped in the lore of the author.

"All I knew was about Winnipeg came from what I had seen in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg," Justin Kelly said. (Supplied photos)

"I was living in San Francisco during the rise and fall of JT," he says. "So when the official news came out that he didn’t exist, I was blown away because I remember having friends say things like: ‘I was in Dolores Park today and I saw JT.’

"And to think they just saw somebody with blonde hair and in their mind, thought it was JT," he says. "That kind of ties in with the theme of this film which is the power of belief.

"If you really want to believe something, you’ll keep believing in it, even if the signs are all there that it’s not true."

The hoax aspect of the story is somewhat downplayed in the film.

"Rather than be a film about a literary hoax, I love that it’s two women, and they didn’t plan this to be a big hoax about becoming famous and making money," he says. "They needed to be JT to, in some weird way, find out who they are in real life."

The script allowed a timely opportunity for star Kristen Stewart as a personal exploration of sexuality. Once inextricably linked romantically with her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart famously outed herself as gay when hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live in 2017.

"I think it’s why she was drawn to the role, playing a character who’s dealing with sexuality and identity, in terms of being perceived as a boy or a girl," Kelly says. "Also, there’s the idea of playing a character who becomes famous and dealing with that fame.

"There are a few issues that tied into her life a little bit that made her extra drawn to the role," Kelly says. "But mostly it was the quick selling point of: ‘Hey, do you want to play a character who was a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she’s not sure if she’s gay or straight, a boy or a girl, and pretends to be a male author for five years, and speaks in a southern accent?’

"That’s enough, I think, to make any actor say: ‘Oh, I want to read that.’"

As a bonus, the city provided a degree of comfort from unwanted attention from star-stalkers.

"Kristen Stewart has a big following and, in a larger city, would get papparazzied more, with people following her and fans trying to find her," Kelly says. "We were very left alone in Winnipeg. We ended up shooting on the street in broad daylight and no one really bothered us ever."

As for the Maddin cameo, that came as a special request from Kelly to Winnipeg casting agent Jim Heber.

"I’ve always been a fan," says Kelly. "I was at the San Francisco Film Festival when there was a retrospective a bunch of his short films including Sissy Boy Slap Party and it was so f—— weird.

"I loved it even more that when he came out on stage, he seemed like a regular guy when you expect to see some crazy person since he makes these really bizarre films.

"It’s fun to see someone very grounded and chill who makes something like Sissy Boy Slap Party," says Kelly. "I always just really loved his work. So that was one of the first things that I asked of casting director Jim Heber, for any cameos I could get.

"It’s hard to fly people from all over but I knew he lived there, so I said, ‘Please, get me Guy Maddin.’ And he came out and did it."

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