It’s tough enough to make a first feature, but writer-director Adam MacDonald chose to make his with real bears. MacDonald’s been racking up acting credits for quite a while, having appeared on a number of shows including Being Erica and Rookie Blue, but now he’s at the Toronto International Film Festival with his feature directorial debut, Backcountry. The film stars Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym as Alex and Jenn, a couple that opts to ditch the big city and spend some quality time together camping in the woods for the weekend. Alex insists he knows the way to the secluded Blackfoot trail, but after one too many wrong turns, they’re completely lost and in bear territory, too.
In an effort to keep myself from gushing over the film and turning this into a mile long introduction, I’ll just direct you to my enthusiastic review of Backcountry right here. But that being said, it should come as no surprise that I was absolutely thrilled to hop on the phone with MacDonald shortly after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival world premiere. We got to discuss the process of getting his first feature off the ground, the true story the film is based on, what is was like working with real bears and more. Hit the jump to check it all out.
ADAM MACDONALD: I came up with the idea of Open Water in the woods when I was camping with my wife. I heard something walking around the tent early in the morning, so I came up with the idea of Open Water in the woods and then I started writing the script and I started doing research and I came across this story of a couple that encountered a predatory black bear in northern Ontario about 10 years ago. I used the same elements, the same thing that happened to them and all this stuff, but then there’s a huge spark from my creativity in the piece. I just wanted to make [a certain character] find strength, so I wanted to change that part of the story. I fictionalized the story too because it’s not a documentary. [Laughs] I love it when people come up, we’ve had a couple of screenings, and they go, ‘Did that really happen to a couple in the backcountry?’ I go, ‘Yes, yes it did.’ I thought about them a lot, the real couple, when I was shooting. It was a tragic, heroic and extremely emotional story, so I wanted to feel that in the movie constantly. That’s what I went for.
In the true story, they got attacked at a campsite in the backcountry and he fought off the bear with a knife the best he could while the bear was mauling his girlfriend. He put her in a canoe and they were like three hours out in the deep backcountry, so it wasn’t looking good and she passed away, sadly, in the canoe on the way. The canoe is a big symbol for me in the end of the movie. That’s what it’s based on. It’s based on a tragic occurrence, but the sad part is, this happens again and again. This happened many times. There’s an older couple in Algonquin that was murdered in their sleep, eaten in their sleep by a black bear in Algonquin Park. This is real stuff.
How do you go about making a movie about a tragedy like that while respecting what happened? You want it to be entertaining, but you’ve got to keep it appropriate, too.
MACDONALD: That is a very, very fine line and that’s a very good question. For me, I wanted to respect anybody who’s been attacked by a wild animal in a way where it’s not a joke. It’s serious, serious business. When people have seen the attack in this movie, they’re really taken aback and they can feel it, and that’s what I wanted to do. To be honest, I think it would be such a disservice if someone saw the movie and went, ‘That’s not how it happens at all. It happened to me and that’s bullsh*t.’ It’s disrespectful in a way. I just wanted to convey [that] it’s so ferocious, so instant, so powerful and that was my mandate; I wanted to make something as powerful as it would be in real life.
MACDONALD: It took three years to get it off the ground and that felt like an eternity. Some people were telling me, ‘You know, that’s really quick.’ Once I finished the first draft of the script and then the second draft, I went to my cousin Jeff who plays Alex in the movie and then he sent it to a producer that he knows and we got a contact, so he’s been working with us since the beginning as well, nearly the beginning. We didn’t get financed right away. I learned a lot from watching my favorite directors, I’ve done three short films and I’ve worked on TV as an actor for a long time, so I’m very familiar with the set, I’m very informed on directing tips and all this stuff. You know, watching Derek Cianfrance’s movies, like Blue Valentine was a huge influence, or Rob Zombie’s Halloween was a huge influence. I watched the making-of documentaries like a university course, so I had time in three years to really dedicate myself to finding the right way to tell the story and it helped so much because, to be honest, I think if I did this two years ago it would have been a much different movie. It really captured what I was going for.
Was there any specific element that you locked in along the way that made it go from, ‘I want to make this movie,’ to ‘I’m making this movie?’
MACDONALD: When Missy and Eric Balfour signed on to do the movie, that really propelled it to, ‘It’s gonna happen now.’ But of course, there was no way we were gonna use CG bears or anything like that so when we locked in the real bears in Squamish, BC to shoot with them for a day, that really got me excited and I knew that we could go ahead and do it.
It’s film school 101 to avoid working with kids and animals, so how was it working with a bear of all animals?
MACDONALD: Oh my god, I know! I had a panic attack, to be honest, the night before. I just totally had a panic attack because of that very thought. I just couldn’t believe that two large bears were coming to shoot with me the next day. I had to get up at four in the morning to talk to the wrangler, to go over the shot list and what I wanted to do with them and all this stuff. It was so intimidating. Once I got there it was fine, but oh my god, it was so, so intimidating.
MACDONALD: Yeah! You know, we did do some test screenings and it really, really scored high with females and that made me so happy because to me, it’s a bit of a love letter to nature because the truth is, it’s both beautiful and it’s extremely violent and it’s extremely powerful out there, but we’re all so controlled right now in our cities and our towns, we feel safe and that’s where we want to be, but in reality, it’s not like that. I wanted to capture that, both sides.
How do you decide how much to show during the more brutal moments? I’ve got a high tolerance, but I imagine some might not.
MACDONALD: I had some ideas like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna pull it back. I’m not gonna go … wait a minute, wait a minute.’ That is what it would be like. This is what the experience would be and if people are gonna see the film and know that this may happen, this is what we have to deal with. I had to deal with it, too. When we were cutting together the bear attack, it took us like a month. Me and Dev Singh, an amazing editor, we sat in a room together for like three weeks, every day, Monday to Friday, eight hours a day and I got so depressed for like a month after that because I was so wrapped up in that … Missy’s here and she’s laughing at me. [Laughs] I admire strong women and I have so much respect for women. Another thing I wanted to do that’s fictitious obviously is, you know when you meet someone who’s a strong person or a strong woman and you wonder, where did it come from? Some people are born with it or it’s a life experience and there are certain things they must go through to mature. I wanted to explore that in a woman where you can actually see the moment where she becomes strong and faces life for what it is. And people are lost in the wild. It happens all the time. In the wild, it’s like, Perri, if you went for a weekend trip and you got lost, god forbid, whoever you’re with, their true colors come out. It’s a life changing experience. You find out what you’re made of and that’s what really interested me about Jenn kind of coming into her own in the movie.
I’m actually off to the woods to shoot a movie next week, so I’m already panicking! We got a warning that if we left trash in the dumpsters outside, the bears will come.
MACDONALD: Oh, you’re gonna do amazing! It’s gonna be great! Just make sure you bring bear spray and just make sure you know where they are. A bear came to our base camp day one and it was like a good omen for the things to come even though the location manager thought it was a bad omen, but it ended up being a good one. It was like a blessing for our set!