I posted my Backcountry review over a month ago and I still haven’t stopped thinking about the film. It’s Adam MacDonald’s feature directorial debut and it stars Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop as Jenn and Alex, a big city couple who heads off to the woods for a camping trip. Alex insists that he knows the way to the secluded Blackfoot Trail, but after a few wrong turns, they unknowingly wind up in bear territory.
Backcountry had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September and, ever since, it’s been hitting festivals all over the world including the Atlantic Film Festival and the Calgary International Film Festival. In honor of its latest festival screening at Sitges, I’m running my second interview on the film conducted during TIFF. My chat with MacDonald went up a few weeks ago and now it’s time to find out what Peregrym and Roop thought about making a move with real black bears. Hit the jump to check it out.
JEFF ROOP: For me, about four years ago, he sent me a script and just said, ‘Hey, I wrote this script and I wrote the part of Alex with you in mind.’ I read it and I was really taken by it and I contacted my friend, Thomas Michael, terrific producer, and I felt like he was the guy who could get this made. And Thomas really responded to it. He came on board and then came the incredibly long process of raising the funds. And then last year the final piece of the puzzle was Missy and she can speak to her involvement.
MISSY PEREGRYM: When Adam called me, we had worked together for two years now, and not a lot. Our scenes didn’t really cross over very much. But he called me and asked me to read the script and I was nervous because I didn’t want to not like it and disappoint him, but I actually ended up loving the movie. I had a lot of questions, obviously, because I think it’s very difficult to work with animals. And it’s really difficult to do something where it’s suspenseful and intense, but [there’s] nothing really happening and to carry that kind of film is a very huge challenge. I think Adam did an extremely good job. Everybody did, our editor, Christian [Bielz], the DP, everybody came together and really all had to just trust each other and hope for the best. And we all had different styles, different ideas and collaborations, but you have to say yes first. [Laughs] And that’s the scary part. And then you get there and we all just worked very well together even though we had different ideas of things. Out of it, I’m proud of how it turned out.
Are you guys into camping and comfortable with animals and things like that or did it take some getting used to?
PEREGRYM: I won’t be camping anymore. It’s so funny, I grew up in Vancouver – it changed even going snowboarding. I was nervous. I was like, ‘Wow, it never occurred to me that these animals are around us all the time when we’re up in the mountains. We were filming in Squamish and I looked at the hotels’ [guidebook] and it’s like the first page is like, ‘What to Do When You See a Black Bear.’ I’m like, ‘I’ve never noticed this in my life,’ and now I’m seeing it all around me and it changed my perspective for sure after filming this – for better because, not that I’m actually more prepared, it’s not like I carry a whistle around me all the time, but I will reconsider the adventures I go on after this because this happens all the time. People just don’t talk about it. And the parks try not to talk about it because they want people camping.
ROOP: Yeah, the irony with black bears is that black bears are actually responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other kind of bear because they’re so ubiquitous, because people come into contact with them so often. Generally, obviously, everything’s fine, but every once in a while you get one that goes predatory as they say. And a predatory black bear is more dangerous than a grizzly, than a Kodiak bear. They’re comparable to a tiger and their only goal is to eat you, when they go predatory. As rarely as it happens, it does happen and that’s where the story comes from. It comes from a couple that it happened to in Northern Ontario.
How much interaction did you have with the real bear in this movie? I know there’s an animal wrangler there so everything’s safe, but was it as close as it seems in the movie or is that just camera tricks?
PEREGRYM: It was close.
ROOP: It was close, yeah, absolutely. It was the real deal. No CGI or anything like that. We were shooting with real bears. Obviously, for some of the close-up stuff during the attack, we had a puppet, but only to shoot behind. But the bears were there. They were fenced off with a very small, little dental floss fence.
So when you’re shooting that big ending scene, is the bear really growling right in your face like that? I just can’t imagine being in that position, even if it’s just to make a movie.
PEREGRYM: They definitely had their tricks to get them to make noise. It was terrifying. I mean, it was kind of cute sometimes. We took pictures with it on its hind legs, standing behind us.
ROOP: Not arm in arm. [Laughs]
PEREGRYM: Not arm in arm. That was like the cutesy part of it, but it’s still terrifying to be standing in front of this thing. It was stunning to work with an animal that was so large. At the end of the day, it’s a wild animal. It has instincts that you can’t really shut off and we were warned about this as soon as we got to set. We couldn’t make a lot of noise, we couldn’t startle the bear, if there were animals around or anything, we had to tell the wranglers and I’m like, ‘We’re in the forest. This makes me extremely uncomfortable right now that I feel like this thing could take off at any moment.’ There was that nervousness already just from that, which I think was pretty easy to translate. It was wild to watch this thing.
It’s a movie about a bear attack, but about 75% of it is the two of you talking and relationship-building. How was it developing that? Was everything about the characters on the page or did you guys get to come up with some elements of your own?
PEREGRYM: We had a lot of room to be creative and kind of go with the moment. All these scenes weren’t scripted; they were originally there and we got to work with them. Adam was very lenient with the work and the presentation. We got the intention of the movie, we knew what we needed to go to, we knew what the arc was, we knew what was important and as long as we had the development in there, the words didn’t matter as much as the sentiment.
ROOP: Yeah, one thing that was really important to Adam was that it’d feel like a couple that has been together for a long time. He really encouraged us. And they’re not necessarily right for each other so that’s what’s so interesting about it. That’s why they’re a more real couple. Forget about what they go through in the film, they might not work out and it was great to explore that, how they met, the dynamics between them. She’s the one who’s making more money than he does and pushes him to try to impress her, and these sort of dynamics in the relationship I think make it a little more interesting. It’s sort of the cliché, you know, the super happy couple going camping and everything’s so great, blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to do that. I want to see real people. Hopefully we captured that.
How was it working with Adam as an actor’s director? He’s a super accomplished actor himself, so did you see that coming through in his techniques?
PEREGRYM: I loved working with him. He’s a really intelligent guy. He knows what he wants and he’s passionate and he’s driven. I was impressed by his ideas. Again, I didn’t really know what they were going to be until I got there, but we had such a great vibe together. I would love to work with him again. It’s so easy.
ROOP: Ditto. That’s exactly it. He’s a terrific actor, so you just end up really trusting him and his thoughts and his notes. We’ve obviously known each other pretty much our whole lives, so there’s this shorthand between us that was really comfortable for me. I just really trust him. It’s really lovely to work with someone who I trust so much as an actor. And then when I saw the finished product, the vision he had was even more overwhelming.
I know you had the real bear on set, but was there any movie magic-type things you can share? I’m picturing Adam saying, ‘You’re scared because something’s over here,’ and you’re not actually looking at anything.
PEREGRYM: Yeah! There were parts of the movie where we think we hear things and he would be the one throwing stuff at our tent. You know, snapping twigs. We weren’t really playing to sounds that were outside of the tent that we couldn’t see anyway. When we think that there might be a bear the first time, it’s at night, we cannot see it and that’s Adam running through the bushes like an idiot and it was really hard not to laugh, for me anyway. We were killing ourselves laughing while shooting that, which is the complete opposite of the movie. But that’s why it was so much fun. Adam is a hilarious guy and we were able to do really intense stuff, but not take ourselves too seriously and that’s what made the project a lot of fun.
What were the days like there? Something like that needs to be shot at night, so are you all just out in the middle of nowhere in the woods in the cold?
PEREGRYM: Yeah. It was freezing when we were filming. That was one of the most annoying parts about it. We weren’t supposed to film that late in the season, but then it ended up being colder than anticipated. But again, it added an element to the film. [Laughs] I was irritated. I was in a bad mood, a lot.
Is there anything in the final cut that surprised you when you saw it all put together?
PEREGRYM: Adam switched scenes around. There are scenes that didn’t make it in the film and then he also cut things differently from the script that I think made it work. The most difficult part was obviously the intensity and suspense when there isn’t so much happening and I think that it’s really important to keep the audience engaged. But the whole movie can’t be crazy things happening because it’s not believable and that’s not what you do when you’re camping and hiking. I was really happy with the final product. There were a lot of cuts and then it kept getting better and better and better as he changed certain things around and swapped scenes.