It's probably best for provincial park business that Adam MacDonald's Backcountry, a movie in which a bickering urban couple are stalked by a 600-pound black bear, is coming out at summer's end. And it may be good for the wedding industry that it didn't appear in spring. Neither camping nor couplehood looks like much fun in Backcountry.
"To be honest," says MacDonald, settling in a Toronto restaurant booth alongside the actors, Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop, who play his squabbling prey, "Open Water was the initial idea. It's grey, it's a little complicated, and there [are] emotional triggers all along the way before anything happens. That's what I wanted to do, but on land with a bear."
In 2003's Open Water, in which a vacationing couple tread water among circling sharks, the crisis is imminent, visceral and constantly present. In Backcountry, it builds: lurking in every snapped twig, sharp word and crunched leaf, hovering in the wind menacingly blowing branches above. To MacDonald's credit – Backcountry is the Montreal-born director's first feature – the sustained aura of suspense is so taut the attack itself qualifies as relief, if not release. At least the excruciating anticipation is over.
Roop, cast as the husband doomed to make just about every basic camping mistake in the book, applauds the strategy: "I think the climactic scene is that much more terrifying because of the slow burn," he says. "By showing the beauty of nature Adam's also earned the right to show how savage nature can be." And he's earned the right to make it as detailed and as gory, for lack of a better term, as it is. The audience should be seeing everything because they've seen everything else so far."
Inspired also by the camping trip during which MacDonald and his wife heard "something creeping around," Backcountry evolved as a cinematic challenge in suggesting heightened senses and limited perception: a simulation of the state of being constantly frightened, not to mention pissed off at your partner. To this end he kept his crew small and largely invisible to his actors, who spent 16 days hiking in Northern Ontario wilderness not knowing when they were being filmed, and as a result flirting with being nearly as testy as their characters.
"We never knew when the camera was on us or even what kind of shot it was," says Peregrym. "So we had to be on point the entire time."
"It was the most intense shoot ever," concludes Roop.
"I was afraid of at least one scene every day," nods Peregrym. "At the end of the shoot I cried for four days. It was just this emotional comedown from being tense the whole time. Lots of massages required. See, I live it. That's what happened. I chose to be as present as possible. How do you act it without imagining that you're actually in it?"
As calculated as his on-set tension-teasing strategy was, MacDonald was far from immune to it. Truth be told, he was more than a little scared himself, especially of those bears. "I told my producer Thomas Michael, 'I want the biggest black bear you can find,'" says MacDonald, who workshopped the big attack scene by making a video of his cat skulking around a miniature red tent.
"I was looking for something like a small grizzly," he explains. "About 600 pounds each."
"Problem is," he adds, "they're apparently not as well trained in Ontario. Well, not so much trained but guided. So my line producer Peter Harvey checked out Chester and Charlie in Vancouver. And we had our bears."
MacDonald lay sleepless the night before the actual shooting of the big scene. "It had taken three years to incubate this attack. Yes, I'd made my cat video with the little red tent. But I was so focused on making a bear movie and doing it right that I forgot that I was actually working with real bears until the night before. I had a full-blown panic attack. When I met them, they were so big I was totally not prepared for it."
He recalls first contact with Chester and Charlie: "They were in trailers the size of horse trailers, and the trailers were bouncing up and down periodically. There were rules before cameras rolled: no talking while the bears were being filmed, no sudden noises while the bears were being filmed, no looking the filmed bears in the eye, and if another animal shows up, pray. Plus, stay calm. Try not to let the bears know you're scared."
"It was just crazy." Peregrym laughs. "You're not allowed to make any noise. Everything that we shot I had to mime, and not make a sound when I was supposed to be screaming. Basically, they're instinctive and you can't actually control these animals."
But it's one thing for a filmmaker to head into the woods with two 600-pound black bears, quite another for actors to hike right along. Well, MacDonald fesses up, "Jeff's my cousin. And since he was already chopped up with a machete in one of my shorts I figured …" Roop laughs: "Why not finish him off?"