Over thirty years in the film industry have served director Sturla Gunnarsson very well. He’s earned Emmy, Gemini, and Genie Awards, an Academy Award nomination, as well as being the National President of the Directors Guild of Canada. Gunnarsson has been behind the camera for numerous documentary films, classic Canadian television shows like The Beachcombers and Degrassi: The Next Generation, as well as feature films such as Beowulf & Grendel, and most recently, Ice Soldiers. Refusing to slow down, Toronto Film Scene managed to get some time with the hard working director to talk about his latest film, the real challenge of working in Northern Ontario, and the problems facing the Canadian film industry.
While so many of us in Ontario deal with one of the most harsh winters in years, it seems outrageous that Gunnarsson would head straight into the frozen wilderness for his film, Ice Soldiers. With a few words of advice, Gunnarsson solves the problem of the cold. “I always say there’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s just bad clothes.” he jokingly says. There’s a bit of truth to his statement, but one has to wonder if good clothes would have helped during filming Ice Soldiers. “It’s filmed in Northern Ontario. All the woodland stuff is filmed in the Whitefish First Nations Reserve near Sudbury, and all the arctic stuff is filmed in one of the mines in Sudbury.” explains Gunnarsson.
The frozen wilderness may not have chilled Gunnarsson’s spirit, but it did have an effect on the filming process, as Gunnarsson explained. “The cold makes everything just a little more complicated, in terms of where you base out of, the logistics of it. The gear occasionally freezes up, how do you keep your cast warm, where do you do your changes, and how do you create warm up huts for your crew, because they need to step out of the cold now and then.” Surprisingly, the real challenge came not from the cold, but a sudden burst of warm weather. “We were filming out on the lake, and we hit a warm patch. The lake had a nice bed of ice, then it had snow on top of it, but because of the heat, it started to melt. We ended up having two feet of water between the snow and the ice. People were falling into this stuff, and the snowmobiles were bogging down, so I would say the warm weather created more problems than the cold weather.”
Any problems faced by the cast and crew aren’t apparent in the final product. Ice Soldiers brings back memories of older, 80s action films, something that was always the point. “The idea was to make a fun action film. The thing about action films is the audience has some expectations to fulfill, especially in a sci-fi film. The fun you have with it is, how do you fulfill the expectations, how do you do it in a way that’s a little bit clever, that’s a little bit different.” Gunnarsson continued. “We wanted it to have a sense of humour. That was the idea. What are you gonna do with a bunch of genetic freaks run amok in the Canadian arctic if you can’t have fun.”
Much of the fun does come from genetic freaks running amok. The film follows Malraux (Dominic Purcell), a scientist searching for three genetically altered Russian soldiers who were lost in the Canadian Arctic in 1962. The three soldiers, who are led by a nameless villain played by Gabriel Hogan, look a lot like Dolph Lundgren, a familiar face from 80s action films. The villains represent a part of every person, but a part that most people try to suppress. Gunnarsson explains what makes these bad guys so appealing and fun. “Of course the frozen guys are just more fun, because they take what they want, and they do what they want. They’re Übermensch. They’re just pure will. They take what they want, and they have no conscience, and they enjoy it. They represent one facet of humanity.”
With so many years in the Canadian film industry, conversation eventually turns to the state of Canadian cinema. Since Gunnarsson is the National President of the Directors Guild of Canada, he has an even greater sense of the industry, and certainly plays a large role in its future. “When I started there was very little. Going into filmmaking was insane. It’s come a really long way. I just think there’s some very challenging industrial problems. We share cultural space with the biggest producer of cultural audio visual content in the world. Our theatre chains, and our distribution is very tied into the American model, and because our broadcasters are not interested in features, all those things kind of add up to make it challenging.” Gunnarsson continued by pointing out how other countries have approached similar problems. “If you look at a place like Denmark, they’re producing a lot of great movies that end up in the theatres. Because they’re producing those kinds of movies, they’re generating the kind of talent pool that’s creating these big, very cool drama series. There’s a crossover between film and television, and the people of Denmark are seeing the work that their filmmakers do. We’re just a little underdeveloped that way.”
The director won’t let any of these things stand in his way though, as he continues to work tirelessly. He doesn’t like to take many breaks from filmmaking, and is already preparing his next film. “Since doing Ice Soldiers, I’m just finishing a big theatrical documentary in India about the monsoon, which will be out in the fall. I’m also doing some television. The next feature that I’ll do, I’m not sure.” While viewers wait for Gunnarsson’s next fictional work, they’ll be able to enjoy the pure B movie fun of Ice Soldiers through video on demand, and Gunnarsson hopes it will turn his film into a Canadian cult classic.