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On Friday, April 26, 2013 something is going to happen that hasn’t happened in recent memory: a Canadian film will open that looks and sounds like a big-budget Hollywood movie. It’s called The Colony and it stars Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton, two actors not unfamiliar with the world of the Hollywood blockbuster.

So how did this happen, you ask? How did Canada get a movie made that might actually be able to play in the big leagues? Director Jeff Renfroe tells Toronto Film Scene that it was originally slated to be a small movie about a group of survivors living underground after an ecological apocalypse with a production budget of $1 million. When he looked at the script, however, he saw something more.

“I’d just come off two indie movies that were a million dollars and I wanted to do something with a little bit bigger scope and the producers shared my opinion on that,” says Renfroe. “I gently asked for a crack at the script and I basically spent the next year developing a much bigger kind of film out of what was already quite an intriguing and interesting story.”

He notes that his work on the script was really from the perspective of a director, looking at the nuts and bolts of the production, adding set pieces and removing some of the more standard horror tropes. “I wanted to create more of an elevated genre movie that had some layers,” Renfroe says, “What I like about [the story] is how greed and consumption distort the human spirit. To me those are ‘the ferals’, the people who turn to cannibalism and what is so real and organic is that you or I could become one of these, given that we run out of food or resources.”

Some of those “big set pieces” were becoming a bit cumbersome on a not-tiny, but not Hollywood-level budget. Clever location scouts discovered it might be possible to shoot inside CFB North Bay’s decommissioned NORAD Underground Complex.

Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Zegers navigate a decomissioned NORAD facility in "The Colony"

Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Zegers navigate a decomissioned NORAD facility in “The Colony”

“We started by looking up in North Bay because we were going to shoot out in the elements. We were going to shoot big snowy vistas, but we discovered this thing was there,” says Renfroe. “It took us a while to clear through red tape to even get in there to scout it.”

Wading through the red tape was certainly worth it, however, since the location itself plays a major character in the film. Renfroe says that wasn’t by accident. Once he got in there he knew he had something special.

“I was like a kid in a candy store down there. I was like ‘we’re going to shoot everything here!’ It didn’t quite work out that way because it was pretty difficult location to shoot and there was a ton of red tape, but just the atmosphere down there, just so creepy. Immediately you get into the mindset of the colony.”

The mindset of the colony is mighty fascinating. From killer viruses to a seed bank there’s certainly a big world in such a claustrophobic space. The film itself feels a little bit like an unfinished thought, however. It’s not hard for the audience to see that this is only a slice of a much, much larger story in a much larger world. Renfroe certainly agrees. “We want to do a sequel and we want to do a prequel. It’s all about exploring this world we’ve created. It’s got its own mythology and it will be interesting to see how it was created and see where it goes.”

The mythology of the colony, while certainly steeped in its unique location, couldn’t be what it is without characters the audience can invest in. Renfroe says that casting the main roles was easy. He had always envisioned Laurence Fishburne in the role of Briggs from the start, while he knew that Bill Paxton had the right kind of character to play the wily and scheming Mason. How did he get them to come on board? “We made offers and I can be pretty convincing when I’m passionate about something. They both hopped on and I think we’re truly blessed to have a cast of this caliber.”

Fitting right in with his seasoned co-stars was Kevin Zegers, with previous work in indie dramas like Transamerica and 50 Dead Men Walking. “I had some insight into who [Kevin] was as a person and who he was as an actor,” says Renfroe. “I was really adamant about finding someone for Sam who wasn’t already an action hero, who wasn’t that sort of beefy man-y guy who has everything all dialed in.

Kevin Zegers shows quiet strength as Sam

Kevin Zegers shows quiet strength as Sam

I wanted a guy with innocence and emotional scars who becomes a leader. The arc was essentially a boy becomes a man. He goes from a follower to a leader. It was something that I saw in Kevin, that he could have this kind of vulnerability but could also rally it into a very strong kind of heroic character.”

With The Colony, Renfroe has created a very ambitious – and very un-Canadian – film. When once thinks of Canadian film, it is not often in the sphere of dark, moody post-apocalyptic stories with large effects budgets and stars.

Despite not looking like the usual Canadian movie fare, Renfroe says that the film couldn’t have been made without Telefilm support, even though they often do not support films that are made as largely commercial entities.

“Over the last couple of years they’ve really been trying to change their direction a little bit, or at least adding on to it a little bit to include commercial films that have the chance of going wide, and breaking out in the states. They put their money where their mouth is and they did support us.” Renfroe remarks.

Now all that’s left is for audiences to support the film when it opens in theatres on Friday, April 26, 2013.

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