On his way to speak to me about his film, Backcountry, director Adam MacDonald was attacked by a dog, arriving with a bloody gash on his leg. MacDonald took it in stride. After all, this is a man whose first film brought him and his actors face-to-face with a real, live black bear, and features a violent attack. MacDonald isn’t afraid of taking risks. Backcountry, which MacDonald also wrote, is an ambitious film for any director. Not only did it require working with a dangerous animal, it was made with a cast of four. The film is spare, stylistically, which means that everything is out in the open — there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, just gritty reality. However, that’s exactly how MacDonald likes it.
An accomplished actor, MacDonald decided to transition to directing after appearing in a string of comedy roles, which he wasn’t particularly keen on. He made a short film for Bravo called Sombre Zombie (2005), but continued acting because he didn’t know how to properly transition into the director’s chair. Then, something happened. “The whole resurgence of the Splat Pack came out — the French extreme movement of film, that really high tension, Devil’s Rejects. It just kind of hit me so hard: ‘I’ve gotta make movies.’ With those films, you get this emotional connection with violence, and there’s something appealing about that.” Armed with this realization, MacDonald started looking for “a simple idea that could be made in Canada.”
The whole resurgence of the Splat Pack came out — the French extreme movement of film, that really high tension, Devil’s Rejects. It just kind of hit me so hard: ‘I’ve gotta make movies.’
Inspiration struck MacDonald while camping. “I was in a tent with my wife and I heard something walking around in the morning. The thought hit me so hard; I heard, ‘Open Water in the woods’ — done. I started writing the script and doing research on bear attacks: the people who survived and people who had sadly died. I came across a couple that I drew from big time, a young couple that went out and the woman was killed. When I read it, I started crying. This happens, you know? Then I came across this other story that happened in ’91 in Algonquin Park. A couple — they weren’t so young — but they were attacked in their tent. The bear broke their necks and killed them. I was just like, ‘wow.’ These are Canadian stories; these are things happening in our country. I was overwhelmed. That’s why I wanted to take the subject seriously. That’s why the film is so ferocious and people say it feels very real, because I didn’t want to make it funny. I didn’t want to make it cool — this is serious business. This is earth shattering to people. This happens in our wilds, and these stories play off my fears too. I wanted to explore that.”
Part of keeping the reality of the film was creating a believable couple to form the emotional centre of the film. Besides Rob Zombie’s Devil’s Rejects, Derek Cianfrance was a huge influence on Backcountry. “I wanted to make Blue Valentine in the woods with a bear attack. [Jenn and Alex] are just a couple: they’ve got their problems and it’s not perfect. He’s overcompensating being with her. He knows that he loves her more than she does him and that makes him very insecure, so he overcompensates and so we believe this couple. They’re a real couple; we’re in this with them.”
Finding the right actors to portray the couple was very important. Luckily, casting Alex was relatively easy, as the part was written with MacDonald’s cousin, Jeff Roop, in mind. “He’s in one of my short films, where he was macheted to death. I figured I’d work with him again and, I don’t know, get him run over by a bulldozer or something.”
I started writing the script and doing research on bear attacks: the people who survived and people who had sadly died. I was just like, ‘wow.’ These are Canadian stories; these are things happening in our country. That’s why I wanted to take the subject seriously. That’s why the film is so ferocious and people say it feels very real, because I didn’t want to make it funny. This happens in our wilds, and these stories play off my fears too. I wanted to explore that.
Casting Jenn was a bit more complicated. The script was written with another friend of MacDonald’s in mind for the female lead. However, “as the years went on, it was clear it wasn’t going to get made that way. Three year later, I started working on Rookie Blue and met Missy. I was in this place where we had to seek out the female lead and I wanted her. I thought Missy Peregrym is perfect for Jenn on so many levels, because she will balance Jeff out perfectly.”
Peregrym was also MacDonald’s first choice because of her on-screen presence. “I think it’s hard when you have a strong female lead to have a believable meekness in the beginning and then make it believable when she becomes strong. You just don’t buy it — you just don’t. I’d rather have someone you believe wholeheartedly. You know that this girl can kick some fucking ass. Jenn is a bit meek, in the beginning, but Missy just had the strength in spades.”
Getting Peregrym attached to the project came with several hurdles. Some of the people involved in the production wanted the biggest name possible and Peregrym didn’t fit the bill. “I remember asking people, ‘Do you want to go camping with Missy for a weekend or this girl?’ and the answer would always be, ‘Missy.’ I’m like, ‘there it is. There’s no one else.’” Finally, after months of negotiations, the production team found a distributor willing to put Peregrym on the list of potential actresses. “I called her and she agreed to read the script, ‘but, if I don’t like it, I’m going to say no.’” And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, obviously.” That night, I was having a heart attack, because I thought, ‘if I don’t have her, then this thing is not going to work.’ But she responded to it and I knew [Jeff and her] would be great together.”
I think it’s hard when you have a strong female lead to have a believable meekness in the beginning and then make it believable when she becomes strong. You just don’t buy it — you just don’t. I’d rather have someone you believe wholeheartedly. You know that this girl can kick some fucking ass. Jenn is a bit meek, in the beginning, but Missy Peregrym just had the strength in spades.
The relationship between the two actors is what carries the film. “One of the first images I had was [of Jenn’s hand with an engagement ring on her finger]. Everybody has a relationship with a wedding ring or an engagement ring. Whether you want one or you’re going to have one or you’ve thought about getting married, everybody’s got an idea of what that is. It’s universal. I wanted people to see it and hate it or love it — to think about it. What does it mean to her? What does it mean to me? The idea is this: when she’s in the wild, the wild has its own agenda. The wild is dirty, ferocious and intense. The wild isn’t pure; it’s pure in its own way, but it’s not pure in our sense, where we filter everything, protect everything and make it perfect. The ring represents the idea of what her life can be. It’s like, ‘here is your idea of the perfect life, but this is the reality you’re living in.’”
Reality permeates Backcountry. The small crew travelled deep into the depths of the Canadian wilderness to make the film. “I wanted to make them feel like there was no one around.” For a take, MacDonald would have “all the crew members — everybody — hide so the only people with [the actors] were Christian [Beliz, cinematographer], the sound guy and the focus puller. When they did turn, there was no one around; they were completely isolated. The actors never knew where the camera was, so they’d be in-the-moment.” As the film progresses, “the camera becomes increasingly aggressive, almost like the camera is [Jenn].” The result is a work that is about two people and their relationship as they go up against the Canadian wilderness. Survival is the name of the game, whether fighting for your life or simply to hold on to the person you love.