IFC Midnight is all set to release survival horror Backcountry which traces the steps of a young couple who make the drastic mistake of not sticking to the trodden path. Directed and penned by Adam MacDonald (Home Sweet Home, ‘Rookie Blue’) and based on factual events, Backcountry follows Alex (Jeff Roop), an experienced outdoorsman, and Jenn (Missy Peregrym), a corporate lawyer, who is quite the opposite to her other half. Much to her hesitation, Jenn agrees to let Alex show her one of his favourite places – the secluded Blackfoot Trail. Alex is confident he knows his way around the woods but it would appear that time has transformed the woods he once knew.
Whilst on their travels they come across a shady character, Brad (Eric Balfour) who offers to help them get their bearings. With Brad clearly having eyes for Jenn, an awkward encounter ensues with Brad bidding farewell in not the most amicable of ways.
Despite the setback, the couple push on until they realise they are hopelessly lost, with virtually nothing to eat or drink, pushing their already fragile relationship to breaking point. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, it’s not long before they also realise they have just stumbled into bear territory.
Backcountry hits US cinemas this March 20th and in anticipation of the release SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Adam MacDonald to find out all about his grisly directorial debut…
SCREAM: Can you tell me how you came across this true story and what made you realise this was perfect for your debut as a director?
Adam MacDonald: Well I did three short films and I love genre. I put together three short films, one I got a grant for, which was a zombie movie, and then we loved it and financed two others to learn more of the craft. After that I wrote a script for a full-length feature but it didn’t go anywhere so I thought, “Fuck. I just need a simple idea that could lend itself well to a low budget system and that would be feasible for me to have a chance at doing it.” Then, after a long time, an idea finally came to me – in a tent with my wife no less – when I heard something walking around one morning and it scared me. So I thought of Open Water in the woods and it didn’t exist and I realised that would be perfect. Being Canadian, I’d spent a lot of time up north in Quebec and I knew the woods really well. Like in Australia where they did Black Water and The Reef it’s kind of like ‘write about what you know.’
So I started writing this story and I was fictionalising it but I was doing a lot of research and I came across a bunch of stories of people being attacked by predatory black bears. There was one particular couple I remember reading about and I was thinking of them whilst writing and I fictionalised the whole account. What hooked me to thinking about that specific couple was the fact that they were so young and they were out in the backcountry alone and it just made me feel really emotional.
SCREAM: Knowing Missy Peregrym from Rookie Blue, did you have her, or any other characters in mind when you wrote the script?
AM: Not in the early stages because I wrote the script YEARS ago so I wrote it for my cousin, Jeff, who plays Alex, and I wrote it for another girl I had in mind in the early stages. As the years moved on, the movie was going to get made in another way and we needed a bigger name for sales and by that time I knew Missy. Anyway, I saw her do a scene and I remember thinking her vulnerability and strength at the same moment was just perfect and she also balanced Jeff up perfectly and that was when I knew I’d love for her to play it. We still had problems with foreign sales as they wanted an even bigger name but it all worked out and I’m so happy she said yes.
SCREAM: I know that Missy was a bit concerned about some of the scenes and came to you for advice before accepting. How did you convince her and/or help her?
AM: Well she was a friend so I rang her up to tell her all about the project and she looked at the script and she gave it to her mum who read it and told her she should do this. Every time I’ve met her mother since I always give her a big hug and say THAAAANK YOUUU!!!! So Missy told me she was interested and said she wanted to talk to me about it. She asked me about the bears and I answered all her questions and she felt a lot more confident because I’d thought it all out and knew how to do it. Then two days later we got an email and she signed on.
SCREAM: She was most worried about working with real bears I take it. I read that when the producers suggested working with animatronics you defiantly said “Fuck no!”
AM: Absolutely. We were all like that right from the beginning. Another producer was involved for like a second and he actually wanted to do an animatronics bear and I was like, “Fuck no.” Then when the producer Thomas (Michael) signed on he was right with me. He asked me if I wanted to do this with animatronics or if I wanted something more real. I just said “Fucking real dude! There’s no other way.” and he totally agreed. Missy was worried about being in the same environment as these bears but I explained all the hotlines and the wranglers and that all the shots are meticulously planned and that I would be right with her all the time.
SCREAM: Having said that, I think some wild bears came across your camp whilst you were filming.
AM: Yes. It was like an omen. It was on the first day of shooting, I kid you not! So we arrived and when we got there the guy who takes care of the base camp was as white as a ghost. He told us that there had been a black bear trying to get through the trailers. I was like, “Dude, what are the chances? No way!” But then I realised we were in Canada and there are a lot of black bears living here. So that was like an omen and that kind of always hung around for the rest of the shoot. It elevated everything and everyone was kind of on edge in the movie.
SCREAM: You said you wanted to come up with a simple, low budget film but it must have been a real challenge filming out in the wilderness.
AM: Yeah, it was a really tricky shoot. We had two cameras for the bear stuff and also for the waterfall scenes but for the rest of the shoot we only had one camera and we were moving it from the Steadicam to handheld a lot so that was pretty cumbersome. I was really adamant about having the most skeleton crew possible so that the actors were alone and they felt it. The waterfall shot was really tricky because we had to bring everything deep into the woods. Not only that but we had to get the cameras up to the top of the waterfall which was tough. It was very precarious and very narrow. One of the crew members refused to go up and we had the stunt guys go up before to drop lines down to get the rest of us up. Christian Bielz, the cinematographer, got all strapped up and was leaning off the cliff and I was just like, “Please don’t let anything go wrong.” For some scenes the crew were like “Why the hell can’t we just shoot some of this stuff in the backyard?” but my producer agreed with me that we needed to go and make this hard and go to the harder places and make this feel real. I mean, we had two waterfalls to choose from: one where it was logistically easier to shoot on or the other where it was a nightmare. We chose the nightmare one and it was so worth it.
SCREAM: And what was it about Eric Balfour that you thought made him the perfect shady alpha-male character to mix the story and the relationship between the couple up a bit more?
AM: I’m a fan of his acting, I loved him on ‘Six Feet Under’ and stuff like that and he has a good presence. What was important though was to cast somebody who was physically and sexually threatening to Alex. Two names that came to me right away were Timothy Olyphant and Eric Balfour. I just felt that Eric looked a lot like the Alex character but he’s much more angular and his features are much sharper. I also liked him because he likes to try things and he is aggressive in his choices and I knew he’d have fun with it, which he did.
SCREAM: The first hour of the film essentially deals with the ins and outs of the couple’s relationship and getting to know them. Ultimately that made the gruesome final 20 minutes so much harder to watch. How did you decide where to draw the line (or not) for those later scenes?
AM: I wanted to make a bear attack that people haven’t experienced yet. My goal was to make it memorable and for it to be like the shower scene of bear attacks in a way. I just felt that whenever I watch grisly bear or wolf attacks in movies you are always watching them rather that feeling as if you are in them. I decided to do extensive research on how people explained how they felt when they were attacked by a bear. This is why the movie has ringing in the ears type sounds, the sound gets sucked out or the screams were just horrible. All this stuff astounded me and my imagination ran wild so I wanted to go full force like that because a lot of people’s accounts were that everything was quiet and normal before all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. The best compliment I got was at a screening in Calgary. A gentleman in the audience just said “That’s it. That’s the most realistic I’ve seen.” What you see isn’t really that much but you really feel it. I wanted to build up those characters because when the shit really does hit the fan you feel it so much more because when you hear of somebody getting attacked by a bear, if you know them it’s that much worse. I mean, if you see an accident on the highway and you know the people involved it just takes things to another level. I also wanted to make it like that out of respect because I don’t think being attacked by a wild animal is a joke at all or cool. It’s something that’s absolutely terrorising.
SCREAM: And I believe you already have plans to shoot another film called Wolf at the Door. Can you tell us a little about that?
AM: Yes, it’s kind of like a Canadian version of Dead Calm in a cabin. I developed it with a couple of friends of mine and the script is done and it’s being shopped around now. I want to make a trilogy of women surviving extreme circumstances where Backcountry would be the first one and Wolf the second. Like Dead Calm, what is interesting is like if the two people knew the Billy Zane character and secrets are revealed in this cabin that leads to a murder and major consequences. Again, this is kind of a slow burn film and you kind of wonder what happened to someone before you figure out what really happened. You are slowly understanding people’s motives and at the end it becomes clear. We are getting some good feedback so far so we’ll see what happens with that.
SCREAM: Thanks for talking to us, Adam.
AM: Thanks, Howard.
We’d like to thank Adam for taking time out to speak to SCREAM. As we said, Backcountry releases this Friday, March 20th and is not to be missed. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with the latest trailer for the movie:
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)