In the back parking lot of a nondescript warehouse in Calgary’s industrial southeast, a cluttered mobile home is serving a number of functions for the sci-fi film, The Northlander.
It’s where makeup, hair and wardrobe is done. It acts as a trailer for the actors and, on this particular afternoon, is also the being used to screen earlier footage shot in a wooded area near Springbank. The scenes, while somewhat raw, are undeniably intriguing. Surrounded by fog and trees, characters are locked in intricately choreographed fight scenes, which will apparently make up the climax of the film.
“There’s so much action in this, I can’t wait to see how it comes together myself,” says Corey Sevier, the martial arts-trained actor who plays the film’s protagonist, Cygnus. “I have to say, in terms of the intensity and true grit of the fighting, I’ve never worked such an exciting project like this. It’s just been absolutely incredible.”
If Sevier, who began his career as a child actor in the early 1990s, is bothered by the modest amenities on Northlander’s set, he certainly doesn’t show it. In fact, the favoured line when it comes to the discussing the film is that it doesn’t reflect its micro-budget, even though it is micro-budgeted by design. It is one of the projects supported through the Aboriginal component of Telefilm’s Micro-budget Production Program, which tends to be used for films that require a lot less, well, everything. But Northlander doesn’t seem to be skimping on anything, at least when it comes to what will end up on the screen. There’s epic fight scenes, futuristic weapons, prosthetics, otherworldly costumes.
“It doesn’t feel like a low-budget film, I’ll tell you that much,” says Sevier. “The amount of time and heart and effort that has been put in this, it’s one of the biggest films in terms of scope that I’ve ever been on.”
By all accounts, this is largely due to Benjamin Ross Hayden, the 25-year-old director at the helm of The Northlander. He wrote the screenplay, directs and took a decidedly hands-on approach when it came to production design. According to one producer, he even painstakingly built a number of grungy tents amid the forests near Bow Valley Ranch west of Calgary.
The cast and crew also spent time in Drumheller, where the badlands provided an appropriately alien backdrop for Hayden’s futuristic tale.
The young director’s perpetual enthusiasm is nothing if not infectious, even if his answers to straight-forward questions about budget challenges and plot are anything but straightforward. When interviewed, he is on the second-to-last day of shooting. The scenic vistas of the Bow Valley Ranch and Drumheller’s badlands have been traded for a cramped warehouse, where cast and crew are tucked in a back corner on a set that is meant to be the inside of a mysterious crypt.
“Filming The Northlander has been just as much as an adventure as the story is,” he says at one point with a wide grin.
As for the story, it all takes place on a futuristic earth, a time “after humanity” where tribal survivors known as Last Arc live in a hostile wilderness. Sevier’s Cygnus is a hunter who has been kept away from his people due to his violent tendencies. But when he is asked by the tribe’s matriarch, Nova, to go on a quest to find how the tribe can protect themselves from a murderous band of hunters who have arrived in the territory, he becomes a reluctant hero.
There’s more to it than that, of course. The characters have strange mutations and scars, which apparently hold the secrets of his people’s history, and there’s that aforementioned crypt, which humanity built for mysterious reasons thousands of years earlier. It all makes for a complex, multi-layered story that dips into Metis heritage and that most Canadian of themes: the search for identity.
“At first, I had to re-read what was being said, especially what I said” says actor Nathaniel Arcand, who plays Shappa, the tribe’s medicine man and shaman. “I had to figure out what (my character) was like. Is he weird? But he’s a very open leader. Everything he has done is for the benefit of everybody.”
The film seems to have many of the hallmarks of Hayden’s earlier work, unsettling and imaginative futuristic shorts such as Agophobia, made while he was still a filmmaking student at SAIT, and its similarly themed followup, Edict. Both showed signs of an auteur-in-the-making with a distinct vision.
Which may be why Hayden, who has Metis background, has been able to attract an impressive cast and crew for his debut feature. Wendy Hill-Tout, a veteran of the industry who has worked on Alberta productions such as Into the West and Little House on the Prairie, signed on as executive producer. The Adam Beach Film Institute, founded by Beach to provide resources and training to Aboriginal youth looking to get into film, is a partner. Nova is played by award-winning actress Michelle Thrush (Blackstone) and Roseanne Supernault (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) co-stars.
“Ben has created such an interesting, unique world,” says Sevier. “It feels grounded and yet has such an imagination that you can get lost in as well. There’s an escapism, but I think there’s also a lot of themes that people will identify with. A big part of the story is that it’s a Canadian sci-fi film and about these people searching for identity in a world where so much of humanity as we know it has been stripped away. I think that is something is such as strong universal message, finding out where you belong. ”