Missy Peregrym has done many things that have tested her mettle in a career that has seen her play a gymnast (“Stick It”), a cop (“Rookie Blue”) and an illusionist (“Heroes”), but as a backpacker whose trip into the Canadian wilderness with her boyfriend goes horribly awry in Adam Macdonald’s feature debut “Backcountry,” the actress experienced something that truly curdled her blood: the sound of her own voice.
“It’s the first time [my character yells] for help, I’d never heard my voice like that,” says Peregrym. “I still hear my voice when I see it and I’m like ‘ehhh.’ It’s so uncomfortable.”
“That was the second day of shooting,” adds MacDonald with a grin.
Since Peregrym is now sitting next to Macdonald and co-star Jeff Roop while at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s safe to say she survived the shoot, but you can never be quite sure whether her character Jenn or Alex (Roop) will be able to do the same in the “Backcountry,” which sees the two follow a well-worn trail into the woods without a map yet run into obstacles, both in terms of their relationship which is on the cusp of serious commitment and those pesky bears which populate the forest, that Macdonald makes sure that no one sees coming. The first-time director offers a fresh yet knowing perspective on the genre, deploying the usual “Based on a True Story” disclaimer at a particularly ominous story juncture and using the couple’s tenuous status as a couple to drive even more tension into what becomes a harrowing tale of survival.
At the start of a barnstorming tour across Canada that included the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax and the Calgary International Film Fest this week, Macdonald, Peregrym and Roop spoke about the difficulties of a 16-day shoot, the necessity of trust between the crew and making the Restoule Provincial Park in Ontario their own personal sandbox.
How did this come about?
Adam Macdonald: I really wanted to direct a feature film, and a friend of mine who directs said, “If you want to direct a feature, you have to write your own script” because no one’s going to give you a feature film. I had an idea [for a script], but it was going nowhere. Then I was camping with my wife, and in the morning, I heard something walk around the tent. I thought two things – is that a bear? Then I had a movie idea. “Open Water” in the woods. That was four years ago. Once we developed [the script], I was doing a lot of research and came across this true story that really sparked the imagination of the piece.
What attracted the actors to this?
Adam Macdonald: Me. [laughs]
Jeff Roop: Well, for me… yes, that’s true.
Missy Peregrym: It is true.
Jeff Roop: [Adam’s] crazy, and I believe in his craziness basically. We’re cousins and four years ago, he said, “I wrote this script, and I wrote this part in it with you in mind.” I read it, and I found that was interesting. [laughs] But I loved the love story and I took it to a friend of mine who’s a producer and got him on board.
Missy Peregrym: [Adam said he] had me in mind for it, but because of getting the financing, I wasn’t [considered] a foreign draw, so there were other women who were in the lead for it.
Adam Macdonald: Very frustrating for me.
Missy Peregrym: It ended up working out that he could actually call me for it, and I was really nervous to read it because I really cared about Adam and didn’t want to not like it, then have to tell him that. Fortunately, I loved it and [even] sent [the script] to my mom, who really liked it, then after that, I got on a plane to Toronto and started filming.
Was this as crazy a shoot as it looks like?
Missy Peregrym: It sounded really great weeks before, then I had a panic attack before actually going to do it because I was scared of where I was going to have to go [emotionally and physically]. I didn’t really know what was going to be asked of me or where I was going to have to take things or what I was going to have to feel.
Adam Macdonald: Missy was really, really nervous about certain things in the script that called to do, and there were managers and agents massaging the contract and getting her available and [in the midst of it], she called me and she’s like, “How are you going to do this? How are you going to do that?”
You’ve seen the movie, so there’s a lot of things that this woman goes through, and I explained it as best I could, but I could hear in [Missy’s] voice a little bit, “Oh, you have a vision. You know what you’re doing.” She started trusting then, I think, because I knew what I wanted to do with the film.
Jeff Roop: It was so clear that Adam had a vision, and when the director has a vision, the crew just feels inspired. It gave everyone a lot more confidence. It’s still scary as hell.
Missy Peregrym: And we’d already said yes. [laughs] But as soon as I realized anybody could push Adam around, I felt like, this is going to be good.
Adam Macdonald: As much as it was very difficult, in terms of the emotions, they’re both so professional, and Missy and I knew each other a bit, but then we really bonded during the process because it was such an emotional shoot, but in between takes or after certain scenes, we [would] find ways to release the tension over what we were doing, and it was just natural. That was a really good plus because if you don’t have a person like that, it would just be a horrible experience.
Jeff Roop: It helped me too. Their energy and their playfulness made me more playful, although not as much as them.
The film finds this couple at such an interesting place in their relationship – they’ve obviously been dating for a while, but not necessarily firmly committed to each other when disaster strikes. Was that an interesting thing to play?
Adam Macdonald: I was so determined not to make this a champagne bubblegum relationship, like everything’s great, everything’s perfect. It doesn’t exist. It’s phony. Even if it made people uncomfortable for them to say, “Are they in love or not?” people go through that all the time. So there’s emotional triggers, there’s fragility, there’s loving moments. There’s a moment you look at your significant other, and you’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” and then the next minute, you’re like, “Get out of my face,” so I wanted to create that.
“Blue Valentine” was [an inspiration] even though it built around emotion alone and I was building on other things, but it inspired me to not be afraid to [show] more what a real relationship would be. It’s very brave – these guys were amazing.
Jeff Roop: Yeah, Adam would say, “Jeff, I don’t know if this couple makes it just in terms of their own relationship. They might not.” That was real interesting. Then we had the fight scene, and there’s stuff that’s said, and I remember thinking like, “Whoa, that’s harsh.” But when you’re in a long-term relationship, that happens. People say things they regret. There’s a grayness to that and Adam really captured it.
Adam Macdonald: We’ve all had experience in long-term relationships, so it wasn’t really fabricated. I could see them pulling from their own life a little bit and it was such an emotional ride to watch. That’s all Missy and Jeff.
Jeff Roop: And the writer.
The film also will knowingly play into cliches from the horror genre before upending them to go in an entirely different direction. Was it fun to play with those conventions?
Adam Macdonald: There’s only so many things you can do in the woods, but I was so invested in turning it on its head, like you said, and not be afraid to have certain things happen in the daytime. Every other movie, it’s night, and I wanted to use it to my advantage because I want a guy in the audience to go, “Oh, another one of these,” and then “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.” When that happens near the climax, and people get it and they invest in it, and I think they appreciate that it’s like a punch in the face when it happens.
Was there a particular crazy day of shooting?
Missy Peregrym: All of them were really hard. There was one scene that I was afraid to do, that I was like, “Uhhh, I don’t know how this is going to go.” Every day was hard, but particularly, there was the day at Squamish…
Adam Macdonald: We shot the climax that day.
Missy Peregrym: Yeah, the stuff in the tent. We did that all in one day, and it was really intense, but what I like about it is that we actually shot the scene [that’s much lighter in tone that takes place] before … after. It really changed the tone because we were exhausted and tired, so it really created a softness.
Adam Macdonald: We faced different challenges every day, especially when we had only 16 days to shoot. That was insane, and it was so important to have a kinship with Missy.
Missy Peregrym: We had a very weird communication pattern. Adam would describe something to me, and [all I’d have to say is] “Okay, I know. Then we’d do it.
Adam Macdonald: That created an atmosphere where it was like play time. You almost need a sandbox to be creative. It’s not a factory. It’s a sandbox. It’s silly, and it’s messy, and it’s not clean. Out of that comes creativity, and whenever it’s like an A, B, C, D, E kind of thing, and everyone’s serious, you lose a lot of opportunities for inspiration.
There’s a few moments with Missy where she didn’t understand what we were doing, and she’d be like, “What? I don’t get it.” And I’d tell her, “Just see it. I’ll show you the playback.” It happened twice where she saw the motion. “Oh, okay, it works.” She trusted me, but I trusted her to challenge me too. It was a really good relationship that way. But I had to really know what I was doing – we shot the climax sequence in pieces, and I had to earn the whole crew’s trust, because it was just me and Christian [Bielz], the DP. It was crazy. No one understood what the hell we were doing, but they trusted me.