Actor and first time filmmaker Adam MacDonald is what I like to call a smart, badass, nerd. Chilling out on a rooftop patio in Downtown Toronto on one of the hottest days of the year, the warm , chatty, and enthusiastic MacDonald starts off by slightly nerding out about the bar’s choice of Interpol on the sound system and the conversation briefly turns to chatting about how the band Orgy is getting back together.
He’s incredibly friendly and down to Earth, yet when you start talking to him you can immediately see how he can make a film like the sparsely constructed thriller Backcountry, which makes its world premiere at TIFF this Monday. The actor best known for appearing in television shows like Being Erica and Rookie Blue, writes and directs a tale of two city dwellers (Rookie Blue co-star Missy Pergrym and Jeff Roop) who get more than they bargained for on a camping trip, when various mishaps, marital mistrust, and an unseen stalker threaten their ability to get home safely.
The first thing that’s strikingly different about the film is its approach to filmmaking that isn’t the typically tossed off shaky camera production, but one told visually through flowing camera angles designed to show the enormity of the woods and the situation of the couple involved.
“That means a lot to me to hear you say that because that was my objective,” MacDonald said. “Because if you watch something like, say, Chernobyl Diaries, that’s the worst. It sucks you right out of the film. We’ve had Blair Witch rehashes enough. This actually wasn’t what I had planned to do for my first feature. I had originally written something else, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to think of something easier and more feasible to shoot, and one morning when I was on a camping trip with my wife, I stepped out of the tent and looked around and thought about making something like Open Water in the woods. “
“The idea to make it not shaky-cam, false verite style is because found footage has been done to death. It’s like music. One person heard great metal music and then all of a sudden they thought all metal music was good. Found footage movies are the same way. I mean, the [REC] films are great, but when I was writing the script the two biggest influences for me visually when I picture it were Derek Cianfrance and Rob Zombie’s Halloween films. But when you look at Blue Valentine or The Place Beyond the Pines and the way the camera moves in those films, you really get a sense that you are really in the thick of it with these characters and I think for this kind of a film, that’s what you need to convey. We wanted moments where he camera could swing around and you would never be able to feel like there was a crew there. You need to see that these two are really alone.”
“I want you to feel like these people as if they’re a memory, and we really were alone out there. There was no cell reception or contact out there, nothing, and Missy really put that into her performance. You can see this horrible thing befalling this couple and the audience can really only bear witness to it.”
MacDonald’s plan for the film was to create a balance between the humans and nature but keeping it grounded in the characters more than the situation.
“We were always suggested and getting notes to include a few more shocking moments than we have, but they weren’t working. Any movie can do that, but this film is also about a relationship. It’s a movie about a guy who’s trying to impress a woman and trying to be a man and the wilderness humbles him, and she’s scared, but she’s really instinctually sharp. We were trying to capture moments, not create them. I let them throw the script out at times. Our mantra was ‘If it feels real, it can’t be wrong.’ Because you know couples. It isn’t champagne and bubblegum all the time.”
He was also certain that he wanted to make the film with Missy more than any other actress.
“The financing for the film came in about a year and a half ago, and I knew Missy from Rookie Blue, and what she did was astounding to me. She could be vulnerable and strong in the same moment. That was so important to play this role. She’s a warrior in real life, she’s strong on the inside, but she can also convey vulnerability. I thought it would be a disservice to the film if we had someone who could be too meek. Knowing her, and she’s a good friend of mine, I knew she puts in 120%, and I thank God every day that she agreed to do the film.”