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Q&A: Adam MacDonald talks Survival Horror in “BACKCOUNTRY”

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Always riding the line of drama and horror, survival horror is among the strongest and visceral subgenres out there, particularly considering that it’s constantly grounding itself in reality. Whether it’s the elements, our own bodies or the creatures of the wilderness, survival horror has the potential to not only be empathetic but also gruesome in an overtly understandable context. And it’s serving those elements that director Adam MacDonald roots BACKCOUNTRY, IFC Midnight’s intense and terrifying people vs. nature film starring Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop and Eric Balfour. A FANGORIA fan, MacDonald recently spoke to us about crafting BACKCOUNTRY, the film’s bait-and-switch tactics and the psychological ramifications of researching bear attacks…

FANGORIA: When did you initially come up with the concept of BACKCOUNTRY?

MACDONALD: I was trying to write a kind of simple script that could be in the genre; something that could lend itself to the low budget system. I was looking for the right idea, because it just wasn’t coming to me. I wrote this other script, but it just seemed too expensive to make, and no one got connected to it. Anyway, I was camping with my wife, and all of a sudden I heard this thing, pretty large, walking around the tent in the early morning, and it kind of freaked me out.

I still don’t know what it was, but it was pretty intimidating. And I thought “OPEN WATER in the woods. That’s the movie I can make.” Plus, being Canadian, y’know, there have been fatal bear attacks, so I did some research and started writing a script.

FANGORIA: In terms of subverting expectations, when did you decide to introduce the first act bait-and-switch element?

MACDONALD: It was definitely early on. My objective was to make it as real as a camping story as it could be, with some circumstances, like meeting a stranger in the woods or coming across a predatory black bear, which has happened. With everything in between, I wanted to make it as real as possible, so right at the beginning, I didn’t want to give away exactly what was going to happen. I was going to hint at it or foreshadow it. As [Jenn and Alex] slowly make their way through the story, like us, they’re not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. I just really wanted to keep the audience engaged, and then, hopefully, it pays off. I really wanted to make it unconventional in that way.

FANGORIA: In terms of coming up with a visual style for the film, were you always interested in doing this loose camera, cinema verité kind of thing, or was it important for you to make sure you had a steady eye on the action and how it would all unfold?

MACDONALD: Well, when we were trying to sell the movie to people who were looking to invest, I would think about it like “BLUE VALENTINE in the woods” too, to give it some gravitas. Derek Cianfrance’s work is extremely important and influential to this work, and I looked at them for influence to see how I could visually make you could connect to the main character, like Derek Cianfrance did in movies like BLUE VALENTINE and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.

Cianfrance comes from documentaries, and the amazing cinematographer I worked with, Christian Bielz, comes from documentary as well, so we talked about it. We both just wanted the film to feel organic and loose but not shaky, just like as if we were there; my most important thing was I wanted to feel like you’re camping with them. So when they’re in the tent, we never leave the ten;, wherever they are, we are, except for a couple of shots, but that was the idea.

But with this film, I studied those films, and how the camera moves, and it was loose, and I just worked the scenes around that idea. In this one, Christian captured the moment for the poster step-by-step. It was much more organic that way. And that I guess I got from Rob Zombie too; the way he shot attack sequences in HALLOWEEN as a documentary, it gave me some really good ideas.

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FANGORIA: How did you approach shooting the bear scenes?

MACDONALD: I did like three years of research on bear attacks; one thing that was so frightening to me was that the people who survived would explain what it felt like, so they would hear ringing in their ears or walnuts cracking, as if the sound got sucked out of the environment and that their senses were on fire, so I really wanted to feel that and give that experience to the audience, and myself in a way.

But it couldn’t work without a real bear, so we knew we had to work with a real bear. So I really just carefully planned it. We had like eighty-something shots, everything was like a tapestry or a puzzle, I shot everything out of sequence, and then put the puzzle together. And that was beat to beat to beat, and again something, Rob Zombie did on HALLOWEEN, that I thought worked. What was important too- because clearly you’re not going to see a guy get eaten up an torn up by a bear right in front of the camera- was to give the illusion of it, y’know? I wanted to fill in the space in your imagination and make you think you saw what you saw, but you haven’t seen.

FANGORIA: In terms of making sure everything was realistic, did you have to go through any pictures of bear attacks to make sure you got the gore right, and if so, what kind of toll does that take on you as a director?

MACDONALD: Yeah, I did do that research, and it did make me feel uneasy. It also made me feel like it’s not a joke to be attacked by a wild animal; it’s not cool and it’s not like, “oh, wow, look at this, check this out everybody.” Let’s have respect for these animals, let’s have respect for nature, and never forget that this is their domain and they are fierce animals to be respected. You should know where they are, keep your distance, and do everything you can to keep safe in the wild; it’s their territory.

I did get screwed up a little bit because, during the editing, myself and Dev Singh, who was the editor on this film and did a great job, worked on the bear attacks, and only the bear attacks, in the editing suite for like three weeks. I’d go home and feel nauseous; the images were getting to me at one point. So yeah, when I started feeling that, I thought, “Okay, this is probably going to work because it is just so disturbing.” It sounds kind of stupid, since I sat there and was watching it on the monitor while we shot it for 2 days, but I’m telling you after three weeks? It was like, “This is crazy! What am I doing? Why am I watching this again?”

FANGORIA: In terms of the release of the film, obviously earlier promotional material hinted at “Oh, this might be a SINGLE WHITE FEMALE in the woods” kind of thing, but then at the press screening when, the bear stuff started to happen, it was genuinely shocking, and now the press materials are starting to include the bear. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, do you think that it’s better people know coming in that there’s an element of nature to it, or are you more of a fan of the minimal, no-expectation route?

MACDONALD: I wrestled with this for a while, and it’s not entirely my decision, obviously, but I’m happy with what happened. It’s very hard to get people to see a movie these days. If we had just sold it as a film about a woman who finds her strength in the Canadian wilderness, I don’t think many people would see it, right? I think we’d have more eyes on it knowing there’s a major bear encounter or that it’s a bear movie, and then you show that it’s more than that. BACKCOUNTRY more than just a bear mauling movie; it’s got some character, it’s got some substance, and strength in the acting, which hopefully people will see.

But like in OPEN WATER, they put a huge shark fin on that poster, huge. It wasn’t even a reef fish shark; it was a great white, and that got me in the theater. That made me go see it, and then I realized it was a good movie. So, I knew at the beginning, when we were at TIFF, we had to keep it a bit of a surprise. We were lucky to be at a huge festival, so we would have eyes on it, people would come to check it out and we’d surprise some people. But now, if you’re searching through on VOD, and you see the bear, you might be more enticed to see it, and I understand that’s important.

But I heard these two guys who did a podcast, and I found this very interesting: one of them went in to BACKCOUNTRY knowing there was bear attack, and one of them had no idea. And they both came out with the same experience, and I thought “Maybe it’s okay.” Of course, if you walked into the movie WILD with Reese Witherspoon and you had no idea that there was this insane cougar attack, it’d be a different movie, but that movie had already been done, so to do it like that would have been a disservice to the film.

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FANGORIA: How did your approach differ from approaching the more scary and thrilling elements, such as a bear stuff, to your approach of the character work in BACKCOUNTRY?

MACDONALD: The characters were my primary objective, because as an actor myself, it’s very clear to me that when you drive by an accident on the side of the road, it’s going to mean a hell of a lot more to you if you know the people in the car than if you don’t. So if they’re not just cannon fodder for this bear, and if I built up the characterizations, you’re going to feel a lot more for them and for their situation than if it was just a bear ripping people apart.

When I did my research, everybody that got attacked by a bear- and some were sadly fatal- were real people. And being an actor and writing it and knowing what scenes would connect, I used a lot of myself and my vulnerabilities. That’s the one thing that’s important: to show these vulnerabilities.

A lot of guys don’t like [the character] Alex because he seems dumb or something, but he’s not dumb; he’s just a bit naïve and he’s trying his best to be the best man he can be before he proposes to his girlfriend, which he’s super nervous about. So he’s overcompensating at times, and I don’t too many guys who haven’t done that. We all do; I mean c’mon, guys don’t even want to ask for directions. At the screenings, some men get pissed off, but the women laugh and go “You men! You do!” and that’s the vulnerability. If you’re a guy who can see Alex’s vulnerability and go “He tried so hard and he hugely fucked up,” well, it happens. It’s human to fuck up. And that’s why I really wanted to marry  BLUE VALENTINE and JAWS in a way, and really get into this couple.

FANGORIA: Is there anything else you’re working on at the moment?

MACDONALD: I’m involved in a couple of projects I can’t really talk about, though I’d love to. Hopefully they’ll come to fruition. Always into genre, love the genre, thrillers and horror, but I just wanted to say thanks to you guys, I really appreciate the call, I swear to you, the first horror magazine I ever saw was FANGORIA. I was like eight, and it freaked me out, and it’s stayed with me since. It’s an honor to talk with you guys.

Adam MacDonald’s BACKCOUNTRY is now on VOD and in select theaters from IFC Midnight. You can read FANGORIA’s review here.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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