When that freak winter thunderstorm descended from the heavens and wreaked havoc on the movie set at Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park, threatening to destroy the pivotal Christmas grotto scene that had taken all day to set up, cast and crew scrambled to shield the wind and hail and hang on to those decorations to keep the holiday scene mostly intact.
Using ornaments and displays usually reserved for the indoor Festival of Trees celebration, the park bandstand was decked out in picture-postcard finery and director James Douglas was extremely pleased with what his camera crew captured in a day of shooting that lasted into the wee hours of the night.
The next morning, when producer Norm Coyne went to review the scenes so crucial to telling the story of A Great North Christmas, to his horror he saw nothing but a blank screen. The solid state drive (SSD) card used to store all that footage had crashed, and Coyne’s heart sank with the sickening feeling all those scenes might have to re-shot.
Coyne made a few calls and found a computer tech (Justin Lane of DDR2 Computer Solutions Inc.) willing to come into his Prince George office to try to retrieve the lost data. Douglas, Coyne’s Barker Street Cinema partner, had another packed day of filming ahead of him and he was purposely kept out of the loop.
“Everybody who knew what was going on from the get-go made a pact among themselves not to tell me until they had figured it out because they knew it would destroy me and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly on the following day’s shoot,” said Douglas.
“They so desperately wanted to protect me because we had two really big days in a row and one of them was the grotto stuff. It had the most moving parts and we had done so much setup. That was the day of the hail and rain and the hail storm and the thunder and lightning and things blew down and we managed to salvage it all and got some amazing footage, and that was the drive that got corrupted.”
It took 5 ½ hours but it was worth it; all the scenes were restored.
“The universe smiled upon us,” said Douglas. “They were able to get it fixed and all of our files were recovered, so then they were able to tell me that night and all I could do was practically weep with joy for these people who had spent so much time during their own extremely stressful circumstance to save me that stress as well. It is a shining example of how hard this local crew worked to make this thing happen.
“It would have been a real morale killer, I think, for a lot of people, but instead this circumstance turned into a real morale booster for everybody.”
In the movie, lead character Caroline North (played by Laura Mitchell) is sent on a pre-Christmas holiday by her friends from Los Angeles to central British Columbia and her pre-arranged trip takes her cross-country skiing to Otway Nordic Centre and on a dog sledding/snowmobiling adventure to Dog Power Adventures northwest of the city on Chief Lake Road. She loses her phone getting out of cab in front of her downtown hotel and her love interest, Toronto investment banker Jonathan (played by Jay Hindle), finds it. Both characters see a sign advertising the Christmas grotto and that’s where their romance blooms.
“It’s presented right away that this central marketplace is the hub of the town’s Christmas activities in the days leading up,” said Douglas. “The story is about a woman who has emotional blocks that don’t allow her to enjoy Christmas and she comes to Prince George and it allows those blocks to be released. She eventually decides to go to the Christmas grotto and it’s her experiences there that really warms her up and leaves her in a position where she can actually start emotionally connecting with the guy she’s falling in love with.”
Ralitsa Trifanova of Princ Films in Los Angeles wrote the story and Oklahoma screenwriter Tyler Huffman produced the script.
Two weeks of filming wrapped up March 13 for most of the cast and crew but Barker Street Cinema still had work to do using a drone to capture aerial footage of some of the outdoor venues featured in the film. Body doubles were used to create the impression it was the lead characters in those skiing/snowmobiling/dog sledding action sequences, shot from a distance to capture the spectacular outdoor scenery. Although much of the snow disappeared during the two weeks of filming, Mother Nature co-operated and it snowed the night before the drone cameras were put to work.
“I have to say I’m grinning from ear to ear, it looks amazing and it’s going to look so great once it’s colour-timed and we have a few visual effects to take out a few things and maybe add some snow in some spots,” said Douglas. “For the most part, the snow looks fantastic because even though we had to add eight dumptruck loads to Third Avenue to line the streets, it’s real. It’s from Connaught Hill Park, it’s not the fake snow you’re used to seeing in these types of movies.”
Close to 100 people were involved in making the movie and almost all were locals. The two main actors – Mitchell and Hindle – are from of Vancouver, while executive producers Shayne Putzlocher and Sara Shaak live in Calgary. Shaak is former Prince George Film Commissioner and is a native of P.G.
The film project was deemed a test case for future film projects to be shot in Prince George and Coyne has no doubts that will eventually happen.
“It’s a pretty inspiring thing to be part of something that massive,” said Coyne. “To watch our team of locals stretch beyond what they’re used to doing and see them come out on the other side as established, more capable filmmakers, I’m so proud of our group. Everybody leveled up and it’s a sign there’s more to come for Prince George. Our team is emerging filmmakers and this very much is a project that’s going to take them to the next level.”
Coyne is building a database for filmmakers which catalogs potential site locations and he’s also keeping track of the city’s inventory of equipment that could be used for making movies. He can’t help but think A Great North Christmas will rekindle a film industry that went dormant nearly two decades ago after the city was featured prominently in major Hollywood productions Double Jeopardy, Reindeer Games and Dreamcatcher.
“We have some remarkable attractions and businesses and scenery and I’ve always been a champion of Prince George as a shooting a location but me being on the ground seeing people riding dog sleds and bombing around on snowmobiles, we’ve got something really special here,” said Coyne.
“Being able to see it through that different lens it made me appreciate how much Prince George has to offer. First of all, we’ve got snow and snow shows up beautifully on camera, but in summer we have a decent range of terrain and there’s a lot of really great reasons why people would want to film here. When people here see (the movie) they’ll how beautiful a portrait of Prince George it truly is. It’s breathtaking to watch.”
The chance to work closely with Putzlocher and Shaak, who have years of experience making movies with budgets that far exceed that of A Great North Christmas was invaluable to Barker Street Cinema and its crews, which bodes well for the local film industry.
“This fundamentally changed my life,” said Douglas. “This is the thing I’ve been working toward for the last decade, taking small steps to being able to consider myself a professional filmmaker. What I have learned working with seasoned professionals, Shayne and Sara know what they’re doing, they’ve have been producing films for quite some time. When you’re dealing with somebody else’s money, it’s really important to get make sure we get our days in on time, on budget and we were able to do that because of their oversight.”
The movie will be in the can by May 31 and Prince George will be hosting an exclusive screening event likely in November. It will be available on one of the major streaming platforms in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
“We are already talking about the next one and it might be sooner than you think,” said Douglas. “The fact Prince George has embraced this means so much to me. We’re local filmmakers who just want to try to make more opportunities for everybody and just about everybody who has helped us out understood that right from the get-go. Because of that support we are going to bring more productions here and they will bigger budgets and the pie will get bigger for everybody.
“It wouldn’t even be happening if not for the reaction and support of the community for this project. It did everything we hoped it would do and we’re really proud of the film that we’ve made and I can’t wait to show it to everybody.”