An outpost far into the Arctic Circle with a routine task uncovers remnants of an impossible lost civilization. Studying archaeological proof of a society hundreds of miles further north than previously thought viable, the team flies in Peter Olsen, a specialist in Mesoamerican civilization who confirms, in fact, something like this here is impossible, and yet there it is. And then strange things start to happen in the camp. Their Inuit support team takes off in the middle of the night, the supply helicopter never arrives, no one answers their radio calls. Cut off from help by a hundred miles, the team starts to fracture. And then they start to go insane, cutting off their own limbs, and going after each other.
These events play out during the new Canadian horror film BLACK MOUNTAIN SIDE, though they can hardly capture the paranoia and claustrophobia that pervades writer/director Nick Szostakiwkyj’s feature debut. The film is part 30 Days of Night, part The Shining, and all disturbing. A great use of location and isolation to drive the plot, Black Mountain Side excels where few horror films do these days, setting up the tension and the characters. Although the ‘truth’ of the relic is never satisfactorily explained, the quest for that truth takes up a majority of the first half of the film, allowing the strange occurrences to produce a slow burn around the central conflict, that really pays off once things all fall apart. And really, in a situation such as this, where there are elements that cannot really be explained by the characters given the resources they have access to and the peril of their situation, it is refreshing that the film doesn’t try to tie it up nicely. In fact, the ending is horribly frustrating, in an amazing way. “We always knew we were going to leave it in the hands of the audience, as to what really happened there,” says Producer and Director of Photography Cameron Tremblay, “we always knew what we were going to end with, if you watch the beginning and the end, they’re the same shot.” I had a chance to speak with Tremblay, Executive Producer Samantha McDonald, and actors Michael Dickson (Professor Olsen) and Timothy Lyle (McNaughton) when they were in Austin for a screening last month. The team had a camaraderie only found after holing yourself up in a cabin in the snow for weeks at a time.
“It’s mostly a summer resort so I think they were happy for the business in the middle of February,” says Tremblay about the Cozy Cabins, the location for all the exteriors and most of the interiors as well, about a seven hour trek from Vancouver. “If you know where the Okanogan Valley is, it’s right on the northern edge,” adds Samantha McDonald, but the location was not the easiest to load equipment in and out of, as the main road was down the mountain. Even more problematic was the weather, although not in the way you would expect. “By the end it was above freezing,” says Tremblay, “so we’re losing the snow, so we had to rush.” Every time there was a snowfall, the crew rushed out to get b-roll and long steady shots of the camp, no matter the time of day or what else they were shooting, much easier when the entire cast and crew is on site during the whole shoot. “Everybody’s living on location for like two weeks,” says Timothy Lyle, “and we’re in these cabins in the middle of fricking nowhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to get cell reception. It was pretty cool because when we are not shooting, we’re all just sitting in the cabin drinking beer and playing cards,” which is pretty much exactly how the film opens. One of Black Mountain Side’s strongest elements is just how cold and empty it all feels, and the sheer sense of seclusion, making any outside help impossible. I found myself shivering while I watched the film. “And we’re out doing these scenes bundled up in toques and parkas and making like its minus forty,” says Michael Olsen, “and it’d be like ‘cut’ and we’d be like ahh.. and undo it all.”
In addition to just feeling cold, the film also feels ‘still,’ something so rare in this era of shaky-cam found footage films. “Nick and I, from the get-go while he was writing the script,” says Tremblay, “we were talking about how we were going to shoot it; we were very inspired by The Shining and those long steady cam shots of Danny going around the halls.” It is actually one of the most lush and beautiful horror films I’ve seen, making the graphic end all that more powerful. However, the shooting style has a much deeper effect on the characters, and the audience’s experience of them. “We found with those steady cam shots,” says Tremblay, “you’re kind of forcing the audience to just almost be there with that character, doing the same thing they’re doing.” “From an acting perspective it’s kind of wild,” says Michael Dickson, “half a page or a page dialogue, and there’s no cutaways, no close-ups … a lot of scenes were shot in like two takes, three takes, so you’re doing these quite extensive scenes, but when Nick saw what he wanted, he’d let you know.” The audience begins to feel ‘trapped’ in a take, just as the characters are trapped in this camp site. As the film continues, shots get shorter, with more movement, and by the end there is a new layer of chaos that has snuck up on you almost subconsciously. The reason the actors may have been so ready to work like this was that a majority of them had already worked with Szostakiwskyj already. Tremblay jokes that the main reason they had auditions were so that he could meet the actors himself. When they got to the shoot, the director worked quickly and with extreme focus. “I think Nick spent a lot of time developing the characters,” McDonald says, “and what he wanted each one to mean to the story, to bring to the overall theme and the conflicts.” When the camera was rolling, he trusted the actors to let that come out naturally. “He would say we can go again if you want,” says Dickson, “and I’d just be like if you’re happy, because I can’t see it.”
Did I mention that Szostakiwskyj was 21 when they shot the film? Black Mountain Side is a frightening flcik, gorgeously shot and with intense performances, it should eventually receive a wide release. When you go, bring your jacket. This week it headlines the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival, a horror fest in Toronto. More information is available here.
Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi. Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days. The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after. His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012. His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.
Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.
Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.