Christmas movie a PG postcard

As a filmmaker, James Douglas has learned to expect the unexpected.

Like that freak winter thunderstorm that wreaked havoc on his film set Friday afternoon at the pavilion of Lhedli T'enneh Memorial Park, bringing hail and strong wind gusts that threatened to blow the holiday trimmings for his Christmas-themed movie into oblivion.

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It took a team effort from the cast and crew to shield from the wind and hang onto the decorations that took hours to set up, preventing what could have been a disaster. The hour-long storm delay and cleanup involved afterward turned an all-day shoot into an all-nighter but Douglas was able to get the scenes he was after as the director of A Great North Christmas. 

The park pavilion was turned into a Christmas grotto, decked out in the homemade handiwork by local artisans, stuffed animals from the Great White toy store and the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation’s Festival of Trees decorations, some of which were used to dress up the park’s playground fire engine for another scene. 

Despite the heavy snowfall two weekends ago, there were parts of the park which needed more and the city responded by hauling in a couple dump truck loads of pristine snow from Connaught Hill Park. They had to bring in chunks of snow to line the street in front of the Twisted Cork restaurant on Fifth Avenue to film Saturday’s hotel scene, but Douglas, who lives two hours away in Wells, wasn’t complaining. 

“We only have a certain amount of time during the day especially with the light situation and everything else so we’ve been packing every single day very full,” said Douglas. “This whole crew has been amazing with their ability to get set up very quickly, get the shots that we need. So many of the takes we do, we take one take and maybe one (more) take for safety. The actors are great and the camera guys know what they’re doing so we don’t have to sit there and do 12 different takes that we don’t have time for, and that’s been a real bonus.

“The only pressure we’ve really felt here is pressure we’ve put on ourselves to make sure we get the best possible  footage captured so that we can make Prince George look as good as we can.”

The 90-minute movie, which will be finished in time for next Christmas season, is entering its second week of production. The first scenes were shot last week at Otway Nordic Centre, where the lead character, Caroline North (played by Vancouver actress Laura Mitchell), gets her first lessons in cross-country skiing. Sent on a holiday to central British Columbia by her friends where she lives in Los Angeles, her pre-arranged trip takes her on a dog sledding/snowmobile adventure northwest of the city on Chief Lake Road to Dog Power Adventures, where she meets her romantic interest, Toronto investment banker Jonathan (played by Jay Hindle). 

In the movie, Jonathan’s family runs the farm where they keep their teams of Siberian huskies, and he and Caroline meet after he finds the phone she lost while getting out of a cab in front of the hotel where she’s staying in downtown Prince George.

“It doesn’t have a lot of the things that sometimes Christmas movies do that make you think, that’s fun but it’s cheesy,” said Douglas. “This is a very cool, very authentic story and I think people will love the fact they’re going to see places that are very familiar through a totally different lens. They’ll see it through our lens and they’ll see it as beautiful we see it as, with the lighting and the sound and everything, it’s going to be gorgeous.”

Except for Mitchell and Hindle, all other actors in the movie have local ties, having worked with local stage producer Judy Russell, modelling agency owner Jana Phillips, or at Barkerville, where Douglas is the public programming and media development lead.

Douglas and his Barker Street Cinema business partner Norm Coyne, the producer for A Great North Christmas, uncovered unusual attractions while scouting locations for the movie that they didn’t know existed. They’re both convinced the unique quality of those sites will be visually stunning in the finished film and that will help attract future projects to the city.

“There’s so many things that differentiate this from a regular Hallmark-style Christmas movie - the fact we’ve got sled dogs, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and real snow,” Coyne said.

There’s a buzz created in the city when a movie is being made and being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages not likely available to the filmmakers in a bigger city like Vancouver, where they would be among dozens of film projects competing for crew members and tradespeople. They’ve had the co-operation of volunteers willing to give up their time and local businesses such as Twisted Cork, Homework, Prestige Hotels, Northland Dodge providing their establishments and products free of charge to the film crew. 

“We have community support,” said Coyne. “Northland Dodge donated the vehicles for the entire shoot. Even the Festival of Trees, that’s probably tens of thousands of dollars of production value and that makes a huge difference.

“When people see how welcoming and supportive Prince George is, they want to do stuff here. I guarantee this will be the first of many films to come here. I can already see a real momentum in civic pride. People are excited to see it happening.” 

Sara Shaak, a Prince George native who used to work for the city’s economic development branch and headed the Prince George Film Commission in the late 1990s and early 2000s  and helped bring major movie productions to the city - including Double Jeopardy, Reindeer Games and Dreamcatcher - is one of the executive producers of A Great North Christmas.

Shaak now lives in Calgary and through her companies, Anamorphic Media (which finances movie projects) and Trilight Entertainment (which provides the technical moviemaking expertise), she’s working alongside Barker Street Cinema to make the project happen. 

“I’ve tried a few times to find productions that would work to bring up here and after a few tries we kind of figured something out that would really work,” said Shaak. “This type of a project, it’s a smaller budget so you really have to work hard and it’s right type of project to bring in a crew that maybe doesn’t have a ton of experience but a lot of will to make things happen. 

“Every day we see the dailies of what’s been shot and we’ve been thrilled. It looks absolutely phenomenal. For the amount of money we’ve had to work with it’s been unbelievable what we’ve been able to pull off with how this looks visually.”

Unlike many other movies shot in Canada and made for mass distribution in the United States, there’s no been effort to try to make the film sets look American. Prince George is portraying itself and throughout the movie, the city is mentioned several times, which could send movie-watchers searching to find it on a map. 

“My ultimate goal is for the people of Prince George to see this movie when it comes out, hopefully in November, and say, these guys did it right, they didn’t make fun of us.” said Douglas.  

The potential tourism benefits of exposing mass audiences to the natural beauty of some of the city’s more scenic areas are obvious and there’s a real possibility A Great North Christmas could result in more visitors coming to Prince George to see those sights with their own eyes.

“It’s a real postcard for the region,” said Shaak.

“There are so many wonderful things about Prince George, starting with the people and how everybody works here and they don’t take anything for granted, and all those kinds of things make this project work.”

About 100 people are working on the movie and only six of them are from outside the region. 

Shaak said film crew members are being mentored and trained beyond their level of expertise to increase their own skill sets and minimize the number of out-of-town professionals needed to make the movie happen, on time and on budget. 

“This is like a crash-course in filmmaking and they’ll be way better equipped (for the next film),” said Shaak. “There’s real money on the line and a real project at stake but so far we’re hanging in there. We’ve been working 12-plus hours a day but we’re going to get it done. Everyone here is getting a big credit they can use on product that’s going to have distribution so it’s kind of doing everything we thought it would.” 

A Great North Christmas is a test case for what could be a series of Christmas-themed movies shot in succession in the region next winter. Shaak is already hearing from other producers wanting to know about the local film crew’s capability to take on future projects.

Filming will continue until Saturday. All the outdoor shoots were scheduled the first week to allow a buffer time in case of weather delays. 

Princ Films of Los Angeles is marketing the movie internationally and distribution rights have already been determined. A Great North Christmas will be shown on one of the major TV networks in the weeks leading up to Christmas and will also be available for streaming on one of more prominent platforms. Shaak promised there will be a Prince George premiere of the movie before Christmas. 

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