Baby, it can be cold on set. In the greyest of February, on the 19th and final shooting day of the Canadian feature film the Ice Men, the production found itself fighting the clock, the budget and the elements. The weatherman was calling for the season’s worst snowstorm, which—one blessing on a day when temperatures and temperaments seemed to be racing each other downwards—ultimately would not materialize. Even famously Zen actor Ian Tracey, whose ‘I am a reed in a stream’ mantra had helped his co-stars through earlier frustrations, was losing his composure. After hours of shooting a scene half-dressed, and drenched in an outdoor hot tub, he verbally clashed with a crew member he felt was treating the cast with disrespect.
“T-minus one day and counting,” observed co-star Martin Cummins, defrosting in the shared cast trailer on this private, wooded park near Stouffville. Gel iceballs crusted his brows. Keeping close was Jackson, his rambunctious, nine-year-old Lab-pit bull. “He’s been having a great time,” Cummins said. “He’s in the land of sticks.” Ice Men is the directorial debut of 37-year-old Thom Best, an in-demand Toronto-based cinematographer whose credits include Clement Virgo’s One Heart Broken Into Song, this week’s release, Grizzly Falls, and the upcoming Ginger Snaps. It is the second feature from Toronto’s Black Walk Productions, best known in the business as a music video maker. Michael MacLennan’s script—“Beautiful words,” praised Cummins—is based on Best’s long-incubated idea about the friendships of five men tested during a tumultuous cottage weekend.
“It turns into quite the pressure cooker,” Tracey said of the storyline. “Not unlike the process. So in a way it may be fortuitous that we’ve had a tough time doing the show. At least the way I work I can take what’s going on in life at the time and I can bring it to work with me. So on that level, it’s been easy to be in character.”
At the movie’s core are Da Vinci’s Inquest series star Tracey and Cummins playing brothers, something the close friends have long wanted to do.
“We obviously noticed the resemblance and often talked about wouldn’t it be nice to do some kind of a brothers film,” Tracey said, once he was warm, dry and his sense of humour had fully recovered. “Or really tough sisters.”
Filling out the cast are Emmy Award-winner Greg Spottiswood, David Hewlett and fresh face James Thomas. Cummins’s actress wife, Baywatch’s Brandy Ledford, filmed two days in a supporting role.
The actors stayed together at a country golf course lodge, hanging out after hours talking hockey, playing shinny on a nearby pond and closing the bar when the smokes ran out.
“In that way, it’s been really fun,” said Cummins. “We’re all in the same boat. We haven’t had to work at the relationship because we’ve been living the relationship as we did it.”
The final day’s filming called for the rescue of a half-drowned Tracey from the icy lake, just one of many sequences exposing the cast to the elements.
“When you find yourself at midnight running around with a deer head, half-naked, on a deck in minus-30 weather, you find yourself wondering about your sanity and perhaps your career choices,” said Hewlett, who has filled his Traders hiatuses with indie film work, or, as he wryly put it, “If it doesn’t pay, I’m there.
“Literally, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Of course. Because it’s an indie film,” Hewlett said cheerfully. “I think you definitely know what you’re getting into when you get into indie stuff. But you know what, indie film is the future for Canada. We’re good at this. We can make great, great films in a very small amount of time under extreme conditions.”
Logistics considered, it sometimes seems amazing that any film gets made. Then there’s Ice Men, which survived the challenge of evolving from a $30,000 “microbudget” project that Best and producer Rick Warden planned to personally finance, into one with a final budget approaching $1 million.
“The bigger the money, the less control. You give up a lot. Maybe you get more back but it’s a trade-off,” said Best, who hopes to get Ice Men into the Toronto Film Festival prior to its broadcast debut on TMN.
“It was a very, very difficult shoot. No question about that,” said Warden. “We had a combination of people who were very green and very experienced.”
Among the greenest was actor James Thomas, whom Best met when Thomas did the catering for a music video shoot. Ice Men is Thomas’ first major role, following small parts in the Mary Steenburgen-Cary Elwes feature Wish You Were Dead and the TV series Twice In A Lifetime. His castmates teasingly called him The Kid and Rookie Boy.
“I want to be taken seriously as an actor,” Thomas told me, prompting a “You’re dreamin’!” from Cummins.
“I was pretty scared,” admitted Thomas, whose role included a sex scene with Spottiswood. “The fear set in with these guys like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be all this great acting and then this one guy who is just not believable.’ ”
His director believes he needn’t worry. “He was definitely more work but it paid off. Because it’s such an honest performance,” assessed Best. “He came through with flying colours.”
A week after production wrapped, Best was ready to assess his own entry into directing. “Well, I’ve never worked so hard and felt so alone,” he said, laughing. “Did I enjoy it? You know, I’ve been trying to really reflect on it and yeah, as a whole, yes. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But the last week of it, I turned to a friend of mine and said, ‘You know, this is the worst job in the world. I hate this job.’ ”
“Yeah, of course I’ll do it again. It just sucks you right back in.”
by Claire Bickley