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Thomas Haden Church co-stars with snowplow, weather in murder flick 'Whitewash'

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MONTREAL - In "Whitewash," winter is literally murder.

And that murder is committed, appropriately for its remote Canadian setting, with a snowplow.

While the movie, which opens Friday, stars Thomas Haden Church and Marc Labreche, the elements and the snowplow are just as key.

"Whitewash" is the story of Bruce, played by Church, a loser and heavy drinker who ends up running over Paul (Labreche) with his snowplow after stopping him from committing suicide and trying to help him get his life together.

Bruce flees into the bush in the snowplow and lives in it as he tries to come to grips with what he's done in a downward spiral and intense battle with his conscience.

"It's almost a simplistic emotional story because the characters seem to be so uncomplicated but as they collide with one another, it starts to pull out the darker bindings of who they are," said Church, who came to Montreal to attend the premiere as the city descended into a bitter cold snap.

"The snowplow absolutely becomes his muse and the weather is just this unrelenting beast that he has to keep at bay."

Church, who hails from Texas and has a slew of movie and TV roles to his credit, says he found the script by director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and Marc Tulin to be intimidating when he first read it but he couldn't refuse the role.

"Anything that I read that is intimidating, that's challenging to the level that it's intimidating, you know you have to do it," said Church, whose films include "Sideways," "Spider-Man 3" and "George of the Jungle."

"You know you have to step up because if I'm not challenging myself then I've sort of given up and I'm not ready to give up."

He cited being outdoors in the cold most of the time and not having anyone to play off during large chunks of the film as some of the challenges.

"But that's where you do take it to a different level," he said.

"Whitewash" is as stark with its dialogue as it is with its landscapes. While Church and Labreche do talk, they communicate just as much through carefully nuanced expressions and actions that speak volumes.

A bone-chilling cold permeates the film, something that attests to what co-producer Kim McCraw described as "the magic of cinema" because the movie was shot a couple of years ago during a mild winter.

"There was very little snow," said co-producer Luc Dery. "It became a really big challenge in terms of production because we had to make artificial snow and we had to ship in snow from higher north."

Church recalled that some shooting was juggled around heavy snowstorms.

"Nature wasn't always manipulating us," he said. "That was the good thing."

"Whitewash" is the first English-language film for Dery and McCraw's Montreal-based micro_scope film company, which has known considerable success in the past with such movies as the Oscar-nominated "Incendies" and "Monsieur Lazhar."

It's also the first feature film directed by Hoss-Desmarais and it has already brought him accolades including the Best Narrative New Director Award from the Tribeca Film Festival last year.

The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television also announced Wednesday that he had won the Claude Jutra Award for an outstanding debut.

"'Whitewash' is a remarkable debut film which does a lot with a little to create a unique story with highly compelling performances," said Richard Speer, the academy's Quebec chair. "'Whitewash'' is sure to establish Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais as an upcoming Canadian filmmaker of note."

Hoss-Desmarais, who is already being courted by Hollywood, was "elated" by the award.

"To be recognized by one's own peers at home is deeply touching," he said.

Labreche is also nominated for a best supporting actor award from the academy and Hoss-Desmarais and Tulin are also contenders for best screenplay. The awards will be given out in Toronto on March 9.

Hoss-Desmarais described the film, which has touches of black comedy in it, as "a bizarre hate triangle" between the characters played by Church and Labreche and the snowplow.

"It was definitely in our minds to give it human qualities and human features," said the director, who also makes a brief appearance in the film. "The main character ends up transferring most of his guilt over to the plow."

He said he and Tulin explored the concept of the modern hermit, particularly those who live off the land in Russia, as they crafted Church's character.

Labreche said he liked the atmosphere and ambiguity of the film when he first read the script because it was clear the characters were not as simple as they seemed.

"I could not ever answer in a strong way if he was a creepy guy or just so desperate that he did what he did," Labreche said of his character Paul. "He cannot stop himself."

And using a snowplow to kill someone in a Canadian movie?

"It's a formidable little machine when you get it cranked up and going," Church said. "I can see how it could happen."

Labreche saw it in more philosophical terms.

"The most Canadian death possible — by a plow, in the country, and get buried in the snow by the side of the road," he said with a laugh. "Oh, my God. It's too depressing."

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