Shot in Manitoba in early 2020, The Ice Road is a movie that pits a gathered crew against the deadly forces of nature as a ticking clock diminishes their options.
And that was just behind the scenes.
MOVIE PREVIEWClick to Expand
The Ice Road
Starring Liam Neeson
● 108 minutes
● Coming to VOD platforms Friday, June 25
According to the film’s writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh, in a phone interview from Las Vegas, the movie was the last to shoot anywhere in North America as the then-nascent COVID-19 pandemic closed down every other movie production in March 2020.
"It was unlike anything I’ve ever been involved in, in motion picture production," says Hensleigh, whose writing credits include Armageddon, Jumanji and Die Hard With a Vengeance.
"I wrote the script for (the 1996 Nicolas Cage-Sean Connery thriller) The Rock and that involved a load-in and load-out daily on the Alcatraz Island off San Francisco, and I thought I was never going to see anything crazier than that," he says. "But the COVID situation at the end of Ice Road was 20 times that."
The film had a week left on its production schedule when other productions were forced to shut down, Hensleigh recalls. "We learned that we were the last production in North America. The reason why the Manitoba authorities and the Winnipeg city authorities were less stringent and less concerned was because Winnipeg was reporting at that time the fewest cases in all of North America.
Liam Neeson on thin ice in locally shot thrillerClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Jun. 23, 2021
Early in his life, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh saw the 1953 Henri-George Clouzot thriller The Wages of Fear, and his future career as a filmmaker was sealed. Hensleigh would go on to pen films such as Armageddon, The Rock, Jumanji and Die Hard with a Vengeance, all of which are stamped in the template of ill-assorted adventurers taking on a deadly mission.
The Ice Road, while not a remake of The Wages of Fear, is his most explicit homage. Instead of carrying nitroglycerine to stop a raging oil fire, three semi trailers are assigned the task of transporting three massively heavy cast iron wellheads to far-northern Manitoba, where a diamond mine collapse is threatening to slowly extinguish the lives of the miners trapped inside.
"COVID hadn’t really hit Winnipeg," he says. "I think there was only like three reported cases, so the authorities were less strict about imposing the national guidelines.
"We knew we only had a few days, so we talked about it and we thought it’s a pretty simple formula: If the authorities let us shoot, we’re going to shoot," he says.
In the film, Liam Neeson plays Mike, a big rig driver who goes on a mission to deliver heavy cast-iron wellheads over melting ice roads to help save workers trapped in a Northern Manitoba diamond mine. The mine itself was "a build," that is, a set constructed in Manitoba Film Studios, a Winnipeg soundstage, by the late production designer Arvinder Greywal. The last few days involved shooting exteriors at the Winnipeg Water Treatment Plant, followed by the Gomez Street soundstage.
"Moving onto the set, that’s when things got really, really grave," he says. "The authorities were allowing us still to shoot, but there were many members of the crew who had become extremely concerned because of what they had read about COVID symptoms and possible effects, especially women who were thinking about having children or older members of the crew or any members of the crew who had what came to be known as COVID co-morbidities.
"There was a lot of rumour and innuendo and all kinds of things and it became a very, very tense situation," Hensleigh says. "The producer said ‘Look, you’ve got to follow your own medical sense and your own conscience on this. The authorities are allowing us to shoot and we plan to continue to shoot as long as we long as the authorities will allow.’"
But even with hand-sanitizing and distancing procedures in place, "a lot of the crew chose not to finish the film," Hensleigh says. "They chose to stay away, and that was perfectly fine.
"We had to finish the mine shoot with a skeleton crew, so that put extra burden on the crew members who stayed, but that was perfectly fine," he says. "It was a frenetic finish. We were kind of limping across the finish line.
"I was so exhausted at the end because we were all kind of doing double or triple-duty," he says. "I’m proud of the crew that stayed away and I’m proud of the crew that stayed on. I don’t make any judgment at all."
Hensleigh retains positive feelings about making the movie and says he has pitched the city as a location in subsequent production meetings.
But then, part of the film’s specific inspiration came from the Manitoba reality TV series Ice Road Truckers. The other half came from the beloved 1953 French suspense film The Wages of Fear, in which a crew of down-on-their-luck men agree to transport a shipment of nitroglycerine needed to extinguish an oil well fire.
"With a lot of filmmakers, some of their greatest allegiance creatively is to their youth — what they saw when they were kids," he says. "There was even a term coined for it: ‘the golden window.’ In your youth, cinematic images become the most indelible."
But where filmmaker William Friedkin made a straight 1977 remake of that film, titled Sorcerer, Hensleigh opted to keep some distance from the movie that inspired him when he saw it as a kid in the 1960s.
"I always kept it in my quiver," he says. "And it just dawned on me when someone was talking about doing a film in the realm of Ice Road Truckers and it hit me like a lightning bolt: This is a world where you could do a film inspired by the original Henri-Georges Clouzot film, but not a straight remake.
"And that has a lot to do with how I crafted the film together. The one thing I just wanted to stay away from (was) them hauling explosive material," he says. "That was actually in an original treatment of mine, where they were hauling nitroglycerine, but I thought: this is stupid! This is remaking Wages of Fear and just doing it on these icy roads.
"So I said, if you’re hauling stuff across ice and we’re not doing dynamite or nitroglycerine, what’s the most jeopardizing thing?
"And it’s something that really weighs a lot. The heavier the better. And I thought of these cast-iron wellheads and it all started to knit together."
The film is unique for Winnipeg-lensed films because the city is not doubling for another location. Winnipeg plays itself. Hensleigh says he is proud of that.
"I loved shooting Winnipeg as Winnipeg and I loved the local actors. Love, love, love," he says. "They were tremendous. I thought the pool of local actors in Winnipeg was better than any other regional city I’ve ever filmed in, and this is over a 30-year career.
"I was very impressed. Even with the COVID, even with the crazy stuff it’s a wonderful place to make a film, it really is," he says. "I plan to be back."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.