A Liam Neeson thriller titled The Ice Road will be trucking to Manitoba in early February... with the hammer down.
Neeson will play a big-rig ice-road driver obliged to lead a rescue mission upon the collapse of a remote diamond mine in northern Canada. He must lead an impossible rescue mission over a frozen ocean to save the trapped miners while also contending with thawing waters and a massive storm, among other challenges.
The project was written and is to be directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, a screenwriter with major action bona fides, including Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon and the 1995 version of Jumanji. He previously directed the 2004 iteration of The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane, as well as the 2011 true crime thriller Kill the Irishman.
Apparently, the production will require a frozen lake to substitute as a frozen ocean. In 2001, director Kathryn Bigelow found just such a location in the Lake Winnipeg community of Gimli on the film K-19 The Widowmaker. That film also featured Neeson, but it was Harrison Ford who came to Manitoba in the winter of 2001 for the location shoot.
On Friday, Hensleigh and production designer Arvinder Grewal (who worked as an art director on K-19) took to snowmobiles to scout Gimli for possible locations, according to Ice Road producer Bart Rosenblatt of the L.A.-based Code Entertainment. That company also produced the Winnipeg-lensed 2007 dark comedy You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley and Bill Pullman.
Rosenblatt says the change in the city’s production profile has been remarkable.
"I’ve been amazed by the change in the film industry in Winnipeg from 2006 to now," he says in a phone interview from the Winnipeg production office. "It seemed it was just at the beginning stages in 2006, and now there’s so many shows shooting up here — Netflix and Amazon — and the crews are so deep and are much more experienced, which has been great."
Rosenblatt says since 2006, he maintained relationships with Carole Vivier, who recently retired as executive director of Manitoba Film and Music, and Kenny Boyce, the City of Winnipeg’s manager of film and special events. He has since struck up a relationship with newly minted MF&M CEO Rachel Rusen Margolis.
"Rachel has been fantastic," Rosenblatt says. "I would say she’s one of the key reasons that we’re up here. Another person is Kenny Boyce.
"Kenny really introduced us to Winnipeg," Rosenblatt says. "He has really helped to secure locations because we’ve had some interesting location issues Kenny has helped us sort. For example, we need a very, very large space with large ceilings to shoot these water-tank scenes and Kenny has helped us in that area."
The film’s mission-based adventure has a couple of interesting inspirations, including a 66-year-old French film about four men assigned the task of delivering a shipment of nitroglycerine to a remote South American oilfield. In discussing the project, Hensleigh told Deadline.com: "I’ve never been able to shake (Henri-Georges) Clouzot’s Wages of Fear since I saw it as a kid because of the character emphasis during the action. The Ice Road is in that tradition. And when it comes to bringing intelligence and soul to an action adventure film, Liam Neeson is incomparable."
Rosenblatt reveals another inspiration was a History Channel reality series produced in part by Manitoba production company Eagle Vision.
"Jonathan wanted to do a movie that was set on the ice roads because he was familiar with the series Ice Road Truckers, so he thought that he could do a Wages of Fear-inspired ice-road movie which is what he wrote in his original screenplay."
Apart from the previously announced Neeson, Rosenblatt has no other significant casting news, although he does say the film will be shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tom Stern (Changeling), a frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator who also shot The Hunger Games.
"He is very excited to work with a local crew up here, so we’re going to be hiring all local in the camera department to work with him," Rosenblatt says. "I would say we are well over 90 per cent local on crew, which is great. And we’re going to be hiring a lot of local Winnipeg actors."
"We’re not excited about the cold, but we need it for the ice roads and we’re going to be shooting in February, so it will be interesting.
Another interesting feature of the shoot is that Winnipeg will be playing itself in the film.
"We’re shooting Winnipeg for Winnipeg, which is really fantastic," Rosenblatt says. "The last time we were here (on You Kill Me), we shot Winnipeg for Buffalo and San Francisco. We actually had to build the Golden Gate Bridge on the soundstage, so we’re happy to be shooting Winnipeg for Winnipeg."
The seven-week shoot will commence Feb. 3, Rosenblatt says.
Margolis has high hopes for Manitoba’s film industry once Ice Road begins filming.
"If The Ice Road goes as planned, production volume-wise, it will be an incredible growth over last winter," she says. "Production revenue should exceed last year."
Indeed, the winter film season got off to a brisk start with the recently wrapped action film Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk, Christopher Lloyd and Connie Nielsen. Currently shooting in the city is Seance, starring Suki Waterhouse, a mystery horror flick for Dark Castle Entertainment, HanWay Films and Ingenious Media.
It will be the feature debut for director Simon Barrett, a screenwriter whose genre films include You’re Next and The Guest. Set in an all-girls boarding school haunted by a vengeful spirit, the film features Waterhouse as a young woman who arrives at the school and must play detective after a series of supernatural murders. It is scheduled to shoot until Dec. 20.
Picking up the horror baton in January will be Evil Toys, a production of the Cartel, an L.A. film company that established its own Winnipeg office in 2018. The Cartel has specialized in Hallmark Christmas movies, but this title suggests a departure from the typical seasonal rom-com.
As winter turns to spring, Noreen Halpern of Halfire Entertainment, producer of TV series including Alias Grace and Rookie Blue, is getting behind a production of a Netflix series identified as Sentient Season One. The show is very much under wraps, but Halpern happens to produce a Netflix sci-fi series titled Another Life starring Katee Sackhoff, which recently announced its second season will commence shooting in 2020.
Also scheduled to go to camera in January is Edgar, an eight-hour French language limited series produced by Montreal-producer Zone 3 and Manito Media.
Margolis played host to Manitoba entertainment industry players Wednesday at MF&M’s annual Christmas party, which moved this year from the company’s Lombard Avenue offices to the stage of the Burton Cummings Theatre.
"We are trying to feature ourselves on the world stage, so I thought why shouldn’t we start by having a party on a local stage?" Margolis said.
Among the attendees:
— Director Jeff Beesley could rightfully celebrate after his Winnipeg-lensed movie The Christmas Club attracted an astonishing 4.1 million viewers when it aired on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 27 on the Hallmark Channel. It premières in Canada on the W network Sunday at 9 p.m.
— Producer Juliette Hagopian announced she will open a 16,000-square-foot studio space in Winnipeg’s West End called McGee Street Studios.
— Filmmaker Sean Garrity (My Awkward Sexual Adventure) is touting his upcoming film titled I Propose We Never See Each Other Again After Tonight. It’s a quirky rom-com about "a Mennonite boy and a Filipina girl," Garrity says. It stars Hera Nalam and Kristian Jordan as the would-be lovers, as well as Broadway-bound actor Andrea Macasaet.
— Producer John Barnard (Menorca) is working on an eight-hour reality series about Lake Winnipeg fishers titled Ice Vikings, which has, he says, been sold to a broadcaster in Siberia.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
Updated on Friday, December 6, 2019 at 7:49 PM CST: Updates subhead