Every month, CION aims to profile a producer who has shot in Northern Ontario. We get their input about the state of the industry and the Northern amenities, services and locations they took advantage of for their films.
Paula Devonshire has worked on dozens of critically acclaimed films and TV series since the late 1990s. In the north, she produced Indian Horse (2017), an episode of the historical drama television series Vikings (2016), and Atom Egoyan’s Remember (2015). Remember and Vikings were shot in Sault Ste. Marie, while Indian Horse was largely shot in Sudbury, Peterborough and surrounding areas. We caught up with her while she was shooting the first season of Clarice for MGM/CBS, which follows the story of Clarice Starling after The Silence of the Lambs.
One of the best parts of shooting in the north, says Devonshire is the diversity offered by the climates, landscapes, cities and towns. “The Barrie zone, North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, those are all the areas that I've scouted, they all offer something completely different,” says Devonshire, who considers herself an “honorary northerner” because her father was born in the town of Creighton Mine, now Lively, outside of Sudbury. “He used to fish on Whitefish Lake as a young boy. I feel at home there,” she says.
The importance of scouting sets and finding community liaisons
With Indian Horse, the original plan was to shoot the film across Canada, but it “became very clear that Ontario would serve all the needs of the project.” Since the book is set in Northern Ontario, shooting entirely there made sense.
Sudbury has several rinks that have “maintained the period beauty of the ’60s and ’70s, looking like the ones that are described in the book,” she says, referring to Richard Wagamese’s novel about a talented young First Nations hockey player who battles trauma from residential school and widespread racism in the hockey community.
Community members were fully on board with the film, says Devonshire. “Sudbury is such a strong hockey community, so we had all these great local players who came in as background extras for the different teams. And they were really excellent hockey players,” she says. Residents volunteered their vintage cars and boats, as the story takes place in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It helped that the team was able to bring on Darlene Naponse, a local filmmaker who was raised in the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, an Ojibwe First Nation outside of Sudbury. “She was really a great cultural liaison for us. She helped us find local crew in costumes, props, craft, camera, and production,” says Devonshire. Naponse’s ability to draw local talent was indispensable. “There are so many people taking projects to the north, because it's just a great film base, and people are always in high demand. So it’s hard to get people available,” Devonshire says.
She was introduced to Naponse through Jason Ryle from imagineNative, an organization that supports new Indigenous-led works and provides national cultural programming to Indigenous communities across Canada, and hosts the world’s largest Indigenous film festival.
While most of the hockey and community scenes were set in Sudbury, the residential school scenes of Indian Horse were shot in Peterborough. “There was an old nunnery there and the nun’s residence was empty because they had moved into a new building,” says Devonshire. “The residence was a very good period, beautiful, authentic-looking building.” Devonshire worried the sisters would refuse, as the film depicts many of the abuses known to occur in residential schools, including sexual, physical and emotional violence. But the nuns read the script and unanimously said yes. “I think they just read the story and said, this is the truth and we support the telling of this truth.”
CION provided funding support to host the Northern Ontario premiere of Indian Horse at the community centre in Atikameksheng. “It was very important for us to share this private screening of the film with the community as they had offered so much support to us,” says Devonshire. Music and Film in Motion also supported elder and cast member Edna Manitouwabi’s ceremonies conducted at the premieres.
Learning to prepare for unpredictable weather
The biggest piece of advice Devonshire has for anyone shooting in the north is that the weather can be unpredictable, and just because a location is considered ‘north’ doesn’t mean it will provide a snowy setting. There were times shooting Indian Horse where surprising warm spells came through and the crew had to truck in snow from areas where it hadn’t yet melted. “It's kind of funny when you're shooting in Northern Ontario in December, bringing in snow to dress an area,” she says. Other times, outdoor skate rinks would thaw and create bumps that the actors had to manoeuvre over. “We were trying to shoot around that action, so you don't see people awkwardly scanning over weird bumps.”
When shooting Vikings, her crew built a log Viking hut on the shore of Lake Superior. The Gros Cap bluffs and lake provided “a striking, snow-covered back drop for these scenes.” But, locals warned them that the weather was changing fast. They had snowmobiles and equipment on the ice, shooting toward the shore, so they needed to measure the ice every day. By the end of March, ice breakers were coming in the distance. “Literally a week after we finished shooting, we heard that we wouldn't have been able to shoot there anymore because it had thawed so much,” Devonshire says.
Her next northern project
Devonshire is teaming up with Naponse again, this time with Naponse in a director role, and they’ll be shooting in her Atikameksheng Anishnawbek community. “It is all set in the north. It takes place in the past, present, and future colliding in one place, the setting and land is of key importance,” she says, adding, “I don’t want to give it away.”
The crew members she’ll bring on from Toronto are always excited about a northern prospect. “We’ll take little weekend trips to nearby lakes and conservation areas and everyone has such a great time,” she says. “They’re always asking me, when are you taking another project back up north?”
Devonshire is one of dozens of producers who have taken advantage of an early discovery of the North as a shooting destination—but the secret is out, and more and more productions are moving to the North. To discover everything Northern Ontario offers producers, or get help setting up your production here, contact CION's film supervisor, Rob Riselli.
Find out more about how CION can help your production in the North. Check out our guide for producers, regional resources and services, crew database, and the Hotlist of films currently in production.