A long, relaxed magic hour—say what?
It’s true: Deep into the summer in Canada’s diverse, gorgeous and underrated Northwest Territories (NWT), moviemakers bask in the famous midnight sun.
There are just two seasons here: winter and summer, jokes NWT Film Commissioner Camilla MacEachern, since spring and autumn transition very quickly. Still, she recommends coming in March and April, when you can watch the Northern Lights on full display and when the quality of the light is very pure.
A mixture of modern amenities and going off the grid makes for “renegade filmmaking” in NWT, MacEachern says. The biggest misconception she’s encountered is that the further north moviemakers go, the sparser the available services. Yellowknife, the largest city in NWT, is all warmth, easily accessible by air and “very urban in some ways.” It boasts of a brew pub, more than 30 restaurants with cuisines ranging from Ethiopian to Korean, a summer farmer’s market and a quiet houseboat community.
NWT is known for hosting documentaries and reality series such as Animal Planet’s Ice Lake Rebels, shot on the majestic Great Slave Lake, which is so big it feels as though you’re in the middle of the ocean. During the winter, which gets very dark at 62 °N, access to the lake continues: The water remains so solidly frozen that you can drive vehicles and plough ice highways (which partly inspired the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers).
More recently, narrative dramas have also chosen NWT as their backdrop. Writer-director Kirsten Carthew’s award-winning The Sun at Midnight (2016) was the first recipient of NWT’s film rebate program, established in 2015, which offers a 25-40 percent cash rebate for purchase of goods and services, travel to/within NWT and wages for training and hire of local residents.
Carthew gushed, “Working in the NWT is hardcore. The weather, outdoor locations and way of life create spectacular, rarely seen visuals that captivate global audiences. ‘Unique’ still rings true here.” Her film was produced in association with the Gwich’in Tribal Council, representing one of several First Nations communities that call NWT their home. Elders and community members workshopped the script and provided the production with ongoing feedback.
The NWT Film Commission’s theme is “Unique Settings, Colorful Characters, Natural Backdrops.” Red tape is minimal in NWT, and for most places, no formal permits are required. It’s easy to venture out to the bush, boreal and taiga forests that surround Yellowknife. NWT also features some of the oldest rock formations in the world. As landscapes go, NWT is extremely diverse, distinct from the adjacent Northern territories—Yukon and Nunavut—that people mistakenly club together.
MacEachern, who has more or less solely run the commission for several years, is eager to guide visiting moviemakers. They’ll find a place up north that appeals to their urbanity, where locals are friendly, where it’s easy to access promising funding, and where films are immediately ensconced in a pristine sense of place. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2017 issue. Top image photographed by Terry Woolf.