Alberta back on Oscar Mountain

Alberta producer Tom Cox wasn't entirely convinced about the prospects for the feature drama Brokeback Mountain when director Ang Lee was filming it in the province, but he did know he was part of something special.

Alberta producer Tom Cox wasn’t entirely convinced about the prospects for the feature drama Brokeback Mountain when director Ang Lee was filming it in the province, but he did know he was part of something special.

‘I was certain this film would become part of the library of timeless world cinema, but I was not at all sure it would have any commercial success, especially in the United States,’ he says.

While a feature about a rodeo cowboy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a ranch hand (Heath Ledger) falling into lust, then love while herding sheep in Wyoming could have easily been exiled to the art house circuit, Brokeback has scored with audiences and critics alike. The film (with a reported budget of US$14 million) has taken in about US$66 million in North America, and leads the Oscar pack with eight Academy Award nominations.

Noms include best picture, director for Lee, actor for Ledger, supporting actor for Gyllenhaal, actress for Michelle Williams, adapted screenplay for Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, cinematography for Rodrigo Prieto and original score for Gustavo Santaolalla. The film has already won four Golden Globes, including best drama, and a Golden Lion at the 2005 Venice Film Festival, making Brokeback producers Ossana and James Schamus the favorites to collect the best pic hardware on March 5.

Cox, managing partner at Alberta Film Entertainment, an offshoot of Calgary prodco Alberta Filmworks, had read E. Annie Proulx’s original short story before AFE contacted Brokeback’s production house (and American distrib) Focus Features about potential copros. (Odeon Films has the Canadian release.)

Cox found the screenplay a faithful and moving adaptation, but a number of challenges would await the production, including getting Lee to shoot in Alberta in the first place.

‘Ang Lee did not want to come here,’ says Cox. ‘Because the story is set in Wyoming, he wanted to honor the writing… but there is no real infrastructure there. There is no company like ours that has a track record like we have with the unions, crews and government, and there is no incentive there.’

While the Alberta Film Development Program does not offer a labor tax credit per se, it does offer producers a rebate of 20% on Alberta costs, capped at a total of $1.5 million per project, with the stipulation that out-of-towners partner with a local producer. (The cap was $750,000 at the time Brokeback was shot.)

Cox, along with AFE partners Murray Ord and Jordy Randall, was persistent, and the cameras rolled in summer 2004 in southern Alberta locations including Fort MacLeod and Crow’s Nest Pass, with 600 Albertans contributing to the production, and AFE becoming a corporate executive producer on the film.

Michael Hausman (Gangs of New York, Amadeus), Brokeback’s veteran Hollywood exec producer, obviously has no regrets about coming to Alberta.

‘I’d love to make another movie there,’ says Hausman, also Brokeback’s first AD. ‘It’s a great place to work. The crews are fabulous… and very environmentally conscious, as we were going into national parks and First Nations property. We also had some issues with some of the sheep, and they were very good about it.’

Said sheep situation presented a major hurdle. The shoot called for about 1,000 domestic sheep to be taken into the highlands, where wild sheep dwell.

‘Domestic sheep carry bacteria microbes that mountain sheep have no defense against,’ says Cox. ‘Mixing them isn’t advisable at all. It was a huge concern and almost a showstopper.’

Ord – a former location manager and Alberta film commissioner – working with biologists, the U.S. producers and sheep wranglers, met several times with provincial and parks officials to convince them that no domestic sheep would be escaping into the wild. The sheep would be kept in an enclosed area, and when used for filming, would be herded by border collies and wranglers. Keeping the sheep in the mountains overnight would require security and a gunnysack carpet underneath the animals to control their feces.

‘It didn’t happen in one meeting,’ Ord recalls. ‘We were able to show [the parks officials] over a period of time that we could do this seamlessly and that we were reliable and that we weren’t going to be treating it lightly.’

Ord says the plan went off without a hitch, leaving a strong impression on Hausman and Lee.

But make no mistake, reminds Dan Chugg, the current Alberta film commissioner – Brokeback Mountain has done as much for Alberta as Albertans did for the film. It brought an estimated $8 million in production and ancillary spending into the province, and the effect the beautifully shot film will have on tourism remains to be seen – although there are reports that, ironically, Wyoming has experienced a bump in visitor inquiries.

Meanwhile, the film commission is actively promoting its Brokeback connection. Chugg says the province has taken out congratulatory ads for the film in the Hollywood trades, ‘[letting] everybody there know it was all shot in Alberta.’

Chugg notes that Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar-winning western Unforgiven was also shot locally.

‘Although we’ve done many great pictures since, when you get recognition at the level of a Brokeback Mountain, it reaffirms that we’re a really good production center,’ he says.

Brokeback Mountain could also mean a lot to the future of AFE, says Cox.

‘It’s a wonderful step on our path,’ he says. ‘Our ability to get our own stories out to the world increases exponentially with every one of these experiences, and an experience at the level of Brokeback Mountain goes a long way.’

-With files from Mark Dillon