Copperhead shoot embraces New Brunswick

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The Jason Patric-starring feature Copperhead almost never made it to New Brunswick, where it’s currently in production.

As far back as 1998, when American director Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg) was scouting for his second Civil War-era drama Gods and Generals, he first came upon King’s Landing in New Brunswick, and its assorted historic buildings, complete with period artifacts, furniture and tools.

The problem was, the script for God’s and Generals called for pitch battles, and Maxwell was recreating Fredericksburg, Virginia and Washington D.C.

So he shot that epic feature on location in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

But fast-forward to 2010 and Maxwell was developing Copperhead, which is set in upstate New York in 1862 as it portrays the cost of the Civil War on feuding families back on the home-front.

At that point, the American director recalled walking through the historic settlement of King’s Landing a decade earlier.

“I thought we can make the entire movie here, and not go out to distant locations,” Maxwell told Playback Daily from on-set at King’s Landing, adding there’s no need to daily venture out from a production base to varying locations at added cost and time.

What’s more, Maxwell had been scouting in New York State, and failed to find historic buildings or settings unencumbered by modern imagery like power lines or adjoining strip malls.

So the American director put in a call to an old friend, Canadian documentary maker John Houston of Nova Scotia-based Houston Productions.

“He asked me if we could try to put something together,” Houston remembered, echoing the benefits of shooting in King’s Landing.

“Partly it’s the age and the architectural vernacular of the buildings. They fit 1860s New York State very well,” he added.

In addition, the arrangement of historic buildings in King’s Landing is unique as there’s no row of historic structures like most tourist sites, where visitors walk down a single street and see on either side a church, a blacksmith shop or a bank.

“It’s not a village, it’s almost like a bunch of buildings laid out of a grid,” following the lay of the land, Houston observed.

“It’s a very organic site, and I can look over some hay fields, and then I look elsewhere and see geese or deer walking around. The town reveals and reveals and reveals,” he said.

But pre-production on Copperhead with King’s Landing as a location was entirely upended in March 2011 when a frugal New Brunswick provincial government announced it was axing its 40% film tax credit.

“It vanished out from under us,” Houston recalled.

Suddenly, Nova Scotia was being scouted as a replacement location for the film shoot.

“Everything stopped for a while, and the people in King’s Landing must have wondered what happened to us as we were regrouping,” he added.

The way Houston tells it, the disruptive debate over New Brunswick cancelling its film tax credit has parallels with the current impasse between Saskatchewan film and TV producers and their provincial government.

It all came down to where film and TV talent and production crews pay their taxes.

“One of the reasons from the New Brunswick government that they made the change is there were a lot of deeming provisions, where producers from out of the province could put together a large cast and crew that were not from New Brunswick,” he recalled.

A concerned New Brunswick government had watched as visiting talent and crews came and went with their pay checks, and paid their taxes elsewhere.

“What is the legacy: are you building an industry of solid professionals, or are you just a backdrop for visiting professionals,” Houston added, underlining the dilemma faced by Saskatchewan and New Brunswick as politicians weigh then and now their investment in local production.

But then, just as dramatically, the New Brunswick government after industry consultation unveiled a new tax credit that refunds up to 30% of eligible production expenditures in the province.

“We were able to move forward and here we are today,” Houston insisted.

What’s more, as producer on Copperhead, Houston pulled in a raft of Nova Scotia talent, while tapping that neighbouring province’s own labor-based film tax credit.

“The tax credit is very far-sighted of Nova Scotia, to say they wanted their people, and I’m one of them, to work in film, not just in Halifax, but to support us working and getting experience wherever we are,” Houston explained.

Copperhead tells the story of Abner Beech (Patric), a stubborn farmer in upstate New York who defies his neighbours and his government in the Fall of 1862.

Maxwell insisted he wants to evoke the cost of war and dissenting from its unimaginable human and political cost as he keeps his cameras rolling in New Brunswick through late June.

“People die, and it’s mostly young people, it’s mostly the people who have no say in the politics, who have voice in it and who bravely, and with great courage and patriotism, put themselves in harm’s way and pay the price,” he said, before returning to his film set.

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WIFT-T Crystal Awards 2014 - Hand blown glass statuettes – the 2014 WIFT-T Crystal Awards created by glass artist Paul Rodrigue. Credit: Kowthar Omar