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The $14 million film, Black Robe, was shot chronologically at the end of 1990, as the harsh north Canadian winter closed in; not surprisingly, few journalists went on set, but Andrew L. Urban was foolish enough to leave a Sydney summer and see how Bruce Beresford worked on ice.

Blood dripped slowly onto my borrowed, cream coloured ski beanie, and sweat began to pop from my pores as I watched the two actors simulate copulation beyond the flames of a small fire inside a large 17th century tent. Outside, the snow had frozen and the temperature was a reasonable minus 12 C.

But inside this large tent, a replica of an ancient Iroquois Indian structure, the temperature was rising as the fire and additional heating kept the actors warm for the semi naked scene. I was not semi naked.

The tent was crammed with recently killed carcasses of rabbits, geese, and things I did not recognise, hanging by their feet, plus hundreds of skins from varying animals. Clad in snow boots, jumpers and snow jackets, I jostled beside director Bruce Beresford, the camera and lighting crew.

Originally, the carcasses had been frozen, to halt decomposition, but as the tent warmed up, the blood began to run.

"The body language is pretty universal."

The scene involves the captive girl (Sandrine Holt, but played here by her body double) seducing an Iroquois guard (played by Donald Brisebois, a well built, handsome Indian guitar player from Montreal) in order to escape, together with her father (August Schellenberg), her lover (Aden Young) and the central character, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau), who have been tortured and are now trussed up at the other end of the hut, feigning sleep.

It took a while to shoot the scene, partly because Beresford wanted the main action to circle the fire. The girl approaches the Iroquois guard, her hands and feet bound, and indicates she wants a drink. As he obliges, he also helps himself to a fondle, which she encourages with body language; she is an Algonquin and they speak different languages, but the body language is pretty universal.

This part takes place on one side of the fire, then he has to manouvre her behind the fire across to the other side, so after he has mounted her from behind while she is kneeling on all fours, the actress has access to a giant moose foreleg, with which she smashes him across the head, and he falls into the fire.

This second action is of course stunt work, so the shot is as complicated as any in the film, with complex but subtle lighting needs, disciplined action and restricted camera access.

Then the long shots have to be done, from behind the trussed up "sleeping" bodies at the other end of the hut, and finally some reaction close ups.

"'It's the 17th century, so who's going to remember?' - but that's not how I work." Designer, Herbert Pinter

The detail of the production design is meticulous. Designer Herbert Pinter has created a remarkably authentic look, mostly because it IS authentic. He is adamant that it's the best way.

"Some people said to me, 'It's the 17th century, so who's going to remember?' - but that's not how I work. I'd say 99% of what you see is accurate. We really did a lot of research. It's actually easier this way, because if you do your homework, you avoid silly mistakes."

"Australia has the best production system in the world." Producer Sue Milliken

Black Robe, which has won six 1991 Canadian film awards (Genies) including best film and best director, is an Australian/Canadian co-production. The Australian producer is Sue Milliken, who marvels at the way the Australian crew pitches in and makes things work.

"Australia has the best production system in the world. We've taken the best of the British and American systems. There is a good chain of command, people help each other and there is a directness that avoids trouble. Elsewhere, each department has its own little area. They're less interactive and so it runs less smoothly."

Milliken believes it is a most worthwhile co-production, with valid benefits to all parties. "Australia is able to help Canada make a film that is important to their social history; and we're getting the experience of working in another country."

"Black Robe is, arguably, the most difficult film of his career."

But for Beresford, Black Robe is, arguably, the most difficult film of his career. The multi-national cast and crew includes Quebecois, Indians, Canadians and Australians; the locations are isolated, the conditions are harsh, the extras are inexperienced, the language is foreign, and the budget is finite. After nine weeks of an 11 week shoot in progressively colder and colder Canadian autumn / winter, he is acutely aware of all of this.

"There's only one simple shot in the whole film, and there are over 900 shots. The logistics are huge: because of the weather, we need extra things to keep interiors warm, to keep the actors warm...and there are the location moves, the catering, the transport, everything."

The Brian Moore novel, adapted by the author, makes for tough film making: and tough viewing. The story of extraordinary dedication by the 17th century French Jesuit missionaries to convert the Canadian Indians was a cultural and physical disaster. In the process, many died, some horribly. But their faith and courage are beyond belief.

"They make Schwarzenegger look like a sissy." Beresford on the Jesuits

Although Beresford is after the human interest and the sheer drama of it all, he concedes that in the process of research, he learnt a lot.

"You can't research this story without coming out admiring the Jesuits. Even if you went into it as the greatest anti cleric of all time, you'd come out of it thinking those guys were so brave. Talk about tough! They make Schwarzenegger look like a sissy."

Beresford was pretty tough himself: after work one day, he invited me to dinner at the house rented for him and his family in Tadusac, the tiny village on the St Laurence river, where this particular part of the film was shot.

"... a process that would weary the toughest of men"

A homely plate of sausages, mashed potatoes and beer slipped by, and Beresford was back at work till midnight, preparing for the next day, which began at around 6.30. This was his life for 11 weeks.

He had fallen in the freezing river three times, changed his headgear three times to keep up with the falling temperatures (and to accommodate the crew's suggestions for ever more flattering hats) and at the end of each day - before dinner - would look at the rushes, in a process that would weary the toughest of men.

The final result, many say, is his best film to date.

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11/6/98: The Making Of is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films such as this one that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.


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