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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.