See below for an interactive map showing where nearly four dozen film shoots – including Movies of the Week, commercials, major TV series and feature films – took place in Abbotsford last year.
On a big screen in France, Denmark’s biggest movie star trudged across a landscape of snow and ice. Far in the distance, a polar bear was seen, ominously patrolling his territory.
Nothing about Arctic – a movie that premiered at Cannes, the world’s most-prestigious movie theatre – looks like it was filmed in Abbotsford. And very little of it was.
But while some movies have turned to digital tricks to depict big, dangerous animals (Leonardo Dicaprio’s bear nemesis in The Revenant was famously a man in a blue suit), Arctic’s polar bear was just that – a real-life polar bear. And when you want to film a real-life polar bear for your Icelandic film, you come to Abbotsford.
• • • • •
Arctic was just part of a busy year for filming in Abbotsford in 2017. Forty-four films were shot over 113 days, compared to around 30 films over approximately the same number of days the previous year. According to the city and film permit sheets obtained by The News, crews spent a little under $900,000 in Abbotsford last year.
But those numbers don’t get at the biggest change in filming in Abbotsford last year.
While TV movies for cable channels like Hallmark have traditionally composed the vast majority of major filming activity in Abbotsford, 2017 saw a significant uptick in the number of major movies featuring recognizable stars that have been shot in Abbotsford.
Names like Steve Carrell, Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Chow Yun-fat and Johnny Depp star in a half-dozen feature films shot in Abbotsford last year. Whereas TV movies typically air a couple months after being filmed, many of the bigger budget features that shot last year in Abbotsford will be coming out over the next several months.
Carrell’s movie, Welcome to Marwen, is set for a prestigious December release. Directed by film legend Robert Zemeckis, who directed the Back to the Future trilogy and previously won an Oscar for Forrest Gump, Welcome to Marwen tells the story of a man (Carell) who constructs a miniature village in his yard as he tries to recover from an assault.
The production spent six days last August in Abbotsford at three rural Bradner properties, according to a filming wrap sheet submitted to the city. The main filming unit was in town for three days, followed by three days of work by a visual effects unit. The producers estimated they spent $80,000 in town, including $2,000 on lunches for crew members.
The city and its staffers received high marks from crews, and producers said residents were also supportive. One resident who lived near the Welcome to Marwen shoot said he “had some issues, but with a compensation for inconvenience he was happy in the end,” the producers wrote on a wrap sheet. The one issue faced by the Marwen producers was “sound issues with the small airplane traffic flying above our set.” But beyond that, the producers declared, “We would happily return.”
Post-production complaints were rare in filming wrap sheets, and, when they surfaced, minor in nature.
The feature films also generally headed to different locations than TV movies.
TV movies – which still heavily outnumbered feature films – return again and again to quaint locales like the city’s historic downtown, Clayburn Village and rural country estates. Features, meanwhile, tend to be in search of more grit – specifically the grit of pavement.
Of the lot, Project Gutenberg – an action movie directed by Felix Chong – described the most intense shoot in their application, with proposed activities including gunfire, fire, explosions and stunts.
The shoot included five days of filming along Interprovincial Highway in Sumas Prairie. A nearby stretch of the same road was also used for scenes for The Package, a black comedy produced by Ben Stiller and recently released on Netflix.
• • • • •
And then there’s that polar bear.
Joe Penna, the director of the film, told The News there was a very simple reason his crew came to Abbotsford.
“In our film there was a need for a trained polar bear, and it just happened that the only trained polar bear in the world lives in Abbotsford.”
The bear, named Agee, has made a name for herself not only for her appearances in films and commercials, but also for YouTube videos showing her swimming with trainer Mark Dumas.
Last October, dozens of crew members laid ice down in a warehouse unit on Wheel Avenue, in the Clearbrook Industrial Park, and created a set to try to match the Icelandic landscape where the rest of Arctic was filmed.
A fence that could be electrified, if needed, was also erected. During shooting, the film crews remained on one side of the fence, while Dumas and Agee were on the other.
The city said that the Abbotsford Police Department and Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service each conducted reviews of the filming plans before it took place. That included visits to the site and meetings with production staff.
Meanwhile, Penna said Abbotsford’s proximity to Vancouver ensured a plentiful supply of talented crew members and set builders.
Penna, who also co-wrote Arctic, said he initially thought polar bear scenes would be shot with a focus on a claw, or an arm, that suggested the presence of the animal without necessitating its actual filming.
“That turned out to be insufficient,” he said.
He then headed online and came across Agee. And when costs were factored in, it turned out to be much cheaper to actually fly to Vancouver to film a real-life polar bear than it would have been to use visual effects.
Penna says he was elated with the result.
“She did everything we wanted and more,” he said.