TORONTO - To depict the challenges of living in Canada's North, Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen cast his eye south.
Nguyen wrote and directed "Two Lovers and a Bear," starring Regina-born Tatiana Maslany of "Orphan Black" fame and Pennsylvania native Dane DeHaan as a couple struggling with their relationship and their mental health in Iqaluit. It hits theatres Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa.
Nguyen said he decided to make his protagonists non-locals because he's met people like them in the North.
"It would have been pretentious of me to give the voices to Inuit people and try to give a sense of what they're going through," Nguyen said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
"I think that belongs to ideally local people who are aware of the situation and who have lived there. The best thing we could do was give a sense of those challenges by having those two people from the South ... who are there and experience isolation and experience the cold and experience all that has to be experienced.
"We address those issues using a separate door."
Nguyen shot mostly in Iqaluit, using snowmobiles on uneven terrain, which resulted in some broken equipment. He also had to protect the stars from the elements when they weren't wearing their masks outside.
"In between takes, every 30 seconds, we would have to heat Tatiana's and Dane's face to make sure they didn't get frostbite," said Nguyen.
The frigid air also posed a challenge for an explosives expert, who had to tie together 70 tiny electrical wires using his bare hands in temperatures hovering around -50 C. What is usually a half-hour job took three hours.
DeHaan, whose credits include "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Kill Your Darlings," went to Iqaluit a week before shooting to learn the traditions of the region from locals who appear in the film.
"It is a very isolating place and it is a place that I think could easily get to you," he said. "It is a place where you have to work really hard to find personal happiness and it's a hard place to survive."
Then there was the bear.
One of the key characters is a talking polar bear, voiced by Gordon Pinsent. Nguyen used a real bear and enhanced it with CGI to add a surreal feel.
"When I did the film and I visited Iqaluit, there is this weird relationship with time and space that gets ambiguous," said Nguyen.
"You look at something and you think it's maybe half a mile away and somebody tells you it's actually 500 miles away. Time is really relative. Sometimes you don't know when it's day or night and sometimes days can last 24 hours. So all of that creates this eerie relationship to space and time and that's why I wanted to bring to this movie this kind of magic realism ... and the bear is part of that. "
The cold shoot was a stark contrast to the heat Nguyen experienced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while shooting "Rebelle (War Witch)," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2013, and at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where "Two Lovers and a Bear" made its world premiere.
"It was in Iqaluit, freezing cold, on snowmobiles, living in the middle of an Arctic tundra — and then Cannes is this schmooze-fest and everybody is dressed up," Maslany said in a separate interview.
"It was just such a fun thing to get to experience two polar opposite experiences with the same crew of people who you love and who are just such down-to-earth, amazing people."