North Country - Production Notes

Last Update: 25 Oct 2005

Getting to Know the Mines, the Community and the Minnesota Winter – A Commitment to Authenticity Sets the Tone for Production

Production began in Northern Minnesota, to capture the region’s unique geography and legendary frigid, icy winter. The Iron Range had only recently weathered record-breaking cold, but when cast and crew arrived, temperatures had mercifully risen to about 19 degrees, a veritable heat wave for the locals but still cold enough to freeze sensitive camera equipment, requiring special heater units on the set.

Caro felt strongly about filming in the towns of Eveleth, Virginia, Hibbing and Chrisholm, regarding the story’s location almost as another character. “Since we’re working in a very specific landscape and part of the world, Niki wanted that landscape to have its own strong interplay with the performances of the actors. Her intention is to be honest to the place where the story occurs and that requires as much location shooting as we can possibly accomplish,” says Wechsler, who was on board for the cross-country maneuvers.

“I take this approach with all my films,” says Caro, a native of New Zealand, who was as enthusiastic about immersing herself into the Minnesota communities as she was about exploring the Maori culture in Whale Rider. “I’m endlessly inspired by real people and real landscapes.”

In addition to the essential Minnesota locations, production secured a number of practical sites in Silver City, New Mexico, where they had access to the Phelps-Dodge Company’s Cobre and Chino copper mines. Cobre, conveniently, was a closed mine and so easily became a movie set, while the fully functioning Chino facility provided not only camera-ready trucks and equipment but safety and technical support for the production personnel.

North Country cast and crew took an educational field trip to the New Mexico site prior to beginning principal photography in Minnesota, for a hands-on tour of the mines, a requisite safety course and an opportunity to get comfortable with an arsenal of heavy machinery designed to move and crush rocks the size of Volkswagens.

Lillian Medina, Phelps-Dodge Senior Safety and Health Specialist and one of their guides for the crash course, became a role model for Rusty Schwimmer’s characterization of Big Betty. Schwimmer was taken with the way the efficient, direct Medina, dressed in plain work shirts and steel-toed boots, favored distinctly feminine, slender Capri cigarettes, and incorporated that stylistic detail into her portrayal.

It was here that Frances McDormand finally got her chance to climb into the cab of the massive truck she would be driving as Glory. “To start you honk once, to go forward you honk twice and to reverse you honk three times,” McDormand displays her knowledge of the protocol. “Actually, it’s not that hard to drive,” she admits, “it’s fully automatic. The scary thing is that you have so little visibility so I could actually be squashing people very easily if it wasn’t for our fabulous crew watching out for me. I had never been in a mine before, and even though this isn’t a documentary, it truly was a great benefit to shoot it in actual mines and for us to work with people who have this kind of experience.”

Not only did the cast and crew familiarize themselves with mining operations, they took time to get acquainted with their host community back in Minnesota. On the agenda were regular winter activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling, dog sledding and the region’s #1 sport – hockey, while Spacek also worked on her strudel technique with help from the women at the local Slovenia Hall.

Says Renner, “it’s great to learn what a stacker is,” but beyond the technical education, “as an actor, I’ve always enjoyed observing people and find it extremely valuable to go sit in a restaurant or bar and listen to what people will tell you, especially in small towns. I’m from a small town myself and it has always fascinated me how you will learn more about a place by talking with people than you’ll ever learn from any newspaper or national monument.”
Production recruited Iron Range residents as extras in the film, either to populate mining sequences or scenes shot in town, and in particular the emotionally charged Union Hall scene. Shot in a cavernous Elks Lodge in Eveleth, with its pastoral pale green wall murals, this is where Josey unsuccessfully attempts to explain to her fellow miners why she is bringing suit against the company and how it was never her intention to shut down the mine. The assembled crowd is clearly agitated, fearful of losing their livelihood and not in any frame of mind to listen.

In casting approximately three hundred area men for the scene, Caro explained the circumstances that brought the action to this juncture and emphasized the need for them to express the kind of heated anger it required. Initially tentative, their ad-libbed catcalls became louder and more spirited with each take. Those who remained somewhat uneasy in this volatile atmosphere proved equally valuable as Caro was able to combine their range of expressions with those of their more vocal comrades and the few uncomfortably tight-lipped female attendees into a realistic rendition of the event. Simultaneously, one camera remained focused exclusively on Charlize Theron as Josey, trying to hold her own amidst the barrage of opposition.

Richard Jenkins, whose character, Hank, makes a pivotal decision in this scene, credits his Minnesotan colleagues as “great guys who really rose to the challenge. They were being asked to say things that weren’t pleasant, and that they didn’t necessarily want to say, but they delivered. They did it. It really added a sense of reality that you couldn’t get anywhere else – you just had to be there.”

Not all scenes shot in Minnesota were as intense as the Union Hall confrontation. Several days of the shooting schedule were devoted to action at a local hockey rink, where approximately 2,000 extras posed as cheering fans.
Like many of the cast and crew who were acclimatized to warmer zones, Caro prepared for the weather with zeal, spending much of the chilly Minnesota shoot wrapped in down parkas, thick boots and a giant fur hat an Eskimo might envy. Theron, born and raised in temperate South Africa, also found the cold bracing but not without its rewards. “The fresh fallen snow was gorgeous, especially in the morning,” she recalls. “It looked like icing on a cake and I loved the sight of it…although ideally from the inside of a house! Through a window it was quite dazzling. It was a bit harder to appreciate when I was standing in it.”

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