North Country - Production Notes

Last Update: 25 Oct 2005

Capturing the Look: Realistic and Down to Earth But With its Own Beauty

“It was always my intention to make a very beautiful film from this material but also to present it realistically and that was the challenge,” says Caro. “I didn’t want it to become too gritty. I wanted to convey the beauty, not in a plastic, Hollywood sense, but in the true sense of what this place and these people offer and all the complexities of life in this world, in this astonishingly rich landscape.”

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Caro was drawn to acclaimed cinematographer Chris Menges, Academy Award winner for The Mission and The Killing Fields and an Oscar nominee for Michael Collins. “He photographs settings and characters with great integrity and heart,” she says. “There’s an undeniable beauty and honesty to his work,” dramatically evident in shots of North Country’s vast expanses of snow-covered hills under stark open skies, and in the dark and light contrast of snow with the black ore and dim interiors of the mine.

Caro particularly liked Menges’ ability to provide her with a set almost entirely free of movie lights. For North Country, Menges gravitated toward natural lighting whenever possible. Only when that wasn’t feasible would he create an artificial source through inventive use of bounces, a light-board known as MEL (“Million Eye Lights” for its multitude of bulbs) and tiny lights wrapped in plastic and attached to a panel – all blended seamlessly with natural light. He cleared the set for Caro by hiding lights above sets or pre-rigging locations so that illumination poured in from windows or seemed to emanate from actual, practical lights in the scenes themselves, often set with dimmers so they could be discretely and rapidly adjusted.

“Of all the stellar DPs I met, Chris was the one who spoke the plainest and promised to get all the lights off the floor so that the actors and I would be free to move anywhere,” Caro recalls of their initial conversations. “Typically, when you remove lighting from the floor you can get a very flat effect but Chris’ photography is so insightful there was no concern about that.”

Menges elected to shoot in Super 35 widescreen, to capture the spacious Minnesota landscapes and accommodate as many of the cast as possible in a frame in certain scenes. That broad canvas allowed Caro and the actors to explore their positions in the frame with greater latitude. As Caro explains, “I will not commit to camera positions and movement until I’ve seen the scene’s focus and emotion and know how to best serve it with the camera. The important thing about Chris is that his operation is so sensitive. A lot of the filming was done with hand-held cameras and that provides an immediate response to the actors so that we can really breathe with them and capture all the subtle moments in their performances.”

Toward that end, much of the camerawork has a cinema vérité quality. Caro and Menges often “covertly rolled” film to document the spontaneous reactions of the many extras filling out key scenes.

In keeping with the director’s commitment to authentic and natural settings, production designer Richard Hoover (Emmy nominee for his work on the HBO drama Live from Baghdad) incorporated existing structures whenever possible. In addition to the Eveleth Elks Club meeting room standing in for the film’s Union Hall, a local hockey arena served as a set for its cinematic counterpart and Josey’s house was an actual two-storey clapboard residence – temporarily vacant – that Hoover discovered during the production’s stop in New Mexico.

The hockey rink, already painted a bright yellow, became the linchpin in the film’s color scheme. “We had trucks at the mine painted yellow,” says Hoover, “and we repeated that color in a more subdued way in Josey’s childhood home, where Alice and Hank still live, in the floral wallpaper in the kitchen. We added some touches of pink, green and blue but yellow was the defining hue. It’s also in the kitchen of Josey’s new house, as if she is seeking to recreate what she remembers from her parents’ home.”

Hoover extensively studied the area’s traditions and population, the history and the mines. “We had certain images in our collective consciousness,” he explains, “but sometimes things just happened organically. We found a house in Las Vegas, New Mexico that resembled a style from the early 1900s in Minnesota because so many people from that region had moved west and settled there with the influx of the railroads. Plus, it had wall-to-wall paneling that was just right and echoed the darker wood with somewhat stronger lines than was in the parents’ house. So our research and the locations meshed perfectly.”

Like Hoover and his team, costumer designer Cindy Evans (Memento, Laurel Canyon, Lords of Dogtown), did extensive research and scoured neighborhood thrift shops for ideas as well as for actual pieces. She also found inspiration in Richard Avedon’s photographic collection In the American West. Even though the photographer’s subjects are not from Minnesota, Evans found his portraits of hard-working people (some of them miners) in everyday life from the late 1970s evocative and adaptable.

Evans, who previously worked with Charlize Theron on the 2001 romantic drama Sweet November, concentrated on texture rather than color and assembled a rich and practical wardrobe of carefully aged plaid flannels, rough denim and thick sweaters that layered.

The palette was muted and Evans avoided faddish fashion with one conspicuous exception: Michele Monaghan’s wardrobe as Sherry. Unlike the other women at the mine, the nineteen-year-old makes every effort to dress up, even if her taste is often questionable, arriving and leaving her shift in pieces favoring feminine silhouettes or details like purple high-heeled ankle boots that taper into matching legwarmers, and then really cutting loose at the local bar after-hours in more provocative outfits.

“Sherry loves her clothes,” notes Monaghan, who jokes that she was hoping to take the character’s wardrobe home after production wrapped. “She really likes her short skirts, snug little sweaters and those fantastic boots. She wears makeup and jewelry with a real sense of fun. In time, though, and because of some of the things that happen to her, Sherry’s spirit is broken and that begins to change everything about her; her personality and the clothes she wears,” a transformation Evans helps convey by toning down her wardrobe by degrees. “Unfortunately, it makes her feel like less of a woman, and that’s a very sad thing for her.”


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