Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic

It’s dawn in the nowhere middle of the Atlantic ocean. How many days have they been drifting out here?

Dickie – at 17, the youngest crew member – is supposed to be keeping watch. But he’s asleep, sprawled out in the bow of one of the two dories, his head lolling over the gunwhale. He wakes with a guilty start, stares, tries to make sense of the endless nothingness of dark-blue sea and flat grey sky. Wait! What’s that? On the horizon. A speck? Another vessel? A mirage?

He looks back into his dory where his father, Merv, and Pete, the harpooner, are curled up asleep, and then across to the other dory where Gerald, Mannie and Gib are sleeping too.

Finally, he decides. He reaches out, whispers, “Pete… Pete.”

Pete wakes, growls: “What?”

Dickie can only point.

Pete sees what Dickie sees. He throws off his blanket, jumps to his feet. “There’s a boat,” he says, then louder, as if convincing himself. “There’s a boat. THERE’S A BOAT!” He’s screaming now, rousing the others.

Gerald, the captain, immediately assumes command, scrambling to find the fog horn he’d rescued when their fishing boat sank. He blows a blast. Then another. The rest of the men grab for the oars. Mannie, the first mate, struggles to bring order to their chaos. “Heave,” he orders, “heave—”

Wait a minute?… Isn’t Mannie … an actor … the one who plays the creepy politician running for mayor in that American TV series The Killing? Billy Campbell?

When we pull back – just like in a movie because this is a movie – we see what we didn’t notice before. There are two camera operators squeezed into the stern of each bobbing dory, 16 mm cameras on their shoulders, filming the six actors playing out this scene.

We are in the middle of filming The Disappeared, a low-budget indie feature about the aftermath of the sinking of a swordfishing boat.

“Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic,” is the shorthand Shandi Mitchell, the film’s writer and director, uses to describe her first feature film.

If we pull our own lens/eye back still further, we see a purpose-built wooden raft tethered to the sea bottom. The raft – a 16-by-20 ft. open-air control room and filming platform – is piled high with camera gear and crammed with people: Mitchell, an assistant director, two camera teams, crew from props and continuity, a grip, even a safety diver. Just in case.

At this moment, everyone is less concerned whether the six men in the dories will finally catch that illusory vessel on the horizon and more worried whether they will make their shooting schedule. There’s less than half an hour remaining in their 12-hour day, and they’re losing light. And while we’re not really in the middle of the ocean (turn and you’ll see in the distance Cross Island and the mouth of the harbour at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia) the seas are definitely getting rougher. Water sloshes over the low-to-the-water decking.

The danger is probably less than it seems. Three Zodiacs, two with safety divers and another with a standby camera, buzz just out of camera range. Beyond them is the “back lot”: two 42-ft. Cape Island boats filled with more gear as well as hair, makeup and wardrobe staff.

Off in the distance toward Lunenburg, a shuttle boat chugs out to the “set.” During the day, this vessel plies the 40-minutes between on-shore production headquarters and the filming location frequently ferrying meals, craft services and gear for cast and crew. On this trip, it’s carrying Ralph Holt, one of the producers, and a second assistant director who is bringing the call sheet with tomorrow’s shooting schedule.

It takes a lot of real life to create the illusion of film.

Welcome to the film business, Atlantic Canadian style.

Although the first feature film ever made in Canada was shot in Nova Scotia in 1913 (Evangeline, based on Longfellow’s epic poem), Atlantic Canada’s film industry didn’t really become established until the early 1980s when two brothers, Paul and Michael Donovan, set up their first production office, and sometime set, in their apartment over a pornographic book store in downtown Halifax.

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