The River wild

The Halifax-shot thriller The River King was an icy experience for some of its makers. Carsten Knox breaks the surface to find out why.

It was on the second day of shooting the thriller The River King that the camera operator and an assistant went through the ice. The crew, set up near Meander River, had been assured the intense winter cold of 2004 had made the river safe to stand on. The director, Nick Willing, an Englishman, had been concerned about his crew’s safety, but was given every promise the ice was, he says jokingly, “15 metres thick.”

He, his camera operator and an assistant were standing under a bridge setting up a shot. Then, in a moment, Willing was standing there alone.

“Forbes and Johnny were on the ice filming with a huge Panavision camera with a massive lense on it,” recalls Willing from his home in Tufnell Park, North London. “There was just a faint noise, and they were gone. I was standing about a metre away.”

Willing and the crew reached down into the water, unable to find the two men. About ten metres down the river a hand came up through a hole in the ice. The operator was hauled out with the assistant hanging onto him with one hand and the camera tripod with the other.

“Amazingly, the film stock we’d shot that morning we sent off to the laboratory was absolutely fine,” says Willing “I thought, shit, this film ain’t going to be easy.”

The filming of The River King did have a few problems, largely with funding. Such is the complicated state of international coproductions—in this case the picture was put together with Canadian dollars and British sterling, shot by a director who got his start making music videos, and starring actor-writer-director Edward Burns.

On three occasions the producers had to scramble to secure financing, at one point prompting the reduction of shooting days from 35 to 29. Willing says that the film didn’t suffer, but the crew had to work twice as hard to get it done. “I don’t think it would be possible to do that in England. I’ve worked all over the world: France, Turkey, America, Scotland, Spain—the best crew I worked with yet was that crew in Nova Scotia. I’m very grateful to Halifax.”

The plot of The River King involves the mysterious death of a student at an exclusive boarding school. A local police officer (Burns) suspects it may be murder, but his superiors discourage his investigation due to small-town politics. As much a character study as a thriller, it delves into the life of the dead boy and his girlfriend, and a romance between Burns and a teacher (Jennifer Ehle).

The film was born from that most unlikely of events: a bestselling author sent her manuscript to Willing in the mail. “Usually if I’m sent a screenplay it’s been around to everybody and their dog,” he says. This time it was the actual book by Alice Hoffman, a fan of Willing’s Photographing Fairies, delivered to his Soho office in a brown paper bag. Hoffman, used to selling her novels to studios for a hefty price, gave The River King to Willing and his producers for a song.

“She was supportive from the very beginning,” says Willing. “I sent her pretty much every draft of the screenplay we did and she was encouraging and enthusiastic about every one, even when we departed from the book. She even came up and visited us in Halifax from her home in Boston, despite the fact she’s afraid of flying.”

After gushing about his luck at being chosen by an admiring author and his experience working with a Canadian crew, Willing has nothing but positive things to add on the subject of his star.

“Because he is a filmmaker he understands what a director goes through,” says Willing of Burns, adding with a laugh, “he was very grateful I think that he wasn’t the director on the film we were making after he saw all the trouble.

“He respected my judgment on almost everything. I believe the actors have to wear their characters, I listen very carefully to what their problems are. He responded to that—one of the things about Eddie is when he’s acting he does only that.”

Willing’s experience with Burns was so gratifying, the two are planning on shooting another film together in the new year. With a little luck they may be able to avoid hypothermic camera people and mercurial financing.

“I’ve written the part especially for him,” says Willing. “We’ve become good friends. We get together in the summer and go fishing and talk film.”

The River King opens Friday, October 21

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