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Genre flicks with mid-range price-tags were a Hollywood staple for decades, only to have petered out as audiences demand for expensive spectacle grew. But director Jeff Renfroe has proven that action and thrills don’t need a mega-budget with his snowbound, post-apocalyptic work, The Colony. From his base in a suitably chilly Montreal, Renfroe spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about the Canadian production, working with mad man Bill Paxton and crafting an elegant, bloody adventure story outside the studio system.

“If this film had been made by a Hollywood studio, there would certainly be another zero on the budget,” says the director, who brought in his vision of a decimated Earth for US$16million “It was a real challenge to get some of the shots called for in the script. But thanks to dedicated, extremely talented people behind the camera and behind the computer, I think we were able to get a pretty cool, very unique looking genre world.”

The Colony imagines a planet ravaged by a new ice age; small outposts of mankind still exist, living underground in rusty industrial landscapes. When contact is lost with the nearest settlement, Sam (Kevin Zegers) and Briggs (Laurence Fishburne) set out to find an answer, only to discover that the survivors have resorted to brutal cannibalism to survive.

“When I first received the script, it was one of those virus movies, a zombie-style story where if you get bitten by one of the things you become one of the things,” recalls the director. “I suggested it might be better if we just took it down to a real base level. To me the central question is, ‘What happens when you run out of food?’ Instead of some crazy-ass science-fiction myth, the horror becomes tangible and an ethical issue. How desperate would our decline have to be for mankind to cross that line?”

Though it amounts to a catering spend on most Hollywood blockbusters, the budget is a sizable one by Canadian standards. Renfroe knew star power was needed to give his movie the necessary scope as well as assuring a US theatrical release and international sales. Fanboy favourites Fishburne (The Matrix; Event Horizon) and Bill Paxton (Aliens; Near Dark) were just the ticket (pictured, left; the stars and their director). “Bringing a couple of guys with name value into the mix was absolutely integral,” says Renfroe. “The financiers want to see names that they recognise and that they know the audience will recognise.”

What the director didn’t expect was the genre knowledge that the two actors brought to the production. “Fishburne is a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories, be they films or comic books, so he was really excited about the picture and brought his love for the genre every day,” remembers Renfroe. “Bill was the same; he loves these movies and would not stopped entertaining us all with stories about James Cameron and yelling out randomly, ‘It’s just like Aliens, man!’ They were totally focussed on making the best film that we could.”

To ensure that the freezing conditions required by the script were convincingly realised, The Colony cast and crew were shipped to the most northern part of Ontario during the coldest weeks of the Canadian winter. “We shot in an abandoned airplane hangar in a place called North Bay, and we had to keep one huge hangar door open all the time,” says Renfroe, who recalls days when the temperature hit 30 degrees below (pictured, right; Renfroe on-set with Laurence and Zegers). “Lenses were freezing up, mechanical stuff was seizing. I equate the whole experience to shooting underwater, everything moved so slowly.” The production was also able to utilise an abandoned NORAD facility, a location that took the crew 60 stories down into the earth's surface. 

The film found a mixed critical reception upon its North American release (“I respect their opinions and try to learn from them but I don’t take too much of what is said to heart.”) Instead, Jeff Renfroe cites the response from the crowds at horror and fantasy festivals like Sitges; the world’s leading genre film event awarded The Colony the jury-voted Best Film honour this year. The award is a source of tremendous pride for the director. “You check in with the people who love these sort of movies,” Renfroe says, “and judge yourself against their sliding scale.”  

The Colony will be released on DVD/Blu-ray in Australia on January 8 through Eagle Entertainment

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