North of 60 Interview: Dean Bennett

You've never seen him, but for years now, Dean Bennett has played an instrumental
role in what you see on "North of 60." As the director of photography for the show
for its last three seasons, and on most of the subsequent movies, he's had a major
responsibility for creating the atmosphere of Lynx River. Now, he's moved into the
director's seat for the fifth movie, "Distant Drumming."

Note: There are no spoilers for the movie beyond the story that has already been
described in the press releases about it.

Creating the North of 60 "look"

PW: This is your first turn at directing on "North of 60," but you've been the director of photography for how long?

DB: Director of photography for seasons four, five, and six, and for three of the five movies. I missed the third one, I believe--"Dream Storm."

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PW: But you've been with the show since the beginning, right?

DB: Yeah, I started as a camera operator on day one. I was a camera operator for three seasons under two different directors of photography. Then Tom Cox and Doug MacLeod asked if I wanted to be DP.

PW: For those of us who aren't in the film industry, DP must mean that you're in charge of the overall look of the show. Not the look of the set, but how it's filmed.

DB: The photographic look, absolutely. You're responsible for the photography in every way.

PW: How much does the atmosphere of a show come from the director, and how much from the DP? Does it depend on the director how much leeway you have with the photography?

DB: "North of 60" is a long-running franchise, so that's been established by the producers to a great extent. And there's certainly been a bit of an organic evolution to the movies. The series very much had one look, although three different directors of photography obviously had three different looks within that context. But the when we started shooting the movies, we did get more color involved, and more contrast, and that sort of thing.

PW: You bumped it up a bit?

DB: Bumped it up a bit. And certainly, the director of photography does that with the blessing of the producers, but it definitely is part of the challenge of the job to create the look.

PW: I've always been curious about the "Lynx River look." What did the producers tell you and your predecessors? What is the Lynx River look photographically?

DB: I'll talk first about the lensing. We tended to not use establishing shots. We tended to not look at a great distance at the town. We tend to look at people's hearts and souls and faces. So it's very tight lensing. If you were to watch an episode, it's not as though you won't get a sense of the town; you will see there's buildings and that they're log and that sort of thing. But very frequently--and very quickly in a scene--you're into close-ups. So it's a series that was shot very much in close-up. In the movies, we tend to give it more breadth, partly because we have a bit more time--in fact, we have almost double the time of an episode. So that's one of the things I'm trying to do here, is let the town be one of the characters, and show a bit more scope certainly than we did back then.

In terms of color saturation, it evolved over the six seasons, but it started with pretty low color saturation. Very muted, I think having to do with the sense of desolation and loneliness. The film "Deliverance" was a model for the actual look that they came up with for the first year. Of course, I wasn't responsible for the look for the first three years.

PW: But you knew that's what they were going for.

DB: Yeah. That was actually a film I know that they had talked about.

PW: Wouldn't they also want the colors muted because the show was set in the north, where the light is less intense?

DB: I guess the perception could be that way, and perhaps was by some people. I know for myself, I think there's arguments any way you want to go there. The actual forest is almost identical. I was up at Fort Simpson, and we're I don't know how many hundreds of miles south of there now, and the actual collection of trees is identical. There's poplars, aspens, spruce. And in fact the mix is almost identical to what's on the property around Fort Simpson.

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PW: But the trees are shorter there, right?

DB: No, in many cases even taller, very healthy.

PW: Really? I thought trees got shorter as you went north.

DB: Well, in certain areas you do. And there's no question if you go, for instance, between Yellowknife and Fort Simpson, you'll go through some very desolate, boggy areas. It's tundra, and there are areas with no trees and areas with little scrubby things eight feet tall. But when you get near the major rivers--and also, Fort Simpson is not too far from the mountains, which I think has a distinct rainfall effect as well, and possibly moderates the temperature as well. I was actually shocked. We flew up there for "In the Blue Ground," the first movie. We did some aerials up there, and we spent two or three days there. And I was just shocked that the forests were so similar.

PW: Oh, right, the aerial shots under the opening credits. So that part of the look is quite authentic even though the show is filmed near Calgary.

DB: So I can't give full voice to what the original evolution of the show was, but I know that now we have a lot more color.

PW: So originally, the color saturation was somewhat muted, but not because anyone thought that the colors of the north were muted.

DB: I think it was trying to speak more to the loneliness or the isolation of the north. That's my understanding of that. I've always thought, too, that the Native spirituality has so much to do with a closeness to nature that you could argue it would be a very saturated color, perhaps even more so. So that's just my voice.

PW: Nature would stand out more.

DB: Yeah, even more profoundly. But take that with a grain of salt; that isn't the choice that was made. And it wasn't about nature so much. It was about the lives that were struggling, and a community situation, so I think the choice that they made probably worked very well.

PW: Was there anything else about the early look besides the lensing and the color saturation?

DB: I think that's principally it. And of course that look, the desaturation, takes place after the fact in post-production. So we weren't doing much about that on the set.

PW: But you said that started changing even during the series, before the movies?

DB: Slightly in the last two years, but mostly in the movies was when we went for a stronger look. And of course you're looking at a one-off project and you want to grab as much audience as you can. You don't want to push people away with what might be viewed as a less, um, glamorous look. "Glamorous" isn't the right word, but we're competing with so much color saturation in the last few years that if you go too bleak, the argument is you could also lose some audience. I don't know if that's completely fair, but...

PW: You mean in comparison to other shows, yours could look washed out?

DB: Absolutely.

PW: So because you only have those two hours, and you have new people watching, you need to have the look a little closer to the other shows they're accustomed to?

DB: I suspect that's it. I don't know that we ever handcuffed it to that.

PW: But there was a conscious decision to increase the saturation somewhat.

DB: Oh, absolutely. No question about that. But it was very gradual, a very slow process. Put a little more green back into the trees and like that.

"Distant Drumming"

PW: Well, let's get to this movie. It's your first time directing "North of 60," but you did an episode of "Tom Stone"?

DB: And years ago directed commercials and that sort of thing, so I'm not completely new to the idea of building a cinematic story. But new to the process in terms of a two-hour.

PW: Is the DP always right next to the director when they're shooting?

DB: Yeah.

PW: So you've had lots of opportunities to see what the directors were doing.

DB: Yeah, absolutely. It's a great place to eavesdrop, and you really do learn. It's the best seat in the house.

PW: What are your goals for this movie? What do you want to convey besides what's in the script?

DB: I think one of the things that's happening is with the youth. Teevee, who did a lot of growing up in the last movie, is getting into full adulthood with a sense of command and a grasp at the reins of power in very real ways. He's being taken more seriously by those who used to take him for walks and maybe even change his diapers. So I think that's one of the things I'm working hardest at with all those characters. Charlie, played by Simon Baker, is the same sort of thing. He came in as a young boy and now both these gentlemen are remarkable actors. In Charlie's case, coming of age and dealing with adult issues.

PW: So as a director, what are you trying to do to show these young men coming of age?

DB: Very much in how they handle the dialog. I think one of the things is that they're not as emotional. There's not as much a tendency to fly off the handle.

PW: A little more mature.

DB: Absolutely. And there's a greater weight to the complexity of their thoughts when an emotional issue could come up. They have to weigh out the big picture, their long-term goals. So it's been fun. Every one of them has done this magnificently in the twelve, almost thirteen days that we've been shooting.

PW: So as a director, you've been trying to make them sound less like kids and more like adults.

DB: I think so. We haven't changed the dialog at all. That's been the remarkable thing, though, is that we haven't had to. And that's because of Peter Lauterman's writing. He's so in tune with this series and these characters. But it's been important that it not develop into a free-for-all, that we keep the weight of these big greater issues, these outside issues for Teevee. He's seen the country. He's probably even maybe been to Europe once. Who knows? He's certainly been in Ottawa and Yellowknife, which are the big centers in his life.

PW: The "big issue" in this movie is community policing--the idea that maybe Lynx River and other native towns will replace the RCMP with an all-Indian police force. As a director, how are you approaching that controversy--besides what's in the script about it?

DB: It is mostly in the script, but in fact I'm trying to [bring it out] in little simple things like the costuming. We have Michelle always dressed in her police outfit whereas a lot of the time she might spend a third of the episode in her everyday clothes--depending, of course, on the story. But we're trying to actually push that a little bit visually, even place her against the flags on a couple of occasions, or against the building itself, to give her uniform a home.

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We have to expect that a significant portion of the audience will never have seen this before on a movie of the week, so we need to make it clear what is at stake here. And in fact, it is her lifestyle, her comfort zone that's about to be shaken. Tina, who plays Michelle, has clarified that for me a lot.  That Michelle is somebody who is not overly comfortable with change. Not quick to change, anyway, might be better words. And thus this is a tough thing for her. On a philosophical level, Michelle probably would be happy with community policing. It's sort of a first step towards self-government perhaps, which is a major underlying issue. But for the purposes of our story, we wind up with a lot of anxiety and concern.

There's another story, a lovely little triangle between her; her son, Charlie; and the criminal who has come to town as part of his rehabilitation and parole, Matthew. There's a bit of a pull for Charlie's affections between mum and this person who was up for 5-to-8 for assault with a deadly weapon.

PW: So Matthew is very intriguing to Charlie.

DB: Very much so, and in fact has quite won him over. And we see early on that Charlie's affections as a 17-year-old are clearly running to the new boy in town., the new young man in town that's played by George Leach, and quite wonderfully. He was in the movie last year, and this story folds over from that. I'd say it's about six months later.

PW: Yes, at the end of "Another Country," we see Teevee telling Matthew to come up to Lynx River sometime. So I guess Matthew finally does get out of jail and do that.

DB: He does. It's down through the parole system, and happens over about half a year. The last movie happened in winter, and this one would be arguably about six months later. And there's starting to be a rift between Matthew and Michelle already over his missing parole meetings and that sort of thing. And we go off from there.

PW: So Teevee has kind of taken responsibility for Matthew?

DB: He has. In fact, it's based on that promise in the very last scene of "Another Country," where Teevee sits in the band hall on the telephone and makes a promise [to Matthew] that he'll help him. And this is the way he helps him. By the same token, Teevee being Teevee is somewhat about self-interest. So it's quite a wonderfully layered and very complex script, because there's always something happening grinding behind their eyes other than just the exposition at hand or the plot point at hand. It's very, very wonderfully developed for the characters.

PW: I just recently saw that episode again where Ben Montour arrives in town, and of course acting up, and Michelle in her strictest RCMP style is frowning at him the whole time and telling Albert Golo to take care of him or she's going to arrest him or at least ship him out on the next plane. It sounds like she's in a similar mode here, where she's spending a lot of time grimacing about Matthew being in Lynx River.

DB: She certainly is, although a lot of it is on a personal level. That's where the conflict happens between her and Teevee, between her and her brother Peter. It has to do with the fact of this triangle I mentioned, where she clearly sees Charlie being swayed by Matthew. So it's actually at quite a personal level.

PW: So she really resents Matthew's presence.

DB: She does, in a very underlying way initially, but it grows. I don't know whether I'm allowed to give away the end of the film or not...

PW: You go ahead and feel free to talk about anything, and I can always take it out, or leave it in with spoiler warnings. But if it's something important, please go ahead and talk about it.

DB: Okay.

PW: But on the other hand, Matthew helped Teevee escape, so she should have some good will left over from that.

DB: We've actually tried to play that a bit. It is six months later and there's starting to be a bit of a rift opening between Teevee and Michelle, I would say. We try to create the arc for the audience who has seen the prior movie. So it is amicable to begin with between Michelle and Teevee, but then it becomes one of the major divisions in the film. In fact, it almost gets to the point of protagonist/antagonist.

PW: Because of the community policing issue?

DB: Because of the issue, but much more into the personal issue of Charlie. The personal rift is caused by Matthew and Charlie, but it gets between Michelle and Teevee because of course Teevee supports Matthew. There's two worlds here: Matthew is brought here as a poster boy, basically, for community policing, and she works for the RCMP.

PW: So Michelle doesn't show any gratitude to Matthew for his helping Teevee before when Teevee was wrongly incarcerated?

DB: We don't spend much time with that. What we're trying to show, in tone, is the months that have passed. It is a concern that people who've watched the last movie wouldn't think that Teevee would be forever grateful for Michelle's work. We're showing that Teevee's self-interest is starting a wedge.

PW: But you'd think that not only would Teevee be grateful to Michelle for uncovering the evidence that exonerates him, but also that she would be grateful to Matthew for arranging Teevee's escape. Although I guess that Michelle would argue that she would have gotten Teevee out of jail on her own, without an escape.

DB: Absolutely. I think that Michelle would argue that that method was wrong. But fortunately, it had a good outcome. We almost had a dead Teevee!

Looking to the future

PW: So what's next for you? Do you know yet?

DB: I don't know. It's one day at a time. I can tell you what I'm doing tomorrow; I'm doing homework for next week! I'm looking forward to editing as well, which starts in only a week and a half.

PW: That's right, you have all of that to deal with, too, now that you're the director!

DB: Yeah, but it's actually a short time--a shorter time than I'd ever imagined, because, of course, the show's being cut as we speak. And my methodology is to not be too involved in that yet. I'm one of those people that has to take the mirror out of the car so I'm never looking back! I have to only look forward.

PW: "What's-a behind-a me is-a not important!" Raul Julia from "Gumball Rally."

DB: That's exactly right. And in fact, that's exactly what I think about when I think about whether I should be in the editing suite on weekends or not. I'm the type of person that shouldn't judge where we're at yet until we're done. Then we can be as critical as we like. 'Cuz otherwise I'll end up being critical in the meantime, and it's not constructive.

PW: Because you still have another week of shooting.

DB: Absolutely. Occasionally I'll spot-check something if it plays heavily in the day's work. I'll see the dailies to see where the tone actually was so that we keep the character arcs clean. So I look forward to that in September, and we'll lock the cut at the end of September.

PW: Are you having fun doing this? People have been telling me that you're doing a great job--keeping things running smoothly and getting excellent work out of the actors.

DB: I am having fun. I'm having a ton of fun. It's a wonderful opportunity that Tom and Jordy and Doug gave to me. I felt terribly honored within the context of the "North of 60" franchise, because I'm also a huge fan and consider the cast dear friends as well as the producers and the crew. A number of people have been here since day one, and others for several seasons, so there's a bit of a feel of "old home week" about it, a bit of a homecoming.

PW: You say you're a fan. Did you watch the show regularly when it was originally on?

DB: Well, it was almost always on in winter, and we frequently shot in winter, so I could probably only watch about a quarter [of the episodes], because we'd be shooting Thursday night. Filmmaking is based on a 12-hour day, so if you're shooting nights, that can take you into three in the morning, which means you started at three in the afternoon. Thursday night was when it aired here in Canada, and usually you progressed towards nights at the end of the week, and then had the weekend to turn around. So it's amazing how few times I could actually watch it. But you watch every scene here, too. You watch the monitor and you watch the performances, and it's just a treat. And so many people have gone on to do other things, too, and it's such fun to watch them in other movies.

PW: Well, it sounds like you're having a good time! Why don't I give you a couple of minutes to grab something to eat before they call you back.

DB: I appreciate that. Thank you.

PW: Thank you, Dean! I look forward to seeing the movie!

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Text and photos (c) 2003 Patricia F. Winter

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