Foresight Features: Canada’s unlikely horror film factory

The indie film company prefers Collingwood, to Hollywood, for churning out cheap flicks
Jason McBride
Canada’s gore factory
Photograph by Cole Garside

It’s the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and venerable character actor Julian Richings appears to be having sex with an alien. Or is he being eaten? The two are locked in a strange, uneasy embrace, rolling around in the wet grass on a film set near Owen Sound, Ont. The alien looks a bit like the ectomorphic spawn of the Silver Surfer and something out of Hellraiser. A tiny crew sets up a bread-loaf-sized Red Epic digital video camera, the same model used to shoot The Hobbit. Director Matt Wiele makes sure the alien’s arms are properly positioned around Richings’ body, and the actor’s angular face contorts. Just before the camera rolls, he yells out, in his distinct Oxfordshire accent, “Who wrote this s–t?”

The writer in question lies face down about 20 feet away, in a puddle of mashed bananas and fake blood—movie brains. Tony Burgess is a Canadian novelist and screenwriter, best known for Pontypool Changes Everything, a novel about a killer virus he adapted for director Bruce McDonald’s 2008 film Pontypool. His most recent work, Idaho Winter, a metafictional head-scratcher in the guise of a young adult novel parody, has been shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. Burgess wrote the screenplay for this particular film, Ejecta—about a gonzo documentary filmmaker who stumbles across a mysterious crash landing site—in just three days. It’s the first of a trio of no-budget films he’s written for Foresight Features, all of which will be shot this summer and early fall. Burgess typically writes a small part for himself—hence the brains.

Foresight is the independent film production company behind the acclaimed horror movies Exit Humanity, a Civil War-era zombie flick, and Monster Brawl, about a wrestling match to the death featuring a host of classic movie monsters. The outfit’s affable 30-year-old principals—Jesse T. Cook, John Geddes and Matt Wiele—all wear many hats. In fact, they pretty much wear all of the hats, doing everything from producing to props, with each taking a turn at directing. At 2 a.m. on the Ejecta set, as Wiele called out another take on a troublesome scene, Geddes wandered among the drowsy crew, handing out restorative chicken kebabs.

Foresight is based in Collingwood, Ont., a picturesque town two hours northwest of Toronto more famous for its ski and spa culture than for any kind of guts-and-gore cinema. The brain trust grew up in the region—Geddes and Wiele have known each other since elementary school—and while they’ve all done film work in Toronto and elsewhere, they returned home out of affection for the area and for the strategic advantages it provides. “It’s nice to be away from the scene,” Cook says. “You have your own hideout and can come out of left field.”

It’s also a cheaper place to make movies. In the run-and-gun tradition that stretches from Ed Wood to pre-Hollywood David Cronenberg, Foresight is making genre films as quickly, and as inexpensively, as possible. Ejecta was shot in just 12 days, with a 12-man crew, on a budget of only a few hundred thousand dollars—less a shoestring than a thread. The next two films will be produced for about the same amount. Far from the usual filmmaking centres in Vancouver and Toronto (and their expensive unions), permits and locations can be more affordable and flexible. “In a town like Collingwood, you know everyone,” Wiele says. “You need a carpenter, you call your high school buddy who’s a master carpenter.”

The three are, not surprisingly, lifelong film geeks. In high school, Wiele and Cook made music video parodies, and Cook and Geddes—whom Wiele describes as having watched “every classic B, C, D, E horror film ever made”—later found work on various movie sets, made 16-mm shorts, and eventually drove to and from L.A. several times in a vain effort to get various feature projects off the ground. None of them studied filmmaking (Cook, in fact, was rejected by York University’s film studies department and studied English and history instead). While Wiele pursued an advertising career, Geddes and Cook came up with a horror concept in 2007 that capitalized on the region’s sporty vibe: three snowboarders get trapped in a remote cabin whose owners are cannibals. Just as Sam Raimi famously put together funding for the seminal horror picture Evil Dead from a group of dentists, they raised part of the $400,000 budget from patrons at the golf course where Cook was a bartender.

That film, Scarce, received lukewarm reviews (Exclaim magazine said it “manages to make a 1½-hour film feel like three”), but it attracted Anchor Bay Entertainment, the American distributor that released, among others, the Evil Dead trilogy. “I saw a future in these guys,” says general manager Rob Herholz. “They have a unique take on the genre. And audiences are rabid for these types of movies.” Indeed, even exhausted subgenres like the zombie movie apparently have enduring appeal—witness the recent success of the Walking Dead TV series and 2009’s Paranormal Activity, arguably the most profitable film ever made (more than $65 million on a $15,000 budget).

Post-Scarce, Wiele, Cook and Geddes formed Foresight. They set out to raise money for a couple of million-dollar films. Then the recession hit. They revised their business plan, lowered budgets, and came up with their unique tag-team model and a plan to shoot 10 films in five years. They decided that making films quickly, back-to-back, sharing resources, and plowing the profits from one film into the next made better business sense. “Their model is different,” says Marguerite Pigott, head of creative development at Super Channel, which has pre-licensed all their films. “They amortize all their production and post costs, and can get more money on the screen that way.” Monster Brawl and Exit Humanity, Foresight’s first two movies, both made in 2010, were produced this way. Herholz won’t disclose any actual box office numbers for Foresight’s films, which have made all their money in home video and cable; he says only, “We’ve been really happy with the results in the marketplace.”

They’ve generally avoided the protracted, bureaucratic processes that—for better, but more often for worse—govern film production in this country. While Foresight depends on both provincial and federal tax credits, they’ve never asked the government’s promotional arm, Telefilm Canada, for funding. “It’s not as easy as people think,” Wiele says. “It can take three to five years to make a film that way, and it’s looked at as more a cultural thing, not as a business.” They prefer to cobble together most of their micro-budgets from private investors.

To pay those investors back, they have to make movies they can sell. One way to do that is to stock them with actors that people recognize, often American ones, something that Canadian filmmakers realized decades ago. Foresight has managed to attract several legends of the horror world. Dee Wallace, who played Elliott’s mom in E.T. and is the star of dozens of spooky pictures, appeared alongside Night of the Living Dead’s Bill Moseley in Exit Humanity. Monster Brawl featured Kids in the Hall alumnus Dave Foley and Art Hindle, whose earliest credits include Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s 1974 tax-shelter-era classic, and The Brood. Richings, whose face is familiar to fans of Canuck movies like Hard Core Logo and Cube, just wrapped up the Superman remake, Man of Steel, before heading to Collingwood for Ejecta. 

Ejecta went from concept to camera in a couple of months, something that greatly appealed to Burgess. “I’ve always had a fantasy of working in a grindhouse factory of filmmaking,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of the low-budget B-movies of the ’80s and ’90s.” (It took more than a decade, as producers and investors came and went, for Pontypool Changes Everything to reach the big screen.) Cook and Burgess, who lives in nearby Stayner, Ont., discussed a collaboration after they met on a film festival jury years ago. Foresight gave him bit parts in Monster Brawl and Exit Humanity and, after throwing ideas around for months, they came up with the Ejecta storyline based on an idea from Wiele. Burgess kept it lean, using just three characters and limited locations, but smuggling in pet themes—paranoia, the limitations of knowledge—and some characteristic humour. “Tony’s off in the cosmos,” Cook says, “but if you can harness that, you’ve really got something.”

On the Ejecta set, a rented farmhouse and its grounds, Burgess sported a grey goatee that gave him the aspect of a demonic Colonel Sanders. To get into character as an ornery drunk hillbilly, he swigged from an ever-present tall boy. The crew, many of them half his age, giggled as he hollered his lines in an indeterminate rural accent. “It’s thrilling to churn them out,” he later said, “with this little filmmaking posse that you believe in. Bang, bang, bang!”