THIS LIFE brought its cast and crew to colourful NDG, trendy Mile End, and the cobble-stoned streets of Montreal’s Old Port but, on one sunny day in August, work on THIS LIFE took place in the most unorthodox place I’ve ever worked: an abandoned 18th century gunpowder storage room.
Appropriately dubbed La Poudriere (The Powder Keg), it was used to house gunpowder and military equipment for British and Canadian troops defending the country from the threat of American invasion in the early 1820’s at Fort Île Sainte-Hélène.
And you’d believe it walking up to its thickly-bricked, bunker-looking exterior. The powder keg’s walls are 4-5 feet thick, made of pure cement. It’s about as uninviting as your in-laws’ place.
In 1837, it was transformed into a military prison to combat the rebellions of that period and was eventually abandoned, only to be used by the city of Montreal to intern Italian-Canadians during World War II.
Oddly enough, one of THIS LIFE’s location gurus, Bob Eyton-Jones, told me about how the space was shortly reformed into a theatre in the late 50’s, where off-season plays and puppet-theatre for children were produced.
On this day, it would once again play host to a performance; only this time, it’s a TV production trying to capture Romy Lawson (Julia Scarlett Dan) and her new friend Theo’s (James Mayers) adventurous ditching of class and Oliver’s coming to the rescue in episode 7 of THIS LIFE.
I remember walking through its iron doors into some kind of reception area, where a bar was built to accommodate theatre-goers back in the day (and not gun powder enthusiasts). It’s also where the monitors, audio equipment and actors would be squeezed into.
Everyone's nostrils were instantly hit with the skunky smell of... old stuff. In a separate room to the left stood the hollow theatre, musty seats and all. I tried to imagine rows of young faces watching puppetry but I didn’t dwell on it too long as I am still kind of terrified of walking and talking dolls.
Instead, I investigated further.
Past the theatre stage lies a “backstage” area where the bulk of the shoot took place. The Art Department had spent days preparing the sparse space. A beautiful mural was painted on one of the walls and old carnival-like props were brought in to give the room a pulse.
More impressively, an entire beam-like structure and storage area, meant for a Romy stunt, was built from scratch. It was so well executed that I legitimately thought the built-in structure was a part of the original building. It also made me look like an idiot when I mentioned its authenticity to a fellow crew member -- but that’s for another blog.
The day proved to be tough on most of us but no one had it as bad as Julia Scarlett Dan.
By now you know that Romy regularly suffers from panic attacks. The rapid breathing, shaking, and emotional toll of acting out a panic attack is no walk in the park to begin with -- especially for an eleven year old with small lung capacity. But trying to portray one close to a dozen times in a grimy old bunker-like room, on a 10 foot high beam, with little in the way of good oxygen makes things that much harder.
Louise Archambault, director of episodes 4-7 of THIS LIFE, along with Gilbert Larose, Stunt Coordinator, directed and monitored the situation with aplomb. The warmth and empathy shown from everyone in the crew was heartening.
In a production that brought us all around Montreal and back again, it’s this day I remember most fondly. It required everyone’s best from the camera crew, to set design, to cast and beyond. Stunts were well executed. Sound was well captured and lighting was well lit.
Also, I think shooting in a powder keg-turned-theatre was damn awesome.
For more explosive drama, catch new episodes of THIS LIFE on Mondays at 9pm on CBC Television.
I’m Max Morin, by the way, Story Coordinator and behind-the-scenes blogger for THIS LIFE. Tab this blog for more juicy THIS LIFE topics in the weeks to come!