Film

WHEN STARS FALL ON WAWA

Ripley, Trinity and Professor Snape invade a northern Ontario town

Brian D. Johnson May 9 2005
Film

WHEN STARS FALL ON WAWA

Ripley, Trinity and Professor Snape invade a northern Ontario town

Brian D. Johnson May 9 2005

WHEN STARS FALL ON WAWA

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Ripley, Trinity and Professor Snape invade a northern Ontario town

SIGOURNEY WEAVER IS in Wawa, northern Ontario, shooting a movie called Snow Cake. She plays an autistic woman who has a thing for snow. She likes to roll in it, eat it and make snow men out of it. There’s just one problem: Wawa had an early spring. “I’ve lived here 37 years and can’t remember an April this nice,” says Micheline Hatfield, taking time out from her drilling and blasting operation to join a crowd on a residential street waiting to get a glimpse of Weaver. “I came back from a week in Vegas, and the snowbank on my front yard had dropped six feet.” Now it’s melted to nothing. But unlike the rest of Wawa,

this street of’50s bungalows where Weaver’s character lives actually has snow: piles of it have been trucked in, dumped on lawns and arranged in slushy mounds over beds of white Dacron.

There’s a woman on the sidewalk hoping “Sigourney” will autograph all four of her Alien DVDs. One for each of the kids. She comes to the set each day. And she’s invited a bunch of the crew to her house for a venison supper. Myself, I spend three days waiting for Weaver to make good on a promised interview, while trying to keep out of her “eye-line.” She’s a method actress trying to stay in character—which means avoiding people. Everyone on the crew treats her with kid gloves. And by the time we meet, I’m beginning to wonder if celebrity—with its hypersensitivity and childlike sense of entitlement—isn’t so far removed from autism. Everything has to be just so.

This is the story of what happens when a small town is turned into a set, and when three stars—an American, a Canadian and a Britbecome local attractions. They’re all famous for a major fantasy franchise. Weaver is the alien-wrangling Ripley; Carrie-Anne Moss is Trinity, The Matrix dominatrix ; Alan Rickman is Harry Potter’s reptilian Professor Snape. And in Wawa, a town of3,700 north of Lake Superior—known for its giant goose and for stranding hitchhikers on the TransCanada Highway—they’re the biggest news since the gold rush of 1897.

But Snow Cake is not a Hollywood movie. Directed by British filmmaker Marc Evans, it’s a $6.5-million indie project based on a script from a novice screenwriter, England’s Angela Pell, who has an autistic son. Although

she’d never been to Canada, Pell dreamt up a dark comedy, imagining Rickman as a sardonic Englishman on a road trip in the Canadian north. He is cajoled into giving a ride to a local girl, who’s killed when a truck slams into his car. He then gets stuck with the girl’s autistic mother (Weaver), and seduced by her free-spirited neighbour (Moss). When the British producers came looking for a location, Toronto producer Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media (The Red Violin) suggested

WEAVER disappears into her autistic character, Moss sits by the fire, and Rickman discovers the butter tart

Wawa. With most of the crew and some cast from Canada, Snow Cake became a majority Canadian co-production. And Wawa is proudly playing itself.

For two weeks in April, crowds gather to watch the cameras roll. Folks from across the street, and from half an hour out of town. Mothers with strollers. Children playing hooky. And a journalist who’s come to interview the stars and see what happens when a movie crew consumes a town. Which is how I end up sharing fries with Rickman in the dining room of the Wawa Motor Inn beside “the largest fireplace in the North.” With his downturned mouth and amber-green eyes full of intrigue, this is an actor who seems to work from a deep reserve of intelligence. He was the droll ghost in Truly Madly Deeply and the caustic sheriff who

acted rings around Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, and now he’s the director of a controversial play that has London’s West End abuzz—My Name is Rachel Corrie, about the American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer.

It’s incongruous to find him in Wawa. But as Rickman points out, there’s something unreal about shooting in any real location. “A film comes in and colonizes it,” he says, between bites of an unruly BLT. “You start thinking, ‘Oh, could we just move that pile of trees?’ And sometimes you can. It’s like you own it. We’re filming on a real street and it already feels like a set. You have to keep reminding yourself that the people coming out of their houses are not extras. They’re real people. We’ve invaded their life pretending to be real people, and the real people stare at us pretending to be them.” Of Snow Cake’s stars, Rickman has been the most accessible. Between takes outside JDD’s Diner in Hawk Junction, a hamlet of 300 people near Wawa, he goes in to sign autographs and sample the pies. He was so knocked out by the rhubarb and wild blueberry, he started ordering five pies a day for the crew, urging the baker to set up a franchise. He also raves about “this incredible thing called a butter tart that’s so good I don’t even want to know what’s in it.” Rickman is even sanguine about the lack of snow: “The director expected a Fargo landscape. But the film is about a thaw. With a bit of slush around, it makes for an edgier landscape.” As the actor heads off to work, I spend the afternoon in my motel room, waiting for permission to visit the set. Weaver has decided she doesn’t want a journalist watching her act. But half the town is on the sidewalk, doing just that, so I see nothing wrong with joining the crowd. But one of the producers tells me I’m too “distinctive looking,” and if Sigourney spots me, she could get spooked and cancel my interview. Crew members propose various ruses. They could park me in a van with tinted windows. Or put me through “honeyland”—hair, makeup and wardrobe—to disguise me as a local. Instead, they decide to hustle me onto the set right away, before Sigourney arrives.

It’s a warm day. Onlookers in shirt sleeves soak up the sun, watching nothing happen. I’m ushered into a bungalow, where a camera shoots out the back window as CarrieAnne Moss walks across the snowy yard. In the background, kids play basketball. I ask if they’re extras. No, they’re “real.” After a couple of takes, I’m suddenly whisked out the door, like a hostage. Sigourney is in the bungalow. Whew! She hasn’t seen me.

Later I visit Moss in her trailer. She’s in costume—a white parka, a black slip dress over blue jeans, and deerskin boots with pompoms. She’s a bit rattled, having just been besieged by some kids who wanted her autograph without knowing who she was. At least one mistook her for Sigourney. “I got a little irritated,” she admits. “It’s not such a big deal. It just feels rude. I’m in the middle of a conversation and a mother with her children comes up to me, not even teaching them how to behave. Would she treat another adult that way?” The Vancouverborn actress, who lives in Los Angeles, is away from her 18-month-old son for the first time. While she misses him, she’s enjoying her log chalet at the Wawa Motor Inn. “I’ve just been staying in my room,” she says. “Watching TV, sleeping and reading. I have fires.”

Weaver, meanwhile, has been housed in a chalet next to the one where Wawa’s mayor, Rod Morrison, a former CEO ofVia Rail, lives with Donna Harris, the motel manager. Like the mayor in State and Main, the David Mamet farce about a small-town film shoot, Morrison has tried to invite the stars for dinner, without success. But he did land a role as an extra in a restaurant scene. The word on the street in Wawa is that Weaver is standoffish, yet the mayor wants to give her the benefit of the doubt. “If she’s cold,” he says, “it’s because her character requires such concentration.”

Weaver has been studying autism for her role since July. So who could blame her for not wanting to socialize or do press in her first two days of shooting? But I do get summoned to her trailer for a quick hello. After some small talk about the sewage plant beside our motel, I propose that she do the interview in character. She laughs. Her character, she says, would just tell me to “piss off.” That night Weaver finishes shooting at 4 a.m. I’ve given up on the interview. But a few hours later, as I’m about to leave for the airport, I get a call saying she’s changed her mind, and now wants to talk to me over breakfast. It’s her day off. She shows up in sloppy blue jeans and a soft-checked shirt, unbuttoned to show some cleavage and a glimpse of gold bra. Wearing no makeup, she looks in fine shape for 55, and has a girlish smile that makes the years melt away. She orders one scrambled egg—“Is it a real egg?”— with multi-grain toast, then cancels the toast.

The way she orders makes me wonder if she’s acting slightly autistic, or just being fussy. Weaver, who has spent a lot of time with autistic adults, explains that they have no mental filter, no membrane shielding them from outside stimulus. “Without underestimating the pain of autism,” she says, “they have extraordinary access into a world that we no longer open the door to—this world of play, of being in the moment and just seeing the way light glimmers off a photograph.” When I suggest it sounds like being on a permanent acid trip, she says, “I haven’t done acid. I tried some grass once and hallucinated the Virgin Mary. I get drunk on a glass of wine. I’m very, very sensitive.” Many with autism are so sensitive that they avoid eye contact and feel the need to calibrate any input with a lot of precise rituals. “Our world throws so much at them, they want to retreat to a world where they can be in charge,” says Weaver. “And I can relate to that. I find change very difficult. Every time I start a film... here I am in Wawal It’s very unreal to be in this place doing this.”

The crew was instructed “to act as if there is someone with autism on the set—you have to be quiet, you have to give her space.” Weaver laughs. “That is an actor’s dream. I do feel like the film is a little nest. In my chalet, I can bounce around and be autistic as much as I want. I’m not as comfortable taking it out on the street. Once you get in that frame, people coming up to you is very jarring. I find people coming up to me jarring anyway.” As for all the children who want her autograph, Weaver has asked for their names to be put on a list. “I’m happy to do it at the end. It sounds very Spoiled Movie Star. You want to say, ‘Thank you, yes Tm glad I was in Ghostbusters. Who you

gonna call, love Sigourney.’ But it’s hard for me to play the character and shift into that.” Weaver stresses that she’s just playing a character, and not trying to represent autism. Yet whether he likes it or not, she may become autism’s new poster child, inheriting the role

‘YOU HAVE to keep

reminding yourself,’ says Rickman, ‘that the people coming out of their houses are not extras’

from the star ofRainMan. “Dustin Hoffman has been representing autism for a long, long time,” she acknowledges, “and I’m sure he never meant to do that.” Meanwhile, she’s enjoying the “great gift” of learning to live in the moment. “I’ve always been so impatient,” says Weaver, as she methodically folds a paper napkin holder. “Now I see it would be much more satisfying if, instead of thinking what I’m going to do in an hour, I just think about folding this... perfectly.” So how will she spend her day off? “I haven’t made any plans. As my character says, T don’t know what I’ll feel like in half an hour. I only know how I feel now.’ ” l?ll