The Ice Road has been a 48-year journey writer-Director Jonathan Hensleigh, who had always wanted to do a project inspired by The Wages of Fear about a group of guys who have to get over a mountain with a truck filled with nitroglycerin, and any wrong move they make could be the end. He was also interested in doing something like Of Mice and Men with a special needs character, and wrote an original treatment based on those two ideas for The Ice Road, and from that the screenplay was developed by producer Bart Rosenblatt.
It was decades ago that Jonathan Hensleigh first became inspired by the idea: “Ever since I was a young film fan, I was interested in a French film by Henri-Georges Clouzot called The Wages of Fear. I saw it on television when I was about ten, and it’s become a minor classic about a band of losers who are hired to take nitroglycerin across a mountain range. I’ve been obsessed with this film ever since. It was remade by William Friedkin in the 1980s as Sorcerer. Friedkin, whom I have known throughout the years, was also obsessed with this film.”
“The notion of mismatched blue-collar people who have to go on a journey together – one so perilous that no one without proper motivations would do it – fascinated me. I wanted to make an Of Mice and Men crossed with The Wages of Fear. It’s been a 48-year journey,” says Hensleigh.
Producer Al Corley also liked the inspiration from The Wages of Fear: “We didn’t want to make the same picture, but something inspired by it. We liked the world of these tough, visceral, blue-collar guys, and thought that an ice road would be a good environment for an action picture in that it’s almost like another world.”
It was also important to have strong relationships in the story, says Corley: “Audiences are drawn to memorable characters, whether it’s an action movie, or a suspense, or a drama. It’s the unspoken moments between the dialogue and between the actions. The greatest movies have characters where we can put ourselves in their shoes, and you hope good things will happen to these ordinary people.”
“In The Ice Road, here’s a guy who’s doing the best he can to take care of his brother, who’s put his own life on hold for his brother, and he finally gets a break. It’s what sets The Ice Road apart from just being about a truck racing across ice or around a mountain. That’s what makes this movie a bit different, and I think people will relate to that,” says Corley.
As for who would play the lead, the filmmakers set their sights on the best: “Liam Neeson was our first choice, he fits the bill perfectly. He plays working class men really well. He’s an action picture guy, and a fine actor, and it’s rare to be able to do both. He helps us make a movie that people might want to see.
“There’s an element in the film where he has a brother with aphasia that makes it difficult for someone to express themselves. There’s a relationship there, a certain integrity to the character that goes deeper than a typical action picture. I think that element of the script is what would draw attention to the visceral emotional drama of the character,” says Corley.
Jonathan Hensleigh says it’s a director’s dream to get an actor like Neeson in a role like this: “There are few leading men in American film that are able to do what Liam does – many can do action but few have the stature. Liam has both: enormous stature, and he s able to bring all that to commercial fare like action pictures. He s quite unique in that way. I could only hope for someone as iconic as Liam.”
Liam Neeson was drawn to the character he would have the chance to portray: “I play a guy called Mike McCann, and he has a brother Gurty, played by Marcus Thomas. We’re truck drivers for hire. Mike’s a straight shooter and hardworking, blue-collar kind of guy. He takes pride in his job driving these huge trucks, and he looks after his brother who served in Iraq and is suffering from aphasia. He is normal, he speaks sentences, but it’s all garbled. So, I have to kind of interpret for him, you know?”
“I’m attracted to stories where something comes out in the human spirit, when men and women are in intensely dangerous situations. I thought the script to be a real page-turner, to be honest. I knew there’d be a lot of stuff to do, learn how to drive 18-wheeler trucks and stuff like that. That’s all part of the preparation.”
“I admire these guys who are driving these enormous trucks, how they can handle them. I see them in New York where I live, and I think to myself, ‘How did they take that huge truck around that corner and not bump up against a car?’ I am always intrigued by those guys and their expertise, so it was interesting to learn a little bit about how they do that,” says Liam.
“I went out a couple of times with one of the drivers, he kind of showed me the ropes. I was a passenger I was just watching him, and he was driving this thing. I imagined it would be tense, his hands turning the steering wheel, and the gear shift, but it was like a ballet. It was just gentle and very delicate, and this huge machine responding to this delicacy. That was the first thing that struck me about it. And on the back of these cabs where these guys sleep, I mean I’m 6 foot 4 and I can stand up straight in them. I have been in smaller New York apartments.”
“Gurty is my brother, a veteran who served in Iraq. He received a bullet in his head from a sniper, and the surgeons didn’t take the bullet out, they thought it would have been too dangerous. As a result, he’s got aphasia. I am the only one who can understand what he is saying, and he’s a brilliant mechanic, but he does not like taking orders. So it leads to some friction in our lives, but I care for him and equally he cares for me. I never had brothers, I have three sisters, so it’s nice to play somebody that has a brother that really cares for you,” says Neeson.
As for who would play Gurty it was an obvious decision, says Al Corley: “We worked with Marcus Thomas before, and Jonathan had also worked on that film. So he knew Marcus and knew his work. When we decided the character had aphasia, Jonathan had Marcus in mind right from the beginning. He wrote it for Marcus. We didn’t look at other actors. Marcus is really good at doing characters, he likes to do different kinds of people, to create a whole character from scratch. That’s his strength. I think that’s why Jonathan wrote the part for him.”
About his choice for Gurty, Jonathan Hensleigh says: “Marcus is an actor I remembered from the previous production how good he was physically – at least half of Gurty’s role would need to be performed physically and off-the-line, not on-the-line. I had Marcus meet to work with me in Santa Monica and after the second day, I told the producers, ‘I’ve got my Gurty.’ He got better and better.
While he doesn’t look like Liam Neeson, he looks like he could be his brother.”
“I liked the Of Mice and Men dynamic of one brother having to take care of another. It’s touching to me. As a dramatist, I look for angles of a universal human experience. I played with different types of impairments, and got into videos of aphasia sufferers, most common are people who survived strokes.
You’re very verbal, but the connection of brain to mouth is such that you think you make sense, but you don’t make sense to another listener. It fouls your life up.”
Hensleigh and Thomas went to meet a group of Wernicke’s Aphasia sufferers, and it helped them to better understand the experiences they go through. Says Marcus Thomas: “It was critical that we meet some of the 2 million people affected by aphasia, see how they are, listen to their concerns, and learn how they deal with everyday life. It was invaluable experience to see how the condition manifests itself.”
“You hear about people getting a stroke and not being able to speak. Or being paralyzed. I’ve met some people and had family members and friends impacted by a stroke. But never anyone with this particular speech issue.”
It’s the relationship between Mike and Gurty that’s at the heart of The Ice Road, says Marcus: “It has to do with two brothers. The older one has to take care of the younger one, and there are hardships and complications with that. What drew me in was that these two brothers have to survive. They’re truckers and don’t have a lot of means. The younger brother has aphasia. They finally get an opportunity to better themselves.
“The role of Gurty was challenging and scared me to death because you have to bring some kind of life to the nonsense while showing the brotherly affection and struggle. When it scares you like that, as an actor, that’s where you want to be, at that edge where you wonder if you can pull it off or not. I was very grateful for this opportunity and hope it worked.”
Shooting Ice Road
The Ice Road was shot in Canada, utilizing locations in the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba. It was shot under real conditions on real ice roads, making it imperative to work with a director like Hensleigh says Bart Rosenblatt: “Jonathan is very specific in how he shoots things and thinks very visually. He brings not only a lot of creative ideas to the project but also a lot of mechanical ideas for how to actually execute very difficult scenes.”
“Dealing with semi-trucks has been an incredible logistical feat. We have three 18-wheeler rigs in the movie – a red one, black one, and yellow one – and they actually become characters in the movie. The frozen environment that the film was shot in, and the ice roads, they also become characters in the film,” says Bart.
Jonathan Hensleigh was on a mission to make it all look as real as possible: “I wanted this to be reality-based, to a ‘T’. I insisted to my team that we have no angles that aren’t achievable by a film crew, or any angles not possible through physics. I didn’t want physically impossible angles. I wanted it to look, visually, like a documentary.”
“When you shoot a picture about driving vehicles, and you’re talking about a driver and a passenger, and that’s hard to do without being in the cab. You can take your vehicle and mount it on a camera car – a trailer – and pull it. It frees the actor to just act without trying to drive. The challenge is, they don’t make mounts for 18-wheel semi-tractors. So, we were stuck. The obvious solution was poor man’s process’ – green out the side windows and back and shoot the background separately. But I hate that. I wanted real background – the ice road, the mountain driving sequences, I wanted it all to look real,” says Jonathan.
Production Designer Arv Greywal got connected to the team because of previous work he had done on those very same horizons: “I was an art director 20 years ago on a movie called K-19 on Lake Winnipeg and put together an ice road so that we could actually go out onto the lake, about two kilometers out, and build a conning tower which is a submarine coming out of the ice.”
“Somehow my name got attached to this film because of the work I did on that ice road, and I got a call from the producers and then eventually Jonathan. We talked a lot about how to get the look of an ice road, how to build an ice road, and that’s how the connection came about. I’ve also done a bunch of action movies, so it felt like a good fit,” says Greywal.
“When I was doing K-19 I was sent to Gimli, Manitoba, and put into a bombardier which is like a box with treads on it. A commercial fisherman named Lawrence Johnson took me out onto the ice. He would reach out and feel the ice and tell me, ‘This is a good place to build it. No this isn’t a good place to build it.’ Just like that. We went around, and Lawrence knew the ice so well that he basically could tell us how and where we should build. Jump ahead 20 years later to The Ice Road, and again we find Lawrence Johnson and he becomes our ice road builder for this one.”
“The producers were quite skeptical about being out on the ice but once you’ve been out there, you’re not that scared of it anymore. You’re not bothered by the cracking that happens under your feet, or by seeing all the cracks. What I suggested to them was not to build an ice road on a strip of land and CGI around it, but let’s do it for real. So, we explored that early on,” says Arv.
“We got the idea together and then started thinking about how do we preserve the beauty of the ice because if you need an ice road thick enough to run trucks on it, you’d like to be somewhere around 30 to 40 inches. And if you’re going to thicken up the ice and flood it, it turns into white mush. We got lucky because the ice had frozen early in the season, and all we had to do was keep it clear of snow for a month so that it could get bigger and deeper. We ended up with beautiful clear ice that looks like glass sometimes.”
“My vision was to make it epic, to get it as big and as grand as possible. So, there was a lot of discussion upfront with Jonathan and Tom about how do we get the large shots, the big shots. We built two kilometers of ice – one going right into the horizon where you see nothing, and the other kilometer along land for a couple of the shots where we needed trees,” says Greywal.
Bart Rosenblatt really resonated with the idea of vastness: “We were looking for a section of Lake Winnipeg that had zero horizon so it would look like they were way out in the middle of the nowhere and there was no way to save them. We found this section near Finns that had that zero horizon – you might as well have been out on the flat ocean. When the camera looks out, it sees a vast nothingness and you really feel these characters are alone.”