A fight scene from "The Book of Negroes" television mini-series was rehearsed Wednesday afternoon at the Fortress of Louisbourg.
©Laura Jean Grant - TC MEDIA
It was love at first sight for a team of producers when they landed in Louisbourg on a location-scouting tour of Nova Scotia.
"It was one of those immediate romances. We felt like we had to find a way to come back here because we hadn't seen anything quite like this," recalled Damon D'Oliveira, executive producer of a miniseries based on Lawrence Hill's novel, The Book of Negroes, which is currently shooting at the Fortress of Louisbourg. "It's an incredibly special spot."
D'Oliveira and miniseries' director Clement Virgo are partners in Conquering Lion Pictures, the Toronto-based independent production company which is the lead producer of the six-episode series, to air on CBC in Canada and BET in the U.S. It stars Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and Aunjanue Ellis, who are both in Louisbourg for the three-day shoot. Academy Award winner Lou Gossett Jr. also stars.
The scenes being shot in Louisbourg will represent New York in the late 1700s.
"Two of the episodes centre around the American Revolutionary War, a lot of which the influence and some of the battles even, took place in New York State and New York City so Fort Louisbourg is stepping in for Lower Manhattan these days," explained D'Oliveira.
With temperatures just a few degrees above zero Wednesday morning, D'Oliveira said their shoot in Louisbourg has been an adventure.
"We've had four seasons in one day. (Tuesday) it started with glorious sunshine, it was like a bright summer day, and then the clouds sort of rolled in with a nice gentle breeze which sort of felt like fall, and by the end of the day the fog was starting to roll in and we were getting some rain and it felt like spring and today it's pretty wintery," he said,
Approximately 250 people are on set for the three-day shoot.
"We've got 100-plus extras, most of whom come from the local community. We've brought up a crew of probably more than 100 people from Halifax and then we've got some of our co-production partners from South Africa — I believe there's roughly 10 of them that are coming over here — so quite a motley crew of international people and a bunch of us from Toronto as well," said D'Oliveira.
By the time the miniseries is complete, the cast and crew will have filmed in a total of 14 cities on two continents, including a three-month shoot in Cape Town, South Africa. After wrapping in Louisbourg later this week, they'll move on to Shelburne and Halifax to continue filming.
Cape Breton native Patrick Doyle, who has worked in the business as a camera operator for 20 years, recently moved home to the island with his family and is thrilled to have work close to home for a few days. He's part of the team shooting a "making-of" documentary about the miniseries.
"It's a hopeful sign when you see things like this happening in Cape Breton and people being excited about it," he said. "(Tuesday) was like old home week, walking through set just seeing everybody you've worked with on different projects through your career and it's nice to be here, there's a great energy."
Doyle said he sees endless opportunities for growth in the film industry in Cape Breton, noting it would bring with it lots of positive energy, economic spinoffs, and an opportunity to showcase Cape Breton to the world.
Stephen Whelan, of Sydney, went to the open casting call last month and was excited to be selected as an extra for the miniseries. He's playing a member of a New York gang.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "Everybody is really high-energy and really professional. They're keeping everybody warm, there's lots of great food, and everybody is very friendly. It's been awesome so far."
Lester Marchand, manager of visitor experience with Parks Canada, said the miniseries will bring important exposure for the national historic site — to the film industry, as well as to the wider public. It's also an economic boom for the local area and an educational experience for local residents.
"This particular story is a story that we're all familiar with, but it's also a part of the Louisbourg story so when you talk about slavery, not every Cape Bretoner would have that sense that it was a part of the Louisbourg life," he said.
The Book of Negroes follows Diallo, who is kidnapped from West Africa at the dawn of the 19th century, survives a harrowing Atlantic crossing, is separated from her love and must navigate the American Revolution before returning to Sierra Leone, and ultimately securing her freedom in England.