Netflix hit’s ‘wilderness’ gives the NWT a taste of what could be


Keep Breathing, a Netflix show primarily set in the Canadian wilderness, is racking up millions of viewers – even if some of them might conclude it’s the wrong wilderness.

The show follows a woman who narrowly escapes when a bush plane goes down on the way to Inuvik. Six episodes track her fate as she attempts to survive alone in the wild.

Astute northerners will notice “the wild” can’t be anywhere remotely near Inuvik. For a start, the trees are ginormous. The moment the camera pans out to a wide shot of the crash site, anyone who’s been to the NWT knows this is not the NWT we’re looking at.

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Instead, the show was shot in British Columbia – reportedly locations like Squamish, Whistler and Vancouver Island.

Keep Breathing never expressly states the action is happening in the North. It’s just the wilderness, and it doesn’t really matter which wilderness. But depending on how authentic you like your television to be, this is a woman who is seen trying to board a scheduled flight to Inuvik from an unidentified airport that is also shown serving Juneau – or “Juno” as spelled on-screen – and Anchorage. She ultimately ends up in a Cessna 208 bound for Inuvik, which drastically limits where she could reasonably have started, given that aircraft’s range.

Long story short, wherever the departure airport was, you’d be far more likely to come down in the NWT than a lush area of BC.

And some viewers certainly think they’re watching the NWT. Anecdotally, two Cabin Radio staff members’ family and friends have separately called to express their wonderment at the territory’s vistas as seen on the show, only to be disappointed when told that’s not what they’re seeing. Similar confusion can be found on Twitter (see examples one and two, though also counter-examples three and four.)

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“They look like they’ve done a passing attempt at making BC play the North,” said Nancy Shaw, the NWT’s film commissioner, who acts as a form of ambassador for the territory’s film industry.

“The trees are too big. It’s too dark at night. It’s a little disappointing that we didn’t get a chance to play ourselves here, but I don’t think they ever approached us. We can’t find any evidence that they asked us any questions about shooting up here.”

Audiences don’t seem to mind the trees. While critics are lining up to pan the show (“rather than perch on the edge of your seat, you are more likely to drift off gently to sleep,” The Guardian wrote), Keep Breathing is riding high on the most-viewed charts of various nations and, according to unofficial data, has been one of the top Canadian Netflix choices of the past week.

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NWT needs an anchor

Shaw, leaving the foliage to one side, says the real lesson for the NWT might be that this is a taste of things to come – if the territory’s film industry gets it right.

“British Columbia hosts shows with money from elsewhere. They come into the region and use skilled crews who are ready and standing by, then that show goes away and another one shows up,” she said.

“It’s different up here because there’s a smaller sector of shows willing to come this far. We get reality shows, adventure survival shows, documentaries. Right now, there’s still not quite enough infrastructure to support a major Netflix limited series like this.

“That said, I don’t think we’re that far off from that anchor series coming here.”

The NWT’s strategy, led by the film commission, is to develop film-makers who are “visible to the major players in the industry,” in Shaw’s words. That means showrunners, writers and directors, the kinds of talent who get to make some or all of the decisions. As an example, the territory recently launched a program offering up to $35,000 to residents who are film or TV producers learning their trade.

“Our people are the real experts on northern stories. Investing in their careers and projects is where I would like to spend our money,” said Shaw.

Ultimately, she continued, those people will be “in a decision-making capacity” when scenes could be shot in the Northwest Territories.

“They are the ones who will say: ‘We have to shoot that in the place where it belongs.’ That filmmaker is coming soon who’s going to anchor a show or major feature here because it has to be here, and then it’s all going to open up.”

In the meantime, Shaw said, she’s not convinced the NWT yet has the ability to support a show on Keep Breathing’s scale, and she understands Keep Breathing may have needed to shoot wilderness scenes close to a big city for the southern-based flashbacks of which the show makes frequent use.

At NWT Tourism, chief executive Donna Lee Demarcke has Keep Breathing on her list of shows to watch this week after hearing buzz in the office.

Granted, the territory’s role in the show is limited to the appearance of Inuvik as a destination that’s never actually seen, but Demarcke says any mention of the NWT is good news.

“Hopefully people will want to learn more about our destination and, once they start looking and see the spectacular imagery and stories on our social media and website, it will then no doubt become a must-visit destination on their list,” she said.

So did the NWT miss a trick in not having Keep Breathing in the actual North?

“It wasn’t a missed opportunity because we didn’t really get the opportunity,” said Shaw.

“But we may reach out and, if there’s a season two, maybe they can come up and have the correct rocks and trees.”