GUELPH, ONT. Built almost a century ago on several acres of prime Southwestern Ontario farmland, the handsome Georgian brick structure, with its circular drive, man-made ponds and fieldstone fences, could easily be mistaken for a well-to-do country home.
Walk inside, however, and you quickly realize this has never been an idyllic rural getaway. Dank and dark, corridors of crumbling cells, fitted with steel cots and rotting urinals, stretch down the endless hallways of the former Ontario Reformatory in Guelph, which in its heyday incarcerated up to 1,200 criminals. The basement - home to "the hole," where prisoners served solitary confinement - is a maze of twisting, grimy passages.
But when Toronto producer Niv Fichman came across the rundown heritage property, located about an hour west of Toronto, he thought it was, in its way, the most beautiful place he'd ever seen - and a picture-perfect spot to shoot his upcoming feature film, Blindness.
Based on the harrowing book of the same name by Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, it tells the fierce and fantastical story of a pandemic of blindness that eviscerates society. In the movie, the jail will stand in for an abandoned insane asylum, where the authorities of an unnamed city have quarantined those afflicted with a "white blindness" that eventually spreads through the community, leaving everyone - except one woman - sightless and, just as suddenly, helpless.
On set earlier this month, two of the film's stars, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, appeared bedraggled, bruised and filthy, acting out a scene in one of the asylum's wards, where their group of prisoners is forced to give up their valuables to tyrants who have been hording food.
The actors listen intently as Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles (2002's City of God) quietly explains how he wants the doctor to look at his wife, without - of course - seeing. Acting sightless, it's clear, is not easy. The international cast (which also includes Danny Glover, Sandra Oh and Japanese heartthrob Yusuke Iseya) has spent weeks in blindness workshops, where actors have been required to ramble around this cavernous place - often blindfolded and cursing - as they bump into walls and trip down stairs.
The 39-year-old Ruffalo - who is married to the French-American actress Sunrise Coigney, the mother of his two small children, who are running around the grounds of the former jail today - recalls a particularly trying moment when he and the others were unceremoniously dumped, wearing eye-covering masks, at the end of the long driveway leading to the "asylum."
"We were dropped off at the gate, and told to find the ward, find food, find our beds, find water, and find the toilets in this hellhole," says Ruffalo - star of last year's Zodiac and All the King's Men, with Sean Penn and Jude Law - during a break in filmmaking. "We were wandering around for hours. Some of us stayed together. Some broke off. Some of us got lost. And some of us got testy at moments. It's very frustrating. And," he adds, "you see how nearly impossible it is to keep people from cheating and ripping each other off.
"At one point we were given food to divide up, and Fernando snuck in and took half of it away. We, of course, didn't know. A big fight broke out, and accusations were flying back and forth. So we definitely got a sense of how difficult life is for these newly blind people."
In Saramago's book, blindness is an allegory that the author uses to strip away the thin veneer of civilized society. In his exploration of man's most destructive appetites and weaknesses, those first afflicted are sent to the mental hospital, where a newly created "society of the blind" quickly breaks down. Criminals and the physically powerful prey on the weak. The place becomes a nightmarish setting of starvation, brutality and rape.
There is, however, one eyewitness (played by Moore) whose sight is unaffected (a fact she keeps secret). As seer, she follows her husband into quarantine, but eventually leads a small band of seven people back onto the ravaged streets of their city.