Louis Belanger is sitting in a tent deep in the Quebec wilderness, 700km north-east of Montreal. The location is doubling for Canada's Northwest Territory, 2,000km to the northwest. "This is the closest we could get to the real thing while making the logistics possible," he says. Twenty-one days into principal photography, the writer-director of The Timekeeper is looking as tired and gaunt as the railway chain-gang he is filming.

Based on the true-story novel by Trevor Ferguson, the film is set in 1964 during the nation's last great railway build. The scenery is magnificent but the story is not pretty. A young man (played by Craig Olejnik) is flown in to act as timekeeper for a construction crew and discovers most of the workers are there against their will, press-ganged from towns to the south. Insubordination means ejection into the wilderness. More worryingly, the names of his predecessor and other men who have 'quit' remain on the payroll. The film co-stars Roy Dupuis, Julian Richings, Gary Farmer, Wayne Robson, Gaston Lepage and Stephen McHattie.

Belanger has made two films, both well-received in his native Quebec, Post Mortem and Gaz Bar Blues. The films were in French; The Timekeeper is in English. It would have been easier to make it in French, he says, and he admits his concern that he may lose some of his Francophone audience. But he hopes his name will convince them.

"I didn't do this film in English for commercial reasons. I tried to translate the story into French," says Belanger, "but it made no sense." It is an adventure drama with a philosophical underpinning brought about by the young man's religious upbringing. "It's an Anglican sensibility, and in Quebec we're Catholic."

In the distance, beneath heavily wooded hills, 100ft of railway line leads nowhere in both directions. It is a slick cheat but, to the - admittedly untutored - eye, the scenery does not much differ from the Laurentian region an hour's drive north of Montreal. Surely Belanger could have found something like the real thing closer to home than two hours by hired plane followed by two hours' off-road driving.

His eyes light up: "Follow me." We walk out of the tent, past the crew on break, past a prop shack and down into the bush. Fifty feet from the proxy civilisation of the production, we are deep in the woods. He squats down and pans his hand across the serene half-light. "This is where I shot most of the film. You don't get this look down south. This is where the treeline changes. The spruce have no lower branches. The light, the moss on the ground. You can see the men running through the brush."