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BIG MIRACLE (2012)
Release Date: February 3, 2012
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenwriter: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler
Starring: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski
Genre: Adventure, Family
MPAA Rating: PG
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"Good evening. Time and hope are running out for three California gray whales who have been trapped for several days in the thickening ice off the Alaskan coast."
—Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News, October 1988
Inspired by the incredible true story that touched the world, the rescue adventure Big Miracle tells the amazing tale of an animal-loving volunteer (Golden Globe winner DREW BARRYMORE of 50 First Dates, He’s Just Not That Into You) and a small-town news reporter (JOHN KRASINSKI of The Office, It’s Complicated) who are joined by a native Alaskan boy (newcomer AHMAOGAK SWEENEY) to rally an entire community—and eventually rival world superpowers—to save a family of majestic gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle.
Barrow newsman Adam Carlson (Krasinski) can’t wait to escape the northern tip of Alaska for a bigger market. But just when the story of his career breaks, the world comes chasing it too. With an oil tycoon, heads of state and hungry journalists descending upon the frigid outpost to get their moment in the midnight sun, the one person who occupies Adam the most is Rachel Kramer (Barrymore). Not only is she an outspoken environmentalist, she also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.
With time running out, Rachel, Adam and Nathan (Sweeney), an 11-year-old native Alaskan boy who learns to connect with his people and his culture, must rally an unlikely coalition of locals, oil companies and Russian and American military to set aside their differences and unite for a purpose they all believe in: freeing the whales in record time. As the Alaskans frantically try to dig miles of holes on one side of the ice and a Soviet icebreaker pushes inland on the other, they must perform the virtually impossible to bridge a four-mile gap. And if they miraculously succeed, the trapped whales will be freed to the safety of open sea to begin their 5,000-mile annual migration.
As the world’s attention turns to the top of the globe for two weeks, saving these endangered animals becomes a shared cause for nations entrenched against one another and leads to an unexpected, momentary thaw in the Cold War.
Barrymore and Krasinski are joined by a top-notch cast of co-stars including KRISTEN BELL (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat), DERMOT MULRONEY (J. Edgar, Zodiac), TIM BLAKE NELSON (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Incredible Hulk), VINESSA SHAW (3:10 to Yuma, Two Lovers) and TED DANSON (Saving Private Ryan, television’s Damages).
The principal cast is supported by STEPHEN ROOT (Office Space), JOHN MICHAEL HIGGINS (For Your Consideration), JAMES L E GROS (television’s Mildred Pierce), ROB RIGGLE (The Other Guys), BRUCE ALTMAN (It’s Complicated), MICHAEL GASTON (Inception), MARK IVANIR (Schindler’s List), STEFAN KAPICIC (television’s 24) and SHEA WHIGHAM (television’s Boardwalk Empire), as well as Alaska-native newcomers JOHN PINGAYAK and JOHN CHASE.
Directed by KEN KWAPIS (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) from a screenplay by JACK AMIEL & MICHAEL BEGLER (Raising Helen, The Prince and Me), Big Miracle is based on the book "Freeing the Whales"by journalist THOMAS ROSE. Anonymous Content’s STEVE GOLIN (Babel, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and MICHAEL SUGAR (Rendition, TV’s A Separate Peace) are joined by Working Title partners TIM BEVAN and ERIC FELLNER (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Frost/Nixon) as producers.
Kwapis’ longtime and new collaborators include director of photography JOHN BAILEY (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), production designer NELSON COATES (The Proposal, The Last Song), editor CARA SILVERMAN (He’s Just Not That Into You, A Cinderella Story), costume designer SHAY CUNLIFFE (2012, The Bourne Ultimatum) and composer CLIFF EIDELMAN (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants).
Working Title’s LIZA CHASIN (Pride & Prejudice) joins DEBRA HAYWARD (Nanny McPhee), as well as STUART BESSER (The Losers) and Anonymous Content’s PAUL GREEN (44 Inch Chest) as executive producers on the film, which was shot entirely within the state of Alaska.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Meet Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm:
Journey to the Big Screen
In 1988, the lack of smart phones, online social networks and instant wireless meant that news didn’t move as fast as it does today. But as cable television and satellite transmissions found wider audiences, the world was realizing that information no longer resided wholly in morning papers or on the nightly newscasts of the three major networks. Into this new era came stories we could watch around the clock. And for three California gray whales that became trapped off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, during their annual migration in October of that year, this was helpful news indeed.
One onlooker of the unfolding rescue was journalist Thomas Rose, whose book "Freeing the Whales"was published in 1989. Rose’s story, originally released as an article in the now defunct Spy magazine and later lengthened into book form, chronicled the events surrounding the tremendous rescue effort on behalf of the three ice-locked gray whales off the shores of Barrow. When a local news photographer sent video coverage of the animals breaching in a small breathing hole hewn from thick ice, footage found its way from the bureau desk in Anchorage all the way to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s national evening newscast.
Soon, the plight of the whales captured international interest and resulted in a media frenzy that overtook the small city. The residents of the northernmost—and perhaps coldest—town in America were inundated with press. For a sleepy whaling town coming to grips with a changing way of life, this would be one of the biggest mixed blessings to present itself all century.
But it wasn’t just the Fourth Estate that had a vested interest in this human-interest tale. The story caught the attention of the Reagan White House, then focused upon the upcoming November election campaign of Vice President George H.W. Bush. Looking to position Bush as a pro-environment candidate and engage the federal government in the humanitarian effort, the Reagan team enlisted the aid of staffer Bonnie Mersinger, the executive assistant for cabinet affairs, in its efforts. "President Reagan stopped by my office in the West Wing that night," recalls Bonnie Mersinger Carroll, technical advisor for Big Miracle. "He had seen that the National Guard was involved, and he wondered what the White House could do to help. Since I was also a Guardsman, he asked that I extend his offer of help to the Alaska National Guard. And that’s how I met Tom Carroll."
Col. Tom Carroll was serving as commander of one of the major battalions of the Alaska National Guard when he received a barrage of phone calls from Mersinger. Although initially put in charge of moving a behemoth hoverbarge across the ice, Carroll soon found his mission to be impossible and suggested the use of a Soviet icebreaker for the rescue of the pod of whales. "This was before the Berlin Wall came down," says Mersinger Carroll, "so this contact between America and the Soviet Union would prove extraordinary. It was a step toward world peace at the time."
Little did Mersinger and Carroll know that their many phone calls would spark a romance between the two, who later married. According to Mersinger Carroll: "Tom saw an opportunity to bring together the military, Alaska natives, oil companies, Greenpeace and even the Soviets. He was quite at the center of what became a miraculous operation in cooperation. "Sadly, several years later, then Brigadier General Carroll was killed—along with seven other soldiers—in an Army National Guard plane crash in the wilds of his beloved Alaska.
From this experience, Mersinger Carroll went on to form the national organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a front line partner with the Defense Department offering comfort and care to the families of America’s fallen military heroes.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Rose’s story of sensationalism, camaraderie and humanity caught the attention of fledgling television writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Though curious about the story in’88, their attentions were then elsewhere. "My sister, Andrea, was working for Dan Rather at CBS News,"recalls Amiel. "She thought the story would spark our interest as the basis for a film, although Michael and I were focused on writing for television at the time. "
The screenwriters kept Rose’s story on the back burner and revisited it in 2001, when they were establishing themselves as feature-film writers. They purchased the rights to his book and renewed them for nearly a decade as they wrote drafts of the script.
"Our source material was Rose’s book and the news footage of the time,"adds Begler. "But a lot of what we wrote was very real. We had to embellish and create new characters to form the story, but we wanted to stay consistent with what really happened for two long weeks out on the ice in 1988."
The fact that two of the whales were eventually freed and returned to the open ocean made the story an overwhelming media favorite. Topping it off was the fact that—in an unprecedented thaw in the Cold War above the Arctic Circle—two superpowers put aside their differences and worked together for the good of the mission.
"The American icebreakers had all been waylaid or placed in dry dock by October,"explains Begler, "so the Soviet ship was the only one available. The use of the Soviet ship was a big gesture from the Reagan administration and the Gorbachev government. Cooperation also made them both look good to a watching and waiting world."
Director Ken Kwapis, who guided films such as He’s Just Not That Into You and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into big hits, came aboard the project and helped to shape its story line. "We very much had a satirical media focus in the first drafts,"remembers Amiel. "Ken brought a vision with him that added a kindness and humanity to the story. We opened it up and brought in other characters and points of view."
The actual events of 1988 were not burnished in Kwapis’ mind, but he viewed the story as an opportunity to show the rescue from multiple perspectives. "I was very surprised to find out what a fuss these three whales caused,"he says. "Our story covers the media circus that descended upon the trapped whales, but its main focus is the unlikely coalition of rescuers that put aside their various agendas in order to accomplish an impossible task."
The writers took the screenplay to the principals of their management company Anonymous Content, Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, who also helped to shape it. Eventually, both came onto the project as producers, alongside Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, co-chairmen of the feature’s production company, Working Title Films.
"Michael brought the script to my attention,"recalls Golin. "I felt like this could be a movie about people working for common goals, even if they did not agree philosophically. Ken understood that tone of the film. He brought a sense of humor and an everyman touch, while also seeing it as a moving, emotional and inspirational story."
Although Rose’s book dates back to the late’80s, Sugar believed that Amiel and Begler’s script could have been drawn from today’s headlines. "We thought that given what was happening in the world at the time, this story would resonate well in the present," says Sugar. "Even though it is several years old, it is relevant as a story of modern humanity and shows the spirit of change. In 1988, information was not as free-flowing; except for CNN, we didn’t have 24-hour newscasts like we do today. This story was like a rumor spread around the world and helped by the emerging use of satellite transmission. "
New and Familiar Faces:
Casting the Rescue Adventure
Like Bonnie Mersinger and Tom Carroll, many other players from the actual events were mirrored in the screenplay. Casting directors MARY GAIL ARTZ and SHANI GINSBERG began the search to put together just the right group of performers.
True to form, Anchorage-based Greenpeace director Cindy Lowry served as the basis for the script’s activist, Rachel Kramer. Drew Barrymore was one of the first actors sent a script by Kwapis, with whom she had just worked on the comedy He’s Just Not That Into You. Although deep into editing her directorial debut, Whip It, she instantly read the work. Barrymore was the first choice of the filmmakers for the role of this determined animal activist, whose commitment to protecting the environment came at the detriment to her personal life.
What piqued Barrymore’s interest was the story’s blending of so many people united for a common cause in a very inhospitable environment. Recalls the actress: "I was in Palm Springs in the middle of editing my movie. I was exhausted, but I read this script and then spent the rest of the weekend calling everyone to tell them how passionate I felt about it. I was trying to reach people to beg to be a part of this movie. This was so special. "She admits the source material sparked something in her: "Everybody put their agenda aside for one moment in 1988. They did something lovely, something kind, by putting history or opinions away for just a minute in a very quiet, but public way."
Working again with Kwapis was another draw for the actress. "He is one of the best directors I’ve worked with,"Barrymore compliments. "Not only is Ken a brilliant storyteller, but he gives you ideas that are so far beyond your own instincts. He is so good with combining the many layers of the film so that everything makes sense and has a purpose and a payoff. He is incredibly responsible, yet incredibly free, and actors trust him to get it right. "
The director was impressed with the film’s lead. "Drew has the best work ethic of any actress or actor I’ve ever worked with,"lauds Kwapis. "She is tireless when it comes to research, and cocoons herself in the world of the film for the duration of the shoot. The role of Rachel allows Drew to be a troublemaker, a bull-in-the-china-shop. Rachel’s point of view is valid, but sometimes she is her own worst enemy. Her take-no-prisoners approach often wreaks havoc on her romantic life, giving Drew the chance to explore the never-ending challenge of balancing love and work. Needless to say, this problem could not be more relatable."
Lowry, who went on to spearhead the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill shortly after the’88 whale rescue, is just as driven as her on-screen counterpart. When Barrymore signed onto the role, she quickly went into research mode. She asked to be put in touch with Lowry, who was then advocating for a wind-farm proposal off the coast of Maine. The two women met and quickly bonded, spending many hours over the summer before shooting began to discuss Lowry’s experiences during the rescue, as well as her long-held dedication to the environment.
"Cindy Lowry is a true activist,"commends Barrymore, who is herself involved in many charities and causes. "She’s funny, she’s real and she’s tough. I thought I should get to know Cindy well, and by the end of the summer I knew everything about her life."
Next to come onto the production was actor John Krasinski, best known to American audiences as Jim Halpert on the hit television show The Office. Amiel and Begler didn’t base the role of Barrow television reporter Adam Carlson on any one person who lived in the city at that time, but as an amalgam of small-town news people who served to tell the human elements of the story.
Even though signing on would mean multiple trips between the set of his television series and Anchorage, Krasinski believed it was worth it to work again with Kwapis. The filmmaker had directed him in License to Wed, as well as many pivotal episodes of The Office. "Ken is a phenomenal person,"commends Krasinski. "He did the pilot of our show and many of the important episodes, including the first time I said ‘I love you’ to Pam. He’s been there emotionally in a lot of stages of my life as an actor, as well as a person growing up in front of the camera. He has that rare gift to be not only in tune with you but also with the whole movie."
The producers were pleased to bring him onto the production as a character who would discover the story and be at the center of the story’s romantic triangle. Notes Golin: "John has incredible chemistry with Drew as well as Kristen, not to mention an amazing rapport with Ken. He did a lot of flying back and forth for us, but it all worked out smoothly. "
When Barrymore heard that Krasinski was a candidate to play Adam, she advocated bringing him onto Big Miracle. "I remember calling Ken from the San Francisco airport,"she says. "I was screaming down the hallway that I’d do anything to do this movie with him. He was perfect for the role, as he is wholesome, funny and a good guy, just like Adam. Even though the film is rooted in the environmental and political aspects of the whale rescue, there is also a love triangle that had to work among me, John and the actress who would play Jill."
The character of Los Angeles-based TV reporter Jill Jerard was also fictional, based on several newspeople who traipsed up to Barrow in 1988 only to find themselves underdressed, underfed and nearly without room and board. After a brief search, film and television actress Kristen Bell was chosen to play the ambitious young journalist who would stop at nothing to get her big break in network news.
"Kristen gets to play a real fish-out-of-water, a Los Angeles-based reporter quite unprepared for the rigors of the Arctic," says Kwapis. "She’s not alone. Most of the reporters sent to cover the trapped whales had never experienced such forbidding temperatures, which often dropped to 40 or 50 below. Add to that a small town with few amenities (one hotel!), and you can imagine what a happy bunch those reporters made."
Bell knew what would motivate Jill to hunt down stories about the animals that more seasoned reporters would be too lazy or too disinterested to find. "I think Jill always dreamed of being a reporter and was blessed with unending determination to thrive in a world ruled by men,"the actress offers. "She sees the potential for this story to be fantastic for her career and pitches it to her bosses at a time when no one else at the station will touch it. But once she arrives in Barrow, she gets hit with the hard truth that it is freezing cold and she has no winter clothing to fight the elements. Ambition is something she has in common with Adam, and they start a flirtation."
As Krasinski and Bell are friends off camera, her casting gave him a further boost of on-set camaraderie. "It was a big high note on this movie that Kristen and I got to work together," says the performer. "I am lucky enough to call her a friend, but she also has this perfect energy on set where she is incredibly fun, kind and dedicated. "
Once the members of the romantic triangle were in place, other major roles soon were cast. Vinessa Shaw won the role of White House executive assistant Kelly Meyers, Boyer’s future wife. Dermot Mulroney joined the production to play Alaska National Guard commander Col. Scott Boyer, while character actor Tim Blake Nelson was chosen to play state wildlife official Pat Lafayette. Completing the principal cast was veteran television and film star Ted Danson, selected to play oil tycoon J.W. McGraw.
Mulroney’s and Shaw’s characters were closely drawn approximations of Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger, the National Guard commander and presidential executive assistant who were thrown together via phone during those two harrowing weeks in 1988. Bonnie Mersinger Carroll had remained in Anchorage and was brought on to the film as a technical advisor.
"I had no idea Bonnie was living in Alaska,"recalls Shaw. "The producers asked me if I wanted to meet her and discuss the character. She and I spent countless hours together poring over all the details of the time in which she and Tom got together. Her romance had such a Hollywood ending, as they were married in Washington, D.C., after meeting on the phone…much as how we portray it in the film. We became so close that I wore Bonnie’s hat and coat in the final scenes of the movie out on the ice."
For Mulroney, one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing a National Guardsman was the time he was able to spend in helicopters and with military personnel while filming his scenes. Much of his shoot was filmed on working military bases in and around Anchorage, and Kwapis’ team utilized dozens of enlisted as extras and pilots.
"My job in the film is to hook two crane helicopters to this bizarre machine called a hoverbarge,"explains Mulroney. "We were supposed to help make a trail of holes for the whales to breathe through, but this thing was too heavy to lift over miles of ice and snow. Part of Boyer’s task is to determine that this hoverbarge will never work and that our efforts would be better served elsewhere. Of course, it turns out that through this ordeal he meets the love of his life."
While Mulroney’s and Shaw’s characters mirrored individuals from the rescue, Nelson’s and Danson’s roles were loosely drawn from several people who took part in the operation. Nelson’s character was actually based on three people who worked as state wildlife-management personnel in Barrow in’88. "Ken and the writers combined them into one guy,"explains the actor. "It is usually a three-man department up in Barrow, so in the movie we have this one person covering all the bases. He’s squarely between Drew’s character and the Alaska-native whalers, whose interests he monitors as part of his job in wildlife management. However, as a biologist, he is concerned with the area’s ecosystem and somewhat sympathetic to Greenpeace’s point of view."
It was particularly challenging for Danson to play a staunch antienvironment businessman when the actor is an advocate for clean oceans and safe water practices worldwide. "I am a firm believer in no offshore drilling," says Danson, who founded the American Oceans Campaign in 1987, an organization that worked with the residents of Los Angeles to stop dumping used motor oil into storm drains leading to the Pacific Ocean. The American Oceans Campaign recently folded into the international water-advocacy group Oceana, upon which Danson sits as a board member.
Years earlier, the actor had visited northern Alaska on a trip to Prudhoe Bay to discuss common ground between anti- and pro-oil drilling entities. "They hoped to persuade us that we were wrong about protecting the wildlife refuge from drilling,"recalls Danson. "We continued to not agree. But what came out of that was that we figured out a way to work together, just like in this film. I found it liberating to play somebody on the other side of an issue I’d been working on my entire life. It’s fun to play John Wayne."
Supporting players in Big Miracle include James Le Gros as Karl Hootkin and Rob Riggle as Dean Glowacki. Both characters were loosely based upon real-life counterparts Greg Ferrian and his brother-in-law, Rick, a pair of Minnesota inventors who volunteered the use of their fledgling de-icing machine. Additionally, Stephen Root portrays fictional Alaska Governor Haskell, and John Michael Higgins plays self-absorbed L.A. television reporter Wes Handrick. Bruce Altman was cast as Reagan’s chief of staff, while Michael Gaston plays Porter Beckford, a reporter out of his element on the ice. The Soviet icebreaking team of Dimitri and Yuri were played by Mark Ivanir and Stefan Kapicic, respectively, while Shea Whigham portrays SAR pilot Conrad.
Alaska Natives and Supporting Cast
Once the professional cast was in place, the task of finding Alaska-native actors to play the film’s essential Iñupiat tribal roles lay ahead for Kwapis and local casting directors DEBORAH SCHILDT and GRACE OLRUN. They scheduled auditions that took them on a journey to all corners of the vast state, from the southern forests of Juneau to the Arctic Circle and beyond. Several major Alaska-native roles, including whaling captain Roy, Barrow elder Malik and his 11-year-old grandson, Nathan, needed to be cast, as well as dozens of smaller speaking parts and extras.
"One of the chief reasons I fought to shoot Big Miracle in Alaska was to cast indigenous people in the roles of the Iñupiat residents of Barrow. We cast real whalers to play the whale hunters, and we cast many people who were in Barrow at the time of the event. It was very important for me to present the Iñupiat characters and their culture as honestly as possible, without patronizing or romanticizing them."
Most of the actors would be portraying Barrow-based Iñupiat tribesmen; as well, neighbors such as the Cup’ik, Aleut and Yupik peoples would play Iñupiats. "We started our casting journey in Barrow," says Schildt. "They were having the Whaling Festival, which helped boost interest. We then went south to Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka, Homer and Fairbanks, where the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics were being held. Later, we went back north to Bethel, Kotzebue and Nome. We virtually covered the entire state."
Indeed it was a challenge, as people from many different tribes all needed to portray members of the film’s Iñupiat tribe. Naturally, each tribe has its own language. "The gentlemen we cast who were not from the Iñupiat region still wanted to do the Iñupiats proud,"explains Olrun. "They didn’t want to bring their culture to their characters. But they were so excited to see that Alaskans would finally be portrayed by Alaskans, so they gladly studied the words and songs of the Iñupiats."
Key to Kwapis was finding a trio of unknown actors to portray the key roles of Malik, Nathan and Roy. Luckily, the casting sessions yielded, respectively, Alaska natives John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Chase to tackle these parts. Although all three had never appeared in a film, they were game for preparation. "Most of the Alaska natives we cast were non-actors," says Kwapis. "But all of them were naturally gifted. What was wonderful in some cases was that we actually got real whalers to play whaling captains and elders to play elders. "
The search for Malik and Nathan took several months, during which hundreds of new performers were considered for both roles. "We narrowed it down to about 60 actors for each role,"explains Schildt. "And then we found a wonderful actor for Malik in John Pingayak from western Alaska."
Pingayak had never before worked in a film; his performance experience had largely been on stage as a native dancer and lecturer. Currently a teacher of culture in his home village near Bethel, he saw the role as an opportunity to teach the world about his people and their ways. "We are still here, we are still alive and thriving," says Pingayak. "We have lived on our land for 10,000 years, with the same traditions and struggles. We want to keep it alive in a modern world, and for the world to see us as we still are. This film was a way to unite us all."
John Chase was brought on as headstrong whaler Roy, who goes toe-to-toe with Rachel concerning his people’s long-held practice of hunting Arctic whales. A resident of Kotzebue, a small town far above the Arctic Circle, Chase had very little acting experience. He has actually spent years as a hunter on his people’s land. "The ocean is our garden,"explains Chase. "The tundra is our supermarket. We’re not on a road system, so store-bought foods have to be flown in from the lower 48. This makes grocery shopping very, very expensive. We have to hunt to feed our families. We maintain a harmonious relationship with the environment that has sustained our people for thousands of years."
One of the new characters introduced to the story was an Alaska-native boy named Nathan. Much to the chagrin of his stern Iñupiat grandfather, who wishes to instruct the boy in the ways of their people, the 11-year-old bonds with Adam and grows obsessed with Western culture. "We thought Nathan would help humanize Adam while making our story more accessible to a younger audience,"explains Golin. "Nathan brings a good-hearted tone to the script. "
Finding a boy to play Nathan was challenging for the casting directors. Having gone through dozens of finalists, a last-minute candidate, Ahmaogak Sweeney, came in to audition. "I had been on vacation with my family in Spain during the summer,"explains Sweeney, who is full-blooded Alaska native on his mother’s side. "After that, I went to camp in Colorado for a month. I was just lucky that they still had the part open when I came back. My mom got an e-mail asking us to audition, and I was pretty nervous for a few days. Then, my dad came to my school one day and told me I got the part!”
Casting Sweeney was the final piece of the puzzle for filmmakers. "When we saw Ahmaogak’s performance on tape, the way he sang and joked around, we knew we had the right guy for the role," says Sugar. "He understands acting as well as the story, which informed his performance. But he’s a real Alaskan kid who, in the end, was more excited about going on his first caribou hunt than being in our movie."
Because so many of the real people involved in the 1988 story were present, the filmmakers were able to make use of their memories to fine-tune the script. One extra playing a reporter, JULIE HASQUET, was the first person to file a stand-up news story from the Barrow ice field in 1988. De-icer inventor Greg Ferrian visited the set, as did Bill Hess, one of the first photographers to send pictures of the whales around the world. Even the author of the screenplay’s source material, Tom Rose, stopped by to view the Barrow re-creation. Mulroney met Alaska National Guard members who knew his real-life counterpart, while current North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta, who was present at the 1988 rescue, toured the ice-field set.
Barnacles and All:
Imagining the Whales
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Big Miracle was tackled thousands of miles away in New Zealand during preproduction. Inside the Auckland workshops of Glasshammer Visual Effects, three important co-stars were being designed and built. Glasshammer was asked to meticulously create a trio of very valuable California gray whale puppets the screenwriters had christened Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm.
New Zealand-based special-effects wizards JUSTIN BUCKINGHAM and MIKE LATHAM were assigned to create the film’s central illusion: to ensure that the California gray whales came alive on screen. Buckingham’s company, Glasshammer, had created the lifelike whales for the 2002 blockbuster Whale Rider, work that caught the eye of the filmmakers.
"My company constructed the gray whales," says Buckingham, "and Mike designed the animatronics, robotics and hydraulics. I had received a phone call about our availability to make these three whales, and I was quite excited from the beginning."
Foremost in Kwapis’ mind was the whale makers’ ability to create lifelike animals. "We needed the whales to look perfectly real," says the director, "and I wanted to give the actors something tangible to interact with. We studied archival footage of the trapped whales to understand how they moved. We didn’t want to anthropomorphize them, but we gave each one distinct markings so that over the course of the film viewers could distinguish them as characters. Gray whales have rough textures that give them a kind of gnarly beauty; I feel it makes them even more endearing."
An additional requirement would be to build a whale pool that could realistically hold the puppets while allowing them to move freely and convincingly. "We built an ice-field set, complete with an underground water tank for the animatronic whales to inhabit,"adds Kwapis. "The animatronic whales were able to surface in any part of the pool, and in any order. It was a real engineering feat, and it worked extremely well."
The whales would have a finished look that was as close as possible to the actual 1988 whales, complete with barnacles, scars and more. Shares Buckingham: "We looked at a lot of news footage of the actual event and studied the look and movement of the creatures. Once we worked out the scale, we started sculpting the heads. "
For two of the whales, Buckingham and Latham conceived of a movable platform that could be walked underwater and made it possible to move the interchangeable whale heads independently. The hydraulics were connected to a nearby control platform out of the camera’s field of vision. While Buckingham conceived of the realistic whale heads, Latham was busy creating their interior electronics.
"We thought the biggest challenge was going to be how to design equipment that would not freeze or be affected by standing in water all day," says Buckingham. "That informed me on what materials to make the heads from so that they would last over the entire shoot."
Construction rolled along for four months, culminating in a Pacific Ocean cruise from New Zealand to Anchorage. "After we did water tests in New Zealand, we packed all three whales in containers and shipped our gear to Alaska," says Latham. "We just hoped they would make the journey all in one piece, which they did. Once there, we prepared the whale hole on the ice field set and placed our equipment in the water for the first time. I must say, when the whales made their appearance, they were gorgeous."
Alaska native John Pingayak, a whaler in his own life, felt the immediate connection to the whale puppets that aided his own performance. "When I saw those whales," says Pingayak, "I felt comfortable for the first time in front of the camera. Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm were amazingly lifelike."
Seeing the whales for the first time excited the rest of the cast and crew, many of whom did not expect to see such close approximations. Shares Krasinski: "Once I saw the whales, I was hooked. They are so brilliantly created; they are like pieces of art. They became the heart and soul of the movie."
"The only other similar experience I had was on E.T.,"adds Barrymore. "I was able to work with something that was tangible, something that looked like a real being that allowed me to have a chemistry and interaction that cannot be replaced. You are on the ice, touching these whales and there is nothing fake about it. I got so emotional because they looked so beautiful."
When it came time to shoot the scene in which she swims with the animals, Barrymore donned scuba gear and submerged herself. On a drizzly day, she shot an underwater scene filmed in a seal tank at the Alaska SeaLife Center in nearby Seward. "I did not realize how cold that water would be,"recalls the actress. "When you enter 40-degree water, even in a scuba suit, it feels like knives hitting your head, like a brain freeze. But I wanted Ken to be able to seize that moment because it was important for the film. It breathes with a different energy when it is real."
Locations and Design
With the whales in place and the weather cooperating, choosing the locations and building the sets commenced in Anchorage. The first portion of the schedule took place on smaller sets such as apartments or offices, giving the production more time to refine the look of the Barrow ice field set that would be its home at the end of the production. By then, the colder, snowy weather would be more than welcome.
Shooting in Alaska
Kwapis was an advocate for shooting in Alaska, a state that has not been used often in recent major filmmaking. With its newly minted incentive program in place, it could compete financially with better-known centers of production such as territories throughout Canada and the Pacific Northwest. "Big Miracle is perhaps the only major studio film to shoot entirely in Alaska,"reflects Kwapis. "On many levels, we all felt we were exploring new territory. A filmmaker usually chooses a location for its physical beauty. I lobbied to shoot in Alaska for another reason: the people. It was odd to make the case to Universal that we needed to go to Alaska so that the extras looked right, but this was critical to the film’s credibility. The faces on screen had to be the right faces. You cannot find the Inuit people of Alaska anywhere but Alaska, and their faces form one of the film’s most beautiful landscapes."
The director’s vision was shared by the production team, who backed the decision to base the filming in the bustling city of Anchorage. Offers Sugar: "What you gain by shooting in Alaska instead of inside a studio back lot is the feeling of being in another world. Ken very rightly advocated for Alaska, as well as the city of Anchorage, which turned out to be wonderful partners for us."
While any production aims to be true to life, shooting in Barrow, hundreds of miles north of Anchorage, was not feasible. Anchorage, a modern city of 300,000 people located on the south central coast of Alaska, is in what locals term the "banana belt"for its comparatively mild temperatures. Explains Kwapis: "The town of Barrow could not accommodate a large shooting crew, so it was never an option. And of course, it is numbingly cold. Anchorage was our best choice. "
First on the agenda was finding a suitable spot to build the Barrow set in Anchorage, a city ringed by mountain ranges. Unfortunately, there were not many candidates, as there are very few places where one can look out on the horizon and not see mountains. After scouting one locale that was unobtainable and a second inaccessible to equipment, the team settled into an area adjacent to downtown Anchorage near the mudflats. This location gave them a partially unobstructed horizon with which to work.
That site, on railroad land just down a slope near downtown at the Port of Anchorage, gave the filmmakers not only space to build the Barrow ice field and portions of the town itself, but room for parking and equipment. "We needed an open view of the water, some place that had a clear horizon line," says production designer Nelson Coates. "We also needed to have room to dig the breathing holes for the whales, which, for safety reasons, required the construction of a much larger surrounding hole."
When the team commenced digging that hole, Coates and crew found something unexpected: debris from the 1964 Anchorage earthquake that had ravaged the city. "Apparently, the city had used this area for storing bulldozed remnants of the disaster in 1964," says the designer. "We found things like mattresses, oil tanks, railroad ties and timber and had to be careful about where we dug."
Additional Sets and Native Influence
A challenge for Kwapis, Coates and crew was finding enough’88 news equipment—not only for the reporters on the ice to use, but also to fill the news sets standing in for Los Angeles, New York City, Anchorage and Barrow. "We had to find old three-quarter-inch tape-reel machines, aged audio mixers and even IBM Selectric typewriters,"recalls Coates. "We took a floor of an empty Anchorage bank building and created the NBC Nightly News set from New York City’s Rockefeller Center, with all of its vintage logos, consoles and cameras. Even the elevators were re-created."
Since Anchorage did not have an existing soundstage, several warehouse spaces were used to fill with smaller sets that would transform into White House briefing rooms, Los Angeles news studios, Soviet icebreaker interiors, Adam’s apartment and others. Fortunately, access to the local National Guard base allowed the production use of the base’s hangars and hardware, including rare vintage helicopters.
"We needed an unusual helicopter called a Skycrane," explains Coates. "The Skycrane was a part of the arsenal of the Alaska National Guard, but they no longer use them. Luckily, we found one that was used in 1988 in the rescue that had been sent to the scrap heap. We repainted the frame and shot it so that it looked like it still flew."
As the many Alaska natives on the film spent much time as extras, a deepening camaraderie developed between them and the cast and crew. Many of the cold-weather costumes worn by them in the film were either brought from home or actually sewn together by the Alaska natives, much to the surprise of costume designer Shay Cunliffe.
"After meeting the Alaska natives, I recruited some of them to be my seamstresses," shares Cunliffe. "They made the entire set of whaling crew costumes for me. I bought a lot of furs through them and watched them make the costumes and use every scrap of fur and skin. They waste nothing in their culture. They taught me to use wolverine fur because it doesn’t hold moisture and that many of their winter garments are passed down through generations. People kept bringing us wonderful things from home."
The cast and crew were even treated to a lunchtime performance arranged by extras casting director Grace Olrun that featured Alaska-native dancers and musicians singing songs in their own languages.
Heading to the Sea:
SFX and VFX
Reinventing Anchorage as Barrow and reconstructing the world of the trapped whales would require a great deal of visual wizardry from Kwapis’ team. It took an army of skilled special-effects artists and visual-effects creators to nail the look and feel of the final product.
SFX of the Arctic Circle
Special-effects coordinator JOHN CAZIN helped oversee the construction of the pit in which the whales’ breathing holes would be created. Since they would be near the coastline, a strong foundation would need to be laid and water would have to be pumped out of the ground. "It was tough for the construction crew," says Cazin. "We had to pump out all of the groundwater, drop the tank in, put concrete around that and place a filtration system to keep the water fresh. Usually that would take months, but we did it in a matter of weeks. It was basically a 125,000-gallon swimming pool."
Around the breathing hole was the ice field itself, covered in a thin, permanent layer of ice that needed to be replenished often due to the mild temperatures of the Anchorage autumn. "The average temperature in Anchorage in October is 37 degrees," says Coates. "That meant that we could not really hold the ice we had. So we used several materials to create a permanent look of ice. We had a base of white plastic material like that found on football fields, then covered that with things like sea salt, shredded paper and, finally, shredded ice. As we shot for months, it gave us a permanent white look that could be continued throughout production."
Cazin’s special-effects department also spearheaded the ongoing creation of real ice and snow during the shoot. Every day, the crew used a mammoth snowmaking truck that was fed large amounts of block ice that were shredded and shot uniformly through a hose onto the ice field set. "We actually had a problem finding block ice in Anchorage,"laughs the SFX supervisor. "So we had to send to Fairbanks for it until our vendors in Anchorage retooled their facilities from making chipped ice to making block ice. It was so odd, having to make snow in Alaska!"
As the whales moved through multiple breathing holes toward the open sea, one hole would have to stand in for several similar holes. Creating multiple iterations would take months, so the team came up with a novel solution. "We decided to make several different size lids for the hole," says Coates. "This way, we would use the same whale hole for all the scenes, just using smaller openings. Since the ice field stayed the same, it made sense and saved us a lot of construction and camera-angle headaches."
VFX of Barrow, Alaska
Shooting on the ice field would require a horizon free of obstruction. Since only about 50 percent of the filming area afforded a clear horizon line, white tarps and green screens were positioned throughout the production to allow for CG images to be laid in later. This gave the appearance of the endless tundra and allowed DP John Bailey’s cameras greater versatility in movement.
As Barrow has a 50-mile horizon line, visual-effects supervisor JOHN HELLER needed to use background plates shot elsewhere to insert throughout the film. "We took the same camera data and shot background images in places like Barrow that could match well,"explains Heller. "We used that as a matte-painting base and created a wide tableau of what looks like the open tundra and frozen ocean of Barrow."
This also helped when filming the set that was created to stand in for downtown Barrow. Coates constructed only a few buildings and facades, including a restaurant and hotel, which could be shot in many ways to create the illusion of a much larger town.
"We decided to create one-and-a-half blocks of Agvik Street in downtown Barrow, circa 1988," says Coates. "There is a facade of the Top of the World Hotel as it appeared then, with all of its 42 rooms. Next to it we built the Mexican restaurant, Amigo’s, to stand in for the real Pepe’s in Barrow. We replicated what these looked like back then in paint and style. Many of the buildings in Barrow were prefabricated and brought to the town on barges, because there is no timber there. Also, you can’t build well on tundra, so a lot of the Barrow buildings were modular. We built the whole set on an angle so that we could shoot the sets and still see the endless horizon. And all of this was just two minutes down a hill from downtown Anchorage."
Universal Pictures presents an Anonymous Content/Working Title production of a Ken Kwapis film: Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski in Big Miracle, starring Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Vinessa Shaw and Ted Danson. Music for the film is by Cliff Eidelman; the costume designer is Shay Cunliffe. The film’s editor is Cara Silverman, ACE, and the production designer is Nelson Coates. The director of photography is John Bailey, ASC. The rescue adventure is executive produced by Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward, Stuart Besser, Paul Green. Big Miracle is produced by Steve Golin, Michael Sugar, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. The film is based on the book "Freeing the Whales"by Thomas Rose, and the screenplay is by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler. It is directed by Ken Kwapis. © 2011 Universal Studios. www.everybodyloveswhales.com
Studio photos, notes and videos © 2012 Universal Pictures