Thursday, February 09, 2006

Frank Marshall on his new film, "Eight Below"

Super-producer Frank Marshall (the Indiana Jones series, the "Back to the Future" trilogy, E.T. ) occasionally steps behind the camera to direct. His films as director include one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Arachnophobia as well as Alive, the story of the Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the Andes after a plane crash.

I had the great pleasure of talking with Marshall about his newest film, “Eight Below.” Inspired by the true story of dogs who were left in Antarctica and found a way to stay alive, the movie tells the story of eight sled dogs who are left behind and the man who loves them. In parallel stories, both humans and canines learn something about teamwork and what it takes to survive.

(Warning: some spoilers below)

NM: How do you deal with the challenges of filming in such cold and remote locations?

FM: The wind was the worst. The cold was okay but we had to hunker down with the wind. It really became spiritual, because it was so remote and beautiful, and we were all in it together because there were no trailers for people to go to and because being the captain I didn’t want anyone to do anything I didn’t do.

At night, in the town, we did have a hot shower and a bed but it was really like battle conditions, making sure we had the right clothes, boots, sunscreen, a buddy system to watch each other. If your buddy's nose started to get red that meant it was frostbite. We had to be very careful with feet and hands. When you’re skiing you’re pumping a lot of blood into them but when you’re filming they get cold and numb very fast.

NM: What drew you to this story?
FM: I'm a dog lover and this is an uplifting heartwarming story about the dogs. I was also drawn to the challenge to make it – this was a story I could tell. It's about survival, the power of hope, and spirit, with loyalty, trust, determination, teamwork – on the dog side and the human side. I didn’t want it to be cute; I wanted to respect the dogs in the telling of their story.

NM: How did you handle all that white?
FM: I went to a lot of great pains to create not only the harshness but the beauty of the environment. We had a saying I came up with after Alive, that “white is white.” So we were able to combine locations to get what we needed. For almost three months we were 800 miles north of Vancouver called in a town called Smithers, but we were able to use footage from Greenland and Norway (the ice breaking scene) and we bought several shots from documentary films from Antarctica.

NM: Were the dogs trained as sled dogs and then taught to “act” or the other way around?
FM: There were four dogs for each character, two sled dogs, and two stunt and acting. That meant we were dealing with 32 dogs every day. And they came from everywhere, even Tennessee and Florida.

NM: What do you know as a producer that helps you as a director and what do you learn as a director that helps you as a producer?
FM: You’re supposed to know as a director not to do stories with animals, so I didn’t learn that lesson! The producer side was the challenge of learning how to do this, the organization and logistics and the ability to put together all the elements to make it look like it was one place. I worked very closely every night on the phone with the second unit director to make sure that we had a consistent sense of place even though in some scenes when you’re looking one way it’s Canada and another way Greenland. Those were tricks I learned as a producer.

Another one was that we couldn’t wait for the weather. We designed a system where every day we would prepare three scenes –- one for sunny, one for white out, one for blizzard – so whatever weather we encountered we could still get a day’s work. And there was everything I learned on Alive -– how do you keep the coffee warm on the set, rake out footprints, how we come into the set and where people can go.

NM: How do you handle issues like abandonment and the death of the dogs and the challenges of the Antarctic environment in a PG context?
FM Those are important life lessons, but you have to be very careful about how you tell the story. In the original script three dogs were lost. I felt the audience couldn’t take that. Today’s kids have seen a lot of movies and they know about loss, but you have to balance it with success and uplifting moments. For Jerry (played by Paul Walker), it’s a growing up journey as well. He has to face the real world. He decides that the way for him to combat his demons is to go back one way or the other and honor them for saving his life. Kids understand the alpha dog stuff and the themes of friendship and teamwork for both the dogs and the humans.

NM: How did you adapt the “inspired by” story and how much did you take from the original Japanese film?
FM: Just the event – the fact that the dogs were left for over a year and some of them survived. We tried to introduce the real animals that the dogs in the real story interacted with in finding food and in protecting themselves. The sea leopard is the top of the food chain in the South Pole the way polar bears are in the North Pole. They are very vicious and very violent carnivores.

The characters were all created to help tell the story. Jason Biggs, what a joy to work with, sitting in the snow reading a book every day. We wanted some comic relief and people who work in Antarctica are pretty eccentric and quirky, so he was that character. He’s funny without telling jokes. Then there's Bruce Greenwood (who plays the scientist), the total opposite of the Paul Walker character (who plays a guide), so that both discover something, learn something from each other. Greenwood has such dignity and carries himself so well. He is smart – you believe that he’s a scientist.

NM: What do you want people to take away from the movie?
FM: It really is dedicated to the explorers and dogs who lived down there, in that incredibly demanding place. When I first read the story I thought it was incredibly compelling, inspirational, in its way spiritual because hope is a very powerful thing. You can underestimate anyone's will to survive. I would go up the mountain every day alone in this remote place. Even though making a movie is different from the experience that the characters and the real-life people who live there experience, it still gives you a special kind of spiritual awareness of yourself, and that is one of the things that drew me to that story.


Anonymous said...

did the 2 dogs really died in the movie? and also are they still alive still

Nell Minow said...

No, the dogs were just acting. There were 32 of them used at various points in the film and they are all doing great.

Anonymous said...

Today my husband I brought our 9yr old nephew to see this movie. First, I'd like to say it was truly a wonderful movie. The scenery....the teamwork among the dogs, as well as the people striving to find a way to get back to Antartica to find them, etc...was great. The one thing I did not realize before going to this movie w/my nephew was that it was a movie that touched so many emotions (e.g. the stress the dogs went thru, the losses of pack members, the sadness of the sled dogs' owner when he couldn't get back to them,etc.). If there is one thing I'd warn parents, just be sure any child you bring is equipped to understand/deal with all the emotions this movie brings. My nephew is an only child and have been thru losses and some sadness, etc so he was able to get thru the movie. I, however, balled my eyes out as I own a Husky that looked just like those in the movie (especially the one thay looked like Mya) and it made it feel that much more real to me ...All in all, it was a wonderful movie but just be sure child/ren you bring can deal with the emotions it brings out in oneself.

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