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'Big Miracle' Set Visit Report

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Oct 04, 2011 | 4:23am EDT

In November of 2010, just before my 24th birthday, my boss gave me the gift of a trip to Anchorage, Alaska. Originally, it was special because instead of having the goal of running a marathon or successfully caring for a tree frog in my lifetime, I’d rather be one of those people who have been to each and every state (I’d also like to be someone who never has soup cracker crumbs in her bed, but that’s for another time). Forget visiting all the continents or the rainforests or the crazy places with snake charmers – I’m a citizen who grew up learning you don’t have to travel to Paris, Milan or Tokyo to see something beautiful and special, and I knew an adventure in Alaska would reinforce that point.

At the time that my boss made me the offer I’d been to 17 states, and so I was thrilled I’d be boarding a plane to Anchorage in two days because I was desperate to get out of the teens and into the twenties. But once he told me the purpose of my trip, the game of setting foot in all the states wasn’t important anymore. My new assignment – or rather, the more pressing one -- was to take a tour of the set of the upcoming John Krasinksi and Drew Barrymore movie, Big Miracle (surely now you can understand just how quickly my original endeavor became meaningless) and report back.

Usually, the journalistic task of a set visit is pretty straightforward – you go to the set, you talk to the actors, walk around a soundstage or an elaborate indoor set that’s mostly occupied by a green screen, watch the actors do some acting, steal some Oreos and then you’re on the next flight back to wherever you came from. But once I learned I was going to Anchorage, it became clear that my excursion wasn’t going to be the average trip, mainly because of how the studio emphasized that incorporating as much of the natural Alaskan scenery as they could into the movie was one of their primary goals.

But before I dive into what I saw, let me explain the movie’s premise. Big Miracle is based off of Tom Rose’s 1989 book, Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, and was adapted by screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. It tells the story of Operation Breakthrough, which referred to the efforts put forth to free three California gray whales trapped in a hole near Point Barrow in 1988. The whales' perilous situation generated tremendous media interest, and after numerous attempts to rescue the animals by creating new pathways (which would allow them to come up for air as they swam towards the open ocean), the endeavor proved to be much more complicated than originally believed... especially because the native Alaskan hunters depended on whales getting caught in the ice to generate income for their families, and so freeing the animals also meant hurting the population of Point Barrow in one way or another. John Krasinski plays Adam, the local news reporter who's responsible for bringing the whales' predicament to the media's attention, and Drew Barrymore is Rachel, his environmentalist ex-girlfriend who puts her past with Adam aside and teams up with him to get the creatures back where they belong.

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But the movie has a particularly strong political storyline, too. Since Adam and Rachel and the resident Inuit people are unable to free the whales manually, they make it their mission to find people in the world who have the technology and resources to complete the task. Their search leads them to seek assistance from various government agencies and companies with access to heavy machinery that can break through ice pretty fast, but then it becomes Adam and Rachel's job to convince them to donate their resources to the cause. Russia even became involved at some point, and that's when things got particularly tricky because why would the Soviets want to help three whales who were trapped in the country they were currently fighting in the Cold War?

Now that you're informed on the film's premise, let’s talk about the set. 90% of it was located outdoors, which means visiting it was outstandingly cold but remarkably beautiful. (My contact at the studio prepared us for this fact in various emails, but because she knew we wouldn’t believe the true extent of the frigidity, so she also put little handwarmers the size of tea bags in our hotel rooms. They were the kind that started releasing heat once you threw them against a wall and would warm your appendages for a good hour or two.) Ice was everywhere, and all you could see (besides film equipment and people working on the production) was the neon blue sky and the angular walls of white solid landmasses. The sun was as orange as a pop-up ad, and seemed to emit shockingly little heat. But the setting was truly spectacular, and I instantaneously understood why it was important for the studio to incorporate as much of Alaska’s look and feel as possible.

All of the actors and members of the crew walked around it in steel-toed boots with what looked like bicycle chains wrapped around them. The rest of the journalists and I were very intrigued by the severity of their footwear and were completely aware of how unprofessional our Timberlands and Hunter rain boots looked compared to them (Dermot Mulroney described them in great detail during our interview, but he said the chains that wrapped around the toe portion of the shoe were the same kind that are strapped around the wheels of buses after a snowstorm). Anyway, ice was everywhere. REAL ice. Real, Alaskan, slippery ice that would break your nose if you fell on it wrong. Blue tarps covered terrain that was unsafe for stepping, and while you were in the vicinity of this cast and crew, nobody need be embarrassed about a runny nose. Plastic sheets were everywhere, too – layers of it were used to protect all kinds of machinery from the cold (in November, 28 degrees is considered a “high” temperature). There were hundreds of trailers, but the set was so expansive it was hard to tell whether or not there were more. Most of them seemed to be filled with winter apparel like heavy duty jackets and every kind of outdoor shoe imaginable, and people were constantly rummaging through the belongings looking for this kind of down, or that kind of down. The wardrobe people looked particularly exhausted because not only does your heart rate slow down when you’re in the cold for so long, but they were extra tired because they spent their days lifting such heavy jackets onto and off of hangers. There was one building that stood out amongst the rest: it was a barn-looking structure -- kind of like the ones you can build in a weekend -- which housed most of the playback equipment that the filmmakers and actors used to watch the scene they’d just made. And since that was the building that director Ken Kwapis ventured into the most, there was some serious heating machines in there as well.

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The scene we were scheduled to see was at a point in the movie when an Inuit family is leaning over the hole where the whales are stuck and talking. The journalists and I were looking forward to actually getting a glimpse at the animatronic whales as they bobbed up and down in the tank that had been placed below ground (so actors could lean over and admire them), but unfortunately we were unable to get close because extra weight out on the ice could be too heavy for the set, and was therefore a tremendous liability for the studio. My group and I didn’t put up much of a fight because we didn’t want to impede production in any way, and so we just watched from a distance as the crew scrambled to shoot the scene before sunset. That’s another thing I suppose I should mention: It’s normal for a shoot to last 2 or 3 months, but that’s when the crew can work all day and all night. But long hours were impossible on this set, because in November in Anchorage, there are only 8 hours of sunlight each day. This meant the crew had to scramble to get as much on film as they possibly could before the sun went down because production knew that as winter would progress, there would be less sunlight during the day and therefore, less time to make the movie. It meant that makeup artists, set designers, lighting designers, and prop managers had a much more limited time to reset each scene because it was so important to get as much footage shot before the sun set and their work day was cut short. And so in a way, it was better that we didn't allowed to get very close to the action -- if we had, the movie might not have been completed on time.

But by far the most enjoyable part of the set visit was interviewing the cast. We had the privilege of sitting down with John Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Ted Danson, Vinessa Shaw (and the woman she played, Bonnie Carroll), Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Riggle, and each one of them expressed tremendous joy in being asked to participate in the project because of how well the script weaved expansive themes (like environmental awareness and the importance of unison between countries) with smaller ones (like love and compassion and teamwork). The group also spent some time talking about what it’s like to live in Alaska in wintertime, which was completely great because people who live in Los Angeles are freezing in 60 degrees, and hearing them try and articulate their experiences with negative temperatures was a treat. But it was particularly interesting to hear the various ways the actors prepared to tell the story. For instance, Drew Barrymore explained that she did extensive research on the different groups that protect our planet’s wildlife and read a bunch of different books (like Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals), and traveled with Paul Watson, who’s on the Animal Planet show Whale Wars, and John Krasinski (who plays a reporter) expressed a newfound fascination with what happens within the media when a news story breaks that’s strong enough to intrigue various nations. But Ted Danson’s approach was vastly different, and he said that since he really didn’t have to physically learn how to do anything, his job was “to really show up in the moment cause if you’re not totally spontaneously discovering stuff as the camera rolls, who cares?”

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Generally speaking, I had a fantastic time on the set of Big Miracle. Everyone was totally delightful and eagerly enjoyed the production process while remaining dedicated to the idea that this movie is meant to stress that we should care about what’s happening around the world as well as what's happening in our zip code. What struck me most of all, though, was how interesting it was that like all of the real people who worked to rescue the whales for their own personal reasons but then grew from the experience, the actors also had their own motivations for getting involved in the movie and were surprised when they became more insightful individuals in the end. For example, Ted Danson is renown for his work with Oceana, and so he signed on to play an oil executive because it allowed him to voice beliefs that are different from his own. Drew Barrymore got involved because Rachel's dedication and determination impressed and inspired her. Kristen Bell signed on to play a female reporter because her father ran a news station and if she hadn't become an actor, she would have become a journalist. Dermot Mulroney joined the project because in all his years of acting, he'd never played a serviceman before, and if Barrymore hadn't intimidated him with one of her answers, I'm sure we would have learned what John Krasinski's rationalization for accepting a role in the movie was. But if you read their interviews more closely, each actor said the project affected them greatly and changed their outlooks on life, and the original reasons they agreed to be in the movie are no longer meaningful because the journey was rewarding in a completely different way for them. This similarity between the people that lived the real event and the actors who recreated it makes the whole thing even more authentic, and I can't think of any other movie where history has repeated itself in that very specific and moving way.

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