“Why Did You Shoot in Alaska?” How Wildlike was Made in America’s Last Frontier

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At Wildlike Q&As, audience members will ask me, “Was it hard to shoot in Alaska?” And the companion question, “Why did you choose to shoot in Alaska?”

My respective answers are, “Have you tried shooting in New York City?” and “Why not shoot in Alaska? Have you seen how tremendously gorgeous it is?”

Location is not simply where you shoot a film. It encapsulates all aspects of the film. Your characters live in the location, but, for a time, the director and crew eat and sleep in the location. This mise-en-scène is where the creative and the business ends meet. It is key for marketing and reaching the audience, but also commands tone and feeling.

When I set out to write and direct Wildlike, my debut feature film, I knew I wanted to set the movie in an awe-inspiring location. This meant the Great Outdoors, and where farther and grander can we go within the United States than Alaska? The movies have simply not fully explored the last frontier of our 49th state. This is how I did it.

Key crew including DP Hillary Spera, Key Grip Garrett Cantrell, AC Justin Cameron and AD Chris Carroll take in the awe of the Polychrome Mountians in Denali National Park before shooting our preciously approved shots for the camping dinner scene.

DP Hillary Spera, key grip Garrett Cantrell, AC Justin Cameron and AD Chris Carroll at the Polychrome Mountians in Denali National Park

Scout Again and Again (and Again!)

I advise filmmakers to not just tell a story but to tell a story that resonates in a particular location, ideally a place that speaks to the story or characters and that the audience might find intriguing. Don’t just write a clever two-hander relationship film without careful thought about the setting. Why not place the characters on a small boat off the coast of Fiji? Off-set travel costs with efficiency and crew size: You might be surprised at how a small production and crew can create a high-production-value film by journeying to a fantastic location. You must absorb your location. It must become a second home to you while the script is still in flux.

I had first encountered Alaska on a backpacking trip in 2003. After writing the first draft of the script, I traveled back to Alaska in 2010 and visited all of the locations in my story, tracing the journey of my main character. I began down in Juneau, hiking the Mendenhall Glacier, and then boarded an Alaska Marine Highway System ferryboat, sailing over two nights up to Whittier, Alaska, connecting me to the greater southeast part of the state. By rental car I went to Anchorage, then Denali National Park, and over a barren stretch of “dirt” highway called the Denali Highway, next down to Valdez and St. Elias National Park, ending up back in Anchorage. I took side trips to glaciers, small towns, the state fair and a river where I went salmon fishing. It was more than 3,000 miles. I met Alaskans and learned the land, the people and the culture. What was Alaska really like, what had to be adjusted in my script, and what about Alaska and the outdoor setting informed my story and characters? As someone else might write for a certain actor, I wrote for Alaska.

The trip was, of course, also the first scout for the film. Along the way I took about 5,000 photos, mapping out locations from all angles so I could reference back to them for writing, scouting, logistics, set design and storyboarding. A selection of the photos ended up being part of our sales package to investors and partners, touting Alaska as a fantastic place that any moviegoer would be happily transported to. Those original location photos still get traffic on our website today.

Back in New York, I teamed with producer Julie Christeas. Our first order of business was a trip back to Alaska. Once again, we made the trek of our main character from Juneau to Denali and back. Shortly thereafter, producer Schuyler Weiss, Julie’s partner at Tandem Pictures, joined the film. And, yes, yet again, we went to Alaska and scouted, making the same 3,000 mile journey for a third time.

I ended up scouting the journey twice more in pre-production with producers and crew. With each trip, we stopped at every location and made notes and contacts. We began to develop an extensive network of Alaskan contacts that would prove invaluable in the making of the film. We started to piece together the dozens of uniquely spectacular locations that would make up the film. We learned the landscape, the distances, the facilities, the weather and the people. With that familiarity, it was easy to sit back in our office in New York, imagine our production and plan the logistics of the movie’s 3,000 mile caravan across Alaska.

Who Wants to Go to Alaska?

When you are crewing up for a five-week, thousands-of-miles journey in a territory known for its glaciers and wildlife, with nine major highways covering only one-fifth of the state, you are not just interviewing for a film crew member with the right skills and experience. You are asking questions like, “Do you like hiking and camping?” “Do you get carsick on dirt roads?” “Are you afraid of large wild animals?” and “Do you own hiking boots and rain gear?” We needed crew members who really wanted to drive for a dozen hours in a tremendous landscape, get only a little sleep, and shoot a film outdoors, in the middle of nowhere, in the morning. You had to want to do this, and not for the money. Could we see them with hiking boots and a fleece, standing outside for 12 hours, with only a bush to pee behind?

The producers knew that our tight crew could conquer my ambitious schedule when DP Hillary Spera and 1st AC Justin Cameron took advantage of a roadside rest-stop to carry the 50-pound 35mm camera up a mountain and film landscape shots.

DP hillary Spera hauls the 35mm camera up a mountain to get a great vista shot during a frequent travel rest stop on the road.

DP Hillary Spera hauls a camera up a mountain to get a great vista shot during a rest stop

Pret-a-Cinematograph

In June 2012, the core team relocated to Anchorage, and locations expert and producer Joseph Stephans joined us. In those first weeks, a 2 a.m. dusk was the closest that we came to an actual nightfall and the whole team witnessed a big moose in town, attempting a transaction at the bank. The Alaskan hospitality really began to shine, as locals offered up locales, advice and salmon (It was dip-netting season, where you let salmon run into your big net, all day long).

Alaska is ready for its close up, at all times. The real trick to bringing high production value to the screen cheaply is just shooting what’s already in front of you. Throughout the production we had the privilege of plucking beautiful locations from a storybook of availability. Where shall we put the actors?  On this mountain? By this river? On this glacier? Because each location, even the interiors, were chosen for what they offered as-is, we only had to drop in. We lit our few indoor shots, and outdoors we used large reflectors, flags, nets and occasionally silks.

One key location was a make-shift motel called Gracious House, a small “inn” 80 miles from anything, made of ramshackle abodes, huts and shipping containers. It was authentic and perfect—you couldn’t buy production design like this.

Next, producer Joe locked up Denali National Park. After nearly two years of conversations, Denali gave the Wildlike production unprecedented access to film inside the park. Then Joe called the landowners of the beautiful Matanuska glacier, and they drove us by Polaris ATV out onto the glacier to shoot Bruce Greenwood walking on it. You never know until you ask.

The crew gladly gets another shot of lead Ella Purnell before the magnificent Matanuska Glacier in Southeast Alaska.

The crew shoots lead actress Ella Purnell before the magnificent Matanuska Glacier in Southeast Alaska

Making the Journey

Bad luck doesn’t really strike such a blow if you’ve foreseen it and thought up the best reaction. That said, we were both prepared and lucky. The weather was great. Temperatures often rose into the 70s, and it rained only one day, which we used for a rain scene we needed. No vehicles broke down. No cameras or lenses or equipment was irreparably broken. The production team arranged for stocks of hand-warmers, extra hats, socks, gloves, jackets, food, locations for cell service and medical emergencies. One crew member was hired for being a medic and an experienced marine. Another crew member brought experience with bears and wildlife. We had a runner/driver set up nearly every other day to deliver our shot footage to FedEx, but that runner could also pick up supplies, actors and whatever else was needed in Anchorage. All the crew stayed healthy, fed and happy.

Wildlife also treated us well. On two different days, park rangers did stop the filming and removed us from the set for passing bears—once a grizzly mother bear and cub in Denali, and the other a family of black bears in Juneau—but filming resumed and cameras were turned back onto the actors.

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3 Comments

  1. Mel

    March 23, 2018 at 9:41 pm

    I’m just wondering if anybody knew where the office scene was filmed.. When he took her to his work…

  2. Deb

    March 16, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    I would like to have seen mentioned the Alaskan actors in this movie. I’ve heard that there was at least one, who moved on from acting to singing. I’m not sure who he is, but I would like to have seen the mention. Nevertheless, the article about that movie-making journey was a good one!

  3. Earn at Home Club System

    September 23, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post
    was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely
    you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already
    😉 Cheers!

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