Let’s not beat around the bush: Directing a movie with ten major characters sounds pretty tough. Directing a movie with ten major characters, a bunch of non-professional actors and three massive animatronic whales that can only be reached for repairs by diving into some pretty chilly water? Even tougher. Shooting in Alaska, where one of the only weather conditions that stays consistent from day to day is the freezing cold? Was Ken Kwapis nuts?!
Actually, no. While filming Big Miracle presented a challenge that would have sent less adventurous directors running for the hills, Kwapis (“The Office,” He’s Just Not That Into You) saw in the true story of three whales trapped under the Arctic Circle an opportunity to make a film that is at once funny, dramatic and environmentally conscious.
While the book the film is based on—Tom Rose’s Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event—and even the first draft of the film’s screenplay (originally titled Everybody Loves Whales) took a satirical approach to the media circus surrounding the rescue of the trapped whales, Kwapis’ choice to focus on the extraordinary nature of the rescue itself results in a film that is refreshingly non-cynical (“I felt there was nothing fresh about skewering the news media,” he says. “Billy Wilder did it decades ago with Ace in the Hole.”)
Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson (among many others), is out in theaters tomorrow. Director Ken Kwapis took the time to chat with MM about the film, how he juggled the many characters and storylines and the challenges of filming in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What made you want to tell the story of these three trapped whales and the people who came together to rescue them? Was the script more or less set by the time you came to direct, or did you have any input during the writing stage?
Ken Kwapis (KK): After reading Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay (the title was Everybody Loves Whales), I became haunted by the image of three whales trapped in the ice at the most remote corner of our hemisphere, their only solace a small hole that allowed them to surface and breathe.
Also, I loved the idea of a story about of a group of unlikely collaborators who must put aside their differences in order to carry out an impossible task: Namely, moving three large marine mammals across five miles of Arctic sea ice. Each character is motivated by self-interest. Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), an Anchorage-based reporter, breaks the story and sees the whales’ dilemma as his ticket to a better job in the lower 48. Malik (John Pingayak), the Barrow whaling captain, joins the rescue as a pre-emptive measure; he wants to forestall any outsider criticism of Inupiat whaling practices. Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), a Los Angeles-based reporter, wants to succeed in the male-dominated world of television news. Oil baron J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) couldn’t care less about the whales. He wants to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for drilling and hopes that financing the whale rescue will, effectively, “throw the tree-huggers a bone” and enable him to advance his agenda in Congress. Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) works for Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff. She wants to co-opt the whale story in order to burnish the President’s rather shoddy record on the environment. The Minnesotans (James LeGros and Rob Riggle) want to help the whales in order to publicize their homemade de-icing machines. Finally, the media circus that descends upon the trapped whales has no real investment in their well-being. Cynically, the reporters know that given the choice between a hard-hitting story and one about animals in peril—”a cat in a tree,” says one character—the public will always go for the cat in the tree.
All of these characters are transformed by their direct contact with the whales. All of them manage to put aside their agendas in order to find common cause and solve an incredible problem.
Big Miracle began its life as a satirical piece for Spy magazine written by Tom Rose, one of many reporters in Barrow, Alaska to cover the story. Rose expanded his magazine piece into a full-length book entitled Freeing the Whales. The book had a cynical tone and focused on the media frenzy surrounding the beleaguered whales. Rose’s book came to the attention of screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who saw in the rescue a precursor to the string of media events that gripped the public imagination in the ’90s: Amy Fisher, Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson. They wrote a script that was faithful to the cynical tone of Tom Rose’s book.
When I came aboard, I urged the writers to focus more on the rescue itself. I’m no stranger to satire, having helped launched such television series as “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Office.” But I felt there was nothing fresh about skewering the news media. Billy Wilder did it decades ago with Ace in the Hole. The rescue itself was so outrageous—and real! People did indeed carve a five-mile path of holes across Arctic sea ice. A Search & Rescue chopper pilot did indeed transport a flammable generator through insanely cold temperatures in a copter with all the doors and windows open. Along the way, the pilot’s eye did freeze shut. If someone had pitched me these ideas, I would’ve dismissed them as ridiculous. But they actually happened.
MM: Not to give too much away to those who don’t know the story, but there’s a point in the film where something bad happens to one of the whales. Seeing that in the film, and seeing the other characters react to it, was really depressing, but then there are moments that are equally uplifting. Was it hard to balance those emotional extremes with the quieter moments in the film?
KK: There is a broad range of emotional content in Big Miracle. For me, the best dramas are chock-full of humor. By the same token, the best comedies are grounded in dramatic reality. Tears and laughter are both welcome here. I feel you can’t have one without the other. Sometimes I designed a comedic moment in order to throw viewers off the scent, to mislead them, to prevent them from foreseeing the dramatic (or tragic) events to come.
MM: There were a lot of different parties involved in rescuing the whales: Greenpeace, oil companies, the media, the government, the Barrow locals, the National Guard, the Russian navy… And you also directed He’s Just Not That Into You, which wove together the story arcs of a lot of different characters. As a director, is there something about working with a large ensemble cast that appeals to you?
KK: Like He’s Just Not That Into You, Big Miracle has a large cast of characters. There are nearly ten major characters, and I clearly enjoy juggling multiple stories.
Also, there are many thematic layers in Big Miracle, and I wanted to give each its due. The story deals with the Inupiat people, who reside along the northern edge of Alaska. It raises questions about commercial whaling versus subsistence whaling. There is a geo-political aspect to the story, covering the final days of the Cold War. There is a layer of satire in Big Miracle. The film poses the question: “Given the choice between a dramatic news story and one about animals in peril, which would television viewers prefer?” The film looks at the way politicians co-opt certain events for their own ends. Presidential candidate George Bush hoped that lending his support to the whales would somehow convince voters that he would be the “environmental president.” The film is also a unique window to the 1980s; specifically, it’s striking to see how much technology has changed. I remember when the Walkman and Beta cameras were cutting-edge machines. Those devices look absurdly cumbersome now.
As a director, my goal was to give each of these thematic elements the right amount of screen time without ever losing sight of the main event: Three whales trapped in the ice.
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced in filming in Alaska?
KK: I loved shooting in Alaska. I fought to bring the picture there, in no small part because of the Alaskan people. The residents of Barrow, primarily members of the Inupiat tribe, cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. I felt a keen responsibility to the Inupiat community. I didn’t want to sentimentalize or patronize them. I wanted to represent them simply and honestly.
Alaska itself posed myriad challenges. Needless to say, it was really cold. Plus, weather conditions were unpredictable. Every morning I would the surf the local TV news shows. Each one had a radically different weather report. It was hell for the lighting and grip crew. At one moment, we would enjoy a wonderfully overcast sky. Within seconds, the clouds would break and we’d be hoisting every silk in our arsenal to control the harsh sunlight.
We shot in the fall, heading toward winter. During that time, we lost daylight at a rate of three minutes a day. So, on top of the cold and the constantly changing conditions, we had a dearth of daylight. Add to that a large ensemble cast, many of whom had never before been in front of a camera. And, lest I forget, my three leads were gigantic animatronic gray whales. These robotic whales were housed in an underground water tank on a football field-sized Arctic ice set. For the most part, the whales were well-behaved. Sometimes they malfunctioned, requiring us to send divers into very chilly water to repair them. Bottom line: It was brutal, but I loved every minute of it.
Big Miracle hits theaters in wide release tomorrow. For more information, visit www.everybodyloveswhales.com.