We attended a screening and Q&A for reviw purposes.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Harrison Ford, Cara Gee, and director Chris Sanders to talk about the making of the latest film version of Jack London’s classic story. Here are some of the things they revealed:
1. The film, despite being set in the frozen Yukon, was actually filmed in sunny Southern California.
Cara Gee, who plays sled-driver Françoise, laughed when asked about filming in the snow. “Uh, we shot this in Santa Clarita! I know, right? Because it takes place up in Dawson City. No, they built all the store fronts out in Santa Clarita. It’s funny, because I’m Canadian, so when I booked the part, I was like, “great, back to the winter, back to the snow,” and it was the opposite! In fact, we had all these big heavy outfits that we have to wear, and we had to wear cooling vests underneath; it’s like this system that pipes cold water through the inside of a vest and it keeps your core temperature cool, because it was very hot under the heavy costumes, and it was quite physically demanding as well.”
When told it looked like it was shot on location Harrison Ford responded “I thought it was, too. Because I was in the car for an hour and a half trying to get through the traffic, even though it’s only 24 miles away.” He went on, saying “I love traveling to places, and seeing the world, and I’ve had the opportunity to do that, but I hadn’t really spent much time in Santa Clarita, and it has its own virtues.”
2. Buck was played by a human actor.
Harrison Ford was asked what it was like playing opposite a human playing a dog; “convincingly playing a dog, that human was,” he replied, “and it was fun. I mean, I hadn’t imagined quite how it was going to work, but it seemed a little weird. But Terry Notary, who stood in for the dog, is an accomplished actor, and a gifted Cirque du Soleil gymnast, so he developed the skill to move like a dog, and to help everyone organize their eye-line, where they were looking.” Notary was also the physical performer for Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy and Kong in King Kong: Skull Island. Ford says “for me, also, I had the opportunity to create an emotional relationship with the character that Terry Notary was playing. We crossed some biological lines to get there, but it became second nature. It did feel a little funny at first, to be scratching him behind the ears, but he got over it. And so did I.”
“He brought so much of himself to that role. When he was cast, I was like, oh my goodness, I’m going to have to look a grown man in the face, how is this going to go? But he committed so fully to the role that I could look in his eyes and he became Buck, and a lot of that soulfulness that we feel is because of his acting chops,” Gee adds.
Chris Sanders explained that Notary was wearing “a grey suit with black-and-white reference markers on it, very simple.”
3. They dug a river.
Chris Sanders explained how the river was constructed: “We found a movie ranch called Sable Ranch, and we actually built most of our sets at Sable Ranch, including the river. We dug a river, filled it with rocks, set-dressed it, and they brought in gigantic pumps that would move water at 30,000 gallons a minute, and we could actually throttle the river, so if we thought the current was too strong, we could throttle back on it. We never really ever used the river at full throttle. We only had two of the three pumps engaged at any one time.”
4. Buck is based on a real dog, and Chris Sanders lives with him.
After attempting to create a digital dog from scratch, providence intervened. Sanders’ wife, Jennifer Steele-Sanders, found a dog online who was the same mix of breeds that London had described, a Saint Bernard-Shepherd. “She said “you’ll never guess what, I found a dog that was found as a stray wandering the streets of Emporia, Kansas, and he’s the exact combination of breeds that Buck is.” And the weird thing was, he was listed on their website under the name Buckley. So she said “I’m gonna go,” and she drove two days to Emporia, Kansas, and she met Buckley. She bought him for $25, because he was on special because nobody was buying him, she drove back to set with Buckley, and she walked on the set with him, and immediately I think everybody just said let’s make that be the dog.”
5. The studio wanted a family-friendly version of the story.
The original novel includes a lot of scenes that modern audiences would find troublesome; Buck is beaten by abusive owners, attacked and forced to fight other dogs and wild animals, and human beings do terrible things to each other. 20th Century Studios, the former Fox company, wanted to make sure that the film would be accessible to all ages. “Because I come from animation, from Disney animation and Dreamworks, that’s something that’s second nature to me. So I knew that no matter what was in the novel, we could adapt it,” Sanders explains. “The whole thing that I do is try to find a finished product that anybody of any age will get something out of, that it’s speaking on multiple levels all at the same time. So adults can go see this film, and they’ll see certain things that a kid may not see for a few years until they get a little bit older as well.”
About the author: When Jim MacQuarrie is not arming children for the zombie apocalypse or coaching the USC Trojan Archery team, Jim is writing about “all the stuff that would have gotten you a wedgie in 1976” at AtomicJunkShop.com, and serving as the President of CAPS, the Comic Art Professional Society. His kids are all grown up, and his wife is patiently waiting for him to do likewise.