Hollywood Alaska

The formerly "Everybody Loves Whales," - now called "Big Miracle," the first major, modern movie filmed entirely in Alaska is about to hit theaters. The tale of serial killer Robert Hansen, starring John Cusack and Nicolas Cage, filmed in Anchorage this fall. Other major-studio films are considering an Alaska shoot, even as an army of reality TV camera crews continues to prowl the state. Producers credit the state’s fledgling tax incentive program – one of the most generous such public subsidies in the country – with enticing movie-makers to the Last Frontier. How long will the gold rush last? Is the state getting a big enough return on its investment? Welcome to Hollywood, Alaska.

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'Whales' producer reflects on filming in Alaska

By KYLE HOPKINS

"Everybody Loves Whales" producer Stuart Besser found a shortage of construction workers available to build sets in Anchorage. He told other filmmakers curious about shooting in the state that they'd have to haul their own equipment from Los Angeles.

But knowing what he knows now, the executive producer of the first modern, major movie to film entirely in Alaska says he would still do it all over again.

"It worked," Besser said in a Thursday phone interview from Los Angeles.

The project stayed within its budget -- Besser estimates the movie will cost in the mid-$30 million range -- and ought to feel more authentic for filming here, he said. "Especially when you look at faces on film."

Expected to premiere next year, the movie is a fictionalized retelling of the real-life attempt to rescue three California gray whales trapped bythe sea ice near Barrow.

Working Title Films shot the Universal Pictures project over three months beginning in September in Anchorage.

Landing "Whales" was a key step in boosting Alaska's fledgling movie industry and the production has served as a kind of proving ground for future films.

Meantime, two bills that would extend the film subsidy created in 2008 are under consideration in the state Legislature while the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. prepares a study on "Whales'" impact on the local economy.

Besser is credited as producer on 10 movies in the past 10 years, including "The Break-Up," "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Losers." Here's what he, had to say about movie-making in Anchorage:

What's happening with the movie production right now?

"Director Ken Kwapis ("The Office," "He's Just Not That Into You") and the editors are editing the movie together based on what we filmed up in Anchorage and working with ... the visual effects house, getting some of the visual effects done as well.

What kind of visual effects?

Since it was supposed to be Barrow, where there are no mountains and the terrain goes on forever, you need to sort of do some visual effects so that that's the backdrop to some of the scenes that we filmed on the ice field.

Surrounding the Ship Creek ice field set with digital tundra?

Exactly.

What was the final budget for the movie?

The film was in the $30 million range. ... In the mid-30 range.

Was all of that spending in Alaska?

We were able to utilize about 90 percent of our spend in Anchorage during the production period.

Is the state tax incentive working as expected?

It is. One of the major draws of filming in Anchorage not only has to do with the original story taking place in Alaska and the look of, you know the cast, the day-players we were able to get because of being Native, but the overwhelming choice has to do with the incentive and tax investment that the state is willing to make in the industry.

If there was no tax incentive, we wouldn't have been in Anchorage.

Who are some of the companies that contacted you about buying credits?

I don't know if they want, at this moment, to be publicized.

Any doubt that there will be buyers for the tax credits? Especially since you are one of the first to do it here on any kind of scale?

I doubt that that will be a problem ... the response has been positive.

What's your message for the Legislature about whether the incentive is worth extending or keeping on the books?

It is a competitive industry of where people go to make films. One of the deciding factors is the look and surroundings of locations that are needed for the film. But as a film you make believe. So you could sort of make anything work for anyplace. Thus the advantage for Alaska was the incentive.

I think if there was no incentive I don't believe the feature industry could build there. I imagine you'd still have documentaries and travel type of programming.

What were some of the challenges of being the first to make a movie of your size up here?

The infrastructure doesn't, or didn't exist.

That becomes something difficult to maneuver on a physical production manner. At the same time ... There's a labor force that exists there (in Alaska.) It's not that plentiful at this time, but I think that everybody who worked on the film in a technical capacity walked away with a greater knowledge and a feeling of gained experience that will be valuable for the next film.

Was there a shortage of people to work on the film?

Part of it is, there isn't a depth of the film industry there at this point. When we finished, there was a greater depth than when we started. But going in there wasn't, obviously the depth of technicians that one would have in Los Angeles or New York or even Vancouver.

It's just, the business hadn't been enough to generate enough people to make that their livelihood. But I think after it, I think there was some people that gained not only experience and knowledge, but the desire.

These are people who would do what kind of jobs?

Grips. Electricians. People in the wardrobe department. People in makeup and hair. Construction people. Painters.

Do we need a soundstage in Anchorage?

Yes. There isn't one - we made do with a warehouse that we found that wasn't occupied and it was a time of year that you know, the flight patterns weren't that much of an issue as we moved later into our schedule.

The first half of the schedule, the flight patterns did tend to be a problem.

So a sound stage is a great investment because every film will need one.

Knowing what you do now, would you do it over again? Would you still have filmed here?

We would have still filmed up there I think. Knowing everything I could have made a couple more adjustments as I moved forward knowing the information I have now. But it worked.

Financially we were able to stay within our parameters and I think, and I believe all of us feel that the film being shot where the film happened added to the authenticness of it. Especially when you look at faces on film.

You're referring to the Alaskans who were cast?

Yeah.

What kind of adjustments would you have made knowing what you know now?

Earlier on, I think that we felt that there might be more construction labor up there, rather than needing to travel some of the people from other parts of the Lower 48. ... The next time I might have made an allocation for a greater number of people coming up. However, as I say that, after our film, I believe that there's a bigger labor force than there was before.

Maybe the second time around for another company, they could make the same assumption that there would be a certain amount of people available and this time there will be.

How many people did you have to bring up for construction jobs?

Well over 20. ... We built Barrow downtown. There were sets that we built in the warehouse. There's scenic painters, that's kind of a specialized industry. And part of the labor not being available had a lot to do with the seasonal work in Alaska, more than the talent of people.

We got up there in July and that's your building time, so a lot of people were doing construction work that that period of time in Alaska is for construction. So to walk away for an eight or 10 week job, when you've had this job for a couple years, doesn't make sense to an individual.

How was the casting process here - were you able to find what you needed?

We had a wonderful casting director with Deborah Schildt and she was able to find probably more cast than we thought going in. Not only of the Native Inuits but of people who played roles of reporters coming from Los Angeles and teachers from Los Angeles.

Some Alaska Natives were cast in speaking roles. Everyone is sensitive to how their culture is portrayed.

How do you think the film is going to be received by Alaska Natives when it premieres?

I think very well. I think that Ken Kwapis did a fantastic job of staying true and trying to portray, not only realistically the period, the people and their customs. But had scenes or attempted to include parts of their culture ...

I think he portrayed it fairly and honestly and with respect, and I think that's how it will be perceived.

Is it a realistic goal for Anchorage to become the "new" Vancouver of filmmaking?

There are parts of Vancouver that you can shoot for a suburb in Los Angeles. There's parts of downtown Vancouver that you can work for San Francisco. Vancouver has different looks through the city and the suburbs around it. So to make the analogy with Vancouver, I'm not sure that that is the correct analogy.

Can Anchorage or Alaska be a booming production center? That's possible, but I don't think you can compare it to Vancouver.

Vancouver has several, several stages. All the equipment already exists up there. They have crews that are probably four, five deep. So if there are five projects at once, there's enough labor force, local labor force for it.

You had an Alaskan story. Would anyone make a movie here that wasn't based in Alaska?

There are parts of Anchorage that I remember, I couldn't tell you exactly where, that could be small town -- bigger than a one-gas station stop Americana -- but a small-town kind of a look. You know, a small city that you could pull off in Anchorage.

There were some of the suburb areas that could work for a small town in North Carolina or somewhere. I don't think you would find the scope of the city there and the high rises aren't there. So, you know, that's what dictates it.

We found a couple of suburbs, homes, that we filmed in, for a suburb in Los Angeles. So you can go out there and find things. The scope of it would be more limited.

... The incentive is generous enough that it's worth seeing if you could pull it off.

Are you hearing from other producers, asking you if it's worth it?

Yeah, there are a couple companies that I've spoken to their representatives. They were contemplating possibly doing a movie there and seeing how it went. And whether it would be worthwhile for them to venture up.

What did they want to know?

Basically how it was filming there. Was the city responsive? What's the crew base? Is there any equipment?

What did you tell them?

I told them that the equipment has to come up from Los Angeles and depending on the time of year, what your crew base would be. ... A man or woman making a living for a construction company for five years is not going to leave it for 10 weeks of work, so it depends on what time of year you're up there.

We found a warehouse and I'm sure others could find a warehouse depending on what they needed to do.

So it really depended on when you run the numbers and you see what the incentive is, if you're going to be able to put more on screen, it's worth going up there.

Do you know if any other mid-size or bigger productions are on their way here?

I don't know if (any are) on the way. I know there are some that are contemplating ... They need to, as we all in this business do, we wait for confirmation the film's going to be made. And I think they're waiting on that. And if some of the films are going to be made, I think they'd come up and look around and see if Anchorage offered the elements that they would need to make that project.

Can you tell me anything about the animatronic whales?

We still will maintain, for the public, that those were whales. The illusion of filmmaking I think is important for the audience.

Any possibility of an Alaska premiere for the movie?

There will be some screenings in Alaska. We worked out some arrangements with the Barrow school district to have a screening for them. But that's way, way down the road.

(Note: The Alaska screenings would be after the movie's premiere, Besser said.)

Should we expect to see the movie premiere in 2011?

You know there's a possibility but I think at this point, people are striving toward a 2012 release date.

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