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The upcoming feature film ‘Big Miracle’, starring Drew Barrymore, Kristin Bell and John Krasinski tells the wonderful tale of people pulling together to save a family of trapped gray whales. The filming brought the crew to Alaska, where the first portion of the schedule took place on small sets, giving the production more time to refine the look of the Barrow ice field set that would be its home at the end of the production.
Shooting in Alaska
Director Ken Kwapis was an advocate for shooting in Alaska, a state that has not been used often in recent major filmmaking. With its newly minted incentive program in place, it could compete financially with better-known centers of production such as territories throughout Canada and the Pacific Northwest.
“Big Miracle is perhaps the only major studio film to shoot entirely in Alaska,” reflects Kwapis. “On many levels, we all felt we were exploring new territory. A filmmaker usually chooses a location for its physical beauty. I lobbied to shoot in Alaska for another reason: the people.
It was odd to make the case to Universal that we needed to go to Alaska so that the extras looked right, but this was critical to the film’s credibility. The faces on screen had to be the right faces. You cannot find the Inuit people of Alaska anywhere but Alaska, and their faces form one of the film’s most beautiful landscapes.”
The director’s vision was shared by the production team, who backed the decision to base the filming in the bustling city of Anchorage. Producer Michael Sugar offers: “What you gain by shooting in Alaska instead of inside a studio back lot is the feeling of being in another world. Ken very rightly advocated for Alaska, as well as the city of Anchorage, which turned out to be wonderful partners for us.”
While any production aims to be true to life, shooting in Barrow, hundreds of miles north of Anchorage, was not feasible. Anchorage, a modern city of 300,000 people located on the south central coast of Alaska, is in what locals term the “banana belt” for its comparatively mild temperatures.
Explains Kwapis: “The town of Barrow could not accommodate a large shooting crew, so it was never an option. And of course, it is numbingly cold. Anchorage was our best choice.” First on the agenda was finding a suitable spot to build the Barrow set in Anchorage, a city ringed by mountain ranges. Unfortunately, there were not many candidates, as there are very few places where one can look out on the horizon and not see mountains.
After scouting one locale that was unobtainable and a second inaccessible to equipment, the team settled into an area adjacent to downtown Anchorage near the mudflats. This location gave them a partially unobstructed horizon with which to work.
That site, on railroad land just down a slope near downtown at the Port of Anchorage, gave the filmmakers not only space to build the Barrow ice field and portions of the town itself, but room for parking and equipment. “We needed an open view of the water, some place that had a clear horizon line,” says production designer Nelson Coates.
“We also needed to have room to dig the breathing holes for the whales, which, for safety reasons, required the construction of a much larger surrounding hole.”
When the team commenced digging that hole, Coates and crew found something unexpected: debris from the 1964 Anchorage earthquake that had ravaged the city. “Apparently, the city had used this area for storing bulldozed remnants of the disaster in 1964,” says the designer. “We found things like mattresses, oil tanks, railroad ties and timber and had to be careful about where we dug.”
Additional Sets and Native Influence
A challenge for Kwapis, Coates and crew was finding enough ’88 news equipment — not only for the reporters on the ice to use, but also to fill the news sets standing in for Los Angeles, New York City, Anchorage and Barrow. “We had to find old three-quarter-inch tape-reel machines, aged audio mixers and even IBM Selectric typewriters,” recalls Coates.
“We took a floor of an empty Anchorage bank building and created the NBC Nightly News set from New York City’s Rockefeller Center, with all of its vintage logos, consoles and cameras. Even the elevators were re-created.”
Since Anchorage did not have an existing soundstage, several warehouse spaces were used to fill with smaller sets that would transform into White House briefing rooms, Los Angeles news studios, Soviet icebreaker interiors, Adam’s apartment and others. Fortunately, access to the local National Guard base allowed the production use of the base’s hangars and hardware, including rare vintage helicopters.
“We needed an unusual helicopter called a Skycrane,” explains Coates. “The Skycrane was a part of the arsenal of the Alaska National Guard, but they no longer use them. Luckily, we found one that was used in 1988 in the rescue that had been sent to the scrap heap. We repainted the frame and shot it so that it looked like it still flew.”
As the many Alaska natives on the film spent much time as extras, a deepening camaraderie developed between them and the cast and crew. Many of the cold-weather costumes worn by them in the film were either brought from home or actually sewn together by the Alaska natives, much to the surprise of costume designer Shay Cunliffe.
“After meeting the Alaska natives, I recruited some of them to be my seamstresses,” shares Cunliffe. “They made the entire set of whaling crew costumes for me. I bought a lot of furs through them and watched them make the costumes and use every scrap of fur and skin. They waste nothing in their culture.
They taught me to use wolverine fur because it doesn’t hold moisture and that many of their winter garments are passed down through generations. People kept bringing us wonderful things from home.” The cast and crew were even treated to a lunchtime performance arranged by extras casting director Grace Olrun that featured Alaska-native dancers and musicians singing songs in their own languages.