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Inspired by the incredible true story that touched the world, the rescue adventure ‘Big Miracle’ tells the amazing tale of an animal-loving volunteer (Golden Globe winner Drew Barrymore) and a small-town news reporter (John Krasinski) who are joined by a native Alaskan boy (newcomer Ahmaogak Sweeney) to rally an entire community — and eventually rival world superpowers — to save a family of majestic gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle.
“Good evening. Time and hope are running out for three California gray whales who have been trapped for several days in the thickening ice off the Alaskan coast.”
—Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News, October 1988
While forming the script, the production team behind ‘Big Miracle’ based many of their characters on real life people, involved in the dramatic rescue of three California gray whales in 1988. True to form, Anchorage-based Greenpeace director Cindy Lowry served as the basis for the script’s activist, Rachel Kramer. Drew Barrymore was one of the first actors sent a script by director Ken Kwapis, with whom she had just worked on the comedy He’s Just Not That Into You. Although deep into editing her directorial debut, Whip It, she instantly read the work. Barrymore was the first choice of the filmmakers for the role of this determined animal activist, whose commitment to protecting the environment came at the detriment to her personal life.
What piqued Barrymore’s interest was the story’s blending of so many people united for a common cause in a very inhospitable environment. Recalls the actress: “I was in Palm Springs in the middle of editing my movie. I was exhausted, but I read this script and then spent the rest of the weekend calling everyone to tell them how passionate I felt about it. I was trying to reach people to beg to be a part of this movie. This was so special.” She admits the source material sparked something in her: “Everybody put their agenda aside for one moment in 1988. They did something lovely, something kind, by putting history or opinions away for just a minute in a very quiet, but public way.”
Working again with Kwapis was another draw for the actress. “He is one of the best directors I’ve worked with,” Barrymore compliments. “Not only is Ken a brilliant storyteller, but he gives you ideas that are so far beyond your own instincts. He is so good with combining the many layers of the film so that everything makes sense and has a purpose and a payoff. He is incredibly responsible, yet incredibly free, and actors trust him to get it right.”
The director was impressed with the film’s lead. “Drew has the best work ethic of any actress or actor I’ve ever worked with,” lauds Kwapis. “She is tireless when it comes to research, and cocoons herself in the world of the film for the duration of the shoot. The role of Rachel allows Drew to be a troublemaker, a bull-in-the-china-shop. Rachel’s point of view is valid, but sometimes she is her own worst enemy. Her take-no-prisoners approach often wreaks havoc on her romantic life, giving Drew the chance to explore the never-ending challenge of balancing love and work. Needless to say, this problem could not be more relatable.”
Greenpeace director Cindy Lowry, who went on to spearhead the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill shortly after the ’88 whale rescue, is just as driven as her on-screen counterpart. When Barrymore signed onto the role, she quickly went into research mode. She asked to be put in touch with Lowry, who was then advocating for a wind-farm proposal off the coast of Maine. The two women met and quickly bonded, spending many hours over the summer before shooting began to discuss Lowry’s experiences during the rescue, as well as her long-held dedication to the environment.
“Cindy Lowry is a true activist,” commends Barrymore, who is herself involved in many charities and causes. “She’s funny, she’s real and she’s tough. I thought I should get to know Cindy well, and by the end of the summer I knew everything about her life.”
Next to come onto the production was actor John Krasinski, best known to American audiences as Jim Halpert on the hit television show The Office. Writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler didn’t base the role of Barrow’s television reporter Adam Carlson on any one person who lived in the city at that time, but as an amalgam of small-town news people who served to tell the human elements of the story.
Even though signing on would mean multiple trips between the set of his television series and Anchorage, Krasinski believed it was worth it to work again with Kwapis. The filmmaker had directed him in License to Wed, as well as many pivotal episodes of The Office. “Ken is a phenomenal person,” commends Krasinski. “He did the pilot of our show and many of the important episodes, including the first time I said ‘I love you’ to Pam. He’s been there emotionally in a lot of stages of my life as an actor, as well as a person growing up in front of the camera. He has that rare gift to be not only in tune with you but also with the whole movie.”
The producers were pleased to bring him onto the production as a character who would discover the story and be at the center of the story’s romantic triangle. Notes Golin: “John has incredible chemistry with Drew as well as Kristen, not to mention an amazing rapport with Ken. He did a lot of flying back and forth for us, but it all worked out smoothly.”
When Barrymore heard that Krasinski was a candidate to play Adam, she advocated bringing him onto Big Miracle. “I remember calling Ken from the San Francisco airport,” she says. “I was screaming down the hallway that I’d do anything to do this movie with him. He was perfect for the role, as he is wholesome, funny and a good guy, just like Adam. Even though the film is rooted in the environmental and political aspects of the whale rescue, there is also a love triangle that had to work among me, John and the actress who would play Jill.”
The character of Los Angeles-based TV reporter Jill Jerard was also fictional, based on several newspeople who traipsed up to Barrow in 1988 only to find themselves underdressed, underfed and nearly without room and board. After a brief search, film and television actress Kristen Bell was chosen to play the ambitious young journalist who would stop at nothing to get her big break in network news.
“Kristen gets to play a real fish-out-of-water, a Los Angeles-based reporter quite unprepared for the rigors of the Arctic,” says Kwapis. “She’s not alone. Most of the reporters sent to cover the trapped whales had never experienced such forbidding temperatures, which often dropped to 40 or 50 below. Add to that a small town with few amenities (one hotel!), and you can imagine what a happy bunch those reporters made.”
Bell knew what would motivate Jill to hunt down stories about the animals that more seasoned reporters would be too lazy or too disinterested to find. “I think Jill always dreamed of being a reporter and was blessed with unending determination to thrive in a world ruled by men,” the actress offers. “She sees the potential for this story to be fantastic for her career and pitches it to her bosses at a time when no one else at the station will touch it. But once she arrives in Barrow, she gets hit with the hard truth that it is freezing cold and she has no winter clothing to fight the elements. Ambition is something she has in common with Adam, and they start a flirtation.”
Once the members of the romantic triangle were in place, other major roles soon were cast. Vinessa Shaw won the role of White House executive assistant Kelly Meyers, Boyer’s future wife. Dermot Mulroney joined the production to play Alaska National Guard commander Col. Scott Boyer, while character actor Tim Blake Nelson was chosen to play state wildlife official Pat Lafayette. Completing the principal cast was veteran television and film star Ted Danson, selected to play oil tycoon J.W. McGraw.
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