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The film crew of the upcoming movie The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and Dermot Mulroney, gathered on a remote mountain set in Smithers, a small town of 5,500 in British Columbia, Canada about a 12-hour drive north of Vancouver. “There’s that great Sir Ernest Shackleton quote about what the ice wants, the ice takes,” says director Joe Carnahan.
“We certainly experienced that on the mountain. We were completely at the mercy of nature’s whims, and, as frustrating as it was, I also found it fascinating.”
From the get-go, the director insisted on realism, keeping actors hip-deep in snow and facing bracing winds on the mountain slope. “There were icicles on my eyelashes, it was that insane,” says Dallas Roberts, who portrays the character of Hendricks. “It was the coldest place I’d ever been in my life,” says Frank Grillo. “Eighty mph winds, freezing out there for hours. I’d be trying to say a line and my mouth wouldn’t move.” Says Carnahan, “We got kicked off the mountain three times by complete white-outs. I had partial frostbite on my fingers and toes.”
“Absolutely freezing — it shocked me to my very core,” concurs Nonso Anozie. Mulroney adds, “All the preparation you do on the script, the reading about airplane wrecks, the research into wolves — it all goes out the window. Because when you’re standing on a mountain and it’s 20 below zero with 60 mile an hour winds snowing sideways, none of that matters. You’re just being there.”
“You know, it’s tough to fake cold weather,” says Carnahan. “There’s a common tool used to create wind on screen called ‘the ritter fan.’ but when you see some of the windy shots in The Grey, there aren’t enough ritter fans in the world that could create that effect of what mother nature did to us up on that mountain. i could have set the script in tahiti with wild boars, but that didn’t occur to me. Instead, we were on this godforsaken mountain freezing our asses off. You can’t act it, you just have to behave it because it’s so damn cold.”
Says Mulroney, “When I say ‘cold,’ I mean intensely, painfully, near-frostbite cold. It was excruciating. Joe conceived of and wrote the movie with that in mind — man going through the most extreme conditions and harshest environment imaginable. He was determined to make a movie in which the actors truly suffered.”
“We got great stuff because of the weather, man, just some beautiful scenery,” says stunt coordinator turned actor Ben Bray. “There’s nothing that matches that look on a studio set or a soundstage. When audiences see us out there, it’s clear that it’s not a mock-up, it’s not fake, it’s not CGI. This is real snow, blowing at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, and it’s pretty gnarly stuff.” Adds Joe Anderson, who portrays young oil rigger Todd Flannery, “the snow became its own character.”
Conditions were challenging for everyone on the shoot, to say the least. “You could only access the set by snow cat or snowmobile,” says Carnahan. “There were no creature comforts out there. No perks.” In between shots on the mountain set, from 7:30 in the morning until late in the afternoon, there was no lounging in lavish trailers.
Because of the extreme weather conditions, the cast holed up in small tractor boxes and shipping crates to keep warm. The male bonding taking place over those long hours of below-zero temperatures led to some unusual circumstances while shooting.
Perhaps the most memorable incident took place when the gang of actors was literally buried up to their thighs in ice-cold snow, a white-out obscured everyone’s vision, and the camera operators faced serious problems with a planned crane shot because the oil needed to move the machinery was frozen solid.
“It was just a physically impossible time during the first few days,” Neeson remembers. “We had lines to memorize and our brains were freezing and all we could think about was how to stay warm.” During that unbearable moment, hulking British actor Nonso Anozie suddenly launched into a Shakespearian oratory about the elements from Othello in his booming baritone.
“He was just so exhilarating and it made us all feel so…right,” recalls Neeson. “It reminded us that, yes, it may be minus forty degrees outside but we’re actors, damn it, and we’re going to get through this scene no matter what. It filled us all with this great warmth, and I’ll never forget hearing that man’s voice for as long as I live.”
But months later the cast and crew recall the extreme weather really as something that bonded their relationships, in some ways reflecting the harsh struggles faced by the fictional characters in the script. Perhaps Bray, who portrays the character Hernandez, put it best when describing the dilemma faced by the cast.
“We play the riffraff, the ex-cons, the journeymen, the guys who are just happy to keep a job and get some time off to be with their families. We all seem to be completely opposite but, eventually, we’ve all got to work together as a team to try and get out. There’s this mystery about what is out there.
We’re in the middle of nowhere. We don’t know what’s going to happen. All we’re trying to do is survive and it’s a hell of a challenge. It really is. And it is really, really, really spooky.”
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