Big Miracle available on Blu-Ray, DVD June 19th: interview with the film’s director, Ken Kwapis
June 15, 2012 by Dana Feldman
by Dana Feldman
BIG MIRACLE was inspired by the true story of how the world was united as one with the common goal of saving a family of three majestic California gray whales from certain death when they became ice-locked in the deadly waters of the Arctic Circle off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, in October of 1988. Directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), the film stars Drew Barrymore as an animal-loving Greenpeace volunteer and John Krasinski as a small-town reporter, as they team up hell bent on convincing an entire community of local Alaskan natives, oil tycoons and the Russian and American militaries to set their international differences aside and unite as one to free the whales. The goal was to bridge a four-mile gap with the Alaskans digging miles of breathing holes on one side of the ice wall and a Soviet icebreaker pushing the ice inward on the other with the hope that these trapped whales would be freed to open sea to begin their 5,000 mile annual migration. To note the importance of this time in history, this was before the Berlin Wall came down and two superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, regardless of their differences, came together for the good of these whales in what one might call a step towards world peace at the time.
Rounding out the cast are Ted Danson, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Bell, Vinessa Shaw and Alaskan-native newcomers Ahmaogak Sweeney, John Pingayak and John Chase. Jack Amiel and Michael Begler adapted the screenplay based on the 1989 book “Freeing the Whales” by Thomas Rose, a journalist and onlooker of the unfolding rescue. His story was originally released as an article in the now defunct Spy Magazine.
In October of 1988 a local news photographer sent video coverage of the whales breaching in a small breathing hole hewn from thick ice to NBC. That footage thankfully found its way from the bureau desk in Anchorage to anchor Tom Brokaw who reported the unfolding events on the national evening NBC Nightly Newscast. He delivered these words. “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.” As time quickly ran out, people who’d never so much as sit and have a cup of coffee together were joined in an effort that would prove life altering. This is the story that served as the inspiration for Kwapis to direct his tenth feature film.
Per Kwapis, “When I read ‘Freeing the Whales’ what I fell in love with was the potential for a great ensemble story. There was such a wonderful group of characters, each with their own agenda, and often these agendas were in direct competition.” Delving further, he explains the dynamic of putting these people together to solve a problem. “I loved that there were so many layers to the story. There’s the environmental layer, the coming of age story as we see a young boy who couldn’t care less about the culture and traditions of his people as he becomes connected to them for the first time, and there’s the old ‘the grass is greener’ lesson with John’s character.” He explains how Krasinski’s character dreams of escaping Alaska and ends up learning that some of the greatest stories take place in the least likely of places. Going further, he adds, “There’s the end of The Cold War, as well as the last two weeks of Bush’s presidential campaign. Many of the issues happening then couldn’t be more relevant today.”
In the middle of it all, he points out, are three trapped animals. “Whales are highly developed intellectually. One of my favorite scenes is when John is taping Drew and her initial report is very strident, very off topic. He encourages her to speak from the heart and what we get is that we ache for these whales because they’re so much like us and they know they’re in trouble. It’s very powerful to understand that they’re scared.”
The late eighties were not a time of the free-flowing information we have at our fingertips today. Other than CNN, there weren’t 24-hour newscasts like we have now, no Social Media, no Smart Phones helping to speed up the transmission of news. So, this was a story, which spread like wildfire globally, with help coming from the then-emerging use of satellite transmission. The story caught the attention of the Reagan White House prior to the upcoming November election campaign of then Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was positioning himself as a pro-environment candidate.
Of what Kwapis calls one of the most physically daunting films that he’s ever directed, he explains the experience of filming entirely in Alaska, “It was cold. It was fall towards winter and we lost daylight at a fast rate.” Quickly adding, “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.”
Kwapis explains that some of the shots of the whales in the film are real from the footage of the actual events in 1988. “There was a lot of footage that we combed through to use. But many of the shots are computer generated and many of the shots are of animatronics, robotics and hydraulics. We did a good job of creating whales that looked identical to the real ones.” They were built in New Zealand during months of pre-production inside the Auckland workshops of Glasshammer Visual Effects. There was also a whale pool built, one that was large enough to house all three simultaneously, allowing them to move freely and convincingly. “There was an underground tank and these were life-size and operated by remote control. Things could get tricky. When any weren’t working, we had to send divers into the cold waters of the tank to fix them.”
It was important to Kwapis that they not anthropomorphize the whales, but each was given distinct markings so that over the course of the film viewers could distinguish them. “People were really very emotionally invested in these whales.” Adding, “Our story covers the media circus that descended upon the trapped whales, but its main focus is the unlikely coalition of rescuers that put aside their various agendas in order to accomplish an impossible task.”
On June 19th BIG MIRACLE will be available on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD as well as On Demand from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. This includes UltraViolet (currently available in the United States only), the revolutionary new way for consumers to collect movies and TV shows and put them in the cloud where they can download and stream instantly to computers, tablets and smartphones. Included in the pack are deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage with introductions from Kwapis and a further look at the true stories that inspired the film, including interviews from the cast and crew, along with those who were there and experienced the rescue as it unfolded. Per Kwapis, “I’m really excited about the DVD and Blu-ray coming out next week. Sometimes it doesn’t always happen immediately, but if you tell a good story, people will find it. I think this film will be a wonderful, unexpected surprise for people.”
Watch the BIG MIRACLE movie trailer here.