IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Big Miracle'

Wednesday, 01 February 2012 13:57 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Big Miracle'

In 1988, the news cycle didn't work with the same rapidity that it does today, when a story can go from the center of global attention to virtually nonexistent in a matter of days or even hours.  Almost 25 years ago, big stories became big stories without so many competing 24-hour news networks, all manner of social media, immediate meme-dom, and the eventual backlash. 

It was a year that included an American presidential election and the release of Die Hard, but one particular story that captured the imagination and attention not just of America but of the world at large was that of three California gray whales surrounded by encroaching ice in the Arctic Circle.  Multiple nations and even conflicting interests united to find a way to get the whales, known affectionately as Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam, through miles of ice to the safety of the open ocean.

Operation Breakthrough, as it was known, was chronicled by Tom Rose in the 1989 book Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event.  That book inspired the new film Big Miracle, which dramatizes the events and stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, who respectively play a Greenpeace activist and the journalist who first discovered the whale family.  With the new family-friendly drama arriving this Friday, both stars were recently on hand for a Los Angeles press conference, along with fellow actors Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, and director Ken KwapisIAR's own Jami Philbrick was present to get these creative figures' thoughts on telling the story of Fred, Wilma, Bam Bam, and all those who aided in their journey.

The story as presented by the film might seem too perfectly dramatic to have been a real story that actually occurred, but Kwapis said, "It definitely falls under the category of truth is stranger than fiction. We took some liberties with some characters and events, but the actions in the film that are the most outrageous, for instance the simple fact of people carving a trail of holes across Arctic sea ice for five miles, actually happened."

Krasinski, who plays Alaskan journalist Adam Carlson, said that, not really remembering the real events, he was surprised by the material.  "I remember I read the script and I thought it was really great," he said.  "I thought it was really sweet. My concern was that it was like, I said to Ken [Kwapis], 'Yeah, it’s really good, but we have to cut back a little bit of this stuff. Some of this stuff is a little unbelievable.' And he’s like, 'Nah, it’s all true.'"

Since the story was so extensively covered by media outlets from all over the planet, Kwapis could draw upon extensive footage to subtly establish a since of verisimilitude to a story that could potentially be received as too earnest to be true.  "One of the goals was to present the story in a realistic way as possible," he explained.  "The period appropriate clips were an easy way to add credibility. I will say it was a really unprecedented thing to get all three networks to agree to let us use clips of prime time anchors of the day – Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather – but I also thought that the most important use of archival footage deals with the whales themselves."

He continued, "When the event took place in 1988, there were approximately 150 reporters there from everywhere… many countries sent reporters. There is a lot of footage, most of it shot on beta cam that happily still exists. We were able to access it and study it. We studied for a couple of reasons. I wanted to see how the whales moved and what they were like. What they looked like and what their textures looked like. I wanted to see what the size of the hole was – we wanted to recreate it so accurately that we could intersperse that actual footage throughout the film. So, there are many times where you see a bank of monitors in an editing bay and one will have the whales and the ice hole that we created side by side with the actual whales themselves from 1988. Early on when John Krasinski is in the editing bay creating his first news report, there are four small monitors and honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference from the real and the achieve footage."

The film is an ambitious one for Kwapis, a veteran of television and film whose credits include The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and episodes of series such as Parks and Recreation, Malcolm in the Middle, Freaks and Geeks, and ER.  He previously directed Barrymore in his last feature film, 2009's He's Just Not that Into You and he worked with Krasinski on License to Wed and multiple episodes of The Office.

"He was, in a good way, very stressed," Krasinski said of the director on this particular film.  "And I say in a good way because I think he understood the difference in the level he was trying to achieve in this movie versus the movie that I did with him and the movie [Drew] did with him and certainly The Office. That’s a little more low-rent than this movie. So I think he wanted to make it really, really fantastic and I think he knew immediately that the visual spectacle would be an essential part of the movie and, I think, he’s very aware that he, at this point, wasn’t known as the visual spectacle guy and he knew he could do it and he wanted to do it right. And I remember his shot selection and his preparation and going over the script he was so dedicated and it was amazing to see him do it because the movie I had done and especially on The Office, he’s so performance-based, and he still was on this movie, but to see him be able to be performance-based and do these incredible crane shots, I was just so incredibly proud of him."

Kwapis himself said of his eclectic background between film and television, "I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to do unique projects in both television and film. I feel that I can do some things in television that I can’t do in film and some things that are visa versa. What connects them, I think, is I feel like I gravitate towards ensemble stories working on a show like The Office. Developed on the show Outsourced, and a film like He’s Just Not That Into You or Big Miracle, I like the idea of judging a lot of story strands, a lot of different characters. I feel that television for me is a great laboratory. One of the beauties of television is that if something doesn’t work, that’s fine, next week we’ll try something else. In a way, it’s similar to what it must have been like to be working in the teens or twenties and making short two-reelers that have to get out quickly. Often times with feature filmmaking, every decision becomes very precious. There’s a lot of money riding on it as you know better than anyone. Studios don’t make as many feature films as they used to. Suddenly everything becomes critical. I think there’s, sometimes, a little bit of a more uninhibited feeling about television. At the same time, what I love about feature films I love the idea of something that unfolds over time. But, I also think about certain values that only work in a big screen environment, in a dark room, with a lot of people together. Boy, they’re different animals."

While the director's familiarity with Krasinski makes the two seem an obvious pairing, to Kwapis, the casting of Drew Barrymore as environment activist Rachel Kramer was equally clear.  "Drew was my first choice for the role," he said.  "Here’s why I really wanted her to do it: The role of Rachel Kramer is someone who is passionate, driven, maybe a little strident – maybe her antics are a little in your face. What I wanted to find is an actress who could be both fierce and very fragile. The great thing about Drew, she wears her heart on her sleeve. Her vulnerabilities are there for everyone to see. Everyone’s grown up with her. We’ve seen her stumble and fall in public. We’ve seen her get up and be triumphant in public. But always, she strikes me as someone who is open and available."

For Barrymore, the universality of the film's themes and its accessibility were part of the appeal, as she explained, "I think it’s also making it very personal rather than just soapbox-y, which I think this film is, I hope it achieves or is as good at in that way. It’s amazing how it touches on so many things that could be different today if they were different back then, but it doesn’t do it in a preachy, in your face kind of way. So I think the more you do speak from the heart, rather than thumping the agenda, I just think that’s what people listen or relate or open themselves up to more."

She was also thrilled to be paied with her lead co-star.   I was so excited about [John]," she said.  "I was! And I was like, 'Oh good.' I just think that Adam and Rachel, I just hoped that they would be just these certain kinds of people while he was struggling with where he wanted to his life to and she was doing the things that she wanted to do, I just wanted them to be good people and exude a good energy. And so I was so excited about doing this with John because I love his acting and I just think that he’s a good person, and you believe in that. And it’s true. So I was like, 'Oh please, this is ideal.' This is how this film would be, that this story could get told."

Regarding Barrymore, Krasinski said, "I really appreciated – and she’s going to say 'No' and blush and all that – but I really appreciated how professional she was. I don’t think anybody really fully understands what it’s like to be at the level that she’s at and the amount of responsibility that it is, and I think that I’m one of the people that feels very, very lucky to be there, but I’ve only been doing it for a certain amount of time, she’s been doing it for longer and achieving so much more than any of us could even hope to do and to stay so incredibly positive and so incredibly normal…you’d be surprised how much the sway of the day really wants to go to the negative, whether it’s too cold or lunch wasn’t good or whatever it is, there’s always a reason to be grumpy, and the entire crew will go with whatever the vibe is. And they all look to one person and usually it’s the biggest head-honcho on set and that was usually her and she was always so positive and it set the tone for the whole rest of the shoot. [Drew starts to blush] There she goes!"

While the film is anchored by Krasinski and Barrymore's characters, it is also very much an ensemble juggling a huge number of characters.  Shooting on location in Anchorage, Alaska created an atmosphere unique to big studio productions involved many recognizable actors. 

Dermot Mulroney, who plays Air National Guardsman Tom Carroll, explained, "The way they scheduled the movie, logistically we would make sense too, where you would do more or less the bulk of his story line and then move to the other story, depending a lot, of course, on the order of the locations and so forth, but, toward the end of the shoot, we all wound up working together. A lot of times on a film, you don’t even meet the other people that are in that cast; you’re just in the movie together, but since your scenes don’t cross… And in this, it’s one of those rare occasions where everybody’s working, the call sheet’s this long, everybody’s there from before the sun comes up until well after, since there’s so little daylight to work with. So, of course, we bonded over the adventure we were having and over the conditions and over the food like you would in one of those situations where, like the movie itself, where really different people are thrown into a common circumstance."

"This cast got along really well because everyone is kind of a goofball," seconded Kristen Bell, who plays a supporting role as reporter Jill Jerard in the film. "Ken Kwapis is the most genuine sort of goofy guy ever but he is so sincere and his heart was so into this picture. For instance, it was mandatory for him that we had animatronics life like whales so that we weren’t acting with a tennis ball. So that the whole group was looking at the same thing and we were able to between action and cut, feel something for these animals. On the off hours since we were in the middle of nowhere, no one in the cast or crew had friends or family in Alaska that I knew of, and no one could really travel because there were icy winds all the time, so we visited a lot of pizza joints. We saw a lot of movies; we played a lot of poker in each others' rooms."

Much of the cast members were playing real life figures or characters based on real life figures, presenting the opportunity for in-depth research.  Asked if she consulted with Greenpeace in preparing to play Rachel, Barrymore answered, "I did! I met with the head of Greenpeace and spent some time with him. They’re actually coming in DC for the screening. And I went and studied whales up in Seattle with Paul Watson, who did Whale Wars. And then I spent a lot of time with Cindy Lowry, who is the woman that I play in the film. And she’s just rad and a total badass and super cool and we really actually connected, which is the way you hope it will be, but maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we were like two peas in a pod, it was great."

For Mulroney, it was daunting, as he said, "This, I think it was more of a challenge because I wanted to honor him. He was really not only in this circumstance, but in others I heard of, truly a hero. And I had gotten to know his widow, so it took on greater meaning for me in terms of that. And like I said, I had the privilege of working with Vinessa [Shaw] in that storyline, so I think we did him right."

Shaw plays Bonnie Carroll, a member of Ronald Reagan's administration who was instrumental in coordinating the rescue effort between the myriad parties involved, including the National Guard, oil companies, and the Soviet Union.  One of the most unbelievable elements of the story is that Shaw and Mulroney's characters fall in love and end up married, but that did, in fact, happen.

Carroll was present on the set, providing an invaluable resource for Shaw.  "I think for me, the best part about meeting with Bonnie, is that we actually have a friendship now," she related.  "We really feel like we’re kindred spirits. We, you know, have the same aspirations to really change the world, and you know, we want to do more together and so, again, the whales have brought us together in a different, obviously as a friend, you know. So again, we’re constantly being romanced by these whales in many different ways. So it’s been amazing."

"We actually started talking while on set," she explained.  "I think I had already shot a little scene or something. But not any of the major stuff. But yeah, we started talking, in more depth, I would say, on set. And she came into my trailer and we talked for hours one day. It was awesome. Not just all about the script, it was about many, many things, and so um, yeah. I didn’t get a chance to meet her beforehand, so I had no idea. I really, truly didn’t have any idea how much more detailed and how much more story there was behind her whole life. Again, what her life was like in the White House and you know, working for the National Guard, and having met Tom and the details of when they first saw each other. Like all that stuff I loved hearing, and you know, their wedding, and of course what she does now for her foundation. I mean, she’s just a very full—yeah, has a very full life."

Bell, meanwhile, played a fictionalized character meant to represent different aspects of the media frenzy surrounding Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam, which presented a contrasting set of challenges.  Compared to playing a real person, she said, "It’s better and it’s worse at the same time. You don’t have anyone specific to draw on so you’re not sure that you are doing it right. But at the same time, I can certainly identify with the idea of competition. My existence is in a business where there is always someone better than you right around the corner. So the idea of that competition and that hunger and that aggressive dedication I could identify with because I have wanted jobs so bad and feel that Jill Gerard was just a mish-mash of all these journalists that thought that this was the story that would make or brake them and that they had to do a great job. Of course their storylines interlink as she looses herself a little bit … or maybe she doesn’t, maybe you just see what her true priorities are. She’s a little bit more selfish than everyone else and she’s not really in it for the whales."

Finally, Ted Danson plays a Shell oil executive who contributed funds to the rescue effort in order to build good publicity for the oil company and aid in an effort to open wildlife preserves for oil drilling.  That's a completely different perspective from Danson's own.  "Twenty-five years ago I started doing the environmental ocean advocacy work," he explained. "And then what I started merged into what is now Oceana, which is the largest international ocean advocacy group. But over the years, I’ve done – I started off fighting offshore drilling, which was going on by the way – Shell was wanting to open up I think it was the Beaufort Sea to offshore oil drilling when we were shooting up there. But for me, what was interesting, one of the things that was interesting was I had become friends with a lot of the people in the oil business because you bump into them, and you may be on different sides of the fence, but they’re really nice people doing jobs we’re basically asking them to do as a society. And so it wasn’t so hard for me to play this part at all. My guy actually ended up in jail for doing some not-so-nice things and everything, so I kind of felt I had carte blanche to make him as silly as I wanted."

The differing motivations between all the characters is part of what drew Kwapis to the material.  The director said, "Everyone starts this story with a different agenda, and they compete with one another. What I like about it, slowly, all of these people get out of their own way. They are able to do that because of their contact with the whales. Ted is struck by the whales. The Minnesotans is a lovely moment, then they see the whales for the first time, Rob Riggle’s face shows the power in the contact with the whales. It’s the commune with nature that changes every one of them."

Big Miracle hits theaters this Friday, February 3rd.

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