EIGHT BELOW - Q&A with Paul Walker & director Frank Marshall
Movie Interview by Neils Hesse
The London press conference
Frank it looked very cold on screen, and considering that you filmed in Canada, what was it actually like?
FRANK MARSHALL: It was pretty rugged, but it was much different than when I did ALIVE where we had the helicopter in everyday with the crew and the equipment every morning. This time we would get into our snowmobiles and snow caps and went up to this place that sort of served as a sort of Antarctic backlot where we had six locations within 5 minutes of each other on the top of this mountain that had no trees, so any direction you looked there was snow. This made it easier when the weather changed, because the weather was always changing. I wanted the movie to feel realistic, and I don't do well up in the office on a soundstage so it was nice to be up in the elements.
Paul, we are always told that actors shouldn't work with children or animals. There were no children in this film but animals clearly were. In the film Huskies are portrayed as being all loveable and loyal beasts. Is that how they really are or can they also be ferocious and frightening?
PAUL WALKER: Some of them are real sweet but they're a working dog first and foremost. They're not like a Golden Retriever who just wants to please and be petted at all times. They don't require a lot of human contact - they just want to work. We all had our favourites and those were mainly the ones that were highly socialised. I don't think that they'd make the best house pets especially not in Southern California where I come from.
Paul, are you as comfortable as your character was with dogs?
PAUL WALKER: Yes, where I grew up there was always a couple of cats and at least 2 dogs.
FRANK MARSHALL: Yeah I don't think that you could fake that. I don't know if it's the same as owning a parakeet, but one of the most important questions that I had for Paul when we first met was do you have a dog? And when he said yes I said that you're ninety percent of the way there because that bond and that relationship between man and dog, I don't think you can fake. It was really important for the character and certainly the minute he got up there I could see that he was very comfortable with the dogs.
Paul most actors get some rehearsal time with their cast members before they act with them, with your canine cast members did you have to bond with them before you did the filming?
PAUL WALKER: That was the focal point, that was the most important thing, not that it was all shot in sequence but everything involving the snow and the outdoors is what we shot first and foremost. The majority of that was all physical acting there wasn't a whole lot of dialogue, and I think that Frank knew that we the human actors would get our time together, and we went about it day to day depending on what Mother Nature had in store for us, she pretty much dictated what we did on any given day. It was important that I form a relationship with each of the dogs, sure we had trainers but ultimately they had to listen to me when I was giving them basic commands especially with Huskies being working dogs you have to earn their respect, much like you would with say riding a horse. A horse can sense if you are an inexperienced rider, and with these dogs they can sense if you are inexperienced with the sled. It took a long time with some of them especially to earn their respect. I spent up to a month doing 10-hour days just working with the dogs, prior to jumping onto the principal photography bandwagon. Then naturally it was a work in progress and by the end of the shoot I was more than proficient. We got on pretty good. I liked it a lot.
FRANK MARSHALL: I think that's a testament to Paul's ability to get to know the dogs because one thing as the director that was important to me was that the dogs were always in the same scenes as the characters and that we weren't cheating by cutting into close ups of the dogs doing something, and that required Paul to have a relationship with them otherwise they'd be looking out for their trainer. But he was always able to get them to focus. I also knew that this was going to be a challenge to direct the dogs and so we spent a lot of time with them. We actually shot for 4 weeks with just the dogs before we got the actors in, so that we could learn where we could put the trainers and how we could work the scenes to make them feel like they were real scenes. I wanted the scenes with the dogs to be like scenes with human characters, so that took a bit of figuring out.
Was Jason Biggs comfortable with the fact that he was going to have those many affectionate moments with the Huskies?
FRANK MARSHALL: Yeah Jason was a real trooper, he didn't like the baby food that we had to smear on him, but he was up for anything. I think that one of the nice things that happened was that the relationship that's in the movie between the two characters became the relationship that Paul and Jason now have. They hadn't met each other before they came onto the mountain and they're real buddies now.
PAUL WALKER: He earned my respect right away because he showed up with a broken ankle and he didn't tell anybody.
FRANK MARSHALL: I didn't know that he had a broken ankle. Luckily he had these big boots so he'd take out the inside of the boot and put his cast in there, and he was running around, it was amazing.
PAUL WALKER: He hid it as best as he could and I finally busted him, I saw him twisting it because there was so much pressure from the swelling, it was a removable cast essentially and I was like what's the deal here and he was like, "Ssssh!" That's when I decided I liked him.
So Paul do you know how Jason broke his ankle?
PAUL WALKER: It isn't much of a story, he stepped off a curb.
Paul, it's very much a buddy movie with a difference in that it's you and the dogs. After looking at your recent movies is it something that you were looking for, you know a change of direction, it's such a beautiful Disney product?
PAUL WALKER: Not so much I just read it and liked it. I mean to be honest when I heard the storyline the first thing I thought of was the Cuba Gooding Jr movie and not that it was bad but I thought that well I've already seen dogs in the snow. Then I read it and I was laughing, I cried and by the end of it I was feeling really good about things. And I picked up the phone called my representatives and said that I like this movie. I said to Frank that this is one of those rare occasions. It's not pretentious to think it is what it is and if we go out and make what's on paper, it should be a really decent movie. Frank said that the real pressure comes from knowing just that because then if we screw it up it's all our fault.
Frank do you find it more exciting working on action adventure films like this or say the Jason Bourne movies?
FRANK MARSHALL: I do prefer directing, whereas a producer I'm in support to the director but as in this case I found a story I was really passionate about and I wanted to be the storyteller and not be in support of that. I like working in these big canvases that are really unusual and showing people a place that they couldn't go to themselves, and having these adventure stories take place. I also love dogs. This one really had everything and it was a challenge to make as well. I think BOURNE is another genre and category that's also satisfying and rewarding. It's kind of a new franchise, with all due respect it's sort of a new James Bond - I love James Bond movies. I love this character of Jason Bourne but he operates in the real world, he doesn't have gadgets and fun things to get him out of tough situations. But for me being the director and being out there and being in charge was great and I had a fantastic time.
Paul they say that as an actor you should love every character you portray. Would you say that you fell in love with this character much more than any other character you've played because he was very similar to yourself?
PAUL WALKER: It's just one of those things. I felt like I was along for the journey when I read it so you don't really think in terms of what similarities there are. I just know that I fell for him and I understood it, and got the story. It reminded me of a lot of things. One of the first thoughts I had was OLD YELLER, which to me is an all time classic. I loved that movie as a kid and this film touched on a lot of the same notes. I'm an animal lover but I think that what was funny was my parents and my friends' reaction at the premiere when they saw it, and they said, "That's you!"
Paul in terms of physicality what would you say was the most challenging aspect of the film and also I know you weren't filming in Antarctica, but it must still have been pretty cold out there in Canada. How did you and your fellow cast members deal with the extreme temperatures?
PAUL WALKER: Well the good thing was that we were equipped, so I had the right parka and I had all the layers. Yeah sure it was cold from time to time but it never got to the point where it was unbearable. It was kind of the fun of the day when we'd get a blast of wind and old Kurt would be there with his electronics measuring the wind chill and at one point we saw more than 30 below Celsius, but it became more of a novelty than any thing else. I think it helped that the dogs were there, they take your mind off the job at hand and it was beautiful. You get caught up in the scenery and the vistas more than anything else. I expected it to be a nightmare and that was a good portion of my first conversation with Frank. I said, "Man we're going to have to have a mountain of crew not to mention some really tough doctors" and he said, "I know which is why I've got the best", which I didn't question after looking at his resume. He brought on Don Burgess who he boasted about as being a phenomenal guy and his level of fitness was exceptional. Sure enough there was Don Burgess our director of photography opting out of the ride to the top of the mountain, instead he was snow shoeing up every day and snow shoeing back down as well.
PAUL WALKER: Operating the sled doesn't require a whole lot of athleticism I think that anybody can do it. You just have to be aware because the terrain is always changing and it is a living machine. You do have dogs that occasionally fight, some of them have an attitude and they don't always listen. I'll tell you this much, I got up there and maybe my cardio wasn't as good as it should have been. I came home and my legs were probably a good 3 to 4 inches bigger around than they used to be. Just going through that snow everyday meant I could have ran a marathon when I got back to sea level.
FRANK MARSHALL: We had one great day when we had the helicopter in while they were searching for the meteorite which was kind of like an accident because the original part they were supposed to go to kept getting whiter and whiter and we needed to see the mountain. We finally found a place so I sent Bruce Greenwood and Paul in and I said, "Just keep going." They were pretty far away with just a little crew and they were climbing. I could see that even though they were further away they were thinking how many times are we going to have to do this!
Frank, I was quite impressed with Paul's sleigh driving. At the beginning he makes a sharp turn, I think he was being modest about his skill?
FRANK MARSHALL: Well that was the fourth take. The first three weren't so smooth but they got it in the fourth!
PAUL WALKER: The trick is that when you fall you have to get up and chase the sled.
FRANK MARSHALL: Oh yeah those dogs just keep going. They just want to run and run and run. You have to stop them with a command or a brake.
Frank, how many dogs did you audition for this and how did you manage to pin it down to the ones that you finally got?
FRANK MARSHALL: It was interesting because I knew that it was a kind of a dog ensemble movie and that the dogs needed to be pretty distinctive. You needed to be able to pick them out and they also needed to have a personality of their own. Basically I needed a different looking dog for each role particularly the lead roles of Maya and Max. I looked at a lot of dogs. I looked at 50 or 60 dogs that also had to have some semblance of training at that point. You couldn't just pick a dog off a website that looked right. They had to do a lot of things that required them to have been trained from when they were pups and luckily D.J. who played Max had the look of a pup and he had great energy. He was smaller and the trainers called him 'the cheater' because when he went to the mark he'd always cheat forward he'd never stay, he was always cheating in what he was doing. He had this sort of boundless energy that I was looking for in Max. And then Maya also had this wonderful face, this sort of motherly noble face, a really pretty silver colour, not very big and I was thinking that maybe she should be big but it sort of fell in once I narrowed it down. Then the twins sort of looked like each other, I just picked the two prettiest dogs I could find. Unfortunately the one poor choice I made which turned out to be Paul's favourite dog was Shorty the all white dog. I almost made a huge mistake when we were first putting the group together. I thought that the easiest thing would be to have the white dog be the leader. I'd just met these trainers and the head trainer who is a very quiet guy walks me over and said, "You don't want to do that". He was right. This dog was my nemesis. He would never do anything that we wanted him to do but on the sled he was fine. So his role was diminished in the movie.
Frank there were some days when you got quite frustrated with the dogs?
FRANK MARSHALL: Yeah we had two funny things happen. There's one scene where all the dogs come out at the top of the hill and they're all looking at the birds and the trainers got them all set and we rolled. Maybe they all had the urge at the same time but suddenly they were all off peeing everywhere! It was infectious. The hardest thing for the dogs to do was to look tired and hungry and when Maya is hurt and they're supposed to be following her we had to do this wide shot. It was difficult because there were 12 trainers for the six dogs and they had to be far enough away to be out of shot. Well the further they got away the less control they had and every time Shorty would just come bounding through, so finally I just took him out.
Do they actually sleep like that in the snow?
FRANK MARSHALL: They're the only ones that actually like to be out there in the cold. They have the fur and everything, and they stay warm by getting buried in the snow they all sleep outside.
PAUL WALKER: When they have their full winter coats, which they had for this movie, they look the prettiest. The trainers told me they're more than comfortable in minus 30 degrees Celsius, so if you bring them inside they're too hot.
Paul, speaking of the extreme temperature in the opening sequence, were you thrilled to be running out there in your boxers?
PAUL WALKER: I didn't find out about that until the day before we shot it.
FRANK MARSHALL: Well I thought that maybe he wouldn't want to do it.
PAUL WALKER: Conveniently enough it opened just about when INTO THE BLUE was screening so Disney heard that some people thought that I looked decent enough with my shirt off so they thought that it might be a good idea to start a movie with that. So I said to Frank, "Just know this, I'm not stupid!"
Paul, do you find it limiting in the sort of roles that you get because you look decent with your shirt off?
PAUL WALKER: Yeah, maybe. Maybe a little. But I don't mind having to chase things down, chase things that I like. Like RUNNING SCARED for instance. I'm extremely competitive so when people start trying to count me out or try to categorise me I start getting hungry so I think that it works better for me that way. I love those type of movies. I think that there's a certain time and place for different types. I like dark movies but at the same time when I've watched too much news and I'm feeling a little down I like to see something that's a little more upbeat and it just depends on the mood at that particular time and that's why I jumped on board for both these projects.
FRANK MARSHALL: One of the things we tried to do was to show the world about Antarctica's differences. For instance you have to warm up your ice cream and one of the other things we discovered in our research is there's this thing called the '300 degree club'. I think you go a little batty down there because there's no light and there's all that snow so they've created these games for themselves. One of them is when the temperature drops to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit. All those that want to join the club get into a room and pump in the heat and get it to 150 degrees Fahrenheit above and then they all run out and touch the south pole and then run back in. Crazy right! But it's a 300-degree swing so this was our sort of junior varsity version, it was a 131 degrees Fahrenheit, but they were out there.
PAUL WALKER: It still involves a lot of alcohol though!
Talking about crazy Frank, how many times did you make Paul and Jason run in and out of the sauna and in and out of the snow?
FRANK MARSHALL: I think it was eight, yeah eight times.
And what was the actual temperature when they did all this running in shorts?
PAUL WALKER: That was one of the warmer days actually.
FRANK MARSHALL: I'd say probably minus 10 degrees.
Frank why the change of title from ANTARCTICA as in the original Japanese movie?
FRANK MARSHALL: We didn't have the rights to use the title and in a funny way I thought it was a little bit National Geographic, but the basic reason was that another studio had the rights to the title. I liked EIGHT BELOW because it referred to several different things: below the equator, below zero and eight dogs!
And possibly eight takes of Paul and Jason in only their shorts?
FRANK MARSHALL: Yeah, I can add that to the list!
Paul could you tell us a bit about the upcoming Clint Eastwood movie [FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS] that you're in?
PAUL WALKER: It was a great experience. Clint Eastwood is a great guy. All the things you hear are true. I was there everyday, day in day out. It was tough but he never lost his cool, he was always in control. I liked it because it's not so much about the heroics - it depicts war for what it really is. These guys are now like brothers. These guys go off, they fight, their best friend dies right next to them and they don't cry about it. They have to push forward. The story is really about the unsung heroes, the guys that raised the first flag and all of whom were basically killed by the time the photograph made it back to the States. So these guys were pulled in to raise the second flag, which immortalises the second raising. The original flag was replaced because the marine core they love their souvenirs. They knew that first flag was significant, so they pulled it down. But what was immortalised was the photograph of the raising of the second flag. So those guys were called home. They were immortalised and they were labelled as heroes, and they were basically tools against their will. They were tools to help generate funding for the remainder of the war [World War II]. These guys were sent around on a nationwide tour to help generate several billions way back then - that's the gist of the story.
FRANK MARSHALL: When Paul talked about chasing down roles and things, he called me and he said there's this role that I really am moved by and I don't think that anyone's thinking about me for it so I encouraged him and I put in a couple of calls to say that there's a really good actor out there and you might not be thinking about him because it's a different kind of movie but I think that the perseverance really paid off.