Tuesday, March 4, 2014

WORKING WITH WOLVES: the challenges of making "Never Cry Wolf" (1983)

It's been clear for a long time now to readers of this blog that "Never Cry Wolf" is my favorite film of all time. It's easy to assume it's because of the extremely sexy presence of Charles Martin Smith in the lead role, and that does indeed contribute to the film's appeal. But there's so much more about this film to love and admire. The writing, directing, music score, and especially the cinematography are all fantastic and perfect. But it could have turned out a very different film. It's kind of amazing that the end result is as flawless as it is. "Never Cry Wolf" had a long and difficult production that could have ended poorly for all involved. The backstory of the film's creation is actually one of the most fascinating aspects of this movie. Let me share it with you (along with a fine selection of promotional stills from my rather large personal CMS collection)...

"Never Cry Wolf" author Farley Mowat
First some background on the book: In 1962, Canadian environmentalist author Farley Mowat published a novelized version of his actual experiences spent alone for several months in the sub-Arctic wilds. Sent in 1948 by the Dominion Wildlife Service to investigate if wolves were the  cause of declining caribou herds, Mowat discovered that the wolves he was assigned to observe in their natural habitat were not exactly the savage killers he expected them to be. Commended by many, criticized by some, the book is now considered a classic.

"Never Cry Wolf" director Carroll Ballard
Fresh off the phenomenal critical and financial success of "The Black Stallion" (1979), filmmaker Carroll Ballard was chosen in early 1980 to replace outgoing director Louis Malle in bringing an adaptation of Mowat's work to the screen, a pet project of Walt Disney's son-in-law Ron W Miller. Disney Studios were in the midst of an image makeover, releasing PG-rated films of a somewhat darker tone, such as the creepy chiller "The Watcher in the Woods" (1980) and the sinister sci-fi of "The Black Hole" (1979). The time seemed right to produce what would be the most mature and adult film the studio had released up to that point. The retooled production was given the green light, as Ballard replaced the initially-chosen filmcrew with a new bunch of cinematic technicians.  Included in this fresh group, acclaimed cinematographer Hiro Narita provided the spectacular visuals, while frequent David Lynch collaborator Alan Splet created the film's exquisitely rich sound design. 

Ballard also decided the actor initially assigned to the lead role, William Katt, had to be replaced as well. "He was very good, and wanted to play the part badly" the director recalled in an interview. "But he was too handsome. I didn't want anyone who looked 'with it' because I thought it would undermine the character." I would agree that William Katt was a bit too prettyboy to play Farley Mowat's cinematic alter ego, and I'm extra happy he chose Charles Martin Smith as the new lead. I know CMS was not considered conventionally attractive at the time, but it's kind of funny to me that Smith's appearance in this film is in my opinion the ultimate visual representation of  handsomeness, despite the director's intentions. Ballard felt in the end that the casting of Charles was a very lucky choice. "We worked in very difficult locations for months at a time," he said. "Most actors would be screaming. Charlie was surprisingly enthusiastic. He waited for days just for the chance to jump over a rock."

"I was warned," CMS recalled in an interview. "The director said it would be the worst shoot I'd ever been on. He tried to talk me out of it. There were many times in the following months when I wished he had... I really don't enjoy physical discomfort, but I've always prided myself on the ability to do these kinds of things. There are probably a lot of actors who wouldn't have been able to do it." Originally, the plan was for four months shooting on location in Nome, Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia, Canada, followed by one month of post-production. Instead, the making stretched to 18 months of filming in the Arctic and an extra year and a half of post-production work. The shoot began in May 1980, with Ballard filming for 5 months, then taking a break for the winter before returning in March 1981 to film for four more months. "I spent two months naked amid caribou and wolves in the Alaskan cold," Smith recalled. "I also fell through the ice of a frozen lake and worked ten weeks in the freezing rain. Every once in a while, I remarked, 'Whatever happened to drawing-room comedy?'"

When the pre-production preparations ended and filming began, Charles was thrust into an adventure somewhat similar to the one his character experiences in the movie. "After we'd been flying for twelve hours," he recounted, "a bush pilot dropped me off in the  middle of nowhere. The only evidence of civilization was the tiny dirt airstrip we landed on. A truck was waiting, and I got in. Ten minutes along a dirt road, we had to stop for a grizzly bear that was blocking the way. He looked us over, scratched himself, casually wandered off, and we continued on. We drove for another hour and finally came across a little van in the road, with a camera on a tripod and everybody bundled up in parkas, huddled together. Carroll Ballard walked up , said 'Hi, we've been waiting for you,' and immediately put me to work shooting a scene that took five hours to film." 

For much of the ensuing shoot, CMS was the only actor on the set. "It was the loneliest film I've ever worked on," Smith said. When asked if it was hard to maintain his sanity, he replied: "It wasn't easy. I kind of went insane at times. The guys on the crew who stuck it out became an incredibly close-knit group." The shoot was extremely demanding, with Ballard refilming a scene many times to get it perfect, or sitting and waiting for the natural elements he wanted to present themselves. Shoots sometimes ran as long as 20 hours whenever the weather permitted, and filming took place 6 days a week. Cheryl Shawver, the film's head wolf trainer, remembered the experience: "We had to live in tents that were only two feet off the ground: the kind you crawl into and can't stand up in. It was freezing cold, and I remember falling asleep one night after a particularly hard day of filming. I'd been asleep for maybe two hours when someone jostled me awake and said 'The lighting is perfect, bring the wolves.'" Under this stressful schedule, many crew people quit the production. Eventually, Ballard was able to stabilize the shoot with a new assembly of technicians from Vancouver BC, replacing the freshly-departed Hollywood crew.

The harsh environment also presented many deterrents. "The wind was amazingly bad," Smith said. "I used to pray for it to die down. The first time it did die down, the mosquitos were so bad that I prayed for the wind to return. The black flies were worse than the mosquitoes because I was allergic to them. The first time I was bit by a black fly, my entire arm swelled up." Another Smith remembrance: "I got sick a number of times. Everyone on the crew did.  I got pneumonia at one point during the filming, and just about the time I got over it, Carroll got it." Then matters were complicated by the 3 month actor's strike of June 1980. "Had the production not been granted a waiver, (it) would have closed down," Smith said. "The film probably would have gone down the drain."

CMS with Brian Dennehy on location
There were a few brief stretches when CMS had other actors to share the shoot with. Brian Dennehy was featured in a supporting role, flying to the location for a few weeks work. In the final released film, he appears in only a few scenes. Two Inuit (Eskimo) actors, Zachary Ittimangnaq and Sampson Jorah, were also cast in the film. "Not being professional actors, they had none of the bad habits that you get from acting," Smith observed. "The cameras didn't seem to bother them. Their performances are so genuine that anything I did playing those scenes that looked the least bit staged would look bad by comparison."

CMS with Farley Mowat on location
Another person cast in the film was Farley Mowat himself. Although his scenes were deleted from the final cut of the movie, it did give Smith the opportunity to meet the man he was portraying in the film. The two got along quite well, and Farley shared many personal anecdotes with Charles about the real experiences depicted in the film. The actor was deeply impressed with the iconic environmentalist. "Farley is a dedicated, compassionate man," he declared. "There are things that he believes in and fights for."

Of course, we must mention the wolves too. Around 30 of them were used in the making of the film. Although trained animals courtesy of Hollywood and Seattle suppliers were used, one wild wolf did wander onto the shoots. "The fog machines were working full blast and the wolves were to run though the mist," trainer Chawver remembered. "At the end of the day, we couldn't find our black wolf, Igor. Suddenly, two trainers each shouted that each of them had found him. One trainer had. The other found a local wild wolf who was attracted to the commotion of making a movie." Another fact she shared was a little disturbing: "The wolves needed constant supervision. A trainer had to be with them at all times. There was a bounty on the animals and more than a few people around would have liked to claim that reward." The wolves spent 4 months in training before the production began shooting. "One of the most difficult actions Kolchak (the lead wolf) had to learn was to lift his leg on cue for a scene depicting the animal marking his territory," Chawver explained. "It took two weeks to train Kolchak to learn to do it. At first, he didn't like having his leg lifted, but he soon got the idea. One day, the crew filmed 57 takes of Kolchak just lifting his leg. It was amazing for a wolf to do that."

"The wolves used in the picture were trained, but they weren't that trained," CMS pointed out. " I had a number of face-to-face confrontations with them, but the edgiest was totally unexpected. It was a scene where the wolf was to sniff around the outside flap of my tent. The wolf hadn't read the script. Instead he ripped through the canvas as if it were paper, and came in behind me. I sat very still, afraid that he would panic and start biting me.  I said, 'Carroll, he's in the tent.' Carroll said, 'I know. Don't move. It's a great shot." After a moment, the wolf snatched a sock and ran away with it. "I had no fear of the wolves," Ballard said. "But the attack dogs... now, they were freaky." Seven attack-trained German shepherds were used in a dream sequence in the film depicting wolves attacking the main character. To make them appear more wolf-like, they were sprayed with tinted hairspray. 

One dangerous scene required the film's protagonist to fall through the ice covering a frozen lake. There were problems almost immediately. "These guys were professional ice divers," Ballard said. "They make their living doing surveys of marine life and such under the ice in winter. Well, right away two of them got into trouble - oxygen-regulator-freeze-up - and had to be hauled out. Scared the hell of them. Then the double tried to do it, and he got into trouble - an involuntary convulsive reaction to the cold - and he had to be hauled out. So then we were down to Charlie, and I asked him, 'Charlie, you want to try?' Charlie said sure, put on the gear, dropped into the lake, swam 50 feet under the ice, and did the scene. Not only once, but twice." 

Smith's description of the experience is even more intense. "The cold was bad enough," he recalled. "But it was the claustrophobia, the desperation of trying to find some way to get out, that got me. My parka weighed a ton. It dragged me down, all I could see was ice above me, and I thought I was going to die trying to climb out of there. When I finally managed to struggle out, exhausted, coughing and gasping, Carroll Ballard came over from behind the camera, and said, 'Charlie, you played that scene well,'" 

The most difficult sequence of the entire production was the scene which had Charles Martin Smith running naked among a rushing herd of caribou that were being attacked by a pack or wolves. Two months (and over a third of the budget) were spent capturing it all on film. Because of multiple complications, the scene ended up split over two shoots: the first in June 1980 and the second in June of the following year. "We had to go all the way to Nome, Alaska, to do the 10 minute sequence," Ballard described. "We had to move a whole pack of wolves, the crew and a ton of gear to a place that really is the end of the world. The first problem we had was finding the caribou. There are a couple of wild herds in Alaska, but no way you can get to them. The herds travel 50 miles a day. We had to negotiate to borrow the caribou from local reindeer barons, Eskimos who raise big herds of the animals for the fuzz on their antlers, which they can sell to the Koreans as an aphrodisiac. It was unbelievable what these guys wanted. Some of them wouldn't even talk to us. One guy wanted us to buy him two helicopters in exchange for letting us borrow his reindeer. 

"We eventually made a deal but only had a few weeks to shoot the sequence," Ballard continued. "It rained for the first ten days. On the eleventh day, Korean businessmen arrived on the scene with briefcases full of money for the fuzz. On top that, the reindeer were always moving to where we couldn't find them. The tundra in Nome is covered with water in the summer, so we had to fly in horses that could move around in the mud and water to round up the caribou. The problems filming that scene were almost never-ending. We worked for seven days a week for four weeks from seven in the evening to 11PM, then one in the morning to seven. It never really gets dark in Nome in the summer."

Mr. Smith also vividly recalls the experience. "It's only a ten minute sequence, but we shot for twelve hours a day to get it. We fought the weather. Up there it changes fast. In May, the Bering Sea has pack ice. It looks like the north pole. A month later, the sun goes high and stays up. In between, you catch all the storms that blow off in the Gulf of Alaska. Besides racing the weather, we raced time. We had three weeks to film the caribou before they were driven to Nome for dehorning. We also had to shoot the wolves chasing them, and last but not least me- running naked among them. I would crouch in the bushes, they'd get the caribou started and pop the wolves out of their cages, there'd be total chaos for about 20 seconds., and then the caribou would be gone, and I'd sit down and wait. In about two hours they'd be back in position, and we'd do it again. We did this every night, from 6PM until 6 in the morning, until we had enough little pieces to get the caribou footage. Then we filled in with running shots of the wolves and me." 

Another interview I found has Charles describing what the typical day was like when working on this particular sequence, and it gives you some idea why it took up so long to shoot. "They took me in a boat around to the end of the peninsula," he remembered. "It was all organized like D Day - serious and hush hush. I scrambled out of the boat and quickly took my clothes off on the beach. I was supposed to spring up over the top of the embankment, surprise the caribou and run among them while the cameras rolled. When I went over the top, though, they were already long gone. The point is you can't just sneak up on caribou -- they make their living not being sneaked up on."

As the production stretched into it's second year, the exhausted crew began to jokingly call the film "Never Cry Wrap." The original script by Samm Hamm was re-written mid-production by Curtis Hanson, then revised again by Richard Kletter. The story doctoring continued and expenses mounted as others in the industry began describing "Never Cry Wolf" as "a movie without a budget or a script." Disney Studios was starting to panic, and began to pressure the crew to finish filming. Supposedly at this point, the shoot was costing a reported $50,000 a day. The plug was nearly pulled before shooting was finally completed in June 1981 (shortly after the 2nd caribou shoot), and the cast and crew returned home the following July.

After such an incredibly long time on location, it's no surprise that Carroll Ballard came back from Alaska with a massive amount of footage that somehow had to be shaped into a coherent motion picture:  about 3/4 of a million feet of film. "It was like putting together confetti," Smith described. As Ballard waded though what he called "oceans of film," he realized that "the problems in shooting were nothing compared to what we had to go through in the postproduction work." Around October 1981, Ballard asked Smith to help him with the work-in-progress, and by Christmas that year they had a rough cut of the movie that was approximately 3 1/2 hours long to screen for the studio executives. "I guess it was at the end of that screening that I realized it was not going to be a smooth flight."

Ballard then cut the running time down to 2 1/2 hours and added a new narration (written by Charles Martin Smith with the assistance of Eugene Corr & Christina Luescher and spoken by Smith). This 2nd version was screened for the Disney execs, but they did not respond well to it either. "I think they were honestly appalled," Ballard recalled. This version was also screened at a sneak preview in Seattle, which Ballard described as a "total disaster." So he returned to the cutting room and removed another fifteen minutes, including the opening sequence recreating Mowat's arrival in the small town of Nootsack (the last bit of civilization before traveling into the wild). This 3rd version was previewed in San Francisco, and once again the audience did not respond well. At this point, Carroll Ballard had been struggling with editing "Never Cry Wolf" for over a year, and Disney Studios were becoming increasingly frustrated with the situation. "Ron Miller gave me an ultimatum," Ballard explained. "Either finish the film by January 1983, or they would take it away from me and finish it themselves."

Filled with despair, Caroll Ballard finally found hope when he received a new score for the film, written by Mark Isham (the first of many motion picture soundtracks he would go on to compose). Inspired by the beautiful new music Isham had created, Ballard finally found the core of the film's story, restructuring it and bringing a powerful focus to the narrative (as well as adding some of the opening sequence back to the movie, minus Farley Mowat's cameo). Lastly, a roll-up prelude was added to the very beginning of the movie, written by Ballard and naturalist Peter Matthiessen (author of "The Snow Leopard" and "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse"). That magical balance of elements was finally achieved with this 4th cut of "Never Cry Wolf," and it was this version that was screened at one last sneak preview in Arizona in the spring of 1983. This time, the audience responded very favorably. At last!

The film's final budget? $12 million, well over twice the original budget.

"Never Cry Wolf" was released to theaters on October 7th, 1983. Almost unanimously praised by critics, the final box office was an impressive $29 million (nearly $70 million when adjusted for inflation) with a theatrical run that lasted for 27 weeks. Three years of incredible hard work and dedication finally paid off. "If I had it to do all over again, I would without hesitation," Smith claimed proudly. "It's rare an actor gets a part as good as this in a picture that had the integrity this one has. Also, I was much more closely involved in this picture than I have been in any other film. Not only the acting but writing and the whole creative process." In another interview, he had this to add: "Some of my friends tell me I am crazy to stay with a movie so long. I figured I had gone that far with it, I might as well finish. Besides, I believe in it. 50 years from now, people may look at 'Never Cry Wolf' and say 'What a great movie!' Maybe I killed my career in the meantime. But... it was worth it."

Surprisingly, the film was nominated for only one Oscar (for Best Sound). However, the number of reviews praising the film were astounding: "One of the 10 best films of the year. There are sequences in this movie what will make your jaw drop open out of genuine amazement" (Newsweek). "Something splendid" (Time) "One of the most breathtaking films of the year" (Los Angeles Daily News). "A wonderful movie in the fullest sense of the word" (San Francisco Chronicle). "'Never Cry Wolf' is deeply moving. It's a film of great physical and spiritual beauty that can also make you laugh out loud" (Los Angeles Magazine) "The photography of the wolves in this movie is unforgettable. In fact, this is one of the best movies I've ever seen about man's relationship with the other animals on this planet" (Roger Ebert, At The Movies).  Today, the film currently holds a certified fresh score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. 

Farley Mowat in 1983
One of the strongest endorsements for the film came from Farley Mowat himself: "I am convinced that 'Never Cry Wolf' will be the most important film in many years. Not important to the wolves, although it will be that too, but important to mankind - to the master species which is also, alas, the unmastered species. It's a film that stands the chance of changing, if only to a minute degree, the way we look at ourselves in relation to the rest of animate creation."

"The really incredible movie to make would be a movie about making this movie," Ballard had said at one point. "It's just endless craziness... unbelievable." After finding out the incredible backstory, I really wish someone had. Isn't it just begging for a deeply compelling documentary? There was actually a behind-the-scenes TV special aired just once (from what I can tell) back in January 1983, but it's been impossible to find anywhere. Believe me, I've looked hard for it. It would make an excellent bonus feature on the "Never Cry Wolf" DVD, but all the official releases have been very bare-bones. What a missed opportunity... I still feel strongly that a new documentary made today would be amazing, taking it's place alongside other great film-on-film docs like "Burden of Dreams" or "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" to name a few. 

I leave you with a link to the episode of "At The Movies" from the fall of 1983 where Siskel and Ebert both give an enthusiastic "two thumbs up" to this awesome movie. See you next entry with more love for CMS and "Never Cry Wolf!"

The facts and quotes presented in this blog entry were drawn from the following sources:

"Never Cry Wolf" Press Kit
"Never Cry Wolf" Press Book

The Disney Channel Magazine (April 1985)

"Never Cry Wolf" pages on Wikipedia and IMDb

"Filming 'Never Cry Wolf'" by Bruce Brown (published in New York Times Magazine, October 16 1983)

"Charles Martin Smith Ran Naked Among Caribou" AP story (September 20 1983)

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