The Frozen Ground - shooting in Alaska
Between promoting his first feature film The Frozen Ground (starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack) and taking care of his new baby son, New Zealand-born director Scott Walker took time out to talk to us about the making of the film. He told us about all aspects of the production, from development and casting right through to getting caught in the worst superstorm Alaska has seen for three decades.
The Frozen Ground is a thriller starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens. It is based on the true events of the 1980s when a huge manhunt was underway in Alaska for serial killer Robert Hansen (Cusack), who stalked, kidnapped and murdered between 17 and 21 young women, burying them in the Alaskan wilderness. Real-life Alaskan detective Glenn Fothe undertook a personal crusade to bring the killer to justice; in the film he is portrayed by Cage as Sgt Jack Halcombe.
The birth of the film
The film actually started out as a fictional piece, until someone pointed out to Walker that it was very close to the real life story of the American serial killer Robert Hansen. So the filmmaker started from scratch and hired a research journalist and a court researcher in Alaska in order to get hold of every media and case report. Walker explained how things really gathered pace after he went to meet the real cops involved in the case.
“At this stage we were still unfinanced, but CAA [agents and producing powerhouse] were hugely behind the script. I met [producer] Randall Emmett who read the script and phoned CAA to arrange a meeting about the finance. He said he could get me a meeting with whoever I wanted but it was up to me to see if they will follow my vision… So Nic Cage came along, I showed him all the research, he read the script and really liked it. He thought it was something new for him - a real opportunity to do something where he is almost a ‘normal guy’ character, something very straight.”
Walker then met John Cusack who had lots of questions about how Hansen was going to be portrayed. The director stressed that he wanted it to be “very real, authentic and convincing”, based on Hansen’s transcripts and the FBI profiling, not a “Hollywood monster version. “
“Vanessa [Hudgens] came on late in the process, and when she read for the role of Cindy, she hit every one of the character’s emotional beats I was after. All the actors were amazing, and it was a dream to have such a cast on my first feature. “
A high profile first
Before The Frozen Ground Walker had only made one short film, and was keen to learn as much as possible about the whole process of feature filmmaking. In the event he ended up doing pretty much every single thing himself to make it happen.
“I just wanted to experience the process, with not so much emphasis on what the end product would be. I knew then I never wanted to make another short film again, that it had to be a feature next”, Walker says.
“I certainly learnt about what not to do. I spoke to [producer] Mark Ordesky who advised me to forget all imitations - just to write something really inspiring, something that grabs you. He said if it’s good enough, the money and stars would follow. So I went back to him after about 40 drafts. He said it was great and wanted to produce it – he had just left New Line [after 20 years] to set up his own company, Court Five.”
Shooting in Alaska – the deal breaker
Walker was absolutely emphatic that the film had to be made in Alaska.
“To me it was a deal breaker: I wanted to use as many of the real locations of the case as possible and wherever we could, we did. The time when we couldn’t, we got as close as possible. For example the building we used for Hansen’s house was on the same street as his real house, just one block down. We also filmed exactly where many of the actual bodies had been found.”
The team got “amazing support” from locals, State Troopers, Anchorage police, government, business owners and locals.
“It was great to use as much local support as possible. It is such an Alaskan story, it needed to be told in Alaska. I had received other offers of finance that weren’t going to be using Alaska, and I said no. It was an absolute deal breaker.”
Film commission support and logistics
The director found the Alaskan film commission “terrific”. In his experience, there are two sides to shooting in Alaska: the first is the great tax incentive, which he says is “probably one of the best in north America. But the challenge is, according to Walker, that due to a lack of big productions, equipment needs to be brought in from elsewhere, as does many of the crew.
“It’s changing, but we had to put everything on huge trucks in LA, drive it to Seattle, then put it all on barges to get to Anchorage; the barge trip alone took four days. This is how Sean Penn made Into the Wild in Alaska in 2007.
“Local crew are available and they’re great, but there are just not enough of them. There may be one guy who’s got the experience you need, but if he’s not available…. You definitely need to bring in your HoDs. In total, we brought in two thirds from outside, with the rest local – a pretty good ratio.
The extreme weather challenges
“Alaska is amazing if you want to shoot in summer, there are days with 22 hours of sunlight, so you can shoot for a long time then. The opposite is that in winter, in Anchorage for example, there are maybe six hours of daylight. The weather is either absolutely beautiful and hot and summers are incredible, or you get a winter that’s minus 20-30 celsius plus a wind chill factor. Together with 50 mile an hour winds, that’s really cold.”
The writer/director really wanted the overall movement and feeling of the film to be: no snow in the beginning, and then snow at the end, to give the impression of the “whole film becoming frozen”, with the weather just closing in on the city and the case. “That meant I had to wait until October to shoot so we actually had to wait five months until filming.”
Everyone thought he was nuts to try to predict when it’s going to snow up there, but Walker said he’d rather take a guess and hope for the best. During the second weekend of filming, after ten days’ shooting Scott got a flurry of texts telling him to look outside.
“There was about two feet of snow coming down. Amazing. We then got hit by the largest superstorm in Alaska in 30 years. I didn’t even know there was a thing called a superstorm, but when this thing hit it destroyed villages even small towns. It got bitterly cold. Things got very bad: we were shooting out on the river in the wilderness with 50 mile an hour horizontal sleeting rain, even helicopters being grounded. And there was Nic Cage standing in jeans and a jacket.”
The shoot on The Frozen Ground was just 26 days in total, with many of these having very little in terms of hours of daylight, sometimes as few as three and a half.
“On the last day of shooting the sun rose at 10am and set at 3.30-4pm so you’re suddenly looking at a six hour day to shoot in. I chose to do it that way and I chose to do it there because I wanted all of that to help impact on the cast, and the authenticity of how the film looked.”
Choosing the right camera – a vital decision
“We shot on Arri Alexa, which was an amazing camera. We had done a lot of tests and decided it was more reliable and better than the Red at the time, just in terms of the curves of when you hit a really white shot. When you had a lot of snow and bright light, the Red just couldn’t handle the high end, it cut off abruptly.”
The team had been shooting aerial stuff with Red, but found that, where there were places with great big stormy skies with the sun bursting through, the shots would come out in places with no image, just a hole in the picture.
“That wasn’t the case with the Alexa, which was interesting. There weren’t too many problems with the weather affecting the kit, just things you would expect like the lenses frosting up. You can take common sense precautions.”
Overview of Alaska
Remarking on the overall experience of filming in the northerly state, Walker said Alaska was an incredible place to film, and would love to go back.
“I come from New Zealand where there’s a very ‘can do’ attitude - you’re at the end of the world and nobody’s going to figure it out for you. You learn to improvise. Alaska is in the same situation and the people are very similar. You hear things like: “Do you want to shoot here? We can’t get trailers up here, but I’ll build you something”. And suddenly you’ve got a wardrobe or make-up shed. It’s just epic. I’d love to go back there and do something else.”
When asked what was next for Walker, who certainly can call his first venture a success, the director said: “There are a couple of films I’m looking at making, both based on true stories again. One is about Mexican drug cartels and one about the First World War. Oh yes, and we’re also just starting creature design on a werewolf comedy, very cool!”
KFTV would like to thank (the charming) Scott Walker for his time, expertise and insight into filming in Alaska.