THE LIGHTER SIDE OF ANTARCTIC EXPLORATION: JASON BIGGS AS COOPER
Every expedition to remote places relies on the brighter things in life - friendship, laughs and enthusiasm- to help survive the harsh conditions. Providing comic relief to Jerry Shepard's Antarctic trek is his good friend, the wily cartographer Cooper, played by Jason Biggs who breaks out into adventure after achieving widespread popularity with his purely comic starring role in the runaway hits "American Pie," "American Pie 2" and "American Wedding."
From the beginning, director Frank Marshall felt the character of Cooper would help to add not only flashes of high-spirited humor but some Antarctic-style realism to the story. "When we were researching life in Antarctica, we found out that there are a lot of very colorful, quirky, unusual people who are drawn to working there, and Cooper is representative of that. You have to have a real sense of humor to live in those kinds of conditions and he really brings the fun factor to the story," Marshall observes. "When Jason Biggs said he was interested in the role, I was surprised and thrilled. He adds yet another layer to the film, making for a very, very rich ensemble cast."
Biggs couldn't put down the screenplay. "Man, did I want those dogs to be saved," he recalls. "I immediately thought it was a cool story. It was compelling and sweet and also heroic, and it felt especially moving since it's based on something that really happened. "
He was also quickly taken with Cooper's wit and gusto. "Cooper's an energetic, high-on-life type of person who truly loves being in a place like Antarctica. To quote Cooper, it's the only place on earth where you can have 20 hours of sunshine and all the snow cones you can eat. He equates that with sheer bliss," says Biggs. "But there's more to Cooper because he is also a loyal friend to Jerry. They're the kind of friends who give each other a hard time but underneath, they're always there for each other." Another draw for Biggs was the chance to bring his larger-than-life personality to his very first action film. "I'd been looking to do something different and this is a whole new genre for me - family adventure - something I've always wanted to do," he says.
Like Paul Walker, Biggs found himself both challenged and awed by the film's mountainous locations. "This was the real outdoors, with all its high and lows," he comments. "Here we were, shooting on top of this glacier, basically in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes I couldn't believe where I was. But I was constantly moved by the beauty that surrounded us and I learned that an actor in the wild gets to really let loose!"
Biggs didn't start EIGHT BELOW as a dog person, but he was soon irretrievably charmed by the devotion and skill of his canine cast-mates. "The dogs turned out to be awesome characters in their own right and great to work with," he says. "And I have to say, they're pretty good actors. In fact, I was quite envious of their performances!"
THE BUSH PILOT: MOON BLOODGOOD AS THE INTREPID KATIE
The fate of the dogs left behind in EIGHT BELOW ultimately rests in the hands of one of the film's most daring characters, Katie, Jerry's ex-girlfriend and the skillful bush pilot who is able to fly in the most treacherous icy and windy conditions. A steely, savvy and committed adventurer, Katie is the catalyst who pushes Jerry to face up to his conscience and rescue his dog friends. She was also one of the most difficult characters in EIGHT BELOW to cast.
Explains producer Pat Crowley: "It isn't easy to find an actress you can really believe would be able to fly planes and helicopters in antarctic conditions, someone who projects that natural sense of confidence in themselves, as well as the smarts and strength needed to live in this kind of world. We were so excited when we saw Moon Bloodgood. She might be just starting out in her career, but we were all unanimous about her star quality."
Beginning her career as a hip-hop dancer, Laker Girl and athletic model, Moon Bloodgood has been quickly rising into a new screen star, recently making her debut in "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton" and starring with Ashton Kutcher in "A Lot Like Love." Frank Marshall was especially impressed with her performance in EIGHT BELOW. "She brought so much to the character because she has this way about her that is just totally believable," he says. "She not only carries off Katie's intelligence and strength, she is someone you can see inspiring Jerry to move forward with his life."
Marshall continues: "I also thought it was important that Moon is a newcomer because she brings something very fresh and unexpected to the character that helps to make Katie totally unique."
Bloodgood was thrilled to have the opportunity, rare even for seasoned actresses, to play such a strong and powerful woman thriving in such an extreme environment. "Katie is a great character," Moon enthuses. "She's the kind of incredibly strong woman who can hang out with the boys, take all the jokes and be just as competent and tough as they are - and yet she can be quite vulnerable at the same time. She hasn't given up anything at all to be who she is and she lives life to the fullest."
When it comes to Jerry, Katie is one of the few people who has a deep understanding of his largely hidden emotions. "She knows that Jerry is a real loner and has problems with intimacy," explains Moon. "But she also probably knows him better than anyone and that's why she's able to play such a pivotal role in helping him to reunite with the dogs who mean so much to him." Paul Walker found that working with Bloodgood helped to bring his own character even more into focus. "She's just so natural as someone who is athletic and capable and feminine all at the same time. I think Jerry realizes deep down inside that Katie is the one person who could ever have a chance at tying him down and I think that scares him. With Moon, it felt very real and true," he says.
Moon felt similarly about Walker. "He's a lot more like a true outdoorsman and adventurer than an LA actor," she observes. "I felt like he was just perfect to play Jerry and we developed this great banter with each other. He gave me a lot in every scene together."
The actress loved working not only with Walker but also with Jason Biggs ("He's so funny but I don't think people know how sweet and down-to-earth he can be also," she says) and Bruce Greenwood ("Bruce is so sophisticated and smooth and sexy," she comments). But in the end, some of her favorite co-workers turned out to be of the fur-bearing variety. "I felt really lucky because I got to know quite a few of the dogs really well," she explains. "They're so cute and cuddly and having the chance to play with them made life on the set so much fun."
As for the physical hardships of production, the enthusiastic Bloodgood didn't mind them at all. "Sure, there were days when we had to face snow and wind and freezing cold, but how could I complain? It might have been a little tough at times but it was also gorgeous and awe-inspiring every day. I felt really blessed to be a part of this story."
THE SCIENTIST: BRUCE GREENWOOD AS DAVIS MCLAREN
It is scientist Davis "Doc" McLaren's relentless search for a mysterious meteorite in the vast, iced-over landscape of Antarctica that leads to the adventures of EIGHT BELOW. Playing Davis in a rare family film turn is acclaimed Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, who has appeared in two of this year's most critically admired films - "Capote" and "The World's Fastest Indian" - and is known for taking on a broad range of both independent roles, such as in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" and Istvan Szabo's "Being Julia," as well as Hollywood films such as "Thirteen Days," in which he played John F. Kennedy, Jr., and "I Robot" with Will Smith.
Greenwood was another well-suited match with the tough-to-cast role of a laser-focused scientist at work in the most remote part of the world. He grew up skiing and climbing in Vancouver, has trekked in such far-flung spots as the Himalaya and even worked on an oil rig for two years in chilly Northern Canada. As for playing a scientist, Greenwood didn't have to look too far for inspiration - his father is a geologist.
Clinching the deal for Greenwood was the fact that he has always been a huge fan of polar exploration. "I love true stories of adventure. I'd read all about Ernest Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica and Roald Amundsen's expeditions to the South Pole when I was a kid," he says. "So polar exploration has always been in the back of my consciousness and this was a chance to really get to experience it in a way, or at least thoroughly pretend to experience it..." EIGHT BELOW is an incredible journey in this antarctic environment and the story of two men struggling with their own consciences as they try to get back to save the dogs who saved their lives. Ultimately, I thought it was not only an exciting story, but a really uplifting one."
Greenwood was also intrigued by Davis's personal transformation during the course of the story. "The thrill of discovery is what it's all about for Davis. He comes to Antarctica with a very specific agenda of finding this magical meteorite - and at times his drive overwhelms his judgment," the actor observes. "It takes him awhile to realize that but when he does he changes as a person."
Davis also undergoes a major turn-around in his thinking about the sled dogs. "At first, I think Davis really sees the dogs as just workers doing a job, towing him out to his research and towing him back. But as the movie goes on, he begins to realize the profound dedication and love that drives them. As he watches Jerry agonizing over leaving the dogs behind, it begins to eat away at him and his conscience begins to keep him awake nights. Ultimately, he sees that he has to at least honor the sacrifice the dogs have made and try find them.
Unlike Davis, Greenwood was instantly impressed by his sled dog co-stars. "They're riveting creatures," he says. "It's so clear that these sled dogs really love what they do with a passion. When they're in the sledding harnesses, they're jumping around, barking, shivering with enthusiasm and as soon as they're given the word, they take off and it's just magic," he says. Riding on the sled behind the dogs was another exhilarating experience. "Suddenly, after all the frenzy and commotion it's smooth, fast and quiet, white and soft, it's a bit surreal."
Greenwood also enjoyed the company of the human cast, especially given the film's remote locations"Being up in the mountains for a long time can be challenging but with this gang it was a great experience," he says. "Jason Biggs is hysterically funny, Moon Bloodgood has such a positive vibe and Paul Walker was clearly the perfect person to play Jerry - he's so alive and real."
Frank Marshall was equally pleased with Greenwood. "When it came to casting Jerry and Davis, I wanted two opposite actors who, even before they say anything, seem to come from two completely different worlds. Bruce was great because he's played so many sophisticated roles - I mean he's best known for playing President Kennedy so he's got a very strong, intelligent, cerebral feeling to him that really comes across when he and Jerry are together on screen. The way he plays Davis you really sense that he's someone who is all about accomplishing his goals - until he realizes in the aftermath of this expedition that that isn't enough, that there's more to life and friendship."
RECREATING ANTARCTICA: THE DESIGN OF EIGHT BELOW
It is one of the least visited, least explored and least known parts of our world, the kind of place legends are made of - so how do you set a movie on the barely inhabitable continent of Antarctica? This was the question that faced the filmmakers of EIGHT BELOW head on. The one thing they knew they couldn't do was send a large cast and crew to Antarctica itself - where 200 mile-per-hour winds and temperatures so cold they can actually shatter steel are the norm.
"We had to find a way to get the authentic look of Antarctica without actually going there, but we knew we would still have to go somewhere very cold and remote," says Marshall. To solve the puzzle of finding high, dry, frozen environment within reasonable reach of an entire production crew, Marshall brought in his previous collaborator on "Alive," Robin Mounsay, a renowned location scout and technical adviser for mountain, glacier, snow, water and remote locations. "Robin is king of the mountains," Marshall explains. "He's an expert at finding these kinds of spots all around the world and is also a very valuable expert in mountain safety."
Mounsay had his work cut out for him on EIGHT BELOW, trying to emulate the truly unique conditions on Antarctica. The coldest, driest and windiest place on earth, Antarctica lies literally at "the bottom of the earth," at the planet's southern-most pole. It is a stark, other-worldly realm in which 98% of the land is covered with a thick and permanent sheet of ice, while the other 2% is simply barren rock. So harsh it was never historically inhabited by humans, Antarctica has remained one of the last true wildernesses on earth, where few souls other than seals, penguins and the occasional explorer dares to dwell.
Only a few thousand humans live in Antarctica each year, most of them scientists conducting expeditions in what serves as a kind of perfect natural laboratory for the study of such intriguing fields as extreme weather, polar ice caps, astrophysics, uniquely adapted plant and animal life, global warming, glaciers, marine science and meteorological phenomena. Since humankind first landed on its shores in the 19th century, the continent has drawn some of the boldest, bravest and most determined explorers and scientific researchers from around the world,
Robin Mounsay scoured the earth for a place that could stand in for this amazing realm and eventually found it in Smithers, Canada - a small, high-altitude ski town about 750 miles above Vancouver, British Columbia. Smithers sits on a dramatic, table-top plateau with 360 degree views of tree-less wilderness, the perfect place to replicate the wild icescapes of Antarctica. Mounsay also scouted areas in far-away Greenland, the magical Northern country replete with glaciers and coastal ice fields, where some of the film's most spectacular shots of nature were achieved. Additional scenes featuring awe-inspiring vistas were shot in Stewart, British Columbia, just across the border from Hyder, Alaska. Finally, icebreakers in Spitzbergen, Norway were commandeered for the exhilarating scenes in which the rescuers break through the Antarctic ice.
Arriving in Smithers, production designer John Willett found his crew working in minus 25 degree temperatures and such strong winds they could only work in short bursts or their hands would instantly be frost-bitten. Nevertheless, they persevered to build the main physical sets, including the camp for the United States Research Base, the Italian base, Mount Melbourne and Dewey's Drop.
Willett did extensive research on some of the actual bases that exist on Antarctica - in particular McMurdo Base, the famous American base where up to 1,000 personnel live in the summer months and some 250 remain encamped during the long, dark winter. Made up of dormitories, labs and canteens, McMurdo is a kind of village unto itself with its own unique culture created by its rugged, individualistic citizenry made up of explorers and adventurous scientists. "We wanted to create as much realism in the base as possible to make it more interesting and exciting for the audience," says Willett. "It's such a brutal climate that one thing we wanted to show in our sets is just how hard it is to live there and survive, even in buildings. It's an extraordinary environment, also like being on the moon. I think everyone has some part of them that is fascinated by Antarctica."
Shooting in Smithers wasn't quite as unforgiving and harsh as shooting in Antarctica would have been - but it wasn't exactly easy either. "We had constant challenges, especially due to the weather," says Frank Marshall. "Because the weather could shift dramatically in just ten minutes, we had three different scenes prepared for each day, so that we could do any one of them, depending on conditions. And even then, we were often working in the middle of cold, snow and wet. Just keeping the snowflakes off the camera lenses was a big deal - and we constantly worried about being able to see, to do playback, even to lay the cables in near white-out conditions."
With cast and crew wrapped in as many as 5 thick layers of thermal clothing topped off with down parkas and mountaineering goggles, at times the individual members of the cast and crew became downright unrecognizable! However, director of photography, Don Burgess, was happy braving the weather. Having cut his teeth shooting extreme documentaries, as well as climbing mountains, photographing world cup skiing events in Europe, and working on the winter movie "Runaway Train" in Alaska, he says he would rather shoot on the side of a mountain any day than on a Hollywood sound stage. An Academy Award®- nominee for "Forrest Gump," Burgess recently shot a more fantastical look at a wintry environment with the acclaimed animated feature "Polar Express."
Much as he loves adventures, Burgess had to make careful preparations for shooting EIGHT BELOW. "Before you set out for a film like this, the cameras have to be treated for cold weather and the lenses too," Burgess explains. "They have to be taken apart and relubricated, so that they can deal with extremely cold temperatures. You have to double the size of your batteries and you have to house the batteries, so that they're more protected from the cold. To get out in a snowstorm and get the equipment to perform properly and actually be able to get the shot is really challenging, especially when the wind's blowing hard and the bitter cold goes right through you."
Says producer David Hoberman: "Don has an amazing way with landscapes. He's given the film the epic scope to match the emotions of the story."
Just bringing people up and down the mountain in Smithers was a major obstacle - one solved by a quirky Swedish military vehicle known as a Haggland, which looks like a squat tank and a few of which could pull the 120 members of the cast and crew up the mountain in a matter of minutes. When Marshall first saw a Hagglund in Greenland, he immediately wrote the vehicle into the film's script. "I'd never seen anything like them before and I thought they were really cool," he says. "I wrote them into the story but they also came in very handy for moving people up the mountain in Smithers."
While most of the film was shot on location, a few scenes were too dangerous to shoot in the great outdoors. For the pivotal scenes in which both humans and dogs face danger in the freezing water beneath the ice, John Willett created what became known as "The Ice Set" on a big stage. "The Ice Set was a tremendous challenge but it was absolutely essential to the action of the story," Willett notes. "We had to create it to match actual ice fjords that exist in Greenland - I had been in Greenland four times by the time we designed it, so I knew what it had to look like - but it also had to be a place where we could operate the animatronic seals and where the dogs could perform. Creating the ice itself in an authentic way was very daunting and involved a 13-part process to mold several different kinds of ice, including clear ice, frozen river ice, frozen snow and iceberg ice."
Sums up Willett: "Any time you're given a chance to emulate nature it involves a fantastic creative effort. Nature is not something you can easily fool people with - so trying to create rocks or trees or ice or rivers is actually one of the biggest challenges in filmmaking."
Later, Oscar®-winning special effects artist Stan Winston's digital team was brought in to create the tenacious animatronic leopard seal for the epic battle with the dogs. Having worked with Winston on "Jurassic Park," Frank Marshall knew he was the only man for the job. "There is only one guy who can create this kind of exciting realism and that's Stan Winston," says Marshall. Once built, Winston's seal was covered in a thin layer of peanut butter to encourage the dogs to attack it!
Though the challenges were constant in recreating Antarctica on screen, in the end the filmmakers felt it was all worth it. "I hope people will be really knocked out by the world we've created," says Pat Crowley. "We wanted to take audiences on an amazing ride through a place most people will never go, while telling an epic story with a lot of emotional power."
ABOUT THE CANINE CAST
About the Filmmakers: FRANK MARSHALL (Director/Executive Producer)
DAVID DiGILIO (Screenplay)