Whale watch: Ken Kwapis recreates real-life rescue story in 'Big Miracle'

Based on a real-life incident, Big Miracle recounts efforts made to rescue three icebound whales near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Coverage of the whales by a Barrow television reporter inspired a media sensation when it was shown on an NBC news broadcast. Soon Barrow was overrun by journalists trying to provide their own spin to the story.

At the time, director Ken Kwapis was paying more attention to the 1988 Presidential campaign than to the whales. But while researching Big Miracle, he was surprised to find how much time network television shows allotted to the story. Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, a book by Thomas Rose, summed up the more cynical attitude of some about the incident.

Writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler came across Rose's book in 1992. In 2001, they began adapting Freeing the Whales for a feature film, first at Warner Bros. and later with Working Title and Universal. Kwapis, who had just finished He's Just Not That Into You at Warners, chose the script as his next project.

"Tom Rose's approach to the story was almost entirely a satire of the media circus that descended around these three trapped whales," Kwapis says by telephone from Los Angeles. "Warner Bros. decided that there was nothing unique about satirizing the media. What Warners wanted, and I was 100% in favor of this, was to strike a balance, so that the story was as much about the rescue as it was about the journalist." Working Title and Universal, the eventual producers of the project, also agreed with this approach.

Finding a balance between drama and satire, between developing interesting characters and remaining true to historical fact, became key for Kwapis and his crew. "One of the films I used as a role model when working with the writers was Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff, based on the Tom Wolfe book," Kwapis explains. "The Right Stuff manages to skewer the early space program at times without ever putting it down or losing its sense of wonder about space travel."

Kwapis and his director of photography John Bailey also discussed how David Lean "sort of wrote the book on how to tell a story that was at once sweeping and at the same time very intimate. For me, the sweeping aspects of the story are meaningless unless the intimate, interpersonal stories are working, some emotional thing you can really hang your hat on."

Chief among Big Miracle's parts are local reporter Adam Carlson (played by John Krasinski), who is itching to move on from Barrow, and environmental activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), who sacrifices her personal life to pursue quixotic goals. The ensemble cast also includes Kristen Bell as a mainland reporter who has to adapt quickly to Barrow's frozen landscape; Dermot Mulroney as a colonel in the Alaska National Guard; and Ted Danson as an oil tycoon who wants permission to drill in the Alaska Wildlife Preserve.

"All of the characters have different and often competing agendas," Kwapis points out, "and they somehow had to figure out how to put them aside in order to solve a seemingly impossible problem: how to move three huge marine mammals through five miles of ice." The director starts laughing when talking about Danson's character. "The idea that a character like Ted's would get involved with saving animals in order to basically endanger the environment I thought was really good."

Kwapis insisted on shooting in Alaska, although studio executives kept pointing out that it would be easier, and cheaper, to shoot in Vancouver or Manitoba. "I said, 'We can't get the people wrong in this,'" the director remembers. "We took pains to characterize the Inuit of the North Slope of Alaska in a way that was straightforward, without condescension. They are the most important landscape in the film. So I couldn't cast anyone but true native Alaskans: Iñupiat and their Cup’ik, Aleut and Yupik neighbors."

The director cast some native Alaskans even though they had never acted in front of a camera before. John Pingayak plays Malik, a grandfather troubled by challenges to his tribal community, and Ahmaogak Sweeney is especially impressive as a youth lured by a Western culture of Walkmans and heavy metal. Preview audiences responded to their relationship, and to how Malik and Carlson seemed to be competing over the grandson's loyalties. "You could tell a whole film just about these people," Kwapis says. "The issues Ahmaogak faces are something everyone goes through. In this case he is not just rebelling against his parents, but his entire tradition, his culture."

Along with juggling several storylines and characters, Kwapis faced other challenges brought about by shooting in Alaska. "Whenever you embark on a motion picture, I think a certain level of denial is required," he says ruefully. "You have to look squarely at the challenges and then ignore them. In addition to the ensemble cast, on this film we had to deal with really bitter cold, ridiculously unpredictable weather, a dearth of daylight, and three animatronic whales.

"Since we were shooting in the fall, we were losing three minutes of daylight a day. By the end of the shoot, we were doing split days, half on location and half on sets."

The whales—here nicknamed Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm—depicted in the film are a combination of archival footage, used whenever television screens are seen in a shot; computer-generated imagery, for underwater shots and for effects involving spouts; and the animatronic whales made by Glasshammer, a New Zealand effects house.

"We tried our best to avoid anthropomorphizing the whales," Kwapis says. "I was very nervous about presenting a cartoon version of the whales. I wanted you to be attached to them as characters, but at the same time I didn't want to endow them with human characteristics."

Watching Big Miracle, it's difficult not to get swept up in the emotions of the story. The plight of the whales would strike the same chord if the incident occurred today, but the movie raises other issues, alternately moving and troubling: the loss of Inuit traditions, the compromises inherent to journalism, the choices individuals must make between career and happiness. There are no easy answers in Big Miracle, and the film's upbeat ending comes with a price.

Kwapis and his crew didn't just recreate a world before cell-phones and laptops, they captured a sense of innocence and cooperation that seems all but lost today. They also did it in a seamless style that incorporated archival footage from several sources. Kwapis sighs with exhaustion when asked about clearing rights for footage. "The fact that we were able to include all three network anchors at the time, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, indicates that we managed to work things out."

Because they were relying so much on archival footage, Kwapis and his cinematographer John Bailey worked out a visual style "that gave you the sense that the action was being captured as opposed to choreographed for the viewer, that the camera was eavesdropping on scenes. Particularly out on the ice itself, the framing is less precious, the compositions don't feel quite as manicured."

The director is quick to point out the darker currents of the story. "I never thought of the film as being a parable of bipartisanship," he says. "It would be amazing to see our current politicians put aside their differences to solve problems, but that's not really what this film is about."

Instead, the director points to the relationship between Malik, a whale hunter, and Rachel, a Greenpeace advocate. "Rachel is convinced that she has to stop the hunting of whales, she sees herself as protecting whales from the natives," Kwapis explains. "What she comes to discover paradoxically is that the person with the deepest, closest relationship to whales is the hunter, Malik. If there is a message in Big Miracle, it's that you need to try to always be able to reframe how you look at someone else. Working together isn't enough, we have to be more realistic about who people are and what they want."

Much of the success of the film is due to Drew Barrymore, who has rarely seemed this direct and fearless on screen. "Drew's secret weapon is that over the years she has generated an immense amount of goodwill with viewers," Kwapis says. "Viewers think of her as someone they could be friends with. Not all actors are like that. And viewers know all about her, her baggage is not a secret. I think it works completely with the character, of someone who is her own worst enemy. I wanted her to go to a place with this character that was strident, in your face, a bull in a china shop."

Describing her commitment to the role, Kwapis reveals that she lived completely in character. "She took it seriously," he says. "During the shoot she corresponded only with an IBM Selectric typewriter, because that's what her character would have had. No computers or e-mail."

Kwapis shifts frequently between television and feature films. He directed pilots for such well-regarded series as “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Office,” where he was instrumental in casting Krasinski. He is currently working on three pilots, including one for NBC starring Sarah Silverman, a series for Showtime written by Shalom Auslander from “This American Life,” and a dramedy written by Sara Goodman, show runner for “Gossip Girl.”

Asked which medium he prefers, Kwapis replies, "It's difficult to tell certain stories with certain values on the big screen. The idea of a feature-length comedy for a major studio with the intimate qualities, the observational humor of something like ‘The Office’ is hard to imagine. But, my gosh, the larger canvas is just fantastic."

Big Miracle fits that larger canvas just fine. "It will be a surprise to people," Kwapis says. "Universal is selling it as an inspirational story, but it is not quite as cut-and-dried as that."