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It Was Tough Sledding To Make 'Eight Below,' A Film In Which Humans Played Retrievers For A Dog Team.

January 15, 2006|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Vancouver, Canada — DOGS ran the show on the set of "Eight Below."

Inspired by real-life events, Walt Disney Pictures' $45-million action-adventure film tells the story of a scientific mission forced to abandon its beloved sled dogs when an accident and perilous weather intervene. For six months, the animals had to fend for themselves while a rescue operation was mounted.

In all, 32 dogs were used to portray the six huskies and two malamutes who play the leads. After four weeks of training, the dogs learned to walk in sync, let go of their territorial urge and avoid eye contact with their trainer to make their on-screen moves seem as natural as possible.

Well, most of them, anyway.

"Shorty was my nemesis," joked director Frank Marshall, referring to one of the dogs who had his own approach to the action. "While he's very lovable, he refused to read the script."

"Eight Below," which grew out of Disney's innovative in-house writing program, is set to be released Feb. 17. It stars Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious") as expedition leader Jerry Shepard, newcomer Moon Bloodgood as his love interest and Jason Biggs ("American Pie") as his best friend. Bruce Greenwood ("Capote") is also featured as an acclaimed geologist reluctant to jump back in harm's way to save the abandoned sled dogs.

Marshall, best known for producing hits such as "Seabiscuit" and "The Sixth Sense," draws parallels with "Lord of the Flies" and another survival tale he directed, 1993's "Alive," in which survivors of an Andes plane crash resort to eating the victims.

Although the movie is set in Antarctica, almost all the exterior scenes were shot in Smithers750 miles north of Vancouver. Snowmobiles and Hagglunds -- Swedish military vehicles -- transported the 150-person cast and crew from base camp to sets at the top of the mountain. The 400-pound video playback equipment had to be moved by sled. Actors had to be prepared to shoot three different scenes each day because the weather determined what was shot, and when.

A sense of adventure, a tolerance for altitude and a willingness to wear two pairs of long underwear were prerequisites for anyone hired: 12- to 14-hour work days were routine, and the temperature once dropped to 26 degrees below.

"It was a little like war," said producer David Hoberman, as he stood in front of the Hotel Vancouver ballroom, where one of the less rigorous scenes was being shot last year. "But that's always true of the movie business."

A longtime fan of snow and dogs, Marshall was well-suited for the task. During the shoot, he wore a red-and-gold jacket so he could be easily identified in a world of multilayered personalities. "We shot in blizzards," explained the director. "No need for wind machines or special effects."

"Eight Below" is inspired by "Antarctica," a 1983 Japanese hit based on an ill-fated 1950s expedition mounted by that country. That film set a box office record that stood for 15 years -- enough to make it Japan's fifth-highest-grossing film of all time. Drawn in by the film's time-tested themes of honor, friendship, survival and betrayal, Hoberman had long pitched a remake to studios, but repeatedly hit a wall. Too dark, some executives told him. Too expensive, others maintained.

Buena Vista Motion Picture Group President Nina Jacobson initially passed on the project, Hoberman recalls, but agreed to reconsider if two conditions were met. The film had to be optioned for no more than $25,000 -- limiting the studio's downside. And it had to be written by a participant in Disney's writers program. (A maximum of five writers at a given time have exclusive deals with the studio, allowing new talent to get a shot at writing Disney-label movies.) "Eight Below" was assigned to Princeton grad Dave DiGilio, who had never had a screenplay produced.

The day after he submitted a draft, the project was given a go, with studio executive Bruce Hendricks, an executive producer on the upcoming sequel, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," at the helm. "I had to create a narrative out of what was essentially a nature documentary, " said DiGilio, 31. "It was National Geographic filmmaking, influenced by 'Never Cry Wolf' and 'The Bear.' "

DiGilio's euphoria was shattered, however, when the studio tabled the movie two weeks before production was to begin. Alarmed at the escalating bottom line, Disney pushed the shoot back a year.

The reins were then handed to Marshall, who had worked with Hoberman -- a former president of Disney's motion picture group -- on "Alive."

"Eight Below" marks the fourth theatrical release from Disney's writing program. Since then, DiGilio has written another family-adventure for Disney and a horror film for Fox Searchlight. "Work begets work -- especially in this town," he said.



WHEN it came time to cast the project, some high-profile actors declined to sign on, reluctant to play second fiddle to dogs, Hoberman said. But Walker, to the producer's surprise, came aboard.

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