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On Location: 'The Frozen Ground' heats up filming in Alaska

October 20, 2011|By Dima Alzayat, Los Angeles Times
  • The Northwestern and its crew work to catch king crab on the Bering Sea during the sixth season of Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch."
The Northwestern and its crew work to catch king crab on the Bering Sea during… (Rick Gershon, Discovery…)

Apart from hosting shows such as Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" and History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers," Alaska isn't exactly a hotbed for film production.

But after the state implemented generous film incentives in 2009, Hollywood began to warm up to the Last Frontier, sending several new movie productions its way.

"The Frozen Ground," based on the real-life 1980s Alaskan hunt for serial killer Robert Hansen, became the most recent Hollywood feature to shoot in Alaska when cameras started rolling in Anchorage this week.

The film is being directed by Scott Walker, who also wrote the script, and stars John Cusack as Hansen and Nicolas Cage as the Alaska state trooper who tracked Hansen down. Emmett/Furla, Amber Entertainment and rapper 50 Cent, who plays a pimp in the film, are producing with Lionsgate and Grindstone Entertainment distributing the picture.

Shooting for six weeks, the production will film in and around the suburb where Hansen lived, in the northeast part of Anchorage, as well as in neighboring mountains where the killer took his victims, said the film's producer, Randall Emmett.

The project sought to stay true to the actual events of the story by filming in Alaska, but the decision to shoot in the distant state was ultimately a financial one. Emmett had considered splitting the production between Michigan and Louisiana, where the producer has taken advantage of filming incentive programs for past productions.

"But when we did the numbers, it made more sense to shoot in Alaska," Emmett said. "We're now talking about doing other films up there."

Filming future projects in Alaska, said the producer, would offset the hefty cost of shipping equipment and getting crews to the state. The budget for "The Frozen Ground" is in the $20 million to $30 million range, Emmett said.

As several other states' film incentive programs are being scaled back or eliminated, Alaska's tax rebate is expected to expand, according to Dave Worrell, development specialist at the Alaska Film Office. The $100-million program offers a 30% base credit toward qualified production expenses. Additional incentives for hiring Alaskans, filming in rural areas or shooting in winter can increase the possible credit to 44%.

Current incentives are set to expire in 2013, but a bill that would extend the program until 2023 and add an extra $200 million has unanimously passed the Alaska Senate and is awaiting approval from the state's House Finance Committee, which will vote on the bill next year.

According to Worrell and the Alaska Film Office's 2011 Report to the Legislature, 13 feature films pre-qualified for tax credits in the state's 2011 fiscal year, compared with just one in fiscal 2009, including Universal's "Big Miracle," starring Drew Barrymore, which was filmed in Alaska last year and is set for a February release.

Although crews remain scarce and infrastructure is lacking, Worrell said resources are steadily improving. For example, Evergreen Films, one of the production companies behind the $65-million "Walking With Dinosaurs 3D," which is currently filming in Alaska, has built a postproduction facility in Anchorage that will include a 50-by-50-foot green screen used to simulate backgrounds.

"We are seeing folks who grew up in Alaska and those who left coming back home to work," Worrell said.

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