Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Jean Louisa Kelly
Director: Chris Sanders
Genre: Adventure, Animation
Synopsis: Based on Jack London's legendary adventure, The Call Of The Wild is a cinematic experience of a lifetime. Twentieth Century Studios vividly brings to the screen the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog whose blissful domestic life is turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted from his California home and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s. As the newest rookie on a mail delivery dog sled team-- and later its leader--Buck has embarked on an extraordinary coming-of-age journey that will lead him to ultimately discover his true place in the world and become his own master.
The Call Of The Wild
Release Date: February 20th, 2020
Prior to its publication as a short novel in 1903, Jack London's adventuresaga about a dog named Buck was serialized in "The Saturday Evening Post" magazine. Translated into 47 languages, it has never been out of print since, an enduring example of classic American literature.
For screenwriter/executive producer Michael Green, "it's not for nothing that The Call of the Wild became part of the great American canon. It speaks to people on many different levels. It's a great travel-adventure story in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson. It told people about places in North America that they'd heard of, but had only seen pictures of. There had been a mania in America about the Klondike Gold Rush. Newspapers couldn't print enough stories about it. People weren't even aware that it was built on the back of dogs.
"It's the story of a teenage dog coming of age, becoming a grown man. There's a time in every dog's life where they have to protect themselves, where they have to protect their pack, protect their human. And there's a wolf instinct inside them that some dogs have greater access to, but pushed in the right direction they all find. Then you have a dog like Buck who has to go through some terrible and hard experiences to find that within himself."
Producer Erwin Stoff 's father first introduced him to The Call of the Wild, reading it to him as a young boy in Romania. Flash forward many decades and thousands of miles away to Los Angeles and one weekend I was on the phone with Michael Green discussing what movie he'd like to write next. He said he wanted to write something very cinematic that had a lot of visual elements and wasn't dependent on 'quippy' dialogue. He actually sent me a graphic novel about wolves and I said if that's the world we're going to be in, we should think about The Call of the Wild."
"I think the reason this story has endured for over 100 years is that like all great literature, it has some universal elements," explains Stoff. "It's about loss, the curing of loss, home and being ripped away from home and perhaps most of all, finding a better and stronger version of yourself."
"Emotionally and thematically, it is this notion of -- how the most innocent of creatures who never lets himself be affected by anything negative brings out the very best in all of us. And how that improves everybody's life. Everyone whose life Buck touches is better for it and I think that's an incredibly powerful emotional trigger."
"Michael was able to change and accentuate enough to make it cinematic, says Stoff."
What attracted Michael Green to this film was the fact that the story had been told in different versions through the years, but never the entire book from beginning to end and always from the point of view of the humans rather than the protagonist, Buck.
Green recalls, "I sat down with Erwin and said wouldn't it be amazing to tell a story that's largely about knowing exactly what a character is about and what he's up to without relying on dialogue.
"We wanted to see if we could tell Buck's story visually. We didn't need him to talk; we didn't need to have a voiceover. Rather, we needed to be clear about what Buck was after at any given moment. As long as we knew what Buck was trying to accomplish in each scene, from moment to moment, we knew you could follow the story. Although he would come across wonderful humans played by incredible actors, they were going to be an enhancement to Buck's story.
5 Says Chris Sanders, who makes his live-action directorial debut, "The Call Of The Wild is all about a character that has unexpected things thrown at him, things that you and I would probably recognize as just the sort of stuff life does. Unexpected challenges can either defeat you, or make you stronger, and that's what happens to Buck. Rather than being defeated at these different turns, Buck keeps going and eventually finds a place where he belongs. Buck doesn't just survive, he prevails, and he does so with his gentle character intact. It so closely relates to what we are going to all go through in life. We're always going to be traveling in uncertainty, unexpected turns and stuff like that."
"Even though it's a childhood classic," says Sanders, "it's not a fairy tale. It's a gritty story of survival and perseverance and whether you're young or old, I think you either have or will experienced these sorts of things. You sense that there's a truth inside this story that that you might be living yourself. And I think that's why this story endures. It's a story of a character uncovering strengths that he didn't know he had."
In this 21stst century screen version of The Call Of The Wild, Buck would carry the emotional arc of the entire movie. To bring him to life, Stoff and Sanders early on hired acclaimed visual effects producer Ryan Stafford, also an executive producer on the film, and visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, a threetime Academy Award®- nominee.
Initially planned as mostly CGI-driven, the filmmakers decided instead on more of a hybrid approach incorporating more actual photography to blend with digitally-created dogs and other animals.
At Stafford's suggestion, for the scenes involving Buck, instead of just using a marker--usually a tennis ball--they put a real person there who they would film and later replace with animation. Terry Notary, who began as a Cirque de Soleil performer and has become one of the premiere motion specialists and movement choreographers in the movie industry, spent hours and hours studying dogs and learning their mannerisms, practicing their mannerism and movement.
Producer Stoff was not at all convinced that this would work. "It was an odd idea, and I didn't know how the cast would react to it, because you've got a grown man who is on all fours, in a funny grey suit with these prosthetic front legs playing a dog. But it turned out to be a genius move because Terry gives such a committed portrayal that it improved every actor's performance."
"He brought the emotionality of Buck to the set," says Stafford.
Initially he and Nash thought that they would simply be using Notary for the facial, emotional performances: the look in the eye, the sadness, happiness, etc. for the close-ups. It never occurred to them that their man/dog would be capable of fighting or jumping or doing all of Buck's larger than life action. But when it got to the first big movement they needed Buck to do, Terry said, "I can do that." From that point on, Terry took over all of the action.
Stafford explains, "It worked out so terrifically because we're also looking for timing and size and eye placement. It gives the actors something to perform against. I've done a lot of motion-capture movies and you get high-quality performances out of actors when they are acting with something and the moment you take that away and they're performing to nothing, it sacrifices the performance. It's really hard to act to empty space, especially in moments of high drama."
Says Nash, "In the beginning, I didn't even begin to appreciate how key and how critical having Terry on set playing Buck would be. It was absolutely indispensable for a couple of reasons. One, it gave Chris a performer to talk to and then coax a performance out of and begin building the foundation for Buck's performance. Beyond that, having Terry on set for the other actors to relate to and play off of and interact with was hugely beneficial."
Director Sanders is equally effusive. "Terry was invaluable, Not only was he doing a great job acting, but what he was doing was also incredibly physically demanding. Dog timing is a very specific thing. There's a certain unpredictability to a dog's timing, they have these offbeat moments where they'll tilt a head or blink an eye or just momentarily glance away, and he was able to do all those kinds of things, while at the same time, overcome his human physiology. There's certain moments where he's going to lie down or he's going to stand up and the way that his head and shoulders work is very different than a dog. A dog will have narrower shoulders than he would have and there's nothing he can do to change that. So he would work with that to get the scene done if there was a more narrow parameter that he had to fit into".
Stafford adds, "It gave Chris moments of inspiration to have Buck do something that he may not have initially intended before he saw the layout of the scene, before he saw what action the human characters were going to do. Terry was right there on set, able to respond to that.
Because Buck is the film's lead character, the filmmakers at first attempted to build the dog--described by Jack London as a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix-- from scratch. A Farm Collie, also known as a Farm Shephard, happens to be a very old-fashioned breed. They built Buck as best we could, and gave him Bernese Mountain Dog coloration, as they felt the colors would read well on screen. They even had an actual Bernese Mountain dog on set every day as a lighting reference. But as time went on, they noticed how difficult it was to read the Bernese's expressions, and his dark fur was having trouble reading clearly at night.
Several weeks into shooting, director Sanders' wife Jessica happened to be perusing PetFinder and ran across a dog listed as a St. Bernard/Shephard mix. Not only was this the exact mix described by London, but the dog's name was listed as "Buckley." The coincidence was too strong not to investigate, and Jess dropped everything and drove to the Emporia, Kansas shelter to meet Buckley. It was love at first sight; Jess paid the $25 adoption fee and made the two day drive back to the movie set. Buckley was an instant hit with the crew, and Erwin suggested that we simply scan Buckley and make him the lead. And that's exactly what they did.
Buck is only one of a nine-dog sled team traversing the Yukon through snow, sleet, rain or mud. To create the other eight dogs, the production chose to cast real dogs and then scan them. Once scanned, details could be perfected and rigging added. They had a casting call and chose a variety of dogs based on the personalities they wanted for the team.
Buck's Human Co-Stars
"As far as I'm concerned," says Erwin Stoff, "anybody that gets to work with Harrison Ford is a lucky, lucky person. He is the ultimate pro and one of the greatest actors working today."
Ford, best known for having created two of the most popular and iconic big-screen heroes in motion picture history, Star Wars' Hans Solo and Raiders of the Lost Ark's Indiana Jones, was attracted to the project for several reasons.
First, he liked the prospect of doing a film for younger audiences. Second, he was intrigued by how the filmmakers would be creating Buck and the other dogs by computer, and how that necessitated his having to act opposite a human dog stand-in. Says Ford, "One of the most interesting details of shooting this film is that there were no dogs to work with, there was a human stand-in for Buck, to organize my eye line and to give me someone to participate with emotionally. It was at first a bit challenging, but then became quite good fun.
He adds, "I spent more time with Terry than I did with anyone else on this film. We helped each other accomplish what the other needed. I was acting for him as he was acting for me. We were there for each other."
Director Sanders says, Harrison really brought a ton to the party. In the book, Thornton goes through certain situations with Buck, but I don't think his character is super well defined. And I think one of the wonderful things that Harrison did throughout this whole process was he was able to find that character, create that character. And really define what it was going to be. From the very beginning, he and I would have these very deep discussions about his character."
From these conversations, Ford understood that his character's place in the story was to redeem humanity in the eyes of Buck, after his experience with an abusive owner.
But for the actor, who currently has three small dogs and has had dogs all his life, what was especially appealing was that the film was not only about Buck's transformation, but also his character, John Thornton's, as a result of his relationship with Buck.
Ford explains, "One of the things I am always looking for in a project is what I call an emotional exercise for the audience. A chance to participate in a story where they recognise themselves and generate the power of emotional understanding in the audience."
Describing his character, Ford says, "John Thornton is a man who became uncomfortable in his life and in his world. He was unable to bear the pain and the burden of his circumstances. So he fled from his home down south to the Yukon, where he can find gold and strike it rich, and for another strongly emotional reason: his young son had always wanted to explore the wilderness. But he goes there really to find some peace and solitude."
He continues, "Then he meets Buck, and they become companions in this journey, emotionally bonded, and they face danger and adventure together. I was touched by that journey and the relationship between these two characters. Says Stoff, "John Thornton is a character with a gruff exterior coupled with incredible vulnerability and in the course of this story you understand that he is someone who has been really hurt and abused by life. Harrison's performance is incredibly moving."
"The relationship between Buck and Thornton is the core of the story for me," says Green. " They're two creatures who find themselves in a place where neither of them belongs. Both came from lives they loved and miss but can't have anymore. Buck is thriving and becoming the best version of himself, but Thornton is a broken man. When he meets Buck, so inherently loveable and so full of love and life, Thornton can't help himself and the healing begins." Ford says, "Like John Thornton, I've always had a real curiosity about places where I haven't been. And moved by the power and the majesty of nature."
To portray Perrault, the wise and kindly master of Buck's dog-sled delivery team, the filmmakers chose Omar Sy, the French actor who rose to fame with his role in the 2011 international hit The Intouchables and has since appeared in X Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World.
Dan Stevens, whose role as heartthrob Matthew Crawley in the first three seasons of the worldwide phenomenon Downton Abbey shot him to stardom, which he followed with another romantic lead in Disney's spectacular live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, is here cast against type as the villainous Hal, the cruel, well-born leader of a group of three would-be prospectors who acquire Buck and are woefully unprepared and ill-equipped for life in the Canadian Yukon.
Hal's spoiled and selfish sister Mercedes, is played by Karen Gillan, the Scottish-born actress who appeared for three seasons on the UK's long-running series Dr. Who and has gone on to roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel Vol. 2; The Big Short, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame; and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and its recent sequel The Next Level.
Judge Miller, who raised Buck from a puppy, providing him with a loving and pampered domestic life until he's taken and transplanted to the wilderness, is portrayed by two-time Emmy®-winner Bradley Whitford, star of such hit television series as The Handmaid's Tale, Transparent and The West Wing, as well as Jordan Peele's critically-acclaimed box office hit Get Out. Jean Louisa Kelly (Malignant, Top Gun: Maverick) plays his wife Katie.
The Look Of The Film
"We were incredibly lucky to have Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky join us on this adventure," says Stoff. Executive producer Diana Pokorny says, "We all really wanted to work with Janusz. His look is very classical and painterly."
"Janusz is very much a storyteller, " she continues. "He worked really hard to figure out the best way to have the camera tell the story. He isn't one to want to do a fancy shot just because it's cool. He's only interested if it helps tell the story or something emotionally about the character."
The filmmakers weren't interested in making an historical document. "We wanted to make a cinematic journey and we wanted to base that around Buck," says Production Designer Dechant. "The combination of Janusz and a director who comes from animation meant that we had a completely woven tapestry telling Buck's story. Having Janusz brought everything up to a new level - to his level."
"Sixty percent or two-thirds of the movie is more traditional plate based visual effects," reminds Nash. "One of the biggest challenges was fusing the different modes of production into a seamless whole.
It was imperative that both the lighting designed by Kaminsky and the virtual section of the film be true to one another. To that end, the virtual effects department kept careful track of what the cinematographer's team was doing.
Using Mesmerize, a dog that closely resembled the coloration of Buck, they would do side-by-side comparisons of a CGI-created dog and then photograph Mesmerize to check that the lighting matched. That way, they could put Buck and the rest of the dog team into that same lighting scenario and be confident that their lighting was correct.
For the all-virtual scenes, without Janusz's on-set lighting, it was tricker. So in pre-production, Janusz went through the script and picked out a reference sky from the Skydome for each scene in the film that would not going to be represented by photography. With the camera tracking every single shot of Janusz's coverage, they were able to create a 3D digital camera they could then apply to virtual scenes so that it has the same camera movement, the same bumps, technical issues, racks of focus, etc. Once the animation is blocked, they would go to the virtual camera stage with a handheld camera or with a stedi-cam and shoot the scene virtually using essentially, the same tools that Janusz and his camera operators used. The goal: a consistent and thematically cohesive camera language that is seamless across the virtual and the real. Says Dechant, "There should be a verisimilitude that runs from the practical sets into the digital world."
Recreating 1890s Yukon
To recreate Dawson City, the base for miners during the Klondike Gold Rush, the production constructed one block of the city, even though in the film it runs seven more blocks in one direction and two blocks in another. So during the design process, they "built" the entire city in the computer, and then stripped out what was actually going to be physically erected.
Having the physical sets was an immeasurable help for the VFX team. Says Nash, "If we didn't have this one block section to tie it to, we would be at a great disadvantage trying to create it from photographs in books. Having this built in three dimensions and color with all the detail and nuance gives us a very high bar to clear in terms of extending it and making the extension seamless so that what lies beyond the physical set is just as detailed and real and textured as the sets we've spent the last couple of months on."
The one block of Dawson City included all the interactive, practical sets including the Argonaut Saloon, the Mounted Police Post, Dog Kennel and the Post Office.
"About 60-70 percent of the sets are practical," explains Dechant. "The digital is extending the practical into the Yukon environment. Since we shot everything in California, you should think of it as an old Technicolor film – except instead of backings we're using digital technology."
He continues, "We didn't want to create the Yukon as it really was in 1898. We wanted to create our own mythological version of it, our own Pacific Northwestern environments and imagery."
He and Sanders used color to reflect Buck's experience, with warmer tones to represent his original home in Santa Clara, and a desaturated palette when Buck from the point when he is kidnapped. They would bring color back into the film at various points, like when Buck and Spitz have their fight and when the action moved to the mining town.
Dechant says, "Coming into Dawson City we wanted to introduce color but we wanted to hold it back so we discussed hand-tinted photographs. The idea was that we would bring color in, but we wouldn't let it overtake everything."
Costume Designer Kate Hawley notes, "the way Chris depicts Buck's decision at the end of the film, with a very clear choice between the wild, represented by the Northern Lights on one side and the Miller household, represented by the orange sunset on the other side.
Hawley, who hails from New Zealand, explains that part of her research was delving into folk tales of that era, what she calls "the American myths of America."
She says, "I started looking at the world of Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyon as well as the First Nation world, which was incredibly beautiful. We were very lucky that this particular period has been very well documented with photographs."
The designer was surprised to find pictures of many female prospectors on their own or in pairs. They were photographed wearing trousers, with a couple of dogs and their bags waiting to climb the Trail.
Hawley explains that color palette for the wardrobe was hugely influenced by Sanders' love for the work of American painter and illustrator Eyvind Earle, who is best known for his work styling and painting the backgrounds of Disney's animated films of the 1950's. She mentions a chart Sanders made of the colors matched to the beats of the emotional arc. Hawley says, "There are a lot of pinks and reds that came through and I likened that to dead salmon against the snow. Those colors emerged quite organically to give us a little heightened quality.
"As we went along we tried to use pops of color here and there. It's very much an emotional thing. When you see the deconstruction of Hal, Mercedes and Charles as they head into the wild with their totally inappropriate wardrobe, it creates a certain atmosphere."
Finding The Yukon In Southern California
The first few days of production were spent on practical locations. On September 6, 2018, the company spent a cold and rainy night filming at the Fillmore & Western Railway yard standing in for San Francisco with a frightened Buck jammed into a wooden crate, loaded onto a container car for the start of his journey North.
The next few days were spent in Santa Paula, California, where the house serving as Judge Miller's residence is located. It is here that we first meet Buck as a tiny, energetic half Shepherd and half St. Bernard pup. And it is from here, in this loving home, that he is kidnapped to settle a debt and begins the long and arduous journey to the Yukon.
The Chandler Stages in Van Nuys held the sets for the interior of the Narwahl sailing ship that will bring Buck to Dyea Beach. And it is here that he learns that life is not always golden sunny days and that there is a difference between loving arms and the law of the club and the fang.
From September 20 until the end of production, the company spent at Sable Ranch in Canyon Country.
Dechant says that his biggest challenge was to create winter in the middle of a Southern California summer, having to match ice melting on different materials to stand in for deep winter snows as well as the scenes in spring when it would turn to a combination of mud and snow.
He explains, "The winter look is a complete synthesis of practical and physical. We used everything from paper, Epson salts, shaved ice and resins to display snow. We did all that we could to create those environments so that Janusz and the actors had something real to react to.
"Fortunately we had an incredible Special Effects team who by the end of production had used more than 1000 tons of ice which was pushed into what seemed like a giant wood chipper. Through strong hoses, it would blow out snow.
"The visual effects team has to sell it even further. We're using all of our cards at the same time."
The Call Of The Wild
Release Date: February 20th, 2020