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From the New York Times Magazine...
Filming 'Never Cry Wolf'
Making the movie of a biologist's self-discovery became a saga in itself.

by Bruce Brown

EVEN BEFORE he was fully awake, the man could feel the late summer afternoon change course. He had dozed off after a solitary swim in a nameless lake near the Arctic Circle, and now he found himself in the path of a heavy-breathing herd of elaborately antlered caribou. Some of the animals seemed agitated as they jostled past. Scanning the river-like herd, the man saw why: They were being driven by a pack of wolves hunting along their flank.

Impulsively, the man began to run. Zigzagging across the irregular tundra, he was swept along with the chase. Close around him he saw the way the wolves worked, testing the caribou with quick bursts, which were just as quickly abandoned if the deer seemed strong and healthy. It was only when the wolves sensed a sick caribou that their manner changed. Then they poured on the speed, isolating the animal from the rest of the herd and running it hard. The fatigued buck finally turned to face his attackers on a small rise, but it was already too late. In an instant, five timber wolves flew at him like blades from a knife thrower's hand. The wolves knocked the deer down on the first strike and killed it while the other caribou hurried by, sniffing the air.

Viewers of Carroll Ballard's new movie, "Never Cry Wolf," which opened in New York on Friday, may find their own nostrils flaring a bit, too, for this hunting scene vividly conveys both the power of the wolf pack and the misconceptions many people have regarding the animal called Canis lupus. Like the classic Farley Mowat best seller of the same title, published in 1963, "Never Cry Wolf" is the story of arctic wolves and a young biologist who is sent to study them by the Canadian Wildlife Service. He finds that, rather than decimating the caribou herds, as many white hunters claimed, the wolves actually eat mice and rodents most of the year. And when they do kill a caribou, it is invariably a sick or injured animal. What the biologist, a bearded chap named Tyler, discovers serves to confirm the Innuit saying, "The wolf keeps the caribou strong."

The movie that Ballard has brought to the screen is a tale about the loss of wildness in the world. The same directorial eye that made Ballard's previous feature, "The Black Stallion," a landmark in animal photography is evident in the handling of the wolves here. In particular, the three animals Tyler comes to call George, Angeline and Uncle Albert emerge as real characters who watch Tyler when he doesn't realize it, but only allow him to watch them when they choose. Their habits structure Tyler's days, and in the end they propel the film's dramatic climax.

Almost as remarkable as the wolf scenes are the difficulties the "Never Cry Wolf" crew encountered filming them. In fact, from the beginning, the movie had all the markings of a perfect Hollywood disaster. Carroll Ballard picked up the project early in 1980, following the release of "The Black Stallion." Louis Malle was originally supposed to direct the film, but in early 1980, Ballard succeeded him, with Disney's approval. Ballard brought in a new crew, a new star and a method of operation dramatically at odds with the elaborate production effort already under way in the Yukon.

A soft-spoken, somewhat introspective man with a fondness for hats, Ballard gambled on the casting of the main human characters, choosing Charles Martin Smith from "American Graffiti" to play Tyler, and two Innuits to play Ootek and Mike. Although sometimes unclear about what he wanted from the assembled menagerie, Ballard managed to get sterling performances from all of his actors, as well as some exceptional scenes of the wolves, which had been raised in captivity and therefore had to be taught to behave like wild wolves. The wolves also learned to perform acts that they would never normally do, like spend time in a hotel lobby.

To get the effects he sought, Ballard shot -what he described as "oceans of film." By the second, year on location in the far north, Ballard's reluctance to - finish, or "wrap," a scene prompted the crew to call the film "Never Cry Wrap." As scripts were revised, rewritten and abandoned and expenses mounted, others in the trade referred to the film as "a movie without a budget or a script."

But, three and a half years after he started the project, Ballard brought in the finished product at around $12 million, more than twice the original budget.

"The really incredible movie to make would be a movie about making this movie," said Ballard, when he was asked to reconstruct the process. "It's just endless craziness -- unbelievable."

TAKE THE APHRODISIAC dealers.

Early in the movie's planning, Ballard discovered it would be impossible, logistically, to use wild caribou in a critical scene. He therefore approached some Eskimo "reindeer barons" ("reindeer" is the name for domesticated caribou) near Nome, Alaska, seeking to lease a herd of 500 for use in the scene. The Eskimos agreed readily, with one stipulation: The shooting would have to end on June 15. Then, the Eskimos would round up the reindeer and cut off the antlers that provide the single most valuable product of reindeer raising. At this stage, when the antlers are still new and covered with a soft, velvety fuzz, they are prized in the Orient as an aphrodisiac.

Since the scene required that there be no snow on the ground, and the snow doesn't melt until the beginning of June, Ballard and crew had about two weeks to shoot. "It rained the first 10 days," recalled Ballard. "On the 11th day, the businessmen arrived with briefcases full of money for the antlers." But the reindeer disappeared under the cover of a storm, and it took helicopters and horsemen several days to find them and drive them out. With Ballard negotiating to hold off the Innuits and the antler gatherers, shooting began on a 10 hour-a-day schedule.

Charles Martin Smith, who plays Tyler, the biologist, recalled one of the lessons the reindeer taught them that first day. In one of his scenes, after he emerged nude from a lake, he was called on to mingle with a herd of caribou. "They took me in a boat around to the end of the peninsula. It was all organized like D-day -- serious and hush hush. I scrambled out of the boat and quickly took my clothes off on the beach. I was supposed to spring up over the top of the embankment, surprise the caribou and run among them while the cameras rolled. When I went over the top, though, they were already long gone. The point is that you can't just sneak up on caribou -- they make their living not being sneaked up on."

Ballard and the director of photography, Hiro Narita, did not have enough material to finish the scene before the reindeer lost their antlers that June. Ballard decided to push on to Skagway, thereby establishing the restless, peripatetic tone of the filming. A 1963 graduate of the U.C.L.A. film school who got his start directing documentaries, Ballard approached movie making in an idiosyncratic manner. For him, the visual possibilities of a scene seemed to take precedence over everything, and was willing to either reshoot a scene again and again to get it absolutely right, or to sit and wait until the natural elements he wanted presented themselves. Above all, he refused to be tied down to schedules. A member of the "Never Cry Wolf" crew recalled, "Carroll was looking for people who wanted to know how much gas to put in the truck, not where they would be driving it."

Many people were unable to accommodate themselves to Ballard's methods. In the early days of 1990, scores of people quit. Before long, though, the situation stabilized and Ballard was able to assemble a sort of Arctic commando outfit largely made up of technicians from Vancouver, British Columbia, rather than from Hollywood.

By the second year of filming, the Innuit word "Atai" had replaced the more conventional movie command, "Action."

* * *

"Never Cry Wolf" poster"Carroll's method is to set up situations where he will be bombarded with possibilities," said the stuntman John Wardlow. The person who made the most of this was probably Charles Martin Smith.

Best known to many movie goers as Terry (the sweet nerd with the glasses) in "American Graffiti," Smith ultimately played Tyler, the biologist. He also contributed to the script and helped shape the film's final form with a musing, voice-over narrative.

Almost as soon as he took over the movie, Ballard dismissed William Katt, the actor who had been hired to play Tyler. "He was very good, and he wanted to play the part badly," Ballard said with a sigh. "But he was too handsome. I didn't want anyone who looked 'with it' because I thought it would undermine the character."

"Charlie is really a very creative person, and some of the bits he came up with were inspired," said John Houston, the first assistant director. "He built his own part to a degree that is unusual."

One of Smith's best scenes calls for Tyler to eat mice. As an experiment, Tyler decides to forgo some of the less appealing food the Government has provided him (in this case, crates of canned asparagus). Since it appears that for at least part of the year the wolves live on mice, Tyler resolves to do the same, to test the premise that a large carnivore can in fact thrive on the plentiful small rodents of the Far North. When the moment of truth arrives and the stewed mice are steaming in his bowl, Smith puts on a virtuoso show that hits every emotion from first-bite anxiety to lip-smacking relish over the last morsel of tail.

The "movie mice" that Smith ate were actually made of chopped steak with linguine tails, but the bright-eyed creatures scurrying over Tyler's clothes, food, books and equipment were quite real. "The main problem with the voles was that they wouldn't hold still," said Smith. "They'd set them down, and just like that they'd be gone. At one point they issued little nets to everyone on the set to help catch them. Then someone made a wonderful discovery! If you picked the vole up and swung it madly above your head, the little critter didn't move around much for a while after you put it down." Subdued perhaps, but not vanquished, one of the voles bit the wolf trainer, Julian Sylvester. "I'd rather work with jaguars," he cried in mock mouse horror.

Although not a large man, Smith was physically able to handle a number of tough situations, including what was probably the single most dangerous stunt in the movie. This is a sequence where Tyler falls through ice on the lake, sinks like stone to the bottom under the weight of his full Arctic gear, fights free to the surface, shatters the ice with his shotgun (fortunately still in hand) and finally drags himself, retching, back to the shore. In preparation, holes were cut in the two-foot-thick ice of the lake and allowed to refreeze, but not enough to carry the weight of a man. Underneath the ice, a system of ropes and platforms was rigged to assist re-emergence. The plan was that after the man fell through the ice, divers would get him oxygen from a hand-held "pony bottle" and help get him in position to break back through the ice.

These guys were professional ice divers," Ballard said of the underwater crew. "They make their living doing surveys of marine life and such under the ice in winter. Well, right away two of them got into trouble -- oxygen-regulator freeze-up -- and had to be hauled out. Scared the hell out of them. Then the double tried to do it, and he got into trouble - an involuntary convulsive reaction to the cold - and he had to be hauled out. So then we were down to Charlie, and I asked him, 'Charlie, you want to try it?' " Ballard laughed. "Charlie said sure-put on the gear, dropped into the lake, swam 50 feet under the ice, and did the scene. Not only once, but twice."

* * *

"Never Cry Wolf" features remarkable performances by two Innuits, and here again Ballard's talent search was unorthodox. Before filming had begun, he dispatched John Houston on a 10,000-mile trek across the Canadian North that started at Frobisher Bay and included one of Canada's most northerly settlements, Grise Fjord.

"It was a tremendously romantic journey," said Houston, a Canadian, whose father, James A. Houston, is the author of the novel "The White Dawn" and other noted works on the Arctic. "We traveled by chartered plane, snowmobile, dogsled and even hitched a ride on a Government transport." When they came to a native settlement, Houston's crew would broadcast an invitation to audition for the movie over the local radio station. "I would go on the air and say in the native language, 'Good morning, I am the son of the Left-Handed Man' -- my father's name among the Innuit -- 'and I have come to your community on behalf of the folks who bring you 'Wonderful World.'

"Because Walt Disney has created a good deal of joy and entertainment in the Arctic through its cartoons and Sunday television, the people responded quite well to the proposal, and we would get 30, 40, 60 or even 120 out of a village of 300 people to show up to audition and ask questions. Many of the shows they put on were quite imaginative. We had one man who demonstrated his expertise with a 35-foot dog whip.

"We were open to almost anything, but I did take care to structure the end of each taped interview as a sort of oral contract, which of course carries great weight among these people. On camera, I'd say, 'You may be chosen, but on the other hand you may not. If the director does choose you, will you be willing to leave your home and go with us for the length of time required?' That way, Carroll Ballard, looking at the tapes, could gauge both the suitability of the character and the likelihood of his provoking a crisis by leaving in the middle of the shooting."

Houston first hit pay dirt at Baker Lake northwest of Hudson Bay. "The people of Baker Lake are a dour, withdrawn people," said Houston. "They are the people in Farley Mowat's 'People of the Deer' and 'The Desperate People,' the only inland Innuit or Eskimo people who are entirely dependent on the caribou, and they have suffered great famine. You don't see many smiles around Baker Lake, but on camera this quality projected in a very interesting way, giving them an almost ethereal look.

"I thought we were going to get someone from Baker Lake," Houston continued, "but as it turned out neither of the two I would have picked at first got it. This was because at the end of our taping sessions a man walked in the door. He said his name was Samson Jorah and that he was a mechanic and that he had done some hunting. From the first, he behaved in a somewhat strange manner. He would suddenly break into a huge smile, as if there was something funny in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation, and I frankly began to wonder -- how can I delicately put this? -- I began to wonder if maybe he wasn't a few trips short of a load.

"This turned out to be entirely wrong, of course. Samson Jorah is an intelligent man with more things on his mind than you would ever believe." As he opened up on the tape, Jorah revealed what Houston described as "a manner which reminded me very strongly of a young Buster Keaton. He had a very striking appearance with his wide eyes and his narrow face. He also had a wonderful comic ability. He would deliver these deadpan lines -- which once again made me think of Keaton -- with wonderful intuitive timing. He'd wait on the punch line until you gave up, and then he'd break into this wonderfully beatific grin, which was marred somewhat by the fact that he was missing half his teeth. It was a true tragicomic face. When I screened the tape for the director later, he broke up and said, 'This is the man we must have.' And so Baker Lake was successful for us in providing the younger man, the character of Mike."

Zachary Ittimangnaq as Ootek in "Never Cry Wolf"Houston's next stop, Pelly Bay on the Gulf of Boothia, provided the other Innuit character, the old wolf shaman named Ootek. "When we flew into Pelly Bay and started asking about an older man to appear in the movie, everyone said, 'Older man? Yeah, we know the guy you want. You should talk to Zachary Ittimangnaq. He's got a lot of movie experience.'

"Well, it turned out that Zachary had appeared in 26 half-hour films made by the National Film Board of Canada in the 'Netsilik Series,' which was designed to illustrate the old ways, and which I vividly remembered seeing when I was a kid. Fifteen years later, he was living as a sort of a retired movie star in Pelly Bay." Houston felt right away that Ballard would choose Ittimangnaq to play Ootek because he is a venerable man, "like what the Japanese call a 'national treasure.'"

Once in camp, the Innuits were quickly swept up in the movie's spirit, even though the older spoke no English, and the younger had no experience with film making. And Ballard, ever alert to new possibilities, wrote a bit for Ittimangnaq's wife, Martha.

On the screen, Martha Ittimangnaq has only one line, but it is an electric one. Playing the wife of the wolf shaman Ootek, she tells Tyler one night as the firelight flickers in her eyes: "Perhaps you are like Ootek. Perhaps long ago the wolf devoured you, too."

* * *

Approximately 30 wolves were used in making "Never Cry Wolf." There were 8 puppies and the rest were adults of both sexes. The majority came from Animal Actors of Holly-wood and Lloyd Beebe's Olympic Game Farm near Seattle, but there was also at least one wild wolf on the scene, drawn briefly by curiosity. (Seven attack-trained German shepherds were used in certain scenes as well.)

The wolves ranged in color from white to sandy to black, but all had the wild eyes and huge feet that mark the largest member of the dog family. They were accompanied 24 hours a day by trainers who were skilled at the judicious dispensation of chicken necks, hot dogs and, sometimes, authority. "The only time I ever had trouble with a wolf," said Deborah Coe, a trainer, "he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and growled. The sound was so low I almost couldn't hear it, but I could feel it coming up the leash. I had to speak in a gruff voice and show command, or I never would have been able to work with that animal again."

Two grey wolves on the prowl. (GlacierMt.com photo)At one point, Ballard even coaxed Kolchak, the wolf that plays George, to sniff the camera for a close-up by tying a live chicken to his own head as he sat behind the whirring machine. "I had no fear at all of the wolves," said Ballard, "but the attack dogs -- now, they were freaky." A half-dozen attack-trained German shepherds, made to look wolfish with tinted hairspray, were used in a dream scene in which a man is pursued and attacked by wolves as he runs through the forest at dusk. Despite the leather and felt suit specially constructed for John Wardlow, the stuntman, to wear during the attack, the wolf trainers felt his life would be in danger if the wolves were used for the mauling (wolves' jaws have twice the power of dogs', according to Coe). Even so, Wardlow was repeatedly bitten -- through the suit's seams -- by the attack dogs.

While the attack dogs may have known how to behave like wolves, the wolves needed some coaching. The five wolves used in the caribou attack scene, for instance, had never actually hunted caribou. For this reason, the leader of the pack, a large adult male named Avatar, tried to take on a healthy caribou buck with a broad span of fuzzy antlers. Avatar ran the buck for nearly a half a mile and finally drove it out into the water, alone. Seemingly unfazed, the deer splashed on the way it had been going. The wolf dove in pursuit, but as soon as his feet no longer touched the strand, the caribou (which was still touching bottom) wheeled, caught the wolf with its rack and hurled him high in the air. "I'll never forget the look in his eyes when he came down," said Debbie Coe, Avatar's trainer. Avatar survived the encounter, and thereafter the wolves concentrated on the weaker members of the herd.

Ballard did not spare the wolves from his mania to get the scene just right either. In a scene where George and Tyler mark the boundaries of their respective territories, George has to lift his leg repeatedly. It took the wolf Kolchak two weeks to learn to do this on command, and then one day Ballard made him and the crew do 57 takes of the wolf relieving himself. Cheryl Shawver, Kolchak's trainer, was impressed. "It was amazing for a wolf to do that. And the interesting thing about Kolchak is that he doesn't like people. I can put a chain on him and ask him to do anything and he'll do it, but he isn't very affectionate. If a stranger were to touch him, he'd snarl."

By the time the "Never Cry Wolf" crew returned to Nome in June 1981 to have a second try at the caribou hunt sequence, both the wolves and the people were better prepared. This time, Ballard got more helicopters and horse men. The wolves were keen for the game, and finally the crucial scene was finished. Ballard's elation over this was somewhat tempered, however, by the fact that he was under increasing pressure from the producers and Disney to finish the filming, which was costing a reported $50,000 a day to keep going and looked as if it would end up costing more than double the $5 million originally estimated.

* * *

The wrapping of a film often ends the hardest part of the film-making process, but to Carroll Ballard's dismay this did not prove to be the case with "Never Cry Wolf." It turned out that the problems in shooting were nothing compared to what .we had to go through in the postproduction work," he said.

"We got home in July 1981, and by Christmas I had a rough cut about three and one-half hours long. Disney flew up a bunch of people to see it for the first time then. . . I guess it was at the end of that screening that I realized that this was not going to be a smooth flight." Returning to the editing machine, Ballard cut an hour and added a voice-over narration by Charles Martin Smith. Asked about the Disney people's reaction to the second version a few months later, Ballard replied: "I think they were honestly appalled."

Ballard had intended to make a wildlife film different from the sort for which Disney is famous ("He absolutely did not want to sentimentalize the wolves like a typical Disney movie," recalled Narita, the director of photography), but this was not the source of the problem. The people from Disney were not unhappy with his point of view; they thought the story itself had some wrinkles that needed ironing out. While Ballard and Walt Disney Productions were talking about these points, the film had its first sneak preview in Seattle, which Ballard describes as a "total disaster."

In reaction to the Seattle comments, Ballard prepared another version (which was 15 minutes shorter and lacked the long introductory sequence), but this too received a cool reception when it was screened in San Francisco in October 1982. "After the San Francisco screening, they realized that they weren't going to get it out for Christmas," said Ballard, who had at this point been working on editing the picture for more than a year. "Ron Miller" -- president of Disney Productions and executive producer of "Never Cry Wolf" -- "gave me an ultimatum: either finish the film by January 1983, or they would take it away from me and finish it themselves."

Carroll Ballard, director of 'Never Cry Wolf'Ballard is not the sort to moan about his own personal travail. He takes that with him to the workshop behind his northern California home where he keeps his woodworking tools and glossy old black MG. And so as he sits on the lawn at sunset waiting for a pair of Grand Canyon donkeys to come down out of the hills and beg for the figs that litter the grass, he says only, "I lost the thread ... and then I found it. That happened to me once before, on 'Harvest,' where we were essentially creating a movie after we had shot the film." A documentary or American farms made for the United States Information Agency, "Harvest" got Ballard an Academy Award nomination in 1987.

In 1982, the real turnaround seemed to begin when Ballard received a new score from Mark Isham. Ibis allowed him to restructure and focus Tyler's narrative and led ultimately to a roll-up prelude that Ballard wrote with assistance from Peter Matthiessen, author of "The Snow Leopard" and "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."

Screened again this spring in Arizona, the film got raves. Then, in Italy last month at the Venice Film Festival, "Never Cry Wolf" was the first Disney film ever entered. Out of three and one-half years' time-and three-quarters of a million feet of film, Ballard had found the combination.

* * *

At the very end of "Never Cry Wolf," while the credits are rolling, there is a scene of Tyler and Ootek sitting together in the evening sunlight. Tyler picks up three handfuls of snow and juggles them, then hands them to the old man, asking if he would like to try. The gray-haired wolf shaman takes the snowballs with a laugh, and then performs a deft pantomime of juggling reminiscent of the silent movies.

If a movie were made about making the movie "Never Cry Wolf," as Ballard suggested, it too should probably end here, with this spontaneous moment at the side of something else that just happened to be filmed in Ballard's eagerness to get it all. This is where fact and fiction meet, like hands pressed to the mirror, and simply become the image of two men having the time of their lives.

"Filming 'Never Cry Wolf'" originally appeared in the October 16, 1983 New York Times Magazine.
© Copyright 1983 Bruce Brown


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