Note: This is an excerpt. The complete Saga In Itself by Bruce Brown is now available on Kindle!Saga In Itself
Filming Farley Mowat's 'Never Cry Wolf'
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 Inuit 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 Inuits 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."
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Note: This is an excerpt. The complete Saga In Itself by Bruce Brown is now available on Kindle!
"Filming 'Never Cry Wolf'" originally appeared in the October 16, 1983 New York Times Magazine.