There’s always a certain amount of denial required to embark upon a feature film. You have to look squarely at the challenges you face and say, “Nah, it won’t be so bad.” In this case, the challenges included bitter cold, a large ensemble cast (some of whom had never worked in front of a camera before), three robotic whales, a dearth of daylight (we lost three minutes of daylight each day), and absurdly unpredictable weather. (On a moment’s notice, a beautiful overcast sky would give way to the harshest sun.) Oh, it’s worth saying a second time: it was damn cold.
As I arrived in Barrow for our first scout, our guide informed us that two days earlier, the local whale hunters had bagged a 60-foot bowhead. As is the custom, the whale was harvested as soon as the hunters pulled it ashore. From the window of our nine-seat plane, I could see what remained: a bright red imprint of the whale against the snow. Imagine a gigantic crime scene outline … of a whale. When I saw that, I knew I’d reached the edge of the world.
John and I wanted Big Miracle to be both sweeping and intimate. We discussed David Lean’s shooting style, in particular the way Lean moved boldly between extreme wide shots and close-ups. John and I also wanted to create a sense of reportage, the feeling that the action was ‘captured’ as opposed to choreographed. To that end, we studied the trio of neo-realist films made by Roberto Rossellini after World War II, in order to develop a style in which the camera ‘eavesdrops’ on the scene. One result is that framing feels less precious, the compositions less manicured.
It was crucial to John that we never anthropomorphize the whales. On the set, he appointed himself a sort of whale monitor, and would occasionally pull me aside if he felt that one of our marine mammals was ‘over-acting.’ His concern was not unfounded. Once, in a meeting, a certain executive asked if I could do a shot in which the whales waved good-bye. I replied, in as serious a tone as I could muster, “Whales don’t wave.”