As the title implies, the locations for the black comedy "The Big White" required snow, and lots of it. To find the right backdrop for the shoot, director Mark Mylod, cast members Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Allison Lohman, Tim Blake Nelson and company travelled to the Yukon to begin principal photography in White Pass on April 12, 2004. In addition to being fully blanketed with snow through May, White Pass has spectacular dramatic vistas, and just right of cliffs off which to drop a frozen dead body.
Because of the starkness of the Big Pass location, not to mention a total absence of lodgings, the cast and crew stayed in Skagway, Alaska for the first two weeks of shooting and commuted 60 miles roundtrip to White Pass each day. A major cruise ship stop, Skagway is visited by 10,000 tourists a week during its summer tourist season, but in April, winter is still firmly in place. On the U.S. side of Skagway, the town is accessible only by boat or small plane, the latter providing a harrowing if unforgettable flight into town. (Midflight, crew members were told by the bush pilot where the camping gear was stowed, so "in the event of a crash you could survive in the plane until the rescue crew could find you").
In winter, Skagway is home to just 650 hardy souls. "It's kind of like 'Northern Exposure' as written by Tolstoy," said Robin Williams. "I talked to people from Skagway, and they love it there. Fifty below isn't everybody's cup of tea, especially when it freezes. Someone said they went outside once and they threw a cup of coffee in the air and it froze before it hit the ground. That's a cold day, you know? And then in the summer, they have bugs that could carry off children."
The cast and filmmakers quickly took over the Red Onion Saloon, which served as the crew's social center and main dining hall for the duration of their stay in Skagway. They all soon became accustomed to the local weather, which did hamper shooting on several occasions. As Williams says: "We were in places where we'd be shooting, and then you'd turn around, and it'd be a complete whiteout. We'd have to use GPS to find the trucks, which were only a couple of hundred yards away."
Director Mark Mylod admits the conditions took him a bit by surprise. "Talk about naïve," says the Englishman, "I imagined that if we went up this huge mountain pass and started shooting one scene over four days, the weather would be totally constant and everything would match perfectly. It didn't occur to me that it might be a whiteout for two of those days, which made it impossible to shoot anything. Because of our budget limitations, that was deeply stressful. Phones didn't work, and we were practically using mirrors on hillsides to communicate. There were loads of locations you could only get to by snowmobile. I became a snowmobile king, at least in my little head."
Despite the harsh weather, Williams found the locations vital as an actor. "To shoot there was really important," he says. "It really gives you a sense of the necessary pioneer spirit it takes to live there, because you really could freeze to death. There's a stark beauty that's so breathtaking. You realise that wilderness is really important, and it's kind of a humbling thing: you're all of a sudden not the biggest thing in any way, and nature doesn't care, really."
Mylod had his own brush with nature while in Alaska. "Being in Alaska was an amazing experience," he says. "We were out in the middle of the night shooting on a cliff one night when the Northern Lights started, which I'd kind of seen in Skagway, and my reaction to this slight green glow was, 'Is that it?' And then they started this dance thing in the sky, and that was pretty good, but then--and I had no drugs or alcohol, I promise--they started dancing along, and then they were caving in on us, coming down, and it was just jaw-dropping. I'll never see anything like it again in my life."
On April 24, production moved to the town of White Horse in the Canadian Yukon, which served as the locations for Paul and Raymond's cabin and Mrs. Weary's house. By this time, Woody Harrelson joined the cast and proved his mettle by posing in his swim suit for a prop photo of Raymond set on a sandy beach, but which was actually shot by a frozen lake, with palm trees added later digitally. After Harrelson's body temperature returned to normal, and five days of filming scenes in White Horse were completed, the company made their final trek to Winnipeg for the remainder of the shoot.
Winnipeg provided the locations for the Barnell Travel Agency, Paul (ROBIN WILLIAMS) and Margaret (HOLLY HUNTER) Barnell's house, the Capitol Insurance Office, where Ted (GIOVANNI RIBISI) works, Tiffany (ALLISON LOHMAN) and Ted's apartment and the Winnipeg airport seen at the film's end. (Their luck with snow held: the cast and crew were astonished to wake up to an unseasonable 18 inches of snow after a freak Winnipeg storm on May 12).
At the end of the shoot, Williams reflected on the talented cast assembled to bring this quirky story to life. "An ensemble like this is like musicians who all can take a solo but also can play so beautifully together, can play off each other," he says. Mylod agrees, "I'm blown away by every one of my principal actors in this film. Every single one has given Collin [screenwriter Friesen] and me so much more than we bargained for, or even dared hope for. Robin is extraordinary in the way he can transmit such incredible emotion, and that he can walk this tightrope of finding truth as an actor."
British director Mark Mylod, with just one feature film under his belt, is spending a typical weekend, slogging through a pile of scripts from his agent. "There were like 20 of them, and each one was absolute rubbish, just appalling," he says. "Literally at the bottom, in a fairytale kind of way, was this script with no label or title on it. I had no idea who had written it, or where it came from. I started reading it, and there was something about it right away, it had a really individual voice and as I got deeper into it, I realized the characterization was just wonderful. I loved the characters. They all seemed so fantastically flawed, and I started getting this feeling that there was some amazing humanity under the surface, and these themes started occurring to me which I just wanted to play with. It had to do with the warmth of it; it was this kind of cross-genre thing which you couldn't put in a box. It wasn't just a comedy; it had that kind of Coen Brothers-type edge, but it was its own entity. There was something really unique and so well-crafted about it."
Screenwriter Collin Friesen, in fact, had written "The Big White" while at film school in his native Winnipeg. "The basic idea was what to do when you're stuck somewhere, and you're desperately trying to get out, and the means are all around you, but you just can't put the pieces together to make your great escape?" explains Friesen. "The obvious lesson of the movie is, you can find your happiness no matter where you are as long as you have people around that you care about. Any place can be absolutely beautiful or an absolute living hell, depending on who you're stuck with."
After committing to the script, Mylod started to assemble his ideal cast, starting with the role of unlucky travel agent Paul Barnell. "Paul has the opposite of the Midas touch," says Mylod. "He's the worst businessman in the world, he's far too nice, and he's one step away from bankruptcy. He's an absolute desperate man, but it's incredibly well masked. In his own quiet way, he's very stoic and has this wonderful dignity, hence the irony that this character is forced into this scam which is just so against his nature." Mylod's first choice was Robin Williams, who he admits is "genuinely a hero of mine--he's extraordinary." At their first meeting, Mylod says, "We just chatted very quietly about the cannibalistic habits of chimpanzees, which luckily I know something about." Williams, who was considering several films at the time, said he liked the way both saw the films and promised to call Mylod with a decision the next day. "He was as good as his word, and he called back and said he'd like to do the project," says the young director, still amazed at his good fortune.
Williams says what drew him to play the role was the quality of the material. "It's a strange piece, with all these very eccentric characters who are all struggling to make ends meet. Even the smallest character has resonance." He describes Paul as "the character who has to hold the center while all this madness is going down. You meet him at a desperate time, when he's totally broke, and there's something wrong with his wife, a series of symptoms that the HMO won't buy. They've been trying to solve her problem, but he's running a travel agency in Alaska in the middle of the winter, and the economy and everything else, he's in bad shape. And then something happens, one major event, habeas corpus, and he's off and running."
Unable to produce the body of his missing brother on whom he has a life insurance policy, Paul stumbles upon a frozen dead body in a dumpster--and in his desperation to help his wife, he impulsively decides to present the corpse as his long lost dead brother. Which is fine, until his brother Raymond (Woody Harrelson) reappears after five years missing.
Holly Hunter signed on as Margaret, Paul Barnell's troubled wife who inspired his desperate scheme to get them both someplace warm... and not white. Williams describes her character as "a weird combination of child and ferret. She can be so sweet, and then just snap. It has a lovely relationship of two people who are really meant for each other, and he has such unconditional love for her, that he's willing to do just about anything to see her happy again." About Hunter, Mylod says, "This is a strange synthesis of her talents, because she absolutely breaks my heart as this character and had me laughing out loud, but the element I didn't bank on is the kind of intellectual discipline she has. She put in a short prep time to research this character, who was lost and was seeking some kind of identity that manifests itself through this psychosomatic Tourette's Syndrome, which we wanted to be a beautiful portrait of a funny character. What Holly did was to take research a step further to create a sensory-type character who has this need to explore, to dip into things, like tasting it in a way. She brought the character into focus and gave her so much more depth, and found the truth behind it, which was just really, really smart."
Williams enjoyed his collaboration with Hunter, saying, "She plays it wonderfully. It's almost like a ballet where all of a sudden she flies and then you catch her--that's what it's like. She can be very physical and yet calm at the same time." Of playing brothers with Woody Harrelson, Williams says, "It's wild. He's not afraid of anything. His character is another case of a guy who can be so sweet, and then so scary in a microsecond. I think that's perfect, because if you've ever been around a few psychopaths, they can be that way. I think we're believable as brothers, but he's a scary brother. But working with him, you can bounce things and try anything, and the good news is Mark would let us do it."
Giovanni Ribisi and Allison Lohman play the oddly matched couple Ted, the relentless insurance agent determined to catch Paul Barnell at his scam, and Tiffany, his patient girlfriend who works as a psychic hotline operator out of their apartment as she pursues a more honest relationship with Ted. While his character is outwardly unhappy, Ribisi had an ideal experience shooting "The Big White." He credits Mylod and his costars with creating a fertile work environment. "When you're doing a scene with Mark, you span the spectrum as far as the possibilities, and he's so smart and acute that you know you can trust him. The greatest thing for me has just been the experience with everybody, with Robin, with Holly and Allison, it's just been such a different way of working." Ribisi felt some culture shock upon his arrival in Alaska, having just spent five months in Africa on "The Flight of the Phoenix."
Ribisi was thrilled to find Williams as his costar. "His imagination is just infinite, and without sounding too ridiculous, it really is play time when you're on the set with him. His quality of improvisation really does keep it alive, and you just have to be present. We've all been really fortunate with this one. As Holly says, we've all been cast within an inch of their lives," says Ribisi.
Mylod got a charge out of how his stars got along on set. "Giovanni and Robin have this spark between them when they work," he says. "It's so exciting that you just let them roll and just hold as many two-shots as possible, and let them go at each other, so the warfare between the characters has this strange affection to it at some mental level; it's fantastic." He admits that since his wildest dreams in casting and shooting the movie had come true, he was too superstitious to enjoy it during filming. "It was just abject fear, that if I ever said to myself, 'Hey, this is great, look where I am and who I'm working with,' then the gods would laugh and point at me. I was just too scared to enjoy it."
Mylod found himself with a lot of respect for the people who live in the places where "The Big White" was filmed. "I actually thought it makes sense to go through the arduous winters here, because you need to be strong to survive there. The people who live there are tough, really tough, but there's a real spark of life to them. It has to be a real, deliberate lifestyle choice to say 'This is the only place I want to be.' There's a kind of magic to that."