'Big Miracle' available on disc after lackluster box office run

Kyle Hopkins
Movie: Amigos Mexican restaurant in Barrow Anchorage: Mexico in Alaska, 7305 Old Seward Highway
3Movie: NBC studios in New York Anchorage: Key Bank building at 601 W. Fifth Ave.
1Movie: Barrow ice field Anchorage: Ship Creek public boat launch
2Movie: Bristol Bay oil lease auction Anchorage: Hotel Captain Cook
4Movie: Greenpeace offices Anchorage: 400 block West 5th Avenue, vacant T-shirt shop
5Movie: California home, family watches news Anchorage: Private home, 1700 block of 11th Avenue
7Movie: Barrow airport terminal Anchorage: Merrill Field
6Movie: Barrow High School Anchorage: West High School

The DVD and Blu-ray editions of 'Big Miracle' hit stores Tuesday, crammed with cameos by Alaska actors and behind-the-scenes trivia from director Ken Kwapis.

Among the revelations buried in the 107-minute director's commentary: Early versions of the script called the movie "Whales on Ice," former Veco boss Bill Allen inspired Ted Danson's oil man character, and the production nearly went to Canada.

The first modern, major movie filmed in Alaska, the production was an early test of the state's ability to lure filmmakers with generous public subsidies. Formerly known as "Everybody Loves Whales," it was also something of a flop at the box office.

The retail video release closes the curtain on the film's theatrical run, which cost in the mid-$30 million range, or more, but made only $25 million worldwide.

The movie opened Feb. 3 against the found-footage, superpowers flick "Chronicle" and "Woman in Black," a haunted house tale starring a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. All three films competed for attention that weekend with the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl.

A fictionalized retelling of the 1988 attempt to rescue three gray whales trapped in sea ice near Barrow, "Big Miracle" made $7.7 million in its opening weekend before sputtering to a domestic gross of just more than $20 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

"The Grey," a wolf-attack movie set in Alaska but filmed in Canada, hit theaters at about the same time. By comparison, it made more than $50 million domestically.

Despite slow ticket sales, critics met "Big Miracle" with warm reviews. Many praised the film, a PG-rated family movie, for hinting at the self-interested agendas that motivated oil industry executives and politicians, environmentalists and whalers to collaborate on the rescue effort.

"Big Miracle even throws in an unexpected bonus, a surprise last-minute cameo that is funny without being the slightest bit mean, just like the rest of this hugely likeable move," the Miami Herald wrote.

That cameo is in the form of 1980s-era KTUU-Channel 2 footage of sportscaster Sarah Palin, one of many treats for Alaska viewers looking to spot familiar faces behind stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.

Some of the characters in the film were fabricated to serve the story. Some are composites and others are based on real people.

"Ted Danson's character, J.W. McGraw, was inspired by a real life oil company president, Bill Allen ... the chairman and founder of Veco," Kwapis says.

The commentary track is a lonely affair. None of the actors participated and Kwapis often sounds like he's reading from a script. He's full of praise for the Alaska actors, and offers historical asides and details about making a modern Hollywood film in remote Alaska.

"In this case, the challenges included bitter cold, a large ensemble cast, many of whom never worked in front of a camera before, three robotic whales, a dearth of daylight -- we were shooting in the fall and we lost three minutes of daylight each day -- and absurdly unpredictable weather," he says.

Here's more from Kwapis on the DVD commentary:

• The first screenplays by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler were inspired by Tom Rose's book, "Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event." The early drafts included much of that book's satiric bite, Kwapis said. Later iterations -- by then called "Everybody Loves Whales" -- focused less on skewering news coverage and more on the agenda-driven rescue attempt itself.

• The tale reminded Kwapis of the Tom Wolfe novel "The Right Stuff." "It managed to poke fun at the early space program while still being completely awed by space travel itself," Kwapis says. "I hoped we could strike a similar balance in our film."

• To film underwater scenes at the Seward SeaLife Center, Barrymore earned her diving certification during pre-production.

• The filmmakers scouted Manitoba, Canada, before choosing Alaska. The small town of Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay, was considered as a possible stand-in for Barrow. Kwapis said he preferred to film in Alaska, in part to include Alaska Native actors and extras.

• A New Zealand company created three animatronic whales for the film. A hand-held remote control moved the whales' heads, while a diver fixed underwater malfunctions in a tank at Ship Creek.

The Blu-ray version also includes a behind-the-scenes documentary called "A 'Big Miracle' in Alaska," which features Alaska actors such as Ahmaogak Sweeney of Anchorage, John Chase of Kotzebue and John Pingayak of Chevak, who appeared in the movie as Barrow residents or whalers.

"John Pingayak, he's one of the respected Native men in Alaska," actor Ishmael Angalook Hope tells the documentary crew. "He's a respected elder who is playing a respected elder."

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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