Film and TV

Big-budget thriller to be filmed in tiny Whittier next year

WHITTIER - A big-budget feature film is set to begin production in the tiny Southcentral community of Whittier in January, city officials and producers announced Friday.

The film, "Hunter Killer," appears to be on track to be the largest production in Alaska history. Producers would not disclose the budget but said it far exceeds that of the Nicolas Cage thriller "The Frozen Ground" and the Drew Barrymore movie about whales trapped in sea ice near Barrow, "Big Miracle." In interviews, producers on those films estimated budgets at the mid-$30 million range for "Big Miracle" and mid-$20 million range for "The Frozen Ground."

The entire film will be shot in Alaska, about 90 percent of it in Whittier, producers said. At a packed town hall meeting Friday morning in the Whittier Public Works Building, executive producers Jamie Marshall and Scott Lumpkin pledged to hire as many local people as possible as extras or to provide services.

The film is based on the novel "Firing Point" by George Wallace and Don Keith, about an American nuclear submarine captain who becomes entwined in a coup in the Russian military. It is being directed by Martin Campbell, whose other credits include the 2006 James Bond movie "Casino Royale" and 2011's "Green Lantern." Actor Gerard Butler ("300") has been linked to the film in online trade publications, and his name was being circulated by residents Friday.

The production has been in the works for at least five years. But Carolyn K. Robinson, owner and executive producer of the Anchorage-based production company Sprocketheads, said the producers would not have chosen Alaska as the filming location without the state's film subsidy program, which has awarded tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to production crews since it was signed into law in 2008.

"The production … would fly right over Alaska" without the program, Robinson said.

Producers said they settled on Whittier in part for its wintertime resemblance to a Russian naval base. The port community, accessible by car or train through a narrow tunnel, is an access point to scenic Prince William Sound for fishing and tour boats. The majority of its permanent residents live in a single high-rise building.

The town bustles in summer but winters are quiet. When the "Hunter Killer" crew of about 180 people descends on Whittier in early January, the winter population will roughly double.

For 12 weeks after arriving in January, the crew will be in pre-production mode, including making casting calls, executive producer Lumpkin said. Whittier residents will be given top priority, he said, before producers turn to Girdwood, Anchorage and places farther away. Radio and social media will be used to advertise the casting opportunities.

Rumors of the movie had been swirling among locals for weeks but the details were not made public until the town hall meeting Friday morning. Afterward, people lingered, chattering excitedly.

"I want to be in it," Karen Cole, 57, gushed.

"This is work! It's a ghost town in the winter," said Gregg Ginn, a 54-year-old longshoreman.

Ginn said he has lived in Whittier for 16 years and "this is the most exciting thing we've ever had."

Cole said she has worked as a housekeeper at the Anchor Inn for the last two years. She said she's looking forward to more rooms than usual being booked at the lodge.

Charter boat operator Tibor Molnar, 61, joked that he'd like to be cast as Gerard Butler's body double.

"And get all the girls," he added.

Executive producer Marshall said he and Lumpkin were encouraged by the enthusiasm evident at Friday's meeting. He said they had been worried no one would show up.

That enthusiasm apparently extends to the office of the newly elected governor. Thursday night, Gov. Bill Walker had dinner with the producers, his spokeswoman, Grace Jang, confirmed in an email to Alaska Dispatch News. She said Walker is "excited about the prospect of Alaskans going to work on a project that will showcase the beauty of our state."

The producers' promise to hire Alaskans and pump economic lifeblood into Whittier, Girdwood and other communities bodes well for the eventual size of the tax credit, said Kelly Mazzei, executive director of the Alaska Film Office, which manages the subsidy program.

"If they're planning on hiring lots of Alaskans, all the crew you could possibly get, and filming exclusively in a rural community in Alaska, there's no way they're probably going to get (back) less than 40 percent" of the total amount of money spent in Alaska on the film, Mazzei said.

After qualifying for a tax credit, a film crew has three years to complete the production and have its expenses verified by the state before the credit is awarded, Mazzei said.

Before the filming starts, Robinson said, there's a lot of work to do. Somewhere in Whittier, a submarine has to be built. They'll have to figure out a way to house and feed crew members.

"It's going to be a wild six months in the city of Whittier," Robinson said.