Whiteout - Fighting For Your Life On Screen And Behind The Scenes

Source: Warner Bros

Seeking a practical location that would evoke the cold, the barren spaces and utter remoteness of the South Pole, the filmmakers for the upcoming Warner Bros release, "Whiteout", relied upon executive producer Don Carmody, a veteran of nearly 40 Canadian-based productions, who says simply, "I know where the snow is."

Carmody adds, "The first lesson about snow is that it generally doesn't stay where you want it. It can be hard to find a place that will be iced over for the time you need it. Since this was meant to represent Antarctica, we not only needed snow but an expanse of flat surfaces to recreate those incredible South Pole vistas and a frozen lake that would support a set." Following an encounter with an inquisitive polar bear while scouting locations in Churchill ("It was as big as a Volkswagen," he swears), Carmody and production designer Graham "Grace" Walker found what they needed outside of Gimli, Manitoba.

Arriving on set to shoot the exterior scenes of the film was a bracing experience for the cast. Says Tom Skerritt, "It didn't have to be Antarctica. Manitoba is plenty cold. Everywhere you look, the ice is endless." At times during the shoot, the mercury at the Northern Canadian locale dropped lower than numbers logged that day at the South Pole.

Having worked in Budapest, Prague and other parts of Canada, Kate Beckinsale believed she had a fair tolerance for cooler climes, but concedes, "This was a whole new level of cold. My first breath outside made me cough like my throat was seizing up. People were walking around with frost on their eyelashes and in their beards."

To allay anxiety and help protect the cast and crew, production managers provided everyone with what Beckinsale jokingly calls "a telephone directory on all the different ways to die or be injured from the elements: frostbite, hypothermia, exposure. It was terrifying. Columbus and I were convinced we'd never get out of there alive."

"Yeah, the smart people on set didn't read that," Macht teases.

Aside from the camaraderie it fostered, one practical advantage to the weather was how it allowed for protective padding under clothing for the high-impact stunt scenes. At the same time, that posed its own challenge. Says producer Downey, "It takes a lot of effort to move around with all those layers. The logistics of just getting from point A to B, let alone staging an action sequence, can be exhausting."

Beckinsale rises to the challenge physically in "Whiteout," in which the action unfolds not as superhero fantasy but as a series of gritty life-and-death struggles between people desperate to survive. In that respect, notes Joel Silver, she brings credibility and tenacity to the character. "She makes you believe that she will use her gun and her fists and anything else that is available to her when she has to."

Says Beckinsale, "The action is based in reality and I think that will make it more intense for audiences because they might imagine what they would do in the same situation. Stetko is not some fearless, invincible being with superpowers, scaling walls and fighting off 14 attackers simultaneously; it's not that kind of movie. She's often taken by surprise and reacts on a gut level."

"Whiteout" placed Macht under the tutelage of stunt coordinator Steve Lucescu for the second time, following their work together on "The Recruit" in 2003. Says the actor, "It was like roughhousing with my brothers, growing up. I had a great time playing around in the snow with the stunt crew. It brought back fond memories."

During one perilous pursuit, characters best described as hunter and prey confront each other while clinging blindly to rope guidelines, or "storm lines," to avoid being blown into oblivion by the gale force winds of an Antarctic whiteout. Writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes orchestrated this sequence, involving multiple colored ropes connecting the various out-buildings of the Amundsen-Scott. "It's like fishing line, and you have to hook into it to get from here to there. There's a green line, a yellow line, a blue line... and we have people crossing from one to another, constantly changing course," Carey explains.

Adding to the risk, Chad cautions, "is not knowing which way to move when one end of the line leads to safety and the other end could deliver you into the waiting arms of a killer. You can't see. When you feel the rope ahead of you tightening it means someone else has just hooked onto that line. But how far away is he and which direction is he moving in?"

As the characters grapple with one another, some of these lines are severed, propelling them wildly out of control. Lucescu used winches, computer-calibrated to each actor's measurements, to safely monitor their acceleration and deceleration across the ice.

Still, there were moments when Beckinsale fought to remain upright. "She got knocked over several times," Sena remembers. "Kate has a small frame, so when she got too close to a fan it could blow her off her feet. But she kept getting up; she was a real trouper. We dragged her across the ice. There are many things a stunt double can do but you want audiences to see the actors' faces and know it's them as much as possible. I had a fantastic cast. We put them through hell and I couldn't have asked for more enthusiasm and commitment. I just hope their bruises have healed now and that they've forgiven me."

An hour's drive from Gimli and an approximate two hours from Winnipeg, the "Whiteout" set took over a spit of private land jutting into Lake Manitoba that offered multiple shooting angles guaranteed not to catch a tree line or hint of cityscape. Best of all, the shallow lake provided four feet of solid ice. The downside, Don Carmody explains, was that everything had to be brought in, "from gear to steel beams to Porta-Potties. There was no electricity, nothing." The first arrivals laid roads and an air strip so the rest of the crew could get in.

Grace Walker, marking his fifth collaboration with Joel Silver on "Whiteout," notes that the producer is always looking for "something fresh, something that hasn't been seen before." This gave him some creative leeway in presenting the American Antarctic base, especially inside.

"In keeping with the almost lunar landscape at the South Pole, the idea was to build a research center that looked a little like you would imagine a space colony to look like," says Silver.

Thinking "modern but functional and industrial," Walker used floor tiles on the walls, with exposed piping and stainless steel to get good reflections. "The walls are primarily pinboard, appropriately lightweight and cheap to take to the South Pole. By comparison, Vostok is older and shabbier with a 1960s or '70s vibe, which is true to life because Vostok doesn't have the funds the Americans have for their base. There were no practical locations, every scene in the movie is something we created from scratch," the designer says, adding that the first floor was a physical set but the upper levels, where no action takes place, were CGI extensions.

"The challenge was timing," Downey explains. "Gimli gets so frigid at a certain time of year that nails just shatter when they're hit by a hammer. At the other end of the schedule, beyond a certain period, the lake begins to melt under you."

"Of course, it was our luck that Manitoba was having the warmest winter on record," Sena laughs, though emphasizing that "warm" is a relative term. He and cinematographer Chris Soos had to rely on cameras specially oiled to resist freezing, with special heating units attached to each magazine just to keep the film running.

The construction crew, a combined force of set specialists and local carpenters, faced a number of interesting logistical problems: equipment would freeze and stop working, cables would crack, high winds struck down newly raised walls, supply trucks got stuck in the snow and generators seized. In addition, the lake bed was too fragile to support the weight of standard cranes so the visiting team learned from the locals how to rig Bobcats to hoist siding into place.

Trucks delivering bolts or wall panels and larger pieces built in warehouses in Winnipeg often got delayed in transit. "There was always at least one tow truck bringing up the rear when we traveled to the set because invariably one of the convoy would slide off the road and need to be retrieved," Sena recalls.

Oddly, in a place where cold was taken for granted, one of the biggest issues was spot-thawing, which wreaked havoc on the newly constructed sets. The temperature might be minus-30, but if the sun came out and hit the steel beams they would soak it up. That, plus the weight of the steel itself, would begin to melt the foundation they rested upon just enough to shift the whole structure. Ultimately, the steel was insulated against the sun's rays, and foundations shored up with gravel.

Striking sets and moving out was another race against the clock with its own perverse humor. Says lead carpenter Tony Parkin, "A day before we got word to pull the set down, the weather changed from minus-15 to plus-2 and it rained. We could have traded our overalls for skin-diving suits for the amount of water that suddenly appeared. The whole place turned into a marsh and we were constantly sinking. At one point we had three trucks hooked up to each other and a crane to pull the first truck out of the mud."

Volunteers from the nearby communities of Gimli and Eriksdale lent their help, and portions of the set not earmarked for additional filming were left in their hands to be recycled into a planned daycare center. The crew also took care not to leave anything behind that could end up in the lake and be toxic to fish and other wildlife.

Production then moved the outdoors indoors, transporting and recreating the pieces of their set like a giant jigsaw puzzle on soundstages in Montreal.

"We wanted the big whiteout storm scene on stage where we could control it and that meant moving the foundations of four interconnecting buildings, the station and airplane hangar, to Montreal. We then used giant fans to blast them with fake snow, really beat them up with tons of salt," says Sena.

The special effects crew created a variety of indoor snow: some lightweight for blowing in the background, some in blanket form, some designed for having boots sunk into and some to blow onto the actors. Additionally, 120 tons of sand was mounded up and covered with 12 tons of salt to create giant drifts.

By Gabriel Macht's estimation, it was the artificial snow that caused more difficulty than anything they had encountered on the Gimli ice, mainly because it tended to adhere to skin. "Some scenes required a lot of physical exertion and that meant heavy breathing, so we needed to keep our passages open. The stuff got into our mouths and ears and up our noses. There was no avoiding it."

Fellow faux-snow victim Alex O'Loughlin offers his own take on it. "It's starch and salt, so you felt like you'd been rolling around in pizza dough all day."

Whether manufacturing snow, building sets on a frozen lake or staging a full-scale whiteout, every effort was made to offer entry into a world that few will ever experience.

Says Sena. "Rather than taking a stylized approach, I wanted to bring this story to the screen in a realistic way and present this environment as true to life. Antarctica is such an unforgiving place, and the whiteout is a powerful phenomenon. When those things hit you can't see three feet in front of you and your life expectancy can drop to minutes. It really makes a compelling setting for a mystery."

"The idea was to transport audiences to Antarctica. We want them to feel the cold, the fear, the isolation and the will to survive in this extraordinarily difficult and alien environment," says Silver, before advising with a smile: "Better bring a sweater."

See Also: Kate Beckinsale To Return For 3D Underworld Trilogy / Sneak Previews: Where The Wild Things Are, Whiteout, The Box, Sherlock Holmes And Ninja Assassin / Kate Beckinsale Wants The Catwoman Role For Herself

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