There is a movie debuting this weekend that will fundamentally surprise you. That will make you question how you could so fundamentally prejudge a genre. No, it’s not the blockbuster fan-fiction mess of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” or the unfathomable lack of, um, cinematic perspective in “Cats.” (Although, frankly, your potential disappointment in both could lead to genuine “surprise.”) No, in this case, it’s the supposed feel-good (aka “inspirational”) dogsled movie “Togo,” a Disney Studios movie premiering on Disney+.
I know, what you’re thinking, “A movie starring Willem Dafoe as a dogsled runner in the middle of the wilderness? Really?” That’s one way to generalize the film, but the true story of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska is much more than that. Dafoe portrays historical figure Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian dogsled breeder who was asked to help get cases of a vaccine to the small town to stop an epidemic from killing the entire community. History crowned Balto as the hero, but that dog only brought the medicine to Nome on its last leg of its journey. Togo, a 13-year-old mutt led the charge most of the way on Seppala’s run.
Tom Flynn‘s WGA Awards-nominated script follows that dangerous trek while flashing back to Seppala’s long history with Togo from an unwanted pup to his legitimate best friend. Julianne Nicholson almost steals the movie as Seppala’s wife Constance, who sees something in Togo from the beginning that her husband simply wants to ignore. The picture is directed by Ericson Core who, like his previous efforts “Invincible” and “Point Break,” also served as the director of photography. And, Core and Flynn’s efforts are aided by a gorgeous score from Mark Isham that deserves a tremendous amount of praise. We’re not saying Disney Plus should mount a strong Emmy campaign for everyone involved, but we’re not not saying it either.
Core jumped on the phone earlier this week to discuss his passion for Flynn’s screenplay, the difficulty of working with untrained dogs, creating a look distinct for the period and, oh yes, his own relationship with a wolf (yes, a wolf), he used to own.
The Playlist: I have to be honest. I am a cat person. I mean, I’m a major cat person and I saw this movie last night and, hey, maybe it was partially my disappointment over “Star Wars,” but I literally bawled my eyes out at the end of this movie. So, congratulations on making a cat lover cry at a dog movie.
Ericson Core: That’s very sweet.
Was that your intent?
You know what, I have cats too. And one of the reasons I wound up doing this movie is I had a wolf for many years, which was interesting. He was so amazing because he was quite cat-like. Wolves are much more like cats, very meticulous and clean themselves, intelligent, aloof. All of those things the cats are in fur, in a larger portion. So, I get cats very much. I think anyone who has an animal will get the relationship that this film brings.
Absolutely. What sparked your interest in this particular story though?
With everything. It was brought to me by Sean Bailey, the president here at Disney [Studios] who knew me and my background, and thought that I would be a good fit for the movie. For a couple of reasons, I made the film “Invincible” here at Disney. An inspirational drama, which I think this falls into that category to some degree. I was an outdoor mountain guy for many years. So, being in the outdoors, I know a couple of films that I’ve worked on, I’ve done quite a bit of adventurous outdoor stuff up in mountains and deserts and cliffs, and in dangerous places. And this film was definitely an on location movie that required a certain sensibility for a director to be able to do it. So, that had to do with it. And also Sean knew my wolf, he met him when I was in the editing room of “Invincible”. And got to know this 185-pound animal that I had, that was very unique and interesting, and more of a roommate than a pet to say the least. But I think he understood that I understood the relationship with an animal closely, which I felt that way. And when I read the script, I bawled my eyes out too because the script was so strong by Tom Flynn, that it affected me deeply and made me want to do the film, and be in service to the film, which I have been for the past couple of years.
I apologize for going down this tangent, but how did you get a wolf in the first place?
I was in some ways young and dumb. I was with my girlfriend, now wife, and we had finally bought a home, and I still had my sensibility of being this outdoor mountain guide, and wanting an outdoor animal that could go, and tromp around the mountains with me. And I remember people who had all different sorts of breeds when I was back doing that, and I looked in the paperback in the day, prior to Craigslist, where free puppies, or puppy litters and so forth, and went through everything from Malamutes to all the big mountain breeds. And at the very bottom under W was… Said, “Wolf pups.” And I went and visited someone in the Valley who had wolves and I wound up with a wolf pup. And it was quite an adventure, to say the least. But there is a lot of his antics and stories and my connection to him that is definitely imbued into the film.
For historical purposes, what was the name of your wolf?
Shalako. And the film is actually dedicated to him. At the very, very end of the credits, it says, “For Shalako.” Which I never thought of doing, but at the very end of the film when I was asked, is there anyone I wanted to thank at the end of the movie that we had worked with, or someone who didn’t have a credit? And it just popped into my head as an of course, and I dedicated it to him.
Going in you must have known that you needed a lot of patience to deal with dogs on set. Did it meet your expectations? Was it easier than you thought?
It’s a challenge. They always tell directors don’t work with children, animals or weather. And I did all three with this film because the story was strong enough to want to garner that. But you do need a lot of patience to work with the animals. And if I didn’t have it before, I certainly learned how, because that’s the great thing about animals of any type, they teach you more than you probably teach them. As much as you think that you’re a master of your pet, it’s usually the other way around. And you’ve been trained. And similar with working with animals in film, and dogs in particular in this case, I had to have that patience because you have to wait for the animals to be ready to do what it is that you want. So, it takes tremendous patience and time to do that. The great thing is with animals, they speak the truth. They are not pretending to do something, they actually do it. So, whenever you do get performance out of an animal, it is truthful and it’s believable and that makes all the difference in the story.
The actual dog on screen, Togo is supposed to be sort of a mutt, if I’m correct, of a sled dog and other dogs. How hard was it to find a trained dog that could do what you needed Togo to do in that sort of breed?
Well, we didn’t find a trained dog. We found the right dog, and that was Diesel, who played the adult Togo throughout the film. And he is actually a Seppala Siberian. So, he is 14 generations removed. But he is a great-grandson of Togo.
[He’s the real] Togo’s bloodline, which is kind of amazing. Togo was also a dark, blacker colored animal, which a lot of the Siberians are not. So, he was very unique looking in that way. And this dog Diesel was that as well. So, it looked very much like the original Togo and being his offspring really helped.
In the movie, he does a lot of like impressive things that a “dog actor” would do. Was it hard to get him to do it? Or was it just easy based on the training he had just as a sled dog?
Nothing is easy. Working with animals, it’s not easy. It’s all very hard to do. The thing that we had in Diesel was a beautiful animal within the lineage of Togo, which was really important. And he had been on a sled before, so he was comfortable on a sled. That’s the hardest part. I don’t think you could have taken a trained dog that knows how to do certain things, hit a mark and all the rest of it, who did not work on a sled, because so much of the story is on the sled. So, we found a dog that could run on the sled, completely untrained and then he had to be trained. So, it took a lot of patience and a lot of time to get what we needed. But we ultimately did. And I think he ultimately became a great choice.
You also are the cinematographer on the picture. Did being behind the camera so much of the time assist you in getting what you needed from the dogs?
Yeah. It’s an interesting thing. I mean it’s very rare for a director to also be their own DP on a piece. It doesn’t happen normally. I’ve always been asked by the studios to do it because I have a background in it. And I’m very used to it now, so it flows well for me. It is a tremendous amount of work certainly. Oddly as a DP, I know exactly what the director wants. And as a director, I know that the DP has my back and knows when to back off, when it’s about performance, and I need time with actors, and when it is a visual storytelling that the DP takes over and does that. So, I do have conversations with myself and argue with myself. And we’re not talking right now. But it ultimately works out well. And more than anything, I think I gained time because a lot of the conversations that are necessary between two people, no matter how close they are, and as good of relationships that I’ve had with directors that I’ve worked with as a DP, you’re always trying to look at something with someone else’s eyes, and have a conversation of a slightly different language than the other person speaks. And trying to come to that and have a singular vision with two minds. It moves a little quicker, so I think I gain a little bit of time and efficiency in doing that. And I think that I know how to imbue into the visual sense of the movie, the emotional stakes that are necessary. I also get more prep as a DP than I would otherwise get on a film, because I’m there from the very beginning. And this film in particular because of the extreme weather that we worked in, required an efficiency and a speed. And that also works with having a very small crew. So, I directed, I DP’d, and I operated camera for all the Alpine unit, which meant that I could get a lot done with myself and a few others. And very, very good working crew. But we all sort of wore multiple hats in order to keep the crew small, so we can be nimble and move fast through the weather.
Putting on your DP hat, is there one shot in particular in the film that you’re most happy with?
I don’t think there’s one. There’s an overall style that I think is very important. The last scene of Togo and Seppala at the top of the hill. I find it’s absolutely a very beautiful scene and visual. Because when visuals work best, they’re telling the story emotionally at a visceral level. And I think that does it quite well.I did spend about a year and a half developing a look for this film based on auto chrome photography, which was the original color photography created by the Lumiere brothers, who also invented motion picture film in France at the turn of the century. We created a look that was about eight layers of texturing, and a look that gave the quality and the painterly feel of early color photography in the film. That I think makes it certainly unique among the Disney brand, but also unique among pretty much all films out there. It’s not been done before in the particular way that we did it. And I’m very pleased with the overall style and the look of the film because I think it imbues the film was a bit of a storybook and painterly feel, which I think helps transcend the story a little bit.
One of the key action sequences is when Seppala, Willem, and the dogs racing across the Bering Sea. And as they get in the middle of the sea the ice breaks around them – and I won’t give it away – but something happens later on. How realistic is that for dog sledders of the time? how much poetic license is there?
That is absolutely a true part of the story. Everything that we did and the events that happened to Seppala were definitely taken from the reality of the serum run. The Bering Sea, which has a huge bay between Nome, Alaska, and where they were trying to get to in order to get the serum and get the serum back. It would take 90 miles to go around that bay over a very mountainous terrain and would take a very long time, versus going 25 miles directly across the bay. The problem is the Bering Sea is underneath it and when it’s storming, the swell underneath can break that ice. So, it’s a very dangerous place to be. There are times when it’s calmer and indeed mushers do cross that ice and did indeed back in the day when Seppala made the serum run. And that ice can break and mushers have been lost on it before. The danger of it is absolutely real and largest ice lake in Alberta is where we shot that. It was so big I had to scout by helicopter every morning to find areas with clear ice without snowdrifts. And then the crew would come out by ATVs with chains on them. And it would take 45 minutes or an hour for the crew to arrive, just to give you a sense of the scale we were working on. But it can be an incredibly dangerous. So, that was very true. And he did indeed need to throw Togo across as he did in the film.
Can you talk about what Willem and Julianne bring to the film? I mean they’re great actors, but they also have just great chemistry as well on screen.
Yeah, it was amazing. Julianne, I knew she was a great actor, but I had no idea how great. She brought so much to the role and life, in terms of the emotional center and strength and wisdom and humor and a love that Constance can embody. It was fantastic. They had not worked together before. and when we did rehearsals, Willem grabbed my arm and said, “Good job.” He was enamored with her and they had a very good relationship, which I think transcended to the screen as well. Willem was amazing and we were incredibly lucky to get an actor who I think is one of the greatest actors working today. And his strength and fierceness and stoicism that even Willem can carry as an actor was so right for the character of Leonard Seppala. But underneath it, the emotional center and sort of the melting away of that stoicism, and putting his head down in order to get the task at hand to work, while also embodying all the feelings and vulnerability underneath, that was sort of his emotional reckoning in the film was gorgeous. And no one could do that better than Willem. And I think that’s kind of the truth of the movie. Togo saved Seppala’s life many a time throughout their lives and especially on the serum run. But I think in the end he also saved his soul. And that’s the intimate story inside the epic story of Togo.
“Togo” is now available on Disney Plus.