Eight Below - Paul Walker interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
PAUL Walker talks about working with huskies in adventure flick, Eight Below, as well as the challenges of filming in sub-zero temperatures, Jason Biggs’ ankle injury and Clint Eastwood’s war epic, Flags of our Fathers…
Q. Were the huskies as adorable as they looked, or can they be ferocious?
A. Some of them are real sweet, but they’re a working dog, first and foremost. They’re not like a golden retriever that just wants to please and be petted at all times. They don’t require a lot of human contact. They want to work. There were a few exceptions, and we all had our favourites. For the most part, I don’t think they necessarily make the best house pets, especially not in Southern California, where I come from.
Q. Are you as comfortable as your character is with dogs?
A. Yeah. Where I grew up, there were always a couple of cats and at least two dogs.
Frank Marshall: It was one of the most important questions that I had for Paul when we first met – ‘do you have a dog’? When he said ‘yes’, I told him he was 90% of the way there. Because that bond and that relationship between man and dog is not something you can fake. That was really important for the character and the minute he got up there I could see he was really comfortable with the dogs.
Q. Did you get much rehearsal time with the dogs?
A. That was the focal point, the most important thing. Not that we shot the film in sequence, but anything involving the snow and the elements and everything outdoors is what we shot first and foremost, and the majority of it was just physical acting; there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue.
I think Frank knew that we were going to have time together, the human actors. So we went about it day to day and depending on what mother nature had in store for us on that particular day, she pretty much dictacted what we did. It was important that I had a relationship with each and every one of those dogs. Sure, we had trainers, but ultimately the dogs had to listen to me when I was giving them basic commands. Especially with huskies, being that they’re a working dog, you have to earn their respect, much like you would with riding a horse. Just as a horse can sense if you’re an inexperienced rider, the dogs can sense if I’m inexperienced with the sled. It took a long time with some of them to earn their respect. I spent almost a month, eight to ten hours a day, just working with the dogs, prior to jumping on the principal photography bandwagon. Naturally, it’s work in progress by the end of the shoot. I was more than proficient and they’d listen to me. We got along pretty well!
Q. As well as bonding with the dogs, how was bonding with co-stars such as Jason Biggs?
A. He got my respect straight away because he showed up with a broken ankle and he didn’t tell anyone. He hid it as best as he could but I finally busted him. I saw him twisting it and he took it off because there was so much pressure from the swelling. So I asked him what the deal was and he said: “Shhh”. That’s when I decided that I liked him.
Q. So how did he do it?
A. Oh that’s not much of a story. He stepped off a curb I think!
Q. This is clearly a buddy movie with a difference, but it’s also got a lot of typical Disney elements? Is that something that attracted you, this change of direction?
A. I just read it and liked it. To be honest, when I heard the storyline, I thought: “OK, dogs and snow, the first thing I thought of was the Cuba Gooding Jr movie! Not that it was bad, but I thought, “I’ve already seen dogs in the snow.” I didn’t really get it.”
Then I read it and I was laughing and crying. So by the end I was feeling really good about things and I picked up the phone and said to Frank: “I think this is one of those rare occasions where it’s not pretentious, it is what it is, and I feel if we go out and make what’s on paper, we’ve got a pretty decent movie.” He said: “Yeah but the real pressure comes from knowing that, because if we screw it up, it’s our fault.”
Q. Would you say that you fell in love with this character much more than any previous character you’ve played? Is he similar to yourself?
A. I felt like I was along for the journey when I read it, so you don’t really think about similarities. I just know that I felt for him, that I understood it and I got the story.
It reminded me of a lot of things. One of the first thoughts I had was Old Yeller, which to me is an all-time classic. I loved that movie as a kid. It touched on a lot of those same notes. I’m an animal lover. What was funny was my parents’ and my friends’ reaction to the movie when they first saw it. I brought them to the premiere and they said: “That’s you!”
Q. In terms of physicality, what would you say was the most challenging aspect of the film? And was it cold?
A. The good thing was that we were equipped. I had the right parka, I had all the layers. Sure it was cold from time to time, but it never got to the point when it was unbearable. It was kind of the fun of the day, when you’d get a blast of wind. Kurt, our sound man, would be there with his electronics, measuring the wind chill, and factoring it into the cold, and at one point we fell more than 30 below celsius. But it became more of a novelty, a fun thing, than anything else.
I think what helped us was that the dogs were there. They take your mind off that, there’s a job at hand – and not to mention it was beautiful. So you’re more caught up in the scenery and the vistas. I expected it to be a nightmare. That was a good portion of our first conversation. I said: “Man, we’re going to have to have a mountain man of a crew, not to mention some really tough actors.” But Frank said he had the best which I didn’t question after looking at his resume. He brought on Don Burgess, who was a phenomenal guy. His level of fitness is exceptional and sure enough, there was Don – the director of photography – opting out on the ride to the top of the mountain so that he could snow-shoe up and down every day.
Q. Of the action stuff for you, what was the most challenging?
A. Operating a sled doesn’t require a whole lot of athleticism. It takes basic co-ordination, but I think anybody can do it. You have to be alert and aware, because the terrain is always changing, and it is a living machine; you get dogs that occasionally fight, some of them have attitude and they don’t always listen.
I’ll tell you this much. I got up there, and maybe my cardio wasn’t as good as it should have been – but when I came home, my legs were probably a good three to four inches bigger around, going through that snow everyday. I could have run a marathon when I got back to sea level.
Q. Did the dogs actually sleep in the snow as they film shows?
A. When the dogs had their full winter coats, they look the prettiest. The trainers told me they’re most comfortable at minus 30 celsius. You bring them inside and it’s too hot.
Q. The opening sequence finds you almost naked and running from the sauna into the snow. Were you thrilled about that?
A. I didn’t find out about that until the day before we shot it! Conveniently enough, it was just around the time that Into the Blue had just been screened, and so Disney found out that some people thought I looked decent with my shirt off, and thought they should open the movie that way.
So I said to Frank:”Hey look man, I realise we’re just getting this off the ground, but just know this – I’m not stupid!”
Q. Do you find the notion you might be cast because you look decent with your shirt off inhibiting?
A. Maybe a little. But I don’t mind having to chase things down either, things that I like, like Running Scared for instance. I’m extemely competitive, so when people start counting me out or trying to categorise me, I sorta get hungry. So it works better for me that way.
Q. Running Scared wasn’t a typical Paul Walker role either. Was that part of the attraction?
A. I love those types of movies. There’s a certain time and place for different types. I like dark movies. But at the same time, if I watch too much news and I’m feeling a little down, I like to see something that’s a little more upbeat. It depends on the mood and how I’m feeling at that particular time. That’s why I was drawn to both these movies – there’s a time and a place for both genres.
Q. Can you tell us about the Clint Eastwood film, Flags of Our Fathers, and the character you play?
A. It was a great experience. He’s a good guy. The things you hear are true. I was there every day, day in and day out, and it was tough – but he never lost his cool. He was always in control.
I like it because it’s not so much about the heroics. I think it depicts war for what it really is. These guys are now like brothers. They go off, they fight, their best friend dies right next to them. They don’t have time to cry about it, they gotta push forward.
What the story’s really about is the unsung heroes, the guys that raised the first flag – all of whom were basically killed by the time that famous photograph made it back to the States. What’s immortalised is the second raising that replaced the original flag, because the marine corps love their souvenirs. They knew that first flag was so significant, but they pulled it down. What was immortalised was the photograph of raising it the second flag. Those guys were called home, they were immortalised and labelled as heroes. They were basically tools, against their will, to generate funding basically for the remainder of the war.
The US would have never seen the end of it, and these guys were sent around on a nationwide bomb tour to help generate – I can’t remember how many billions, way back when. But that’s the gist of the story, their reluctance.
Frank Marshall: In fact, Paul called me and said: “There’s this role that I’m really moved by and I don’t think anyone is thinking about me for it.” So I encouraged him and put in a couple of calls to say: “There’s a real good actor out there you might not be thinking of because of his different kind of movies.” I think that perseverance really paid off.