Every so often a film comes along that, despite not quite drawing the masses to the multiplexes, has a story so charming and engaging it eventually lures a legion of admirers when it hits home video and cable TV.
Like its unique subject matter, director Ken Kwapis’ film “Big Miracle” is just that kind of odds-bucker.
The film dramatizes (and frequently comedy-izes) the real-life 1988 media sensation that arose around the efforts of an international assembly of unlikely allies – including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore) and her local newsman ex (John Krasinski), a National Guardsman (Dermot Mulroney), a White House staffer (Vinessa Shaw) trying to ensure the election of George H.W. Bush; an oil executive facing a crisis of conscience (Ted Danson), a ladder-climbing anchorwoman (Kristen Bell), Inuit whale hunters, and the Russian navy among them – to free a trio of gray whales trapped in a hole in the ice near an Alaskan town in the Arctic Circle.
A veteran helmer of heartfelt but not overly sentimental comedy, Kwapis (“The Office,” “Malcolm In the Middle,” “He’s Just Not That Into You”) deftly mines the many “you’d never believe it if it weren’t true” elements of the offbeat story and brings it together in a beguiling blend of the sweet and the satirical. As the film makes its DVD and Blu-ray bow, Kwapis shares his memories of making the film with PopcornBiz, and reveals why he thinks it’ll sneak up on audiences for years to come.
How quickly did your vision gel with this material, recognizing how to turn it into such a satisfying story for the screen?
I think what appealed to me, what I found so powerful, was the idea of a group of people with very different interests and very different agendas – often competing agendas – trying to solve a problem together. I also loved the idea of a seemingly impossible task, the idea that there were three large whales trapped in the ice with only a small hole to come up to breathe and that between that hole and open water is five miles of for the most part solid ice. How do you get them out? It just seemed like such a weird puzzle. So I loved the idea, the human interest aspect of it, how do people with a lot of competing agendas and a lot of ulterior motives finally figure out how to accomplish this task together.
What were the key insights that you got from some of the real life players that helped you make you story feel real and come to life, that it was happening to real people?
A couple of the real life people, [former White House staffer] Bonnie Caroll and [environmental activist] Cindy Lowry, who are respectively the Vanessa Shaw character and Drew Barrymore's character – what I really liked in terms of talking with each of them is how no one wanted to give up on these three whales, even though the odds were completely stacked against them and as each day progressed it was even more and more impossible to figure how to get to them to freedom. What I loved is that it's not as if this was some world event, but they could not have been more passionate and determined to pull this off.
What are your memories of the real life incident? Was it on your radar at the time?
I remember the event on the news, but I remember it mostly because it was about two weeks before the 1988 presidential election, the Bush/Dukakis election. I was very interested in that election, and what's interesting is that the news of the whale rescue over the last two weeks of the presidential campaign started to actually preempt the campaign at the time. I don't remember following it in great detail, but I definitely remember that it was there, competing with the news about the Bush/Dukakis campaign in its final couple of weeks.
You have a lot of fun with how the media dealt with that its coverage of the story the film. Was it a bit of a precursor to the kind of breathless, around the clock coverage that happens with media sensations today?
Well, there have certainly been media-centric events in the past, before this one, but this one did seem to set the stage for events that followed. I can't remember if Baby Jessica was born before or after this, but certainly the coverage of things like O. J. Simpson, Tonya Harding. There seems to be a real pattern that the media follow now, where they seize upon an event for a short time, saturate listeners and viewers with every detail about that event and then move on. There does seem to be a sort of a certain kind of frenzy that this was a template for. There were over 150 reporters there, and one of the great things about making the film is that most of those reporters were working for television networks around the world, so there was a lot of footage that they took and a lot of it we were able to use in the film itself. So at times you're looking at the whales that we created for the film and then other times, on monitors, on television sets in the background, you're also seeing the real whales themselves from 1988.
You've made two films with Drew Barrymore now. She's a consummate Hollywood star. What do you like about Drew that only the people who know her as a friend and colleague are aware of?
The reason everyone feels that they know her is because she has a very accessible quality. She feels like she's a friend of yours. She feels like someone you can go out and have a beer with. The other reason that people feel that they know her is because we've all grown up with her. She's someone who's been in front of the cameras since she was a baby, basically. We've all sort of been involved in her story. What I think most people don't know is what a dedicated actress she is, how seriously she takes the work, how much research she does in preparing to play a role, especially a role like this one that's based on a real person and set against the backdrop of an event that had so many different layers. There's the environmentalist aspect to her character. There's also just the historical backdrop of the story set against the Cold War, a story set against the backdrop of an American presidential election. So when Drew prepares, she wants to soak everything up in order to bring the role to life. She certainly did a ton of homework on this movie.
And you've been working with John Krasinski since the public was introduced to him, right?
Yes – I directed the pilot of 'The Office.' I was a part of the team that launched the series and I was part of the group responsible for casting John in the show. He's a friend. I love working with him. He, like Drew, has an incredibly accessible quality, and I think that audiences feel like he's a kind of guy they know. He's a guy who can be your friend, and I think that, frankly, I couldn't wait for the two of them to play off of each other. Having worked with both of them I just found that combination and the prospect of them being together irresistible.
Do you think this film will just grow in people's hearts and minds as it gets to cable and DVD?
I absolutely feel that's the case. I think if you make a film, tell a strong story, that people will discover it and take it to heart. It may not be on opening weekend. It may not be during your theatrical run, but eventually, over time, people will find it and fall in love with it. I absolutely feel confident that this exactly that kind of film.