Robin Williams looks over the edge of a cliff at the dead body he dumped a few days before. He’s not happy but his take is hilarious.

All on-set photos by Chris Helcermanas-Benge, courtesy of “The Big White”

'Action' Skagway!

On the set of 'The Big White'

By ANDREW CREMATA and JEFF BRADY

It’s truly “Big” and “White” and has been “The” happening event over the past two weeks. If you’ve driven over the summit anytime since April 12, you know what we mean.
“The Big White” is what’s happening.
The film starring Robin Williams originally was to be shot in Winnipeg, but a lack of snow forced the production crew to sniff out a location with a little more powder.
Skagway provided the answer to the problem. There is no more appropriate place to make a movie titled “The Big White” than the White Pass summit 15 miles from town. Winter provided the necessary ingredient and the show was on.
Just past the U.S.-Canada border on the summit, Thursday April 15, the film enters its fourth day of filming. Publicist Michael Umble, who hails from Calistoga, California, greets the assembling mass of people with the words, “I hear there’s a movie in town.”
It is unusual to have access to the set of a film so early in its production. Umble explains why the exception was made for local media: “Skagway has been so good to us. We wanted to do this to show the people of Skagway how much we appreciate their hospitality.”
The crew of 80-90 has been living in Skagway and commuting to the summit.
At the staging area alongside the Klondike Highway just inside the border with British Columbia, the scene is organized chaos. Trucks, cars, trailers and a food-vending vehicle with the words “Meals on Reels” inscribed on its side, line the highway for a quarter mile. The tanned faces of the film crew stand out in the blinding white snow on this beautiful sunny day.
Toboggans attached to the backs of snowmobiles carry equipment including film, battery packs, bottled water, lights, tripods, tents, chairs, ladders, endless stretches of wire, and one dead body.
The body is actually a dummy that is so realistic, even up close it’s difficult to make the distinction. Everyone wants their picture taken with it, and the production’s still photographer, Chris Helcermanas-Benge, clicks away.
The dead body is pivotal to the plot of the film. The dark comedy follows Williams’ character, travel agent Paul Barnes, who resides in Alaska with his wife played by actress Holly Hunter. He is tired of the cold and snow and wants to move away, but lacks the money to do so. His brother, played by actor Woody Harrelson, has been missing for five years so Williams tries to collect insurance money from an agent played by Giovanni Ribisi. Williams is informed that the insurance money cannot be collected until seven years have passed.

Bring in the dead: A couple of local ambulance chasers found a friend on the set (center), although he never said a word.

By chance Williams’ character finds a dead body in a Dumpster and decides to affix snowshoes to it, throw it off a cliff, and wait for marauding bears to render the body unidentifiable with the hope that he can deceive his insurance agent into believing the body is that of his brother. Comedy ensues.
Snowmobiles are coming and going with ferocious regularity, taking crew and equipment to the first shooting location in a gully about a half-mile from the road. A voice on a hand-held radio says, “Five minutes to Robin.” A few moments later Robin Williams, dressed in a parka and jeans, hops on the back of a snowmobile and is driven by Yukon film dude Rob Toohey into the valley and out of sight.
At the location for the first shoot of the day, Williams is led up to a 40-foot snow-covered precipice. Down below Director Mark Mylod coordinates a dry run with a myriad of assistants and technicians. A woman passes out sweet and sour pork pitas from an aluminum foil covered tray. Two cameras point directly up at the ledge of the cliff where Williams, tethered for safety, carefully climbs to the edge and peeks over at what will be the dead body in the movie.
The premise is that he returns a couple days after he disposes of the corpse to see how badly it has been mangled and finds that the body remains untouched.
Williams, discovering that the bears have not taken the bait, gestures with frustration and yells, “C’mon!” He then looks out into the open and screams for the nonexistent bears, “How easy do I have to make this!”
The dry run already has everyone laughing wildly. Mylod, in a quiet voice with a British accent, gives Williams some final instruction before the first take. Williams responds in a perfect mock English accent and the instruction quickly turns into an improvisational comedy bit between the actor and director.

Director Mark Mylod gets a view of the dead body in the snow.

Ready for the first take, Mylod calls out, “Quiet on the set.” This sends assistants scurrying and calling into their hand-held radios for all motion and talking to cease. Mylod calls out, “Roll camera,” and its motor begins to hum noticeably in the sudden silence. The production slate is held in front of the camera, an assistant lowers the arm with its distinctive clack and says, “Take one.”
There is a pause and Mylod signals, “Action.”
Williams mimics his motions and repeats his lines from the dry run, with a slightly different inflection on some of the words. He backs away from the ledge and the director yells, “Cut.”
The process is repeated six times, with Williams improvising different dialogue on every take. Before the final take Williams asks Mylod if he can go a little more over the top. The director agrees and during the take Williams adds lines like, “Here’s the chuck wagon! Chow, chow, chow! Come and get it!” Even after the camera stops Williams is still going, yelling various colorful expletives in the direction of the imaginary bears. Everyone is laughing riotously. Williams is just plain funny.
This has to be the weirdest scene ever to lay itself out on the White Pass summit. Cables and wires running up and down the snow-covered mountainside, caterers passing out hot food to men with walkie-talkies, a dummy of a dead body sitting in one of the producers’ chairs holding a bottle of water and the whole crowd rolling with laughter as Robin Williams does an extemporaneous comedy routine on the edge of a cliff.
After the final take, everything is broken down and moved to the location of the day’s second shoot about half a mile to the south. The move seems overwhelming, but the men and women carry it out with fluid organization and in what seems like mere moments the gear is in place.
Umble gestures toward the scene and says, “Welcome to show business. Hurry up and wait.”
The crew prepares for the second shot by raking the snow clean of footprints and ski-doo tracks and placing the body at the base of a much larger cliff, about 80 feet high. Two cameras are set up at the base of the mountain.
Mylod asks his assistant, “What’s the world record for getting a camera up to the top of a mountain?”
The assistant responds, “I don’t know, but let’s break it.”

Director of Photography Jim Glennon (fedora hat) works with camera and sound men on setting up the next shot.

As a man carrying a camera begins to climb the mountain, the crew is ready for the second shot. This one will be a long shot of a stunt man doubling for Williams climbing out to the edge of this dangerous looking cliff. The scene will be cut with the close ups of Williams’ face, filmed at the previous shot.
Mylod calls for action and stunt man Mike “Mitch” Mitchell climbs out carefully to the extreme tip of the shelf. He has played Williams’ stunt double many times, Umble says, but he’s never done anything like this. As Mitchell carefully makes his way he calms his nerves by singing, “There’s no business like show business, like no business I know.”

The camerman, with several people holding onto him with a tether, sneaks a little closer to the edge for a good view of the body at the cliff's bottom, from Williams' eyes.

While shooting the next scene, Mylod asks if the cameraman can go a little further. He takes one more step asking the men securing the tether to give him a little slack. Inside the tent, two video screens show the action as the camera sees it to Mylod, Director of Photography Jim Glennon, and Producers Chris Eberts and John Schimmel.
It is considerably colder in the shade of the mountain, and Toohey brings a propane heater to the tent and places it in front of Mylod and Glennon. Eberts laughs and says, “Everything up here is crazy. We have water heaters on ice and space heaters on glaciers.”
A woman walks up with yet another tray of food and asks, “Care for a hot sandwich?”
After one more take, the third shot of the day is done. The cameraman has made his way to the top of the mountain and changes places with the stunt man. The tents and all the gear are then completely moved again, this time only about 30 feet.
Mylod and Eberts stand to the side talking. The director looks up at the massive mounds of snow and says, “I want to film an avalanche.”
The producer responds, “That’s one way we can move the camera quickly.”
Eberts is the C.E.O. of Ascendant Productions, the company making the picture. While there is no specific date on its release, they are aiming for the movie to be in theaters in 2005.
Schimmel believes they have a winner on their hands. He relates, “This script (by Collin Friesen) is actor candy.”
The third shot of the day is a point of view shot. It will be what Williams character sees when he looks over the cliff and finds the body untouched. DOP speaks into a microphone to the cameraman on the cliff and tells him to keep the shot centered and pan the corpse slowly into the frame, mimicking a person’s view as they walk to the edge and peer over.
Two takes are finished and Mylod asks the cameraman to pan slower on the third. The camera is heavy and the man holding it is having trouble keeping the camera steady for the third take. He asks for a brief rest and everyone takes a pause.
Meanwhile, behind the tent, the crew is making preparations for the next shot to be filmed. A woman holds a baseball cap while a man is affixing bacon to the perimeter of the bill. The work doesn’t appear to be very glamorous. The woman’s nose is crinkled and the man is repeating the word, “Gross.”
Williams walks up to the couple and says, “Ah, bacon.”
The idea is that Williams’ character will put this bacon-hat on the corpse in an attempt to encourage the bears to dine. Williams waits patiently for his next shot, while the couple works through the logistical problems of attaching burnt pig flesh to a ball cap.

Skidoos race past the tents where the directors hang out, moving equipment to the next location.

The cameraman is rested and the shot on the cliff is a success. It is 5:30 in the afternoon, three shots are done and there are still 18 more to go.
As the sun begins to disappear behind the mountainside and the temperature drops like a body off a cliff, the assemblage bundles up to continue their work, while snowmobiles keep racing gear and hot food to the crew.
The show must go on.

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