In May, On the Ice director, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean agreed to share his thoughts on Inuit culture, climate change, his love of Sergio Leone and Kurosawa. One of the interesting insights was the fact that he incorporates the structure of westerns in his work. He was kind enough to bear my lengthy questioning. On The Ice is currently available on VOD and iTunes, with a projected DVD release for mid-July. You can read the full review from its brief theatrical run in Los Angeles here.
See the full interview with MacLean below.
TS: You’ve done some theatre, you’ve shot drama; you’ve shot documentaries. What was your first love – was theatre or film? And do they hold equal attraction?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: I started in theater. I was doing that for a few years after college, before deciding to go to film school. I’m not really doing much theatre these days. I still love it, but it’s not something that really holds me the way film does right now.
TS: What inspired the transition?
Andrew: About ten years ago, up in Alaska, I started a theatre company with a cousin of mine. We were doing shows entirely in the Inupiaq language. And it was great, and I really liked the work we were doing. But the space was very small, we would do a show, and three or four hundred of our friends and relatives would show up, and that would be it. Barrow is a pretty small community, maybe four or five thousand people. And I just started thinking that I want to keep doing this, but I’d like to be able to reach a wider audience base. And film seemed like a way I could do that. I could tell stories that were about where I was from, shot in Alaska, but then maybe shown all over the world. So, I’ve decided to apply to film school.
TS: Was it a bit of a culture shock to transition from Barrow, Alaska to New York City?
Andrew: Yeah, it was a bit of a culture shock. The day I left for film school it was in the middle of the summer in Barrow, but it was snowing. Then I landed in New York, and it was 95 degrees with 98% humidity. I almost got back on a plane and went home again. It’s such a different place. It took some adjustment, but I’ve really grown to like it. I love living in New York now.
TS: Do you want to share a little bit about what it’s like living as an Eskimo in the northernmost city on the American continent?
Andrew: Hopefully the films can give some idea. It’s a very unique place. It’s an extreme part of the world. Wherever you go, people refer to Alaska, people refer to the Inuits – but most people haven’t had any direct experience. It’s still a very traditional community in a lot of ways, but at the same time it’s changing so incredibly rapidly. A hundred years ago the lifestyle was so completely different in a way I think that’s hard for others to fathom. My grandfather was a traditional hunter. That’s how he fed his family. He would go out, and run a trap line and he would hunt for food. And here I am: I’m his grandson and I live in New York City, and I’m a filmmaker. That’s a pretty huge leap to take in two generations.
T: Did you get exposed to some of it? Did you actually learn how to hunt?
Andrew: The hunting culture there is pretty strong. I grew up hunting. We’d go out with my uncle. They taught me how to hunt for duck, caribou and what not. I have been on a whaling team.
T: From On the Ice, the impression of the extreme weather is quite palatable. I imagine you’ve encountered some unique challenges.
Andrew: The most difficult part about filming was the location, all of the shots that were taken on the ice, out on the ocean. It wasn’t so much because of the cold; it was how unpredictable the weather can be. The ice sheet that we were filming on is very thick. There wasn’t a danger of us falling through. But there is a danger that if the wind comes over from the wrong direction, it can actually start pushing the ice away from shore, and you can find yourself on a piece of floating ice that is drifting off towards Russia. And that is not where you want to be. It’s really quite dangerous, the high winds coming from over the land. So we had to keep an eye on that. And then some days, when we had planned to shoot those exterior shots and we couldn’t, we had to scramble and find something else – and that would make scheduling the film very difficult. We also tried many times to get out to the edge of the ice. We only managed it on one occasion. We were only able to shoot there for six hours. We planned to shoot there for three or four days. So we actually had to rewrite some of the scenes.
T: Why is it so difficult to get to the edge of the ice?
Andrew: Well, because the edge of the ice can shift, and it will close off the open lead, so there won’t actually be any open water. Sometimes it’s not necessarily easy to find a way to get to the edge, because the ice will buckle, and it will create ice ridges, which are a pretty big barrier, especially getting some equipment across is a lot of work. We had to rely on finding a trail, an easy path to the edge of the ice. We were also filming during the whaling season, so we had to be respectful of the whaling crews and make sure we were not going to disturb any of their activity. Also, there were polar bears in the area while we were filming, so we had to keep someone constantly on the watch.
T: Why did you choose to work with non-actors?
Andrew: We worked with non-actors simply because there were no trained actors that we could really draw from. It was vitally important to me that we cast people who were Inuit. I wanted to cast people who knew what it was like to grow up in a village like Barrow. We looked, but it became pretty obvious that there just aren’t any trained actors of that generation, in their early twenties, who could do this. There are some really great actors out of Canada, especially the people working with Zack Kunuk and the Igloolik Isuma Productions, but we were mainly focused on getting people of the younger age group. Once it became obvious that we were going to have to work with non-actors, our producer Cara Marcous and I, we went on a trip all over the Artic, all over Canada and all over Alaska, looking for candidates. We would put fliers in the local store, go on the radio and try to get people to come down. We would film them, talk to them, and get and idea of who would be open to just relax and be themselves in front of a camera. We narrowed it down pretty quickly, because they are not really easy roles for non-actors to do.
T: So it was not by design, but rather out of necessity.
Andrew: Yes, it was out of necessity. I have nothing against working with actors; I used to be an actor myself. There are one or two people in the film who do have some acting experience, but they’re in some of the smaller roles. But, it was also a great experience and a great challenge to have as a director, to work with non-actors. I worked and rehearsed with them for over a month before we started shooting, especially with the two lead boys. Getting them to where they really felt comfortable telling the story, they really knew what it was that these characters were going through, and they felt like they owned the parts. So when we got in front of the camera, they didn’t get intimidated or overwhelmed by it.
T: I was wondering if you’re really hands on, if you had already a very precise vision, as to the look and feel of the movie. Give us a glimpse of what your process is.
Andrew: Definitely everything about it is collaborative. I think that I had a very specific idea, and a very specific vision for the film, when I wrote it, when it was just words on paper, or words on a screen. It was something I could see in my head. But that immediately changes when you start bringing other people in. When you bring actors in, they change who the characters are to some degree. And you have to be OK with that, especially with non-actors, because you can’t ask them to transform themselves in the same kind of way. And that became a part of the collaborative process. The look was hugely affected by Lol Crawley, the cinematographer. He read the script and he had a specific reaction to it. The same with the costume design, the same with the production design, everything. So I’d say it’s all very collaborative.
T: Let me ask you about your influences. As a director, who is it you look up to, who are your role models?
Andrew: There are so many filmmakers that I’ve grown up watching and that I watch all the time, and that I find inspiring. My favorite film as a kid was actually the Seven Samurai by Kurosawa. I saw it when I was maybe six years old and I wanted to be a samurai after that. And I watched it so many times over the years, but it’s still my favorite film. Then some of the westerns by Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly I was really inspired by and used very specifically in this film. Because this film, especially in the writing stage, was inspired by the idea of westerns. They’re about places that are beyond the scope of society, and places that are out of the reach of normal morality. In that line, people like Peckinpah, Almodovar; films by Ang Lee, the Coen brothers – Kusturica is another one, so I think it’s very many people that I look up to. Off course, there’s Kunuk and The Fast Runner, a film I saw just before going to film school and was really profoundly affected by.
T: So, you’re basically saying that this is a western on ice? Is that the correct way of interpreting your movie?
Andrew: It’s definitely in there. It changes; it becomes less of a western as you go, but that’s the kernel where it started. The feature is based on a short film that I’ve made a number of years ago, and that one was very much a western. It was even structured like a standoff, almost like a gunfight of some sort. There were not guns involved, but it had that kind of structure to it.
T: As far as the exploration of friendship and conflict within those limits, were there any personal experiences that you used and translated into the relationship of the two main characters?
Andrew: Well, I never killed anybody. There are definitely some aspects of it that are personal. The two main characters are not really based on myself, or my experience growing up. But they are more closely based on younger cousins of mine, because their world is changing. It has changed from when I was a kid. There’s so much more outside influence and things like the Internet, and access to pop culture, to movies, to music. It’s so much more immediate now than it used to be. So that’s one of the things that I was writing about: how they find their identity by mixing the traditional culture with this juggernaut of modern culture. Aspects of the plot are not based on any single event, but on things that I’ve either seen happen or have sort of been close to. There’ve been some killings that happened in Alaska, or that happened to people I know, or that the people I know were in some way connected with them. Those events were pretty heavy to go through and it definitely made me think about issues of guilt and redemption, morality and violence, and how these things can change your life in an instant.
T: Is there redemption for the character of Aaivaq? Is he not locked in a sort of a dead-end street, when it comes to his future?
Andrew: I think there is a messy kind of redemption for both characters. I think that neither comes through unscathed. Both of them are affected by it. They’ve gone through a horrible experience and you cannot get through without being in some way damaged by it. But, I think there’s also something within them that survives. I think it’s important to me that at the end of the film both of the characters are fighting to take responsibility. They’re each fighting to take the body bag. Because they both think they’re the one who’s most to blame. There’s something in that, a kind of survival. If they had been fighting to avoid responsibility, I think something more important in them would have died. And I don’t know what the future would hold for either of the characters, but I think if you look at it in that moment, there is redemption in it for both of them.
T: You are focused very much on the preservation of the Inuit culture, so what are the biggest challenges that the community faces, that you find (to be so) personally?
Andrew: Almost all of it centers on how to interact with the changes that are sort of forced upon us by the outside world. We can’t go back to the time before contact, nor would we want to do that. But we have to be able to preserve those parts of our lives, those parts of our culture that give us strength, that give us the tools to be successful in the world. And I think that can be a huge challenge and that’s something that’s at the heart of what the movie is about. The language is an issue. It’s a language that is spoken fluently by people of a certain age: older generation – it’s their first language. When you get into the younger generation, the fluency drops away. Most kids these days don’t really speak much Inupiaq. They speak a few words, and they understand, but it’s not something they can really use to communicate, and that takes away a piece of something important. It takes away a piece of their identity, and also introduces a barrier between them and their elders. So I think that’s a big issue. There are obviously other things, like global warming. It’s something that we can witness and that we live through, and that we watch happen. It’s not this sort of theoretical thing to us, we see the ice melting, we see the animals as they were affected by the change in the climate and that will have an effect on us, as well.
T: Is there anything in particular that you want the viewers of On The Ice to take away with them?
Andrew: Well, I hope they’re caught up in the story. And then I also hope that they can come away with an understanding of what life is like in a place like Barrow. It’s possible to make a completely different film, it’s possible to make a comedy; it’s possible to make a happy film that’s still reflective of what life is like. But I think On the Ice definitely shows a real picture of what Barrow is.
For more on the film, check out the official On The Ice website here. You can also watch the trailer: