Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, On the Ice

On the Ice

Back in 2008, Alaskan director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean was awarded Best Short at the Sundance Film Festival for his period film Sikumi, about a murder and its aftermath in an Inuit community. MacLean, one of Filmmaker’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” that year, had set the buzzed-about tale in his frozen Arctic hometown of Barrow, the historical seat of the Iñupiaq people, casting locals and shooting out on the ice in subzero temperatures. (Sin Nombre writer-director Cary Fukunaga lensed the film.) Last year at Sundance, MacLean unveiled On the Ice, a feature-length movie loosely based on the short film; while the basic set-up remained the same, the story had a contemporary setting where hoodie-wearing Inupiat youth striving to emulate their hip-hop icons gambol about town on snowmobiles instead of dog sleds. MacLean shifted gears to jittery suspense as well in order to explore the moral complexities of guilt and responsibility within a traditional culture. The film, gorgeously shot by DP Lol Crawley (Ballast), went on to win the Best First Feature Award at the 2011 Berlinale.

Teenage pals Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) come from a close-knit community in northern Alaska, balancing the expectations of their elders with the natural rebelliousness of youth. Qalli’s family is stable and supportive of his efforts to head off to college; Aivaaq, who has an edgier vibe, lives with his alcoholic mother and is contemplating finding a job so he can take care of his pregnant girlfriend. Though such circumstances differentiate them, they maintain a tight relationship. As an all-night house party gets underway one evening, they agree to meet mutual friend James (John Miller)—a rival of Aivaaq’s—for a seal-hunting trip the next morning. When Qalli arrives at the meeting point, the meth-high boys are already locked in a fistfight, and he intervenes, an incident that leads to James’ violent death. Everyone back in town grieves for the missing teen, buying Aivaaq and Qalli’s claim that James fell through the ice, leaving the friends to quietly agonize over their decision to abandon the body and cover up the nature of his demise. Meanwhile Qalli’s father, a Barrow Search & Rescue volunteer, is troubled by his son’s explanation and begins to retrace his steps.

Filmmaker spoke with MacLean about the Inuit way of life, shooting a feature in a remote community, and the best way to prepare nonactors for big-screen work. On the Ice opens Friday at Village East Cinemas.

Filmmaker: On the Ice is a dramatic thriller that incorporates many elements of the genre. But it’s also an intimate portrait of a unique Inuit community in Barrow, Alaska. I imagine one of your goals was to make these lifeways visible while at the same time engaging an audience that might otherwise feel remote from its concerns.

MacLean: Yeah, exactly. I decided to tell a story that had very universal aspects. It’s a story that could happen anywhere: two boys get involved in a killing and a cover-up. You could set that story in suburban New Jersey if you wanted to. But then you can use it to get into the specifics of what makes the place it’s set in so unique and delve into the life and psyche of the people and culture as well. We wanted [audiences] to meet characters they hadn’t seen before.

Filmmaker: Here you seem especially interested in the dynamics of Inupiat youth culture in Barrow.

MacLean: Definitely. That relates to the combination of universal and unique we were going for. When I was growing up there, we’d get a movie on VHS months or even years after it was released. TV was spotty, there was no Internet – it was a different level of isolation. Now kids in Barrow can get any song or watch any movie they want when it comes out. There’s a connection to popular culture that’s somewhat in conflict with traditional culture. I find it fascinating to watch young cousins of mine having to balance those competing sources of identity. There’s a real allure to crafting an identity based on what they see on television and online. At the same time, there is still a strong desire to be unique, to have a strong identity different from anyone else in the world. It’s interesting to me how they use hip-hop, which comes from the inner city in New York and Los Angeles, to express who they are as Inuit kids.

Filmmaker: What’s your own historical connection to the town?

MacLean: Barrow is my hometown. My mom was from the area. My dad is from Los Angeles and ended up there kind of randomly in the late ’60s—that’s where my brother and I came from. I’m related to about half the town of Barrow. We trace our kinships pretty widely and people tend to have big families, so my mom has about 120 cousins. A lot or most of the extras you see in On the Ice are relatives of mine.

Filmmaker: What’s distinct about the Inupiat way of life from the greater Inuit peoples?

MacLean: There are a lot of similarities among Inuit people across the Arctic—the language is similar but changes location to location. People from Greenland can communicate with people from Barrow. They call their language Kalaallisut, we call ours Inupik, but there’s enough similarities linguistically – it’s like Swedish and Norwegian – and culturally as well. Both are hunting cultures and [emphasize] shared experience and cooperation. The way we define ourselves in Barrow and elsewhere in northern Alaska is that we call ourselves “people of the whale.” That’s where we draw a lot of our cultural identity from because we hunt bowhead whales. Every spring and at the end of fall we head out on the ice and go after bowheads. They don’t do that too much in Canada or Greenland.

Filmmaker: You shot most of On the Ice during one of those hunting seasons.

MacLean: Yeah. The whaling was in full swing while we were shooting. We had to be very careful about not disturbing the whaling crews. It restricted us from going to a lot of places we wanted to shoot. In the scenes shot at the Barrow Search & Rescue, which is like a headquarters for the whaling crews, we had to call the shoot early because they landed a whale while we were there. Everyone [in town] started to show up.

Filmmaker: How did the community respond to the film project? It must have been unusual for the locals in Barrow to have people running around filming a movie.

MacLean: It was interesting – it definitely helped to be from there. And it’s not the first film I’ve made in Barrow. So the first reaction was, “Oh, Andrew’s making another film.” [Laughs] But this was different because of the scale. We had a crew of thirty or forty people. When I was doing shorts it would be six or seven. The way we interacted with the community had to adjust as well because we were asking so much more of them. When we used a location it was an invasion of people and equipment, and sometimes people weren’t expecting that. We’d ask if we could shoot at somebody’s house and they’d say, “Sure, that’s fine. So it’s just going to be you and a camera and an actor, right?” [Laughs]

Filmmaker: How did you open the casting process for your lead actors? And once you had selected them, what was your strategy for honing performance?

MacLean: That was the crux of the project. I knew it was going to be our biggest challenge and that I would be casting first-time actors. Most of them don’t have any theater experience. There’s no theater community of any substance in Barrow or even in the Arctic. But there was no way I was going to cast non-Inuit actors for this film. It was important for me to cast people who would really understand the lifestyle and what they were portraying. So my producer Cara [Marcous] and I went on a trip to small communities in Canada and Alaska. We’d put up flyers at the supermarket and then go to the local radio station. We’d even get on the local CB network —because that’s how a lot of people communicate up there—and make announcements. “Hey, come be in a movie!” We’d talk to people who came and get a sense of who they are. If we put a camera on them and they shrank in their seat, we knew it’s probably not going to work out. But if they started telling jokes and letting themselves go, we might have them do a scene or a simple improv. We narrowed it down to about 15 people for the main roles.

Filmmaker: And how did you proceed from there?

MacLean: We flew them to Anchorage and put them through a weeklong, intensive acting boot camp slash audition workshop, working with the script a little bit and shooting some of the scenes on video. And it was from that process that we were able to cast. We did all that before we even had the money raised for the film. We needed to show we could make this work. So once we got the okay, we flew to Barrow and immediately got to work with the two boys [Frank Irelan and Josiah Patkotak] for about a month solid. One day we even went out caribou hunting so we could get the boys to really know each other and have a real relationship. Over the course of that month we added in Teddy [Kyle Smith], the actor who plays the father, and others as we went along. That was key, getting them through rehearsals to the point where they felt confident, knowing the story and what they had to do to tell it. By the time we got on set, they were ready to go.

Filmmaker: In the film, Qalli is perceived by the townsfolk as the good son and Aivaaq is the ne’er-do-well misfit, yet you really twist those moral profiles, especially at the end, so things aren’t that black and white in terms of these characters’ motivations and the ethics of what they do.

MacLean: I thought that was my job when I was writing, to make it complex, so that every character has good and bad elements. I wanted to tread that line as to which of the characters is doing the right thing and is at fault, ultimately, for what happens. Hopefully by the end you have sympathy for both of them.

Filmmaker: On the Ice emerged from your short film Sikumi. How did the project transform as you expanded it into a feature?

MacLean: It changed a lot. They’re both about a killing and its immediate aftermath. But there’s a big difference in tone. The short is a period piece set in the early ’60s, a time when dog teams were still a dominant mode of transportation. It was a transitional period, in terms of technology, and I wanted to deal with conflicts of justice and interconnectedness within the community. The main character in Sikumi was actually based on my grandfather and events in his life. When I turned to the feature, I decided to make it contemporary. One of the stereotypes about indigenous filmmaking is that you see many idealized versions of the past, and I wanted to do a film about who we are now. As I said before, I find it fascinating what the youth are going through. And as I started to look at my characters in that setting, they started to become more complex, and it became a suspense film. The short has a different pace and feel.

Filmmaker: The film brought to mind Lance Hammer’s Ballast because of how crucial location is to the story, and also because of how beautifully this starkly radiant landscape around Barrow is photographed. Only afterwards did I realize that you shared a DP, Lol Crawley. What did you discuss in terms of light and shooting style to help achieve your goals visually?

MacLean: I actually had a conversation with Lance very early in the process because I liked Ballast a lot. Like you said, place determines so much of the action, as well as the use of nonfactors. So we talked about how he went about doing things, which really [helped]. I sent Lol the script and he jumped on it immediately. The basic philosophy we had as we went into it was that there was a duality of location in the film we wanted to capture photographically. One location was out on the ice, which is a vast, blinding whiteness. It’s beautiful and gives you a sense of freedom and possibility, but it feels a little bit dangerous because of that. So we wanted to exploit that. It feels like the kind of place where you are beyond the bounds of the law and morality – and in that way, it’s like a Western, with the idea of the frontier. So we talked about influences, such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah films. The town is a different kind of place: it’s a tight, very close community. You’re surrounded at all times by people you’re related to, people who know you and love you, but who are also watching you. So it’s got a sense of claustrophobia, almost. The houses are very small because it’s hard to heat a large home, which reinforces that feeling, and they’re often very dimly lit spaces, like Aivaaq’s house. Lol mentioned a number of photographers he admired whose work has this ghostly and evocative quality, and we went from there.

Filmmaker: The Arctic setting must have presented difficulties in terms of how often the weather changes.

MacLean: [Laughs] We definitely had some challenges. The weather I was prepared for since I’d shot films before in Barrow. So it was probably hardest on our AD, because the weather wreaked havoc on scheduling. We didn’t know day to day what we’d be shooting and that’s a tough thing for an AD to put up with. We were constantly trying to get to the edge of the ice, too. The scene where the kids submerge the snowmobile was originally meant to happen off the ice shelf into open water. But it can be dangerous shooting out there – if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, you can float off toward Russia. Also, the whaling crews were out there. So we rewrote the scene and had them tip it into a hole.

Filmmaker: Cary Fukunaga [Sin Nombre] was an executive producer on the film. How did he come to take an interest in the project?

MacLean: He’s a classmate of mine from film school, and he had actually DP’ed the short and other films I had made in Barrow. Early on, we talked about him shooting On the Ice, but his directing career was taking off with Jane Eyre. So we decided he would stay on as an executive producer.

Filmmaker: Zacharias Kunuk, the director of Atanarjuat, said that his film was primarily for Inuit audiences, because they’d had their own image projected back to them for so long by the dominant culture. What are your thoughts on audience for On the Ice?

MacLean: Zacharias actually helped us in our casting process. We went up to Igloolik and used his offices and he helped get the word out about our auditions. He’s definitely one of my filmmaking heroes. We’re both concerned with involving the communities who have participated in the making of the film, which is why we’re doing the distribution campaign through Kickstarter. We could have sold the film at Sundance or after Berlin, and it would have gotten a fairly limited release in New York or Los Angeles, and then gone on to video. But we decided there was an audience in these communities that will come to the theater and make a film like this more successful. So we are opening the film in New York and simultaneously in three Alaskan cities. It’s vital to us that we go to Alaska: there’s an audience there and a hunger for films that have a level of authenticity, that bring a deep sense of truth to stories from that place.