The director of this National Geographic film talks about the film, Queen Latifah and the healing power of the Innuit people
Adam Ravetch has never been one to shy away from the elements. He's won awards for his under-water photography and now he has directed (along with his wife, Sarah Robertson) a National Geographic feature film called Arctic Tale, a film that was more than 15 years in the making. The film was just released on DVD on December 4, and I had a chance to speak with the filmmaker over the phone.
How do you think this documentary compares with March of the Penguins, which was such a huge success?
Adam Racvetch: Way better. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Just way better?
Adam Ravetch: That was my short answer. (Laughs) Well, you know, March of the Penguins did such great business. Actually, this is a very different film. I think in some ways, March of the Penguins was much more of a straight documentary, where we really took on a narrative construct and we told a very specific story about two indivduals and carried it through their life. I think that it's a much different type of story.
How far below did the tempreture get?
Adam Ravetch: Well, in the winter it's 40 below, and with wind chill it can get down to 60. So you need to, definitely, for the equipment and yourself, you need a lot of layers to make everything work. In the summer, it can go all the way, believe it or not, to about 40 farenheit, but those are usually short-lived and then it drops again into freezing. You know, in the summer, you're actually innundated with mosquitos, believe it or not.
Adam Ravetch: That's another problem. There's so many of them you need to wear a netting otherwise you get eaten alive.
I'm in Minnesota, and it pretty much just sounds like Minnesota.
Adam Ravetch: You know, really we shot this whole thing in Minnesota. (Laughs)
Were there any severe medical conditions that arose from the filming, from the elements?
Adam Ravetch: Medical conditions? The only thing that happened to me once was before I left town once, I was packing my gear and there was a very steep stairwell, almost like a ladder, and I fell down that. My shoulder completely popped out and I separated it. There's no doctors up there. There are just these medical stations with nurses. They took an X-ray and my shoulder bone was laying on my ribs. It was the worst separation and they were going to Medivac me out. The word went out that I was in trouble, and this 91-year-old woman, this Innuit woman, who are the local people on that land. When she was living on the land, 40 years prior, she specialized in medical attention, when things went wrong in her camps. So they asked me if I wanted to let her help me, and the nurse is on the phone with the doctor down south going, "Don't let her touch you." I wanted to go out the next day and film, so I said 'O.K. let's do it." She took my arm she, like a big cartwheel, round and round, and she popped my shoulder back in. It was the most painful thing I've ever felt in my life. For that night, I slept on my stomach on a table. She tied a bucket of water to my arm and I let it hang and that actually set the bone right back in the morning. I took one more day off and I was in a boat the next day filming. That trip was so important, it was so incredible. Some of those images you saw of the mother holding the baby walrus, was instrumental. If I had been Medivaced out, we wouldn't have some of that footage we have in Arctic Tale.
Adam Ravetch: I was putting my trust in the traditions and wisdom of the Innuit people, which is really how we've been able to be so successful in the north. Really working closely with them, and it's been an incredible experience.
How did Queen Latifah come to be involved with this project? Was she your top choice to narrate this from the get-go?
Adam Ravetch: Yeah, from the get-go. This is a maternal story of the information and knowledge of how to be an adult walrus, as passed through the maternal line, from the mother walrus to the baby. The same thing goes for the polar bear. It's a single mother, bringing up her cubs. So, we wanted a woman that was sort of all-knowing. The direction we gave her was that, 'You are Mother Ice. You are all-knowing.' She could carry off, also, the gravitas. The Arctic is so vast, we wanted somebody who had a strong voice, like she has, but then in the moments when she needed to be kind of quiet, she had that quiet stregnth too. I felt like that when people viewed this movie, they felt that, with her voice, they were in good hands.
So with the structure of the walrus and the polar bear, why did you focus on these two specific animals for this picture?
Adam Ravetch: Well, it really did begin back in 1990. I was going up to the Arctic, just wanting to find a niche, to document new behavior and add to the natural history archive. When I was about to get in the water, to dive with whales, the Innuit guy told me that if a walrus pops up, you've got to get out of the water. So I say, 'Oh, why is that?' He said because it's an animal that can hold you and knock your head off and suck your brains out. These things that he said to me. So here was this monster of a story about an animal, and it made me really realize that we didn't know very much about this large animal, and I really jumped on it. I really wanted to try to find more about it, and document its life. Again, working with the Innuit early on, we saw how devoted the mother walrus was. Every time we went out to the walruses, we saw how the mother would hold onto her baby and take the baby away from the Innuit hunters. It was incredible how intense that bond was. We thought if we could grab this in a more natural way, we really have a beginning of a story, and we did. We've got that hug that was so human-like, we found the nanny walrus, the auntie, so the walrus uses a family to bring it up. Walruses are special that they have to actually nurture their young for three years. There's a long maternal investment, to pass on all the information necessary to be a walrus. Seals, they're born and they're abandoned at birth, but not the walrus, and not the bear. Here we had a parallel story. The bear also brings up its babies for three years, so we really had the makings of a great story between the two of them. We followed them into the summer grounds, and the scientists told us that walruses and bear don't come together, and as the ice was beginning to recede earlier than it ever had before, we started to see that they did come together. That's when we realized that we had a film.
Are there any special features on the DVD that we should make a special note of?
Adam Ravetch: There's a making-of, a 24-minute making-of on the DVD. A lot of people commented how much they like to see the end credits, and to see Sarah and I in the wild, kind of doing our thing, and showing us filming. That making-of video delves deeper into the behind-the-scenes of how Arctic Tale, got made, and our arctic adventure. Even if they've seen the movie in the theaters, they should pick up the DVD. There's more to it.
What would you really like people to take away from the movie, in general?
Adam Ravetch: You know, first and foremost, if people really just look at this, it's a wonderful movie about some just incredible animals. The bear's ability to adapt and to learn and to survive, it's extraordinary. Their decision-making prowess, to survive almost any condition. And the walrus, they get the appreciation of this big herd, this society of walruses, and that all the individuals have individual jobs. We hope that people are just inspired by these animals, and really have a better appreciation of the Arctic. We really wanted to put a face to climate change. You hear all these statistics about what's going on, so we really wanted to get an idea that climate change does affect these animals, and show them how it affects these animals. We thought it's really a positive story of inspiration. If the bears and the walruses of the world can adapt and figure it out, we think, as a society, we can really head off in a new direction and live more sustainably with our world.
Is there anything in the future that you have lined up that you can tell us about?
Adam Ravetch: In the future, well, one of the animals in Arctic Tale was the sea unicorn. They say, scientists tell us that we know more about the rings of Saturn than we do about the sea unicorn. So, like the walrus, we want to start focusing on that animal and to reveal more of it's life in the north.
So that project is already under way then?
Adam Ravetch: It's in the early stages in development.
Arctic Tale is on the DVD shelves now.