Director Frank Hall Green on 'Wildlike' and Backpacking Denali

Photo Credit: Greenmachine Film
September 30th, 2015

Wildlike is one of the latest films you’ve seen in your VOD list and I have nothing but positive things to say about the film. It stars veteran actor Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) and a young actress named Ella Purnell (Maleficent) whose paths cross as both try to find peace in this world. They end up backpacking through Denali National Park in Alaska together in a story about love, fear, loss and a need for human compassion. I was able to speak with the brilliant writer/director of this film, Frank Hall Green, and here is what he had to say about it. Click here to read my full review of Wildlike.

Nick Leyland from TheMovieNetwork.com: First off, I love backpacking films but this isn’t a ‘nature’ thriller, correct?

Frank Hall Green: It's a, what they call the 'slow burn thriller'. It's not man versus nature. It's sort of man that's enhanced by nature.

TMN: Does it get any better than Denali as a backdrop anywhere in the world?

Frank Hall Green: Yeah. I mean, yeah, where do I go from here? Right. I mean I may have to go overseas. No, I mean, I think if you're looking for that sort of, backpacking Northwest territory-ish, vast landscape mountain, that is the ultimate destination.

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TMN: I could see some people not doing that and just placing it there somehow and taking a few random shots.

Frank Hall Green: Right. Yeah, I mean that came up very briefly. I'm a bit of a purist, I wanted to shoot on 35 mm. I wanted not only to shoot in Alaska, but we shot mostly the actual locations that Mackenzie's journey takes, if she were to take it in real life, and a lot of actual props and vehicles and so forth were used. So it was, it was as sort of true to life as I could make it and that was on purpose. I mean, in fact, when we were shooting the tent scene, originally, we wanted to shoot the exterior tent scenes of course outside but when we're shooting the interior tent scenes, I also wanted to shoot them inside. I wanted to shoot the interior tent scene well when it was raining with the rain coming on outside, with the tent and we had a couple of tents that we had, takeaway walls and stuff and that was all set to go but, for the interiors we really did find that at the end of the day we shot it in the garage, the interior tent... It did not matter and we had a lot of work to do and so forth. My first intention is to go for the most pure life-like experience.

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TMN: I guess that's one thing you didn't have to worry about in this film was the weather because it's like, however it is, it is, right?

Frank Hall Green: We got so lucky. We get so lucky, this comes up a lot. I mean I cannot tell you. Not only would we not have been able to get everything we got, but just the film would look and feel differently if more of the weather was somber. I mean it honestly rained exactly when we needed it to. Juneau always gets rain so that was perfect and then of course they would get trapped in rain under the tent, a rain day came about right about when we were hoping and then we said alright, let's get a true tent scene, perfect. Other than that we were in T-shirts in Denali. I mean it was great.

TMN: I like to connect to things in the film that in my own life. I have the same pack Rene has, that Osprey pack he's got on.

Frank Hall Green: Oh really? That's great.

[chuckle]

TMN: I know. The same color and everything.

Frank Hall Green: Oh that's funny.

TMN: And I got the same Jetboil.

Frank Hall Green: Yeah. It's one of the original Jetboils. That's a great piece of equipment. And that is literally stuff that I owned in my basement.

[laughter]

Frank Hall Green: I brought a lot of the backpacking stuff. 'Cause I already had them worn and worn in and so forth. But what's funny is that tent that they used, the two Person tent that I got from a friend of mine, Matt Wright, way back in the day. He used to live in New York. He actually used to work for Good Machine and never knew that, how I was gonna use it. I used it for a number of years, never gave it back to him. We got up to Alaska and the production designers were like, "This tent really has the best combination of colors." So we all sort of agreed that was the tent and then we needed duplicates. We needed to work and find an interior one that would match and make it much bigger, find one that was much bigger. So they went on eBay and they found the exact same tent, but in a four-person size. So they bought that and cut it all up and did all sorts of things with it.

TMN: So, just one lucky streak after another with this then, huh?

Frank Hall Green: Yeah, we did. We really did. There was a great deal of serendipity.

TMN: Now you've been to these locations before, eh?

Frank Hall Green: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

TMN: I’d read that you had done something in those locations before and that's why you picked it. Is that true?

Frank Hall Green: Yes, exactly. Just like you are, I'm a backpacker and I'm an avid outdoors-man and I've sort of got into a trend of trying to go to a different location to backpack every year, every summer. And it was after my first year of film school at NYU, I suggested to my wife that we go backpacking in Alaska. If you go and look at top backpacking national parks in the USA, it's gonna be Glacier, Denali, Yosemite. So Denali was up on the list and I was like, "Let's just go for it." So we went for an eight-day backpacking trip in Denali. It's a fantastic place. There's no trails. You just walk out and go. They really believe the best way to preserve the landscape is to limit the number of people that go in and then not control where they go within a certain area. So that you don't have repeated traffic over the terrain.

So compass, map, GPS, and you just walk and hike and camp for eight days and we saw no one. And it was a fantastic experience and then we took the train back across state of Alaska and that's really when it solidified for me as a location because I saw these homes, these outposts in the middle of nowhere. I saw these people, this culture, native Alaskans who were never pushed out of their territory in the same way that Native Americans were in the lower 48. And everyone in the sense, seems to be in Alaska for some reason or another. If they weren't born there, then they're coming there finding... Looking for something or they're going there trying to get away from something. And so when I started dreaming up the story for Wildlike, Alaska, immediately popped in my mind as a backdrop.

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TMN: What did the nature symbolize in the film?

Frank Hall Green: It has come to mean more and more and more as I revisit the movie and do more of these conversations. At first, I think, just inherent inside me, I wanted to tell a story about someone who goes on a journey, who goes on an adventure particularly out into nature, out into the wilderness, and how being removed from society, removed from societal norms and mores sort of enables a person to be, maybe something that they wouldn't normally be. And then, particularly, if two people are put in that situation, it provides some sort of non-conditional and fearless opportunity for people to trust and come together and then I think nature, obviously, you hear it often, puts you in perspective of who we are and how we're connected as a natural being to the planet and all of that good stuff, but because of that, I think it causes you to be reflective and... Which is interesting because McKenzie, having gone through what she's gone through, the last thing she really wants to do is reflect. She wants to escape, both physically and mentally, but she gets quite the opposite experience because of the outdoors.

TMN: They were both there for two different reasons and that's one thing I really liked about the film, was seeing why both of them were there and why they needed to be there, I guess.

Frank Hall Green: Yes, yes, exactly. Yeah, and then, because of those two different reasons, they sort of end up being the perfect match up. He doesn't really have any agenda for her whatsoever, which enables her to trust him and she, on the other hand, only really wants one single thing from him, which allows him to feel like she's not... Once he figures it out, that she's not trying to manipulate him or trick him into something, then she finds out that it's very singular rescue.

TMN: Did the crew and everybody stay in the park for the shoot? Or did you guys kinda go in, go out, go in, go out...

Frank Hall Green: Yeah, we go in and go out. You really can't stay in the park. As I said, they allow groups of backpackers, serious backpackers, and you get permitted and you're put into certain areas. You have to camp outside of a mile or more from the one road that dissects the park. So, when you've got a crew working really hard for 12 to 16 hours a day, you wanna give them a good bed and shower and so forth. So, it was about finding the different lodgings and inns regardless of how rustic or not those were, and then shooting through the day, getting out into the wilderness as much as we could, often just off the road or off of a dirt road or a path. But Denali allowed us unprecedented access a few days. They'd never allowed a narrative film before and never a crew of our size or for the amount of time we did.

TMN: One thing I laughed about to myself as I was watching it, is the scene you have with a grizzly bear. And I was like, "How in the hell did they just happen to come across a grizzly bear?" And I was like, "Wait a minute, this is a movie, that can't be right."

[laughter]

Frank Hall Green: He was written into the script from day one, and we got to Alaska and we found that there's a conservation center... Anchorage Wildlife Conservation Center, run by this guy Mike Miller, and Mike said, "Come on down, I got a bear here who lives in our refuge," and he lives in a big huge bear, acres deep bear enclosure with a few different grizzlies, and Joe Boxer is his name. He was in Sean Penn’s movie Into the Wild.

So he's not domesticated, he's not trained, he's certainly a dangerous wild animal, but Mike felt comfortable enough to take Bruce Greenwood and Ella and the camera team into the bear enclosure and film it there getting obviously very close to him for about half an hour. He had a pitchfork and a bucket of fish and hotdogs. Just throw the fish and the hotdogs over Joe Boxer's head so that Joe Boxer would turn around and go out and get the food and then start coming back. We just kept making him do these roundies for about half an hour.

TMN: Wow. That's intense, huh?

Frank Hall Green: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TMN: I wanna talk about Ella for a second. Where did you find this little English girl to come and get all dirty in the Alaskan mountains?

[chuckle]

Frank Hall Green: I saw her in a movie called Never Let Me Go. Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley... Ella plays a young version of Keira Knightley in the first 20 minutes of the film and I actually was on a casting trip looking for Mackenzie out here in LA and not seen what I was looking for in terms of talent and proof that someone could do this sort of style of acting and I went back to my hotel room and rented that movie and, per chance, she came on the screen and I was like, "That's her."

TMN: Now, you don't have to answer this one if you don't want to, I just wanted to know in your own personal taste in this is that your choice for the villain, I think it will make... I don't wanna spoil anything, but I think it will make people cringe because he doesn't look or really act evil, actually, it's just kind of the opposite for most of the part. Tell me about why you made him the way you made him.

Frank Hall Green: You're right. Well, because I wanted to reflect the truth of the experience, I think in many, many cases, there's someone who is very sick and disturbed and has a problem in this way. All other aspects of them may be completely suitable to be a father or a caretaker or what have you. And that's just the truth of it. And then that's something that people need to address. You can't walk into this thing and say, "Oh, well there's a stereotype, if you have a van," and these other things, and then perhaps you're a pedophile or you're gonna cross that line. I think that's just a mistake, it's also very misleading.

The thing is that it's a silent, it's a silent event. It comes from places where you wouldn't expect it, and it often comes from a family member or someone within the family circle, and then no one wants to talk about it, and that's just the way it is. And Brian (Geraghty) really wanted to show the character as a whole character and also, I really wanted and Brian agreed that to show the character as a guy who knows he's crossing a line but he's not going about it to be evil, he's sick and he genuinely cares about Mackenzie, but obviously he's a monster and can't follow through with that in the way that is really needed.

So it's a tricky thing, but I really wanted to present it as truthful as possible.

TMN: Can you tell us about all the success the film has had with the awards that it's won?

Frank Hall Green: I'd love to, thank you. Yeah. People love the movie and that's just been evidenced and that's great, and like you, I think, experienced, you sat down to watch the movie, you maybe thought it was one thing or another, and then you found out, "Okay, this is sort of a challenging film." But you stuck with it and it's highly rewarding, I think, I have been told, by the people that do stick with the film. And I think because of that it's gone to over 150 film festivals. It's won now 46 best film and audience awards. The reviews have been really across the board, either great or stellar. The big reviews are coming out now, they continue to be positive. Everything is... I couldn't ask for more. [chuckle] So yeah, go see it, you're gonna like it.