Before our interview officially began, I confessed to Togo‘s director, Ericson Core, that I typically avoid films like this like the plague. I’m a soft touch when it comes to dogs and watching a film where they are put in peril is my kryptonite. As I explained to Ericson, “If Kevin Costner dies in a movie, I might see him again. When a dog dies in a movie, that’s my lasting memory of them.”
He laughed and then we got on with discussing the decidedly un-Disney film he made for Disney+ about the famous Alaskan serum run of 1925. Togo isn’t just a movie about a man and his dog. It’s a true adventure film about love, guilt, and the kinship that one can only find when they connect with an animal. W.G. Sebald once wrote, “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
Togo is about bridging that gap.
Awards Daily: How did you get attached to Togo?
Ericson Core: Sean Bailey, the president of Disney on the production side, I’ve known him for years since I made Invincible for Disney. Sean was a producer at that time. He wrote and produced a project we were going to make which at Disney which never came to the light, but we got to know each other pretty well. He knew my background and thought that I would be a great director for that particular project. The back story to that is I used to work as a mountain guide. So, I was in the mountains quite a bit as an outdoor person – during film school of all things – I slept on the ground in the summers and worked. Not the best way to make a good living, but certainly an incredible way to live over the summer.
When Sean came to visit me in the editing room of Invincible, I had my dog with me. I should say, wolf – he was a 180 pound arctic wolf. In hindsight looking back living in Venice, California with a wolf was kind of in a strange experience, and maybe not the wisest. (Laughs) He would walk with me from Venice to Santa Monica every day and and hang out in the editing room. He was quite an extraordinary animal and we were pretty well bonded. I regaled Sean with many stories of him. About how I wanted to get rid of him as puppy because he was too much, but of course, I didn’t, and then all the craziness of him in his adult life. Sean knew that I had that type of connection and thought it would be a good thing for the film. Strangely, I don’t find myself to be a Disney-type filmmaker in terms of the type of films that I watch or the sort of films I like to make. As you said, you avoid films like this like the plague. As a filmmaker, the things you’re supposed to avoid is children, animals, and weather.
AD: Three for three! (Laughs).
EC: This film is absolutely loaded with all three! (Laughs). Which I recognized and understand from being in production for a long time that those are the things you want to avoid at all costs. Yet, the film got me. It was emotionally strong, Tom Flynn did a wonderful job with the script, it was very powerful and moving. It actually comes back to the type of films that, unfortunately, I don’t think we get to see as much because the film business contracted from them – at least in the movie theater model – but are now reemerging in the streaming world, which is character-driven dramas. All those films that Disney made, or Warner Brothers, or other studios that were character-led, mid-range budgeted films -nothing that was a huge tent-pole movie, but it also wasn’t a small independent. Reasonably scaled films, led by character first and events second. Those are really beautiful movies and the ones I’m most drawn to – the films of the American seventies, when studios stopped making these huge spectacles and started to make these smaller character-driven dramas. The Marathon Man, The French Connection, and Dog Day Afternoon, and so forth. Those are the sort of films that I’m most moved by because I always am drawn to the characters arc in their dilemma and where they’re at before anything else.
This was that sort of film. It is indeed about an epidemic. It’s about a real life event that was very harrowing and in 1925. But that’s in many ways the back drop to the film that I was hoping to make and I think his Disney was hoping to make, which was about this man who was an emotional island in his own way, and as tough as the environment of Alaska around him. He didn’t need anything. His animals were not his pets. They weren’t his friends. They weren’t his children. And by the end of the film, Togo is above all those things. He’s the closest connection the man ever had. It’s that story of a man who goes on this incredible harrowing journey and takes a 12 year old dog to do it . He knows it’s beyond the dog’s physical capabilities, but he can’t do it without him and over that time as uh Togo diminishes, he slowly breaks down his own emotional barriers and actually starts feeling for Togo as it’s almost too late. I find that incredibly beautiful in a great tale for our times.
AD: The film does a great job of avoiding some of the “family film” traps. The overt sentimentality and potentially maudlin moments from what we might expect from a Disney movie about a man and his dog aren’t apparent at all in Togo. How did you avoid that?
EC: One thing is I came in with a very clear point of view to the film. I explained to Sean and the team at Disney that I thought the film was very strong and that I was very interested in it, but I thought the third act needed to be changed structurally – quite a bit actually. They were struggling with it over a few different drafts with what to do with the third act of the film. I had a very specific, very clear vision of what that should be. They all seemed to like it very much. Tom Flynn took to it and he made it better than I could have possibly imagined. We did do structural work to it, and I did go to those elements that I thought were either simplistic, or too obvious, or too “Disney,” and eliminated those wherever I could,or shifted them in a different way. I was trying to tell a more adult tale. It certainly helped having Julianne Nicholson – who’s an extraordinary actress, and of course, Willem. They both have such astute sensibilities – we worked very hard together.
Part of it was in the script writing stage to make sure the script was where it needed to be. We did make changes on set as we went. I worked very closely in partnership in rehearsal and on a daily basis with with Willem and Julianne to make sure that we were finding the truth of the scene, and the subtler we could make it, the more that we could paint in the grays as opposed to very specifically black and white was better, because it was more real. I tried as a filmmaker very much to make sure that I was doing a film that was a slow additive film – meaning not to button up every scene.
Sometimes in Disney films and other family films in particular, there’s a beginning, middle, and a tidy resolution at the end of it. I always wanted to leave a question at the end of the scene Because leaving a question at the end of the scene propels you into the next scene, and the next. By not really answering the question at the end of a scene that is potentially being posed in it, it’s much more interesting, and it drives you forward emotionally more than anything, which is what we were doing and I think it worked quite well. Surprisingly, we did score incredibly well with our one test screening. Which was wonderful – it’s always the scariest part as a filmmaker to go to things. The amazing part about it was we scored in the 99th percentile with people over 30. That’s extremely high for a Disney film. The marketing people do those screenings said you should take a copy of the breakdown and you should frame it, because you’ll never see this again in your life. (Laughs).
The thing that was shocking to Sean and the rest of the Disney team is they don’t get that category. We were good across all categories, but typically they get that from the younger kids – with adults they were shocked with those numbers. But to me that was the story if you don’t really have enough life experience that you possibly outlived a loved one, a pet, a relative, a friend. it’s hard to get the full experience of the story because it’s really about in some ways that survivor’s guilt as you moved past someone you loved so much. And possibly the awareness at that point that there was so much about them that they meant to you that you weren’t really willing to admit until it’s at the moment of being too late. That’s why I think it works so well.
Similarly, studios have always asked me to DP the films that I’ve directed, starting with Nina Jacobson at Disney on Invincible years ago, and Sean was no different with Togo. I When I shot Togo it was important to me to not make it a “Disney film.” So, instead of the bright colors and technicolor kind of look that a lot of the Disney films have, we tried to give it an impressionistic look – a sort of autochrome look inspired by the Lumiere brothers who created motion picture film, and also created color photography. It was a very complicated post process to give it a textured look, It really has a lot of extra qualities to it that is very very different and much more muted the most Disney films. I think that made it that much more of a drama – which was important. I think that was recognized by Disney that even though the Disney brand is very specific and the brand acknowledgement is so important to all their projects, they are beginning to open up a bit in terms of the streaming service, understanding that they there’s a broader net out there of storytelling which works. I think they were very happy to have something that was different than the norm.
AD: You mentioned casting earlier and I think having Julianne Nicholson and Willem Dafoe – who are two no BS actors – really grounds the film too. They never go for anything cheap. I thought Togo did a great job developing their relationship, and particularly, not making Julianne’s part into just a “wife” role.
EC: The thing with inspirational movies or sports dramas, there’s always that “wife” character who’s there and there’s a little bit of dialogue but it’s mostly background and window dressing.We tried very hard – and that includes the executives at Disney to make it a bit more of a modern story, even though it was 1925 Alaska. We wanted to make sure that there was a consciousness and a partnership shown that is important in a relationship. I’m certainly a much stronger and better and wiser person because of my wife, who I’ve been with a very long time. That doesn’t mean that we don’t butt heads and we don’t have relationship struggles, but we make each other better. It is indeed a partnership, and it needs to be. A lot of that was done in the script in the things that I felt were too buttoned or closed, we got away from. What became very clear in the the script is that her character needed to be for Seppala – who’s such a loner – his emotional lighthouse, because he needs that – and she was always right. My wife told me years ago that you may not think I’m right now, but in 10 years you’ll know that I was right. We’ve been together for 25 years now, and god damn it she’s right almost every single time. (Laughs).
There’s that thing about the wisdom of seeing something farther ahead than anyone else. I think as men we’re sometimes incredibly single-minded and focused – which is wonderful – but we have a shorter focus in terms of the impact later. That’s what Constance was able to do in the story was to tell him right up front in the bedroom that if you bring Togo, you’re going to run him to death and you’re not prepared for the consequences. She says that right up front, and that’s exactly what happens. She’s constantly there as that strength throughout the story. She knows that Seppala needs this animal that has spirit, that has life, he needs something that’s more than just a beast of burden. But ultimately everything that she thought would happen does. That was in the script and in the structure of what we were hoping to do and not just make her the supportive wife character in the background. I got so lucky – and won the jackpot – because I’ve seen Julianne’s work and I think she’s fantastic, but I had no idea of what she could bring to this character. She was incredibly powerful and Willem felt the same way. I hired them both separately and and they met up in rehearsals in Canada when we were shooting, and after day one, Willem came up to me and grabbed my arm and whispered to me, “good job.” He was so pleased with Julianne. And Julianne of is a huge fan of Willem, and they got along famously. They were like a husband and wife in terms of their way of dealing with each other. It was a very strong relationship from the beginning because of their own connection. The strength of Julianne just blows me away every time I think about the film.
We just tried to make those scenes as real as possible. Essentially, I think I was making an indie drama in terms of their relationship. We had the scale and adventure of a Disney film, and certainly the puppy seems to prove it. When I read the script, I thought “oh my god, I’m not a puppy director I can’t do this! (Laughs). But in the end those scenes are necessary. Because otherwise , I would have made The Road. (Laughs).
AD: Cormac McCarthy’s Togo! (Laughs).
It would have been this dark movie of a man running along in in the end times. Which I like those films, don’t get me wrong. But I mean, to be able to go back and actually fall in love with the dog and have that sense of spirit because the older Togo is quite stoic, as is Willem. I realize that even though I had a hard time, I enjoyed making those scenes and because the puppies are so cute, it’s just not my type of filmmaking, but I think it was necessary for the film as an offset. I was really focused on making this indie drama inside all of it, and that’s how we did it. The other thing about the film that we did different, which I think is imbued in the film and comes across onscreen is the way in which it was shot – the look of it and so forth was part of it, but also I wanted to shoot it in a way that was very grounded. The Call of the Wild came out a bit after us, and I remember seeing the behind the scenes and I was kind of shocked because It was all on stage and it’s green screen and the dog is all digital – It was a very different experience. Everyone has their own way of making a film, but I wanted to do the exact opposite.
There were a couple of CG dog shots that we used because the dogs were in peril – we obviously couldn’t do that. Everything else is real dogs in real environments. We did not shoot on stage at all. We didn’t shoot on green screen and we didn’t have digital environments. We shot on a huge lake with ice two feet thick in Canada, We just did it all in (real) places. We shot in a real house for the Seppala house. That’s not a stage. Willem and Julianne weren’t sitting in a bed where they can see a grip over at craft service in the background and lights overhead. We were in a 10 by 12 bedroom. I had cameras against the wall – it very tiny. It was almost like a documentary in that way. I shot on the sled with Willem. It was he and I and the dogs. We shot in really crazy environments. We were up on mountainsides, we had to take snowmobiles into the back country then a professional snowmobile racing style to get to the ridge, and then we had to put a crampons, with ice axes and ropes and climb a mountain every day for the things we did on the mountains. The crew thought I was crazy in a way, but once they were there they got it. For Willem and all of us being in those real environments with the limitations of it – being in minus 40 temperatures – gave the intensity and reality to it that made it a much more grounded film emotionally than it would have if we were sitting there with Styrofoam back drops and green screen and fake snow.
AD: In preparing for this interview, I discovered that Diesel, who plays the adult Togo in the film, is the real Togo’s great grandson 14 times removed – which is amazing. That being said, talk about the difficulty of working with all these dogs.
EC: Oh my God it’s…look, I’m an outdoor person and I love animals. so I definitely connect with animals and that’s great, but it’s difficult. Those are working dogs and Diesel himself is quite the stoic, and getting a dog in a room to do something with other people there is different. When they get on the sled, that’s what they do. It was great because when they’re on the sled there’s no faking it – they just do. When they were on the sleds and when they were moving they were amazing. Whenever they were done with a run they would flip on their back and wait for me to run their bellies. Which is crossing the line as the director – rubbing the belly of your actor. (Laughs). In this case, I got away with it.
Diesel in rooms was a challenging thing. Getting those scenes requires unbelievable patience because I was committed to not doing CG close ups of the dog In an emotional scene. That isn’t how I wanted the movie to be, because I think there’s a different relationship with a real animal. Anyone who has had a dog or been close to any close animal, they know that there are emotions, and sometimes that’s what we intuit into them from ourselves – our own emotional state. But there’s truth to it – you see truth in their eyes, and that’s what I needed. It took tremendous patience for Willem. He’s not naturally a dog person, but he is the most consummate actor you could possibly imagine. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. He never was in a trailer – in minus 40 temperatures he’s out there feeding the dogs that I was being there – working. He did the same in terms of those scenes and performed with his (animal) partner as needed. It required a lot of patience and a lot of time to get what we needed. It’s a whole different feeling as the director watching the day dry up because you’re waiting on a dog to settle into the scene. In the end I think it was worth it. I don’t think I’m running to another animal film soon, if I can help it. (Laughs). But I’m very pleased with the results, and I think emotionally as someone who had a very close relationship with a canine, with my wolf, Shalako -who I dedicated the film to at the end – it was powerful.
It brought out a lot of emotions my memories of him and that connection. Diesel was no different in that. It was amazing to have a dog that was actually a great, great grandson of the Togo, because that was an extraordinary dog. I know my wolf who was the most physically amazing animal I ever met, in terms of intelligence, strength, and coordination – there’s nothing like a wild animal, like a wolf. But when she was 12 after jumping off of roofs, and out of car windows, and all the craziness that he did over his life It was hard to get him around the block. To have a sled dog at 12 years old do what was done is rather extraordinary and heartbreaking. I’m very fulfilled by the film.
AD: And then there’s the weather.
EC: We had such crazy weather. We had more schedules than any other film in Disney history and possibly any other studio. I think we had 54 published schedules for our film because the weather changed on a daily basis. We had to chase weather. One of the amazing things that happened is we were supposed to shoot beautiful fall weather and we shot our first day. On our second day we had two feet of snow. We all walked outside and said, “Oh my god, what do we do? We couldn’t much of anything because those costumes weren’t made yet, nothing was done because we were two months out from shooting in winter weather. We had to shift. I had to go to Willem and Julianne and tell them, I’m so sorry, no one saw this coming. It was literally the storm of the century – very similar to the one in our film. It was the largest storm in over 110 years. So, we had to go into the bedroom scene.
We had rehearsed, but I had hoped that I was going to build their relationship and shoot all those beautiful outdoor scenes before we had to get to that. I turned to them and told them that, and they’re like “yeah, no problem.” We’re prepared, we rehearsed, we’re good. So, on day two we had to go into 10 by 12 bedroom and do the scene where Julianne tells him don’t take Togo. That was a very powerful scene, and that was on day two of shooting, which shows how much we had to be shooting from the hip. The extraordinary thing was it locked in the relationship and the performance. The first day’s performance was a little…everyone was a little lost in the woods, because it was day one and they were trying to get the character right. Ultimately, on day two, that scene created the relationship between Constance and Seppala. It was so powerful and so extraordinary It just locked the film in in a different way.
Even though we have all this chaos swarming with the weather, and dog,s and puppies that were meant to be shot then that were going to get bigger in six weeks and wouldn’t look the same, and all this insane stuff we had to do. We have to reshoot a scene where we shot the puppy on day one and now the puppy is twice the size when we went back to shoot the rest of the scene. (Laughs). We had a lot of craziness. Yet, there was such a true north in terms of the emotional integrity of the characters and what we were after, and the script was strong enough, the actors were strong enough, that we just navigated through all those circumstances in such a way to know that we were telling the depth of the story that we needed to tell. It was a incredible blessing in disguise that we got into that bedroom on day two and realized what we had and what we needed to do. I think if we’d had perfect weather and less dire circumstances it would not have been the same film.
AD: Opportunity out of chaos.
EC: The greatest thing when you make a film is what’s in front of the camera has to be much more important than what’s behind it. I was there to document it. We had an amazing crew who followed through. Whether we were strapping Willem to the side of the mountain, or shooting he and Julianne in the bedroom scene we made that the most important thing. I think that was conveyed on the screen.
Awards Daily: You mentioned earlier that the third act needed some work before filming. I thought the most powerful scene in Togo might have been after the serum has been delivered, the children are saved, and the man and his daughter come to the Seppala house to give thanks. It’s beautiful, but really tough because while the man is thankful for his daughter, Seppala sees Togo ailing at this feet in front of the fireplace. It starts out one way, but then avoids easy comfort for the viewer.
EC: It’s possibly my favorite scene in the movie too. Tom did an incredible job with the scene – the gut punch of little Sally turning to Seppala and asking if Togo is going to die? Which is the underbelly of all of it. That’s what he’s concerned about and when her father is saying how he can’t believe his daughter is still there, it’s Seppala in regret. The father is in joy a and amazement that his daughter actually is there and he wants to spend every second with her. Then you have this man in survivor’s guilt over this animal that has been so extraordinary for him, and he has never let his emotions come out because he just is a doer. From the way his father slapped him when left for Alaska and said he was going after gold – he grew up in a harsh way and he lived in a harsh land, and for Sally’s father to have so much gratitude for every breath that came out of his daughter that he could be near, and Seppala was having this regret about losing his dog, so that when Sally asks the question, he can’t do anything but leave. That’s not a “Disney film.” For the lead character not to say, “he’s always going to be with us” in that classic family film way…he didn’t. He got up and left and said, “I did this” (to Togo). That’s when he turns to Constance and said, “you were right about everything.” You see the weight of being right on her when she was outside. She’s carrying that guilt because she knew this was going to happen but couldn’t stop it. He says,”I’ve run him to death and I’m not at all prepared.” That scene to me is the one where Seppala finally broke open.
Yes, the serum got back, and the kids got better, and Togo was never really credited with it .That’s not the story. The story is that man who’s sitting there looking at his dog by the fire realizing he’s going to lose him, and how much he loves him, and how terrible he feels about how he has run him so far. And now his time is so limited with him – that’s the most powerful scene to me. He walked off in that sort of fugue state without a jacket into the freezing cold away…away, away away. In the end it’s Togo who will have to save him once again. He saved him physically on mountain after mountain, and all those things actually happened. He did jump over water to pull them in on ice. He did stop them from going off the top of Little Mount McKinley. All those stories are true, which is amazing. That dog was amazing. But the physicality of what the dog did to save him for me was not the story. The story was the dog saving his soul. For him to have to leave on that day to go back to work, which is the classic parent thing – you could see Seppala closing back up from that depth from that moment with Sally. He’s closing up, He’s just going on working. It takes Togo breaking out again to keep that warm alive, and keep his heart going. That’s what makes the film work for me, and that’s why I think it worked for people over 30 – especially men – that it’s okay for a man to cry. You’re working, life is hard and all that, but you’ve got to have an open heart. I’m so glad you pointed out that scene because it was so needed. I think that’s what made it the drama that it is, and what made it different. In some ways having the Disney logo on it almost is a problem for the film because people think “it’s a Disney film,” but it’s a film. It’s a very unique film from Disney.
AD: Togo also corrects a lot of historical inaccuracies. Balto was the dog largely credited with being the canine hero of the serum race because he was the dog that delivered the medicine. But it was Seppala and Togo who ran the longest and hardest portion of the race. Your film restores Seppala and Togo’s legacy to its rightful place. Was there a certain satisfaction in making Seppala and Togo’s contributions more fully known?
EC: Absolutely. I went up to Nome Alaska, and in their library/museum, which is a combination of both the folks from the native tribes up there and Alaskan and federal government – they created the museum. There are pieces of Seppala’s gear and and so forth, but more importantly there’s all of his photo albums and his writing. I was able to reach his letters, and it was so fascinating at the end of Seppala’s life, all that he was writing about was how upset he was that Balto got this credit and Togo did not. He wasn’t talking about himself, or that Gunnar Kaasen got the credit for running the last leg of the race. It wasn’t about that. It was about Togo, Togo, Togo.
He loved that dog so much and he wanted that dog to have the credit. It wasn’t about him. Up in Nome, Alaska there’s a Seppala Street, there’s not a Gunnar Kaasen Street. People up there actually know it was Seppala that did most of the run, not Gunnar Kaasen. That’s the truth of it. But he was upset that Togo didn’t get the credit. Balto ran on one of the teams at the end, he did his own bit. The fact that Togo wasn’t even known about and Balto is such a known name and has statue in Central Park is really a bummer, due to the fact of what Togo actually did. It’s all based on real documents and facts – what really happened. It’s amazing what happened. There was “fake news” even back then. (Laughs). The other lead dog that came in with Balto was named Fox, and the reporter decided a dog named Fox was too confusing, so Balto became the dog and Gunnar Kaasen became the hero, and he took it. Gunnar decided to take credit for it and he got free meals, keys to cities around the country touring with Balto.
Seppala wanted nothing to do with that. He didn’t want to go on those tours. He had no interest He wasn’t that man. I was glad we could tell that story. It’s also the reason that when people do come by the house it’s not this big celebration, and him being on stage as the big hero that you find at the end of a lot of these movies, and Disney in particular. People were coming and bringing bacon and jam and giving their thanks for what they knew this man did. He wanted to recede in because he knew that he was on a hospice watch with his best friend. I’m very pleased that it’s out there, and I hope history will show that, because it’s a pretty extraordinary story.