“You don’t negotiate with Mother Nature. You either beat it or it beats you.” That line from the Discovery Channel miniseries “Klondike” applies to both the Yukon gold rush story and the challenges of bringing it to life on screen. Starring Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”), Tim Roth, Sam Shepard and Abbie Cornish, Discovery’s first scripted drama was an endurance test for the cast and crew, who dealt with below zero temperatures, blizzards, raging rapids, and torrential rains in Alberta, Canada — all in the name of art.
But according to writer/producer Paul Scheuring, the extreme conditions were exactly what “Klondike” needed. “We got the weather we wanted. We were very fortunate because the weather kept working for us. We tried to pick a sweet spot in the calendar where we would get the snow but we’d also get the sun. We generally shot the narrative backwards because we needed all the snow first so we did that in April and the sunny stuff at the end in June. The only time nature didn’t work with us was later in the shoot, when the rains were so torrential that they washed away half our set. We had to shut down, file an insurance claim and start over. Our art department did a very good job of saving what they could. But for the ambition of this film and its relation to weather, I think we did incredibly well.”
Director Simon Callen Jones reveled in the harsh conditions that included minus 20 degree temperatures, sleep deprivation, and ubiquitous mud. “I’m a bit of a masochist. I’m afraid I loved it,” he laughs. But turning serious, he adds, “We forget how the weather can turn suddenly on a sixpence. You’ve got to be careful. You have to be ready to think on your feet.” His goal was to minimize downtime for the actors on set. “You keep them busy. If you have them stand around, they get cold and fed up,” he said, but in this instance, he thinks the adversity bonded the cast much closer. “They went home priding themselves on having gotten through the day, let alone the week.”
One of the main sets is a reconstruction of Yukon frontier boomtown Dawson City circa 1897, the setting for Charlotte Gray’s “Gold Diggers,” the source material for the project. “So much of it was shot at night, in the rain, and we had to show that the place was filthy and dangerous,” says Callen Jones, who used computer graphics sparingly, preferring to shoot everything practically on “Klondike,” and using handheld cameras and helicopter cams to get tricky shots.
These included a spectacular avalanche sequence in episode one. “That involved blowing up huge amounts of snow and making it fall down the mountain. It was the most complex because we only had one chance at that, and we had to shoot people running away from it and then use the same shots and actually have the snow coming down, and if we got that wrong, we blew the whole movie.” Adds Scheuring, “We had 12 cameras out there, and we blew the ridge, and it was beautiful. But I think some of those cameras are still buried up there.”
An equally scary scene was challenging for a different reason. For a scene in which a pack of wolves chases Madden’s character, Bill Haskell, the animals were tame, not the wild, feral creatures they appear to be on screen. “They were like big, fluffy pets who'd go and fetch your slippers for you. So it was very hard to make them aggressive,” Callen Jones says. He notes that although there was a stunt team, “everyone went home bruised” from doing their own action, Madden in particular. “Richard really was the guy falling into the river and steering down those rapids. Richard got banged around pretty much every day.”
Madden says he went into “Klondike” expecting it to be difficult, but “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done — physically, mentally, emotionally. I was nearly hypothermic one day. I had nosebleeds from exhaustion. I got frostbite on my face. You read ‘he lies on a frozen lake’ in the script, but it’s much worse than you imagined. Everything was shot on location, not in a nice, warm studio. But I loved the scenery we got to shoot in.”
Filming the river rapids sequence was grueling and scary. “We had lots of safety people there, but you know, you can't control nature. We smashed this boat into the rocks quite dangerously.” Wearing period costumes with little insulation throughout “was really miserable,” but that and the conditions gave Madden and his co-stars insight into what the real prospectors endured.
“There was something very elemental, very challenging, and very dramatic about the landscape and about the weather that told us very quickly what these characters would have felt like,” says Cornish, who plays Dawson City power broker Belinda Mulroney. Augustus Prew, who portrays Haskell’s best friend Byron Epstein, found it grueling in every way. “We were shooting 15-, 16-hour days most days. It was very intense. Most of the time was spent getting there, it took an hour and a half getting to the location, on a snowmobile 45 minutes and then you hike another 40 minutes to the top of the mountain, we were at 10,000 feet, and it was freezing.”
It’s no surprise to learn he went on vacation to Turkey where it was “lovely and warm” after “Klondike” wrapped, and Madden hightailed it for Ibiza, Spain. Prew will next be seen in “Kickass 2,” opening on Aug. 16, and a BBC period drama called “The Village,” focusing on a town in successive decades each season. Madden, who also faced daunting conditions in filming “Game of Thrones,” thought his post-“Klondike” role as Prince Charming in “Cinderella” would be “a breeze, but it was a totally different challenge. It was just as intense as this was, in lots of different ways.” The latest retelling of the fairytale, starring Cate Blanchett, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter and Lily James in the title role, hits theaters in March 2015.
“Klondike” premieres on Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Discovery Channel.
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