HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — How would you like to direct a leading lady who had never seen a movie camera, much less worked before one, insisted on rewards after each scene, and never removed her fur coat?
Sounds like a prima donna? Just ask Fraser Heston, director of the adventure family film "Alaska." He'll tell it like it is. The "she" is actually the roly-poly polar bear cub who just about steals every scene she's in - even though she has such experienced costars as teenager Thora Birch and Oscar-winner Charlton Heston (Fraser's father).
"The movie took more preparation than most," says director Heston. "We had to locate a cub and then see if it could be trained, something I understand had never been done."
Their search led to Sweden's Kohl Martin Zoom, where a polar bear cub, named Agee, was born in January 1995. Castle Rock, the producers of "Alaska," sent a team including Canadian animal trainer Mark Weiner to pick up Agee.
Home at Castle Rock
"They flew with this 12-pound ball of fur to Weiner's farm," Heston says. "Here, Castle Rock had built a compound for the polar bear, complete with swimming pool and surrounded by a large wilderness area.
"I was busy scouting locations," Heston continues, "yet always in the back of my mind was the worry, is a polar bear cub trainable?"
His worries began to fade when Weiner said Agee was learning tricks quicker than a dog. By five months, she was obeying commands. She was also gaining weight.
By the time "Alaska" began filming in British Columbia, the cub was getting close to 100 pounds. "Three months later when we wrapped up the movie, Agee weighed in at 150. Fortunately, we filmed the scene where my dad [Charlton Heston] had to lift the cub into a helicopter when she only weighed 110."
Agee was given the star treatment: She had her own custom trailer, with swimming pool, rest area, and kitchen, plus room for her best friend, Schroeder, the Labrador that starred as Yellow Dog.
Doughnuts and Twinkies
Heston says, "It was wonderful to see how much the cub loved his trainer - she would do virtually anything he told her. Of course there had to be a doughnut or Twinkie after the performance.
"I remember the first time Agee saw snow. She just sat down on her furry bottom and slid down the mountain. You could almost hear her say 'Whee!' with delight.
Agee also developed quite a rapport with her costars. "She adored young actors," Heston says. "In one scene where Agee is leading them up the mountain, she stopped to see if they were following her. It was such a natural action, almost like a big brother watching out for his younger siblings, that I left it in the movie.
"The cub was really funny when she first rode in a helicopter. Mark Weiner sat beside her, and she soon forgot her doughnut, she was enjoying the experience.... That first ride took us to the top of a glacier where Agee stopped to look around as if sensing the majesty of the setting."
Now that "Alaska" is opening, what happens to Agee? Over the next five years, she will grow to her full weight of approximately 700 pounds. Since Agee was born in captivity, Weiner's commitment to love and care for her continues.
"Agee is my responsibility for life," Weiner says. "Castle Rock has made a provision for her, so she will have the best of everything." What else for a best friend?