Hollywood fantasy collides with cold reality
If everyone gets 15 minutes of fame, I guess I'm still due 14-1/2 minutes. And I had to share my 30 seconds with my neighbor's dog team; mine were never very good-looking. But at this point in my career I'll take whatever I can get.
Mary, the neighbor with the photogenic dogs, had to give a talk at some dog-mushers' conference in Norway. So she killed two birds with one stone: She got me to feed her dogs while she was away by hooking me up with a Hollywood gig she couldn't make. Good thing for me, too. The money I made on that 10-day job was half of my income that year.
A guy named Smilie, no kidding, was a TV ad producer in Hollywood. He had convinced BMW that he was the man to show off their new car model's traction control. His idea was to have their big, black sedan blow past a dog team in unbroken snow. Simple, right? Unless you really think about how film is shot and how sled dogs work.
My favorite moment while "on location" as we call it, was pizza delivery the first night. "Location" was Summit Lodge, a stone-cold pizza's drive from Delta Junction, Alaska. The solution was the film crew's helicopter: For only $500 an hour, Fast Eddie's pizza got to us piping hot. My introduction to the Hollywood economy.
The first big scene was supposed to be dogs pulling a loaded sled up a little hill while the car blasted by. I tried to convince the director that the first run up the hill was going to be the best. Once the dogs had been there, done that, they'd realize they were being toyed with if they were asked to go up and down the same silly hill until the film crew got it right. But that's not how things are done, so by the time everything was set up, the light was right, the angle was right, and we were ready to introduce a roaring car into the scene, the dogs had it totally figured out. I was having to run ahead and hop up and down in order to get the dogs to simply walk up the hill.
So it was figured, without my input, that the car would get the dogs wound up again. So we got the team wandering up the hill, and they raced by with the car. But since sled dogs are unaccustomed to cars, they got scared. Some wanted to chase the car, some wanted to run from the car, and some just didn't know what to do. We got sled-dog macramé.
I found out I wasn't to speak directly to the director. I was required to speak to the director's assistant. So I'm standing on the sled runners next to the snowmobile driven by the assistant with the director on the back, speaking to the assistant who in turn tells the director that this plan won't work. We decide to shoot that scene another day when the dogs aren't bored with chasing me up a hill.
The other big scene with dogs is supposed to have them charging across unbroken snow on a frozen lake. The director, the assistant, and I planned this very carefully the night before so we won't end up with another doggy disaster. The dogs will start from one end of the lake and run to the other end where the camera crew is. I figure that'll be great. Dogs love people, there will be people on the horizon; this should work.
But when we got to the lake, things fell apart. The crew had snowmobiled up and down the lake a zillion times on two little trails just out of the camera's view, but not outside the dogs' view. I tried to explain that this was another bad plan; the dogs will head for one of the trails. I'm paid $400 a day, though, so the dogs will go down the center of the lake at top speed straight toward the crew. "Doug, baby, you're killing me here!" Smilie had an English accent.
Off we went, weaving down the center of the lake, first toward one trail, then toward the other. "Haw! haw! ... No, gee! Gee! ... Good dogs! ... No, haw! Haw...." (Like oxen, dogs are controlled by ancient voice commands.)
I got to the end of the lake to peals of laughter from the crew, loud expressions of displeasure from the director to the assistant to me, and we bagged it for another day. Hollywood advertising collided with Alaskan reality and everyone was exercised.
The coolest part of this job was the two guys on helicopter duty. They had hooked up right after Vietnam and were in constant demand for aerial filming. The last day of filming they had the car screaming back and forth below a ridge on which I was perched with the dog team. The helicopter was only feet above the car as they zoomed by - first one way, then the other - with the photographer hanging out of the cargo door. I've always been a big motor head, so I was very impressed with the car, the driver's skill, the helicopter, the speed, the noise. And I witnessed it all from a dog sled.
The Hollywooders managed to sort out some usable footage. I never saw the ad; I didn't have electricity. But my wife's folks saw it the first time it aired during the Super Bowl. Had I known it was going to air then, I would've spent the day in a department store so I could have witnessed my 30 seconds of sort-of fame.