David Johnson of Soldotna will see his own dogs on the big screen in the Disney movie "Eight Below," which opens locally this weekend. Three of Johnson's Alaska malamutes star in the film, including this big fellow howling in excitement while having his photo taken last week.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
As the Disney movie “Eight Below” opens this weekend, David Johnson of Soldotna will see more than two hours of action and adventure, with his dogs on the big screen.
“I’m pretty excited about it. You never think of your dogs doing something like that,” said Johnson, owner of three Alaska malamutes starring in the film.
“Eight Below” is based on the true story of a Japanese research expedition to Antarctica in 1958 that made an emergency evacuation and was forced to leave behind 13 sled dogs.
A relief team aboard an icebreaker was scheduled to arrive within a few days, so the dogs were left chained up outside with a small supply of food. But perilous weather conditions forced the relief team to give up and head back to Japan.
During the harsh Antarctic winter, the dogs struggled for survival alone for several months in the intense frozen wilderness.
“That’s the plot of the movie. The dogs’ struggle for survival, without people, after they are stranded,” Johnson said. “Also, instead of 13 dogs being left, only eight get left behind in the movie.”
In reality, when the next expedition returned many months later, they discovered that nearly all of the dogs had died, with the exception of two that had slipped their collars.
It is not clear how these two dogs managed to survive in the harsh climate, particularly since the frozen corpses of the other dogs still tethered were not cannibalized.
As to how the dogs in the movie make out, Johnson said it may have a happier ending. But he couldn’t say for certain.
“I’ve heard it’s a good action-adventure and real tear-jerker, but they wouldn’t tell me much more than that,” he said.
Johnson said he’s not even sure if his dogs all three of which were used to create a single character named Buck are among those that survive.
Johnson did have an explanation as to why his three dogs two males named Flap Jack and Dino and a female named Wild Thing were required for filming.
“Well, they teach certain dogs to do certain things. One may be used for sled-pulling scenes, the others used for other scenes. They like to have more than one dog in case one doesn’t want to cooperate, too,” he said.
Johnson said the color of his dogs was an important factor in their being cast.
“Different colors make it easy for people to keep the dogs straight. They wanted a red husky, but there aren’t very many red ones around, and the ones they did find didn’t work,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a 30-year owner and breeder of malamutes, often works with his dogs. He said the dogs are used to haul firewood or gear for camping trips, but he mostly just runs them for fun.
“I like mushing, so we run the dogs all the time,” he said.
Flap Jack not only is red, but is even Johnson’s lead dog. As such, he thought the dogs might have a leg up when he sent them to the audition in California.
Johnson said his fear wasn’t that the dogs wouldn’t work, but that they wouldn’t do so around strangers and strange dogs. As it turned out, the dogs did fine.
“They said they had a lot of life and spirit,” Johnson said.
After being cast the dogs were sent to California to live and work with trainers from Birds and Animals Unlimited a company that has trained animals for numerous entertainment productions, including “Snow Dogs,” “Dr. Dolittle” and the “Ace Ventura” films.
Johnson said they took good care of his canine companions while they were away.
“They babied them like crazy,” he said.
After their training was complete, for the next two winters the dogs were sent to Greenland and British Columbia to shoot on location.
Johnson said it was hard not having a lead dog for two years, but he was compensated for the dogs’ efforts.
“The money will get spent on dog food,” he said.
However, Johnson said the money wasn’t the main reason he agreed to lease his dogs to the project.
“My wife really wanted the dogs in the movie. It’s a novelty to know they’re stars,” he said.
“Eight Below” opens tonight at the the Orca Theater on Kalifornsky Beach Road. See page A-3 for show times.
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