In the same tradition as last year’s Winter’s Bone, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s riveting debut feature On the Ice take a popular genre staple—in this instance, the botched cover up of a murder—and applies it like a magnifying glass in revealing the intimacies of an oft-misunderstood culture. Filmed in the harsh tundra landscapes of Barrow, Alaska (and during an exhaustive period of continuous sunlight), MacLean’s unwavering vision shows how two lifelong friends deal with the inadvertent murder of one of their own. It’s a slow-burn experience in subzero conditions, where the binding ties of a steadfast indigenous community are as vast as the Alaskan wilderness itself.
Anthem spoke to the native Iñupiat filmmaker at Sundance, where his film was one of the most buzzed-about in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category.
I was actually at the 8:30 a.m. screening. You had a great turnout!
It was packed and everybody’s just chill in a way, you know? Everyone’s just there for the film and they’re all just sort of soaking it in. The [a.m.] screenings I’ve gone to as an audience member have always been some of my favorites.
Just to clarify, this is your third film that you’ve shown at Sundance. How has this experience measured up with the previous two?
The other two times were for short films, so there’s a huge difference in what surrounds it. You come here with a short doc and it’s like, “Hey, good job! Have fun!” And that’s all you hear. You meet a bunch of filmmakers, you have a great time, and you screen your film, but there’s nobody who’s looking to sign a short documentarian. So, there’s no real pressure or expectation. It’s just purely to show your film and have a good time. Having a short narrative is a little different in that people do look at the short filmmakers and ask, “Well, are you going to be making a feature narrative next?” or “Are you an up-and-coming filmmaker?” So, there’s a little bit more pressure there.
When you’re here with a feature, of course, it’s so much press, interviews, photo shoots, and industry screenings. It’s all the external stuff, and then the business side all of a sudden just lands on you. It’s definitely a different thing. I know that when I was here with shorts, I got to see a lot of films and I loved that. This year, I’ve seen one film on opening night and that’s it.
When you began adapting your short film “Sikumi” into a feature, what excited you the most and what did you find the most challenging in terms of expanding that narrative?
The thing that I was excited about was the context, because “Sikumi” was just about this one event that happened in an isolated area with these three people. They’re in this kind of huge blank slate, right? And there’s a presence of the community that’s implied and you kind of get that through the short—but it’s only implied. What the feature gave me a chance to do is really explore what that is; how the community would react to this kind of tragedy, how that community’s reaction would inform the characters’ journey, and how they navigate themselves through these really treacherous moral grounds that they’ve thrown themselves into. That was really interesting to me as I started to adapt it.
I also knew that I wanted to make it into a very different film; I didn’t want to make it just like a longer version of the short. So I changed a few things right off the bat. I made the characters younger, around 17 or 18 years old. I set it in modern times. With “Sikumi,” it’s hard to tell but it’s set back in the 1950s, before there were snow machines. People were still using dog teams and they were also using things like rifles and binoculars. I wanted to do a contemporary story with the feature. I wanted to explore some things that kids are going through and where they’re drawing their identity from, because they’re building their identity from traditions that have been around for thousands of years, from hunting traditions and from language and things like that. But then they’re also pulling pieces of their identity from this larger culture, which is coming up like waves. You know, every kid is on Facebook now and every kid has iTunes. Hip-hop is really huge. You have parties up there and kids in the Arctic that are putting down beats and making rhymes. It’s like they’re expressing themselves in a unique way; they’re appropriating a culture from the outside and using it to express something like that.
That’s actually a great point that I wanted to touch on. The biggest difference between the short and the feature, for me at least, came from how you infused this coexistence of old tradition with more modern trends into the narrative. The film even opens with this ceremonial dance, and in the following scene, we see the two leads beat boxing. I wondered how much of that was inspired by your own experiences growing up in Barrow.
Well, you know, I’m no longer a youth. I’m not 17 or 18. The Barrow that I grew up in is kind of different. I didn’t really grow up with so much hip-hop, or it was an earlier era of hip-hop. Frankly, we weren’t even that good at it. [Laughs] So, we weren’t out there making rhymes or making beats in the way that the kids are right now. That aspect is definitely new. And it was the kind of thing where I had cousins who were younger and cousins who were hitting that age, so I could see what their lives were like. I became interested in that before writing the feature and then when it came time to write the feature, I thought, “Yeah, this has to be in the feature somehow.” All that juxtaposition is there.
I think the film has three musical performance moments that are important. It starts with this traditional dance, and that’s our tradition; this is what we’ve been doing and this is our roots, you know? And then it’s got hip-hop. That one scene on top of the water tower and the party scene are really like the “brand new.” And then there’s also this inspiration scene, which is when they take a hymn—something that came from the outside a hundred years ago and came from Christianity—that was translated into the Iñupiaq language. So it’s these three things: the purely traditional and then these two other forms of musical expression that have either been adapted or appropriated into the culture. It was like the old, the kind of old, and the brand new.
On paper, the story’s setting seems almost stagnant. The sun never fully sets and you have this endless white landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. Yet, scene-by-scene, I felt that you and your DP brought out so much specificity and so much diversity to the landscape. What was your approach to location scouting and scheduling?
Just in terms of scheduling alone, it was crazy. We shot a lot of the film out on the Arctic Ocean, and a lot of that was weather dependent. And for one of our locations, we were trying to get up to the edge of the ice where the open water is. It was really, really hard to get out there. Because the winds would blow the wrong direction or there would be like a whaling camp—we filmed during the whaling season—there would be a whaling camp that didn’t want to be filmed, so we couldn’t do that. It took us the entire shoot to get down to the edge of the ice. Almost every day, we would have our first schedule, which is like, “If the weather’s like this, then we’ll do this. If the weather’s like that, then we’ll do that.” Invariably, neither of those two options worked out. We would go with, like, some other cobbled together schedule. It was the hardest shoot in the world for our A.D. I have to give props to Kit [Bland] because I think he had the hardest job on set.
In terms of how we dealt with the locations and shooting, to me, it was about a dichotomy. For the part of the movie that happens out on the ice and on the ocean, you’re out there and it’s this wide-open blank landscape, which suggests infinite possibilities—it’s possible to get away with murder. It makes you think that you could do stuff like that. There’s nobody around. We’re here, we’re alone, and we can make up our own rules. In a way, it was sort of reflected in the shooting; we would actually cheat certain locations in the same location and that kind of contributed to the feeling of blankness. There are no landmarks to tie you down. And then that was contrasted with the part of the movie that takes place in town. Town is all about community; it’s about this very tight-knit group of people who are mostly related to each other. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Yet everybody has found a way to live together. It’s a very tight-knit, inward-looking community. And you really get into that through this tragedy that happens. You see how the community responds and you see how the lie that the kids carry back with them kind of alienates them from the community. That’s where the real tension from the characters comes from. So, that sort of dichotomy was at the heart of the film.
This must have been something of a homecoming event for you to film in Barrow and especially around people you already knew on a first-name basis. How did that impact filming?
It was both great and really stressful. It was great because I couldn’t have done it without the support that I got back there, and it was awesome to do it and to get it done. But it was hard partly because it was so personal. You’re dealing with people with whom you have a very intimate relationship and you’re asking them for favors. Also, the community doesn’t know what it takes to make a film, so there was a certain amount of education that had to happen. Sometimes, it was a messy process. You know, we would have these houses for a location, and then the day before they’re like, “Well, you know, we’re going to have like 15-20 people here for dinner, but you guys just need that back room, right? It’s just going to be you and a camera, right?” And I’m like, “Uh, no. We have a crew of about 20-30 people and we’re all going to be dropping into your house. We’re going to completely take over. We’re going to unplug everything you have and we’re going to set up lights everywhere.” So it was like a real education in that. And that was one of the real interesting aspects of filmmaking. It was rewarding in the end.
Do you have plans to publicly screen the film in Barrow?
We’re going to work that out soon. We barely finished the film in time for Sundance. Sundance was always in our plans to premiere it here. Once we’re done here, we’re going to go home. We’re going to start thinking about what we need to do with the film from here and very high up on that list is getting back to Barrow to show the community and be like, “This is what we did.”
Considering that a large portion of your cast had never acted before, how did you adjust your method for communicating direction, especially considering the extreme places some of the characters were required to go?
That was my biggest job as a director. I knew that going in, it would be non-actors as there were basically no trained Iñupiaq actors of that age group. I wanted people who could immediately connect with the characters and have an authenticity to them. It’s a very important part of the film. But at the same time, the roles are difficult. The roles are emotional. They require a lot of internal fluency. It was huge in casting. Just getting out there and finding the right people for it was probably the biggest part of the job. We needed people who not only understood the characters but also had a kind of availability, people who wouldn’t get in front of a camera and shut down. They needed to have that ability where they could forget the camera and just sort of open up and be there to tell the story. We saw hundreds of people all over Arctic Canada and all over Arctic Alaska. And we ended up with the cast that we have kind of by the skin of our teeth. There were not many second options for us, but we found them. And in terms of working with them, it was a matter of teaching them and also teaching ourselves. Together, we had to figure out a way of working. The producer Cara Marcous and I, we did an intensive workshop with the top contenders for the roles for about a week in Anchorage before we cast. That was our last casting process. We used that as an opportunity to start the process of working out how we were going to do this acting thing. We worked with them on some improvs and on some scripted scenes; we really put them through their paces on that. And then I had a good solid month of rehearsal with the two leads before we started filming. And again, it was a lot of working through improvs and working with a script as well. Trying to find a way for them to be able to do something that’s scripted—when I needed them to do a certain specific thing—to have it feel like they’re not just reciting lines, which can be challenging for a non-actor. It was an amazing process and I was amazed by where we got to by the end of it. And it evolved during filming as well.
Frank Irelan was particularly outstanding. He gave a very complex and natural performance.
He threw himself into it. He had probably the hardest role because of the amount of overt emotion that he needed to have. He needed to have these times where he just lost it. And that’s tough, especially for a non-actor, to be able to, on cue, just freak out and do it in an intelligent way where you’re communicating some specific complex emotional things. He found a way to do it.