The beautiful landscape of Alaska contrasts a rather dark story in the independent film, Wildlike. Written and directed by Frank Hall Green, the film tells the story of a teenage girl named MacKenzie who is sent to live with her uncle in Alaska. Her father is dead and her mother is struggling, so this seems like the best arrangement for her. Unfortunately, MacKenzie's uncle tries to take advantage of her and she runs away, fighting the vast wilderness in her effort to escape. Along the way, she meets a lonely backpacker who becomes the father figure she desperately needs.
Unlike many independent films, Wildlike features a steller cast of actors with major motion picture credits on their resumes. Ella Purnell (Never Let Me Go and Maleficent) plays MacKenzie; Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) is Rene Bartlett; and Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker and Jarhead) from Toms River, NJ, plays the uncle, forming the crux of the story.
The film may be the full-length directorial debut for Green, but it doesn't look like a debut. He previously directed a handful of short films, and gained plenty of experience from working in various roles of the industry, including editor, production manager, and producer. Green grew up drawing and painting and always knew he would end up as an artist, but he was also always good at math. This led to jobs in venture capital, which, in turn, helped open the doors for him to become a producer.
"Producing is a very different side of the brain and a different side of the work,” explains Green. "The creative stuff is like angst — you die everyday. You wonder, ‘Am I getting this right?' You're going back and agonizing and you should be. You never know if it's right and you're pushing yourself harder and harder, while on the producing side the questions are ‘Is the camera going to arrive on time?', ‘Do we have enough money in the bank?' It's all very cut and dry, and black and white; it's easier to deal with.”
Wondering if the camera would arrive on time was something Green let his line producer do for Wildlike, but it was a concern. The crew had an ambitious film schedule — roughly 3,000 miles across Alaska during a 31 day shoot. Green says he took scouting trips throughout the state and had a good idea of where the shoots would go, so everything was considered well in advance. But, of course, nothing is ever totally set in stone when you're shooting in a region with wild animals and weather conditions that can change plans at a moment's notice.
"It was an ambitious project and I tend to be ambitious with my projects,” explained Green. "I think I get a thrill of reaching. The main question was how much could we shoot in one day. We had 31 days to shoot and a great assistant director (Chris Caroll) who organized the shoots for each location. But every day we were losing things we really wanted to shoot that we didn't have time to shoot. Then there's the next day and you drop a few more things and the list of things that you want to catch up to grows a little bit longer each day. You just try to make sure you get the most important stuff.
"I think for me as a director, the challenge was to take the script and the moments we wanted and put them into live action,” he continued. "Where is the camera going to fit for that live action and is that the best place? You're second guessing yourself over and over again. Then you watch the performances and wonder if the film is saying what you wanted or saying something you're not even aware of. What is that look by Bruce Greenwood saying? What is it going to say when you get back to the editing room and take a look at it? If you don't shoot everything you want to shoot, do you need to make an adjustment in the story or the script or what you plan to shoot the next day or in the coming weeks? For me personally, that's extremely stressful and can be agonizing because you can dream that you are ruining an entire project by making one or two small decisions.”
One of the best decisions Green and his crew made was by choosing Ella Purnell in the lead role of MacKenzie. It's always difficult casting young actors and especially difficult to cast young actors in roles that have to carry a film. Green recalls meeting with a few casting directors and young actresses in Los Angeles, but not seeing anyone right for the role. In his hotel room after the meetings, he turned on the television and saw Never Let Me Go which featured Purnell.
"She was just very striking in her look and the way that she carried herself,” he recalled. "She seems to carry a little bit of silence in a lot of her performances and it struck me within the first few minutes of watching that she was the one. In fact I was a little disappointed in how beautiful she was because I didn't want MacKenzie to be so beautiful. But it worked out and the more I got to know Ella over the course of a year and a half the more obvious it was that she was perfect for the part. When we got to actually filming the movie and saw the dailies we knew we had something great.”
Wildlike does a wonderful job of telling a story about sexual abuse in a way that is unlike an after school special on television. It's a gripping tale in which the vast miles of Alaska almost serve as another character MacKenzie is running from. Bruce Greenwood is excellent as a widower traveling across Alaska who wants to be alone but bonds with the young girl. As a man without any kids and a girl without a father, the two fill voids for each other. Greenwood's familiar voice provides a certain degree of calm and safety — something MacKenzie needs — and his personal background as an outdoorsman shines through. He looks comfortable traveling through the wilderness, which adds an extra dose of realism to the film.
Green says he wishes he could see the film with the fresh eyes of the audience, but he's been to Alaska so often that he's rather immune to its beauty.
"I know it's fantastic,” said Green. "I've been there in person and was wowed by it for the first time, but when we shot the movie I didn't see any of Alaska. I only saw the five inches in front of my face. And then in the editing room and with the finished product, I see a movie and the parts of the film that I judge for better or worse. But recently I saw The Sound of Music on television and I had forgotten the opening scene when they go over the Swiss Alps in an airplane and they have these fantastic aerial shots. I realized this is what people are experiencing when they watch parts of Wildlike and see Alaska.”
The film is beautifully shot and truly captures the size and remoteness of Alaska. Green says they wanted to put the two main characters in a particular place and in a particular frame of mind which allowed for their relationship to come about where it couldn't anywhere else. They got it right.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.