How Extreme Weather Is Melting Hollywood’s Winter Shoots
The Hateful Eight production crew was recently besieged by unpredictable and expensive weather obstacles.
While filming the first season of FX’s Fargo in Calgary in 2013, it was so cold—a reported negative-35 degrees with wind chill—that stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman risked frostbite if their skin was exposed for more than 10 minutes. Production was canceled several nights when even the Canadians deemed the arctic temperatures unbearable. Thornton joked that conditions were so extreme he started sympathizing with the Donner party.
About a year later, filming again in Calgary, Fargo executive producer Warren Littlefield estimates that temperatures were often nearly 70 degrees warmer when wind chill was taken into consideration. Many days, he recalls, did not even fall to the freezing point. It was a nightmare for a television series named for a city synonymous with dread-inducing whiteout landscapes.
“We were sending trucks into the mountains to load them up with snow and bring them down to our locations,” Littlefield tells VF.com of the second-season shoot. “They’d bring back these huge blocks of snow and then we had kind of a wood chipper that worked through these blocks of snow and ice and then just spit it out into a spray. It’s wildly effective if the temperature drops later in the day so you don’t lose all the snow that you trucked in. . . . We would have a huddle of producers, director, A.D.s, and somehow everyone had different weather apps and everyone had a different kind of sense of what was going to happen.”
Fargo was not the only recent production scrambling to create its own chilly climes. Whether or not audience’s holiday destinations are blessed by the proverbial White Christmas, American moviegoers will have the option on December 25 of seeing two of the year’s most anticipated releases, coincidentally both blanketed by a generous portion of snow. There’s Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, an ice-cold revenge drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio, set in Dakota territory in the winter of 1823, and Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, a snowbound western thriller set in Wyoming in the winter of 18-Tarantino. Like Fargo, both productions were in desperate need of the white stuff, and both were, at times, beset by how to get it.
Climate change is no breaking news story—but it’s one that Hollywood, an industry built on the forging of fantasies, is increasingly confronting. And it’s something that a business famed for its control freaks, from auteur directors to studio heads, has no power over. Mother Earth has been throwing Hollywood climate curveballs with increasing frequency, reminding the town that she is more powerful than Ari Gold, Harvey Weinstein, and Scientology combined. And it has the potential, it seems, to get worse. A much-discussed study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change showed that higher global temperatures had led to a four-fold increase in some extreme heat patterns since the Industrial Revolution, and could lead to even more. Now, as Mother Earth tangibly extends the environmental pandemic to the movie industry, how will Hollywood have to adapt?
Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who works for Slate, says climate change may affect Hollywood in several ways: The frequency of extreme weather makes it harder to predict which areas of the world may have snow, rain, or sunny days during any given month. And Hollywood may not be able to rely on “locations that are nearby and cheap to film, where it has filmed for decades,” as its home state grows drier. Ironically, this means productions may have to resort to the biggest environmental sin of them all—wanton air travel—to find better locations.
One such area, Lone Pine, California, lies three hours north of Hollywood and is nestled against the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Its snow-capped peaks have been featured in over 300 films, including a dozen John Wayne westerns; the Humphrey Bogart movie High Sierra; Gladiator; and Iron Man. But a new survey of California’s 2015 snowpacks suggests the state’s white peaks are endangered.
When weather-dependent productions do stray outside of California and its sound stages, and find themselves atmospherically screwed, they seem to be increasingly relying on expensive means to create their own weather. In addition to trucking in snow from the mountains, the Fargo team also made snow from scratch using machines. But, Littlefield says, running the rented equipment night and day over the course of a weekend cost about $100,000.
“That’s a lot of money for something that you didn’t have to pay for the year before,” he says.
There was also competition for the snow guns with the Revenant crew, which was also filming in Calgary at the time. “There was one point when we needed to get back snowmaking equipment but Revenant had tied it up for the rest of the winter, so it wasn’t even available to us,” Littlefield says.
The Revenant team actually underwent an epic global search for snow that took cast and crew from Calgary to the Ushuaia Peninsula in Argentina. The film was shot entirely outdoors in natural light, in sequence, in weather conditions that often did not cooperate. At one point, the film crew extended a planned production break from two to six weeks because, as The Hollywood Reporter wrote, production “problems had become so evident.” In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, DiCaprio conceded that because of these parameters, the film had a reputation for being “difficult” even in the screenplay stage. Although producers declined to speak to VF.com for this piece, The Hollywood Reporterpublished a story last month about the various production struggles of the film—wildly erratic weather included:
As fate would have it, when the production was counting on snow, it was so warm near Calgary that even attempts to manufacture it or truck it in failed. Later, temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, or minus 40 degrees with the windchill factor. But since the action at that point was set in the autumn, actors were asked to go without hats and gloves. “Everybody was frozen, the equipment was breaking; to get the camera from one place to another was a nightmare,” says Inarritu.
About 1,200 miles south of Calgary, in Telluride, Colorado, Tarantino’s Hateful Eight shoot encountered similar problems in January. As co-star Channing Tatum told Vanity Fairthis summer: “Quentin asked one of the guys that took him onto this mountain, ‘What are the chances of us getting an actual blizzard?’ He said 100 percent. Well, they had a record low amount of snow that year.” The actor joked, “Whoever that guy is, he’s in a box in Quentin’s basement.”
In April, Hateful Eight producer Harvey Weinstein further confirmed rumors about the film’s fraught weather conditions, saying, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate control or climate change should be on our set.” Because Tarantino’s script involved interior scenes and sets, however, unlike The Revenant, shooting schedules were reconfigured and the film did not have to halt production like its wintry box-office brother.
Holthaus says that climate change is affecting the globe differently and at different rates. While Canada and Colorado productions were searching for snow last winter, for example, record-breaking amounts of precipitation were falling in the Northeast, with some cities receiving upwards of 100 inches of snow for the season. (Jennifer Lawrence, whose Boston-set drama Joy fell victim to an eight-foot deluge during the brutal winter, joked in a recent interview, “I still have Snowst Traumatic Stress . . . I feel like I’m in Game of Thrones, running around going, ‘Winter is coming again!’”)
On the other side of the globe, months later, director Baltasar Kormákur was grappling with one of the most fatal effects of these fluctuating temperature waves while filming his biographical disaster drama Everest in Italy. A native of Iceland, Kormákur had initially planned to shoot in his home country, but the glaciers there are becoming blacker and ashier—no longer the crisp, white ice sheets seen in science books—and he did not think it was the right look for his film. (Explains Holthaus: “Over hundreds of years there has been dust or ash or dirt that has blown in along with the snow. And that stuff is staying while the ice and snow are disappearing so it’s just becoming more and more dirty. . . . The experts I’ve spoken with in Greenland . . . say that the dirt or particles in the glaciers are also actually increasing the melt rate of the glaciers.”)