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December 12, 2005

"The Big White" movie

From: n/a - Dec 12, 2005

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am former student at N.T.D - Professional Summer School in 1988 and Advanced in 1989.

I would like to inform you that I had been in the movie with Robin Williams in April, 2004 to film up the White Pass Summit between Yukon and Alaska. My character was Yukon Snowmobiling Party Gang and had enjoyed to work and chat with Robin Williams during filming for two full days. The movie, "The Big White" already released in Europe, South America and New Zealand. They still work on US Premiere and hopes to release in 2006. Robin Williams' website has my story. Here's my story :

Headline...."Yukon Film Industry Displays Immense Promise"

"There is some ado about the pending release of "The Big White" starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Alison Lohman, Giovanni Ribisi, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, among many others on October 27th, 2005. A significant portion of the movie was filmed in our stunningly beautiful Yukon. It brings to mind a few experiences participating in the production as an extra and meeting Robin Williams himself.

It all started with submitting both my father's and my own photo profiles to an e-mail solicitation seeking snowmobilers as extras. I promptly received a follow up e-mail asking for a photo showing "more Yukon bush looking ie: old, beat up, snowmachines". Perfect! All I owned was 1 sad looking, beaten up, vintage Polaris, affectionately termed "Bomber".
Apparently they had a hard time getting old looking machines, as most snowmobiliers own the newest of flashy models.

A phone call followed this time, informing me that they were selecting only my father as an extra since he matched the "Yukon snowmobile gang party type". Unfortunately, I was too clean cut for their liking. So I obliged to pass along the news to my father, and drew joy from the fact that at least one of us were selected.

Then the second phone call came the following day. "Hi, Samson? Ummm.....yeah.....I've just found out that Lewis, your father, is Deaf. Is this correct?". "Yep" I replied. "Uhhh.....well....we were wondering how we would go about doing this. As there is alot of verbal instructions from the director, and assistants on set." "No problem!" I gleefully continued, "I can come along to interpret." There was a moment of silence, then "Uhhhh....well....That IS a problem actually." And the tone shifted "There is a high level of security. Access around the set is very limited, and select. We can't have extra bodies around that shouldn't be there." "Gee" I said, "It'd be a shame if he didn't get the part because he's Deaf". "No. No. That won't be happening. We just need to figure something out. We'll call you back."

The fateful follow up call basically surmised that if there was to be an extra body around, it might as well be on a snowmachine. Thus, my foot was in the door. I was told to grow a beard and look generally "scruffy" in 2 weeks time.

We started our 2 hour drive to the White Pass Summit at 6:00 a.m. a couple of weeks later with our "Yukon" snowmachines in tow.

It was truly an experience I would've wanted to share with my father the most. Being on a movie set together that is. As we used to travel the country with Canadian Deaf Theatre starting when I was ten. My parents would perform Mime Artistry for school and evening performances alike. That's when I first started interpreting for an actual salary. Now I was being asked to interpret American Sign Language while performing as an extra on a snowmachine. Stranger things have been done I suppose.

Screened at the first checkoff point, they asked us to pull the truck up onto a road pulloff that overlooked a massive gulley between the American and Canadian borders (Fraser & White Pass). After signing waivers, we were asked to unload our sleds, and this is the first time we laid eyes on eachother as extras. They sure found the "snowmobile gang party type" they were looking for. During props analysis, they were fully satisfied with the way me and my father looked. I wasn't sure how to take that.

When we finally made it to set, consistency photo were taken. Then when everyone was generally in place, the filming began. Someone who was introduced as an Assistant Director starts off with 'OK, so, what we want to do is have you ride around in a generally reckless and dangerous manner. Well, not so that you're actually going to hurt yourself. But as dangerous as you can make it without putting yourself in harm. OK? We want the look of general chaos and confusion, as people are running around, and you guys are rowdies on your snowmachines. Got me? Any questions? ". At this point, I am surveying the scene: Ambulances, Tow Truck, Vehicles, Snowmachines, No Helmets, No Robin, General Chaos. What exactly did I sign us up for ? Guess we'll give a whirl. After interpreting the instructions to my father, an assistant director points me out. "You. Ride with that guy (points at my Dad), so that you can interpret for him." I replied " Are you serious? He's like 250 pounds and riding a 1 seater." After a brief pause, the A.D. realized the impossibility of the request. "OK, ride your own, but make sure he knows what is going on." 'No problem" I replied with a thumbs up.

After filming the scens of us riding around like maniacs and taking jumps off the death drops into the gulley repeatedly, they called it a day. Everyone packed up and cleared out to base camp below where all the food, tent, and heat awaited. I took the opportunity to take some pictures (posted under Albums., as we were told no cameras on set. More like no Robin.

There was always tomorrow though.

We were on the road again at 6:00 a.m. the following morning. Headed for the Skagway/White Pass Summit and our final day of shooting for "The Big White" as rough looking local snowmobiliers.

Upon our arrival we were told to pull off to the side of the road as we would be riding our snowmachines down into the gulley, over a frozen lake, and to the bottom of a cliff (Pics under "Albums"). It was affectionately termed the "Dead Body Scene".

The snowmobile "gang" of extras, including us, helped port personnel, supplies, and even the dead body on skids to the set with our machines. It was funny to see some people's body language after they made the mistake of taking up one's inviting offer of "Need a ride to set?".

Tents, cameras, lights, people, and the scene were pretty much in place. And it wasn't long before word on the radio frenquency was that Robin Williams was on a skidoo and making his way down to the set. Robin was a crowd pleaser as soon he arrived, with the 30 or so of us gathered under a cliff. His radiant personality was inviting and comedic.

After the first couple of takes, Robin looks directly at Lewis, my father, and does the gesture of 2 fingers from his eyeballs in his direction and mouths the words, "I see you". This was to be the beginning of a fun day of improv. miming (aka gesturing), back and forth. Multiple takes later, Robin the gestures a sign and says "Perfect" after a shot was finished. My father then communicated back by doing a short mime of wiping the sweat from his brow and wringing the sweat out of his jacket. Robin took pleasure in the performance judging from his laughter, and proceeded to imitate Lewis by pretending to wring out his own jacket. At this point, most of us on the peripheral realized a special connection existed between the two that both, and some of us observant enough, were genuinely enjoying. After a take later in the day, Robin was close enough to Dad at one point, he realized the face and whiskers of the raccoon pelt were affixed to the front of his "Davy Crockett" hat. He pointed to it, laughed, and started to mime the raccoon face as a savage claw hand. Dad imiated his claw hand, and made it come out of his stomach, a-la "Alien". Robin howled as they continually warped the story back and forth by gesturing.

With Robin's constant improv-ing throughout the shoot, it was invigorating, considering that most were exhausted towards midday with the repeated takes. Robin made the day go by quicker, and lifted morale all around the set with his antics. The line "What kind of animal does something like that?" was far too inviting for Robin, as he had all of us hysterical with laughter doing his alternate takes. Even going so far as to have his character answer his own question by rhetorically asking "A gay ferret?". truly a master of improv.

After a long day of filming, the dark clouds started to roll in along with strong winds. It wasn't long before snow started to fly, and people were getting cold. They decided to call it a day about 9:00 p.m.. Robin mingled around and chatted with the director while the set was disassembled and people were being ported. When the crowd died down to just a few of us including the director, Mark Mylod, my father approached Robin with me at his side to interpret from American Sign Language into English. He signed "It truly was a pleasure working with you Robin. I'd like to introduce you my son, Samson". Robin smiled, quickly took off his glove (quicker than I could think to), shook my hand and said "It's an honour". I was blown away. An honour to meet me, I thought? The pleasure was most certainly all mine. He asked "Did you bring a camera?". I responded with a quick "No", as we were instructed not to bring cameras to the set. Then my father continued, "I used to be invloved in Mime artistry for quite some time. I understand that you were too, back in San Francisco." Robin smiled and acknowledged him, but after watching him sign and me interpret, replied "I know the sign for bullshit" and displayed it with "emphasis" to us. He then noticed that my father's hat not only had the raccoon face and whiskers, but a special surprise for those observant enough. Robin said with laughter, "It even has paws!". A designated porter arrived for Robin, and he was on his way. But not before mimicing Lewis one last time on the power of a snowmachine and how the front end rises when held full throttle. Then with a high five to Lewis, he went by on the machine and was gone about as fast as he had appeared.

Show business is not as glamourous as it appears, especially when there are 500 pound skidoos invloved. Robin brought such a glowing peronality to the set, it would've been a much longer, labourous day, that I dont think many would've lasted as late as we did, without his positive spirit there.

What a great time and experience. And here's the most down to earth, humble, and nicest people one could ever work with. Hats off to the Yukon Film Commission and the local industry players for pulling off the impossible. Hollywood in the White Pass Summit, who would've imagined it?".

Robin's assistant asked Samson for permission to add this story to Robin's website.

Hope you all enjoy to read this. Merry Christmas.

All the Best,
Lewis Hartland,
Land of the Magical & Mystery