Directed by Ericson Core and written by Tom Flynn, the original Disney+ movie Togo explores the untold story of the strength, courage and determination of one man, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), and his lead sled dog Togo, who set out across the treacherous terrain of the Alaskan tundra in the winter of 1925. Undaunted by the massive storm heading their way and against his wife Constance’s (Julianne Nicholson) better judgement, veteran musher Seppala will push Togo and his entire dog sled team to the limits, in order to help his town.
During the film’s Los Angeles press day, co-stars Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson talked about what interested them in this incredible and inspiring story, the relationship between their characters, what they learned about the real-life Seppala family, the experience of working with the dogs, the challenges of this shoot, how moved they were by the film, and how we consume media and whether that works to our advantage.
*Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed*
Question: How did you guys come to this project, and what made you want to do it?
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: I was sent the script, and I knew that Willem [Dafoe] was attached to play Leonhard Seppala, which was very exciting to me ‘cause I’ve been a big fan of his, for many years. And then, I loved the story. It’s a true story that I had never heard of. I had seen Balto’s statue in New York, countless times, when I lived there and we’d go in Central Park. And so, to make a discovery like this felt exciting. I also loved how Constance was portrayed and how this relationship was portrayed as an equal partnership and a loving relationship, but where there are disagreements and that they could get through them. I thought that was exciting.
WILLEM DAFOE: For me, it was basically the same. I met (director) Ericson Core, before I even read the script, and the way he talked about it was very compelling. He started out as cinema photographer, before becoming a director. He’s also a mountaineer and a wilderness first responder, so he knows nature. He also has a personal connection to animals. He had a wolf for 12 years. So, these themes really resonated with him, and I’m sure he worked a lot with Tom Flynn, to develop the script. I don’t know that for a fact, but he had a real stake in the story. And then, I started to research about Leonhard Seppala, and he’s an interesting character. I also learned that Julianne [Nicholson] was involved and that was good, I knew where we were going to shoot, and I knew I was going to have to learn how to mush. All of those things were attractive. So, it was very clear. I didn’t agonize over whether to do it or not.
When you were doing your research, what was something interesting that you learned about the real-life Seppala family?
DAFOE: He was very small. I kind of look like him. I’m pretty energetic and pretty athletic, but I thought, maybe I’m too old for this? And then, I started looking at pictures of him and seeing how old he was when he did this stuff, and I thought, “No, this is okay. This is good.” I liked the fact that they were both immigrants that had come to a new land, and they were a frontier couple. The writing was good and our scenes were good. She’s a strong character, and he’s an interesting character because he’s had some disappointment in his life, he’s come there to make his fortune, and it turns out to be a dud, at least initially. And then, he finds himself becoming a good racer, and he comes into this situation where he can do something heroic. That’s an interesting arc.
NICHOLSON: I would have liked to have known more about Constance. We learned that she was a waitress, at one point. That made me wonder, “Where did they meet? Where did she waitress?”
How was it, working with all the dogs, and how many different Togos are there?
NICHOLSON: We had one main actor dog for Togo. His name is Diesel.
DAFOE: He’s a real descendant of Togo, which is probably why he got the job.
NICHOLSON: But then, there were a couple of different puppies, playing the Togo puppy. And then, the dog sled dogs were around. There’s a company working up there, called Snow Animals, and they were around a lot. It was pretty amazing to have that energy around. And Diesel, himself, could bring up some challenges, depending on his mood.
How long was this shoot?
DAFOE: It was really long because of weather and animals. Sometimes it’s slow. There were some days when we were shooting at 8,000 feet, in the dead of winter, in remote places. There was one location where we probably spent four or five hours getting to the location, and then, once you get there, through a series of cars, snowmobiles, climbing and ropes, you can only shoot for a small amount of hours because the sun sets around three and you’ve gotta get off that mountain with the equipment and everything. It’s dangerous because the weather may come and you might get stuck up there, and then you’ve got a real problem. We worked very hard. It was about five months. We were shooting in lots of different locations and in different kinds of weather. Early in October, we got two feet of snow. And then, there was a period in January, where we didn’t get any snow. That affected the schedule, as well.
The cinematography in this film is incredible.
DAFOE: Not only did Ericson direct, but he was cinematographer and he operated [the camera] a lot. And some of this stuff was really challenging because you’re dealing with a dog sled team, which was sometimes eleven strong dogs. I was driving, and they were in various contraptions, driving along with us. It was a little dicey sometimes because of terrain, and the dogs don’t love these machines. Sometimes they’d get scared, sometimes they didn’t go in the right direction, and sometimes I couldn’t control them. There were lots of variables. But given that, he did fantastically. It was just beautiful terrain.
NICHOLSON: He had inspiration books, and he wanted to separate the different years and experiences. When you see Willem out on the trail, there are blue and sepia tones that are really different from when you see us back in our earlier days and in our cabin, where it’s much warmer and there’s a lightness to it. That was very conscious on his part. He took a lot of care with how this was filmed.
This is such a moving story. Did you guys cry, when you saw this?
DAFOE: We were moved when we were doing it. Sometimes, as the character, you can’t allow yourself to cry.
NICHOLSON: When I watched it, I was really moved. I cried, at the end, and so did my daughter. I was really surprised, actually. Knowing the story, you think I’d be prepared for what was coming, but I thought they handled it so beautifully. I was watching and enjoying the whole thing, for all of the different things that are there – the action, the adventure, the stunning visual landscape. It was a slow burn for me, watching the development of that relationship, and then that leaving. That passing can be for your animal, for your grandfather, for your mother, or for someone who is not there anymore. That’s big and goes beyond a relationship with an animal. So, I was not pretty crying, which was fun. My daughter was crying and my son was crying, but my husband kept it together. I was really moved by the whole thing.
DAFOE: Because it’s so elemental, set in nature and set in isolation with animals, in the natural world, it becomes a really strong meditation on our lives and how we conduct them, the relationships we have, and what our ambitions are compared to the resources we have. I think it’ll resonate with people.
The scope of this movie is huge. Since this is something you did for Disney+, where do you think the future is going, in terms of how we consume media?
DAFOE: The future is here. We consume it in all kinds of ways. I still love the experience of going into a dark room with strangers and watching a movie, not even because of the size, but more socially. It allows you to commit, when you go there and you have to go to the movie, rather than the movie coming to you. That’s ideal. But if you can’t have that, there are advantages to watching movies in your house. That’s the way most people do it. The only problem with that is that sometimes the person has too much control. They can’t submit to the experience, in the same way. It doesn’t have to do with the size of the screen. It has to do with the fact that they’re God. At the same time, there are advantages, too. If you’re living in a small town in Iowa and you don’t have a theater near you, but you can get Disney+, you’re going to see this movie, and you can see it with people in your family, which might be a great experience, too. You try to be an optimist. I’m old school. I love going to the theater, but a lot of people don’t watch movies that way, for various reasons. The main thing is, when we were making this movie, we were making a movie and trying to make the best movie we could. There was nothing in how it was shot that anticipated that it was going to be watched on a TV monitor. It was shot like it was going to be shown on a big screen. So, you do the best with what you have, and how people see it is not my fight, specifically. My fight is to make the best movie I can.
Togo is available to stream at Disney+ on December 20th. You can read Matt Goldberg’s review here.