Harrison Ford talks about acting with a human dog and credits others with his success
As Harrison Ford and director Chris Sanders tell Gemma Dunn about making their adaptation of Jack London classic The Call of the Wild, the veteran Hollywood actor puts his own super-stardom down to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg
HARRISON Ford was initially attracted to The Call of the Wild for two reasons. First, the 77-year-old Hollywood veteran liked the prospect of a picture for younger audiences; and second, he was intrigued by how the creators would fashion its furry title character and canine chums.
The adventure epic – based on Jack London's beloved literary classic of the same name – tells the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog whose domestic life is turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted from his California home to the exotic wilds of the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s.
As the newest rookie on a mail delivery dog sled team – and later its leader – Buck embarks on an extraordinary coming-of-age journey that will lead him to ultimately discover his true place in the world.
Ford takes the role of John Thornton in the tale, an experienced gold miner who later goes on to become Buck's master.
"I've had dogs all my life!" quips the Academy Award nominee. "I've got all kinds and sizes right now; we have three dogs in our family, very small dogs and, yes, they do sleep on the bed!
"But one of the most interesting details of shooting this film is that there were no dogs to work with – there was a human stand-in for Buck to organise my eye-line and to give me someone to participate with emotionally.
"It was at first a bit challenging, but then became quite good fun!"
To bring the animals to life, the reimagined 21st century version of the hit – directed by Chris Sanders – is a hybrid of live action and animated film-making.
The reins behind the lovable Buck, then, is seasoned motion-capture artist Terry Notary.
"He's a former Cirque du Soleil gymnast and he's able to replicate the movements of the dog!" Harrison recalls. "But for me, and the intimate scenes we had together, he served as something to bounce the emotions off of.
"I spent more time with Terry than I did with anyone else!" says the Chicago native, who stars alongside the likes of Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan and Cara Gee.
"The opportunity was to make the dogs, and particularly Buck, a real character," Sanders explains. "But we had to work out was how expressive he should be, [for] the idea is to not necessarily convince [the audience] he's real, but to make them fall in love with him as a character and invest in him."
He continues: "We have some wonderful sequences with just Buck and these dogs, and those were some of the moments I was most excited to get into.
"That's the realm I come from," he adds, having made a name for himself co-writing and directing Disney's Lilo & Stitch and DreamWorks' How To Train Your Dragon. "So I know that these make magical, enduring moments."
As for Thornton, Sanders "knew pretty early on" Ford would play the outdoorsman.
"Harrison brings a huge amount to the party; he's very creative, he's a writer himself and a very inventive actor, so he created an entire backstory.
"[So while] Thornton, from the novel, is interested in treasure, Harrison wanted to make a substantive change from that," he says. "Our Thornton, although he finds gold, is out there for the adventure; he's out there to fulfil a journey that he was going to take with his son but he was never able to."
"It was part of my ambition to change that part of it because I didn't think it created the emotional context that we were hoping for at the end of the film," Ford says of his reworking.
"We were determined to create a story for Thornton that would allow us to demonstrate to the audience what Thornton had learned from Buck.
"I wanted a parallel in their stories," he adds. "So as Buck was reaching his destiny and hearing the call of the wild, the relationship they had and companionship was allowing Thornton to get out of his mental stranglehold and have the courage to face messy issues in his own life.
"I was touched by that journey and the relationship between these two characters."
Sanders adds: "I think the reason that this story endures is that it's a parable for life; it's not a fairy tale.
"We're all going to grow up, we're all going to be compelled to leave home and go out into the world. But as Buck has his adventures and his mishaps, it's the way that he deals with them that defines his character. And that's something that we'll all experience in our own lives."
"One of the things I am always looking for in a project is what I call an emotional exercise for the audience," Ford says. "A chance to participate in a story where they recognise themselves and generate the power of emotional understanding in the audience."
Next, Ford – best known for having created two of the most popular big-screen heroes in motion picture history, Star Wars' Hans Solo and Raiders of the Lost Ark's Indiana Jones – is set to executive produce and star in TV drama The Staircase, a docu-series following the murder trial of American novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of killing his wife.
That, in addition to reprising his famed role as Jones for a fifth film directed by Steven Spielberg in 2021.
It's an impressive six-decade career, and counting. But what does he make of his own stellar success?
"Success has been very important to giving me options in my life; I am very grateful for that," he says. "I didn't want to become an actor to become rich and famous, I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to do that job. I wanted to be able to live different lives, learn about different people and their lives. I wanted to tell stories, powerful stories, and I've got, happily, the opportunity to do that because I was part of other people's success.
"I was part of George Lucas's success, I was part of Steven Spielberg's success," he adds. "And that allowed me opportunities I never would have had."
:: The Call of the Wild is available on digital download now and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 15.