by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Brian Presley worked in front of the camera for more than twenty years before finally getting an opportunity to write and direct his own feature film. The Great Alaskan Race tells the story of a group of mushers that traveled 700 miles over a treacherous terrain to save the children of Nome, Alaska, from a deadly epidemic.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Brian to talk about how he brought his film to the screen, as well as his creative process.
John Bucher: Tell me about how this story came to your attention and how The Great Alaskan Race came to be.
Brian Presley: I feel like my calling in the business is to tell stories of inspiration, stories of hope, stories that can bridge a faith-based world and a secular world together around a story similar to The Great Alaskan Race. And so, I had a friend of mine probably about nine, ten years ago — he said, “I can’t believe this has never been made, dogs saving kids’ lives.” And I immediately spent a few days researching it, called him back and said, “You’re 100% correct, this movie should be made.” I began to figure out how to craft the story and all the details that went into it and realized really quickly that Leonhard Seppala and Togo were really the forgotten heroes. It’s a true miracle story. There was no other explanation for it.
John Bucher: You told a story that had a lot of challenges to bring to the screen. It’s a period piece that takes place in the 1920s. Obviously the Alaskan weather and the snow are difficult to work in. You worked with animals and children. It seems like every possible challenge you could bring to a film project, you were willing to take on.
Brian Presley: I had everybody in town tell me that I’ll never be able to make this movie. I need to give it up. I’m a first-time director who’s in front of the camera as well. Dogs, kids, snow, wolves, bears, period piece… So for me I believed I could tell this story and I don’t take no for an answer.
It definitely had its challenges. I scouted all over the country. We’re an independent film company and we don’t have Disney or Warner Brothers money. We had to find creative solutions and one of the hardest things is finding the correct dog, finding period structures, period everything. We found that all that in Silverton, Colorado, and it was the perfect place for this movie to be made. The snow was real. The storms were real. It’s avalanche country there. We hunkered down for three months and we got it made.
John Bucher: You also brought in quite a collection of film and television veterans, from Treat Williams to Henry Thomas. Can you talk about how you assembled the right team and the right cast together to tell this story?
Brian Presley: As the writer-director, what I love about movie making is that every little detail is important. And that’s what makes it fun. In any movie casting is 90% of it. Making sure you have the correct people in the correct roles. I knew what I had visually wanted and when we had the opportunity to get Henry Thomas, I wanted that character of Thompson to be likable. Where we don’t hate the guy, we’re actually saying, “Okay, there’s some logic to what he’s saying.” Henry Thomas just presented that in general. Bruce Davison came in and knocked it out of the park as well.
Having Brad Leland and Treat Williams… they were anchors of the town. I wanted the mayor of Nome, Brad Leland’s character, to feel like everybody’s grandpa, and the same with Treat, in a different way. I was really lucky to have a great cast and I’m very thankful for the cast that I had.
John Bucher: One of the things that our readers are most interested in is the creative process itself with how someone creates a project. Being the writer on this project, can you tell us about your writing style? Are you a guy that gets up early in the morning and writes? Are you somebody who writes throughout the day? Do you get in and knock it out? Do you take on a little each day? What does your writing process look like?
Brian Presley: Usually when I start writing, I have a general premise of, “Okay, here’s in two sentences what the movie’s about.” I’ll let it simmer for a while and then usually I just sit down and I start. I like to write at night I feel like late at night is my creative space. And I also like to do it early morning. During the day, it’s hard because of different distractions. Once I get in the zone, I like to allow the creative thoughts and freedom to come. My advice to any writer is trust your instinct and if you’re not sure, go try to flesh that direction out and you can always change it. Make clear choices and decisions.
Everybody’s got their process. That’s mine. Remaining open minded, not being married to an idea, because a lot of times, we’d get to location and it wasn’t quite how I thought it was when I wrote it. You’ve got to make adjustments on the go.
John Bucher: You’re someone who wrote, directed, and starred in this piece and you’ve managed to pick your project and get it out into theaters. That’s going to be inspiring to a lot of creators. What would you say to the folks out there that have projects where they’re trying to do the same thing?
Brian Presley: What I would say to people is don’t take no for an answer. I’ve been in business 22 years. Hollywood — it’s good when it’s good but it can also kick you in the butt. A town full of no, no, no, no. And for me, what’s gotten me through is my passion for storytelling, my passion for filmmaking, and not taking no for an answer.
Kurt Russell once told me if you see the movie in your head then you should be the one to tell the story, and I really didn’t ever let that go. I had opportunities to sell this script over the years. I trusted my own instincts and my persistence and was always trying to find a way.
The Great Alaskan Race hits theaters on October 25, 2019.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.