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Willem Dafoe on His Adventure Making 'Togo'

19 Dec, 2019   
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INTERVIEWER

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LANGUAGE

English

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Original Network

Screenpicks.com

Everyone has heard the story of the famous canine Balto, whose statue resides in New York City’s Central Park, or perhaps even seen the many adaptations of the story. But Disney+ is offering us Togo — the real story behind the dog that saved the day during the 1925 serum run to Nome. Also known as the Great Race of Mercy, the run over 600 miles of frozen Alaskan tundra transported medicine to sick people in the town of Nome.
Supported by amazing visuals of the Alaskan landscape and action-packed, nail-biting CGI, Willem Dafoe shines as a legendary breeder, Leonhard Seppala, who’s also responsible for breeding Siberian Huskies as sled dogs. Dafoe brings a certain gravitas to the character and Tom Flynn’s spectacle of a screenplay. It’s almost hard to imagine this film without Dafoe as the lead.
Director Ericson Core does a terrific job hitting all the right notes in this historical underdog drama, and Disney+ is the perfect home for this heroic tale. The stunning cinematography also adds to the story. Core uses a rich mixture of blue and sepia colors to portray the bleak weather conditions, and warmer, lighter tones during the interior cabin shots. It’s easy to see that great amount of detail went into the picturesque cinematography of the Alaskan landscape.
At a recent press day, ScreenPicks got to speak with the Academy Award-nominated Willem Dafoe about the experience shooting Togo, and here is what we learned:
On the genesis of the project, Dafoe recounts that he met with Core before he even read the script. The actor said that it was Core’s passion and knowledge of the outdoors that attracted him to the project initially.
“He’s a mountaineer and was also a wilderness first responder…so he knows nature,” Dafoe said of the cinematographer turned director. “He also has a real personal connection to animals, and had a wolf for 12 years.” Dafoe explained how these themes resonated with Core, how that translated on-screen, and how he worked with Flynn to help develop the script to give it authenticity.
After researching Leonhard Seppala, Dafoe found him to be extremely interesting, so portraying him on-screen was a fairly easy choice. He was asked if he learned anything interesting while researching the Seppala family, he said he was surprised to learn how much he truly did resemble the famous breeder. “He was very small, and I kind of look like him.”
Dafoe added, due to the physical nature of the mushing, and filming in the snow, he was concerned that he was perhaps “too old” to play the role. “But then I started looking at pictures of him, and how old he was when he did this stuff, and I thought, ‘This okay. This is good.'”
The actor also said Seppala had experienced several disappointments during his life. “He comes there to make his fortune, and it turns out he’s kind of a dud, at least initially. Then he finds himself becoming a good racer, and then comes into this situation where he can be something great.”
Dafoe also said it was a real pleasure working with the dog who played Togo, Diesel. What’s even more impressive is that Disney, being the champions of authenticity that they are, even used a huskie that was a descendant of Togo’s.
There’s one tense action sequence where Dafoe delivers the bone-chilling monologue Saint Crispin’s speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V as he’s crossing a cracked frozen lake driving a dog sled. Dafoe really makes it his own, and it’s one of the most powerful sense in the film. Any viewer can tell that he truly enjoys spouting intense dialogue, and when asked about it, Dafoe claimed that elevated language can elevate how people think.
“When language is elevated like that it can elevate how you think,” Dafoe explained of his enthusiasm and on-screen energy during the sequence. “Because normal language keeps us in normal behavior, and when we use elevated language, we start to think poetically…in images.”
Togo is the underdog story of the year, and he’s racing on Disney+ starting Dec. 20th, just in time for the cozy holiday season. But buckle up, it’s one wildly touching ride.

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