The True Story of 'Togo': Inside Disney+'s Sled Dog Drama Starring Willem Dafoe (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Quick! Name the most heroic sled dog in history.
Balto is probably the first name to come to mind, thanks in large part to an animated movie of the same name from the '90s. But it's time another got his due: Togo, the underdog Siberian husky whose untold true story is finally being made known with his own Disney+ film.
Both Balto and Togo were part of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska, where a diphtheria outbreak plagued the town's children. With the port closed and inclement weather making any other method of transportation impossible, Nome's only hope was its dog sled team. Balto ran the final leg of the run, while Togo led the team over the longest and most treacherous stretch of the 600-mile journey. Togo tells his story, as well as that of the Norwegian musher at the reins, Leonhard Seppala (played by Willem Dafoe).
The movie is as much an epic of man versus nature -- with Seppala and Togo's team enduring near-blizzard storms and 40-below temperatures -- as it is about the bond between man and man's best friend. That it will stream on Disney+ begs one particularly important question:
How does it feel to be sharing a streaming service with Baby Yoda?
"I haven't watched that yet, so I don't know!" director Ericson Core laughed. (Though, he assured me, I hadn't spoiled Baby Yoda for him: "I'm waiting, my son and I are going to watch it together.") "Disney is a juggernaut and has put together probably the most powerful streaming service out there, so it's great to be a part of it. It's in its infancy, but it's growing like a monster every day." Ahead of Togo's release this week, Core phoned ET to discuss shooting in an actual tundra, his relationship with his own wolf dog and being part of the Dafoenaissance.
Do you have an ideal Disney+ viewing experience for people watching Togo?
Ericson Core: It's interesting. My past two films -- including Invincible, which was for Disney -- were theatrical releases. As a filmmaker, it's always the hope that you have a theatrical release because people viewing it in a group audience is really a very special circumstance. However, the truth is the marketplace and the audiences for these inspirational films -- the things that used to get made all the time and put out in the theaters, as Invincible was and was number one at the box office the two weeks it was out -- doesn't exist as much anymore. There was always that conversation that digital media was going to take over the theatrical experience at some point, and I think it's upon us.
Frankly, one of the advantages of it is that we get that slow burn that you don't otherwise get. A film like this, I think is really going to affect people in a big way and word of mouth is going to do a lot for it. When you're trying to get into a theater, you've got to be incredibly competitive or you're out. So it's nice that I know that it's going to live for a long time on the service, and I think people will arrive at it in a different way. It's new to me and I'll have to see how it all goes. But it certainly seems like it's the new way and the best way to get our stories told and seen.
I like, too, that you could watch this and The Lighthouse back-to-back and have the oddest Willem Dafoe double feature of all time.
That would probably be a weird double feature, for sure. But Willem does transcend genre. He's done so much work over the course of his career and he's really coming into a renaissance period of his work. He's been recognized so much recently, as he should be. He's one of our greatest actors working right now. It was such a pleasure, and it helped elevate Togo so much to have someone of Willem's stature and sensibility in the movie.
I have to assume part of why you make a movie like this is that you're an animal person. But what was it that drew you to this story and made you want to direct this project in particular?
It was brought to me by Sean Bailey, the president of Disney, We had developed a film after I did Invincible -- a film that he wrote and was producing called Liberty -- which ultimately never got made. But Sean got to know me pretty well, and he also got to know my wolf. He was an Arctic wolf-timber wolf mix -- very much this massive, 185-pound wolf -- and he was with me in the editing room as we did Invincible. So Sean would come by and we'd talk about the next project, and he would see my wolf all the time and really understood my relationship with him, which is a unique one. It's slightly different than a dog-owner relationship. It was more like roommates. [Laughs]
What was his name?
Shalako, which is a Zuni Indian word for the spirit that comes down from the mountains and blesses the new home in winter, which he was. My wife and I got him in the winter when we bought our first home and could finally have a dog. And Sean was regaled with stories of his misdeeds and how I wanted to give him away as a puppy because he was so intense -- a nuclear explosion in a fur coat, basically -- and was just of his own mindset. I had to learn how to meld to him more than he had to me. But I learned more about instincts and caring and love from him than probably any other living thing in my life.
And so Sean knew that, and he saw my work on Invincible -- that inspirational drama-type work -- and the crazy action that I did in Point Break, where we went around the world and were off of cliffs and oceans and mountains and all the rest of it, and he thought that I would be a good person for the film. And it was right up my alley. At its heart, it's an inspirational drama -- people overcoming incredible odds to survive something -- but also a very intimate tale, as well as being epic. I was a mountain guide for a number of years, and I have a deep, avid love for the outdoors, and a film like this needs to take someone who loves that. Because this is not a studio picture. We didn't shoot on stages. We did no green screen work. We did none of that.
We shot in the actual environment. So if Willem and Togo were out there freezing at minus 40 degrees, I was right there with them with a camera. We were on mountains, we were on frozen lakes, we were in wind-swept areas. If you don't have a love for it, it's very hard to survive in those circumstances, let alone make a film. Beyond that, it had a lot to do with the emotional integrity of the script. I cried reading it. It was an incredibly emotional script, and that doesn't happen that often off the script, where you get that attached to a movie. It just completely broke me. It's a very truthful and deep and grounded film, and a true emotional journey for the character, Seppala, that Willem plays. I could see that right away.
For another director, some of these things you've mentioned -- the extreme weather conditions, working with animals -- might have been worrisome. Was there anything you were anxious about going into this? Or anything you thought would be particularly challenging?
Of course! Going back to film school, the old adage is, "Don't work in weather, with dogs or children." And this film is about children being affected by diphtheria and the storm of the century and there are dogs throughout it. But the heart of it, the drama of it was so strong that it supersedes all those other concerns. The outdoors and being in extreme environments is something I actually thrive in. I love that. I knew it would be very daunting and I'm a Southern California kid, so being at minus 40 temperatures is not necessarily the thing I was excited about, but I was up to the challenge. I think in today's world, where we do so much green screen work and so much manipulated CG work in films, the real sense of peril, the real sense of things is diminished because everyone knows that it's created. To do it in a real place and real circumstances, and having Willem in those circumstances, I think adds an incredible grounding to the story.
The dogs were concerning to me. I mean, I love animals and I love dogs so much. And of course, by having a wolf who would make any dog seem like the perfectly behaved pet and after having a wild animal in my life for 14 years, I was up for it. But that's always a big challenge and takes an unbelievable amount of patience, patience that I did not know that I had. But the puppies were incredible. Our dog trainers were incredible. And the dogs were so lovely, their passion for wanting to run on a sled and how excited they were for that, but also that they were all about love. The dogs would be on the sled ready to go but the moment they stopped, they'd flip over and put their bellies up, wanting belly rubs, and would rub up against you and not let you leave. There was a lot of heart and love with those animals. That was actually quite cool. It will be really a bummer to make another film without that love and enthusiasm on set.
And we're getting to the point with technology where some movies are opting to just use CGI dogs and avoid some of those on-set challenges. Why was it important to you that you use real dogs in this?
I would argue that point slightly, only because I don't think CGI dogs look the same yet. Look, in moments of peril or places where you really need to use CGI dogs, of course. But when it's used as a default, I don't think it's as powerful, frankly. I do think there are beautiful movies that tell great emotional stories -- certainly, with Jungle Book and Lion King, Jon Favreau did brilliant, brilliant work -- but I think there's something about the real human connection. And some of what is natural and human is rough edges. It's real animals. They're not always looking at you, they're not always in exactly the right place, but their heart is there. And we tried very hard in this particular film to ground in the truth. I hope that we made a great movie in all the wonderful Disney traditions of telling a wonderfully beautiful, inspiring story, but did it in a very grounded, truthful way, which will help it resonate for a long time.
Did Willem get to spend time with the dogs ahead of the shoot? How did he go about bonding with them?
Willem's the hardest working actor I've ever met, truly. I don't know if Willem knew that he had a trailer because he was never in it. He was out on set all the time. He would show up and someone would say, "Willem's on set." And I'm like, "Yeah, but we just got here! We need to build things." But Willem would come up and say, "What are we up to? What are we doing?" He would be feeding the dogs. He would be taking care of the dogs with the mushers. He was up there two weeks prior to filming and we did a lot of script analysis and talking about the character and the film itself, and I did quite a bit of rehearsal with him and Julianne Nicholson.
Another part of Willem's time was spent simply with the dog sled teams, getting to know the dogs, getting to know what it's like to be a musher, what the tasks at hand are. And Willem loves active doing. He wants to be part of what the world is. So he really just fell into it. As much as he is an artist, he's a craftsman, and he wanted to be part of it, so he spent every minute he could doing it. That's why he was never in his trailer. If we were out there with the dogs, if we were out there setting up cameras or getting to locations, he was out there in the parka, ready to go. He wanted to be part of it.