Lead Dog in Lead Role

WANTED: Wolf for lead role in screenplay. Wolf must be handsome, arrogant, follow commands, have patience and be able to work with humans. Screenplay is Jack London’s The Love of Life written by Robert Gregg of Michigan. Filming set for October of 2011 in Alaska’s desolate bush country. Also need two humans for starving gold prospectors.

The human roles filled quickly but no wolves applied. What now? Contact the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota to see if one of their wild animals could handle the part? Too much risk! Next best bet would be to find a distant cousin – a dog – a sled dog – an Alaskan sled dog with a wolfy look, slow trot and aloof attitude. That’s when producers contacted Crazy Dog Kennel.

Zoya Denure and John Schandelmeier, the husband and wife team that operates the kennel were skeptical – sled dogs for acting parts as wolves – really now! But they did have Hunter. Denure describes the Iditarod and Yukon Quest leader who moves with an easy trot as tall, gray a little arrogant and very lovable. Why not give this a try? When producers received the picture of Hunter, they were thrilled at how perfect he looked for the part. But, when it comes to acting, looks aren’t everything. Hunter would have to act!

Hunter the wolf searches for food

The wolf searches for food. (Photo Zoya D)

The role of the starving wolf would include trotting slowly, looking intent, playing dead and struggling with an equally starving down and out gold prospector without actually finishing the fight. Once Hunter was picked for the role, Zoya and John addressed the skills required for the role – working off leash at a distance, playing dead and learning how to wrestle with the actor – showing teeth, growling and biting down without exerting harmful pressure. That portion of the training would be a little easier if there was some “retriever” in Hunter’s background and his ancestors were good at “soft mouth.”

Having learned his part, it was time for Hunter the wolf to meet the cast and crew on location near Delta Junction. Hunter’s portion of the shoot took place over two days and required patience and ingenuity. There are all those technical things the producer, director and film crew want to capture in just the right way. How many takes does it take to produce a movie? As many as it takes! Veteran actor, Peter Ammel from Madison Wisconsin, who played the lead and only, speaking role, understands the necessity of Take 1, 2, 3 and often more. Denure says Hunter was amazing – he had the patience to come back and do it again and again when necessary.

Creating the Gray Wolf look by Zoya D.

Creating the Gray Wolf look (Photo Zoya D)

While Hunter put his best wolf look on for the shoot, he was still a little too domestic for film director, Kevin Swigert. Time to apply some makeup to create a wild starving gray wolf look. Zoya credits Hunter as being game for it all – really patient and cooperative. The first attempt at making his face gray using a special formula of fur coloring created for poodles turned purple! Not quite what Swigert had in mind! Finally, it was common ordinary soot that created the desired look. Having previously worked as a fashion model, Zoya Denure is no stranger to makeup sessions. After more than a dozen years of modeling she left the runways of Italy and China for the runners of a sled in Alaska.

Is the big bad wolf dead?  (Photo Zoya D)

Is the big bad wolf dead? (Photo Zoya D)

Every great adventure story has conflict. In London’s The Love of Life, the conflict is between a starving gold prospector and a starving wolf who meet in the bush – miles and miles from food or other humans as the prospector makes his way back to civilization before winter sets in. Each embodied what the other needed to survive. It was a fight to the finish for survival fueled by the love of life. The struggle was the most intense scene of the movie, one that Hunter made look so life-like and real with growling, snapping and snarling that everyone on the set gasped in fear. Hunter’s acting was superb leaving the starving prospector none-the-worse for wear. GOOD DOG!

Hunter’s family – John, Zoya and their 3-year old daughter, Jona, are back at Crazy Dog Kennel preparing for upcoming races including Zoya’s Iditarod. Hunter is doing what he’s best at – official kennel greater, over seeing the dog yard, leading the puppies on training runs and taking guests on cart rides. Versatile barely describes the happy family dog rescued from a Fairbanks’ shelter back in 2005. Little Jona, Hunter’s biggest fan, was thrilled to put her dog in a movie and can hardly wait to see Hunter’s film debut.

“Love of Life” is set to premiere sometime next year (2012) in Michigan, Los Angeles and perhaps at the December 2012 Anchorage Film Festival. When the credits roll, look for Hunter and Crazy Dog Kennel. They’ll have copies for sale once the full-length feature film is released. For more on location pictures of the shoot and Denure’s story, check the Crazy Dog Kennel website at dogsleddenali. Thanks to Zoya for providing photos of Hunter.