Set to debut on Disney+, Togo tells the amazing true story of Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), a champion dogsled trainer who is tasked with delivering anti-toxin serum to the town of Nome, Alaska when a deadly epidemic strikes. Faced with impossible odds, Seppala turns to Togo, an unassuming, undersized and aging Siberian huskey to lead the mission. Viewed as the runt of the litter, Togo has been championed by Seppala’s wife, Constance (Julianne Nicholson) since his days as a mischievous puppy who could dig himself out of any situation and Seppala, having observed Togo’s loyalty and tenacious spirit, knows the lovable and courageous dog offers his only chance of surviving this mission. Asked what initially drew her to the film, star Julianne Nicholson jumped at the chance work with Dafoe and play a confident, caring woman at the same time.
“When I read it, I knew that Willem was already attached so already I was interested at the possibility. Then, I read the story and thought it was amazing. I couldn’t believe it was a true story and one that had not been told before. I really liked the relationship between Seppala and Constance. So often in a story like this, where it’s a man and his dog, the female character is sort of sitting at home and keeping the home fires burning while, in this story, I felt like they have a real partnership. She was a big part of keeping that farm running from day to day. I just liked how they listened to each other and could have differences of opinions but the love and trust were very much there.”
Of course, while working with Dafoe was an exciting aspect of the project, one of the more unique challenges was working with the dogs themselves. (As the old adage goes, you should ‘never work with kids or animals’.) Even so, Nicholson valued her time with the dogs and found working with them to be a special experience.
“It definitely brings up challenges just because, as trained as they are, it’s an animal,” she warns. “At any given moment, if it doesn’t want to do something, no one’s interested in trying to force it cause that’s never going to happen. It was kind of amazing. The puppies are so cute and could do no wrong so anything that they were doing made sense and had everybody oohing and ahh-ing every day. (Diesel, who plays Togo, was the direct descendant of Togo so that felt pretty special to have him there.) It was definitely a lesson in patience but also in staying present and being open. So, it was really fun.”
“To be around [the dogsled dogs] and watch them with their owners was really spectacular because they’re so strong, so energetic, and such athletes. When they would be hooked up to the sled, it would just be barking, jumping, [and] just totally ready to go. It’s all they wanted to do. Then they would run and, at the end, it’s a good workout. They would be just flopping around and rolling over on their backs to get their tummies scratched and falling asleep on anyone who would get near them.”
Interestingly, Nicholson notes that there were differences between the sled dogs and what they referred to as ‘Hollywood dogs’ (or those trained to act within the film industry). Asked what those were, she feels that most of the differences come down to the expectations that were being placed on the animals.
“Well, [the dogs] have different things that are being asked of them,” says Nicholson. “So, the sled dogs were basically being filmed doing what they do every day so they don’t have to do anything differently and their trainers were there. It gets trickier when you’re inside a cabin and you’re asking Diesel to walk from here to here and look at Willem for 30 to 90 seconds. That starts getting challenging. So yeah, there were definitely different needs from the different dogs.”
Though Disney is known for its many films featuring talking animals (such as Disney+’s own live-action Lady and the Tramp), Togo takes a different approach with its beloved animals. Rather than personify them, the film allows the pets to simply be themselves. In retrospect, Nicholson argues that this is also one of the key reasons that the film resonates so well with viewers.
“It’s one of the things that I love about this movie and actually why I think it’s gets under your skin,” she claims. “We’re not giving them the traits of a person. We’re letting them be animals, recognizing the beauty in that and just the openness, loyalty and the love that you get from a dog without trying to personify it.”
However, in light of this, it’s also worth noting that, although the animals may not be given ‘human’ characteristics, they are also portrayed as heroes. For example, in one moment, Constance notes that Togo has the ‘heart of a survivor’, a comment that Nicholson believes serves as an accurate description.
“Togo was the runt of the litter and nothing was really expected of him,” she explains. “Oftentimes the runt of the litter is just going to be a problem. They wouldn’t necessarily nurture the runt to help keep it around because it was just going to be weak. It was just going to be a burden. But Constance sees something in this dog that’s sort of unknowable or unnameable and that proved to be correct. What a thing, with survival of the fittest and what have you, if that’s one of the things that goes along in that, it’s valuable, “
In addition to working with Dafoe and the animals, one of the appealing aspects to working on the project for Nicholson was the chance to work with director Ericson Core. Serving also as the film’s cinematographer, Cole uses his love of nature and wealth of experience shooting the outdoors in a way that brings the film to life onscreen.
According to Nicholson, “[Ericson] has a long history and love affair as an admiration for nature and being in nature. I think he’s not only been a camper his whole life but [also gone off] the beaten path and been on his own for weeks in the wilderness. So, he really has a love for nature [itself] and man in nature. As well, he has a connection to the animal part of the story. He himself had a wolf for many years and so I think he recognized something in the relationship between Seppala and Togo. He is just an earnest, thoughtful guy. Then, also having started out as a [Director of Photography], [he had] the experience of doing action [and] incredible shots in outmost nature, so he had the experience and the heart to tell this story.”
With that in mind, one can imagine the challenges of shooting the film in the midst of the potentially harsh conditions of the Canadian Rockies. While many of her scenes take place on the home sets, Nicholson remembers that the unpredictability of weather created some difficult circumstances.
“The Canadian Rockies are breathtaking…,” she recalls. “I didn’t have much difficulty within the landscape because much of my stuff is in and around the home front but weather did create a lot of turmoil throughout. We were there in the fall and early winter and they needed those fall months to be able to show the passing of time in our story. We didn’t want it all in one season because we’re telling the story in 1913 and in 1925. Then on day three of filming in first week of October, there was snow storm that dropped two feet of snow. So suddenly our fall is gone and we had to sort of go into the cabin. So that was in my experience that found the big challenge was weather.”
In addition, Nicholson also points out that many sequences were shot with little (if any) CGI in order to maintain the sense of realism within the film.
“Willem and Ericson could speak much more to all the action stuff that they had and being on the ice,” she clarifies. “One thing I do know is that we had no green screens and very little in the way of CGI. In that ice sequence, of course, there’s some there because you can’t put our actors and the dogs in peril. But they filmed that on a frozen lake. Even if they weren’t on a stage, they weren’t doing it on asphalt and then putting it onto ice. Also, when they’re climbing up in the mountains and the sled starts going downhill, they did outside and the Canadian Rockies on the head of a cliff. They weren’t dangling, of course. They weren’t in the same predicament, but they really did much of the action practically. I think for me, when I watched it, that was so thrilling. I had read the story of course, but I didn’t, I couldn’t expect that it was going to be as breathtaking as it was.”
For full audio of our interview with Julianne Nicholson, click here.
Togo launches onto Disney+ on Friday, December 20th, 2019.