Whiteout (2009): Dominic Sena’s Antarctica Thriller, Starring Kate Beckinsale

Based on the 1998 comic book of the same name by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, Whiteout is credited to director Dominic Sena, but Stuart Baird and Len Wiseman (uncredited) reshot many scenes.
Kate Beckinsale plays Special Deputy U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko, about to leave in days. After finding a dead body, Stetko is attacked by a masked killer who is trying to get hold of the cargo in an old Soviet plane that crash-landed in the ice during the Cold War.
About two hours from Winnipeg, the “Whiteout” set took over a spit of private land jutting into Lake Manitoba that offered multiple shooting angles guaranteed not to catch a tree line or hint of cityscape. Best of all, the shallow lake provided four feet of solid ice. The downside, Don Carmody explains, was that everything had to be brought in, “from gear to steel beams to Porta-Potties. There was no electricity, nothing.” The first arrivals laid roads and an air strip so the rest of the crew could get in.

Grace Walker, marking his fifth collaboration with producer Joel Silver on “Whiteout,” notes that the producer is always looking for “something fresh, something that hasn’t been seen before.” This gave him some creative leeway in presenting the American Antarctic base, especially inside.

“In keeping with the almost lunar landscape at the South Pole, the idea was to build a research center that looked a little like you would imagine a space colony to look like,” says Silver.

Thinking “modern but functional and industrial,” Walker used floor tiles on the walls, with exposed piping and stainless steel to get good reflections. “The walls are primarily pinboard, appropriately lightweight and cheap to take to the South Pole. By comparison, Vostok is older and shabbier with a 1960s or ’70s vibe, which is true to life because Vostok doesn’t have the funds the Americans have for their base. There were no practical locations, every scene in the movie is something we created from scratch,” the designer says, adding that the first floor was a physical set but the upper levels, where no action takes place, were CGI extensions.

“The challenge was timing,” Downey explains. “Gimli gets so frigid at a certain time of year that nails just shatter when they’re hit by a hammer. At the other end of the schedule, beyond a certain period, the lake begins to melt under you.”

“Of course, it was our luck that Manitoba was having the warmest winter on record,” Sena laughs, though emphasizing that “warm” is a relative term. He and cinematographer Chris Soos had to rely on cameras specially oiled to resist freezing, with special heating units attached to each magazine just to keep the film running.

The construction crew–a combined force of set specialists and local carpenters–faced a number of interesting logistical problems: equipment would freeze and stop working, cables would crack, high winds struck down newly raised walls, supply trucks got stuck in the snow and generators seized. In addition, the lake bed was too fragile to support the weight of standard cranes so the visiting team learned from the locals how to rig Bobcats to hoist siding into place.

Trucks delivering bolts or wall panels and larger pieces built in warehouses in Winnipeg often got delayed in transit. “There was always at least one tow truck bringing up the rear when we traveled to the set because invariably one of the convoy would slide off the road and need to be retrieved,” Sena recalls.

Oddly, in a place where cold was taken for granted, one of the biggest issues was spot-thawing, which wreaked havoc on the newly constructed sets. The temperature might be minus-30, but if the sun came out and hit the steel beams they would soak it up. That, plus the weight of the steel itself, would begin to melt the foundation they rested upon just enough to shift the whole structure. Ultimately, the steel was insulated against the sun’s rays, and foundations shored up with gravel.

Striking sets and moving out was another race against the clock with its own perverse humor. Says lead carpenter Tony Parkin, “A day before we got word to pull the set down, the weather changed from minus-15 to plus-2 and it rained. We could have traded our overalls for skin-diving suits for the amount of water that suddenly appeared. The whole place turned into a marsh and we were constantly sinking. At one point we had three trucks hooked up to each other and a crane to pull the first truck out of the mud.”

Volunteers from the nearby communities of Gimli and Eriksdale lent their help, and portions of the set not earmarked for additional filming were left in their hands to be recycled into a planned daycare center. The crew also took care not to leave anything behind that could end up in the lake and be toxic to fish and other wildlife.

Production then moved the outdoors indoors, transporting and recreating the pieces of their set like a giant jigsaw puzzle on soundstages in Montreal.

“We wanted the big whiteout storm scene on stage where we could control it and that meant moving the foundations of four interconnecting buildings–the station and airplane hangar–to Montreal. We then used giant fans to blast them with fake snow, really beat them up with tons of salt,” says Sena.

The special effects crew created a variety of indoor snow: some lightweight for blowing in the background, some in blanket form, some designed for having boots sunk into and some to blow onto the actors. Additionally, 120 tons of sand was mounded up and covered with 12 tons of salt to create giant drifts.

By Gabriel Macht’s estimation, it was the artificial snow that caused more difficulty than anything they had encountered on the Gimli ice, mainly because it tended to adhere to skin. “Some scenes required a lot of physical exertion and that meant heavy breathing, so we needed to keep our passages open. The stuff got into our mouths and ears and up our noses. There was no avoiding it.”

Fellow faux-snow victim Alex O’Loughlin offers his own take on it. “It’s starch and salt, so you felt like you’d been rolling around in pizza dough all day.”

Whether manufacturing snow, building sets on a frozen lake or staging a full-scale whiteout, every effort was made to offer entry into a world that few will ever experience.

Says Sena. “Rather than taking a stylized approach, I wanted to bring this story to the screen in a realistic way and present this environment as true to life. Antarctica is such an unforgiving place, and the whiteout is a powerful phenomenon. When those things hit you can’t see three feet in front of you and your life expectancy can drop to minutes. It really makes a compelling setting for a mystery.”

“The idea was to transport audiences to Antarctica. We want them to feel the cold, the fear, the isolation and the will to survive in this extraordinarily difficult and alien environment,” says Silver, before advising with a smile: “Better bring a sweater.”