Alaska on a Shoestring
The cold facts about shooting a low-budget summer series
From TV Guide 7/21/91 (Vol 38 No. 29 Issue #1947)
By Susan Littwin
East meets North: New Yorker Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) encounters one of Alaska's natives.
"Alaska is a state of mind." That notion, uttered by an elderly hermit named Soapy Sanderson on CBS's Northern Exposure, gets to the very heart of what this new Thursday night summer series is all about. As Joshua Brand, the show's co-executive producer, expiains, the 49th state is the final frontier for a nation that has paved over every place else. "Alaska represents wlldness. It's the last unspoiled place, larger than life."
It sounds like the opening notes for a new action-adventure series, but this "Northern" isn't a Western with snow. It is a silghtly askew comedy-drama conceived by Brand and his partner, John Falsey, the creators of St. Elsewhere and A Year In the Life. Its premise is that a young Jewish doctor from New York is required to practice in a backwater town to repay a scholarship from the state of Alaska.
He and the other characters slyly poke fun at the stereotypes they suggest. The New Yorker, for instance, isn't a neurotic Woody Alien type, but a confldent, attractive flsh-out-of-water. He doesn't become a great outdoorsman. "But while the flsh is out of water, he gets to explore different points of view." says Falsey. The 18-year-old Indian who befriends the doctor is a serious film buff. The redneck developer who owns the town is an idealist of sorts. And Soapy Sanderson, the old recluse who lives in a cabin in the woods, used to be a college professor.
This is, of course, a mythic Alaska. In fact, the show's creators have yet to set foot in the reai state - their series is shot in Washington - but they have read two authoritatlve books about their subject: Joe McGinnis's Going to Extremes and John McPhee's Coming tnto the Country. They also dispatched a staffer on a research expedition. But the geographlcal and sociological accuracy of the series seems to matter less to them than the fantasy of freedom that Alaska represents. As Brand explains: "Alaska collects everything that's loose in the world. Anyone who wants to be different. to change who they are, can go to Alaska and become who they want to become." In exchange. however, newcomers must make do without a lot of the creature comforts they left behind: reliable plumbing, condos and decaf espresso.
The cast and crew of Northern Exposure know something about hardships. Early network promos for the series showed a slgn that read, "Clcely, Alaska, pop. 839." The number was an inslde joke. It referred to the $839,000 allotted each episode, an amount about 30 percent lower than the usual budget for an hour drama In the regular season. "Productlon-wise, this has been a miserable experlence for everyone," says Falsey "It's really hard and really tough."
A month into filming, you can feel the wearlness on the set. A small airplane Is rigged up on a platform behind the studio, a converted tool warehouse in a suburb of Seattle. For the past hour and a half, crew members have been fiddling with expensive giant fans, trylng to get them to blow ashes back into the cockpit - an important story point. Maybe it's the weather or the fans or just the karma of the underfunded, but the ashes stubbornly keep blowing back out at the crew. They are already working 16-hour days and six-day weeks. Most of their exteriors are shot in a small town in the Cascades - an hour-and-a-half bus ride away.
The crew is inexperienced by Hollywood standards. "The analogy," says Brand, "is that you're building a house and you pick up your workers on the boulevard. 'You're a carpenter, you're an electrician, you're a plumber'."
Often, the penny-pinching has backfired. Locals hired for nonspeaking roles celebrated their good luck by going off on a three-day bender. Some of the camera work in the pilot was amateurish, and some wide shots of a festival finale couldn't be used because the extras hadn't been positioned correctly. There were hasty firings and replacement hires. By the end of the third episode, the producers think the worst is over - but the ashes still won't blow into the cockpit.
And, of course, they have no big names, no stars. "We like to go with people the audience doesn't associate with a particular role," says Brand, putting a brave face on a big risk and pointing out that many of the stars of St. Elsewhere started out as unknowns. "Ed Begley and Howie Mandel are people who first broke out." But he candidly admits, "There are also budgetary reasons for [the casting]."
Meanwhile, the young new faces huddle in their tiny half-trailer dressing rooms. In a rare quiet moment, leading man Rob Morrow, who plays Dr. Joel Fleischman, twangs out sad songs on a guitar. He isn't very good, but it soothes him after long workdays. Most of his experience has been on stage - except for a role in the short-lived Tattinger's - but the producers say, wlth an audible sigh of relief, that they are amazed at his rapid adjustment to TV.
A "fish-out-of-water" in Alaska, Dr. Fleischman (Morrow) gets little sympathy from his new landlady, Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner).
They are more worried about the emotional intensity of Morrow's costar, Janine Turner, who plays Maggie O'Connell, Joel's landlady and the owner and pilot of the town's air-taxi service. Heartstoppingly pretty, Turner began her career as a model and went on to stints on Dallas and General Hospital. At some point, she soured on being a Hollywood "face" and went to New York to become a serious actress.
She now works with all the earnest gravity of the convert. An elderly friend dies in this episode, so Turner dredges up all the emotions she felt at her own grandfather's death. At the end, she doesn't know what to do with these intense feelings because "Maggie doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve as much as I do. So sometimes after a scene I cry real tears that Maggle wouldn't have. Josh [Brand] will say, 'Are you okay?' "
But eccentricity and quirky creadvity may befit a low-budget show about offbeat characters in a mythic place. Bored by the Long Day of the Ashes, Morrow tires of his guitar and puts a record on. Turner comes over, and the two of them dance and giggle in his trailer. Other members of the cast drop by. The actors in this series hang around even when they aren't working. Maybe it's the isolation of being away from home. Maybe it helps with the next scene. And maybe this is a show that just collects everything loose in the world and lets it become what it wants to become.
The show's producers have a reputation for risky, unconventional television. And Northern Exposure lives up to it. The scripts are imaginative, full of surprises and half-turns. One has the quality of a fairy tale, another the sparring humor of Moonlighting. And despite the hardships and frugality - or perhaps because of them - the production is refreshingly unslick, understated. For those who have yet to discover this series, which premiered July 12, don't expect belly laughs or dramatic blows to the solar plexus. Northern Exposure flutters, tickles, like a child's hand. Or maybe a cool breeze on a summer night.
Susan Littwin is a staff writer In TV Guide's Hollywood bureau.
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