'Togo' interview: Willem Dafoe reveals the joys and hardships of working with sled dogs (exclusive)

Tom Beasley
Contributor
Willem Dafoe as musher Leonhard Seppala in 'Togo'. (Credit: Disney+)

Willem Dafoe effectively let the sled dogs lead the way while filming the Disney+ drama Togo.

The movie tells the story of the 1925 Alaska Serum Run, in which musher Leonard Seppala led a team of sled dogs to recover a diptheria antitoxin to save victims of an outbreak.

Dafoe plays Seppala and told Yahoo Movies UK that he relished the physicality of the part, with director Ericson Core shooting the movie in the Canadian wilderness.

He said temperatures were occasionally as low as -50C and the shoot often required hours of travel through the snow, along with the challenges presented by the dogs.

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“If you don’t know about dog sledding, it looks quite simple,” he said. “It looks like you’re standing on the back of these rails and the dogs are doing the pulling, but there’s a lot of stuff that you have to know about the dogs.”

Willem Dafoe leads a sled dog team in 'Togo'. (Photo: Chris Large/Disney+)

Dafoe added: “I had these wonderful guys teaching me about the dogs and how to mush.

“One of the things they told me from the very beginning was ‘if the sled dumps or you have difficulty, don’t let go — because we may not see the dogs for a while’.

“So to keep the dogs safe and make sure they didn’t run off and get tangled up, they said that if I crash the sled, hang on. And I did that more than once, believe me.

“They drag you for quite a way before they realise you’re not driving. They were sweet dogs so they went easy on me, but I had a few tense moments being dragged at a good clip through the wilderness.”

Willem Dafoe attends a screening of "Togo" on December 9, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Dafoe said he was proud of the visual feel of the film, achieved via practical action sequences which the actor was, for the most part, able to perform himself.

With that in mind, he said he was disappointed that fans would not be able to see the movie on the big screen.

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“I’m old school and I like to watch movies in the cinema,” he said.

“But I also recognise that’s not how a lot of people see movies these days. So I’ve got to stay flexible.”

Read the full interview with Willem Dafoe in which he discusses his deep love of the sled dogs and strange comparisons with his character in The Lighthouse...

Yahoo Movies UK: Were you familiar with the true story behind Togo at all?

Willem Dafoe: I was familiar with the Serum Run, but I didn’t know details and particulars. I just knew that it was a very arduous and dangerous run to get the serum for these children.

What was it like working with the dogs on set? Was it a challenge or were they well behaved?

Both! They’re beautiful dogs. It’s hard enough for actors when you’re working in a really hard climate, difficult conditions weather-wise, sometimes at 8,000 feet, sometimes travelling for seven hours to shoot for two hours on top of a mountain. Doing that with dogs, sometimes it’s a real challenge.

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But they were good dogs. That breed is beautiful. As far as the action sequences, they’re incredible, athletic dogs and they love to run. They’ve got incredible stamina. They’re really a wonder, and they’re very affectionate. So I never had any problems with the dogs. I really enjoyed it. I tried to always have them tell me what to do.

Was it sad for you to leave them at the end of the shoot?

Some of them, yes. Some of them, no. [laughs]

Willem Dafoe in 'Togo'. (Credit: Disney+)

From your perspective, how much of a physical challenge was it for you? Particularly in comparison to the big blockbusters you’ve made?

I like doing physical things. When you engage the body, it always opens things up to be a bit more fluid emotionally and a bit more fluid in the mind. I like it when there’s a role that requires you to learn to do something and puts certain challenges on you physically.

It was challenging, I think partly because we were so much out in nature and the dogs were so unpredictable. Mushing is a skill and I learned how to do that. I did essentially all of the action sequences.

If you don’t know about dog sledding, it looks quite simple. It looks like you’re standing on the back of these rails and the dogs are doing the pulling, but there’s a lot of stuff that you have to know about the dogs, the tension of the line, how to hook them up, the temperament of the dogs, what they need. You have to have some awareness of the landscape and certainly balance and strength things.

I had to stay on top of all of that. It was quite a long shoot because so much of the action was practical and in very remote locations. So I got a lot of practice with the dogs, which was fun. By the end, I was quite comfortable with mushing.

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Did anything ever go wrong? Did you come out with any injuries?

I didn’t have any injuries. But I had these wonderful guys teaching me about the dogs and how to mush. One of the things they told me from the very beginning was “if the sled dumps or you have difficulty, don’t let go — because we may not see the dogs for a while”.

So to keep the dogs safe and make sure they didn’t run off and get tangled up, they said that if I crash the sled, hang on. And I did that more than once, believe me. They drag you for quite a way before they realise you’re not driving. They were sweet dogs so they went easy on me, but I had a few tense moments being dragged at a good clip through the wilderness.

'Togo'. (Credit: Disney+)

There are some really hard, emotional moments in the film, particularly for dog lovers. Were they hard for you?

I think it’s a very touching story and you do see the development of the relationships, not only between the man and his dog, but also the man and his wife. She’s a very important figure because she really opens him up to see the relationship he has with this dog.

So I think the story’s quite moving and my sense is that people are quite moved by it when they see it. For me, I had bonded with those animals and Julianne Nicholson is a wonderful actress. I had a wonderful time working with her. She was fantastic in that role, I think.

I was happy. It wasn’t easy conditions so, when you can accomplish these things, you feel great affection for the people because you need to help each other. As I say, it wasn’t an easy shoot. We were shooting in the Canadian Rockies and sometimes it was 50 below zero Celsius. It was cold and sometimes we had very tough weather and some dangerous situations. But we made it through and that created a bond that you certainly can apply to the scenes of parting or the sense that this isn’t going to go on forever.

There’s a scene in the movie where you launch into a Shakespearean soliloquy and it has been compared to your character in The Lighthouse. Did that comparison ever occur to you?

Right? [laughs] Not really. I was obviously thinking more about Henry V than The Lighthouse.

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But that was a fun thing that the writer invented and I enjoyed doing it. It gave the sense of the solitude that he has when he’s on these runs and needs to amuse himself. It also gave a sense of the kind of relationship he has with those dogs. So much unspoken, but so much felt.

Willem Dafoe in 'Togo'. (Credit: Disney+)

This is a Disney+ original movie and you mentioned the remote shooting and stunning action sequences. Do you have any sadness that people won’t see this on a cinema screen?

I have seen it on a cinema screen, and it’s beautiful. So I wish people could, but I also understand that they wanted to create this for the platform. We approached it as if it was going to be on the big screen, even though we knew it would be for the platform.

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They wanted to keep the exclusivity as they opened the platform. They knew people would want to get on the platform to see things they couldn’t see at the theatre. That’s the draw, that’s the business model. I understand that and as far as I’m concerned, I was just concerned with trying to make the best movie we could. They helped us to do that. They gave the director all the support he needed and he really made a movie that was cinema, not a made-for-TV movie.

So, as I say, I’m old school and I like to watch movies in the cinema. But I also recognise that’s not how a lot of people see movies these days. So I’ve got to stay flexible.

Togo is available to stream on Disney+ worldwide.