Willem Dafoe on Filming in Harsh Climates With His Canine Co-Stars to Tell the Story of ‘Togo’

Two unsung heroes of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska, musher Leonhard “Sepp” Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his beloved Siberian Husky finally get their due in the inspiring family adventure film “Togo.” Diesel, an actual descendent of the real Togo, co-stars as the hero pup who, at age 12, a rather advanced age for a canine, is chosen as the lead dog when Seppala undertakes the longest and most arduous stretch of a relay across Alaska to transport the diphtheria antitoxin serum needed to save the local children from an outbreak of diphtheria. Because the outbreak took place during a winter that was extremely harsh, even by Alaska standards, dog sled was the most efficient mode of transport; even helicopters could not accomplish what man and his best friend could.

Julianne Nicholson co-stars as Constance Seppala, Sepp’s softer but equally strong-willed wife. During her husband and Togo’s journey, she holds things down at home, even helping to prepare the musher who would go on to complete the final leg of the journey, Gunnar Kaasen (Shaun Benson). In the end, Kaassen, along with the dog Balto, received much of the fame and glory from the national media that euded Sepp and Togo.

Dafoe and Nicholson recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about their experiences in making this movie that not only brings to life Sepp and Togo’s incredible journey, but also tells of the unbreakable bond the dog shared with the couple, especially Sepp, as flashbacks from his days as a rebellious puppy are interwoven throughout the film.

“It’s an incredible story,” said Nicholson. “What Leonhard Seppala and Togo did, covering 260 miles, where the other 19 teams ran an average of 31, it’s pretty remarkable, and they should have that credit.”

“Togo” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, just outside of Calgary. “Sometimes we were shooting above eight thousand feet,” revealed Dafoe. “It was beautiful. The weather really gave us challenges, because it’s really hard to schedule things properly… It’s really nice to shoot on location, and everyday you wake up and you look out the window, and that tells you what your day is going to be like. Sometimes, it’s a little scary.”

Dafoe went on to explain how on some days the temperature was so frigid that shooting had to be canceled, as the risk was too great for frostbite. “When it’s cold like that, no acting required; you’re cold. It gave us a little taste of what he may have gone through and what she may have gone through. You pay a little bit for the authority for you to pretend that you were that guy.”

The canine talent also made for unpredictability on set. “It adds a whole new element to being in the moment,” explained Nicholson. “It would depend on the mood of the dog, if the dog was tired. They basically dictated the day. First it was the weather, then it was the dogs, then it was Willem [laughs]. It’s definitely challenging. They’re not necessarily going to go stand on that mark when you ask them to everytime.”

Dafoe explained how working dogs and other animals keeps actors on their toes and teach them about patience. “The main thing is, you can’t try to expect human things from them. They’re there because they’re animals, and that is what keeps you on the story and doesn’t get you into a crazy [place] where you anthropomorphize the dog and start to treat him like he is a person. You’re always reminded that you’re dealing with something raw and something essential and something that is unpredictable.”

Dafoe had to be extra patient, as he revealed to us that he was actually steering the dogs through the mostly wintery terrain. He started out slowly, learning how to do simple things like getting them into their harnesses, but the real fun began when he actually had to get up into the sled. 

“Sometimes I had eight dogs, sometimes I had eleven,” he recalled. “When they’re ready to go, it’s hard to hold them. In fact, normally there’s a break in the ground, but sometimes with the frozen ground, it doesn’t hold, so sometimes you have to tie up an extra line. You’re on that thing, but you have to get off balance to pull the line, but they’re pulling on it, so even if it’s a slipknot, it’s hard to go, so sometimes it’s not exactly smooth, so there’s that moment where you’re releasing and you’re given that command to go, it’s just terrifying, because if you do that off-balance, you’ll crash immediately.”

Dafoe spoke at length about the dogs themselves. “When they get going, there’s a tremendous amount of energy, because the truth is, they’re bred, they’re trained, they love running. It’s like someone who knows that they’re going to get an endorphin release.”

“They’re adrenaline junkies,” added Nicholson.

“When they’re not running, they’re wildly affectionate,” continued Dafoe. “So, it’s really hard to reconcile that [barks aggressively] ready-to-go, powerful, strong, pure animal with this docile little animal that wants to be petted, rubs up against you, and just wants to be cuddled.”

There were some instances in which Hollywood magic was called for, such as during a really intense sequence in which Togo must lead Sepp and the other dogs off of a frozen lake while it’s cracking open. CGI and special effects were used in this and other scenes, but not as heavily as one would think.

“That, we filmed on an ice lake, obviously, and then it was sweetened,” revealed Dafoe. “The actual cracks were sweetened in post. It was a huge frozen lake. It was really beautiful. You could lay on the ground between takes. Sometimes I’d lay on the ground in my parka, and you could hear the ice groan. It was like a living thing.”

He continued, “An amazing amount of the effects were practical. The sequence early on where we’re on that slope, almost all of that was actual. The only thing that was different was where you pulled back — this is actually not fun to talk about because it ruins it — when you pull back and you see this cliff, that wasn’t there. But the actual slope and the actual falling, and the actual danger and trying to hold on, that was all really real.”

“I feel like you can feel that,” interjected Nicholson. “You watch those dogs struggling and sorta slipping down.”

“It made me ill watching it, because I remembered how difficult it was,” continued Dafoe. “Everything was safe, because we were on lines, but, actually, you had to care more about the dogs, because they don’t have the ability to let you know when they’re in trouble. Basically, the special effects were done when it got dangerous for the dogs and dangerous for me.”

Watching Dafoe and Nicholson interact onscreen with the dogs and seeing their chemistry, one would never guess that neither of them were “dog people” before filming. Both walked away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for their furry friends. “I never had a dog before,” revealed Nicholson. “It was an introduction.”

According to Dafoe, those seemingly simpler, more domestic scenes in which they’re in the house with the dogs were more challenging than the outdoor scenes in ways. “Having them be still, having them pay attention, it’s difficult… I felt like a dog whisperer sometimes, because you really have to will. I have to imagine that we can talk. I can look at him and really believe, just like I do with an actor.”

Togo” begins streaming Dec. 20 on Disney+.