Alpha – an old-fashioned story of survival set 20,000 years ago

Imaginative storytelling allows today’s moviegoing audience to encounter an invigorating view of real history, and see the past come alive..

Both a rip-roaring adventure and a heartwarming story of mankind discovering man’s best friend, Alpha evolved when a quest for a story that could transcend language barriers morphed into an idea to memorably dramatize the domestication of the wolf by early humans. Over many years, as a script was developed, and extensive research shone light on a rarely recreated time in history, a universal tale of family, struggle, and companionship took shape – just one that was .

An epic adventure set in the last Ice Age,  Alpha tells a fascinating, visually stunning story that shines a light on the origins of man’s best friend. While on his first hunt with his tribe’s most elite group, a young man is injured and must learn to survive alone in the wilderness. Reluctantly taming a lone wolf abandoned by its pack, the pair learn to rely on each other and become unlikely allies, enduring countless dangers and overwhelming odds in order to find their way home before winter arrives. In a harsh landscape, when the future is uncertain, the bonds we make become our most important.

A universal tale of discovery and friendship, marked by authenticity, richness of emotion, and stunning visuals, Albert Hughes directs and wrote the story for the original screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt.

The world looked different then, but still held a recognizable majesty and starkness. Men and women were Cro-Magnon, but not the grunting figures so often portrayed in popular culture – their tool-making was sophisticated, creativity was essential, and tribes were like families, with their own complex hierarchies.

Using this setting, and an old-fashioned story of survival and renewal, screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and director Albert Hughes — who had first envisioned the story of a wide-reaching boy-and-humanity’s-first-dog — hashed out a screenplay over Skype calls between Los Angeles, where Wiedenhaupt lived, and Hughes’ home base of Prague.

Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt  was raised in Buffalo, NY. After receiving his degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, Dan moved to Hollywood. He began his career as an executive assistant in the independent film division of Atlas Entertainment (Wonder Woman, American Hustle). While there, he worked on building and overseeing a full slate of projects from development through production, including the thriller Open Grave that he associate-produced and was released by Tribeca Film. Additionally, he worked on-location with four independent films and over fifty commercials and music videos all over the world, with award-winning directors such as Paul Hunter and Melina Matsoukas. As an executive with Atlas, Dan worked on wide variety of films – both high budget blockbusters for worldwide release and the grittier, genre films for Atlas’ independent division. Subsequently, Dan has written multiple studio feature films, including Reviver for Legendary Entertainment, Who Am I for Warner Brothers, and adapted the Isaac Asimov novel, The End of Eternity for Silver Pictures.

Albert Hughes started his career in film at the age of 12, making short films with his twin brother, Allen Hughes. He later then took classes at LACC Film School and established his reputation as a director before working on his debut feature “Menace II Society” (1993), which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2010, he co-directed “The Book of Eli” with his twin brother, Allen Hughes, starring Denzel Washington and Mila Kunis. His other directing credits include “Dead Presidents” (1995) and “From Hell” (2001).

The wonders of modern technology, in other words, were utilized to bring a lost world to propulsive, understandable life for today’s audiences.

Says Wiedenhaupt, “We wanted to tell the most universal story we possibly could, a story that was personal to everyone around the world who could watch it, so we went all the way back to this culture, which was incredible. The more we researched and the more we learned, we realized we had a rich tapestry to draw on.”

Known for his detailed preparation, Hughes had already done a lot of research by the time he approached Wiedenhaupt. He then reached out to Dr. Jill Cook, a Senior Curator in the pre-history department at the British Museum in London (who is the Technical Consultant on the picture). She specializes in material between 40,000 and 10,000 years old.

“I was quite enchanted by this idea,” says Dr. Cook, “I thought the first moments when wolves begin to find friendship with human beings and begin to integrate into human societies and become domestic dogs, was such a nice place to set the story.”

From Dr. Cook, Hughes took in the archaeological evidence that underscored the period, and which revealed how the Solutreans lived, from the weapons they used, to the techniques that gave them fire and allowed them to carve meat, clean skins, and make clothes, to the ways they ornamented themselves.

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Accuracy was paramount, although the requirements of drama meant rules needed to be bent.

Even then, however, historical truths were applied: though early humans of the time were more likely to live in caves or on cliff over-hangs, Hughes’ preference for filming with free-standing structures led the production to create round dwellings made with mammoth parts that were based on an older form of house known in central Europe, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Ultimately, believes Dr. Cook, this kind of imaginative storytelling allows today’s moviegoing audience to encounter an invigorating view of real history, and see the past come alive. “I don’t mind those compromises,” she says, “because what the film will give us is a story which presents early modern man, not as ridiculous cavemen, with no emotions and bad habits, but as people like ourselves, rising to the challenge, thinking about problems, feeling emotions, love, fear and sorrow. It gives the general public a living view of what life in the Ice Age might have been like. I can carry on doing my forensic work and writing papers that few people will see, but this kind of story will draw in the general public, and hopefully give them lots of interest in the Museum as well!”

Alpha became a filmmaking reality when Hughes took the project to Jeff Robinov at the newly created Studio 8.

Robinov, who’d been President of the Warner Bros. Picture Group, had started Studio 8 with the goal of making filmmaker-driven movies that could play around the world. Formerly Hughes’s agent, Robinov had last worked with the director on “The Book of Eli,” and when he got his first glance at the screenplay for ALPHA, saw its potential immediately as a story to enchant young and old.

“He immediately fell in love with it and bought it,” says producer Andrew Rona, who had also collaborated on “The Book of Eli.” “It was as quick as that,” He said, “I want to make this and it’s going to be my first movie at Studio 8.” True to his word, that’s what happened.”

Central to moving Alpha forward, long before actors could be cast was figuring out how to portray the animals, and particularly Alpha the wolf that Keda befriends on his arduous journey home.

The filmmakers understood that substantial visual effects would be necessary to convey the world of the Solutreans, and the particulars of Keda’s and the wolf’s burgeoning companionship. But Hughes wanted to film as much as possible in live, real terms, with genuine animals and on actual locations.

The emotional weight of the movie’s central relationship depended on it.

As soon as the project found a home at Studio 8, head animal trainer Mark Forbes from California-based Birds & Animals Unlimited joined the team to research their options.

“There is a huge section of the movie with just the wolf and the boy on a journey,” said Forbes, “That was going to be incredibly difficult to do with a wolf. They are known to be skittish, easily scared and difficult to train, so we did a huge search all over the globe. We ended up with the Czech wolf dog, which is the closest-looking and the most trainable.”

Wolf dogs were created by the Czech army in the 1950s and are a cross between a German Shepherd and a Carpathian wolf. The breed isn’t common, but it is recognized in Europe and is a show category. Forbes hit the jackpot when in France he found five-year-old Chuck, a show dog who was also used for breeding.

“Wolves aren’t really what people think they are,” says Forbes. “They’re not a predator in their own right. They’re a pack animal. On their own they can be very afraid. The biggest hurdle to overcome with a wolf, even when they are only part-wolf, is to get them over any fear they have: the set, new people, new situations. Another challenge is that they don’t have a dog’s desire to please you. We are fortunate with Chuck in that he has the wolf look and a little more of the dog behavior. He does want to please me.” Forbes spent four months training Chuck. “After about three weeks, almost overnight, he suddenly knew what treats were,” says Forbes.

“He knew that he was learning something, and he wasn’t nearly as afraid of us. From that moment on, he learned and grew in leaps and bounds, beyond anything I thought we’d be able to get a wolf dog to do.” Forbes introduced Chuck to Kodi Smit-McPhee—cast as Keda — early in the process, so that Chuck would get used to Smit-McPhee and lose his fear of him.

Kodi Smit-McPhee’s measure of a script, when he reads it for the first time, is where it hits him in his heart and his emotions. “I’ve been doing a lot of modern tales and I’ve been waiting for something that deals with earth and mother nature” says the Australian actor. SmitMcPhee, who at twenty is already a veteran film actor, has been making his own journey from boyhood to manhood onscreen

The next stage was to get Chuck interested in the actor. Through a myriad of sessions, they developed a food history and Chuck would begin to think, “Kodi might have a treat for me!” “Kodi trained with Chuck for many weeks,” says producer Andrew Rona, “He would go out to Mark’s facility and work on basic principles with him. They had to really build a relationship, a bond. If that didn’t work we had no movie, like a romance where the male and female leads don’t like each other.”

Hughes shot an old-fashioned chemistry test with them, with Smit-McPhee in costume out in the desert. “It was quite amazing,” says Rona. “It was really the moment when we knew we were doing the movie, that we were going to be able to make it work.”

For Forbes, one of the challenges was keeping the relationship somewhat realistic. “You didn’t want it to become too dog-like, because a wolf wouldn’t do that. A wolf is used to living in a pack, and hunting is ten times more effective in a pack than it ever would be alone. For that reason I believed there was some truth in the idea that to survive, this wolf might create a symbiotic relationship with this human. It’s really what the story’s about. Both of them realize they have a much better chance of surviving together, so we tried to keep a little bit of tension, an aloofness in some scenes.”

Forbes continues, “It stays real to what could have happened, and at the end there’s this incredible bond between them and leads to the creation of this relationship we now enjoy the world over with dogs. I thought it was a great tribute to that story and how it may have happened.”

The language of Alpha is another special dimension of the film.

Some actors found themselves learning Cro-Magnon 101, while others had to rethink how to create their characters and communicate feelings without words.

“The script started out with very minor amounts of dialogue,” says producer Andrew Rona, “and that was a conscious decision Albert made, because he wanted the film to play on an emotional level. That being said, we needed to create a language, the Cro-Magnon language. There’s no record of what that language was. There’s no way of knowing. The only things we know about them are from fossils and bone fragments.”

Rona continues, “We went to a place called the Language Creation Society, the LCS. This is a group of people who actually create languages. They’ve created languages for “Game of Thrones,” Na’vi for “Avatar,” and Kryptonian for “Superman.” The latter was created by Christine Schreyer, a PhD and Associate Professor of Anthropology, and she happens to be based in Canada. We sent her the script and she rolled up her sleeves.

She went all the way back to the very, very early languages. She really studied the very origin of language as we know it.”

Schreyer (Language Consultant on the picture) acknowledges that the scholarship leaves a lot open for interpretation. “While most scholars agree that Cro-Magnons (or anatomically modern Homo Sapiens) had language in the Upper Paleolithic area,” says Schreyer, “few have suggested what it might be like, as it’s difficult to predict how languages have changed over such a lengthy period of time.”

Schreyer studied three “proto” languages from close to this time period and geographical area. Proto languages are estimated reconstructions, based on current spoken language families. All three languages had similar sounds and she used them to create the sound system and sentence structure of Cro-Magnon.

One of them, Proto-Dene-Caucasian, dates back to 20,000 to 25,000 BCE, the time of the last Ice Age, and was found in refuge areas on what is considered to be the North American side of the Glacial Maximum. After three and a half months of work, Schreyer had created a functioning language, and a vocabulary of about fifteen hundred words. She prepared a Cro-Magnon 101 document for the cast, with a sound chart, based on the international phonetic alphabet, descriptions of how the sounds were pronounced, and audio recordings. She followed up with tutorials on Skype.

Ultimately, everyone associated with ALPHA came to an understanding that for all the hard work involved in bringing an ancient world to life, the thought that audiences would gather in a theater and be transported by a boy and his wolf made the entire experience worthwhile.

“Our goal was escapism,” says Hughes. “It’s almost like the old campfire stories. The great storytellers told stories around a campfire, and it was a communal experience. That’s why people go to the movies. You hear laughter together, people cry together, you’re in a room with total strangers and you’re experiencing the same thing.”

And in Alpha, that’s the story of an unusual friendship that altered history, and redefined strength for two living beings reared to assume strength meant aggression. “What they took as weakness was a major strength,” says Hughes of the movie’s young warrior Keda. “Had he not had the heart for this one animal, that animal would not have helped him survive. He needed that animal, and that animal needed him, and so they went on this journey together.”

Producer Andrew Rona hopes audiences have not just a good time, but a thoughtprovoking one. “I think it’s going to be a thrill ride for them, but it’s also going to be something they learn something from. It’s really amazing when you can make a film that is both exciting and entertaining, but also makes you think about where you come from, who you are, how we’re all connected, and that it’s one world. It’s a piece of entertainment, but there are things underneath it that I think people will take away from it.”