It started with a magazine assignment and ended with a movie star: Like its subject matter, the documentary The Whale – which opens in Canada on Friday – has had a long journey.
In 2004, Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm were assigned to write a magazine feature about a whale displaying an affinity for humans in Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island – not too far from where they live. The assignment turned into a bigger article, then another, then a book proposal, then a documentary Saving Luna and now a second, reworked documentary with a new title, new focus and two superstar executive producers: Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds, who also narrates The Whale.
"I was just amazed by the story," said Reynolds from Boston, where he's shooting the action film R.I.P.D. "Obviously I was amazed by the Luna aspect, but it was the human side of it that really had me enthralled."
Luna was a young orca, almost two years old, when he became separated from his pod in 2001, and alone found his way to Nootka Sound, near the village of Gold River. Away from his family, Luna charmed locals – and exasperated Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials – as he appeared to try to make friends with people, an effort that was considered dangerous to both animal and humans. In fact, it was ultimately that close contact that led to Luna's death in 2006.
Reynolds, who grew up in Vancouver, was vaguely aware of the Luna tale when it was happening: His brother is with the RCMP and at the time was stationed in Tofino, just down the coast.
But Reynolds became "wholly engrossed" by the story after Parfit and Chisholm's original documentary, Saving Luna, was brought to his attention by Eric Desatnik, founder of the Environmental Film Festival at Yale. Desatnik had worked with Reynolds's publicity firm years ago and still had the actor's e-mail address; he sent Reynolds a note saying he'd love for him to check out the film.
"Obviously it hit close to home because it was British Columbia," said Reynolds, who went to Prince of Wales Secondary School on Vancouver's west side. "So I said, 'Sure, please send it along.' And about a week later I watched it and sent him an e-mail back just asking how I could get involved in any way possible. Any way that I could help, I would happily do it, even if it was just showing up to some sort of event or premiere. It's just a beautiful story worth telling."
Reynolds wound up doing a lot more than showing up at an event. A plan was hatched to rework the film entirely, and he agreed to join the project as executive producer, along with his then-wife Johansson, and Desatnik.
The film was streamlined and the focus was taken off the journalistic – and ultimately advocacy – efforts of Chisholm and Parfit, with more of an emphasis on the other people involved in Luna's life. The voiceover was rewritten to make it a third-person narration and pave the way for Reynolds's involvement – which the filmmakers felt would attract more viewers to their story.
"I would say [his involvement]was pretty terrific for a star of his level," says Parfit, who recalls going outside and shouting with surprise and joy when he got the news that Reynolds was signing on (he and Chisholm, who are married, live on a fairly isolated island, so they can do such things).
Reynolds was more than a voice and a marketing opportunity. He brought ideas, enthusiasm and experience to the project, and Parfit – who co-directs along with Chisholm – believes the new film is the better for it.
"It gave us the chance to bounce other ideas and other ways of handling the story off of people who were in the storytelling business," says Parfit. "And it was very clear that this is something that they think about, both Ryan and Scarlett, that they think about all the time. Both have been involved in what I think of as serious work as opposed to the superhero stuff … so they do think about storytelling and what it is that gets out to people, so having that opportunity to get another view I think really helped the film a lot."
Reynolds was brought into a New York studio to record the voiceover.
"He didn't show up with a big entourage and demands," says Parfit, who directed him. "He just walked in and sat down and gave it all the time it needed." He also offered some lines of his own, which Parfit loved.
After Parfit sent his movie-star executive producers a cut of the film with Reynolds's new narration, they sent back ideas about how to streamline it further (the new film is shorter and more focused than Saving Luna) and they went into the studio again for a second voice-over session – this time in New Orleans, where Reynolds was shooting Green Lantern.
"This was around the time he was getting named Sexiest Man Alive," says Parfit, of the well-reported People magazine designation. "So his life … took several notches upward in terms of complexity."
Then, more complexity: Reynolds and Johansson split, and there was speculation about a potential impact on the film. "I thought that was sort of silly," says Parfit, "because these guys had demonstrated real professionalism in working with us, so why would they not continue that? … He's never failed to express his support for the film, and we really haven't had any more contact with Scarlett."
Reynolds, who spends a lot of time in B.C. and still refers to Vancouver as home ("all my firsts happened there"), says he has encountered whales all over the world – most recently in South Africa – but has never had an experience like the ones depicted in this film.
"If I had an encounter like that with Luna, that would have been certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I have to feel a little envious of Mike and Suzanne, who have actually looked Luna in the eye."
The film compares the cetacean charmer to an extraterrestrial, and during the interview, Reynolds echoes that sentiment. "You know, we look upward for aliens, but really they're right here in front of us," he says. "There's so little we know about the species in our waters, that it just is fascinating. It's E.T. landing on Earth."
The Whale opens in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Victoria on Friday.