When Greg Kohs worked for NFL Films, his assignment was compiling the Green Bay Packers end of year highlight film.
Turned out filming on the frozen tundra was good preparation for filming The Great Alone in the Alaskan winter wilderness. It screens at the Oriental Theatre Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. during the Milwaukee Film Festival.
The Great Alone is a character study of Lance Mackey, four time winner of the grueling 1,200 mile Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome.
Kohs and his five person crew, including Milwaukee native and director of photography Ross Riege, were “all from the lower 48 states and it was cold for us.”
“But Lance told us it was a warm race” in 2013 the year Kohs filmed it.
Kohs is a Milwaukee Film fest veteran of sorts. Song Sung Blue, his documentary about the late Milwaukee Neil Diamond impersonator Mike Sardina and his wife Claire was the second film shown by Milwaukee Film after its 2007 reorganization. Kohs said Claire Sardina will be attending a “Great Alone” screening.
“She wants to meet Lance,” who will be at both showings. “They both have something in common,” said Kohs. “Both allow themselves to be very vulnerable in telling their stories which I’m very grateful for.”
Kohs, met Mackey, who won the race from 2007 to 2010, while filming him for a Nike ad about cancer survivors. While talking to him “I picked up clues from what he said about his life, his family and childhood and what fueled him” that his larger personal story was also compelling.
Mackey’s father was a founder of the Iditarod and won the race in 1983 by one second. Mackey, who was raised by his mother, was a drinker, drug user and all round hell-raiser who changed his life after his cancer diagnosis and began his Iditarod journey.
“Ever since I met Lance I wanted to tell his story ultimately in a feature length scripted film,” said Kohs, who saw a documentary as best way to get potential investors interested.
“I knew we could make a great film before shooting a frame by capturing an intimate portrait of a musher on the trail.”
To make it “we went indie film stealthy” traveling by fixed wing plane and helicopter. They did not shoot from the air, because the Iditarod trail committee already had considerable aerial footage. Each day they checked his route, flew over the trail looking for him and then landed “in quite deep snow” ahead of him.
Kohs used an Arri Alexa digital camera “the industry gold standard. It handles white quite well and I knew we’d have a lot of snow. Though only a technical person will be able to see the texture in a snow drift.”
But even a casual viewer will appreciate the pristine landscapes portrayed in the film.
Kohs, a Notre Dame alumni, has since moved on to his next project about Gerry Faust, “the third losing-est” football coach at the school. During his last year of coaching the t-shirts went from reading “Faust Fever” to “Oust Faust,” said Kohs. “But now when he goes back he’s beloved.”
No word on its completion date, but Song Sung Blue was filmed over an eight year period.
And it has been eight years since that film was released.
Kohs clings to a scene in Song Sung Blue that he called a life lesson. In it Mike Sardina who was being chided about driving too slowly responded: “Relax. Sometimes you get there faster by going slower.”
“It’s a wonderful motto,” said Kohs. “My kids are sick of hearing it.”
“But I just want to make films at my own pace and be a good dad, good husband and good filmmaker.”