Schooner Alabama departs for high seas and red carpets
Over the years, the classic gaff-rigged schooner Alabama has been many things: a working pilot vessel, a classroom, a post card shot, a wedding altar, a floating museum, and more.
Now she's going to be a movie star.
Captain Morgan Douglas set sail April 17 for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the venerable schooner and her crew will play a role in a new TV mini-series adaptation of The Sea Wolf, the classic novel by Jack London.
Like most things in the motion picture business, it will likely be small parts glamour, and large parts semi-organized chaos.
"I'm excited to get underway, it's going to be a new experience for me," said Capt Morgan Douglas last week, as he squeezed in final sailing orders and goodbyes on the Vineyard Haven waterfront. "It's been a very long process, right up until this afternoon, when we finally got some paperwork settled between the two governments."
Photo by Steve Myrick
The film will include human stars, too. Neve Campbell, perhaps best known for her work in the "Scream" horror trilogy, and for the teen drama "Party of Five," has signed on. Also in the cast is Tim Roth, a veteran of several Quentin Tarantino flicks, including "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs." While the big stars will get the face time, Alabama's crew will have bit parts in the drama.
"That's what this miniature beard is all about," said Morgan, explaining the scruffy growth on his usually clean-shaven face. "That's going to be one of the neat things about this. They're going to have our crew be in costume and actually sailing the ship."
The Jack London novel, set near the turn of the century, tells a strange tale of fate, rivalry, and love on the high seas. Alabama will be transformed into Ghost, the fictional sealing schooner in the novel. It will require some changes to the familiar Vineyard Haven Harbor icon.
"That was a pretty heavily negotiated part of this process," said Morgan. "They wanted to remove all the cabin houses, do some pretty radical things that would have made it pretty difficult for us to come back and continue our business with the kids programs." In the end, he settled for removing only two of the cabin houses, and a contractual agreement to restore the schooner exactly as it was before the production began. Alabama, built in 1926 and restored here on Martha's Vineyard in 1995, is 126 feet from stem to stern. She displaces 150 tons, and carries 5,000 square feet of sail. During the summer months, she carries up to 49 passengers on day sails, and 27 on overnight sails. She has a crew of six.
File photo by Sara Piazza
Like many a movie star looking for a big break, happenstance played a part in Alabama winning the role. "They were looking originally at the Shenandoah for this movie," said Morgan. But it turns out Shenandoah, the square topsail schooner sailed by Morgan's father, Captain Robert Douglas, wasn't quite right for the part. "Once they discovered that boat has no engine, they realized the logistical nightmare that would produce, trying to put that boat on a schedule," said Morgan.
Alabama had to ace an audition of sorts. The cinematographer and others from the production crew visited the Island in January and February, scouting camera angles, and figuring out how to build a scale model for shooting interior scenes. There is plenty of adventure in the novel, including boat collisions and stormy weather. Making those scenes, however, won't be very adventurous for Alabama and her crew. The special effects will be added in the studio and the edit rooms. But much of the film will be shot on Alabama's decks, when she is under sail. There are 30 days in the production schedule when the vessel will be needed. Filming is set to begin in a few days, and the mini-series will be completed by fall. It is scheduled to air first on German television, then in the United States and England.