ANCHORAGE - How's this for a plot twist? The next major movie about Alaska is actually being filmed here.
A production company plans to begin shooting "Everybody Loves Whales," a $30 million movie starring Drew Barrymore, this September in Alaska, the executive producer said Friday.
The film is based on the 1988 attempt to rescue three gray whales trapped by sea ice near Barrow, though the majority of filming will take place in Anchorage. Barrymore plays a Greenpeace worker while John Krasinski - Jim from NBC's "The Office" - portrays a small-town news reporter covering the story.
The filmmakers are looking for Alaskans to play dozens of roles with casting to begin right away, executive producer Stuart Besser said in a phone interview.
"There's at least 1,000 extras, and there are probably about 30 to 40 speaking roles that we would attempt to get in Anchorage," said Besser, who recently served as executive producer on "The Losers" and "3:10 to Yuma."
The tale of California gray whales stranded above the Arctic Circle swung an international spotlight on Barrow, where a Soviet icebreaker eventually carved an escape route for two of the animals. A third had earlier disappeared and apparently died.
It was Roy Ahmaogak, now 50, who first spotted the whales bobbing in open patches in the ice one September day on his snowmachine. At the time he had been looking for a place to launch an aluminum boat to hunt fall bowheads.
(In Barrow, everybody loves whales for dinner.)
Ahmaogak said Friday the rescue effort brought people together - the Russians and the U.S., the state and the feds, military and oil companies.
But he unplugged his phone during all the hubbub more than 20 years ago and isn't sure if he'd want to appear in the flick. Being an adviser might be alright.
"It'd be interesting to see how Hollywood works," he said.
Carolyn Robinson, executive producer for the Anchorage-based production services company SprocketHeads, said you'll soon see evidence of the project across the city.
"Anchorage, if you leave your house, you will see signs that this is going on," Robinson said. "Whether it's the actors walking down the street or the set up at a certain location, shooting outside."
Hollywood regularly makes movies about Alaska. There was the one about the Barrow vampires. The alien abductions in Nome. Al Pacino in the phony Nightmute of "Insomnia." But few major films shoot more than the scenery here.
That's changing, and not just with "Everybody Loves Whales," Robinson said. "There's two (additional) major features that I think will come here and one movie of the week."
Besser said the state's tax incentive program - which allows movie-makers to recoup more than 30 percent of their spending in Alaska through transferable tax credits - made it feasible to film here.
Movies that employ Alaskans, shoot in rural parts of the state and are filmed in winter are eligible for bigger tax breaks, said Alaska Film Office manager David Worrell.
The Barrow whale movie has been something of an open secret in Alaska for weeks. A movie industry trade site, Deadline.com, announced in April that the project was in the works. SprocketHeads has been calling for workers, upscale housing and gift-bag goodies for the cast and crew on Facebook and Twitter.
A company working on the film signed a deal to lease 12,000 square feet of office space in the Daily News building off of Bragaw Street until Dec. 14, said publisher Pat Doyle.
Besser, the executive producer, said the story will be based on real events, with the writers and director taking "literary license." He characterized it as an inspirational, family- oriented movie.
"It's not a documentary," he said.
Ken Kwapis ("The Office," "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") is directing, Besser said.
The movie is expected to take about 10 weeks to film. Shooting in Barrow will likely be limited to one or two weeks, the producer said, because the North Slope city doesn't have the hotels, housing and businesses to accommodate a months-long shoot.
"The scenes in the movie that take place in Barrow, we're trying to reconstruct in Anchorage," Besser said. The whole film will be shot in Alaska, he said.
Along with actors and extras, the filmmakers plan to hire construction workers, people to help with sets, props and wardrobe and other workers.
The movie is being distributed by Universal Pictures and is tentatively due to be released in 2012, according to the Internet Movie Database.