Filmmaker recounts chilling true story of serial killer case with 'Frozen Ground'
When New Zealand-born filmmaker Scott Walker set off to make his first film, little did he know that his idea for a crime thriller would eventually rise to the surface in the guise of a true story more horrifying than he could ever imagine.
"I was working on a completely different script -- it was something fictional," Walker told me in a recent interview. "I was exploring the idea of a victim's story and it had a hunter in it and was more a contemporary take on 'Deliverance,' the obsession of hunting and the thrill of killing."
But when Walker was working on the script, somebody pointed out some eerie parallels.
"When I told them about the script, they said, 'Wow, that sounds like Robert Hansen,' and I said, 'Who's he?'" Walker recalled. "But when I started looking into the case, I was wondering, 'Do I want to do this?' It was a horrific thing that affected so many people, and it left a big, black mark on Anchorage and the way people trusted each other there."
Opening in limited release in theaters and on Video On Demand Friday, "The Frozen Ground" tells the harrowing events leading up to the capture of Hansen, a serial killer in Anchorage who was finally taken into custody in 1983 and confessed to the rape, torture and murder of more than 20 women. Flying his victims into the Alaskan wilderness, Hanson became notorious for letting the women run away in the wild before hunting them down and killing them.
Written and directed by Walker, "The Frozen Ground" stars Nicolas Cage as Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Jack Holcombe and John Cusack as Hansen. Vanessa Hudgens stars as Cindy Paulson, a 17-year-old prostitute who escaped from Hansen after being kidnapped and raped, and played a pivotal role in the authorities' capture of the psychopath.
Walker -- who wrote and directed "The Frozen Ground" -- told me in a recent interview it wasn't easy getting cooperation at the start of the project because of the humility of the man who is the basis of Cage's character.
"I first met with Glenn Flothe, who was very reluctant to tell his story, even though we spent a long time talking about what my vision was and what I wanted to do," Walker told me in a recent interview. "He told me that this was a victim's story, which would only give the integrity to the truth. Eventually, he said, 'I'll help you, but I don't want my real name used because I was just doing my job and I'm just an ordinary guy.' He said to me, 'I don't want to become famous -- the real hero is Cindy. You need to find her and talk to her.'"
When Walker managed to find Paulson, he said he faced another potential roadblock in getting the story told.
"She had never spoken to anybody about the case, and at that phase, it was about 25 years after everything happened," Walker recalled. "She was amazing, though, and decided to work everything out. She said, 'Let's meet up.' As it turned out, she was going to be flying to a place about four hours from where Glenn was going to be testifying in a cold case. So I rang up Glenn and said, 'Would you like meet Cindy again?' So I flew to him, picked him up in a rental car and drove to her. When they met again, they were in tears. When I asked her if she would let me interview her as long as she was willing, she said, 'Sure. If Glenn trusts you then I trust you.'"
Walker said he interviewed Paulson for about 50 hours over five days, covering from the time she was born, though her childhood to the time she ran away when she was 11, and finally to the six years in which she had met Hansen and the traumatic events afterward. In addition, Walker spent time with Flothe and some victims' families in Anchorage.
"Those were two huge weeks. They were just humbling," said Walker, who is now based in Los Angeles. "They were incredible people with incredible courage in the real sense. I found out what they were really made of."
While Walker was naturally thrilled to work with such consummate professionals as Cage and Cusack to bring the story of "The Frozen Ground" to light, the filmmaker said he was especially impressed with Hudgens, who after the "High School Musical" movies graduated into some more serious and risky roles.
"I think Cindy is the most important person in the film and when Vanessa came in late in the casting process, after we had seen about 80 girls, she has us going, 'Wow. She's got it,'" Walker said. "There's a very important scene at Skateland (a roller rink Walker said Paulson would frequent because it was a place where she could live the innocence she lost), where there's about 12 beats where she bounces around like a ping-pong ball through all of these emotions."
"She goes from being a child in a teenager's body to fits of being an angry teenager, then to a hardened, 30-year-old woman who works on the street who's been through a lot," Walker added. "She does all of those things while testing Nicolas Cage's character and pushing him away. When Vanessa came in, she hit all the emotions."
And that was only the beginning. Walker said Hudgens was very game to go to great lengths off-screen, too, to truthfully portray Paulson.
"One thing that a lot of people don't realize is that behind the performance, there's preparation," Walker said. "It takes guts to go out with vice cops, go to very seedy places and see loads of people being arrested and slammed on the hood of a car in front of you, and Vanessa did that."
More importantly, Walker said, was that Hudgens spent some time with Paulson.
"I asked Cindy, I really need you to tell Vanessa everything because she's only going to get one shot to play the character, and the more she can understand the reality of your life growing up, they better chance she's going to express that," Walker said. "Then Vanessa took that on-board and lived it for the period of the film. It's gutsy stuff and I'm so amazed and proud of what she did."