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Underdog story: St. Pete screenwriter Tom Flynn and Disney’s ‘Togo’

Bill DeYoung

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Willem Dafoe stars as Leonhard Seppala, sled dog trainer, in the Disney+ film "Togo," written by St. Petersburg's Tom Flynn. Photo: Walt Disney Co.

Tom Flynn on the “Togo” set in Alberta, Canada.

Tom Flynn spent 28 years toiling away as a screenwriter in Los Angeles; in all that time, exactly one of his scripts got produced. The film, which he also directed, was not a success, and finally, by 2010, a somewhat bitter Tom Flynn decided it was time to paraphrase the old Irving Berlin song: He had no business in show business.

So he and his wife, actress Andi Matheny, moved across the country, to St. Petersburg, to start over. She opened an acting school. “I went down to St. Pete to retire,” Flynn confesses. “I wrote nothing but comedies that didn’t get made. They got bought, but they didn’t get made.”

The Ohio native had originally headed west with a degree in English lit and a lot of big ideas. But Hollywood, he discovered, “is like the waves of an ocean – you’re either on top of the swells, or you’re down in the bottom of the swells. If you hit a bottom swell, and you’re of a certain age, you’re radioactive and you’re not going to get any work.”

Things began turning around for Tom Flynn not long after settling in the bay area. He did not see it coming.

On Friday, Dec. 20, the Disney+ streaming service will debut the family drama Togo, starring Willem Dafoe and Julianne Nicholson. It’s about an “untrainable” Siberian Husky pressed into service as a sled dog in 1920s Alaska.

Togo was written by Tom Flynn. And he’s been nominated by the Writers Guild of America, in the “Original Long Form” category.

The amazing story is one hundred percent true. Against all odds, Togo went on to become lead dog in Nome musher Leonhard Seppala’s team. Known far and wide for his strength and endurance, he won three All-Alaska championships in lead position. Seppala called Togo “a natural-born leader,” and said he was “the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”

Directed by Ericson Core, who was also director of photography, the film balances the bone-chilling realism of harsh Alaskan winters with a parallel tale about the relationship between a man and his dog.

“They brought it to me and I came up with the idea that this would be more of a love story about our infatuation with dogs,” Flynn explains, “and specifically, one man, who is very pragmatic and very stoic about his dogs. That they were work animals. He was a kind guy about his dogs, but he never wanted to make them into pets. Until Togo.”

In the movie – which was shot in Alberta, Canada, in sub-zero temperatures – it’s Seppala’s wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) who sees potential in Togo, a pup born runty and free-spirited, not the sort of qualities that make for obedient, hard-working sled dogs, members of a life-or-death team.

“It’s absolutely true that Seppala so was annoyed by this puppy because the puppy was small, the puppy was rambunctious and an escape artist,” Flynn reports. “This was Seppala’s business, and to him, this unruly dog was ruining it.

“So he gave the puppy away, twice. And both times, Togo came back.”

Togo cuts between the early years, when Togo was just another dog in Seppala’s kennel, and a thorn in his side, to the heart of the movie: The 1925 “Great Race of Mercy,” in which dog teams were used as relays to deliver – across 600 miles of treacherous blizzard conditions – medicine to Nome, where a diphtheria epidemic was killing the town’s children.

It is, to this day, the most famous tale of canine heroism in American history. And Togo, as Seppala’s lead dog, pulled his master and his team over nearly half of the total trail, by far the greatest distance traveled by any team, and through the most dangerous terrain of all. In temperatures as cold as 70 below.

“I couldn’t believe that a story like this fell into my lap,” Flynn says. “This was like raining gold.

“I didn’t want it to be specifically about the serum run. I wanted it to be about the relationship with the dog, and the relationship with his wife, and the very end of the movie ties together everyone who’s ever had a dog. Anybody who has a dog.”

There’s a bit of vintage Disney (think Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, or even Old Yeller) in Togo, but the fact that it’s true – everything that happens in the film happened in real life – lends it a bittersweet poignancy that lasts until the final frames.

“I’m not trying to manipulate the audience,” Flynn says. “I’m trying to tell the best truth I can tell about the situation. When Togo runs these 200-some odd miles, in blizzard conditions, he’s a 12-year-old dog. So you’re not going to have to do too much manipulating to get people really worried. They’re going to be pulling for him. No pun intended.”

There’s a statue in Central Park of a sled dog called Balto, to commemorate the Great Race of Mercy. Balto, historically, has been remembered as the heroic hound who saved the children of Nome. A highly fictionalized animated film, Balto, was made by Steven Spielberg’s company in 1995.

In Alaska, Flynn discovered, one does not “say the B-word.”

That’s because local reporters, covering the tail end of the serum run in 1925, focused on Balto as he came in over the finish line. He had run 52 miles.

Togo, and Seppala, had already finished their exhaustive stretch of the relay by then.

“Let’s give Balto his due,” suggests Flynn. “He ran those 52 miles in tough conditions. But he was a freight dog. He was a 3-year-old freight dog that Seppala only used for short runs, and only used to go slow.

“Togo was the greatest racing dog in the history of Alaska. And the fact that we’re telling this story now, in 2019, is really unfair to Togo. And boy, the most vicious critic of Balto was Seppala. He just could not handle the fact that Balto got Togo’s fame.”

Postscript: Togo is Flynn’s second drama, and the second one to go all the way. His story Gifted became a critically-acclaimed 2017 film starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace and Octavia Spencer.

He wrote it in St. Pete, in those early, “I’ve had it with Hollywood” days, after studio people stopped considering his comedies.

“I’d been threatening to write this drama for some time,” he explains, “and Andi finally said ‘Either write it or get a real job.’ Which is the worst thing that anybody’s ever said to me in my life! How dare she!”

But write it he did, it turned into Gifted, and Gifted was followed by Togo, “and now I write dramas.”

Next for Tom Flynn: Another Disney film, and a possible Gifted TV series.

Andi Matheny operates the Andi Matheny Acting Studios in St. Petersburg. She and Tom Flynn met in Los Angeles. “For years, she didn’t like me,” Flynn reports. “Then we got fixed up on a blind date – neither knew the other one was coming – and we sat down and talked. Then we went out on a real date, and that was the end of it. She was absolutely everything I’d ever looked for. Smart and funny and beautiful.” Photo by Bill DeYoung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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