May 9, 2006
It’s big-ship-sinking time again in Hollywood
By Arthur Spiegelman
LOS ANGELES - Hit an iceberg and sink. Get battered by a perfect storm and sink. Get sideswiped by a white whale and sink. Sometimes there's nothing like a big ship going down to grab an audience's attention.
Or so a nervous Hollywood hopes.
Mindful that the biggest-grossing movie of all time is "Titanic," many are looking at this Friday's opening of "Poseidon," a $160 million remake of a beloved disaster film, to show whether the great box office slump of 2005 is over or going to continue for a second consecutive year.
Last weekend's opening of Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III" fell short of expectations, setting the stage for fears that this year's summer films might sink rather than swim.
And that makes the burden just that much heavier on German-born director Wolfgang Petersen and the water-logged cast and crew of "Poseidon," who spent five months filming in water tanks on the Warner Brothers lot and have the bruises and bouts with pneumonia to prove it.
The film is a remake of the fondly remembered but now outdated 1972 movie "The Poseidon Adventure," which many claim helped make the disaster movie -- or at least the transportation disaster division -- a Hollywood staple.
Certainly, "Poseidon's" plot is part and parcel of the disaster movie trade: Giant rogue wave hits luxury liner as everyone on board celebrates New Year's Eve.
Whoops, there goes the party and soon there is battle for survival and the usual disaster movie question: Should we stay in the main air pocket and wait for help or fight to survive?
In the new film the ship doesn't just capsize but turns upside down. And in order to survive, a handful of gritty passengers -- with personalities, alas, supplied by a paint by numbers kit -- have to climb to the bottom of the ship, which is now the top in order to get to the surface of the water and safety.
And they have to do it before the ship is totally submerged in water and all the air pockets are destroyed by the cruel, relentless, pounding sea. And they have to do it in 98 minutes with a lot of pulsating nonstop background music.
WET FOR FIVE MONTHS
Petersen, one of Hollywood's most successful "BIG" picture directors, said in a recent in interview with Reuters, "The idea, to me, was to take the basic idea of a grand ship being capsized by a wave, (and create) a study of people under the extreme stress of a disaster, and make it as rough and as tough as I could." ...
"We have a non-superstar cast, people like you and me, and if it could happen to you, how would you react. ... Here, it's a core group of people who take things into their own hands and do not wait passively for a rescue. The real story is their journey."
Petersen is a veteran of the at-sea epic -- his previous efforts include "Das Boot" and "The Perfect Storm" -- and one thing he has learned is not to film at sea; it's too messy.
Another thing he has learned is not to get wet himself and a third thing is serve the cast and crew really good soup at about 11 a.m. He likes to call his set a party but the cast -- including Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, Richard Dreyfuss and Josh Lucas -- say it was pretty much a party of one.
They all suffered and plotted to douse him with a bucket of water.
"I was wet for five months. I was soaking wet in every scene. ... You have to swim underwater without goggles and you can't see. I got hit in the head with a flashlight and it tore open my eye. ... I had to have thumb surgery ...Wolfgang was having a ball, but the rest of us were in hell," actor Lucas recently told reporters.
Lucas said the physical strain of the job kept acting to a minimum. "You were too busy reacting to act," Lucas, who plays a lone wolf gambler who suddenly becomes leader of a gaggle of survivors, said in explaining why the dialogue in the film was so sparse.
"You can't have bogus dialogue. They can't get to know each other. With dead people all around you can't have people talking about where they come from," he said, adding, "This was as close to going to work on an oil rig as you can get."
Russell, who plays a former New York mayor and fireman, said working underwater was so difficult that he hit Lucas with his flashlight and "didn't even know it."
As for working conditions. "I got a throat infection that got worse and then I really got sick. I got pneumonia," he said.
Then there were the scenes where he had to look as if he was underwater and running out of air. "If I pass out I drown. But I wanted to be on the edge," he said.
And like a survivor of a big sea wreck, he lived to tell the tale.