Storming Hollywood

Wolfgang Petersen, director of "The Perfect Storm," wanted to cast Mel Gibson instead of George Clooney, and is "perfectly fine" with Salon's chilly review of his blockbuster.

Published July 14, 2000 2:37PM (EDT)

Wolfgang Petersen, 59, is the German director of "The Perfect Storm," starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. The film's strong opening over the July Fourth weekend, and continued strength at the box office, have surprised many industry veterans, who were betting that "The Patriot," starring Mel Gibson, would do bigger business. As it happened, "Storm" racked up $63 million over the holiday while "Patriot" brought in a paltry $35 million. Result? Petersen's a happy man and Clooney and Wahlberg aren't feeling so bad themselves. As for Gibson, he's undoubtedly hanging in there.

Petersen began his directing career in German television during the 1960s. His first feature film, "One of Us Two" (1973), won the German National Film Prize for director. In 1981, he directed the acclaimed "Das Boot," for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for best director. And after moving to the United States, Petersen wrote and directed the stylish thriller "Shattered."

His other films include "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak" and "Air Force One." We spoke a few days after the opening of "The Perfect Storm," and the publication of Salon's not exactly glowing review of the film -- "loaded with dumb dialogue and blubbery melodrama," wrote staff critic Stephanie Zacharek.

Petersen began our conversation by good-naturedly needling me about the review, "So this is Salon, eh? You are really big fans of my movie. I hear that Salon hated 'The Perfect Storm.' Why did they hate it? Who wrote the review? Did you write it?"

"No, I didn't write it," I was relieved to be able to tell him.

"Well," Petersen continued, "maybe hate is too strong a word. I heard only that it was negative. [He laughs.] I'm fine about it. I'm only a little bit joking. But I thought maybe you had written it, and then I was going to have some fun with you. I'm perfectly fine about the review. Now, let's begin." And so we did.

What attracted you to directing "The Perfect Storm"?

Everything started with Sebastian Junger's book because in reading the book ["The Perfect Storm"] I got into this world in Gloucester, Mass., which I found fascinating. I grew up in Hamburg, Germany, and know a little bit about the water, ships and boats. But I had no idea about the fishing industry. And the book gave me a pretty good insight into what kind of job it is, how dangerous and hard. But then, what became the most important thing to me was that here was a true portrait of a contemporary, American blue-collar world.

That became fascinating when I considered making a big movie out of it. To do that would be miles apart from what Hollywood normally portrays -- you know, the more glamorous jobs. And I wanted to go with the common man or the "little people," so to speak.

Then, of course, I could deal again with the frightening element of water. I just love that and it's always a challenge for me to do a film that deals with that element. I did it 19 years ago [in "Das Boot"] and I was ready to do it again.

What is it with you and the water? There's "Das Boot," which takes place in a submarine. There's "Shattered," where an eerie, key scene occurs underwater. Tell me more about your fascination with water.

I grew up in a little town called Emden in Germany and, later, Hamburg. Both had harbors, ports and shipyards, although Hamburg was a very big seaport. As a boy, I was just hanging out with these people on boats and ships, and whenever I wanted to think about life and philosophy, I'd just go and sit on the shore and look out at the ocean. The sea was magical to me. As a 13-year-old, it was a place where my imagination and fantasies were transported to infinity.

Also, when I was 6 or 7 years old, during the 1940s, something powerful happened. I will never forget this. It was shortly after the war in Germany and we were very, very hungry people. All of a sudden, I remember that out of the mists of the sea came these huge ships streaming into the harbor. Again and again. They were mostly American ships, and we were looking up at these ships. Sailors onboard were throwing to us kids below all kinds of goodies, like food and chewing gum. We scurried around like little rats to grab the food. And that added to my idea of wonder coming out of the sea, that the ocean carries us to places far off, like spaceships do. These memories add to my feeling that the sea is a magical place. I'm very connected to it.

You've been praised for depicting working-class heroes in "The Perfect Storm" and you just told me that was a key attraction in directing the film. Do you think this struck a chord with Americans?

I'm totally shocked and surprised that the movie did so well. The so-called experts said that the big winner over the Fourth of July weekend would be "The Patriot" because of Mel Gibson and the movie's theme of the American Revolution. Plus, there was a question mark about our film having an ending in which the main characters die. It's not your usual Hollywood ending. Also, the polls said that "The Patriot" would be ahead of us. So we said, "OK. They will open better than we will. But let's see who has the better legs." That was our defensive position.

But then it happened the other way around. It was shocking in a great sense for us. We were thrilled. We will break $100 million on Monday [July 10], which is incredible after 10 days. But it's always hard to tell what audiences really reacted to. Our thought is that perhaps this is not your typical big-time, popcorn Hollywood movie. That may be attractive to people. Also, maybe you were curious about the film because it doesn't feature big stars. It's working fishermen, who are out in a huge storm. It's kind of a fresh idea.

Also, there were breakthroughs in special effects. For the first time we as filmmakers were able to get the audience into a world where they normally can't go. We certainly never shoot in the midst of an apocalyptic storm for we would end up dead. And people might have been attracted to seeing that.

The other thing is that, right now, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg are very hot guys. They are new, fresh and not from the older generation of movie stars. There's a lot of interest in that. We have a strong female audience, slightly more female than male, something like 52 percent to 48 percent. That might have to do with George and Mark.

Other than that, I don't know. Sometimes, the audience just has a strong feeling that we can't completely figure out. I can only say I'm very happy about it.

How was it working with George Clooney?

He's very down to earth. Extremely funny. Cracking jokes all the time. He's really a duke. We needed each other to be on the same level. I like to have a happy set, where everybody feels good and we are having fun. I don't like what you very often find on Hollywood sets -- tension, screaming and yelling. I can't work like that. I like so much what I'm doing, going to the stage every day and shooting a movie, and I think that's contagious and actors feel more comfortable. And that's exactly who George is, too. He fits in perfectly. He's a workaholic who likes to go to work and wants to have fun.

The shoot was so tough -- you probably can't imagine it -- with the enormous amounts of water these guys endured, and the rocking boat and the seasickness on the set. It was real good we had George, who kept everyone's morale up and who cracked all these jokes and never complained. He was great.

It's hard to imagine jokes flying on the set of a film like "Storm." But perhaps it's the only way you can deal with a tragic tale. How was it working with Mark Wahlberg?

Mark is a sweetheart. He was so perfect for the part. He's from that area, he's from a real working-class background, with eight or nine brothers and sisters. And his accent is genuine. He was really into researching the characters. He slept in the real Bobby Shatford's room at the Crow's Nest [bar] for a few weeks. He was there all the time, hanging out in the bar, playing pool with the guys, listening to them talk. He started deep friendships with the Shatfords and with Bobby's mother, who was still alive at the time but who recently passed away. He really took this movie seriously. He's great in the part and I think he has a great future. He's only 28 or 29 years old, but he will be a big star.

Is the ocean the real star in this movie?

The real star is the storm. Originally, I was planning to cast Mel Gibson as the lead, but it didn't work out. He was doing "The Patriot." We had serious talks, but it was too tricky with his schedule. And there was the fact that he's a superstar -- he's so expensive. Our movie was already so expensive [at $140 million] that we decided to go with George. In the end, I thought it was the right decision, anyway. George blends much better into the whole landscape there, into the story, and is more of an ensemble player than Mel Gibson could ever be. Mel is so much of a movie star.

The film incorporates many computer-generated special effects. How did you like directing both humans and computers at different stages of the film?

That was fascinating. It's a great process. People may think it restricts the creativity for the director, but it actually opens it up. You are working on these images like a painter or a sculptor. I can design the whole look of the ocean, getting a higher crest on this wave here, or more wind and lightning there. Industrial Light and Magic [George Lucas' special-effects house in San Rafael, Calif.] will do whatever you want. Bit it's not like ILM will make this look like a great storm, and then we're done. No. It's a laborious effort.

A lot of these scenes were shot on the boat with water drenching the actors, who were set against a blue screen. We worked on the special effects over a satellite system that linked ILM to us. They were working up north, and I was working down here, and we each had a satellite dish and a permanent link. Twice a week we'd meet [in a teleconference] with 20 or 30 people from up there, and we'd have 10 people sitting down here. I could see them [on a monitor] and they could see us. We'd both see a shot on our video monitors. Sometimes, ILM would very carefully extend our waves that we had made on the stage. But, basically, it was up to me and Stefen Fangmeier [of ILM], who would basically ask me: "What do you want to do in this scene?"

"I'd like to have a 45-feet-high wave, not 40 feet, and I want the sky a little darker," [I'd reply]. We'd start working on one whole image and design it. It was a fascinating process in which we had complete control.

They'd send us 15 shots or so a week, all works-in-progress shots. And then we'd go through them. "What do you want here?" they'd ask. It was a very layered process. But that doesn't mean it was done all in one sitting. I had to come back and we'd adjust and adjust, sometimes for weeks and weeks, until finally that one shot is completed. It was very elaborate, but you really do get to create your own vision of a storm.

The emphasis on special effects is one of the criticisms of "The Perfect Storm." Are you concerned with special effects and computer wizardry in Hollywood replacing the old-fashioned elements of story, plot and character development?

There is always that danger. You can't be too much impressed by the special-effects thing. But for the movies I do, I think it will help me, because the idea of "The Perfect Storm" is not, "Look, guys, at what great effects we have!" It's more about telling a story of real men who go out to sea and encounter an incredible storm. It's a real tale in a realistic world.

We tried to use all of these computer tools to tell a true story. Since I tend to do these kinds of stories anyway, these tools are absolutely wonderful for me. I can now get into territory and worlds I never could have gotten into before. You could not have done a film like "The Perfect Storm" a few years ago. Water is the most difficult thing to re-create and create in the computer and, for the first time, they've successfully figured out how to re-create water by working with "The Perfect Storm."

I see this whole special-effects thing as helping tell a story in a better way -- especially for films I like. And to get us to real places and situations where we normally cannot go and get out alive. But if it's merely effects for effects' sake, then you are in danger of losing the keys of storytelling and character. And that's a real danger.

You were involved early on in devising the Web site for "The Perfect Storm." Do you see the Web as a totally different form of film entertainment? Or is it simply part of a movie's promotional efforts?

The Internet was completely new to me and I had never done this for any of my films. Three years ago, it was not as popular to have a Web site, not until "The Blair Witch Project," which changed a lot of things here.

But we thought in order to get great publicity for "The Perfect Storm," let's really work on an interesting Web site. I must say, I still don't completely understand how to measure the Web. When I hear about all these hits, these hundreds of thousands of hits, what does that really mean? How do you measure its success? It's all so new. But I was surprised about our success over the [Fourth of July] weekend. We found that almost two out of three people wanted to see "The Perfect Storm" over "The Patriot." And maybe part of that had to do with the fact that a lot of people saw our Web site, which was complex and well-visited. We didn't take any chances, and designed the site as well as we could, hoping it would add to the whole promotion.

At some point, a feature-length film will be on the Internet. The big question, though, is how do you control it and make sure you're not going to get financially ripped off?

But watching films in a theater with a big screen will never change. Everybody still loves that. Movies in theater are more popular than ever, even with DVD and videos and laser. People still go like crazy to theaters and sit with 1,000 other people, partly because it's a tribal experience.

How different are European film audiences than American moviegoers in your experience?

Wow! How different are they? Very. Europeans are quieter and more pensive. When I first came here to America, I arrived with the typical European arrogance and went to see "Star Wars" in a huge theater with 2,000 people, who ranged in age from 8 to 88. But when the film started, they were all screaming and yelling at the action on the screen. It was unbelievable. I was shocked. Americans really talk to the screen -- and they are loud. It's like a circus. I love that. In Europe, when you go the movies, it's like going to a temple to see art. You'd never yell at the screen.

Were you worried about "The Perfect Storm" being judged harshly by the real characters it depicted?

Oh yes, very. I was concerned and hoped they would see it and appreciate the way we did it. We screened it for the people in Gloucester and had a party afterwards and it was a very emotional time. It was a lovefest. A lot of tears but also a lot of hugging, too. "This is our life," they said. "Thank you for a great tribute to our world." And the people who are the closest to the Andrea Gail victims were very relieved. Chris Carter [the woman, played by Diane Lane in the film, who lost her lover to the sea] said that the film was a closure for her.

Of course, they were saddened because after eight years they had to go through it again. But they were proud, too. We tried to show the men on the Andrea Gail as good people with problems, hopes and dreams. Their world is blood, sweat and tears, but the residents are all proud of what they do. It was an unusual experience for me. Bottom line, it was great.

So what are you on to next?

It's too early to say. This film took a lot out of me. I go to Europe and then to Japan to promote it. Then, I'll come back and take a deep breath. And then you can call me again to ask.

By Kathleen Sharp

Kathleen Sharp reports on business and entertainment from Southern California.

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