Upside Down with Wolfgang Petersen

May 1, 2006
Outside Magazine
Wolfgang Petersen Q&A

CAPTAIN OF THE FLIPPED SHIP: Director Wolfgang Petersen on the set of Poseidon.

Brace yourself for a slosh. Wolfgang Petersen, master of the seafaring-disaster epic, is back in the water with Poseidon, a big-budget update of The Poseidon Adventure, the 1972 camp classic. From Das Boot, a claustrophobic chronicle of life on a World War II German U-boat, to The Perfect Storm, the gripping true story of doomed Atlantic swordfishermen, Petersen's fascination with the sea has produced some of Hollywood's most intense moments. ANTHONY CERRETANI talks to cinema's saltiest director about the power of the ocean, the fishy taste of fear, and the surprisingly strong breaststroke of Richard Dreyfuss.

OUTSIDE: Which wave would be harder to surf—the one that sinks the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm or the one that capsizes Poseidon?
PETERSEN: Definitely the Andrea Gail wave. That was part of a horrible storm front, with high winds and dropping temperatures.

Judging by your previous films, you're obviously intrigued by water.
Yeah, the sea has it all—mystery, danger, beauty, and power. It can be a raging monster one moment and the most beautifully tranquil, color-saturated thing the next. What you're drawn to in nature has a lot to do with your upbringing, and where I'm from—Hamburg, in northern Germany—it was all about water. I grew up with boats and really learned to respect the sea, to fear it, and, strangely enough, to love it.

Is it safe to say you also love bad weather?
A great storm is just wonderful. The wind is churning and the waves are crashing on the shore. My wife can't stand it! We vacation sometimes on the isle of Sylt, in northern Germany, and when a storm comes in I go out and walk the shore, almost getting blown away.

Storms aren't always wonderful, of course. Does it strike you that Mother Nature has been spanking us pretty hard lately?
Absolutely, and I think we should be very concerned about what's happening to our world and what nature is capable of doing. Katrina! Who would have thought anything like that could really happen? And before that the Asian tsunami, which showed us the unbelievable power of water. It's so scary and strong and destructive. And that's why a story like Poseidon fascinates me: The water becomes the enemy. The water itself is the villain.

This was a huge production and had to be a daunting film to direct. Where did you start?
First of all, we carefully studied the type of rogue wave that strikes Poseidon, which is a very real phenomenon. Ten years ago, people didn't believe in them. They thought, It's bullshit; it doesn't happen. But we spoke to a number of experts, including Dr. Wolfgang Rosenthal, a scientist who worked on the MaxWave project, which was devoted to researching how rogue waves work and how to predict them. More and more, scientists like him now believe that monster waves, 100 feet high, can suddenly take shape in the open ocean and obliterate anything in their path. It's very mysterious and strange—like stuff from legends and fairy tales.

Has any ship of Poseidon's size ever been knocked over by a rogue wave?
The ocean liner Queen Mary was struck by one in 1942, during World War II. There were 10,000 American soldiers aboard on their way to Scotland, and the ship was hit so hard she went over—completely on her side and on the verge of capsizing. In the last second, she came up again. But Poseidon isn't so lucky.

And that's when your "disaster" movie becomes an escape epic.
Yes, and that's what fascinates me. In normal life, you have time to think about things and consider and reconsider. But here the whole world goes completely, literally upside down within a few seconds. Imagine that. You're having a great time on a cruise ship, and it's all booze and singing and dancing and getting laid and then . . . bang! All of a sudden, the monster comes and upends a 4,000-person ship.

Which forces individuals, trapped in a chaotic situation that nobody could be ready for, to make dangerous choices.
Right. The ship is definitely sinking. The captain urges everybody to stay, by the hundreds, inside a big ballroom. He says, Let's close the door—we'll survive inside this big air bubble; rescue will come. But the question is: When? Our group decides not to follow his orders. Instead they try to find their own very adventurous way out of the ship. It's a race against the clock, and the film plays out in real time. The big ship is dying. Can they get out or not?

Why do moviegoers enjoy watching people go through such an ordeal?
It's a cleansing process. It's therapeutic—just as dreams are therapy, nightmares are therapy. You go out of a theater and your knees are shaking and you say, "Thank God it was just a movie." In Poseidon, I try to make every single scene hit you in the stomach, playing with all the basic primal fears people have—of heights, of suffocating, of walls and water closing in.

Was this a physically demanding production for the actors?
It was a very intense shoot for all of them. As a director, it's easier, to tell you the truth. I'm not being constantly pounded by water and getting thrown around by gimbals. But they were thrown into underwater scenes and crashing into things. Josh Lucas, whose character is a mysterious gambler type, got banged up when Kurt Russell, who plays a former big-city mayor, accidentally hit him in the eye with a large flashlight, and we had to take him to the hospital. Josh looked like a boxer working with a cut over his eye.

This is no bathtub toy you put together. Creating the ship had to involve a massive set.
We used Warner Bros.' five biggest soundstages and ten dump tanks, with 10,000 gallons of water each, to flood the inverted ballroom. Every set, except for one, was built both ways: upside down and right side up.

With all those actors sloshing around, there must have been some seriously pruned fingers.
We had hundreds, maybe thousands, of towels everywhere. It was just ridiculous to see these actors—dozens and dozens of people—completely wet, running around on the soundstages. And you have to dry them up and do the next take, then dry them up again and do the next.

Who was the best swimmer in the cast?
I have to tell you, I was very surprised with Richard Dreyfuss. We thought maybe Richard, because he was the oldest of the group, might be a problem. But he was excellent.

Freestyle, breaststroke, or dog paddle?

After making this movie, would you go on a cruise ship?
I wouldn't, but that's just me—I'd rather be out on a small boat with a fisherman. It's still so popular to go on cruises. I just heard that Royal Caribbean is building the biggest cruise ever! Will taking cruises be that popular when Poseidon comes out? [Laughs] Now that's a question.

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