Eye of the Storm

Inside the high-risk Hollywood quest to bring Sebastian Junger's true-life thriller to the screen

 
 

 

Nine years after the Andrea Gail and her crew of six were annihilated in the North Atlantic by an astonishingly violent convergence of weather systems that came to be known as "the hundred-year storm," and three years after the fate of the Gloucester swordfishing boat's final voyage was memorialized in the pages of Sebastian Junger's book The Perfect Storm, Captain Billy Tyne and his men will once again battle the tempest from hell, this time in a $120 million special-effects-laden Warner Bros. film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring George Clooney. Whether The Perfect Storm has what it takes to become this summer's blockbuster remains to be seen—Petersen is still racing to finish editing the picture before its June 30 release—but early glimpses of the wrenching performances and harrowing storm
sequences live up to the director's pitchspeak billing of the film as "On the Waterfront meets Twister."

Given the A-list talent involved, readers of the book (and of Outside, where a feature adapted from an early draft of The Perfect Storm ran in 1994) have reason to hope that the movie will offer more than Hollywood pyrotechnics. Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) knows how to direct brisk action thrillers combining intelligence and a bracing touch of perverse humor. His cinematographer is John Seale, an Australian whose most recent films were The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The screenplay is by William D. Wittliff (among his credits are The Black Stallion and the 1989 TV miniseries Lonesome Dove) and Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Shoot the Moon). Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, who were terrific together in last year's Three Kings, head up a brilliant cast of actors including John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Cherry Jones. And the advance word is that Industrial Light and Magic's digital effects impart the hurricane's full lethal brutality with an unprecedented realism.

Something more heartfelt than the mere desire to craft a box-office hit seems to have driven everyone involved in the making of The Perfect Storm. In part this commitment was a response to the power of Junger's book, but there was also an awareness that the disaster that befell the Andrea Gail was not a distant historical tragedy. Real men died, devastating real families and loved ones in a community already devastated by the collapse of North Atlantic fisheries. The adventure being re-created is a true one, and as Clooney puts it, "We didn't want to do it an injustice."


 
   
 
 
 
The evolution of The Perfect Storm from book-publishing phenomenon to multimillion-
dollar Hollywood production was surprisingly swift. Warner Bros. optioned the book in the spring of 1997, just as it started to become a huge best-seller that to date has sold more than 2.5 million copies. Steven Spielberg briefly considered directing it, but when he passed, the job quickly went to Petersen, who set aside plans to make a very different kind of seafaring epic—Endurance, the survival saga of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton—in order to work on The Perfect Storm.

The production arrived in Gloucester in early September 1999 to begin several weeks of location shooting. "I'd never been on a movie set before," says Junger, who traveled from New York to watch the filming, "but there was an interesting interaction between the town and Warner Bros. It's not that hard to piss off fishermen, who are a strong-headed bunch, and a lot of them don't give a shit who you are. But the town made them feel welcome, and the crew conducted themselves really well." Bonding with locals over beers at the Crow's Nest bar didn't hurt, either.

 
 
Even so, "there was a somberness on the set," Clooney says, and conjuring up the spirit of the Andrea Gail felt like a séance at times. Lady Grace, a sister ship, had been converted into an exact replica of the lost boat. "When the boat pulled up with 'Andrea Gail' written on the stern after nine years, there was something incredibly eerie about that," says Clooney. "The boat was like a ghost in the harbor," recalls producer Gail Katz.

Decidedly unghostlike, however, was Hurricane Floyd, which roared up the East Coast in mid-September, threatening a different sort of déjà vu. Although the storm eventually weakened and merely skirted the Massachusetts coast, the production took advantage of the heavy seas. "It was just bad enough that we could get out in it and save ourselves about a million dollars of effects money by trying to ride the waves," says Clooney. "We were getting whipped. You can see it in the movie—it's real weather, and it makes a difference."

The actors-turned-fishermen were trained in the violent, treacherous craft of long-line fishing by a number of veterans, including Richard Haworth, a former captain of the Andrea Gail. It was a memorable education. "I didn't know anything about fishermen," Clooney says. "To me fishing meant you go out in a boat and you have a couple of beers and it's nice. But this is a bloodbath. They hook the fish through their eyes and chainsaw their heads off." (That said, no swordfish were harmed in the making of The Perfect Storm. "We had these decapitated rubber fish and mechanical fish that were incredible," Clooney recalls. "These people came down to the dock to protest the fact that we were killing fish, and we were like, 'They're rubber, you dumbass!'")

Perhaps the most emotional moments came during the filming of the memorial service in Gloucester's St. Ann's Church. Among the extras were family and friends of the lost crew who had attended the actual service nine years earlier. "It was mind-boggling to be in the church with those mourners," recalls Diane Lane, who plays Christina Cotter, the bereft girlfriend of fisherman Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg). "No amount of soul-wrenching what-ifs that you put yourself through as an actor can touch the holy of holies, which is the real grief and real-life struggle of these survivors."


   
   
 
 
 
 
"When do we go to South Africa?"

That's what John Seale remembers asking when he arrived in Los Angeles last spring for preproduction meetings. "I'm thinking we'll be filming big waves on trawlers around the Cape of Storms with plastic bags over the camera," says the cinematographer. "Everyone looked at me sadly and said, 'No, think Stage 16, Warner Bros., Burbank.'"

"The real rough stuff was on Stage 16," says Wolfgang Petersen. "You can imagine, if we're playing scenes with the Andrea Gail in 100-foot seas and 120-mile-per-hour winds, how many tons of water we had crashing over the actors and into their faces and knocking them around." This abuse was possible because Warner Bros.' Stage 16 is essentially a warehouse built atop a huge basement water tank. For The Perfect Storm, the massive vat was deepened into what is now, Petersen boasts, "the biggest tank inside a soundstage in the world." Containing 1.3 million gallons of water, it's roomy enough to hold full-size mock-ups of the 72-foot Andrea Gail, other fishing boats, and the rescue helicopter that plays a crucial role in the story. For the actors, who spent nearly three months here last fall, this is where the storm's fury hit home. "I've never seen anything like it," says producer Katz. "The dump tanks pouring tons of water, the wave machines, the boat really rocking, and it's raining and four cameras are swirling around on cranes."

"It walloped us," Clooney says of the artificial storm. "It beat the shit out of us." None of the actors suffered more than bruises and scrapes, but there were plenty of close calls; a stuntman broke his knee. "I saw Mark [Wahlberg] get blown off the boat by a stunt wave," says production designer William Sandell. "I've never seen actors put themselves in such jeopardy."

"At a certain point it's not even acting," says Petersen, with a sly glint in his eyes. "If you are thrown by water from this side of the boat to the other side and crawl back to your feet, and I shoot a close-up of you—it looks pretty good."


   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
"The villain, of course, was the storm," explains screenwriter William Wittliff. "I wanted to show the villain from his infancy, which is to say from the beginning of the hurricane, and then the storm over Sable Island, and even the cold front that dropped out of Canada and caught a ride on the jet stream. So I tried to grow the villain from a gust of wind, until it was this monster of monsters, and let the storm be a living thing."

Using footage from Gloucester and Stage 16, the digital-effects designers at ILM were assigned to bring this "monster of monsters" to life. Sandell had already spent weeks studying a video library of actual storms at sea: "We probably saw every big-wave, violent-action, and real-storm sequence ever filmed with somebody's camcorder," recalls Sandell. "And then we asked, 'Is that enough?'" Because, after all, no one could have ever seen or photographed what the crew of the Andrea Gail faced, and survived.

For Clooney, the story's unflinching climax was part of its appeal. "The truth is, what was attractive to me was doing an action film, which it is, about six guys who die in the end," he says. "That's interesting to me. We're not going to give you a Hollywood ending—we're going to give you the real thing."

For Wittliff, adapting the dark, alluring story of The Perfect Storm meant confronting a mystery
beyond the mystery of what really happened to the Andrea Gail. "This may sound strange," he says, "but if you try to talk too much about what pulls any person to risk their life in the middle of natural forces, if you try to explain that pull, it kind of goes 'poof!' But if you don't try to think about it, you understand.

"There's an old line," he continues, "that if your life gets boring, risk it. I don't think that's what these six guys were doing, but that kind of experience has pretty much gone out of daily life. Yet we have this deep-seated, subconscious yearning for that test. It's something way down deep in the blood and down deep in the bones. There's part of us that simply wants to tempt the gods."   

Fans of Sebastian Junger's book (or the movie) may wish to support The Perfect Storm Foundation, which seeks to provide educational and cultural opportunities to young people whose parents make their living in the commercial fishing industry. For more information, log on to www.perfectstorm.org.



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