Set Report: “Stealth”

When you think of jet fighter movies, what comes to mind? We all remember the likes of “Top Gun”, “Firefox” and the last part of “True Lies”, but most of the movies of this genre spend only a few scant minutes of screen time actually in the air. for the most part, all you get is a film that’s obviously cutting between real jet fighters and actors in a fake cockpit shooting their lines in a parking lot somewhere off Wilshire Boulevard. When one pays to see a movie involving jet fighters, one wants to see expensive military equipment in fast flying action – and lots of it right? Well then get ready for “Stealth”

Til now there’s been only minor talk about the Sony Pictures production opening July 29th. People know it’s a $100 million action thriller about jet fighters that’s directed by “Fast & The Furious” and “XXX” helmer Rob Cohen. The trailers so far have give us an idea of the effects in the film and the plot – today, lets look at some details.

Mid-late last year I got the call to go and visit the Fox Studios complex here in Sydney, Australia for a brief visit to this production. Set in the naval Air Force in the near future, “Stealth” tells the story of an artificial intelligence-run new stealth jet that is brought aboard a carrier in the Pacific to learn combat skills from human pilots. After an accident, the AI Jet becomes self-aware and begins to have ideas of its own, forcing three skilled pilots (Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel & Jamie Foxx) to try and take it down before it wipes out major cities or incites a war.

So what’s so different about this movie? For starters around 40% of the runtime is set in the air. Camera angles and tricks never used before will be on display. The most “complicated and capable” gymbal ever designed was made at major cost (around $1.8 million and weighing in at around 300,000 pounds) to deliver what hopes to be one of the most realistic and adrenaline pumping representations of flying ever on screen. You can also expect to see one of the biggest explosions ever filmed, an extensive dogfighting sequence over Russian Federation/Mongolian airspace, jet fighters flying in and around South-East Asian concrete urban jungles, and more.

Walking onto the set of “Stealth” at Fox Studios towards the end of its shoot, I was surprised at how spartan and efficient it all looked. With most of the character scenes out of the way and Jamie Foxx having left for the US earlier that week after completing his scenes, shooting was in full force with Josh Lucas and Jessica Biel shooting various action packed flying sequences. The AI jet itself, an odd wing shaped predatory aircraft was hoisted vertically on the aforementioned gymbal, towering over us a good four-storeys in height. There was a sense of purpose to everything here unlike various other sets I’ve visited where people are laid back or caught up in their own playful work.

Which is what makes Director Rob Cohen such a surprise. Directors in particular are the hardest people to talk to on a film set, far more than actors. All the time they’re needed to make decisions, if they’re shooting god help you if you want to get a word in, and if you do get to talk with them most are either nervous or too caught up in their own world to give more than a perfunctory five or ten minute interview.

Cohen proved the antithesis of that. Utterly relax and calm, the younger than his years director proved extremely open about everything and seemed to be having a lot of fun discussing his work. At times he had to stop the interview to line-up a shot but all in all he sat down chatting with just me and a local print magazine editor for well over an hour – something almost unheard of these days on sets.

He revealed that there’s around 800 visual effects shots in the film, with the various jets flying around at anywhere from twice to four times the speed of sound – “I’ve tried to restrict visual effects in my films to specific purposes. In films like “Fast & Furious”, the visual effects are restricted to pretty much the first drag race. In “XXX” it was mostly devoted to changing stuntman’s faces to look like Vin Diesel. This is a true visual effects picture, there’s no way to zip around a jet at Mach 3 and dive into the cockpit without heavy effects.”

These are also very complex effects, designed to follow the laws of physics and aerodynamics as realistically as possible – “The real thing that holds down human flight is the nature of the human body. A 9 or 10 G turn will black out a human being in a pressure suit, but if you’re a quantum computer you’re only restricted by the airframe. You can pull a 20 G turn and if the airframe doesn’t break apart, you live to fight another day. There’s a huge difference in air to air combat in which planes can turn and at faster speeds – its always for a combat aviator a balance of what he can press his body to do.

As a result we should be getting some quite unique visuals, Cohen revealing that “Half the movie we’re trying to do the wildest flying stuff that’s ever been achieved, and I’ve adopted a camera attitude that’s never been possible – not just for aerials, the things I’m doing now weren’t possible last year. All the things I did on “Fast & Furious” were things on the Earth, now we go up to three dimensional space and we’re moving at 2500-3000 miles an hour it gets very interesting and challenging… There’s 3200 lights in the ceiling allowing for shift changes in the sun for fast motions on the gymbal. We’re doing all this complicated flying on a short 78 day shoot.”

Is there an intent to avoid a ‘video game’ look? “I’m trying to tell a cohesive narrative with a video game sensibility, I think I’m trying to have the freedom of perspective that the video game player has without that frantic ‘you don’t even know where you are’ look. I think every race I did in “Fast & The Furious” you knew where everybody was. I try really hard to have what I call narrative clarity. When I’m in a screening, my worst moment is when a member of the audience says “what did he say?”. I hate that, each time I set out to shoot is that the narrative remains supreme even above adrenalin.”

This cost twice as much as “XXX”, is he feeling the pressure? “Our business is such now that no-one wants trouble. The truth is you get to this level of tentpole moviemaking and no-one wants to hear you spent $100 million and made $90 million. If you spent $125 million you still better come back with the $140-200 million hit which I have done with my last two films. If I pull it off, I’ll be in a very select club of directors who’ve done it three in a row.”

In order to do that, there was some heavy work being done on the script – Ric Richter did the first draft and Cohen has re-wrote it from that point and changed it at will. As a result they were currently on the 22nd draft by that time of shooting with more being added or changed around that very day.

The studio is happy with the results though. They did a series of teaser presentations to Sony which got them very excited. There were around twenty-one action sequences in the film when Cohen first got the script – “I wanted to make sure these characters were as vivid as the planes and the action so a lot of it was trying to get a level of character that you’re not expecting. In doing the research, its interesting to find out about the different types of people are in the military. Josh’s character is the most centered, Jessica is definitely the toughest of the three and a new kind of military woman. Foxx is a character that if he was real, probably wouldn’t be in the military in six months to a year because of his self awareness and attempts to come to grips with his growing sense of consciousness.”

Biel herself describes her character as “An adrenalin junkie, somewhat of a genius, a serious sarcastic and witty jock and evil with men. In this story there’s no issues about female fighter pilots, but they do make reference that she’s a bit of an anomaly.” Biel’s also playing a character slightly older than herself and happily volunteers that Cohen “has been amazing – making dialgoue scenes really important, not just pilot babble. We have a lot of technical terms that are difficult to understand but the creative relationships between these pilots that comes across we’ve been working ten times harder to make it a dramatic action piece”.

The story takes place across various locations around the globe. Starting off in Nevada, it moves to the sea off the Phillippines on an aircraft carrier (shot on the USS Lincoln). Missions take place in Myanmar and Thailand before the jet chase begins which crosses Tajikistan, Russian airspace, Alaska and North Korea. The shifting locations is one of the reasons they chose Australia – “New Zealand could become Alaska, the Blue Mountains became North Korea, Burma we shot in Bangkok”.

Cohen’s favourite bit of filming was “after a month on this gymbal and green screens, we went out to this air base and did this massive explosion. Fourteen cameras, a dozen stuntmen, six vehicles and about three times as much explosive as the barn jump in “XXX”.” One of his personal favourite pieces from the film is the sequence where Jessica Biel ejects out of her plane at 35,000 feet. The plane explodes above her, as a result she can’t pop her parachutes or the falling debris would tear through it so she has to delay it til the last second.

In describing the tone of the film, Cohen says he borrows a bit but tries to expand on that – “We owe a tip of our hat to Top Gun in the sense that there’s a spirit of rebellion and young men, but “Top Gun” was way more ra-ra America than this film. This film really asks questions like is it good to have no conscience at the wheel and if you take the body count out of war, does it become easier for guys like George Bush to press the button when there’s no grieving widows to explain the death of their child too. The characters debate the issues in the film”. The determination to make it smarter than many expect seems a point he’s most proud of – “I hope when guys go in and say “Oh its a Rob Cohen film, I bet its just “The Fast & the Furious” with jets – they’ll go whooh, this has some ideas on its mind – its deeper than that.”

That line of thinking extends to the film’s content and its rating which from the get go was a PG-13 – “My job is to mess up the MPAA’s heads, scramble their brains by trying to get an R rated sensibility and a PG-13 rating so the audience doesn’t say its soft but its stuff that isn’t going to psychologically damage kids either. I tried to have action not violence, I don’t have dismemberment or a ton of blood. I don’t believe four letter words make a character any tougher, brighter or cooler. Its important to push the limits, but respect the system – that’s my kind of rebellion. Believe me the MPAA is better than Dick Cheney or George Bush censoring content.”

However there’s one place his sensibilities get burned, and that’s “the sex part – I would like to show Jessica Biel naked, its a beautiful thing not that I know personally but putting her in a bikini in Thailand was a joy. I’ve tried to make it sexy, “Fast & The Furious” had its moments. That girl on the bed in “XXX” in the g-string – was one of my personal favourites, especially the outtakes.”

If the film is a success don’t expect Cohen to helm a sequel though, the man has a frank take on where he sees his career going – “I would’ve been a very wealthy man if I had directed “2 Fast 2 Furious”, I turned my back on millions and millions of dollars because I didn’t believe in it and I didn’t believe in it for me. I didn’t want to spend another 18 months of my life trying to recreate a film I’d already done. Practically all of my films have had sequels, but I think its nice to keep fresh and its nice for an audience to know your coming to them with something different.”

The visit ended with a look at the film’s biggest action sequence – a dogfight chase with the AI plane, the US jets and three SU-39 Russian MiG terminators over Russian airspace – lasting for around 15 minutes it really is quiet breathtaking and that was in merely clunky animated form. In the final cut, expect one hell of a ride.