Wolfgang Peterson returns to the ocean, his favorite theme, for Poseidon, a reworking of the classic Poseidon Adventure. Growing up in the wake of World War II, talented German director Wolfgang Petersen developed a passion for all things American and by the age of 11 had decided that making movies (to his mind an essentially American art form) was what he wanted to do with his life. Initially drawn to the films of John Ford for their clear presentation of good and evil (in contrast to the messy Europe of the day), he went on to immerse himself in the directors of the French Nouvelle Vague, especially Francois Truffaut, whom he cites as his most important influence, though he is quick to add “there’s nothing German, or even particularly European about my films.” (Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1993) After beginning as an actor and director in Hamburg theater during the 1960s, he enrolled in film school and shortly after graduating made his directorial debut for German TV with “I Will Kill You, Wolf” (1970). He also helmed six 100 minute TV dramas, all with separate stories and casts, for a series of thrillers entitled “Tatort/Scene of the Crime” that greatly enhanced his reputation.
Petersen moved to features with “One of Us Two” (1973), the story of a student who blackmails one of his professors. It, like his next picture, the controversial homosexual love story “Consequences” (1977), starred Jurgen Prochnow, an actor with whom he had worked on “Tatort”. After shooting the chess thriller “Black and White Like Night and Day” (1978), he reteamed with Prochnow as the “old man” of “Das Boot” (1981), at the time the most expensive German film ever made (about $12 million). Based on war correspondent Lothar-Guenther Buchheim’s bestseller, it authentically recreated a single mission aboard a German U-boat during World War II while remaining faithful to the anti-war point-of-view of the book. With the odds stacked against them, the crew descends to the depths, taking the audience on a suspense-filled ride to the bottom of the ocean that culminates in a surprise ending back at their port of origin. “Das Boot” won international acclaim and (surprisingly for a subtitled film) was a hit in the USA where it earned Petersen Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
After the success of “Das Boot”, Petersen moved toward Hollywood filmmaking with the German-American co-production of a charming Capra-style fairy tale “The Neverending Story” (1984), dubbed by some critics as “the neverending movie”. Carrying a price tag of $27 million, his first English-language picture became the highest grosser in German box office history and would be the director’s most successful “Hollywood” film for nearly a decade. Neither his sci-fi adventure “Enemy Mine” (1985) nor his Hitchcockian thriller “Shattered” (1991) scored well with critics and audiences, but Petersen rebounded with the taut, suspenseful “In the Line of Fire” (1993), which pitted Clint Eastwood’s aging Secret Service Man against John Malkovich’ s bitter CIA operative-turned-would-be presidential assassin. His status boosted by its $100 million-plus gross, he followed with “Outbreak” (1995), a thriller about the race to stop the spread of a deadly virus. Despite a fine star turn by Dustin Hoffman and support from the likes of Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, “Outbreak” fell far short commercially of the mark set by “In the Line of Fire”.
Returning to the film that made him, Petersen supervised the director’s cut of “Das Boot”, re-released to critical acclaim in 1997. Drawing on the additional footage available from the five-hour epic made simultaneously for German TV, he expanded the 128 minutes of the original US release to his definitive feature-length of 210 minutes. Later that year, he teamed with box-office champ Harrison Ford as a US President unafraid to fight in order to wrest “Air Force One” (1997) away from the Kazakhstan terrorists who have hijacked the plane. The summer blockbuster reunited him with old friend Prochnow in a silent cameo as a fascist general captured by commandos during the prologue and reinforced Petersen’s box office clout by taking in more than $170 million domestically. It was then back to the sea to recreate “The Perfect Storm” (2000), the best-selling nonfiction work by Sebastian Junger that told the story of a doomed fishing vessel caught in a storm of unmatched ferocity. The digital effects of Industrial Light & Magic notwithstanding, critics remained divided regarding the film’s merits, many pointing the finger at the unsympathetic lead character played by George Clooney. While some felt the vessel faced rough weather in recouping its $140 million budget, the film’s opening week grosses of more than $40 million seemed to indicate otherwise. Last year, he helmed the disastrous Troy and returns this summer with Poseidon. The director talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: Why so many water-based films?
Petersen: I must tell you I am very close to the sea, the water. It’s my upbringing, I’m from Hamburg Germany, it’s very flat there, and a lot of ocean, and I grew up with that and it influenced me, obviously. When you’re a little boy you go to the water and dream. You sit on the shore and you’re not fifteen and you have a lot of time to think and a lot of things to think about and there’s a long, endless horizon with a lot of space where your thoughts can go. And the colors on the sea… it all has a very soothing, beautiful, calm, tranquility sometimes. It’s just wonderful. I love that. And then always the turn, when the clouds are coming and the sea turns into a monster, and it crashes against the shore and it had unbelievable force of destruction. We’re reminded again by the tsunami of what it can do. It’s the biggest force of nature with the most destructive, frightening chaos. We all know what water can do.
Somehow I thought that when I got into storytelling that this element has always been with me as something dramatic. So I got Das Boot and right away felt comfortable out at sea, not above but underwater. Even trapped in the submarine, what better drama is there than seeing warfare told on a small space. With 45 people on a boat maybe you can tell more about war than big battles with thousands and all that kind of thing. It’s the claustrophobia of the boat. They can’t run away, there’s no where to go. It’s just them, they’re facing with each other, their fears, and that’s it. I was fascinated by that concept. It stuck with me. And it went well, as you know. The film made a really strong impression.
Years later, when I was here in America I found The Perfect Storm. It reminds me in a way of that similar thing, even though it’s not about war, and I wanted to do six people on a boat. And now, the third time, we come to the trilogy! All good things are three. I said I cannot do again a third one, but then when I really got into Poseidon as a producer first then I switched over to director because I was so fascinated by the fact that this is now real people.
Question: When the studio first approached you with this was there ever a point where you were going to be faithful to the book?
Petersen: No, I didn’t want to do the book. I read the book. Liked it, it’s a very dark book, it’s the late 60s. It’s a different world. You cannot use the book; it doesn’t work. I didn’t want to use the film, because the film, with all respect, when I look at the Irwin Allen film – I was very excited when I was a kid – when I look at it now, you look at it with a smile. On a disaster movie you dare not smile. So I said let’s make a movie where you don’t smile when the boat goes over and you go with these people through the situation. So meaning, using all the tools we have you can make it truly frightening and really realistic and really get across the idea what disaster is. I saw the chance that is now, for an audience, so relatable. There are not movie stars on the screen in terms of movie stars; they are more like Kurt and Josh and all the other people are more like relatable, people who would be on a cruise ship. That’s what I wanted – realistic, very hard edged, scary like hell, which is what disaster is. And to see how people react, and of course invite you as an audience to say how you would react.
Question: So you’re saying these actors are more character actors as opposed to big stars, like having Brad Pitt on the screen?
Petersen: It would be a completely different movie. If Brad Pitt is a poker player and it’s Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood –
Question: Clint Eastwood as a gay Jewish man!
Petersen: It could happen! I see that as kind of a different movie.
Question: Did the studio ask you to have cameos from people in the original cast?
Petersen: At some point we were contacted, but it didn’t go anywhere, by Ernest Borgnine. I don’t know why it fell apart; he was sick or something like that. But he came up, and Sheila Allen, Irwin Allen’s widow, I kill in the film. She dies in the ballroom when the windows break and all the water comes in. If you know her you’ll see her, the poor girl.
Question: Did she know she was going to die?
Petersen: She wanted to. She said, Could you kill me? I said, I think I could do that for you.
Question: Why do they still have the rights, the Allens?
Petersen: Not all the rights, they still have part of the rights. That’s why they’re executive producers. I don’t know why, it’s very complex.
She’s a very nice lady, I liked her a lot. So many people were coming to me saying, Could you kill me? My account falls off the ballroom balcony. Mike Fleiss, the other producer, is the guy who crashes through the elevator glass. Now with you CG you can do all that. ‘Do you want to be killed? How do you want to be killed? Is it more water? Is it choking? Should I cut your head off?’ I can do anything.
Question: You almost really killed off your leading man in this movie.
Petersen: That was traumatic.
Question: It was great acting, though.
Petersen: It was great acting, and we used that shot in the film. I was very scared. Is that when he hit him in the eye?
Question: No, it’s actually when he drowned.
Petersen: Oh that one. Hmmmm. We had very close calls. I thought you were talking about when he was hitting him with the flashlight over his eye. That’s when they are bringing the dead Elena out of the water and they are all surrounding her, and if you really look at Josh he’s always doing this but still keeping the scene. The blood is running. It was great acting but it was not, and it felt so real we kept it in there. When the shot was over we had to bring him to the hospital because we saw then it was real blood. Stop shooting and bring him to the hospital and get stitches.
Question: Your next movie is very different from this one.
Petersen: Definitely not water. Next film, I don’t know yet. I am thinking of Ender’s Game.
Question: That’s what we heard.
Petersen: I am very interested in that. We’ll see if we pull that off. We’re working on the screenplay; it’s very much, I don’t know if you know the story, it’s very much with kids. It’s a sci-fi story, a beautiful, beautiful story. Very popular, very difficult book. It will be great if we can pull it off. I also want to work with kids.
Question: This movie is being released as part of the summer movies. Is that a plus or minus? Do you feel more pressure?
Petersen: It’s a pro and con. Yes, in the summer as we know in America people get excited about summer movies and go to the movies and get your popcorn and have a good time. But it’s huge competition out there – we have Mission Impossible right in front of us and Da Vinci right after us; that’s scary! So I would say that I have decidedly mixed feelings of that.
Question: This is the sort of film that if it does OK will probably do even better on DVD. Is that a medium that excites you as a filmmaker?
Petersen: Oh yeah. DVD, as you all know, is a phenomenon for the studio and a crucial income source risk more money to make a film because of DVD… and foreign. If you look at my last film, Troy, that did like three times as much in foreign as in US. Huge DVD sales also because of the Iliad and everybody wants to own and have it.
But I think we’re doing fine with this one, even with the competition. I have a feeling that this month of May, because people are so excited they are going back to the theaters. The last six, seven weeks every time it’s going stronger and stronger. It feels like it’s leading up to people wanting to have fun at the movies again. May is strong, we have four big movies including myself. I think if Mission Impossible kicks off big time next weekend, it will continue. People will say, Let’s see the next one and the next one. I hope so. At the end of the day even if you don’t like this one or that one, at the end of the day we in Hollywood would feel better if people were going to the theaters.
Question: You were actively involved in Superman vs Batman. Do you see yourself going back and doing a comic book character, or of Superman vs Batman being done?
Petersen: I always liked that concept very much. I never wanted to do just a single Superman or a single Batman but to do the two parts of the soul in your breast, the goody goody Superman and the bad Batman. We have both in ourselves and I thought that if we explore how these guys in one film together fight it out, so to speak, the darkness and the lightness. It’s a great philosophical, almost existential concept with comic book heroes. I think the concept is great and I think it would be a big, big deal. You could have so much fun with driving Superman, giving him a hard time, Superman with all his good American stuff. Superman is going after this dark creature of Batman and giving him a bad time, and slug it out so to speak. In a way they stay still close; the idea was that we are both. That’s the idea. I would love to do it at some point. And it might happen! It might happen when I’m 85, but you know, these days? That’s when a career sometimes starts!