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Wolfgang Petersen learnt how to make a 'water' film with his Oscar winning submarine war drama, Das Boot; now he has perfected the technique with his latest film, The Perfect Storm, based on the worst weather collision in recorded history - and the people who got caught in it.

"The fishing industry, in which you must include the sea and air rescue teams that support it, is a more dangerous business than law enforcement, fire-fighting or any other you can think of," explains director Wolfgang Petersen. "More people die on fishing boats, per capita, than working in any other job in the U.S. Every journey a fishing boat makes can be an all-or-nothing risk. It is life at its most exhilarating and its most terrifying. The Perfect Storm is about a moment in time when a diverse group of people who work at sea had to summon every ounce of their strength and courage to try to save themselves from the most powerful weapon that nature ever devised."

"one last trip"

For centuries, Gloucester, Massachussetts, has been one of the major fishing ports in the North Atlantic. In October, 1991, it is home to a swordfishing boat called the Andrea Gail, captained by Billy Tyne (George Clooney), a veteran fisherman who has had a run of disappointing catches. It docks beside the Hannah Boden, captained by Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who has been hugely successful with recent hauls.

Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) has a divorce lawyer to pay off and a new life to build with his girlfriend, Christina 'Chris' Cotter (Diane Lane). Fishing is the only job he knows that will pay the kind of money he needs. So, against Chris' wishes, he's going to sign on again with Billy for one last trip this season. Four other men will join them.

Tyne is convinced that he can change his run of bad luck by going beyond the normal reach of New England fishing boats to the Flemish Cap, a remote area known for its rich fishing prospects. Once out at sea, he hears about a storm building offshore. But unlike Greenlaw, who determines to play it safe, Billy thinks he can beat the storm back to Gloucester, taking an enormous catch with him. If he doesn't try, his crew will come away empty-handed on this last trip of the season. It is nothing out of the ordinary for fishermen to wager their lives against their livelihoods.

What is out of the ordinary is the disturbing weather pattern that emerges once the Andrea Gail is out to sea. Local TV weatherman Todd Gross (Chris McDonald) tells his viewers it began with Hurricane Grace, a powerful southern storm front heading up the Atlantic. Grace is on a collision course with two other weather fronts gathering strength as they plow forward through the sea. When the three meet, there will be a storm more terrifying than anyone has imagined, greater than any that has ever been recorded in modern history.

"barely have time to send out a warning"

It will come to be called "The No-Name Storm" or "The Halloween Storm," coming as it does on that legendarily fearsome night. In fact, it will form with such suddenness that the National Weather Bureau doesnít have time to call it anything. They barely have time to send out a warning to all vessels at sea.

The crew of the Andrea Gail never receives that warning. They never know what is about to hit them.

While the Andrea Gail and other boats, including a giant tanker, a cargo ship and a 32-foot sailboat, struggle to make their way back to shore, another set of personnel carriers are following a course directly into the storm. These are the Air Force and Coast Guard plane, helicopter and cutter rescue teams who are fully and frighteningly aware of what they are up against.

Petersen became fascinated by Sebastian Jungerís best-selling nonfiction book when he first read it. "Iíve always been drawn to the sea," says the director, who won two well deserved Academy Award nominations for his breakthrough film, the submarine drama DAS BOOT (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay). "I think maybe itís the last frontier for people to go out and have adventures. Itís an unknown world thatís constantly changing. I grew up around boats in Hamburg, Germany."

Faced with the challenge of putting the story of such power and scope on screen, Petersen realized he would have tremendous hurdles to overcome. He says, "This is a story with many characters, all of them heroic in their own way, all of them with individual stories that play out at the same time: some at sea, some on land, some in helicopters, many on different boats. And, of course, the storm itself is a major character. We were fortunate to find writers who could weave all those storylines together."

The filmmakers realized that what they wanted to do, from a technical standpoint, had either never been done or never been done successfully. "We had to create a storm at sea that was absolutely believable," Petersen explains. "Weather - especially water - is the most difficult to make look realistic on film. So, we came up with a plan that we thought could avoid many of the complications that have affected other water movies. And, with a little bit of luck, we were able to successfully follow that plan."

"groundbreaking techniques"

Petersenís vision for The Perfect Storm hinged on creating a cinematic experience on par with the staggering reality of what the storyís true life characters lived through. Unsatisfied with the digital simulation of water that has thus far been seen in movies, Petersen knew that the production would have to cross one of the last frontiers in visual effects in order to bring to life the most powerful and dominating character in the piece Ė the storm-swept ocean.

A crew of computer graphics artists used groundbreaking techniques to bring to life the dynamically simulated weather phenomenon at the heart of the story. This stunning innovation, an enormous leap forward in visual effects, is what convinced the filmmakers that The Perfect Storm could be made.

Australian cinematographer John Seale was Petersen's first choice. Seale's camera department of eight worked with the special effects department to create the storm on the sound stage, and with ILM, which created the computer generated imaging of the storm. "And to be able to shoot a film about 70 foot fishing boats and 32 foot yachts in a storm that created 80 to 100 foot seas and 100 - 120 mph winds, and do it on a sound stage in Los Angeles - and to convince the audience that this is real - is pretty awesome."

Several items of special camera equipment were designed and built over months of pre-production, says Seale, including soft waterproofing for cameras. Some of it was vital for a sequence shot by the second unit, on the actual site of the real storm.

The people of Gloucester had a proprietary interest in this particular movie. In fact, the book had become required reading in some of the local public schools and Junger himself had become somewhat of a regional icon.

"The Perfect Storm Foundation"

In addition to maintaining regular contact with the friends heíd made in Gloucester, after the author relocated to New York, he created The Perfect Storm Foundation from proceeds of his book sales. The Foundationís purpose is to provide opportunities for children of fishermen to find work outside this dangerous, and steadily declining, field of endeavor.

The families of the Andrea Gail crew, as well as other Gloucester residents interviewed and described in the book, also embraced, and were embraced by, the production.

(June 29, 2000)

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Andrew L. Urban talks to cinematographer


Gloucesterís fishermen were an integral part of the filming process and their expertise was sought out by the filmmakers. "Wolfgang is a stickler for accuracy," says production designer William Sandell. "Itís usually my job to make everything look as authentic as possible, but we had so many local people on set, and most of them had been around docks all their lives, so they were a constant source of ideas and set-dressing tips. It was like having hundreds of technical advisors. It kept it authentic because theyíd tell you right away, ĎNo, you donít rig a boat like that.í So, weíd re-rig it. And, of course, the events that make up our movie didnít happen so long ago and the memory of it is still fresh in everyoneís mind."

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