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From one Chopper to another, Eric Bana is flying high as an Australian actor of substance on the international screen. His latest role is alongside Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor and Sam Shepard etc, etc, with director Ridley Scott, in Black Hawk Down. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Bana is taller than you might think. As he strides out of the Hoyts cinema at Sydney’s Fox Studios, he is mobbed by a crowd of well wishers congratulating him – and by extension – the film we had just seen, Black Hawk Down. He stands out in his black duffle jacket and his striking face breaks into a grin. It was an invitation only preview, where Bana made a few remarks to introduce the film. We shake hands and I ask if he had stayed for the whole film. “No, I’ve seen it a couple of times,” he says, “but I like to see the beginning…until that first big aerial scene with the choppers sweeping across the sky….” He says with his arms doing the sweep.

"The things we experienced making this film will be with me forever,"

Bana’s presence has given the preview a sense of occasion; it’s the eve of his departure for America, to make his next Hollywood film, but again, with a ‘foreign’ director: Ang Lee takes Bana into the territory of TV series revived as a movie, with The (Incredible) Hulk. Stay tuned.

As for Black Hawk Down, “The things we experienced making this film will be with me forever,” he told the hundreds in the preview audience, ranging from film producers like Al Clark, who was executive producer on Bana’s screen debut, Chopper.

[Pause for a thought: Chopper had nothing to do with choppers but with a murderer called Mark Read, whose nickname Chopper comes from a quaint incident in prison when he had his ears chopped off to get out of H Division. Yet here is Bana enjoying the catapult of fame that film gave him, working with the likes of Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer and a cast of brilliant actors – in Black Hawk Down. Black Hawk being a chopper.]

Meanwhile, back in the cinema, other guests include writer/director Bill Bennett and his producer wife Jennifer, for whom Bana has just finished shooting The Nugget, a serious comedy and a fable about council worker mates striking gold in a bush town. On stage, Bana continues: “It occurred to me that this film, Black Hawk Down, could only be made by the unique circumstances of the combination of a powerful producer, a powerful director – and a group of actors who weren’t the stars of the movie – the stars are the real men who fought there in Somalia in 1993.

"easy to forget we were making a movie"

“It was a year ago almost to the day that we arrived at the Special Forces Camp where the Delta Froce is trained. It was an amazing experience, handling high powered weapons and high explosives going off only a few feet away. Then we moved to Morocco, to another boot camp. The location here made it easy to forget we were making a movie, dodging buildings in a helicopter, with hundreds of eager extras firing guns in your direction.”

Bana was instantly enthusiastic about the project and the enigmatic character based on Delta Sgt. First Class ‘Hoot’ Gibson. "I grew up watching war films, he says, "but Black Hawk Down is different in the sense that it's about modern urban warfare, which hasn't really been captured on film. I was a little bit angry with myself for not knowing more about the Battle of Mogadishu, but then realised that most people don't, which is a great reason to make this movie. As tragic as aspects of the event are, the heroism of those soldiers is unbelievable.”

One of the many experiences Bana had to go through – along with the rest of the cast – was military training.

"We felt that it was really important for the actors to actually become part of the military , even for a short time, if they were going to portray soldiers," Jerry Bruckheimer says. "And so, as we did with Pearl Harbor, we sent them for training... not a Hollywood boot camp, but practical orientation. There's nothing like reality. You can't fake it. We wanted the actors to have respect for the military and understand the physical challenges that they go through. If you talk to any soldier who has been through a battle or a war, they'll tell you that the only thing that saved their lives was either the man next to them, or their training."

"even fitter"

"Sending actors to 'boot camp' is almost a conventional thing to do now," says Ridley Scott, "but when you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world, because if any actor has any notions of being better than the next guy, that goes right out the
window. And if they weren't fit already, they're a hell of a lot fitter than they will ever be in their lives. And if they were fit already, then they're even fitter than they could possibly be!"

On their final day, Bana, William Fichtner and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau trained at Fort Bragg's Urban Terrain site, a cinderblock mock village where Special Forces soldiers demonstrated movement through a city that poses threats at every turn... which Mogadishu certainly did on that fateful day and night in 1993. The actors-now starting to resemble Special Ops soldiers fought their way against an opposing force using simulations through the mock city to a fictional helicopter crash site.

Eric Bana, who had packed on the poundage to portray Chopper Read, began shedding it as soon as he learned he had the role of Hoot. Bana lost 35 pounds (that’s the measure used in the US) in three months, which involved weight training and what he calls "a very strict, extremely boring insanity diet," which he would stick with throughout the entire four-month shoot. Recalls the actor, "I got as fit as I've ever been before going to Special Forces training, 'cause I knew that it could be severely embarrassing if I showed up in bad condition.

"We got to learn some incredible things"

"Let's face it," Bana continues, "embarrassment is the key thing here! So luckily, orientation was almost exactly the opposite of what I expected. I was predicting some kind of horrendous physical torture, but it was very hands-on, extremely interesting and very specific. We got to learn some incredible things, some of which I can't even reveal."

Meeting actual Delta operators "helped in ways I couldn't have imagined," Bana says, "and not only in terms of learning tactics and weaponry. Since there were only three of us - me, William Fichtner and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau - we spent a lot of time with our eight instructors. We'd go out to dinner with them, hang out and really get to know them. They were very worldly, extremely well-read, incredibly intelligent and had an amazing sense of humor. It gave me the confidence to go with things for my character that I had been thinking about, but wasn't quite sure were relevant. And it also allowed for an on-screen rapport between Bill, Nikolaj and myself that was completely non-manufactured."

Willam Fichtner amusedly describes the difference between training with Delta and the bigger group of actors training with the Rangers. "Let me give you an example ... the first day the actors were at Fort Benning with the Rangers, they were in a classroom. The first day we were at Fort Bragg, our instructors were saying 'See that door there? Let's blow it up.' It was a phenomenal experience. The three of us were sponges for the information. I would have paid money to go through that course."

"I'm proud to be a part of it"

That enthusiasm was echoed in Bana from the beginning. "I knew as soon as I read the book and the script that the film couldn't fail," he says, "and I think that's really rare. And when I considered that Ridley Scott was the director and Jerry Bruckheimer was producer, it immediately became the greatest project I ever heard about. The decision-making process becomes really easy at that point. I'm proud to be a part of it."

Published February 21, 2002

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Eric Bana


Eric Bana in Chopper

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