Back in 1997 I went on the set of the Vancouver-shot action-horror flick Deep Rising on assignment for Fangoria magazine. I chatted with director Stephen Sommers and actors Treat Williams and Famke Janssen. The movie wound up sucking but, hey, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my fault.
It shouldn’t come as any real surprise, when you step onto the set of a horror/action film, that the first thing that catches your eye is a great big honkin’ gun. Still, the sight of some prop guy casually fiddling with the trigger mechanism of a bazooka-sized weapon gives you cause for concern when it just happens to be aimed your way.
On the gorgeous summer day when Fango visits the North Vancouver set of Deep Rising, there’s a crew member in the back of atruck handling said minicannon. “Do they use that to kill the monster?” your reporter asks by way of introductory chit-chat, but when the childlike greeting results only in a bored look and a lackadaisical “no”, it’s clear that one would be better of putting any questions about the film’s weapon-vs.-creatures outcome to director Stephen Sommers himself.
“It’s not nearly big enough,” says the much more approachable Sommers when corralled in his trailer during a lunch break. “They need a lot more firepower than that. But they have it!”
Since Sommers also wrote the script for Deep Rising, which Hollywood Pictures releases January 30, he’s obviously the right guy to provide a capsule description of the film’s story. Barely giving the guy a chance to chown down on his plateful of steak and crab–they sure eat well on this shoot!–Fango pushes for a rundown of the plot.
“There are two storylines that converge,” explains the youthful-looking, 30-something filmmaker. “It’s all about a state-of-the-art luxury cruise ship, the most expensive one on the planet, that is on its maiden voyage, while at the same time a bunch of modern-day pirates are going to hijack the ship and rip it off.
“When the get there it’s in the middle of a storm, and their boat gets crippled, but they manage to limp to the cruise ship. And when they get on board, all the passengers are gone. Nobody’s on the ship! Then they find out that something else is on the boat. Some other things. And now they’re trapped on it in the middle of the storm.”
It was concerns about ocean-bound problems of a more prosaic sort that led the Deep Rising crew to avoid shooting the movie on the open sea. According to Sommers, there was no way in hell he’d want to treat the murky depths ofWaterworld.
“We’re always trying to figure out how to beat the water problem,” he reports, “because a lot of the movie just takes place in water. I mean, you’ll see sets that are flooded up to our knees, and others that are flooded up to our eyeballs. We have dump tanks all over the place, and we’re building what’ll be the second biggest tank in the world for a lot of our water work. But to go out on the real ocean–that’s insanity.”
There has been something of a cyclical trend toward seafaring horror flicks in the last couple of decades, what with soaking-wet suckers like Leviathan and DeepStar Six turning up in 1989 and Sphere and Virus coming later this winter. And then there was the TV miniseries based on Peter Benchley’s novel Beast that aired shortly before work got under way on Deep Rising.
But Sommers says that he’s not worried about fallout from that giant-squid epic tarnishing his film. The mere mention of Beast, in fact, draws a humorously flustered reaction from the director.
“Oh, was that that–oh no! Oh my God, it’s so funny because–well, I shouldn’t hack on them. All I’ll say is, I saw the last 20 minutes of that movie, and I have no concerns, because ours isn’t about a giant plastic floating thing. I won’t get any deeper than that.”
Sommers requests that the tape recorder be switched off while he pokes off-the-record fun at Beast’s shortcomings, but he soon leaves comical criticism of that much-maligned effort aside to focus on the positive aspects of his own film’s monstrosities, which were designed based on real living organisms and creatures.
“We wanted to make them as believable and real as we could,” he says, “just incredibly vicious and large, and as organic as possible. We didn’t want to do them with big puppets, and when you see the creatures you’ll realize they can’t be men in costumes. The only way to make them do what we wanted them to do, and look how we wanted them to look, was through computer generation–with a lot of interactive mechanical effects.
“And I don’t want to put other movies down,” he adds, still recovering from the memory of Beast, “but I hope this has a better plot, better characters, better actors, and better special effects.”
Sommers is quick to sing the praises of his Deep Rising colleagues, including makeup and creature FX master Rob Bottin, production designer Holger (StarGate) Gross, 2nd-unit director Dean Cundey (whose credits as a cinematographer range from Halloween to Jurassic Park), and veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith.
As Sommers carves out a morsel of barbecued beef, there seems like no better time to query him about the grisly highlights of the film. The affable director is so eager to explain the gory details that he actually lays his fork down for a minute, an unheard-of practice among lunching directors, most of whom are only too happy to talk with their mouths full.
“Well, you get to see a man half-digested,” he says, “and the way Rob is doing it is pretty brilliant. It’s half makeup and half CGI, so when people see this half-digested guy stumbling towards them, they’ll have no idea how it was done. You can see through his eye socket to the back of his skull.”
The opportunity to see FX guru Bottin at work is one that this Fango scribe isn’t about to pass up, and on a subsequent set visit, the FX wizard is caught in action. In one of the huge buildings that make up the Versatile Shipyards section of North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay, Sommers and Bottin are giving actor Clint Curtis a crash course in looking mangled and freaked out. He stands half-naked, bleeding from a head wound that has cost him a fair chunk of his hair, staring dazedly at his hands, which are blistered and gory after an intimate encounter with one of the sea creatures’ tentacles.
At Bottin’s request, makeup assistants slather “Billy” down with more goop as they prepare for another take. “Spaz me like a wildman!” urges Sommers, observing the action from a monitor, and Curtis freaks out more fervently, until the director is satisfied enough to yell, “Cut! That’s a print!”
After viewing all this intense horrorization, a relaxed stroll around the set’s grounds–located right on picturesque Vancouver Harbour–is in order. Inside one cavernous structure, set workers under production designer Gross have constructed mazelike corridors and walkways, and installed scads of nautical piping to create the engine-room interior of the film’s pivotal cruise ship. Crew members slog along in dirty-looking, waist-high water, and in certain dingy corners it’s easy to imagine any manner of sea beastie lying in wait, just below the surface.
Back outside, a single inflatable mattress floats in an enormous above-ground tank, the only remnant of a recent pool party that crew members threw while taking a breather from set construction. This holding tank is to be used for some of Deep Rising‘s close-up water shots, and an even larger one at the other end of the set grounds is being built for a climactic scene that involves an escape on jet skis.
Having seen what some of the film’s $45-million budget is being spent on, it’s time to get an eyeful of another, more appealing sort–in the shape of lead actress Famke Janssen. When Fango shows up at the beautiful former Bond girl’s trailer, she seems a little burnt out, but is still happy to offer a description of her character, Trillian.
“She doesn’t even have a last name,” Janssen says, “just Trillian. She’s a jewel thief on a cruise ship, and of course she gets caught, ’cause she’s really bad at everything she does. She thinks she’s good at everything, but she gets busted, gets put up in a locker room, and then all of a sudden everything goes wrong on the ship–she doesn’t know what. After she wakes up from all the boxes that have hit her on the head, she realizes that the whole cruise ship has been infested by these creatures, and that there are just a few survivors and she’s one of them.”
Janssen describes her role in Deep Rising as quite a departure from that of GoldenEye‘s lasciviously lethal assassin Xenia Onatopp–she of the crushing, killer thighs. And the actress says that the project is a lot more fun, too. She motions proudly to an acoustic guitar she keeps in her trailer, and which she has co-star Kevin J. O’Connor give her lessons on whenever there’s free time on the set.
“GoldenEye was shot in London,” says the Dutch-born actress, “and I was there by myself, so I didn’t hang out as much with all the other actors. And the character I portrayed in that film was a little more difficult for me to play than this one.”
Deep Rising marks the second time that Janssen has been cast alongside guitar-strumming pal O’Connor, whose portrayal of Philip Swann was a highlight of Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions. In that film, Janssen’s Dorothea character shared numerous scenes with O’Connor, but she doesn’t enjoy nearly as much screen time with him this time around.
“I’m mostly involved with myself,” she says with a chuckle, “and then all these other people arrive and I have to deal with them. The person I mostly get involved with is Treat Williams’ character, Finnegan. Kevin sort of tags along, and I treat him like shit.”
Although she agrees that she somehow “keeps ending up in them”, Janssen points out that she’s not a fan of horror films per se. And from the sound of things, she wasn’t too crazy about how the theatrical version of Lord of Illusions panned out. “It’s frustrating to be an actor in a movie and find out that the story has been altered and a lot of scenes have been cut, but that’s the part you have to deal with as an actor. The director’s cut, on laserdisc, is probably closer to what I remember filming.”
A little more trailer-hopping soon finds us face-to-face with star Williams, whose trailer walls are adorned with snapshots of his Vermont farm and his infant son. The actor leans back on a comfy-looking couch and goes about explaining what attracted him to Deep Rising in the first place.
“I have always been looking for a fun action-adventure film,” he says, “and it’s been interesting. I’ve had some come along that I’ve passed on, and others that I wanted that I didn’t get, but what I like about this is that it’s an action film that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s got elements of the horror and B-movie genres, but it’s elevated. The thing that I was most attracted to was that there’s a real sense of humor involved. Stephen has such a great sense of humor and a sense of style that will surprise a lot of people.”
Williams is riding somewhat of a comeback on film, what with his roles as crimelord Xander Drax in The Phantom, arms dealer Billy Burke in The Devil’s Own, and Critical Bill in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. He sees the latter portrayal in particular as being indicative of a return to strong characterizations.
“There was a point in my life when I said, ‘I don’t want to be an actor in bad films,” he confesses. “I had done three films in a row that I was unhappy with, and I felt that I was trying to hang on to what had been a very promising career, with Prince of the City and other movies. I was tired of apologizing for the films I was in, and I just decided to back off from that.
“I was making a very good living in television, and waiting patiently–sometimes painfully, but always patiently–for Critical Bill. I didn’t know it was going to beCritical Bill, but I knew that there’d be a part that would come along where eventually I would be able to demonstrate that I’m still capable of doing good work in good films.”
One of Williams’ credits that no doubt falls into the disappointment category is director Mark Goldblatt’s Dead Heat, the 1988 zombie-cop flick he co-starred in with Joe Piscopo. He remembers it as a very difficult shoot–and has basically been happy to forget everything else about the unsuccessful project. Still, Williams admits that is is a recognizable part of his oeuvre in certain cinematic circles.
“There have been many people who see me and go, ‘Oh, you’re the guy in Dead Heat‘,” he says, “so there is a group of people who like that movie. But I thought it could have been much better.”
Williams admits to a strong love of horror flicks, but says that that attraction resulted only from his life-long adoration of movies in general. “I have always had a very eclectic love of film,” he says, “and I don’t differentiate the independent art film from the big Hollywood spectacular. As a kid growing up, watching Fred Astaire dance was as important to me as watching Godzilla crush buildings–all of it was a part of my youthful view as to what film is.
“But one of the most frightening experiences of my life was watching one of the Quatermass movies, my first real horror film experience. There’s another film I remember watching about space creatures in a guy’s backyard and they had this sand pit, and people would drop down into it and get these things stuck in their necks. Invaders from Mars.
“And when I was a kid in New York there was a thing called Million Dollar Movie, and in those days–when television only had like six channels–the station would purchase a film for a week-long showing, so when King Kong played, it aired like 50 times. And I saw it about 48 times. The next week it was Godzilla, another week it would be Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein or Son of Frankenstein. There were a whole lot of them.”
So does Williams expect that Deep Rising will instill the same kind of thrills in ’90s horror fans as his fave bookings on The Million Dollar Movie did way back when?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “Rob Bottin is doing a great job–not only creating these monsters, but creating monsters with personality. They aren’t just attacking everybody; they also rear back and examine us, and are trying to figure out how to get us in one part of the ship.
“What they’re really doing is feeding, and that’s the fun part. From our perspective we’re being attacked by monsters, but all they’re doing is having dinner.”