It took six months and at least $5 million to build the sparkling Caribbean port city on St. Martin. Hurricane Jan leveled the island’s entire town and its three-dozen buildings in a matter of hours.
Hurricane Jan is filmmaker Jan De Bont, who through “Twister” and “Speed” has established himself as one of Hollywood’s top action directors.
The very real French West Indies port, which De Bont’s crew constructed and then destroyed on camera, is one of the biggest stars of “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” opening Friday.
Like so many action movies these days, the $120 million (or higher) “Speed 2” is distinguished not by subtle plot twists and nuanced acting but by in-your-face hardware and over-the-top stunts.
A cruise ship gone amok. A motorcycle chase. A sea plane chase. A ship’s propeller that slices people. A town that gets leveled.
A look at this sequel’s making helps explain why today’s movies are so expensive and how sophisticated special effects are nearly enslaving directors even as they liberate them.
An audience raised on staggering effects now demands sights it has never seen before. And that, along with spiraling star salaries, costs a lot of money.
With “Titanic” and “Starship Troopers” opening later in the year, “Speed 2” is the summer’s most expensive movie and one of the costliest ever. Its monetary performance will be closely watched by every Hollywood studio, especially its maker, 20th Century Fox.
“Everything is out of whack in the movies right now,” De Bont confesses. “The studios all want to outdo themselves and each other. Event movies are always going to be expensive.”
He blames part of the film’s cost on actors’ salaries. Sandra Bullock was paid a reported $12.5 million to reprise her role.
“Speed 2” also illustrates a simple rule of Hollywood economics. Since directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas essentially own their movies, they have an incentive to keep costs down. De Bont, on the other hand, is a salaried employee.
Spielberg did not take any salary for directing “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” Instead, he gets a huge slice of the film’s profits, well before Hollywood’s creative accountants cook the books.
The less “The Lost World” costs, the more Spielberg stands to earn. That’s why the dinosaur sequel came in at only $75 million.
Lucas generally finances his own movies, as he will do with the next three proposed “Star Wars” movies. His motivation, too, is to keep expenses to a minimum without making the films look cheap.
The new “Star Wars” movies thus are all budgeted around $70 million, not even twice the cost of the average studio film.
De Bont, like almost all other directors, wants as much money as possible on-screen. He wants to knock socks off.
“Jan’s intention is to do it better than it’s ever been done before,” says the film’s producer, Michael Peyser. “People don’t worry about budgets when they see the movie on screen. You don’t want to put yourself at risk (financially). But you sometimes have to step up.”
In the case of “Speed 2,” De Bont, among other stunts, built a city just so a cruise ship could plow into it.
The sequel’s plot has crazed computer programmer Willem Dafoe hijack the swank Seabourn Legend. Its passengers include Bullock and Jason Patric, who replaces “Speed’s” Keanu Reeves the way the boat replaces the first film’s bus.
With the ship’s controls disabled, the Seabourn Legend plows through the port town.
It’s a spectacular sequence that involved a year of planning and execution and lasts mere minutes on-screen. De Bont says he could have created the entire stunt on computers like those that brought dinosaurs to life in “The Lost World.”
But audiences, he says, wouldn’t be impressed.
“I looked at all the alternatives,” says De Bont. “CGI (computer generated images), miniatures, special effects. And none of them seemed to work. Nothing is better than reality.”
So De Bont’s crew built the town, and a 500-yard rail line in the harbor and underneath the new buildings. Attached to the rails was a 300-ton replica of the Seabourn Legend’s prow.
Sliding along the tracks like a train - a dozen cameras rolling - the boat mows through the town like a warm knife in butter. When the buildings are tossed aside and crushed, they look like real structures, not foot-tall models.
Compared to a slightly similar scene in “The Lost World,” it’s far more genuine.
“Speed 2” also has scores of elaborate special effects. The Seabourn Legend’s stern and decks were added digitally to the town-smashing prow. Other scenes called for so many effects shots that De Bont hired two companies - Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic for above-water sequences, and Rhythm and Hues for below-water shots.
“The scale is much bigger” than “Speed,” De Bont says. “A ship is 100 times bigger than a bus. You don’t realize how big it is until you’re up against it.
“And in the first ‘Speed’ (his directorial debut), I got a lot of favors. That’s a little hard to do the second time when the first film is so successful. People say … ‘You’re going to pay.”’
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