Poseidon: Remaking 1972 Adventure with Director Petersen

Its New Years Eve and festivities have begun aboard the luxury cruise ship Poseidon. One of the finest vessels, Poseidon stands more than 20 stories tall, boasts 800 staterooms and 13 passenger decks. Tonight, the ships guests have gathered to greet the New Year in style in the magnificent Main Ballroom. They raise champagne glasses as Captain Bradford (Andre Braugher) delivers a holiday toast and the band rolls into a version of Auld Lang Syne.

Meanwhile, on the bridge, the Chief Officer senses that something is wrong. Scanning the horizon, he sees a rogue wave; a wall of water over 150 feet high, bearing down on them. He tries to steer the ship away from maximum impact but its too late. The wave strikes with colossal force, pitching the ship heavily to port before rolling it completely upside down. Passengers and crew are crushed by debris or dragged into the sea as water bursts in through shattered windows. The supports collapse, broken gas lines ignite flash fires, and lights fail, leaving the ship in darkness and chaos.

In its aftermath, a few hundred survivors are left to huddle in the still-intact Main Ballroom, now resting below the waterline. They should stay together, the captain maintains, and wait here for rescue. One man, professional gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), prefers to test the odds alone. Ignoring orders, he prepares to exit the Ballroom and find his own way to safety, but is collared by nine-year-old Conor (Jimmy Bennett) who asks that Dylan take him and his mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) along. Fast behind them is Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), anxious to search for his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her fianc Christian (Mime Vogel). Only an hour earlier this young couple had found it impossible to tell him they were engaged.

Wary of alliances, Dylan reluctantly leads the band of survivors upward through the bowels of the ship. Those who choose to join them rather than wait below include a shy stowaway (Mia Maestro), a suicidal man (Richard Dreyfuss) who re-discovers his will to live and a young waiter with knowledge of the ships layout (Freddy Rodriguez). Determined to fight their way to the surface, they must forge a path together through layers of wreckage as the ship continues to sink.

For filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, Poseidon raises an intriguing and personal question: “What would you do if the whole world turned upside down Would you be a courageous leader or a follower Would you panic Would you give up or keep on going

The director of Troy, The Perfect Storm and Air Force One, Petersen rose to international prominence with the tense 1981 World War II submarine drama Das Boot, which earned him Oscar nominations for both direction and screenplay. He returns to the sea with Poseidon to focus not only on the power of a massive rogue wave that overturns a luxury cruise ship in open water, but on the intense dramas that play out among a small group of people fighting to survive in its aftermath. In a disaster, you really get to see who people are inside, with the artifice and the normal conventions of life stripped away, he says. Life-or-death decisions are made in seconds. When you see how people react and how they behave in extreme situations you know what theyre made of.

The Poseidon passengers came aboard to celebrate, Petersen sets the stage, noting that Poseidons passengers are on the kind of cruise people take not to reach a destination but rather to enjoy the luxury and leisure of the journey itself. Its New Years Eve and they are beautifully dressed and ready to have fun. Everyone has plans for the future. As the clock strikes midnight even members of the ships staff take a minute for their own impromptu celebrations in the hallways and kitchens off the Grand Ballroom where guests gather to ring in the New Year.

All of a sudden they are attacked by a monster wave and everything is turned upside down. Things are hanging from the ceiling, falling down or peeling away from the walls, and there are gas leaks, steam, smoke and fires. Imagine your whole life changing in an instant and you must deal with the unthinkable. Nothing is where it should be and you are totally disoriented. Its an apocalyptic world.

Heightening the sense of panic, Petersen explains, is their confinement. This is not something a person can run away from. Trapped within a closed environment where there is no escape, no help and very little time, they are forced to deal with it by themselves. What begins as an immense and spacious setting becomes suddenly small and claustrophobic, broken into disconnected pockets of air and clogged passageways. The movie starts with thousands of people, then hundreds, and then it becomes just a handful as everything draws tighter and more intimately focused.

And what could be more terrifying than a disaster of this magnitude, striking in the middle of the sea where help, if it comes, would be hours away Rogue waves exist, states Petersen, who has long considered water the most dangerous, dramatic and unpredictable of elements, and was aware of the phenomenon prior to embarking on Poseidon. Once the stuff of maritime legend, these veritable walls of water, as reported by eyewitnesses, have come under scientific observation only in recent years via ESA (European Space Agency) satellite technology. Long suspected but unproven as the cause of countless ocean disasters, they are now confirmed responsible for damage to cruise liners and offshore oilrigs since the 1990s when serious research began.

Radar reports from one North Sea oil field indicate nearly 500 rogue wave assaults in the past 12 years and, more gravely, the ESA suggests they could be the cause behind many of the 200 supertankers and cargo ships sunk in the last 20 years, generally attributed to severe weather. One notable example is the 43,000-ton Mnchen, overturned in the Atlantic in 1978 with no survivors. In 1995 the cruise liner Queen Mary 2 was luckier, narrowly surviving an encounter with an estimated 95-foot wave during a hurricane. While scientists cite strong currents as one likely origin of these monsters, focusing natural oceanic flow into a single force, there are also incidents of rogue waves that develop in the absence of strong currents, literally out of nowhere.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell) crossed the Atlantic himself on the Queen Mary 2 in preparation for his work on Poseidon. He found both passengers and crew to be a diverse mix of ages, nationalities and backgrounds, supporting Petersens assertion that disasters are great equalizers. It doesnt matter if youre young or old, if youre the richest person in the world or if youre working in the kitchen; youre all in it together. This kind of crisis brings out our essential selves, the very best and the very worst,
says Protosevich. Relationships are tested and emotional bonds will be either strengthened or severed. If someone you love shows cowardice you will never forget it, but if they are willing to risk their own life for the sake of others you will never forget that either. The potential for heroism lies in each of us; whether or not we choose to act on it defines who we are.

The challenges faced by the Poseidon survivors and the choices they make in some ways represent, for Petersen, a parable for life. If you hold onto someone you might save him or maybe he will just pull you down. At what point will you decide to let go Either way, its a shocking moment and nothing will ever be the same.

The filmmakers brought to this project a genuine fondness and respect for the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, from producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame. Like that earlier film, a classic of its genre, Petersens Poseidon begins with the same concept and uses it as a catalyst for a fresh story. We borrowed the idea of a luxury liner with thousands of people aboard, hit by a rogue wave on New Years Eve, he explains, and then started from scratch with an all-new screenplay and original, contemporary characters. Our story is in those characters, what they experience as individuals and as a group, and the way their journey ends.

This is about you, Petersen told his cast, Its not about things exploding or big tanks of water; its about how you handle your situation and how you behave. I want to see your sweat, your fear, everything.

The ensemble of actors had to be not only talented but resilient. In addition to performing their own harness work from precipitous platforms and being blasted by incoming torrents, the final weeks of filming had the actors working underwater, a skill for which each received a weeks training from a diving safety team.

Shooting on a real ship was more problematic than one might think, says producer Duncan Henderson. It soon became clear that no existing ship could compare to Wolfgangs vision of the newest, the best, the most grand and luxurious, as depicted in production designer William Sandells preliminary drawings, which, Henderson says, were more appealing to the director than any of their other choices. Wolfgang decided he didnt want to be held back by anything.

By employing computer graphics to create the ocean, all exteriors and the ship in its entirety, the filmmakers did not need to compromise in scale, ultimately pitting a more-than 150-foot wall of water against a 20-story grand ocean liner more than 1100 feet long and carrying 4,000 crew and guests. Industry leader ILM, which previously contributed the groundbreaking aquatic effects for Petersens The Perfect Storm, raised the bar again with new image-rendering techniques that bring the wave and the ship to life.

Extensive interiors were built on Warner soundstages the old-fashioned way to accommodate practical effects. Most sets were duplicated in original and upside-down versions to depict, first, the ships grandeur and then, post-impact, its utter destruction all balanced on platforms that could pitch and roll the action on its side. Combining practical sets with CGI, Petersen achieved the size and scope unlikely to be found in the real world yet scrupulously realistic: a ship not only ultra-modern but timelessly elegant in every way, from its sleek exterior construction to every detail of dcor and atmosphere right down to the handcrafted initial P reproduced in the buttons of the staff uniforms.

Petersen brought to the project many artists with whom he has worked before, among them cinematographer John Seale, an Oscar and BAFTA Award winner for The English Patient; editor Peter Honess, whose work on L.A. Confidential earned a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination; costume designer Erica Edell Phillips, whose designs for Total Recall earned a Saturn Award; special effects supervisor John Frazier, a 2005 Oscar winner for Spiderman 2 and five-time additional Oscar nominee whose work on The Perfect Storm merited a BAFTA Award as well as an Oscar nomination; and production designer William Sandell, an Art Directors Guild Award nominee for The Perfect Storm who brought home a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination in 2004 for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis (a BAFTA nominee for Speed) oversaw the implementation of more than 600 VFX shots. The most remarkable sequence is two and a half minutes, Petersen says. The only real element in the whole shot is the jogger, Josh Lucas, who was filmed against a green screen at the San Fernando Valleys Sepulveda Dam, one of the films only two off-lot locations, then integrated into the virtual landscape.

Its the boldest, most insane shot ever done in the history of CG, yet completely photorealistic. I dont expect people will think, what a great CG shot, instead, they might think, what a great ship; where did they find it Acknowledging how computer technology has evolved, he adds, There is so much more we can do now versus five years ago, especially in the way we can show the natural weight and flow of water, the most difficult of all elements to realistically replicate.

With the exception of the opening shot captured at the Sepulveda Dam, the ships (upright) disco filmed at L.A. Staples Center, and the Warner commissary kitchen standing in for Poseidons galley, all sets for the film were built on five studio soundstages, including the famous Stage 16, where Petersen had helmed a different vessel five years earlier.

The site of such classics as The Old Man and the Sea and P.T. 109, Stage 16s water tank was previously enlarged for The Perfect Storm from 8 feet to a depth of 22 feet, making it, at 95' x 100' x 22,' the worlds largest soundstage pool with a 1.3 million-gallon capacity. Stage 16 now housed Poseidons most ambitious set, the upside-down ballroom which ultimately takes the violent impact of a 90,000-gallon rush of water, while neighboring Stage 19 held an identical but right-side-up replica of the ballroom, for scenes shot prior to the deadly waves impact.

Working in these sets was like being in a toy shop, says Petersen, who particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the pre-wave ballroom set, with all its glamour and everyone dressed for a fine evening, with the version next door, the same room upside down with everything smashed to pieces. Lets say it tapped into that little bit of anarchy and boyish fun we have inside, of making everything kaput.

The Production

Cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) helped facilitate this timetable with a system of multiple cameras, regularly employing four and adding more as various scenes warranted.
Shooting near or very often under water posed its own creative, logistical and safety challenges. Cameras were sealed in watertight soft housings and buttressed against the flow. Corrective ports (a domed glass piece fitted over the lens) helped adjust distortions in focal length caused by the way light refracts through water. Steadicam operators wrapped equipment in waterproof bags and carried on as usual, says Seale, with water pouring on top of their cameras, theyd just walk straight through it. We got the shot every time. In fact, we only drowned one camera, which is pretty good for a movie with this much water and action.

Enhancing the metaphor that the ship itself is dying, Seale used light to present the ship first as, an opulent, ultra-modern floating hotel where everything is warm and welcoming. Then, after the wave hits, all hell breaks lose and the lighting is turned upside down. As our heroes make their way to the top, the ship is dying and lights are going out so we slowly bleed the color out of the scenes. As they move toward the bowels of the ship the atmosphere becomes industrial and cold.

One of Poseidons powerful set pieces is the implosion of the grand ballroom. Suspended upside-down below the waterline but still airtight after the waves initial impact, the ballroom serves as a haven for those who remain behind with the captain when Dylan and his group start their climb. But eventually the water pressure proves too much and water bursts in through the windows, flooding the room in seconds. It was not a scene that anyone wanted to shoot twice.

In addition to the cast, stunt performers and hundreds of extras on board, the production engaged VFX scanning company Itronics to create approximately 150 visual clones to step in for flesh-and-blood actors at crucial moments where even the most rigorous safety precautions might fail, like the ballroom implosion. Poseidons passengers also included 65 state-of-the-art dummies crafted by industry mainstay KNB Efx Group, fresh from their work on The Chronicles of Narnia. Made up and costumed, their close-up-quality fiberglass bodies could be weighted for underwater scenes or fitted with floats to bob near the surface. Others, loosely jointed, could be tossed around the tilting sets like flotsam or charred by flash fires. Internal wire armature allowed their limbs to bend into credible simulations of broken bones while extra pairs of artificial arms and legs alone were used to supplement images of people trapped under wreckage or fallen atop one another.

Imax Version

Poseidon will be released in IMAX theatres worldwide, in addition to conventional theatres. The film has been digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience with proprietary IMAX DMR (Digital Re-mastering) technology. Poseidon is the second IMAX DMR film release from Warner in 2006, in a series of five scheduled for the year. It represents the 10th collaboration between IMAX and Warner, including the IMAX original films NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience and Deep Sea 3D: The IMAX Experience. IMAX Theatres deliver images of unsurpassed clarity and impact, enabling audiences to experience the thrill and intensity of Poseidon on the worlds largest screens, surrounded by state-of-the-art digital sound. (IMAX screens can be three times larger than the average 35mm screen, 4,500 times larger than the average TV screen, and as wide as an NFL football field.)

Poseidon is a thrill ride, says Petersen. We want people to feel as though theyre on this ship when the giant wave hits. We want to pull them under the water and bring them back up to catch their breath. The IMAX format is so immersive, its perfectly designed to help draw audiences into the action.