Wolfgang Petersen: The Perfect Guy for The Perfect Storm

Director Wolfgang Petersen talks about how he filmed a drama set in "the storm of the century" and why his star George Clooney might rise to Harrison Ford-level status in five or so years. He also discusses his strange journey from post-Hitler Germany to postmodern Hollywood.


When major studio movie has a story that takes place at sea, the inevitable subplot of the film becomes how far the project has gone over budget. From Jaws way back in the early 70s to Waterworld, Sphere and Titanic, the logistical problems of filming on open waters have led to cost-runovers that rival movie star behavior for media headlines. How, then, was The Perfect Storm able to cruise through with nary a sniff of media scrutiny, even though it is one of the riskiest ventures in studio history, greenlit at $140 million with topliners (George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) who've yet to prove they can carry a megabudget film? The answer is the director, Wolfgang Petersen. Having evolved over the course of 19 years from his status as the German auteur of 1981's WWII sub-marine tale Das Boot (The Boat) into Hollywood's go-to guy for challenging event films, Petersen was just about the perfect director for The Perfect Storm. The adaptation of Sebastian Junger's bestselling nonfiction book about Massachusetts fishing boats caught in the worst storm of the past century called for familiarity with both the treachery of the actual sea and with the potential sea of red ink that often comes with big action pictures. Petersen is known as one of the most depend-able tellers of wholly American stories on large canvasses, a neat feat for some-one not born in the U.S. He achieved this reputation by parlaying Das Boot's success into a ticket to Hollywood and by weathering a few storms of his own, like the disastrous sci-fi tale Enemy Mine and the failed thriller Shattered. His break came from Clint Eastwood, who chose him to direct In the Line of Fire. The film was a smash hit and Petersen has never looked back. He followed up with Outbreak, a film about a devastating virus which proved infectious at the box office, and his biggest hit of all, the patriotic Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One. The Perfect Storm is more ambitious than any of those Films. Harrison Ford said no to the starring role, and hopes to draft Mel Gibson went down over money matters. So with George Clooney in the lead (plus Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and John C. Reilly on board), the real stars of the film are now Petersen and his storm.

MICHAEL FLEMING: It's ironic that you nearly had Mel Gibson cast as your fishing boat captain, and now, unless someone moves, he'll open against you on the Fourth of July weekend in The Patriot.

WOLFGANG PETERSEN: That's as ironic as the fact that the directors of both films are German guys telling American stories, both scheduled for the American Independence Day. Mel really wanted to do The Perfect Storm, and Roland Emmerich was willing to move The Patriot back a bit so that Mel could do ours first, but Warner Bros, didn't want to pay a superstar salary for a movie where the concept is the star.

Q: Is the rumored cost of your movie--$140 million--correct?

A: It's not much under that, but I'm proud that we came in $3.4 million under budget. The Perfect Storm could end up as an example of how not every big movie has to explode like Waterworld or Titanic. I'd been careful in the past, but this time I was adamant. With Das Boot, I'd been through a gigantic movie with a boat. It was months and months on the water, and had all kinds of problems. Maybe it has to do with being German, but I am an organized person. I used the six months of preparation to make sure we had as much control as possible. I was obsessed. I thought about all the possible pitfalls and came up with backup situations.

Q: What convinced you to take this project on?

A: I could smell it from day one when I read the book. It was my kind of stuff. I grew up on the water-front in Germany and had a very close connection to the water and to its people. What drew me to The Perfect Storm was the drama of blue-collar people with their problems--getting their paychecks, paying the rent, paying the divorce lawyer--and how they run away from those problems out to sea. I knew that if I did my job, the characters in The Perfect Storm would become heroic. Not because they climb Mount Everest, but because they just want to bring their fish home and collect their checks so we get swordfish on the table. It's small that way. On the other hand, there is this titanic battle they have to fight.

Q: You cast George Clooney as a fishing boat captain who made disastrous decisions motivated by his desire to catch fish and make money. He could have been a villain, right?

A: That's a fair point. The way we solved it in the script was to have him include his crew in each decision. There's enormous pressure on him to find fish. We all can relate to that, going the extra mile to make it. They catch fish like crazy, they fill the whole boat. A hull full of gold. It's classic Greek drama. Almost like The Old Man and the Sea. Simple, classic. What happens? The ice machine stops working, and they've got just enough ice to make it back before the fish spoils. Then, whap, bad weather comes. He goes to his guys and says, "Look, there's real bad weather in our way. We have two choices. We hang out here safe and lose the fish. A quarter of a million dollars wasted. Or we go ahead." The way the story works, the bad guy is the weather.

Q: When you made In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood and Air Force One with Harrison Ford, you had two leading-man legends. Can Clooney become a star of that magnitude?

A: Absolutely. Eastwood and Ford have been around for decades. Whenever they walk into a room, they automatically become the room. With George it's different. At the moment, he's just a regular guy, gets in line with everybody else, never wants any special treatment. He's just too young now. But will he get there? It might come to him in 5 or 10 years. Toward the end of this film you can feel it. He looks 10 years older with his beard. I can't take my eyes off him there. I think with George, the older he gets, the better. When he's closer to 45, he'll just be fantastic. Maybe it's starting now, with this movie.

Q: You cast Mark Wahlberg as Bobby, the crew member who has a romance with a woman he leaves onshore, played by Diane Lane. One would expect George to have the romance.

A: George wanted to play Bobby and I said, "No way, you're the skipper." This was a guy turning 38 years old, the perfect age for him. I told him this was an enormous step up to a risky, edgy dramatic kind of role he'd never done before.

Q: Clooney and Wahlberg just came off Three Kings, which by all accounts was a grueling shoot. Though this was more complex, word is they had an easier time.

A: George and the director had real problems on that film. Here, George and Mark were so tough. These guys got pounded with tons of water, you should have seen it. I had to be careful not to blow them right off the boat. It was like that every single day, from early morning until late at night to get those scenes. They got up and did it over and over.

Q: How did you settle on Diane Lane for the lead female role?

A: I met her 13 years ago, when she was 22. She's now only 35, but a lot has happened to her in those years. When she came in for the part, I thought, "Oh my God, she could be that person." She had an edge. Under the glamorous good looks is the strength and vulnerability of someone who's been hurt. I saw a lot of actresses, but she went right to the top of my list.

Q: When you made Das Boot, you got an Oscar nomination and were labeled a European auteur. Since then, the hardware in your movies has gotten the most notice. Does that bother you?

A: It is tough for me psychologically. After Das Boot, I had a hard time get-ting something going here. They say, "Come on over here," and you do. You look at what they have to offer and say, "What is this?" But I always loved Hollywood movies. I grew up watching them and wanted to be part of that. I didn't want to go home and say I failed. Thank God In the Line of Fire finally happened. Are my Hollywood films mainstream? Maybe. But you know what? The Perfect Storm is a clear link to Das Boot, and I've never had as much creative freedom as I had on this film.

Q: This is a truly American story, much like In the Line of Fire and Air Force One. Do you consider yourself a European director living here or a Hollywood director?

A: I look at things a bit differently than Americans who live here. They don't even realize or see certain things. Air Force One was a real flag-waver and that had very much to do with the fact that I love American films and I've had a great sympathy for America since I was a little boy. When I was very young, American ships would come into the harbor out of the fog and throw all kinds of food down to us kids. They were throwing bananas, oranges, meat, and it felt like it was coming from heaven. The sailors smiled and they were dean and their ships were beautiful. They were American and they were good. I will never forget that. Later, I started to watch films by Howard Hawks and John Ford, movies starring John Wayne. I fell in love with that world, because our world was so messy, but their world was so clear. There were good guys and bad guys. And there were heroic people. It changed in the late '60s, when there was anti-American feeling from the Vietnam War, but by then my foundation was strong. So I wanted to make films in Hollywood when I came here. On the other hand, I still feel myself a European director who brought all that I had learned and done in Germany, where I developed a European way of seeing things.

Q: You've said that Germans resent your success.

A: Germany has always been strange that way, like France. The critics and intellectuals hate Hollywood conquering the world with trashy films and suffocating their film industry, and that's not totally wrong. I've made big commercial movies they don't like much. I think we are on OK terms now, though. Air Force One was of course too flag-waving for them, but In the Line of Fire got a great reaction there, and they liked Outbreak. Das Boot was the film they really punished me for.

Q: Why did they turn on you for Das Boot? The film gave humanity to German soldiers who usually show up as unredeemable villains.

A: It's a German thing. The film tried to make a very nonpolitical statement, just describing how war destroys people, what mad-ness it is. Everywhere in the world the film was applauded for being a great anti-war statement. But Germans feel we can't show ourselves as such normal human beings in that war. We are the bad guys, mea culpa, mea culpa. Germans are very extreme. (Conquering the world and saying that we are the greatest and that everyone else is bad, then when that didn't work, going the opposite way and saying we are bad. It is very difficult to be a German.

Q: Was it a problem for you growing up in the post-WWII rubble loving American films in which Germans were often villains?

A: Of course it was. In school in the '50s all our history lessons ended in the 1920s. We never, never covered Hitler. They always said it was still too close. You knew something terrible had happened in the past, but you had no idea what it was. Teachers didn't want to talk about it. My parents didn't want to talk about it. But I remember my mother telling me once that although everybody said they had nothing to do with this, that was just bullshit. She said that when Hitler came to town where she lived, she was out in the street screaming and yelling, the tears were running down her face, she was totally enthralled by this man. I said, "Thank you, Mother. At least you've helped me understand a little bit about what kind of fascination there was for that man, what caused all that." It's an ugly thing.

Q: Hollywood is a very Jewish town. Das Boot was a tough calling card.

A: I remember when we came here and showed Das Boot for the very first time in 1982. There's a crawl at the beginning of the film which says that of 40,000 German submarine troops, 30,000 never came back. And there was huge applause at that. We were all shocked, thinking "Oh my God, this is going to be a real disaster." We were sinking down in our chairs. But when the film was over and the lights went on, I got a standing ovation. I couldn't believe it. I'll never forget that moment, its one of the reasons I'm here. I was so moved, especially after the horrible reviews I'd gotten in Germany.

Q: The Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has tried unsuccessfully to make a film about Hitler to show how an entire population could be seduced by some-one so evil.

A: it's a fascinating idea. I once met Albert Speer, Hitler's famous architect. I was a friend of his son. Here was one of the giants among the monsters of the Third Reich, the only one still alive. He was in great shape, tall, great-looking. You cannot imagine what a charming guy. He gave me a taste of how it could have been and why you have to be so careful. He said you can-not imagine what it was like talking about art and architecture with Hitler, what a charming, interesting guy he could be. Speer was very young when he met Hitler. Hitler had always wanted to be an architect but he was a bad one, and here was this great-looking guy in his 20s. Hitler fell in love with him. He offered him the world. It would have been very hard to say no. That relation-ship alone is very interesting.

Q: Was Speer filled with remorse?

A: Yes and no. He wrote books about all that, and after that meeting, I read them. In them he said he didn't know [what Hitler was doing] but I don't believe him. It's absolutely not true. He became the minister for the army, he brought hundreds of thousands of people to war camps.

Q: The first Hollywood movie you did was Enemy Mine, replacing another director. The film had an ambitious, hard-to-swallow premise and failed at the box office here.

A: It was a failure, but an interesting failure. It had an [alien] hermaphrodite played by Lou Gossett Jr. giving birth to another hermaphrodite. It was wild. And it became kind of a cult favorite. It's not something I would have chased after, but the Fox people were in trouble at that time and begged so hard that I figured, what the hell, it was a chance to do a Hollywood movie.

Q: When that film didn't work, did you think you had ruined your chance in Hollywood?

A: With Das Boot and The Never Ending Story, I'd had two movies that were big worldwide. That's some-thing I liked about Hollywood, that a good movie could carry you for quite awhile. Enemy Mine was looked at as an interesting failure.

Q: Were you pleased with Shattered?

A: I thought it was OK, no more. I could have done better with the cast, better with the screenplay.

Q: You tried to get Nicole Kidman to play the role done by Greta Scacchi, didn't you?

A: We were very close with Nicole, until the day she met Tom Cruise for that racing movie. Then she came to me and said, "I could also do this film with Tom Cruise," and I said, "Don't do that, Nicole, do my film." I had no idea there was an additional reason for her to do that movie. But they're still married, so that is OK.

Q: Your big break came from In the Line of Fire. How did you get that assignment?

A: I was at a point where I knew I had better make a good film or I'd have to go home. And not just a film the critics liked, but a film that made money. The script came through my agent with Clint Eastwood attached-- Clint was a big fan of both Shattered and Das Boot. He wanted a European director and liked Luc Besson and me. I read the script, loved it, met him and about an hour later he said, "OK, let's do it." Then he said, "I have a film I just finished, a western. Would you like to watch it?" It was Unforgiven, and nobody had seen it. At that point, Clint was in a down period. I watched Unforgiven and went home to my wife right away and told her that not only had I gotten In the Line of Fire, but I'd seen Clint's movie and it was definitely going to be nominated for Best Picture. I was lucky to get a film with the right man at the right time.

Q: In view of The Perfect Storm, it's ironic that the movie you did after In the Line of Fire, Outbreak, was a fictionalized virus tale that killed the movie version of a great nonfiction book, The Hot Zone.

A: [Laughs] Yes, we beat them, but I didn't like racing another picture. I was surprised that we ended up with a movie that had a beginning, a middle and an end. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was actually slightly more successful worldwide than In the Line of Fire. Still, it was a nightmare. Early on, screenwriter Ted Tally and I had all kinds of great ideas, and then all of a sudden this other project pops up and time pressure kicks in and the script is still not ready, but Ted has to drop out because he's got another commitment. We struggled with a new writer, but that writer didn't work out. We had to go shoot something so Variety could write that we were shooting, so I said, "Shoot trees, up and down, whatever. Just get footage." Meanwhile, we had two writers working, Carrie Fisher doing dialogue and Jeb Stuart doing structure. I got the script two days before we were to start, and it still didn't work. I told the producer we were going to have to post-pone or I'd walk away. So the writer Neal Jimenez came in. He was with us every day of the shoot and we did the film from hand to mouth, him writing and me shooting. Never again.

Q: How did Air Force One come about?

A: As soon as I'd seen on one of the entertainment shows that Harrison Ford wanted to play the American president in a film called Air Force One, I said, "Bam, I want to do that." I'm a big Harrison Ford fan from the early days, and I've watched him transition into a really interesting guy. I would never have done it with anyone else.

Q: Do you have a dream project?

A: Yes, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer who went to the Antarctic several times at the beginning of the last century and tried to get to the pole after Robert E Scott made it but died coming back. Shackleton was an outsider who decided to restore British glory and his own fame by doing this. He was that kind of larger-than-life person. I've been talking with Mel Gibson for a long time. He would be the ideal guy. Shackleton went through a transformation from a very self-centered man to someone dedicated to getting his people home after failing to do what he wanted to do. Everybody should have died, but nobody did. It's one of the greatest stories of heroism, from the standpoint of what you do to get people to come together as a group.

Q: Which is something you should be able to relate to, having overseen technical feats required by The Perfect Storm, not to mention the daunting special effects for the storm itself and the basic narrative challenges.

A: It's just a simple story, really. Just a story about men going to sea.


Michael Fleming wrote about a great screen kiss for the February issue of Movieline.