Putting the Boot into Hollywood

'The Perfect Storm' director Wolfgang Petersen talks to Demetrios Matheou about sailors and the dangers of hiring out your U-boat
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The Independent Online

When Wolfgang Petersen was a boy in post-war Germany, he lived in Emden, then Hamburg, seaports where his father worked for a shipping company. "I always loved being around the waterfront," he remembers, "watching the boats, looking out to sea. It fuelled my dreams, my imagination. I thought there was something mysterious out there. Mysterious and intimidating."

When Wolfgang Petersen was a boy in post-war Germany, he lived in Emden, then Hamburg, seaports where his father worked for a shipping company. "I always loved being around the waterfront," he remembers, "watching the boats, looking out to sea. It fuelled my dreams, my imagination. I thought there was something mysterious out there. Mysterious and intimidating."

This fascination for the sea and its challenges was to surface, and indeed submerge, in the film that made Petersen's international reputation as a film-maker, Das Boot. The epic account of a U-boat's final voyage, which vividly depicts the sweaty fear and claustrophobia, frustrations and doomed heroism of the young crew, is regarded as one of the great anti-war movies. It won Petersen a couple of Oscar nominations and a ticket to Hollywood, where he has worked ever since. And where, nearly 20 years after Das Boot, he has taken to sea again.

Based on Sebastian Junger's bestseller, The Perfect Storm recreates the freak of nature that took place in the north Atlantic in October 1991, when the confluence of three volatile weather fronts whipped up the kind of maelstrom - with 100-feet waves and 120 mph winds - that happens just once every century.

What made Junger's book so absorbing was the human drama at the eye of the storm, his recreation of the gruelling, dangerous life of the swordfishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and of the fate of the six-strong crew of the Andrew Gail, a swordfishing boat lost in the storm. For Petersen, in thrall to the sea and such maritime classics as Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea, this blue-collar story had an almost mythic quality.

"There's something about these men which kindles our imaginations," says the director, an ebullient 59-year-old with a wide, sandy face. "They're not the same as people who climb Everest, say, or try to cross the Antarctic, thrill-seekers who do it because they want to. For the fishermen, it's work, they need to get a swordfish steak on your plate for a paycheque. But to do that, they have go out, every day, and fight the elements. In most cases they come home; very often they don't.

"I believe it's the last frontier for really great adventure, out there," he adds. "It's the ultimate, existential battle between man and the elements, always has been, always will be. Whatever you do, you can't control the water."

Petersen made considerable efforts to research his subject, and win the trust and support of the Gloucester community. "It was very hard at the beginning. We could feel their resistance, that they were worried about what Hollywood would do with them, whether we would sensationalise their story.

"One night there was a little drunk captain, dancing. When he heard I was directing the film, he wobbled over to me. I was quite intimidated - these are rough people, they fight all the time. And he came over and grabbed my neck. Like this." Petersen makes a good attempt at throttling himself. "And he says, 'So you're making the movie?' I said, yeah. And he said, 'Make it real'. And that was that, he walked away. I thought he had a point. Make it real. I wanted to approach it with an almost documentary feel, to reveal their life the way it is."

Petersen accepts, however, that once the storm begins, it takes over the movie. To recreate it, he resorted to state-of-the-art computer-generated images; without which, he says, he wouldn't have made it. It's a far cry from Das Boot, made in 1981, when he and his crew "shot for months and months in the North Sea. In huge seas."

That experience led to an unusual encounter with Steven Spielberg, whose own career was launched by a watery epic, Jaws. "We had built a full-size model submarine, 72 meters. Just before we were to start shooting, Steven asked if he could use it, for Raiders of the Lost Ark. We said sure, because we needed the money. But I'm afraid he may have loosened the screws on my boat. Because when he shot, everything went fine; then when we started, as soon as there was a bit of swell, my sub fell apart and sank."

In fact Spielberg, who lost a rubber shark and some sanity shooting Jaws, was first choice to direct The Perfect Storm. That it was then offered to the Petersen is testimony to his current status in Hollywood.

It's easy to forget that Petersen is of a generation of German film-makers that includes Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders - the doyens of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, a movement no less rebellious than the Nouvelle Vague in France the decade before.

Petersen's career at that time was very different. After graduating from Berlin's Film and Television Academy in 1966, he was snapped up by a TV station to direct a crime thriller: "very high budget, very prestigious, and a big success. I went on to make six of them. They wouldn't let me go." Between 1970 and 1980 he directed 25 full-length films for television. Das Boot itself was originally a six-part TV series; when the Americans embraced the film version, Petersen - whose first inspirations had been the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks - embraced America.

Nothing since his move to LA has had quite the potency of Das Boot. Instead, he has developed a reputation for handling successful thrillers with impressive set-pieces and on-form stars: In the Line of Fire, in which Clint Eastwood excelled as an over-the-hill security agent in a battle of wits with psychopath John Malkovich; Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman trying to stem a deadly virus; Air Force One, a slick piece of Hollywood hokum in which Harrison Ford's presidential plane is hijacked by Gary Oldman.

"I've done my share of popcorn films," smiles Petersen. "A lot of people criticised Air Force One, but it was a lot of fun for me to do. Pure fantasy. You just go for the ride. Nothing wrong with that."

Indeed not. But there are moments in The Perfect Storm that remind you what he's capable of. Perhaps Endurance, a labour of love Petersen has been developing for five years, based on Ernest Shackleton's extraordinary heroics in the Antarctic, will be the Hollywood classic to rival Das Boot. "Shackleton was a fascinating character, a thrill-seeker who became so much more, a leader, a giant," says Petersen. "Yes, it is again with water. But this time it's frozen."

'The Perfect Storm' (15) opens on Friday

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