12/8/00 Winnipeg Free Press
Movies - Articles
A hellish experience: Making of Proof of Life involved casualties, brutal conditions
By Diana Clarkson
LOS ANGELES -- Ask anyone involved in the making of Proof of Life and they'll tell you straight up: This film, about an American held hostage in the fictional country of Tequila, was a hell of a production to be involved in. Hell in the worst sense of the word and, for those like actor David Morse, who stay focused on the fulfillment that can often rise out of a hellish experience, in the best sense.
On this occasion, Morse and David Caruso, two of the film's stars, and director Taylor Hackford (Devil's Advocate, Dolores Claiborne), have gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel to talk to the press about the production that would, in itself, make a compelling screenplay.
The film's stars, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, are absent, but not curiously so -- every reporter here knows why Crowe and Ryan have chosen not to talk to the print media. Neither actor wants to be prodded about the romantic relationship that developed between them on set or the subsequent ending of Ryan's nine-year marriage to Dennis Quaid.
"It bothers me," says Hackford, of his stars' absence. "But what can I do about it? I understand their sensitivity."
To the disappointment of some of those who helped make Proof of Life, Crowe and Ryan's relationship has clearly stolen the thunder from the film itself.
"I'm very proud of this movie," says Hackford. "A lot of people put a lot of time and a huge amount of talent into this film. But right now what people know is what they read in the tabloids. The tabloids say what happened in real life is what happens in the movie (Ryan's character, who plays the hostage's wife, falls for Crowe's character, a hostage negotiator). That's not true and I'm afraid people are going to say, 'I read that in People. I don't need to see the movie because I already know what happens.' "
"It's part of the deal," shrugs Morse, who plays Ryan's husband, an American engineer who endures months in guerilla camps. "They're movie stars and that's the world we live in."
The relationship between the actors was first reported by the London tabloids in June and continued to make headlines through the summer. But the romance isn't the only scandal that has dogged Hackford and the rest of the cast and crew.
A few weeks after filming began in Ecuador early last spring, a freak truck accident killed Will Gaffney, who was Morse's stand-in. Gaffney and some of the crew were making the 90-minute drive out to shoot some scenes at a remote guerilla camp-set when the truck veered off the road and plunged into a ravine. Gaffney had taken Morse's usual spot in the truck; Morse returned to the U.S. for a few days.
"I would have been on the truck," Morse says. "But I'm almost insignificant in all of this and I don't like to talk about myself. It makes it kind of cheap. The most important thing is Will Gaffney and his family. It's more important to consider what they lost, which was huge."
There were other troubles. According to Hackford, that spring in Ecuador was the wettest in 40 years. "Difficult locations were made more difficult," he says. And shooting 14,000 feet high among the Andes -- on Hackford's insistence -- made cast and crew sick. "We had 25 people carried out in one week who had collapsed from altitude and oxygen deprivation," he says.
There was also political unrest. Although a relatively peaceful country, Ecuador shares a border with Colombia, "the kidnap capital of the world," says Hackford. A few months before shooting began, Colombian guerillas crossed into Ecuador and kidnapped a group of oil workers (including seven Albertans, who were later released for a reported $3.5-million ransom). No chances were taken on the Proof of Life set; kidnap and ransom insurance was taken out on every member of the cast and crew.
"That doesn't make you feel very comfortable," says Morse. "I'm used to living in tough parts of New York and Boston and I've walked everywhere and would go anywhere. But this was the first time I was someplace where I really had to watch myself. You didn't walk anywhere, especially alone."
Case in point: Peruvian actor Pietro Sibille, who plays one of the film's villains, was stabbed in the back while leaving a restaurant one evening. His lung was punctured and Sibille was unable to work for two weeks. At the time, it was questionable whether he'd even be able to finish the film.
So why wasn't Proof of Life made somewhere safer, somewhere that had the look of South America without the political strife?
Because the reportedly tempermental Hackford stayed true to his reputation; he'll go to any length to make a credible film.
"He said, 'Nope, let's make this as hard as we can," recalls Morse. "I think he wanted the experience of the film to reflect what those events are like."
Hackford explains it himself: "We all get paid very, very well and we have a responsibility. Why should it be easy? The process of making films isn't glamourous. Certainly, not my films. I'm totally focused and this was one of the hardest films I've ever made, if not the hardest. But we did persevere. I can't tell you the number of people who came up to me and said, 'This was a life experience.' Of course, they did it after the fact," he adds with a laugh. "And they might have been cursing me under their breath while we were going through the process."
Hackford wasn't the only one on set with a big ego. Ask his co-stars what they thought of Russell Crowe and, while you won't get a negative answer, "world's nicest guy" won't be the answer either.
"He's really interesting," said Morse. "He's really tough."
David Caruso, who shared a lot of on screen time with Crowe, says "this guy is on a whole other level. This sounds corny, but an actor comes along once in a generation to reinvent the process and raise the benchmark and that's who he is."
"Russell Crowe is very difficult," says Hackford unabashedly. "He's challenging, he's provocative and he's always pushing, pushing, pushing. But it's worth it. He's the real thing. When you satisfy Russell, he'll go all the way for you and that's what I want. He was difficult, but so am I."
Morse echoed that sentiment
"Both of these guys have really big personalities and they enjoy their size, personality-wise," he says. "But when the two of them get together, it's kind of explosive sometimes." Asked for an anecdote to illustrate that, Morse just shakes his head and says no.
For him, it's all in a few day's work; he clearly lives for the challenge.
"That's why I did it," he says simply. "It's what I'm interested in. It gets me excited. You're out there in the mud and it's freezing cold with the rain coming down on you and you're bordering on hypothermia and then you think, 'Great! This is the movies!' "
Just don't call him a movie star.
"I tell my kids I'm an actor," he says. "And lucky to be one."