Cast * Synopsis * Interesting Facts * Behind the Scenes
For once, an "Extinction Level
Event" is approached from a human point of view, focusing on its impact
and consequences more than its actual happening, making this cinematic
experience all the more realistic and moving!
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Written by: Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
Music by: James Horner
Production Started On: April 21, 1997 (principal photography
started on June 16, 1997)
Filming Locations: Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, New York City, Los Angeles
Released on: May 6, 1998
Running Time: 120 minutes
Budget: $75 million
Box-Office: $140.5 million in the U.S., $321 million worldwide
Rentals: $67.5 million in the U.S.
Jenny Lerner… Téa Leoni
Leo Biederman… Elijah Wood
Sarah Hotchner… Leelee Sobieski
Robin Lerner… Vanessa Redgrave
President Tom Beck… Morgan Freeman
Captain Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner… Robert Duvall
Eric Vennekor… Dougray Scott
Found by chance wandering through the night sky, the world discovers
to its horror that a massive comet is on a direct collision course with
the planet in two years. Faced with the probable extinction of civilization,
the nations of the world launch a mission into space while the rest of
the world watches, waits... and then prepares for the unthinkable.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Originally developed as a long memo form by mega-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown in 1976, this $80 million, humans-vs.-comet epic only came back to life after the producers of THE STING, JAWS and COCOON rediscovered their forgotten treatment a few years ago.
"We were cleaning out our files and would have thrown it away, " Brown explains. "No one had worked on it for the better part of two decades, but new technology made it more feasible now."
"Ever since JAWS, we'd wanted to work again with Steven Spielberg but hadn't been able to find a project he shared our enthusiasm for, " adds Zanuck. "So, we sent him this 15-page memo, and he reacted very strongly to it."
In 1993, Spielberg began a year-and-a-half consultation on a DEEP IMPACT script with screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (an Academy Award winner for GHOST). "It was Steven who established that the keynote of this movie must be realism," says Brown. "It must not be—and I don’t mean to make a pejorative comparison—INDEPENDANCE DAY. We had talked about setting it sometime in the future. He said, ‘No, let’s set it now. What happens today?’"
When Rubin burned out after several promising but exceedingly long drafts, Zanuck and Brown wheedled Michael Tolkin (THE PLAYER) aboard. "The concept was that the disaster wasn’t a comet hitting the ground," says Tolkin. "The disaster was the announcement. What happens if the world gets a death sentence?"
Together, Spielberg and Tolkin took some fruitless tangents. "At one point Steven wanted all the astronaut dialogue to be absolutely technical," Tolkin recalls. "He said, ‘I don’t want to understand one word of what they’re saying.’ So I came up with pages of people talking in mathematical equations." It didn’t work. Winnowing out "$180 million worth of subplots," Tolkin says, was also grueling. In his view, "unless it’s BOOGIE NIGHTS and everybody’s getting naked and f---ing all the time, you can’t really follow that many characters. They’re not interesting enough."
By fall 1996, Tolkin had a manageable script. Then actual calamity struck: News leaked out that Disney had an asteroid movie on the fast track. According to Zanuck, Spielberg concluded in December ’96 that he wouldn’t have time to direct the project they’d all been nursing. He was already committed to begin shooting Amistad in the spring and right after that Saving Private Ryan.
By that time, however, Spielberg was about to become more than the most successful director of all time (a career Zanuck-Brown not only established with JAWS but launched by bankrolling Spielberg's first feature film, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS). He was forming the major entertainment company DreamWorks SKG, which presented a bit of a problem, since Paramount Pictures still owned the rights to the comet story.
The two studios ultimately pooled their resources to make DEEP IMPACT.
Spielberg took an executive producing credit and handed directing chores
to Mimi Leder, the Emmy Award-winning ER director who made her feature
film debut with the first DreamWorks release, THE PEACEMAKER.
"Mimi has about as steady a personality as I’ve ever worked with," says Richard Zanuck one afternoon on the set. "A lot of directors like a frenetic atmosphere," Zanuck says, "but Mimi has a calming effect on the entire company. So even though there’s pressure, you don’t sense it. And she has great stamina. [DEEP IMPACT] is an enormous movie, but the size and scope don’t faze her at all."
The daughter of a film director, Mimi Leder grew up on movie sets – very low-budget movies. Paul Leder made small, independent films when few people knew what an independent film was. "My father liked to be his own boss, make his own movies with his own money," she says. "He made them for about $300,000 and sold them foreign. They were serious message movies." Her father involved the entire family in his films. "He threw us on the set," Leder says. "My mother cooked for everyone, and my brother, sister and I would do every job there was to do. Once you do that, it’s not such a mystery, making films."
Hesitant to follow exactly in the footsteps of the father she adored (he died during the making of THE PEACEMAKER), Leder applied to the American Film Institute’s graduate film program not as a director but as a cinematographer. She was the first female cinematography student to graduate from the AFI, in 1975. "I learned the camera backward and forward," she says. "So when people try to categorize me as a filmmaker, they have a problem, because my camerawork is second nature – it’s like dancing for me. But what I love to do is work with actors and tell stories."
"She has such a wealth of technical knowledge you’d expect her to be,
like, 70 or something," says Tea Leoni. "Because of that comfort level
with all the mechanics of a production, Mimi has more time to devote to
the performances. I think that’s why there’s always such strong emotion
in the material she directs. It’s not because she’s a woman, which is the
pretty insulting way some people put it."
"I wanted this movie to be about the choices people make if they know the world is actually going to come to an end, " says Leder. "I felt that the effects really needed to support that. Yeah, there are great effects in the movie and great action. But to me, the most important element was the human content.
"This movie is like directing three movies, because there are three interconnecting stories," says Leder, taking a break. "The action and attitude have to come from the characters. But the question for all of them is what would you do if you knew the world was going to end. How would you live your life in that last year? People are attracted to the story of their own death. It’s certainly what drew me."
"I think that as we get toward the millennium, we should think about what's going to happen in the world, " she adds, "and what we can do to make our lives better. So, that was really my slant on the movie."
A slant that, the DEEP IMPACT folks were confident, wouldn't be copied by the faster-tracked, asteroid-threatens-Earth actioner ARMAGEDDON.
"We don't make those movies, " says producer Brown. "Even JAWS was focused on the human element."
"We're dealing with a totally different kind of picture, " echoes Zanuck. "That's pure summer fare, nuts-and-bolts action from beginning to end. It's the "DIE HARD" version of this -but, as a matter of fact, their asteroid doesn't hit!"
For director Mimi Leder, the relentless comparison of DEEP IMPACT to
Disney’s effort has grown exasperating. "When I took this movie, we weren’t
in a race. At least not that I’d heard. Maybe [DreamWorks] knew and they
just weren’t telling me. By the time I did find out, I’d invested too much
in preproduction not to do it. Now it’s really hard to hear ‘Hey, did you
know about this thing or that thing in ARMAGEDDON?’ "I didn’t become a
filmmaker to be in a race."
Before making this film, Leder says she watched Stanley Kramer's 1959 movie, ON THE BEACH, an adaptation of Nevil Shute's novel about the last people on Earth facing death from radioactivity after World War III.
She figured: "If I can just get some of what's in that movie in this
movie, that's the flavor I'm interested in -- I'm interested in these people,
I'm interested in "Is tomorrow a good day to die?' ... I'm interested in
what choices we've made. Have I made the right choices in my life? If I
had a year to live ... how would I live my life differently?"
She further wanted to explore the theme of how to say good-bye to the ones you love.
"To me, there's nothing stronger than human emotion. I don't care how great your effect is, how great the action is, there's nothing greater than one ounce of human emotion. So the object was how to make the effects as good as the human emotion, and that was my approach. And people look at me (as if to say): "What?! You know that's not true. It's how do you make the effects good."'
When people suggest it's a woman's touch that makes DEEP IMPACT focus more on character development and emotion than a typical action movie, she responds: "Come on. Now that's not fair. Yes, I'm a woman, and I bring my femaleness, and I bring me to the party. But you can't tell me that the man who directed TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and the man who directed SCHINDLER’S LIST and the man who directed CINEMA PARADISO -- just name all the films that made you weep -- and they were directed by men."
the same way, action films shouldn't be derided as testosterone-drenched
affairs, she says.
"I have no testosterone," she laughs in stating the obvious. "You don't have to have big muscles to direct a muscular film. And you don't need testosterone. You just need brains ... and passion to get everything done."
As down to Earth as DEEP IMPACT sounds, a major portion of it does take place in outer space. But in typical fashion, the movie's brain trust tried to go for accuracy rather than bombast whenever the action shifted to spacecraft or the comet's surface. "We had a think tank that we put together with all of these cometologists, geologists, astronauts and mission directors, " Leder says. "I wanted to know when we will be able to land on the comet, what it will be like, what the surface will feel like. I wanted to be as scientifically accurate as we could be because I wanted to approach the movie in a very real way."
Among the many experts brought in to advise the production were Gerald Griffin, a Johnson Space Center veteran who worked on both the actual Apollo 13 rescue effort and served as technical consultant for Ron Howard's APOLLO 13 film; and Chris Luccini, a Jet Propulsion Lab comet specialist.
Unlike most movie technical advisers, Griffin and Luccini are more than pleased with how closely Hollywood followed their advice.
"They responded to our input superbly," says Griffin. "I think part of this comes from the fact that people have seen spaceflight now for more than 30 years. The public knows what goes on; they've seen people in weightlessness and science rovers running around on Mars and all sorts of interesting things.
"So, you can't fool 'em. Nowadays in film, unless it's a really far
out, `Star Trekky' kind of thing, if it's got the elements of science and
NASA, they have to try to make it as realistic as they can."
A little more artistic license was permissable in scenes set on the comet.
"We really don't know all that much about comets," Luccini says. "We've done a few flybys, but all we know are the basic physics and the physical laws, so we can say that some things are reasonable and probable. But we don't know what the fine structure of a surface looks like. The best resolution we have is a few hundred meters."
There were a few points where reality had to be sacrificed for, well, imagery.
"One of the things they simply couldn't do accurately was cometary dust," Luccini says with full understanding. "It's black as charcoal, it's totally black. If you attempted to go off and do it real, it would be completely, cinematically uninteresting."
For the most part, though, the DEEP IMPACT filmmakers were at least as responsible to scientific truth as the news media was in March, when the world was alarmed with an inaccurate report that an asteroid was headed our way.
"The press reported a raw number about how close it was going to come, but didn't include how much uncertainty there was associated with that," Luccini explains. "Was it 30,000 miles plus or minus a million? Plus or minus a billion? That was the thing that was missing from the initial coverage; they didn't report that this was a very tenuous measurement.
"That's still a very close object, but we've had closer objects pass between the Earth and the Moon," he adds, disconcertingly. So what if one of those big rocks does threaten the planet in the near future? Will we be able to mount a manned intercept defense?
"If you had total commitment of the entire human race and all the money in the world, we just might be able to put together a suicide mission that could do something in a couple of years," Luccini says. "If we had some lead time, though -- especially like this last scare we had, that one was going to hit in 2028 -- that's all the time in the world. If we actually knew that thing was going to hit and we couldn't figure out, in 30 years, how to deal with it, we don't deserve to be here."
On that reassuring note...
"Thank goodness it's a big universe," Griffin notes. "And we're a very,
very small target!"