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Vietnam War Photographers Click in 'Shooter'

April 04, 1988|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — "You know what I really wanted to do--my fantasy--was to do a scene in front of the American Embassy in Saigon and raise the American flag once again," exclaimed David Hume Kennerly, executive producer of the television film "Shooter."

"Now that would have been a shot that would have gone around the world: 'Kennerly recaptures Vietnam.' "

Kennerly and the "Shooter" company recently wrapped up filming here in Thailand, which the one-time Vietnam combat photographer calls a "close second" since Saigon wasn't available.

"Shooter," the pilot for a possible fall series on NBC, is a black comedy about newsmen and war. The combination produces scenes that some may find outrageous or obscene, Kennerly concedes, but they are drawn from his own experiences and those of other photographers who covered the war.

"People who were in Vietnam will see this movie and say, 'That's right,' " he insisted, cackling as he recalled some of the episodes.

His enthusiasm for the project, loosely based on his 1979 autobiography of the same title, seems irrepressible, perhaps reflecting the determination that won him the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for news photography in Vietnam.

Kennerly, in an interview here, reveled in the absurd, whether telling war stories or recounting his career as a movie maker.

One character in "Shooter" is a reporter who sets up office in a massage parlor. "I don't think anyone's ever shown that on TV before," Kennerly said gleefully. "It's going to be a real eye opener."

The film was shot in 26 days--two over schedule--in the steamy, traffic-stifled streets of Bangkok and the jungles of Kanchanaburi Province, the latest in a series of Vietnam-era movies made here.

The set designer, props man and special effects crew were drawn from a growing, international pool of professionals based in Thailand, which has been a shooting locale in the past for "The Deer Hunter," "The Killing Fields," "Saigon" and "Good Morning, Vietnam."

"Thailand is emerging as a world player in the thinking of movie producers," said Stephen Kline, Kennerly's longtime friend and fellow executive producer and script writer on "Shooter." "And everybody who goes out of here happy, which means just about everybody so far, becomes an ambassador for Thailand back in Hollywood."

"I'd come back here in a second," Kennerly said.

Bureaucratic, diplomatic and insurance hurdles have made foreign filming impossible in Vietnam, and increasingly difficult in the Philippines, once the major locale for movies about the Indochina wars.

Still, while Southeast Asia cannot be re-created on a Hollywood set, Bangkok presents some mixed benefits. Traffic, for instance, and heat.

"Everybody in this company lost weight," Kennerly related. "It was too hot to eat. We call it 'the Shooter Diet.' "

For the young cast, however, filming here was similar to the conditions that the fictional newsmen depicted in the film experienced when they arrived in Vietnam in the 1960s. Coping with the environment in Bangkok, day in and day out the world's hottest capital, gave the actors a taste of their characters' ordeal.

Said Steve Ford, who plays a young infantry officer in the film: "The heat was incredible, but it felt like you were in Vietnam. And, for reality, it beats going out to Simi Valley."

Ford, who had a long run as a soap opera star in "The Young and the Restless," is the son of former President Gerald Ford, whom Kennerly served as White House photographer in the mid-1970s.

"Steve plays an army captain, and we kill him. I don't know if his father's going to be happy about that," Kennerly said, chortling.

The cast includes cameo parts for old friends and local amateurs. Two U.S. diplomats have bit roles, as do Kennerly and Klein. Dean Brelis, a veteran journalist and Time magazine's bureau chief here, plays the reporter who operates out of the massage parlor.

The script, laced with double-take repartee and bizarre incidents, revolves around two photographers who, while roommates and friends, compete without quarter when it comes to photos and women. Their colleagues at the fictional International Press Assn. in the Saigon of 1967 include an assortment of characters who, in fact, could be found carrying cameras on most big stories. None is a stereotype, yet each is familiar.

At 26, Jeff Nordling, who plays one of the battling roommates, is the same age that Kennerly was when he first went to Vietnam. His counterpart is played by Alan Ruck. The female leads are Rosalind Chao and Carol Houston--who, Kennerly notes with wry pleasure, wears combat boots in his film but recently played Snow White in ABC's short-lived comedy "The Charmings."

Kennerly and Klein have been friends since they worked together on the Portland Oregonian 20 years ago.

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