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MOVIES : Corruption, Heroism and America : German director Wolfgang Petersen set out to distill the essence of our country and its heroes and villains in a political assassin thriller

July 04, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

After four years of film school in which he studied acting in Berlin, Petersen began directing for German television in 1970, then three years later released his first feature film, "One of Us Two." The story of a German student who blackmails one of his professors, the film was made for less than a million dollars.

Five years later he released his second film, a controversial homosexual love story titled "The Consequence," which was banned in parts of Germany, and the following year completed "Black and White Like Night and Day," a thriller set in the world of championship chess starring Bruno Ganz.

With the success of "Das Boot" in 1981, Petersen's budgets and his clout began to go up and he started to slowly move his career to America. In 1984, he completed the cinematic fairy tale "The Neverending Story," which was followed by the 1985 sci-fi fantasy starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr., "Enemy Mine," and the 1991 noir thriller starring Tom Berenger, "Shattered."

Though "The Neverending Story" grossed $119 million worldwide (and was made for just $27 million), and "Enemy Mine" was a modest commercial hit in Europe, it wasn't Petersen's box-office track record that landed him "In the Line of Fire"; he got the film because Eastwood had seen and liked "Das Boot" and "Shattered," and wanted him for the project.

"I was very impressed by "Das Boot" and "Shattered," says Eastwood, "and I was also interested in getting a European perspective on the Secret Service. And when I met with Wolfgang it was immediately clear that we were in agreement about how the film should be made," he said in explaining why he thought Petersen was right for the job.

"I must admit, I was initially a bit intimidated at the prospect of directing Clint, but any fears I had disappeared after our first meeting, and once we started shooting he never challenged my direction," says Petersen of Eastwood. "At the beginning he told me, 'I won't interfere, but if you want my advice I'll be there for you--otherwise I'll leave you alone.' I took up his offer and consulted him a lot.

"Malkovich was great to work with as well," Petersen continues. "I anticipated a very serious Method actor who'd want to discuss everything with me at length, but he wasn't like that at all. As an actor he seems to rely almost entirely on instinct, and he's a very funny man who's often silly like a kid--I sometimes felt he never even thought about his part because he was so easy on the set."

Malkovich confirms Petersen's feeling when he comments that "the hardest thing about this part was all the running I had to do--I hate running and don't intend to do it again for a long time. I didn't train for the running scenes either--I just put down my cigarettes for a minute and ran."

It's fortunate for Petersen that his cast was so cooperative because the film presented huge logistic challenges. "Those problems presented themselves the first day of shooting too--the first scene we shot was a huge motorcade in Washington, D.C.," Petersen recalls.

"Closing down Pennsylvania Avenue during the day is a pretty big thing and you need good connections to pull that off. The Bush White House didn't want any part of a filmmaking project, but the Secret Service did help us. For that scene we had to create a motorcade of 50 vehicles, we built our own presidential limo--there's only one and they wouldn't loan it--and we had to get thousands of extras on the street. On top of that, we had to deal with the thousands of people who came to watch us and never stopped screaming, 'Clint for President.' "

The production saved immeasurable time and money by using cutting-edge computer technology to shoot many big crowd scenes. "It was our great luck to go into production right when the 1992 presidential campaign was in high gear, and we shot a lot of footage at actual rallies," says Petersen.

"Because the Secret Service was helping us, we got amazing camera positions, then with digital computer techniques we'd erase whoever was actually speaking at the rally and insert our fictional President instead. The computer also had to alter all the names on the placards, so it was a lot of work to clean these shots up, but still, this technique was a tremendous asset. This technology has been used in television commercials, but this is the first time it's been used in a feature film.

"This is a very big-scale film--probably the biggest I've done--but the core of the story is the relationship between Clint and John's characters," he concludes. "They're engaged in an existential duel evocative of Faust and Mephisto, and that is the focus of the film.

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