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ON LOCATION : Does White Water Become Her? : Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep leaves serious drama (and her accents) behind in 'River Wild.' (Who the heck does she think she is, Bruce Willis?!?)

November 07, 1993|JANE GALBRAITH | Jane Galbraith is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LIBBY, Mont. — Meryl the martyr. Meryl the multilingual. Now, Meryl the macha woman?

Up here in the wilds of western Montana, Meryl Streep is stretching as an actress: Aerobics. Machines. Yoga.

And she needs all the help she can get.

Mighty Meryl, conqueror of accents foreign and domestic, today is happy just to survive the many takes of running the treacherous rushing waters of the Kootenai River here, a.k.a., "The River Wild," without flipping over. She is not always successful.

Streep plays an imperiled captive in the Bruce Willis/Steven Seagal vein--except, of course, it's a she, not a he, who becomes heroic in the face of adversity. And she must rely as much on her wits as the guys do on hardware.

Playing Gail Hartman, hostage mom, Streep is trapped going down river over dangerous Class V rapids with two armed criminals, the deceptively charming Wade (Kevin Bacon) and his not-too-smart accomplice, Terry (John C. Reilly). Gail had planned this vacation to patch up her marriage to husband Tom (David Strathairn) and to celebrate the 10th birthday of her son Roarke (Joe Mazzello), who she hopes will come to appreciate the joys of the great outdoors. They live in Boston where she teaches the deaf ( another language) and her husband is a workaholic architect. The film will be released next summer or fall.

What expert river rats don't often attempt, Streep, 44, is now facing. She has wrapped her palms with black gaffers' tape to protect her bloody blisters from breaking open before gripping the heavy oars for another run through the Maytag--river talk for a churning mass of spilling white water.

Safety technicians in kayaks, moving like water bugs, paddle furiously in place off-camera as the actress looks nervously side to side, rowing backward into thundering rapids so loud they obscure director Curtis Hanson's shout of "Action" through his megaphone. Four cameras, including one hand-held by kamikaze cameraman Mike Hoover dangling from rigging suspended above Kootenai Falls, roll simultaneously.

It looks hairy from the shore--even hairier in close-ups on the actress's panic-stricken face through cinematographer Robert Elswit's video monitor. This is no "River of No Return," which was shot on a sound stage with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum tossed about on gimbals before a blue screen. Nor is it "Deliverance," impressive enough as an action picture, but shot on a slow stretch of river wilderness.

Here, the river is a principal character--with one major distinction: It doesn't take direction.

"There were reasons not to be drawn to (this movie) because you're combining some troublesome elements involving nature . . . the old line that boat is a four-letter word . . . and we have a child, and a dog on top of that. So you're into all kinds of nightmare things," Hanson says, as his camera team, ankle deep in 55-degree water, is conferring on its next setup.

Three weeks into production, they are all too aware of trying to second-guess the precise point at which the raft will pass through their lenses. Forget about matching shots or worrying about the light changes; that's left to Oscar-winning "J.F.K." and "Born on the Fourth of July" editor Joe Hutshing. Those miles-wide thunderheads keep on rolling, meaning bright sunlight one minute, gloominess the next. The mantra seemed to be instead, "Please, God, just don't rain."

*

The challenge, when the core filmmaking team assembled at the Rogue River at Grants Pass, Ore., for pre-production and rehearsal in early summer, was how to achieve verisimilitude of the rafting experience. One solution, to devise a kind of raft equivalent of a car mount, with heavy Panavision cameras secured to the boat's bow, tries to capture the tension from the water level: the river's power, the boat's undulations. R&D "The River Wild" way.

"It use to be you turn on the fan and Marilyn Monroe's hair blows a little," Hanson says. "Now audiences want to be there, riding with the action."

Fortunately, Hanson, whose last movie, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" for Interscope Communications and Hollywood Pictures, had a $16-million budget, gets more than twice that amount from Universal to cushion this unpredictable excursion.

At various times during the shoot, the union crew--moving from the Flathead River near Glacier National Park to the Kootenai, back to the Flathead and eventually on to Oregon--has numbered 160. There are a dozen people in the water safety crew alone. Two helicopter pilots are brought in from Coeur d'Alene, Ida., to transport everyone to and from location. World-renowned water sport experts like John Wasson, the river unit supervisor whose last film was "A River Runs Through It," have given up their lucrative summer season to work on this movie.

Hanson's droll understatement: "This is not a movie with motor homes around the corner."

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