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'Dante's Peak' Puts Town on Map--Then Wipes It Off

August 19, 1996|TIM APPELO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WALLACE, Idaho — This ghostly old mountain mining town makes Brigadoon look like Tomorrowland--that's how much folks here hate change. At the Metals Bar and Lounge downtown, the FBI bust of the renowned Wallace bordellos in 1991 is regarded as a jackboot cultural crackdown akin to Beijing's raid on the Dalai Lama.

"Wallace was built on mining, prostitution and gambling, and we're not ashamed of it," says Wallace resident Okie Ross.

"We're the only town in America that marched in the streets against the FBI," Sandy Zeller brags.

"We had the last stoplight between Boston and Seattle," says Jill McCorkle, a miner's wife just back from a second honeymoon in Reno with diamonds and spades painted on her nails. "When they put the freeway through, we carried the stoplight in an open casket in a parade. People say Wallace is a hundred years behind the times, but they don't realize we like it that way."

Roger Donaldson liked Wallace's ornery, old-timey feel, too, and the claustrophobic way the canyon walls it off from the world. So he's directing his disaster epic "Dante's Peak" for Universal here, starring Pierce Brosnan as a widower volcanologist wowed by a peak experience with townswoman Linda Hamilton.

Donaldson lobbied studio types, who wanted a $20-million star, to cast his old pal Brosnan for a reported $5 million.

Brosnan says it's been "a lotta lavas," a pun that does nothing to refute a local newspaper's headline greeting: "Hollywood Flakes Come to Town."

Donaldson gussied up scruffy Wallace to justify its fanciful citation in the movie as Money magazine's "Second Most Desirable Place to Live in the U.S., Population Under 20,000."

He planted flowers and shrubs, and built a new church and bank--which will shortly be destroyed by the computer-generated volcano that 60 Digital Domain programmers are slaving round the clock to insert just up the valley.

"Hell, this town has never looked so good," Zeller says. "But those Hollywood people are not like us."

Seated peacefully in the bleachers at Wallace High School, fixing to incite 300 extras to riot in terror, Donaldson agrees with Zeller. "Look at these extras! You couldn't get extras like that in L.A. They look like real people."

Realism is much on Donaldson's mind because he thinks it's not much on the mind of Fox's rival film "Volcano."

"Dante's Peak" is "what, if a volcano went off, it would look like," Donaldson says. "The whole second half of this movie is nonstop disaster. The only people who've seen it before are those who've seen the real thing."

"We kept calling up volcano consultants and finding out they were dead," screenwriter Les Bohem complains.

Donaldson sculpted Bohem's effects-conscious script: He changed Hamilton from a fishing guide to the town mayor, beefed up her (unconsummated) romance with Brosnan and added popping tires to the scene where a lava flow makes a truck's paint peel, threatening to detonate the gas tank.

"There's been a certain amount of improv," Brosnan says, "because the story's pretty slim."

Not that it necessarily lacks drama.

"The amazing thing about a volcano is the number of ways it can kill you, unlike a twister, where you basically have to be caught up in the funnel," producer Gale Anne Hurd says. "There's burning ash, earthquakes, 100-mph 'lahar' [hot mud flash floods], 600-mph, 800-degree pyroclastic clouds."

*

Volcanoes turn air to poison and lakes to bubbling acid vats. They spark multicolored lightning, boil pretty girls in hot springs and belch "lava bombs"--rock projectiles that shatter and splatter one with magma.

"A volcano," marvels grinning production designer Dennis Washington, "it's a Disneyland of disaster!"

Donaldson, however, is determined not to let the hundreds of computer-generated effects run his show. Hand-held cameras, cranes and dollies are computer-coded to make the shots fluid and kinetic, breaking free of what Hurd terms "the static, proscenium quality" of earlier computer-generated scenes.

"We're mechanically contriving the effects we want and shooting them as they happen," explains Geoff Murphy, who helped Donaldson invent New Zealand cinema in the 1970s and handles second-unit horrors on "Dante's Peak."

"When we made films at home," Donaldson says, "you were only spending a couple of million. Here we're spending $100 million [Hurd says the official figure is $95 million], but the chances of getting it back are higher."

In a move that no doubt darkened executives' faces, Donaldson insisted on shooting the crucial all-hell-breaks-loose scenes that dominate the film at "magic hour." This is a notoriously tough strategy.

"The light's only right from about a quarter past 8 to a quarter to 9," Murphy says. "When the light's right, the difference between the ambient light and the headlights is just enough for them to glow. So we cruise about all day doing very little and then for about an hour and a half at the end of the day it's total panic."

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