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Tossed About by Reality

Characters in a book are one thing, but then the cast and crew of 'The Perfect Storm' met relatives of those killed at sea.

May 07, 2000|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — It's hard to say what the strangest sight in Gloucester was on an October day last year. Maybe it was a woman suggestively raising and lowering her convertible top to grab George Clooney's attention. Or Mark Wahlberg's agent apparently monitoring the door at a divey bar called the Crow's Nest. Or a church full of black-clad mourners being herded into school buses.

More likely, it was simply the presence of the Andrea Gail, tied up to the end of a long pier that juts into Gloucester's harbor. The original Andrea Gail sank in a freak storm eight years ago. All six men aboard, most of them local boys, swordfish fishermen, were lost. The storm and the sinking were turned into a nonfiction bestseller called "The Perfect Storm," and Hollywood has come to Gloucester, about 40 minutes north of Boston, to film it.

"Right now, [Gloucester] seems pumped full of steroids," says "Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger, slightly bemused. He's wearing cutoff jeans, a sweatshirt, an earring and a five o'clock shadow. He looks like a Hemingway idea of an author.

Clooney, who plays the Andrea Gail's captain, Billy Tyne, and sports a similar look--he's just gotten through his midday two-on-two basketball game--says, "It's weird. Everybody you meet here is related to somebody or was friends with or knew these guys who died."

Wahlberg, unspeakably grubby and cracking a lobster claw with his bare hands and picking the meat out, says: "I got here a couple of months before the movie started. It was nice. It was quiet. Nobody recognized me. Once George Clooney is here it's an [expletive] madhouse."

They are here for only two weeks. The balance of the film, which opens June 30, is being shot in Los Angeles, on sound stages and adrift off the California coast. There they will re-create the interior of the Crow's Nest, which serves as a home away from home for Gloucester's fishermen, and the storm itself, with the help of computers that can digitally generate 100-foot waves.

Clooney frankly admits that the star of the movie will be the storm, but he says audiences won't care about the storm unless they care about the people in it--Tyne (Clooney), Bobby Shatford (Wahlberg), Michael "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes), Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reilly), Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) and David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner).

The film's director, Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire," "Air Force One"), wishes they were shooting the whole movie here.

"I just love it," he says enthusiastically. "I grew up in the north [of Germany] in a small town called Emden and then came to Hamburg. Both are close to water. I grew up like this, so I love it."

"Like this" is not always to everyone's liking, however. Several days earlier, after a storm blew through, the second unit went out to shoot rough seas, and nearly all of them lost their lunch. Some members of the first unit are wearing seasickness patches so as not to join them.


Nevertheless, most share Petersen's enthusiasm, especially the cast, who've gotten to shoot pool at the Crow's Nest and generally soak up the atmosphere. Rick Shatford, Bobby's brother, gave Wahlberg a chain with Bobby's name and the date of the sinking on it. Clooney showed the Andrea Gail to Tyne's sister (though this proved too much for her--she broke down). Hawkes helped Ricky wallpaper his mother Ethel's bedroom. Fichtner had chicken soup with Sully's family. Diane Lane actually met the character she plays, Christina Cotter, Bobby's girlfriend, and checked out her perfume. ("Essential oils," Lane says. "So she's a real babe.")

All of the actors are careful to say that they will not be imitating these people. They won't be following the book to the letter either--there is no letter to follow. Junger does not explore the characters in great detail, which actually works in the filmmakers' favor, because fans of the book do not have a fixed idea of who these people are. Instead, the actors are guided by Petersen and the script, written by William Wittliff (who adapted Larry McMurtry's novel "Lonesome Dove" into a miniseries that is, oddly, a favorite among the fishermen here) and doctored by Bo Goldman.

The parameters they have to work with are that the characters are working-class, hard-living, hard-drinking, some of them with ex-wives and children they have to support. The town they live in is depressed, the fishing stock depleted. A few people in Gloucester had a problem with Junger's inclusion of some of these untidy facts in the book, but he feels that it was necessary--and honest. Now that they've met some of the people involved, the filmmakers feel these competing interests keenly. Clooney says there have been daily rewrites, for a variety of reasons.

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