Warfare in one form or another has always been a part of John Moore's life. He grew up in Dundalk, Ireland, the hardscrabble border town long known as a hide-out for the Irish Republican Army where car bombs killed a few of his relatives and bloody riots were commonplace.
As a news cameraman years later, Moore braved Israeli shelling while covering the peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon. The wars in Bosnia so haunted him that he studied the ethnic conflicts and visited the war-torn nation looking for answers.
So it's not surprising that Moore's first feature film, "Behind Enemy Lines," would depict the complexities of modern warfare with such a visceral edge that at times it feels more like a documentary than a big studio action-thriller. In the 20th Century Fox film that opens Friday, Owen Wilson stars as a naval aviator who must fight his way out of Bosnia with the help of his admiral, played by Gene Hackman. The story is loosely based on the experience of American pilot Scott O'Grady after he was shot down in Bosnia in 1995.
Moore employed a variety of styles to film the civil war in Bosnia in all its surrealistic horror. In one particularly vivid scene, a satellite camera tracks Wilson as he hides under a pile of dead bodies in a mass grave site. In another, images flash by with the staccato rhythm of live news footage as we watch, close-up, a fierce battle inside a village. Moore said he used hand-held cameras in that scene to prevent "the distancing that goes on with the more glamorous techniques in the film."
The $35-million film was originally set to open Jan. 18, but the studio cut production time by seven weeks to open it this year. It's one of two war movies moved up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--Sony's military thriller "Black Hawk Down" opens Dec. 28; it had been scheduled for a March 2002 release. Both Fox and Sony felt that the timing was right for films about the U.S. military, even if they aren't conventionally patriotic.
Fox Chairman Tom Rothman hired Moore after he saw Moore's commercial for Sega. It aired during the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards and featured a chase scene with dozens of sophisticated stunts. "It got a lot of attention in the movie world, which was something I didn't really expect," noted Alex Blum, who produced the commercial and co-produced "Behind Enemy Lines."
Moore could hardly believe that he had landed a film about the conflict in Bosnia. After years in the commercial world, he was anxious to use his technical skill and storytelling ability to share his understanding of the region's ethnic conflict.
"I always imagined that somebody ripped open Pandora's box," he said of the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia. "I felt obsessed about researching it. I couldn't accept the fact that it had just flared up. It was so enticing and appalling at the same time."
The burly, bearded Moore, 31, favors camouflage fatigues as a wardrobe staple. Compromise has never been easy for him, and his early success did little to soften his all-or-nothing attitude on the job, Blum said.
"I don't think he expected to live past 30," Blum added. "I think he expected to have a very intense and short life. For him to have his life turn out this way is surprising."
Moore's fearlessness shocked his producers while scouting locations in Eastern Europe last year. "He wanted to shoot the movie in Sarajevo and went there on his own," producer John Davis said. "We had to say to him, 'We can't shoot this movie anywhere that they're going to shoot at you.'" Ultimately, the film was shot in remote areas near Bratislava, Slovakia, during three months in late 2000.
The second oldest of three brothers and one sister, Moore's roots were Irish working-class. His father was a carpenter, his mother worked at a computer hardware manufacturing plant, and the family didn't have a car. His younger brother Paul went on to become a sniper for the Irish military. (Paul has a cameo role as a sniper in "Behind Enemy Lines.")
Moore said he got "hooked on imaging" at age 11 after he watched the televised assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Muslim radicals. As a teenager, Moore dreamed of becoming a combat photographer and idolized British television war correspondent Aernout Van Lynden. While shooting his film last year, Moore spent months tracking down the journalist to play himself in the movie.
Moore graduated from Dublin Technical Film School just as Ireland's film industry was booming. He worked as an assistant cameraman on several films including "The Miracle," "The Butcher Boy" and "Braveheart." He also directed music videos for Irish bands.
Around that time, Moore took interest in the Bosnian conflicts and began researching the complicated history of the region's ethnic strife. The director's knowledge became useful years later when producer Davis asked for his feedback on the original "Behind Enemy Lines" script.