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The fire man

David R. Ellis, known for his scorching action sequences, took hot seat for 'Final Destination 2.'

February 03, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

"Cameron Crowe, Nora Ephron and Woody Allen are good with dialogue," says New Line's Emmerich. "David is one of those who's very good with action. I don't know what his ambitions are, but he can give Roland Emmerich [the 'Independence Day' director, who's no relation to Toby] and Michael Bay ['The Rock'] a run for their money."

Transition to directing

Growing up in Malibu, Ellis was one of California's top-ranked junior pro surfers. At 19, he became friends with Buddy Joe Hooker, a leading stuntman, with whom he apprenticed for two years. One day, Ellis got a call to do water stunts for Bob Crane in 1974's "Superdad," and before long he was taken under the wing of other stunt coordinators. Those at the top of that profession now earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year, he says.

"Stunt people aren't daredevils but professional athletes who know how to minimize risk," he says. "You learn to choreograph action, make it look real and capture it on film. It was a natural transition into second-unit directing, which was always my goal."

Ellis directed car chases for episodic TV and, in 1983, shot small scenes for "Gorky Park." Taking on projects such as "Fatal Attraction" rather than "Rambo," he says, ensured he'd be surrounded by quality directors. Among the "shared" moments of which he's most proud: the alley ambush sequence in "Clear and Present Danger," the Jet Ski footage in "Waterworld" and co-creating virtually all of the seafaring action on a sound stage for "The Perfect Storm." Down the road, he expects that a 16-minute car chase in "The Matrix Reloaded" will be another feather in his cap.

"The key to being a second-unit director is understanding that it's the director's film," he says. "The shots should look as if he'd done them, if he had the time. You adapt to all different styles. I'm more of a technician who's given the latitude to be creative, honored that some great directors chose me to paint on their canvas."

When it came to striking out on his own, however, Ellis had a credibility problem. Action was one thing, but could he deal with actors? His breakthrough came in 1996 with the sequel to "Homeward Bound." Coming off second-unit work on "Beethoven's 2nd," "Iron Will" and "The Jungle Book," he'd proved he could handle animals.

Although the $14-million "Homeward Bound II" took in a respectable $32.8 million in domestic box office receipts, he "got no buzz off it," Ellis says. Unable to parlay his success into new directorial assignments, he lined up work on films such as "Sphere," "The Perfect Storm," "The Negotiator," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Matrix Reloaded," which established him as a top second-unit action director.

New Line offered him "Final Destination 2" and was so pleased with the outcome that it signed him for "Cellular" as well. The thriller, in which a kidnapped woman reaches a boy on a cell phone and tries to enlist his help, is set for release in 2004.

Because of strong word-of-mouth on "Final Destination 2," directorial offers are finally coming in. But second-unit work still appeals. You make good money, Ellis explains, and you can have fun "without carrying the world on your shoulders." Four months ago, Ellis collaborated with Peter Weir on "Master and Commander," a period piece featuring Russell Crowe as a sea captain.

In his dreams, Ellis would like to direct Crowe and three other actors with whom he has worked -- George Clooney ("The Perfect Storm"), Harrison Ford ("Patriot Games") and Mel Gibson ("The Man Without a Face") -- in a "Dirty Dozen"-type war film. Although he's also interested in comedy, in his heart of hearts, he's an action man.

"I'd love to do the ultimate car-chase movie," he says. "The technology for capturing it is so advanced now. If we had the latitude to go through city blocks of traffic, we could do something cool."

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