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A war of compromise

On 'Tears of the Sun,' a movie star and filmmaker struggle to balance a brutal subject and entertainment.

March 02, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Honolulu — Movie directors find all sorts of diversions to unwind between camera setups. Some play basketball. Others listen to music. A few get massages. Between takes on the set of "Tears of the Sun," director Antoine Fuqua studies photographs of genocide.

"Here, take a look at this picture," the filmmaker says as he leafs through the Gilles Peress book "The Silence," pointing out an image of a young Rwandan child slain in ethnic cleansing. "It takes a lot to bring tears to my eyes. But when I saw what happened to this 9-year-old, which is the same age of my son, I said, 'I have to do something.' "

In an age of comic-book superheroes, Hollywood directors aim for escapism, not atrocities. Fuqua has different sensibilities and wants to challenge audiences. His last film, "Training Day" (2001), had at its center a corrupt police officer. The backdrop of "Tears of the Sun," which opens Friday, is the unchecked slaughter of innocents caught in an African civil war. "Both movies are about the abuse of power," Fuqua says. "And that someone has to do something about it."

But shining a light on the world's worst problems is not the typical subject matter for a $90-million movie, especially one starring Bruce Willis. Fuqua's challenge was to craft a film that neither trivialized ethnic cleansing by piling on Hollywood hokum, nor played like a "Frontline" documentary by emphasizing an international crisis over an exciting narrative.

"That was the big balancing act," Fuqua says. "I was definitely walking a tightrope the whole time."

That's a diplomatic spin. Just as tribes fight for power in "Tears of the Sun," two strong factions clashed during its making. By the time the film was nearly completed, the sometimes testy relationship between Fuqua and Willis had deteriorated to the point where the two were engaging in a shouting match over the film's tone.

Willis downplayed the disagreements about the film's tone and was vague about any conflicts. "This has been a difficult film for us to make physically," he says. "But we are not flying by the seat of our pants. We are continuing to explore things. We are working on keeping the script honest."

The basic plot of the screenplay, credited to Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo but rewritten by several others including Fuqua, suggested several possible interpretations. Willis plays Lt. A.K. Waters, the leader of a Navy SEAL squad sent to rescue American doctor Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) from vicious Nigerian rebels. Soon after the soldiers parachute in, they witness atrocities that alter their mission. They are still trying to rescue Kendricks, but now they must confront their personal response to genocide and decide how many Nigerians they should attempt to save.

But what story is more important -- the heroism or the horror? One group, led by Fuqua, pushed for an uncompromising parable about the price of indifference. Willis and his camp wanted more "African Queen" romance and gung-ho bravery -- the kind of role that tracks the popular persona Willis established in movies like "Die Hard."

"They are both passionate about what they want," says Joe Roth, whose Revolution Studios produced "Tears" for Sony's Columbia Pictures. He also was the film's unofficial U.N. peacekeeping force, spending so much time working with the filmmakers in post-production that he took an executive producer credit. "You have a director with vision and an actor with clout, two very strong voices."

Scraps between filmmakers and actors are as old as Hollywood itself, but Willis and Fuqua's arguments are especially noteworthy because they dramatize how difficult it has become to make an action movie that is not about fantasy, but about real life.

Increasing degrees of peril

When you shoot a movie in the middle of a dense and muddy tropical rain forest, the hazards include jumping spiders, flying termites and 6-inch-long centipedes. But on this summer day on the "Tears of the Sun" set in the shadow of the Ko'Olau Mountains, the real peril is not the environment but the film's ever-shifting screenplay.

After Lasker and Cirillo first sold the script to Universal Studios in a bidding war seven years ago for $800,000, the screenplay passed through several revisions, all in search of the right balance of motivation and action. Some of the original script's action set pieces and political statements -- such as a subplot about the region's critical oil fields -- were lost in the process.

Directors from Ron Howard to Andy Davis flirted with the project, but it eventually drifted from Universal's priorities and landed at Revolution. Willis came on board, and Lasker and Cirillo added a back story set in Bosnia to explain why Lt. Waters no longer follows every order.

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