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Poseidon - Wolfgang Petersen interview

Poseidon

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WOLFGANG Petersen talks about the challenge of directing Poseidon and why the remake is very much a disaster film that reflects the times in which we live…

Q. The film is a lot of fun to watch but obviously it must have been physically demanding and punishing. Were there moments of fun on set?
A. Yes, it was really hard for the actors. But on the other hand it was so much fun to see them when they came out of the water and stumbled out with their towels around them – they looked so miserable. But then they watched the video and saw the shot and they’d go: “Wow, Jesus Christ!” And they’d go back into the water to do it again. The real drama and the real visual effects that make the film seem so real are the actors. They threw themselves into everything – imagine, there’s only one shot in the movie that’s not them doing it and that was the scene involving them being sucked from one ballast tank to the other.

Q. The body count is quite visceral. Was it a deliberate choice to show the human carnage of the situation in such a visceral manner?
A: Of course, yes. We thought that in this time of so much disaster and trouble in the world, when people are so anxious about where our world is going, a new style of disaster movie would be interesting. Nothing any more like in the 70s when they were some kind of campy, Hollywood-ish invention that you’d never really believe. Now it’s a very different kind of style, very visceral, very realistic. This is how it would be if that happened. So it’s not like a good old fashioned disaster movie where you’d see two or three dead people in the beginning out of 5,000 and then you’d forget about those. We wanted to show that if a ship like this turned upside down, this is how it would look like. You would see dead people everywhere. You’d never forget as you go through the film what real disaster has happened here.

Q. In this movie, it’s quite shocking that some of the central characters met an early demise. How far did you consider this might alienate certain sections of the audience?
A. In the context of making this film more real and not following the old disaster film structure where you know right away which guy will die, we did include a few shocking scenes very early on that you’re not prepared for. From then on, the film has a very special feel. You say: “Oh my God, this is a serious business here. I didn’t know that this person had to die, so who knows who’s next?”
I also have a special reputation that I like to kill a lot of people. So having seen A Perfect Storm, some people thought the characters in this might all die! I never considered that, by the way. But it is important. An audience will have a problem with some of the deaths but we had to do it because it comes with the territory – people you don’t want to lose, you lose. Not just the bad people.

Q. A UK cinema chain ran a poll a couple of years ago which named the original as the top disaster film of all-time. How do you think this remake will be regarded in 30 years?
A. I don’t know. It’s hard as a filmmaker to say what you think about how people will see your film in 30 years time. But we are trying something here that feels very contemporary. We didn’t want to go with the old fashioned way of character arcs and back stories for the characters – we wanted to do this as realistically as a situation like this would be. There are 10 or 12 people who don’t know each other thrown together in an unbelievably urgent situation and have to try to survive and get out of it. If they were to sit down and have a talk about who there were, it wouldn’t be real and audiences wouldn’t buy that. They want to see characters show a little bit here and a little bit there what they are made of, what they are. That’s an interesting way of peeling the layers from these characters and getting slowly into them.

Q. Did you research rogue waves?
A. Rogue waves are absolutely frightening and fascinating. I didn’t really know about them until we started this project and I went on the internet and got a lot of information about them. Originally, about 10 or 15 years ago, scientists said it doesn’t happen and is kind of a legendary thing. But then more and more they found out, through satellite and such things, that they’re really there. They’re very often not even connected to storms. They come very often out of nowhere in the way we showed in the film – it’s a strange, freak accident of nature where special swells and special currents clash in a special way. It’s a freak thing. Nobody knows why it happens. But there’s a build up of energy for a short moment of time and all of a sudden a wall of water – like a 100ft or more – builds and races in a special direction before collapsing again. If you are unfortunate enough to be in the path of that wave, that’s it. You have no time to react and you disappear.
The thing that’s so fascinating about the rogue wave is that in the past 30 years, about 65 container ships mysteriously disappeared – two thirds of those were taken by rogue waves. That’s amazing. Tankers are also very vulnerable. There was also a case in 1945 with the Queen Elizabeth when 16,000 soldiers were on board. That got hit by a rogue wave and fell all the way over to the side – it was just that little moment more and it would have gone like Poseidon. I really urge you to go to the internet and research it – you will be unbelievably surprised what a phenomenon it is and how scary it is. For a film, it doesn’t get better than that.

Q. Do you agree with one of your stars, Richard Dreyfuss, that the original film was a great idea but not a great film?
A. It was 1972. I was very young when I saw it and I enjoyed it. It was like a guilty pleasure. At that time, we were doing Goddard and Fellini at film school and we weren’t into Irvin Allen’s disaster films. But we went anyway to have some fun. It’s a little bit of candy. Nowadays, I can’t believe that I was really, really shocked or excited by a film like this. Now I see it as a wonderful memory. I cannot enjoy it now in the same way. It’s terribly over-acted. Gene Hackman’s haircut is impossible! Unbelievable! Shelley Winters is sweet and wonderful. I don’t want to make fun of this movie, because I did love it and have fond, fond memories. But it is, if I may say so, a bit outdated now.

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