And he made good on that promise, says producer Mike Medavoy, Chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures. “When I read the script for Basic, I was captivated,” he says. “It is packed with dark, Hitchcockian twists and turns. The story is told by several characters whose versions conflict with one another, which keeps the audience guessing as to what happened that day in the jungle and why. It all leads up to a surprise ending that you never see coming.”
Brad Fischer, co-executive producer on Basic and vice-president of production for Phoenix Pictures, who brought the script to Medavoy says “what really sets this story apart is the way it builds on the twists and turns of successful military movies. You think you’re getting a typical military thriller like “The General’s Daughter” or “A Few Good Men” and then it totally derails you...turns you on your ear. It’s incredibly satisfying when, as an audience member, you’re outsmarted only to realize that the truth was in front of your eyes throughout the entire journey.”
Medavoy’s choice of John McTiernan to direct the project was based on the director’s adept use of the camera as a narrative presence in his films. It was particularly apt for this story in which incidents are told and retold from differing points of view. “In this kind of story the camera has to be active and comment on what’s going on,” says McTiernan. “The approach and the angles change depending on whose version of the story we’re watching. A soldier who is a dumb innocent in his version becomes the mastermind in another character’s retelling of the story. So the narrative style has to subtly shift every time. It’s like you’re moving deeper and deeper into the jungle, if you will. It all has to accelerate, intensify and play at a higher voltage as you go forward.”
For McTiernan, Basic also satisfied all the definitions of a true thriller. “Something potentially horrific happened to a group of people who have completely vanished and you follow a couple of people who are trying to figure it out,” he says. “And it just keeps getting more and more dangerous until, eventually, the whole thing turns upside down and nothing that you thought was going on was actually true.”
BRINGING THE STORY TO LIFE
When McTiernan was approached to direct Basic, John Travolta had already been signed to portray the pivotal character of Tom Hardy, an ex-Ranger and DEA agent who has been suspended amidst allegations of taking bribes from a Panamanian drug lord. “That’s what attracted me to the whole project. The role of Tom Hardy calls on John to do what audiences love to see him do, be sparky, mischievous and a little outrageous,” says McTiernan. “The thing I’ve always admired about John is his irrepressible sense of joy. No matter what role he’s playing, you can tell he’s having a wonderful time doing it.”
For Travolta, the role, while challenging, was a comfortable fit. “The military environment seems to fit my persona,” says the actor. “What I liked about Basic was that it made serious physical and mental demands on me.”
As soon as he signed aboard, Travolta immediately threw himself into developing his character. For three months prior to the start of filming, he worked out six days a week and lost 25 pounds. He also trained with the First Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Air Field in Columbus, Georgia. He continued his workout and nutritional regimen throughout production. “Hardy is a tough guy and he’s one of the DEA’s best. He’s clever, smart and can clearly manipulate situations and people to get what he wants,” says Travolta. “Also, he’s witty and has a confident air of sexuality about him. And that required me to be at my fittest and my sharpest.”
Joining Travolta at the head of the stellar cast is Samuel L. Jackson. It’s the first time that the two have starred together since the Quentin Tarantino-directed Pulp Fiction, for which both received Academy Award® nominations.
“We shared a big moment in our personal histories,” Travolta says of Jackson. “Pulp Fiction moved both our careers forward. When we signed on to Basic, I was surprised it had taken us so long to work together again.“
“We have a chemistry that works,” says Jackson. “We feel it even when we’re in a scene with somebody else.”
Travolta responds, “There’s a naturalness when I work with Sam. I instantly become a better actor, because he inspires that.”
Jackson plays Army Ranger Sgt. Nathan West, an elite jungle warfare instructor who specializes in covert operations and whose latest training mission, in the middle of a hurricane, goes terribly wrong.
The reason McTiernan was intrigued with Jackson playing Sgt. West (they’d previously worked together on Die Hard With a Vengeance) was that “the character is a holy terror, really tough, but depending on how you look at him, he’s either a monster or a good father who wants to make sure that his soldiers learn what they need to learn in order to stay alive. That kind of role is part of our movie heritage, going as far back as John Wayne, the drill sergeant who is brutal as hell until you realize he’s doing it because he really cares about his men.”
Jackson was fascinated by the subtleties and complexities under West’s hard-edged exterior. “He’s a very hard guy to read,” he explains. “Some people will see him as a bully, but he knows he has a job to do. He’s got a group of people who need to be trained and he has to weed out the weak.”
For a director primarily known for movies such as Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, McTiernan essentially saw Basic as a great date movie that would appeal to men and women. Like his recent hit, The Thomas Crown Affair, the story is fashioned so that the central female character, Capt. Julia Osborne, is the person who finally pieces together the truth.
Connie Nielsen portrays Capt. Osborne, head of Fort Clayton’s military police and head of the investigation. For Medavoy, the actress had the right stuff for Osborne. “She can be authoritative, vulnerable and incredibly sexy all at the same time. She brought dimensions to Julia Osborne that weren’t even on the page.”
Unlike Travolta’s loquacious Hardy, much of Nielsen’s performance is reactive. “She does a lot of her work without speaking,” says Travolta, “because her character is not someone who wastes words. Connie instinctively sensed that.”
“Osborne is very emotional, despite her icy exterior. At the same time, with all her experience, she’s also very naïve,” says Nielsen. “But throughout the film, her instincts keep nagging at her, telling her there’s more to the story than what she’s being told. Finally, it’s up to her to solve the mystery. And as she slowly uncovers the truth, she serves as the audience’s guide through the maze of lies and deception.”
Because Osborne is the eyes and ears of the audience, director McTiernan pivoted the movie around her. “As the audience questions what they’re seeing and second guessing what they hear, so does Osborne,” says McTiernan. “All the conspiracy and manipulation is filtered through her eyes. Every time she is surprised, so are we. Just as she’s being played and led to certain conclusions, so is the audience. And when she begins to question the inconsistencies in the stories she’s heard, we’re right there with her. She and the audience are in sync the whole way. And that’s the true beauty of the story.”
TRANSFORMING AN AIRFIELD INTO A JUNGLE
To capture the visual density of the tropical jungles of Panama, director McTiernan turned to production designer Dennis Bradford, who had brought style and distinction to the look of such films as Shaft, The Thomas Crown Affair and Deep Impact. His most daunting task, according to Bradford, was to create a rain forest on Cecil Field, a decommissioned airfield in Jacksonville, Florida.
McTiernan and Bradford identified the location from a helicopter while on a scouting trip for the film. Cecil Field sported vegetation that was similar to the tropics it was supposed to represent. “We were lucky to find a site that was under large oak trees,” explains Bradford, “because that provided us with a tall enough canopy to use as a foundation for a rain forest.”
The ground under the oak trees proved to be flat and featureless, however, and it required the labor force of about 100 people to create the hilly terrain needed for the film. Under Bradford’s supervision, the crew imported approximately 100 palm trees and 400 to 500 smaller plants to the site. A bunker, where several of the film’s most dramatic scenes transpire, was built in the center of the jungle.
Two large lighting towers were erected and surrounded by specially built banyan trees enabling the towers to blend in with the jungle foliage. Bradford and his crew designed and crafted the five huge trees -- complete with roots and mushrooms -- out of spray foam and other sculpting materials. During production, the electricians accessed the lighting scaffolds by climbing up through the inside of the man-made tree trunks.
“Bringing plants to a site is the easy part,” says Bradford. “The real trick is to make the site work for the crew, so that the camera can be positioned properly and the wind effects machines can be placed.”
Working hand in hand with Bradford was special effects coordinator Conrad V. Brink (Kate & Leopold, the HBO series “Oz”), whose job it was to create in the wind, rain and lightning. “And that was no mean feat since the entire film takes place in a rainstorm and a hurricane,” according to Bradford, “and Conrad had only a week to prepare.”
Four six-foot high electric fans provided the wind effects. But local Florida ordinances mandated that only existing water be used to create the rain, according to Brink. “Luckily, there was a creek that ran through the jungle set.” However, the creek had to be tested for chemicals first and proved to be clean enough to use as rain.
Brink and his crew secured nine rain towers 40 feet up in the trees. The towers were connected to hoses that ran to a truck, which could pump up to 750 gallons per minute, though Brink was careful to conserve as much of the creek water as he could. “After each take we’d turn off the truck so that we didn’t pump the creek dry,” he explains.
To provide a steady stream of precipitation throughout the film, Brink utilized a crane and a 60-foot pipe with four nozzles (called a rain bar). The pipe and nozzles were hoisted up 100 feet and provided a consistent stream of rain.
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