— by Larry Carroll
BEVERLY HILLS, California — A 22-foot-deep tank measuring 95 feet by 100 feet and filled with 1.3 million gallons of ice-cold water. Upside-down sets including a five-story, 72-foot-high lobby with a collapsible elevator shaft. Dangerous stunts involving intense fire, water and wind, all in the service of a sadist German director whose cast has dubbed him "The King of Claustrophobia."
Why would an actor take on a movie like "Poseidon"?
"Money," deadpanned screen legend Richard Dreyfuss, discussing his involvement in this week's big boat blockbuster. It's Dreyfuss' first major film in nearly a decade, one that drew the 59-year-old out of retirement for the one simple reward he happily repeated: "The money."
"I needed the money and I said yes," added Dreyfuss, explaining that he uses such roles to finance his real-life "Mr. Holland's Opus" aspirations of teaching schoolchildren. "Is this a bad thing? [Is the movie industry] the only business that lies about this? I am retired, and I do other things. It's an amazing situation when your fall-back profession offers you a bloody fortune."
"Poseidon" would need to offer a bloody fortune, it seems, to justify the efforts of the huge cast, who collectively navigated behind-the-scenes adventures nearly as deadly as those that threatened their imperiled alter egos in this loose remake of a 1972 classic.
"['The Poseidon Adventure' was] a film that had its merits, and I was really impressed with it when I was young," remembered director Wolfgang Petersen, who previously drowned himself with nautical adventure flicks "Das Boot" and "A Perfect Storm." "['Poseidon'] is very different. We only took the premise: big ship goes upside down and hangs there, starts to sink, and all the people inside, we watch what they have to go through."
According to Josh Lucas — who plays a suave gambler in the flick — the actors went through quite a bit. "It was kind of a ridiculous movie to make," he laughed. "The physicality of it was so insane. [Petersen] literally built sections of a cruise ship, put them on hydraulics, filled them with water, lit them on fire, and basically could move you around them so that [a room] would be pointed at a 45-degree angle and, literally in less than a second, a whole two-story room could snap to an angle where hundreds of gallons of water would crush you against the side of a wall."
"It was terribly claustrophobic," Emmy Rossum — who plays Kurt Russell's daughter — remembered of an escape sequence in an air duct, one of the film's tensest moments. "It took about two weeks to shoot, and we were really in that duct, 10 hours a day. It was stifling hot and really claustrophobic."
"The King of Claustrophobia," she laughed. "That's a good name. [Petersen is] also the King of the Water too, which is funny because we did all our own stunts, we had to learn how to scuba dive and free dive, and we were wet for six months in a row, and Wolfgang never even touched the water."
"Josh got his eye split open," remembered Mike Vogel ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), who plays Rossum's boyfriend in the flick. "Kurt and Josh and I were towing Mía Maestro back out of the water, and I just happened to catch Kurt's hand coming right at my face with his flashlight as he was swimming. I ducked; Josh wasn't so fortunate. He got smacked right upside the head and does the whole scene with his eye bleeding. That's what they kept for the movie."
"It was a very adult, grown-up thing. No one was kidding around about it," insisted Dreyfuss, cast as a suicidal man who rediscovers his will to live. "We all had signals if we were in trouble. And there were more stunt people on this movie than you could shake a stick at. If you gestured, you were helped."
"It's a really discombobulating thing to act under water," chimed in Jacinda Barrett, the film's frazzled mother of a 9-year-old. "[You need to] just trust that if anything goes wrong, one of the water safety people will pull you out."
"There was a sequence in the movie where they literally lit the water on fire and the character that I play swims 40 to 50 yards underneath this wall of fire," Lucas remembered. "I knew, psychologically, the only way I would be able to do that would be to train for it. So I would literally go home, get in my pool, swim laps holding my breath underwater. [Still], when they lit that water on fire, my mind panicked. You can't prepare for it."
Petersen pushed his actors with arguably the highest number of underwater acting scenes ever assembled in a film. "It's very difficult, because you have to rehearse where you're going to be, and that's with a mask on," Russell reasoned. "Once you take that mask off and the lights are on you, you can't really see where you are. It's very, very easy to get lost."
"The one bizarre moment for sure was getting knocked out by Kurt Russell," remembered Vogel of one of the shoot's many blind-moment mishaps. "There's a shot in the movie where he zip-lines across the lobby with Emmy Rossum on his back, and Josh and I were down the other end catching them as they came through. As Kurt was letting go of the handle, he came through with his elbow and just socked me right in the temple! I staggered and went down. ... I got my bell rung real good."
"It was really dark and murky water," Rossum added. "Kurt Russell is kicking me in the head, I'm kicking Josh Lucas in the head, it's mayhem under there."
"We had to crawl and climb and crawl and crawl and climb and kick and pull," Dreyfuss sighed. "And I'm not a kicker-crawler-climber person."
Dreyfuss and Petersen know what the actor was paid to make "Poseidon," but whatever it was, it wasn't nearly enough.