Set Visit: War of the Worlds - Steven Spielberg & Tom Cruise interviews (Part 1 of 2)


It takes a lot to get me out to Newhall, CA. Situated at least an hour’s drive away from Los Angeles, it’s an amalgam of strip malls and subdivisions adjacent to a giant theme park and devoid of, well, anything else. It’s sort of an über-suburbia. So when I got the call for the WAR OF THE WORLDS set visit, I was more than a little reticent. When they told me that it was a hot set and that Steven Spielberg was gonna sit down with us for a Q&A, suddenly Newhall didn’t seem so far away.

WAR OF THE WORLDS is the first Spielberg film that I’ve looked forward to in a long time. For a while I wondered if Spielberg would ever make another Spielberg film. Not that THE TERMINAL or CATCH ME IF YOU CAN are bad films – they’re just not Spielberg films. Spielberg films have a certain hugeness to them, an epic feel that remains unrivaled among other directors working today.

Spielberg sets are known to be tight-lipped, and WAR OF THE WORLDS is no different. Shrouded in secrecy, details of the shoot have been frustratingly elusive. Wanna know what the aliens or their spaceships look like? Good luck finding pics. You have a better chance of seeing those infamous naked Pope shots.

Last Thursday I happily made the trek down to Newhall, where I met several other internet and print journalists in the parking lot of a Circuit City . There we boarded a shuttle that took us even further into the middle of nowhere, to Piru , California . A smattering of little houses and Mom & Pop stores, Piru is sort of an Anytown, USA . In the case of WAR OF THE WORLDS, it’s doubling as Athens , New York . We headquartered at a local bed and breakfast, the kind of place for which the word “quaint” was invented, as the crew prepped the set down the street. After munching on some snacks, nightfall arrived and we were invited to check out the shoot.

The scene being shot featured Tom Cruise in a minivan (one of the few operational vehicles left) attempting to leave town and flee the alien invasion. Lining the minivan were hundreds of desperate townspeople walking alongside, yelling and begging to be let in.  In front of the minivan was the camera setup, towed by another van which housed Spielberg and his monitor. Giant rain machines drenched the extras during each take, as smoke machines worked to create a heavy fog. Altogether they created an eerie, ominous atmosphere of impending doom. A nearby kiosk bearing the sign “Courtesy of Tom Cruise” dispensed free coffee to us and the crew (sorry extras). I grabbed a Café Mocha. Thanks Tom! A few more of those and we’ll finally be even for EYES WIDE SHUT.

We watched for a few hours as they shot the minivan at various speeds. Then we were herded back to the Bed & Breakfast for the Q&A. Not far behind was Spielberg and, much to our surprise, Tom Cruise. This being the 58th day of a 72-day shoot, you’d think they’d be a little cranky and more than a little tired, but they were actually pretty excited to talk WAR OF THE WORLDS! Here are some excerpts from the Q&A:


Steven Spielberg Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise (TC): Hey you all. Thanks for coming out here. This is wild, isn’t it? I have never done this while shooting. Have you ever done this?

Steven Spielberg (SS): Never. Ever. 

TC: Yeah, we’ve never done this. No, in the middle of shooting, to do this, never.

SS: Everybody shoots the movie, then we do it.

TC: I never talk about it until it’s done really. I don’t answer any questions. But, we’re kind of doing everything different on this one, aren’t we?

SS: (Laughs)

It seems as if this story’s been told so many times. Why this movie and why now?

SS: Well, I would have made this, if I could have, I would have begun this movie 12 years ago. It’s not that I suddenly had an interest in this 12 years ago, but I bought at an auction the last surviving War of the Worlds radio script that had not been confiscated by the police department. Because when they raided the Mercury Theater and they took and destroyed every single radio play, the only copy that survived was at Howard Koch’s house, because you know Howard Koch wrote it with Orson Welles. And Howard Koch had been on a three-day, it was like a three-day crash schedule to get it ready for air. And he just crashed himself, and went to sleep and was not at the theater when his play was performed on the radio. And when the world panicked and began, you know, racing away from New Jersey and other places in the country – that was the reason the script survived.

So I purchased that radio show, and I had a chance to read it and it was amazing because it was a real, I guess you could say, a distillation of the novel, which I had read several times, starting in college. The first time I ever read it in 1966, was probably the first time I read, ’67; And so 12 years ago I had an idea, after I bought the radio show, I said, “Oh man, this would make an amazing movie. And then a bunch of kind of, I call it, you know, the scavenger films came out that sort of picked the bones of H.G. Wells over the years, and when Independence Day came out, I said, “Well, maybe I won’t make it.” Because they kind of picked the bones of that, you know? They didn’t pick it clean, and they picked different bones than I would have chosen to pick from the original H.G. Wells book, but that kinda put me of f f or a while.

And then, I guess I got interested in it again just in the course of trying to find something to do with Tom. We had been on our own crash course to find a movie to make together after we had such a great time doing Minority Report. You know, the old Hollywood blow smoke up your ass quotation is, “Hey, let’s make a picture together.” You hear that all the time and it never happens. (Laughs) It never, ever happens. And we were determined that we were going to do a whole bunch o f f ilms together and so, I called Tom one day and I said, “Tom, would you ever consider doing…”

TC: Actually, I came by. You were doing CATCH ME…

SS: I was doing CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, right…

TC: And we were sitting back in a car and you said, “Okay, here’s three…”

SS: Three ideas for movies.

TC: Three ideas. And I went…

SS: I pitched them out.

TC: And I went, “Oh my God, WAR OF THE WORLDS, absolutely.” That day it was done.

What were the other two?

SS: Exactly. Oh the other two?

TC: Not worth talking about. (Laughs)

SS: One was a Western.

TC: Which hopefully one day, we will do together.

This completes your alien trilogy. The first two were nice aliens and these were mean ones. What does that say about your filmmaking and does it fit the time now?

SS: I’m just an equal opportunity director, you know? I gave the benevolent aliens a couple of shots, and now I’m going to try my hand at the worst kind. (Laughs) You know, the kind that’s just bent on ending civilization as we know it and beginning their own if you read the original book. You know, they reap and sow, and so I really have great respect for the book, but not to the extent that I would set the movie back in 1898. I was not going to do a Victorian science fiction movie.

There’s been others out that very successful and others maybe less successful, but we’ve seen the sci-fi Victorian period done before, we’ve all seen the contemporary sci-fi film done before. I feel more at home today, in today’s world. And I think, in the shadow of 9/11, there is a little relevance with how we are all so unsettled in our feelings about our collective futures. And that’s why I think, when I reconsidered War of the Worlds, post 9/11, it began to make more sense to me, that it could be a tremendous emotional story as well as very entertaining one, and have some kind of current relevance.

Are you shooting this film differently because of the time constraints?

SS: No. Not at all.

But you’re shooting the big scenes first?

SS: Okay, yes. That’s true. We shot many of the big effect sequences first so ILM could get a jump on their shot list…

TC: We probably would have had to do that anyway, because the set that we shot in…

SS: New Jersey was all the big effect scenes…

TC: Was all the big effect scenes, and that would be weather prohibitive shooting in February…

SS: We didn’t want snow, because you can’t be consistent with snow. You can get a great day and it’s beautiful, and it’s snowing, and then three days later it’s gone. And then it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions of dollars, a combination of digital effects and physical effects, to snow in, you know, 50 acres of city streets and farmland. So it was good that we shot it when we did, but we did front load the movie with effect shots so ILM could have a head start and we could make our June 29th release date. There’s 400 digital shots in the movie, but I’m not rushing it. This is my longest schedule in about 12 years, so in that sense, I’m not like, this isn’t a cram course for War of the Worlds, we’re really taking our time with this.

TC: Nobody else could have, you know?  I mean literally when we decided that was it, we’re gonna go, Steven and I have worked together, Steven makes movies, they’re not rushed, but he just is fast. But it’s not…see, being accurate and telling a story, you know, it’s just he works at a different pace that, it doesn’t compromise story or character at all. Some people think, “Well, I gotta take a lot of time to figure this out.” No, we show up on the set and he’s just deadly accurate in his choices and direction.

And it’s even more fun as an actor working with him on this one, because we are friends for many years, and just to be this…we had a shorthand on the first one and it’s even a shorter shorthand, you know, so in working together; I’ve worked with David Koepp before, he’s worked with Koepp before, the crew, it really doesn’t feel like we’re rushing the film and, I remember on MINORITY REPORT, massive action scenes that he can adjust and fix an d change the whole thing, if he finds an idea, on the spot. And it was the same thing when we were shooting, we shot a sequence in Newark that, when you see the film, we shot it in five days.

Other directors, I’m telling you, it would have taken them three weeks to get it, but it’s just in terms of his, when you’re that confident and that able, you know, you know your story, you know your lenses, but still to the point where you’re still exploring the story, it’s not like it was all pre-determined and this is it, we’re gonna go, it’s that, where there’s that creative exploration where it’s just, it’s alive, and it’s really just fun…

SS: It is fun.  It really is fun working with Tom and working with this entire cast, but if you know my movies, you know that I’m more interested in concept shots and money shots than I am in tons of MTV coverage, which certainly takes a lot of time. But if I can put something on the screen that is sustained where you get to study it and you get to say, “How did they do that?” That’s happening before my eyes and the shot’s not over yet, it’s still going and it’s still going and my God, it’s an effects shot and it’s lasting seemingly forever.

I enjoy that more than creating illusion with sixteen different camera angles, where no shot lasts longer than six frames on the screen. To pull a rabbit out of a hat, because you are really a smart audience and you’re in the fastest media, the fastest growing new media today and you know the difference between slight of hand visually and the real thing. I think what makes War of the Worlds, at least the version that we’re making, really exciting, is you get to really see what’s happening. There’s not a lot of visual tricks. We tell it like it is, we shot it to you, and we put you inside the experience.

TC: And it’s such a strong story, the characters…

SS: That’s great. Let me mention, that’s great you say it, because this wouldn’t have happened this fast if it hadn’t been for David Koepp. You know, we go through the whole development process all the time in making movies, and sometimes you really are intent on making a picture, you know, like I was with Indy 4, in which case my producer didn’t like the script as much as I did, but in the sense of, you know, my intention was to make Indy 4 a year and a half ago and it didn’t work out. I’m hoping to make it a year and a half from now, maybe less. But the idea is, you gotta have the screenplay, and David Koepp, had he not delivered on paper, we would still be in development on War of the Worlds.

TC: It was the best birthday gift I got…

SS: It was, it was on your birthday.

TC: He read it first, he goes, “I’m going to send it to you,” and I was jumping up and down reading it. First draft, you go, “This guy, it’s just so accurate.”


Source: JoBlo.com



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