|What if this really happened' What if this happened to people like you and me'
| ó Steven Spielberg
Los Angeles, May 9: On a bright spring day at the Universal back lot, the world is coming to an end. Aliens have landed on the Eastern Seaboard; fear and destruction have been sown.
Somewhere on the road from New Jersey to Massachusetts, a wet and surly mob has beset a father whoís managed to hotwire a van ' one of the last working vehicles on the road ' and dragged his teenage son onto the pavement. There are a hundred extras in soggy flannel, and lots of rain, and a giant crane that snakes about like a long-necked dinosaur.
Steven Spielberg, director of the newest version of H.G. Wellsí classic War of the Worlds, is ensconced at a video monitor, ignoring the tumult. His attention is focused solely on the frame in the eye of the camera. Itís a tight close-up of a hand rising out of the fray ' a hand bearing a gun.
There are hands, and then there are hands that can act. These five fingers happen to belong to Tom Cruise, who plays a onetime deadbeat dad, a dockworker now trying to save his 18-year-old son (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning).
For someone commanding a blitzkrieg $133-million production ' with the goal of scaring Americans out of their seats this summer ' Spielberg appears absolutely relaxed, even jolly, with a trademark baseball cap on his head and a cigar, apparently unlighted, in one hand.
'What if this really happened' What if it happened to people like you and me' Not to governments, not to presidents, not to generals, not to military personnel ' what if this really happened to the average American family' What would life be like in the six days it would take the ultra-superpower to realise their conquest of Earth' I think 9/11 reinformed everything Iím putting into ĎWar of the Worlds 2005,í ' Spielberg says.
'We now know what it feels like to be terrorised'. And suddenly, for the first time since the Revolutionary War, certainly the first time since the Civil War, we know what itís like to have our two front teeth knocked out, which is what happened when they took down both towers of the World Trade Center. And I think a lot of films, whether they intend to or not, are a reflection of our own paranoia and fear from what happened in 2001.'
Fear, he admits, has always been part of the wellspring of his own creativity. 'If I wasnít such a scaredy-cat Iíd never have made Duel or Jaws or Jurassic Park or War of the Worlds or all of these movies Iíve made. People blame me for scaring them out of the water. I apologise for that. Iím only sharing what scares me.'
The filmmaking team was determined to stay away from clich's of aliens and to avoid anything that any director ' from George Lucas to Ridley Scott to Spielberg himself ' had done before.
'Iím sick and tired of watching New York get pummelled in movies and reality,' screenwriter David Koepp says. 'No scenes of beating up on New York. No destruction of famous landmarks. No shots of world capitals. No TV reporters saying whatís going on. No shots of generals with big sticks pushing battleships around the map. Letís not see the war of the world. Letís see this guyís survival story.
'I wanted to write a movie thatís about a bad father, whoís bitter, whose life had not gone where he wanted. What if the guy from Top Gun had developed an alcohol problem and got thrown out of the military and spent the last 25 years feeling sorry for himself and ruining his personal relations' Letís do that.'
Perhaps the toughest challenge in pre-production was figuring out what those aliens and their spaceships would actually look like. What makes the aliens really scary comes right from Spielbergís psyche, says War of the Worlds production designer Rick Carter.
'He has a way of making them come alive by putting them through his own subconscious filter. (The aliens are) not just scary randomly or because theyíre all-powerful. Itís because they take an interest in us. The shark in Jaws or the T. rex in Jurassic Park meets the aliens from Close Encounters, and somewhere between the mixing they turn nasty.'
Demurs Spielberg with a chuckle, 'Iím just trying to scare a lot of people all on the same weekend.'