The director of
‘Air Force One’ & ‘Perfect Storm’ hauls
Homer to the multiplex.
by M.E. Russell
Read the uncut web-only version
of this interview here.
Superhero fans were lightly
miffed last year when director Wolfgang Petersen’s “Batman
vs. Superman” project was back-burnered by Warner Bros.
in favor of separate “Batman” and “Superman” movies.
But the same fans can take solace in “Troy,” promises
the director of “In the Line of Fire” and “Air
Force One.” He says that his action epic about the
3,000-year-old Trojan War – hitting screens May 14 – contains “the
same kind of clash of heroes.”
“The two main characters in our movie,
Achilles [Brad Pitt] and Hector [Eric Bana], are enemies
and have the big, big, major fight in the movie – and
you feel for both of them, because you connect to both of
them,” Petersen explains. “Both of them are part
of yourself – with Achilles being the darker, more
aggressive, edgy character and Hector the more positive,
He says that closely parallels what he had
in mind for “Batman
vs. Superman”: “I mean, we have Batman and Superman
in ourselves,” he says. “We like Batman – we
understand him, we suffer with him. On the other hand, we
want to be Superman. But they’re conflicting philosophies.
Let’s bring them together in one movie and see how
we, as an audience, wrestle with our inner demons.”
It’s fairly heady stuff for a superhero movie – and
it should be even headier stuff in “Troy,” which
Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff are developing from
no less a source than Homer’s Iliad. Advance-screening
reports have mentioned that the bloody, R-rated film refuses
to take sides in its depiction of the Grecian siege of Troy – a
fact Petersen gleefully confirms. “It’s more
complex, that’s true,” he says. “Emotionally,
you have to sort things out a little bit – but that
makes it fascinating.”
In Focus talked to Petersen about the nuances
of “Troy,” Pitt,
Bana, Clint Eastwood, and the director’s childhood
obsession – in his native Germany – with Hollywood
IN FOCUS: Some early “Troy” test-screenings
have suggested that the movie doesn’t take sides – that
there are protagonists on both sides of the conflict.
WOLFGANG PETERSEN: That’s true.
How does that complicate your storytelling?
It’s a very unusual – but I think very real – approach
to portraying life. In reality, I think there aren’t
really such things as “bad guys” and “good
guys.” But it is unusual – because movies usually
tend to go more for the black-and-white situations. But I
think it works.
Did you meet with any studio resistance in spending $200
million on a movie where you could root for both sides?
First of all, at the end of the day it will not be $200 million – it
will be considerably less, just for the record. But it’s
still a huge budget. But no, not at all – they developed
David Benioff’s pitch on doing a story inspired by
the Iliad; they knew that going in.
Which blockbuster – “Gladiator” or “Lord
of the Rings” – played a bigger role in getting “Troy” greenlit?
I think “Gladiator.” “Gladiator” was
a big surprise for the industry, for the audience, for all
of us – because, as you know, it sort of connected
again to a kind of film we hadn’t seen for decades.
Well, you grew up with
the Biblical epics and the gladiator films that used to
be very popular. Is
this the kind of movie
you’ve always wanted to make?
Yeah. I sucked them up, these movies, when I was a kid in
the ‘50s and ‘60s. I always had a soft spot for
larger-than-life people and grand stories. I always liked
reading it. I was in a school in Hamburg, Germany, where
I was learning Greek and Latin – we had to learn to
write and read in ancient Greek.
Oh – can you speak
Yeah. I mean, if you asked me, “Can we continue this
conversation in ancient Greek?” [laughs] I would say, “Wait
a moment, it’s a little rusty.” But I actually
learned to speak it. I can still kind of write it. At school,
we were reading the Iliad in Greek. I always hated these
Greek and Latin lessons – but the Iliad was always
You’re 15 years old and you read about
Achilles and these bigger-than-life people, and also, of
the violence and the wars. I heard that Warner Bros. was
developing a film inspired by “The Iliad” and
I flashed back right away to schooltime.
There’s never been a film that goes back to the Iliad.
The only thing was Robert Wise’s film “Helen
of Troy”; it was done in the ‘50s, and actually
it’s a pretty bad movie. We also added story elements
from outside of the Iliad, like the Trojan Horse – it’s
mentioned later on in the Odyssey.
I understand that you’ve
dropped the mythological elements of this story.
Of course, the writer should be credited for that – and
that, of course, is the right choice. People would laugh
today if you had God entering the scene and fighting and
helping out. It’s hard to even imagine that.
Religion and the gods play a big part here,
more in the sense that we’re used to it – they’re
on statues and in prayers and [characters] talk a lot about
Also, if you compare it with “Lord of the Rings,” which
is really fantasy – and beautiful for what it is – [“Troy”]
is much more blood, sweat and tears. People fighting. And
it hurts. And you see it hurt. It’s the reality of
war. I think you can say that Homer’s work – for
the first time in the history of mankind, in a unbelievable,
breathtaking way – describes the brutality and suffering
of people in war.
Almost every culture in the world has a legendary hero like
Achilles who goes out and slays hundreds of people in a single
sentence. How are you tackling Achilles?
I must say, Brad Pitt [as Achilles] is unbelievable in this – it’s
definitely the best thing he’s done in his career.
I can really say that without blushing.
You’ll see it. He’s a force of destruction. He’s
an unbelievable warrior. And he fights like a god. In our
film, he’s sort of like a half-god – it’s
not totally explained, but his mother’s obviously a
goddess. It’s almost like an art form, the way he fights.
But at the same time, he has an enormous sense of honor and
pride – he wants his name to last through the ages.
He represents, in a way, the dream of mankind: Is our life
only these 50, 60, 70 or 80 years here, or is there more?
And you know, he was right – because we’re making
a movie about him.
Is this the movie that’s
going to make Eric Bana [who plays Hector] a star?
Absolutely. If “The Hulk” was a little bit of
an iffy thing for him – that also had very much to
do with the nature of the movie. ...
Sure. He was playing a very repressed character.
He was unbelievable in “Chopper,” but of course
nobody’s seen the film, because it was a tiny Australian
ut I thought, “A new Robert De Niro is coming.” This
will be his big break. I told him, in our ADR session we
had a couple of weeks ago, “Brace yourself – this
is it for you.”
If I was Eric Bana,
I’d feel a little cheated by “The
Hulk” – because he could only play the straight
stuff, and all the really great acting went to the CG character.
No such thing here. It’s all him. And he does a beautiful
job. Hector’s this very noble warrior who doesn’t
necessarily want to fight, but has to, because he fights
for his country and his family. But he’d rather spend
time with his wife and child. Achilles wants his name to
last for the ages, and Hector couldn’t care less. And
Eric is perfect for that. I saw it with an audience already,
and people just love him.
The movie’s rated “R.” A
rating like that for a film this epic and expensive is
a pretty intense move.
What was your thought process going into that?
I knew from the very beginning – knowing The Iliad,
reading David’s script – that we were going with
an “R” concept. Did we have – especially
the studio – the idea, “Would it be even better
if it was PG-13 so we can open up the movie and maybe bring
a larger audience in?” Sure. But when I toned the violence
down a bit, the MPAA saw it and said, “It’s an
R – and if you want it to be PG-13, this is what you
probably have to address.” Right away, [Warner Bros.
head] Alan Horn said, “OK, forget it – it’s
an R. I cannot compromise the movie.”
You’ve worked with practical effects in films like “NeverEnding
Story” and digital effects in “The Perfect Storm.” What
are the merits of each? Is CGI a tool you enjoy using?
I must say, I enjoy it – especially right now, even
more than “Perfect Storm,” because that was limited
to creating extreme water situations. This is such a larger
canvas. There are a thousand ships coming towards Troy and
50,000 soldiers attacking. Even I don’t know where
the CG starts and our extras end.
If I look back on “NeverEnding Story,” it puts
a smile on my face – it was 20 years ago, and we were
working with these gigantic puppets. It was quite charming – but
they had like 20 operators working on face movements. One
poor bugger was just, for weeks, responsible for the left
I mean, it was fine. But I think 20 people
were operating it, and they were all hidden somewhere, and
it was creaking
and squeaking because they were all pulling on these wires,
and they matched it to the pre-recorded voice. It worked,
and in a way, the character came across, but the way we did
it was so … primitive.
Nowadays, you would do it all CG, and it would
be much easier. So is it better? Who knows? Like Peter O’Toole says, “In
the old days, when we were all drunk and every British actor
was an alcoholic, we did all these movies. Were the movies
we did in those days worse than today, where nobody’s
Your Hollywood.com biography says that you decided you wanted
to make movies at age 11. What, precisely, happened when
you were 11?
I was just crazy about going to the movies. I went to school,
and the rest of the time I was hanging out in movie theatres.
And I was going on my bike into the city and trying to get
books about how they make movies.
It was very clear to my parents that there
was more to it than just enjoying movies. I told them, “I think I
want to get serious here at the age of 11. Don’t give
me any toys for Christmas any more – give me an 8 mm
film camera so I can start making movies.”
Really? You stopped getting toys and started getting film
Yeah. I had a very serious speech with my parents to forget
about the toy business and to get me a film camera and film.
And it was quite expensive in those days – but they
saw the obsession.
And I started, like Spielberg did, doing 8
mm films – Westerns,
because I was into American films – where I always
was the good guy. And then the films switched from color
to black-and-white because I ran out of money. It was cute,
but it was clearly an obsession – and I never got it
out of my head.
You grew up on American
film and aspired to Hollywood. What’s
it like when you finally get to work with an icon like Clint
Amazing. I’ll never forget when I came here in ‘87.
... The very first party I was at was just a dinner party
with 12 people at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house in
Brentwood – and Clint Eastwood was one of the guests.
I couldn’t believe it. My wife had no idea who he was,
because it’s a long time ago that you had him in these
spaghetti Westerns in Germany.
That was an amazing
year: You directed him in “In
the Line of Fire” – and then he directs “Unforgiven.”
I needed a good script at that time, because “Shattered” didn’t
do that well; it was kind of a so-so feeling that I had about
working in Hollywood. And then came [the “In the Line
of Fire”] script – and boy, did I like this script.
And then I heard that Clint Eastwood was interested
in the part. I drove over to Warner Bros. to his production
We hit it off great – I don’t think there was
even a conversation with somebody else.
And then he said, “I’ve just finished this Western.
Do you want to see it?” I thought it would be one of
those Clint Eastwood Westerns that are good, but not necessarily
great, right? And he was in a little bit of a slump then,
anyway, so I didn’t have super expectations. When I
saw the film – oh, my God! I went home on Cloud Nine.
I said to my wife, “Let’s open a bottle of champagne – this
movie will be Best Picture.” He’s now more respected
Listed among your future
projects: A long-in-development version of “Ender’s Game.” Will
you be the person to finally move this project forward?
Absolutely. “Ender’s Game” is a favorite
of mine. It’s very complicated. But it’s definitely
very high on my list.
Do you have any Enders in mind?
No – that’s a bit too early.
Is there any chance we’ll ever see your “Batman
I ask the question myself quite often. I was just talking
to Alan Horn about it and he said, “I always liked
that concept so much.” I think it’s on the back-burner
because Warner Bros. decided to go with single “Batman” and “Superman” movies. “Superman” is,
at the moment, shelved; I think if they successfully launch
it again, then at some point it will be “Batman vs.
Superman” again. I’ll definitely be attached
to that project whenever. ...
Well, nobody knows what you
want to do in five years, but it might come up.