- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Movie director Jonathan Mostow, whose World War II submarine thriller, "U-571," opens Friday, had plenty of access to the lore of shipbuilding and the Navy while growing up in Groton, Conn.

However, an excursion to San Francisco in 1991 provided the impetus for this second feature, a seaborne cat-and-mouse yarn about a valiant sub crew ordered to intercept a German counterpart in the North Atlantic in 1942 and snatch the prototype for a new Enigma coding machine.

A recent Washington stopover to promote the movie was something of a nostalgic visit for Mr. Mostow. Soon after graduating in 1980 from Harvard University, he went to work for Ralph Nader. But after about three years, he decided consumer lobbying was not an abiding passion for him.

Mr. Mostow and several former classmates with filmmaking aspirations migrated to Los Angeles, where they endeavored to write and sell screenplays while supporting themselves with day jobs. For the better part of five years, Mr. Mostow made his living as an "SAT coach to the stars' kids."

Evidently, this experience didn't lend itself to a comic or inspirational script about academically fretful teen-agers in Beverly Hills, Calif. "You might get a horror movie out of the SATs," Mr. Mostow says, "but nothing else."

The ambitious script he was working on was a thriller about a bored millionaire who puts himself at the mercy of a mysterious service that promises to cure ennui with intrigue and adventure. Called "The Game," it attracted plenty of interest and eventually was filmed with Michael Douglas in the starring role. Mr. Douglas' participation more or less ruled out Mr. Mostow as the director, since he had had no experience with theatrical features. His only professional directing credit had been a low-budget chase thriller about a rogue fighter pilot made for a Japanese company. Titled "Flight of Black Angel," it was picked up by Showtime and won Mr. Mostow a Cable ACE nomination in 1991.

While contriving and polishing "The Game," Mr. Mostow did not foresee that he would be edged out in favor of a name director, David Fincher of "Seven." So in the interests of background authenticity, he went to San Francisco, where "The Game" was supposed to be set, and rambled around town. While at Fisherman's Wharf, he had a $2 epiphany.

"I saw this sign offering tours of a World War II American submarine for only $2," he says. "I'd always wanted to do that but never had in all the years around Groton. So I bought my ticket, went aboard and was just captivated. The technology amazed me in contradictory ways: so sophisticated for its time and so obsolete now. I was most amazed at the idea of men going to sea in these claustrophobic warships for months at a time and having the nerve to withstand depth charges meant to shatter a pretty thin shell of protective steel. When I got back to L.A., 'The Game' got a bit stalled, so I started a screenplay about submarines and began to read everything I could get my hands on about the submarine service."

He found no shortage of literature, most of it still unexploited by the movies, despite the impression that Hollywood might have exhausted the possibilities when memories of World War II were fresh.

"It's an inexhaustible saga," Mr. Mostow says. "Elaborate commando raids. Epic path-finding tasks such as rigging signal lights for Operation Torch, which landed the first American troops in North Africa. Hundreds of things that seemed to be right out of the movies hadn't actually been touched by the movies.

"I ended up drawing on bits of three missions, two British and one American, to acquire versions of the Enigma machine. I thought with the technology we have now, we could make a really amazing movie, give audiences a visceral sense of being on a World War II submarine."

There were, of course, some encouraging examples in recent years, notably the German epic "Das Boot." Mr. Mostow was able to hire one of the production designers, Goetz Weidner, to supervise construction of the U-571. Although set in the nuclear-sub era, "The Hunt for Red October" and "Crimson Tide" provided commercial encouragement of recent vintage, since they had been major hits of the 1990s.

Although steeped in tales of the submarine service, Mr. Mostow lost sight of certain realities. "Nine months into writing the script, it occurred to me that I was wasting my time and living in a fool's paradise," he says. "I had directed one little feature. There was no way I'd be able to sell myself as the director of 'U-571.' And if I didn't get back in harness and earn some money, a day was approaching when I might be living out of my car."

Mr. Mostow shelved his submarine script and went to work on a contemporary suspense thriller that he believed could be made cheaply and quickly, and with himself at the helm.

"I thought of it as a Roger Corman picture," he says. "No sets, all takes place in the desert with available sunlight. Almost actor-proof. One major role. I even arranged for one character who seemed to be important to vanish for most of the story in order to economize. I could take it to a Corman and say, 'Let's go.' "

In fact, this brainstorm ended up with the venerable Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, still active at the age of 80. It also attracted a star, Kurt Russell, and emerged as a sleeper hit in 1997 under the title "Breakdown." Mr. Mostow confided his submarine project to Mr. De Laurentiis while they were basking in the success of "Breakdown," and "U-571" became the encore.

Despite the U.S. naval emphasis, the movie was shot in Rome and Malta. According to Mr. Mostow, the Navy loved his script but had no equipment to lend or sell the production. The ships were built from scratch. "We had a 600-ton, diesel-powered, seaworthy vessel that doubled for both submarines when they were moving," the director says. "That was the only ship that could go to sea. We had two full-size 'floaters' that sufficed for stationary shots. It was helpful to discover that the S-boat and U-boat derived from a common Dutch design. They're almost identical in length."

A technical adviser recommended through Navy channels, retired Vice Adm. Patrick Hannifin, assured the director that a sub is a sub an important consideration in "U-571" when the American crew must take refuge in the German ship.

The interiors of the subs were simulated in Rome, while vintage outdoor water tanks in Malta provided storm-tossed seas.

"We looked at the Mexican site that had been built for 'Titanic,' " Mr. Mostow says, "but at that time it didn't seem to have much storm-making capacity. The Pacific looked very still, which was fine for James Cameron but not so promising for us. I think they may have added a thing or two since we looked around. I hear there were some big storms in 'Deep Blue Sea,' which was shot there.

"Anyway, Malta had the know-how and proximity we needed. I guess the Brits built the Malta tanks for something or other in the 1930s. No one seems to remember what, exactly. It's a little like Stonehenge, but still a functioning aquatic studio."

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