- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

NEW YORK — Actor Liam Neeson likes to keep things in perspective, particularly regarding his film projects. "With any film, there's always a life history," he reflects while discussing his participation in the stirring new submarine thriller "K-19: The Widowmaker" at a press junket hosted by Paramount Pictures at the Essex House Hotel.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose most recent feature project, the delirious crime thriller "Strange Days," dates back to 1995, "K-19" began with a European documentary about the same period that recalled an early crisis in the Soviet nuclear navy.

The original K-19, currently decaying in a Russian ship graveyard after a history of jinxed service in the 1960s, suffered a reactor leak that threatened a meltdown during a mission early in the summer of 1961.

The movie dramatizes this perilous situation, which obliged several crewmen to sacrifice themselves to fatal radiation exposure while struggling to refit and weld a cooling system to prevent total calamity in a severely damaged reactor. There were two captains aboard. Their fictionalized counterparts are played by Mr. Neeson and Harrison Ford.

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Miss Bigelow, 50, who joins her co-stars at the junket, was once better known as the second wife of director James Cameron. She is a statuesque brunette who easily could be mistaken for a model or actress. Once an aspiring painter in the fine-arts department at Columbia University, she switched to film studies after experiencing an overwhelming call to the cinema.

Her debut feature, the horror thriller "Near Dark," enjoyed a cult reputation that led to a "retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library before she actually had acquired a feature inventory.

It was followed by the police thriller "Blue Steel" with Jamie Curtis and the sky-diving thriller "Point Break" with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. "K-19" represents a quantum leap in realistic melodramatic appeal in her body of work.

Although the motion-picture division of the National Geographic Society is one of the producing partners for the film, Miss Bigelow corrects a general misimpression that the movie derived from one of the society's documentary projects.

"They aired it, but it was made by a Russian organization and shown originally on BBC Television," she explains. "National Geographic acquired broadcast rights for the U.S., but it was never one of their own specials. I heard about it in late '95 and began to develop it as a fictionalized story a year later. My thinking was, it was such an extraordinary opportunity to put a human face on a period of time that had been shrouded in secrecy.

"At the same time, it was an opportunity to look at ourselves through the eyes of the enemy and see that we're maybe not as immune to imperfection as we think we are. And also, for me, an opportunity to look at a culture I knew little about, at that time."

The preliminary phases of her work involved "gaining the trust and starting a dialogue with some of the survivors." Miss Bigelow ended up spending considerable time with the widow of the commanding officer, a Capt. Zaitev, the prototype for Mr. Ford's character, Alexei Vostrikov.

Because the Soviet government had suppressed accounts of the K-19's ordeal for three decades, contributing to a sense of neglect among some survivors and widows, a certain climate of suspicion awaited the Americans who were bidding to re-enact the case history for a vast movie public.

"I had no military background and hadn't studied nuclear physics," Miss Bigelow observes. "I came at it from the standpoint of wanting to pay tribute to these men's lives. There was always this gravitas that propelled us. Real men had risked their lives and died. We were careful to recruit a lot of help from knowledgeable people.

"I had a former Russian submarine commander as an adviser when we were working in Moscow. Then a Canadian submarine captain when we were shooting interiors in Toronto and used Halifax as a setting for Murmansk. Our adviser on nuclear physics came from MIT."

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Mr. Neeson, who appeared in the belated "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," does not recall sharing a single "Star Wars" recollection with Mr. Ford, who played the swashbuckling Han Solo in the initial set of "Star Wars" movies.

According to Mr. Ford, 60, a priority of "K-19" was "to hold ourselves to a Russian point of view and resist commenting from the remove of our own culture." He is reluctant to reach any conclusions about contemporary Moscow or Russia from the movie's weeks of research and production in the capital.

"I'm not an expert." he demurs. "We were over there for several weeks, but my experience is probably much different from the ordinary Russian's. It's a little wild right now, in Moscow anyway. A little cowboys and Indians. I didn't have enough time to get to know the place. We were there to work. It wasn't summer camp especially not in January and February.

Mr. Neeson was seriously injured two years ago when a deer darted out of the woods and collided with the actor, who was riding his motorbike in the New York suburbs. "I broke my pelvis in three places, and my heel," the victim recalls.

"Please get the circumstances correct: The deer hit me. Came out and started to climb over my bike. I was in the hospital for two weeks, being repaired by these amazing surgeons. I started doing a therapy program and doubled all the tasks. If they told me to do something for half an hour, I'd do an hour. And so forth.

"I was busy with that for about five months. I had a goal to shoot for: I wanted to be in Rome for Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York,' and I knew it would be a physical role. Lots of fighting and stuff."


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