City of Angels: About The Production

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The history of bringing "City of Angels" to the screen began in 1988 after producer Dawn Steel saw Wim Wenders' highly acclaimed German film "Wings of Desire" and obtained the rights to adapt it. Producer Charles Roven, Steel's partner and husband, says, "Dawn was intrigued by Wenders' idea of an angel faced with the choice of becoming mortal himself for the sake of love. But she didn't want to tell the story in exactly the same way."

"Unlike Wenders' film, our stars meet in the first act," says Roven. "Therefore, a great deal of what follows is different and original."

Also, the producers saw their film as a great love story. "On one hand you have a doctor who is all about empirical evidence and facts, and yet she finds herself falling in love with an angel. On the other hand, you have an angel, someone who has lived for thousands of years in the celestial realms, who's jolted out of his perfect equilibrium by this very rational, imperfect woman. For him to sacrifice immortality and the constant feeling of spiritual calm means he has to traverse an enormous distance to fulfill the romance," explains Roven, "and for her to even allow herself to believe that Seth exists is a huge leap. Yet their emotions guide them toward each other no matter what they do."

Steel always saw Meg Ryan as Dr. Maggie Rice. "Meg is a very real, believable person on the screen; she's someone audiences connect with. Her feelings, strengths and weaknesses are ones we find in ourselves, and she presents them with sensitivity, compassion and wit," says Roven.

When the filmmakers approached her, Ryan enthusiastically responded to the script. "It was, hands down, the only script I'd ever read that I had to do," declares Ryan.

Ryan perceives a common thread that has run through her film characters: "They are people who don't know who they are, and they are trying to figure it out with romance as part of the equation." That thread continues with the role of Maggie. "In the beginning of the film, Maggie's scientific mind runs her life. She is ruled by her head, not her heart, although her job as a cardiac surgeon is to fix patients' broken hearts, so to speak," says Ryan. "As a surgeon, Maggie always wants to be in control. But then she discovers she can't control everything, not the loss of a patient or the passionate pull of yearning for someone, albeit an angel. And this angel wakes her up."

Ryan did an enormous amount of research into her role. She watched several open-heart surgeries being performed, was educated in operating-room etiquette and received training in technical skills by two renowned cardiothoracic surgeons, Dr. Anne M. Billingsley of the California Cardiothoracic Associates Medical Group and Dr. Robbin Cohen, Assistant Professor of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

"Some of the most fascinating days of my life were when I was watching heart surgeries," says Ryan. "l even got to the point where I was practicing sewing on a pig's heart."

However, observing surgeries and receiving practical instruction were only part of understanding her character. Her real epiphany into Maggie's journey came while talking to one of the doctors. "l asked him 'Do you believe in God?' and he said 'no.' I said 'Have you ever seen a miracle?' and he said 'Oh, yeah.' But he didn't see that he was contradicting himself. It was almost like he was boxing with God and saying 'I don't believe in you.' But by the mere act of boxing with something, you're acknowledging its existence.

"So I thought, that was Maggie at the beginning of this film; she's closed off at first. Her vision is all about work and science. She's action, action, action. But then she learns how to be still, to accept what is not necessarily rational, and to appreciate how precious every minute is," concludes Ryan.

To play Seth, an angel with a uniquely human appeal, the filmmakers all hoped for Nicolas Cage. Cage's ability to convey tremendous depth of feeling with his expressive face and body language brought him extraordinary success in such movies as "Birdy," "Peggy Sue Got Married" and, more recently, "Leaving Las Vegas," for which he received the Academy Award. Someone portraying an angel, a being accustomed to long silences and meditations, would need such dramatic gifts to bring his character to life.

Cage was interested in doing a love story after starring in "The Rock," "Con Air" and "Face/Off," a trilogy of action movies. "I was really looking forward to doing a film without violence, that was a romance," says Cage. "I think people are a little afraid of romance movies because they're too precious. But 'City of Angels' is a unique love story because it illustrates the notion that attraction, passion and love are intangible. Maggie and Seth are totally physically and philosophically at odds with one another. Maggie is human; Seth is a spirit. Maggie's job is to save lives; Seth's is to guide people to the other side. Yet they can't stop their desire for each other," explains Cage.

Seth also sees life from an uncharacteristic perspective. "Seth is a kind of rebel angel. He's the Pinocchio angel because he wants to become a human; he wants to be a real boy," says Cage.

Although Ryan could practice becoming a heart surgeon, Cage didn't have a mentor to observe or to teach him the finer points of angelhood. However, he did read an inspirational book, The Physics of Angels by Matthew Fox, that set him on a practical course. "The book deals with angels on a scientific level," says Cage. However, Cage already subliminally believed in their spiritual existence. "I've always felt a sense that someone else was steering the boat at different times in my life, although I'm not one for seeing angels on clouds with harps," he relates.

Like Ryan, Cage also got a sign of sorts while trying to get a hook on his character. "Before production began, I was on a plane reading The Physics of Angels, and I looked out the window and saw the aurora borealis. I asked the pilot what caused it and he said, 'No one really knows. It might have something to do with atmospheric conditions, or it might be electrical.' And I thought, well, there's my answer. Maybe that's where soul energy goes, or our field goes, or each individual photon goes. And that's sort of what I needed before I started shooting this movie, in order to give myself over to it."

In searching for a director for "City of Angels," the producers took great care in making their choice and considered many talented filmmakers. However, director Brad Silberling made their choice for them. He came into his initial meeting with Dawn Steel and said "I'm going to direct this movie."

The director convinced both Steel and Roven. "Brad was irresistible, emotionally, intellectually, structurally and visually. Everything clicked," says Roven.

Silberling felt very passionate about the subject matter based on a personal experience. A woman with whom he had been deeply involved died tragically and, recounts Silberling, "I went to her house afterwards and I felt her presence still there and then it moved along. I still have intense dreams about her, in which she comes back and we have these remarkable conversations."

Silberling was also attracted to the story because of its theme. "'City of Angels' is about leaps of faith and the victory of faith, fueled by deep, intense love. It takes courage to believe in something unseen. Maggie and Seth, mortal and angel, are metaphors for the challenges we all face in taking these leaps in love and in life," he says.

Screenwriter Dana Stevens agrees. Not only does she feel that Maggie and Seth are courageous, they are also unselfish. "Their relationship has O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi' qualities about it, in that two people each consider sacrificing something very precious for the sake of love," says Stevens.

Interestingly, for the casting of Messinger, a man who happily revels in his wife, family, and the pleasures that sensory experience can bring; and Cassiel, Seth's serenely angelic colleague, Silberling chose two of television's star tough cops: Dennis Franz, three- time Emmy Award winner for his portrayal of Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue," and Andre Braugher, Detective Frank Pembleton from "Homicide: Life on the Street," respectively.

"l had previously worked with Dennis when I directed two of the first 10 episodes of "NYPD Blue," says Silberling. "And although Dennis is known for playing fairly crusty detectives and street guys, I got to know him as a warm, loving man with a hearty laugh and a real gusto for life. Also, his physical carriage would exemplify the fact that Messinger has ingested plenty of life, if you will. So when it came to casting the role, Dennis was an immediate choice."

Franz agrees that he feels an affinity for his character. "Messinger is a free spirit who is trying to inhale all he can in life; he can't get enough. The moment he hits Earth, he can't get enough of the tastes, sights, sounds, emotions and people. He's a glutton and a hedonist in the best sense of the words," says Franz.

Silberling cast Andre Braugher as Cassiel, the content angel, because "Andre always seems to have such an ease about himself in whatever role he plays," says Silberling. "Andre is the kind of personality and actor who can make an angel seem absolutely simple, credible, natural and accessible."

Braugher found playing this comfortable angel a joy. "Cassiel is at peace with himself; he's extremely satisfied with his position as a witness to the spiritual life," says Braugher. "For Cassiel, unlike for Seth, all things are in order, and the harmony is complete. Some people would find that impossible to play, but I find it fun."

As with the casting, the producers and director took great care to insure that "City of Angels" would be visually dynamic. To this end, they enlisted the services of two of cinema's experts: Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Seale ("The English Patient") and Academy Award nominated production designer Lilly Kilvert ("Legends of the Fall").

Together, these two creative forces wanted to give audiences a realistic Los Angeles valentine in depicting the City of Angels. "Despite the film's celestial narrative, it's not a special-effects movie," says Seale. "We do, however, want to convey the sense of a slightly altered reality, so I've used a little slow motion with Seth to make him smoother and more graceful. We're also using lots of wind and lots of top shots to suggest the angels' point of view."

Likewise, Kilvert chose practical locations that would duplicate what Seth sees. "l wanted to take the best of L.A. and show it from Seth's perspective without using smoke and mirrors. For instance, we were very fortunate to be able to shoot in LAX's old control tower, which they had just closed and replaced with the new one," says Kilvert. "So we shot Seth comforting an air-traffic controller from this vantage point; we were in the center of the airport, watching the planes take off and land."

Other unusual locations for Seth were on the tops of the wing of a stationary Boeing 747, a freeway sign and a Hollywood billboard. However, the practical location that Kilvert and Silberling were most enthused about was on the top of a vacant skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles where Seth and Messinger talk. Kilvert explains, "Before filming began, I showed Brad (Silberling) these wonderful 1930s Lewis Hine photos depicting iron workers on the Empire State Building. We both realized what great images they were, and how we would never get that feeling when shooting on stage with special effects. So after a long permit process, we got clearance to build a 30-ft. structure of iron work jutting out from the 38th floor of this building," explains Kilvert.

"The feeling that Seth and Messinger are really hanging out on this beam gives the scene so much excitement, because they look down at the real city, see cars really moving, and wind really blowing; it has its own life and is kind of terrifying."

The filmmakers were not only interested in giving audiences an angel's perspective of Los Angeles, but also in having the city's landmarks fill the camera frame: its freeways, its large streets and its monumental architecture. This was one of the reasons Kilvert chose downtown's massive Terminal Annex, the decommissioned and therefore empty old postal building, to transform into the hospital where Dr. Maggie Rice works.

"We took the lobby, with its tile floors and beautiful murals, and used those for our design elements for the hospital. And we built the sixth floor of the hospital on higher floors of the annex," says Kilvert.

The company traveled to San Francisco to shoot inside the new, architecturally stunning, cathedral-like Main Library there; the angels congregate at the library because it's where they can best hear people's thoughts.

The production then went on to film in picturesque Lake Tahoe before returning to Los Angeles to shoot at such additional Los Angeles landmarks as the restored Angels Flight funicular railway (originally built in 1901, it has long been called "the world's shortest railway"), downtown's diverse Central Market, scenic Mulholland Drive, and the beaches of Malibu, where the angels start and end their days. The filmmakers made a concerted effort to give Los Angeles a starring role in the film.

"`City of Angels' is a pure love story," says Cage. "And I'm happy we're showing L.A. in a very romantic way."

Indeed, the script and the locations gave the filmmakers and actors the foundation to realize this sentiment. As Cage concludes, "I think we all feel that 'City of Angels' exhibits the pure happiness in love and the poetry in everyday things. We just have to take the time to notice and appreciate them."

Underscoring the Emotion

In addition to its evocative musical score from Academy Award-winning composer Gabriel Yared, "City of Angels" includes songs from some of contemporary music's most gifted creative forces. As overseen by music supervisor DANNY BRAMSON, this soundtrack incorporates both familiar and brand-new music, some of it written especially for the film. Artists including U2, ALANIS MORISSETTE, PETER GABRIEL, SARAH McLAUGHLIN, PAULA COLE and the GOO GOO DOLLS add dimension to the emotional impact of the movie.

U2's ballad, "If God Would Send His Angels," from their 1997 album "Pop," was their immediate offering to the project once they saw the movie. It will also be the first song and music video to be released in conjunction with "City of Angels."

Alanis Morissette has written a new song, called "Uninvited," for the movie and soundtrack. It is her first original work since the release of her sensational debut album. Peter Gabriel also wrote an original piece, titled "Grieve," and Sarah McLaughlin contributed her song "Angel," a favorite of director Brad Silberling's and one of the cuts on her recent critically lauded album.

Paula Cole's sensual meditation "Feelin' Love," from her recent hit album, underlines a reflective private moment in the film, and the Goo Goo Dolls wrote a new song called "Iris" that amplifies the surreal juxtaposition of the angels and their earthly charges. In addition, Meg Ryan's character plays blues on her operating-room sound system from such legends as ERIC CLAPTON, JIMI HENDRIX and JOHN LEE HOOKER while performing surgery.

The original soundtrack will be released through Warner Sunset/Reprise Records.

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