Deep Impact: About The Production

Buy this video from

Music from
Buy The Soundtrack.

"Deep Impact" began principal photography on June 16th, 1997. In the course of its three-month shooting schedule, the production filmed on locations in Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, and New York City, before returning to Los Angeles to complete filming.

The first location shoot was in Manassas, Virginia. A newly completed freeway segment, not yet opened to traffic, provided the setting for a vast, chaotic scene as desperate East Coast residents flee the mile-high tidal wave the comet's impact will produce -- only to get caught in a traffic jam at the end of the world.

To film this sequence, over 2,100 extras were enlisted, along with more than 1,870 vehicles -- cars, trucks, boats, and campers -- spread out eight abreast, on both sides of the freeway, for over a mile and a half. The soaring July heat on the blacktop added to the discomfort, but by the second day there was definitely a good-natured, picnic spirit.

Hidden discreetly in the vast traffic jam were large trucks fitted with porta-potties and refrigerated trucks crammed with breakfast, lunch, cool drinks and fruit. Helicopter and personal safety information was passed out and production assistants circulated with water and Gatorade.

The production next moved to Washington, DC, shooting by the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a key scene with Téa Leoni and Vanessa Redgrave as daughter and mother. Of her scenes with Redgrave, Leoni likened them to the game of tennis. "If you play with somebody who's really good, you play better. And it's easier. You're not running all over the court and you're not panicked. You just get to sort of relax in one place and she hits the ball right back to you."

Other locations in the Washington area were the Capitol Building, the roof of the HUD Building, and the office of Human Resources, which was turned into the city morgue. A dramatic shot of the mother-daughter confrontation was shot at the outdoor terrace of the Sequoia Restaurant on the Potomac, with the Kennedy Center in the background and -- posing a challenge to sound mixer Marc Hopkins McNabb -- directly under the flight path to National Airport.

For the first time in the cities' history, Georgetown and Arlington, Virginia, agreed to let the film company close down the Francis Scott Key Bridge on a Sunday. The city's press corps came out in force to witness the chaos that this bridge closing would create, only to leave disappointed when all went smoothly. With assistance from city officials and film commissions on both sides of the Potomac, the public was advised of the closure well in advance. The local media had underestimated the city's experience working around the frequent re-routing that comes with the area's many government and diplomatic motorcades.

The production then moved to New York City, where lower Fifth Avenue at Washington Square was closed for a sweeping panorama of the residents' last panic-stricken moments before the tidal wave overwhelms the city. A night shot in Times Square provided the scene for an earlier sequence in the film, where a thousand extras stand frozen in fear as they see and hear the President's speech over the giant television screen on 43rd street.

Other East Coast locations included a marina in Beal, Maryland, and Amagansett in The Hamptons, where a beach front house doubled for Virginia Beach.

Returning to Los Angeles, a final sweeping dramatic sequence was filmed near Malibu. Twin tunnels on Kanan Dume Road were used as the entrance to the Ark, the sealed habitat in which a chosen, fortunate few Americans hope to survive the devastating impact of the comet. Modeled after the caves carved into the limestone shelves of Kansas City, Missouri, the tunnels were fitted with giant, sealing doors. The scene represents one of several shelters built by the government; each shelter is intended to hold a million people and a menagerie of animals to repopulate the Earth after the cataclysm.

The two-day shoot required a thousand extras and two hundred animals. Animal coordinator Jules Sylvester worked with every animal company in the business in order to get the impressive selection of wildlife that appears in the scene. "We have lions, jaguars, hyenas, alligators, pythons, kangaroos, ostrich, buffalo, camels, elephants, zebras, cattle, chickens, birds. And," he jokes, "we started this morning with two rabbits."

Sylvester recruited the animals with their individual trainers, as some of the larger cats in particular have grown up to relate to only one person. "The only problem we've had," Sylvester reports, "is working the animals closely with the thousand extras. I find myself saying 'excuse me, ma'am, could you please not pet the jaguar since he tends to want to eat you.'"

In this scene, only those people selected for special qualifications or by a national lottery are being allowed to enter the Ark -- while all around them, those not chosen fight to get in. "In this case, we're trying in some small hopeful way to preserve our society and our sort of life as we know it," says director Mimi Leder of the Ark. "In this enormously grand sequence with a thousand extras, the theme of saying goodbye to our loved ones - and intimate moments amidst the chaos - is what I found unique and challenging in the making of this movie."

Filming for the space sequences of "Deep Impact" took place both on location and on studio sets. The NASA offices at Edwards Air Force Base were used for the ground sequences of the Messiah space mission that attempts to deflect the comet. Scenes in outer space were filmed at Warner Hollywood studios, as well as on Stage 15 at Paramount Studios, the largest sound stage on the Paramount lot.

Technical consultant Gerald Griffin's major role was to create an integrity for what he refers to as "the space look." With Griffin's help, costume designer Ruth Myers created spacesuits closely modeled on an advanced NASA prototype. The suits, constructed by Global Effects, followed the authentic details of the next-generation NASA spacesuit while adapting them to motion picture needs. For the actors portraying the astronauts, the challenge was to reach a comfort level with working in the heavy, claustrophobic suits, while simulating conditions known as micro-gravity, a lower gravity than our moon. "Because of this extremely low gravity," Griffin explains, "it's hard to set down on a comet because there's just not enough gravity to hold you. So you have to fly alongside like a fighter jet flying in formation. But someday this kind of an operation could happen, and we will have the kind of propulsion and the kind of life support that can sustain a very long duration mission to a very long distance."

Reproducing the experience of micro-gravity -- where every human movement has to be carefully planned out and executed -- was a new experience for director Leder. "The biggest challenge has been shooting an action sequence in very little gravity," she explains. "The usual action scenes move really fast -- from this cut, to this cut, to this cut. But the challenge and the beauty of it here is to make things move in weightlessness."

Blair Underwood, as Flight Navigator Mark Simon, summed up the experience as getting to be "big kids up there," while Mary McCormack, as Executive Officer Andrea Baker, describes the weightlessness experience as challenging, hard work due to the bulk and constraints of the spacesuits. In speaking of the actors' commitment to their roles, director Leder says she was "shocked by their good behavior. If you put me in one of those spacesuits, I'd be whining all the way home. It's difficult to be on the surface when you're flying people. It's not the same as being face to face with an actor when you want to keep the emotional content of what they're doing very much alive."

Griffin, who had acted as technical consultant on the features "Apollo 13" and "Contact," notes a similarity between the movie business and preparing for a space launch. "I call it chaos with some discipline. We both work with so many people responsible for so many aspects of the job that mission control and a movie sound stage take on a similar feel."

Also consulting on the space aspects of the movie is David M. Walker, a veteran NASA astronaut who piloted his first mission in 1984 and was the mission commander on three additional flights, logging over 724 hours in space. Walker, who retired from the space agency last year, says he enjoyed the job of keeping the "Deep Impact" actors playing astronauts honest.

"The actors are all very anxious to find out what guys like me would be thinking in situations like they're in," says Walker. "They also have a lot of questions about zero gravity and how you move and how you hold your hands and feet." Walker's instructions included the need for the actors to isolate themselves from the forces around them and to remember that everything has to be slow and deliberate. "We really move in sort of a dreamlike fashion in order to minimize excess motion," Walker explains. "You can always tell, even real astronauts, the first time you go up. They tend to clunk around and bump into things. But within a day or two, you get to where you're much more efficient with your motions."

Walker, for whom "Deep Impact" is his first film as a consultant, admits to being a little too quick with the Fast Forward on his VCR remote while he watched films at home. "I didn't understand or appreciate all the things that go into making a 15-second segment of film look absolutely perfect. Watching the attention to detail and the professionalism of the director and the actors and the incredible teamwork of the crew, I watch movies all the way through now."

Like NASA itself, the film industry has had years of experience in outer space -- but getting up close and personal with a comet was something new. "No one's ever landed on a comet before," explains executive producer Joan Bradshaw, "and we've only seen them with our best high-powered telescopes. We had to create a kind of view of space that people haven't seen before," says Bradshaw. "Inevitably visual effects are going to come into play, because you can't tell a story of this scope without them. Here they'll enhance the human drama and provide a background for the whole story to come alive."

Working with the limited research available on comets, production designer Leslie Dilley based his conception on the knowledge that comets were mostly ice, water and gaseous materials. "I wanted to create something that wasn't Earth-like," he recalls. "Many years ago while I was working in Tunisia on 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' I found this piece of crystallized sand called a 'Desert Rose' and brought it home. It is multi-faceted and semi-translucent with blades going all over the place. And it became a pretty good base for this nasty comet that we're trying to destroy."

Dilley and his team constructed the face of the comet on the Paramount lot's largest sound stage. A labyrinth of tunnels was built under the set to allow for special lighting and gaseous explosions, and surrounding the comet was an enormous fiber-optic star-field.

The reality of the comet and the movement of the astronauts, enhanced by Special Effects coordinator Michael Lantieri and the Visual Effects created by Industrial Light & Magic's Scott Farrar and Bill George, provides the background for the human stories.

Lantieri worked with production designer Dilley and the consultants from NASA to reinforce a sense of reality on the comet. "You want to be real careful to keep to the spirit of what we've learned about the surface of a comet. When the sun starts heating up the surface of the comet," Lantieri adds, "it causes out-gassing and chunks start exploding." The special effects crew created an atmosphere of a gaseous fog and steam around the comet, going through a million cubic feet of liquid nitrogen every day.

"Our basic philosophy on this," says ILM's Farrar, "is to try to be as scientifically accurate as possible. We had a think tank session where astronauts and scientists told us everything they knew about comets -- comets in space, and what they would project would be the results of comet impact on land and in water. What kind of composition they are made of and what flies off them as they travel through space." Farrar explains that "It'll be our job to provide as realistic a background as we can to frame the extraordinary, dramatic human story that's being told."

As the "Deep Impact" screenplay was being developed, the producers, executive producers Steven Spielberg and Joan Bradshaw and director Mimi Leder brought together experts and technical advisors from the fields that related to the "Deep Impact" story. While the advanced technology that will eventually allow for space contact with comets is still very much in the future, the director and writers were able to learn how this kind of an operation would work. Carolyn S. Shoemaker, along with her recently deceased husband Eugene, are planetary astronomers who developed stereoscopic techniques for scanning films taken with Palomar Observatory's 46-cm Schmidt camera. Together, they discovered 32 comets, including 15 short period comets of the Jupiter family (whose orbits reach no further than the planet Jupiter), and 17 long period comets, rare visitors from the distant outer reaches of the solar system, including two giants that never come closer to Earth than Jupiter does. The Shoemakers co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in a decaying orbit around Jupiter; the comet broke apart and slammed into Jupiter in July, 1994, creating explosion clouds as large as the Earth. The Shoemakers worked closely with the filmmakers during the pre-production phase.

Joshua E. Colwell, at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder was essential during the research phase and Dr. Chris B. Luchini at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory advised in the creation of models of the space debris and comets.

Gerald D. Griffin, the former director of NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, was the Flight Director in Mission Control who led one of the teams of flight controllers who were responsible for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. "We're trying to help them make this mission look as realistic as we possibly can," Griffin adds. "Comet scientists have talked to us a lot and we can infer a lot that we don't know. It's the best we can do since no one's ever seen one up close."

Back to "Deep Impact"

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.