Sphere: About The Production



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"Sphere" began as a thought-provoking novel by one of the world's most popular writers. The book is one of Michael Crichton's most unusual efforts, a cerebral science-fiction story that is ultimately more about the power of the human mind than extraterrestrial concerns, but nonetheless terrifies with a series of thrills... all of it set a thousand feet below the surface of the mysterious, beautiful and potentially menacing ocean.

"In the end, Sphere is not about technology," says Crichton, who also serves as one of the film's producers. "It's about people. I was interested in all of our usual ideas of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, which always seemed to be variations on meeting either the bogeyman or the skinny little cute kid. But I wasn't sure that it would be wonderful and dazzling. I thought that it would probably be really scary and upsetting."

This small group of highly intelligent people is isolated on the ocean floor in a high-tech but claustrophobic facility dubbed the Habitat. "One of the classic requirements for suspense is isolation," notes Crichton. "And there's nothing more isolated than being a thousand feet under water, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and all the surface ships have left."

Ten years passed after the publication of Crichton's novel, until Barry Levinson -- with whom Crichton had previously collaborated when the director adapted his novel "Disclosure" for a Warner Bros. film -- decided to make a science-fiction movie.

Says Crichton, "I became excited when Barry expressed an interest in the project, because, as Barry himself says, he likes to make movies in which people talk. That's where his attention goes, and that's where the attention of the movie needs to go...to the characters."

Levinson had been seeking the right science-fiction project for years. "I've always been fascinated by the genre," the director notes, "but I couldn't find one that worked for my sensibility until I read Sphere. The central concept of the book is what makes it so intriguing to me, because with all of its exciting science-fiction elements, at some point it truly becomes a story of interplay between a small group of people, and how they manifest their typically human flaws -- mistrust, jealousy, envy, paranoia -- in ways that are startling and disturbing."

Thus, Levinson discovered a thread that would tie this science-fiction thriller in with the themes that inform his previous films: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, innocence and corruption.

The "Sphere" script, which was adapted by Kurt Wimmer, evolved through the contributions of Stephen Hauser, a former assistant to Barry Levinson; and Paul Attanasio, a longtime collaborator with the filmmaker whose prior scripts have included "Quiz Show" as well as writing for Levinson's much-honored television series "Homicide: Life on the Street."

The Cast

Levinson assembled a world-class cast of established stars and exciting newcomers to comprise the group of scientists and technicians crowded together on the ocean floor inside the Habitat.

Joining Levinson for the fourth time, following his Oscar-winning role in "Rain Man" and critically-praised roles in "Sleepers" and "Wag the Dog," was Dustin Hoffman as psychologist Dr. Norman Goodman. "I think we share a similar sensibility," notes Levinson of Hoffman, "and a similar sense of humor as well. He's terrific to work with, and a very giving actor to the other performers."

Responds Hoffman, "If Barry tells me that he's got a picture, I say `If there's a part for me, I'll do it.' He's the only director that I'll do that for. I always envied actors who had that kind of relationship with a director, like De Niro and Scorsese, or Brando and Kazan. I never thought I would find that kind of actor/director synthesis, but I did with Barry.

"Most directors have a vision, not only of the film but of each character, before they start shooting. And then, as they're shooting, they want you to fulfill that image. Barry is the only director I've worked with who is fearless, in the sense that he doesn't know what you're going to do and hopes that you will do something that he has not even thought of. That's very rare."

Also eager to work with Levinson was Sharon Stone, who admits that she actively pursued the role of Dr. Beth Halperin, the biochemist who is often in the eye of the hurricane. "I tortured Barry," Stone says half-seriously. "I called him. I came up to his house. I acted out scenes in his living room. It was one of the two or three times in my career where I felt that I had to do the movie."

For Samuel L. Jackson, cast as the brilliant, often sarcastic Dr. Harry Adams, it was not only the lure of working with Barry Levinson, but with Dustin Hoffman as well.

"Dustin is one of those people I've watched for a long time and wondered what it would be like to work with him, and it's an honor and privilege to be able to do that," he says.

The other members of the cast were also excited to be working with Levinson and each other. "Barry's films have a spontaneous, improvisatory quality that's refreshing and smart," notes Peter Coyote, cast as the hard-nosed team leader, Barnes. "He's one of those directors who doesn't say a lot, but when he does, everybody's ears prick up."

Liev Schreiber, chosen by Levinson to portray astrophysicist Dr. Ted Fielding, says, "I was kind of reluctant at first, because what do I know about action movies? I've mostly done small independent films about people sort of looking at each other. But the opportunity to work with Dustin and Barry was a huge lure. They're both incredible influences on my life."

Also joining the "Sphere" team were recording artist and actress QUEEN LATIFAH and Bay Area comic performance artist MARGA GOMEZ as, respectively, Fletcher and Edmunds, OSSA "grunts" assigned to the Habitat.

Huge Film, One Location

"Sphere" presented a number of huge challenges to the filmmakers, beginning with the most basic of all...where to shoot the film? Most of the story either takes place inside the undersea Habitat or in the murky depths of the ocean itself. The company could have filmed in the open sea, but past experiences suffered by other filmmaking companies convinced Levinson and his colleagues that controlled circumstances in studio tanks were much preferable.

"There wasn't any room left at Warner Bros. in Burbank," recalls executive producer Peter Giuliano. "And since a number of military bases had recently been closed in the San Francisco Bay Area, we thought we'd take a look at a few of them."

"When we began scouting locations," adds producer Andrew Wald, "we knew that the only places where they had interior tanks large enough for what we needed were in either London or Malta, neither of which was convenient for our purposes. So we looked at the various Bay Area bases, including the Presidio, Treasure Island and Alameda in Oakland. The Presidio had been converted into a national park; Treasure Island was occupied by the TV show 'Nash Bridges'; and Alameda had active helicopter work going on, which would have interfered with production."

"Then we were shown Mare Island," continues Giuliano, "which is sort of a filmmaker's paradise. There's great space to build things in. There's a good labor pool, huge hangars which could be converted into soundstages, and fantastic cooperation from the City of Vallejo."

Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 142 years old, had only been closed down a year before principal photography of "Sphere" started. But once the decision was made to film "Sphere" there, activity thundered back into the Island. Although parts of at least three movies had filmed on Mare Island, "Sphere" would represent the first feature to shoot there in its entirety.

The Master Builder

Production designer Norman Reynolds has received six Academy Award nominations and has twice won, for his work on George Lucas' "Star Wars" and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But "Sphere" presented quite a different challenge from the world of pure science-fiction fantasy. For Reynolds and his team of art directors, set designers, builders and artisans had to create environments at once original and yet wedded to some form of scientific reality, or scientific projection into the near future.

Reynolds worked closely with Levinson on the film's designs, making a crucial decision early on: the Habitat would be built in one complete "practical" piece, rather than be comprised of small sections scattered throughout a soundstage. This meant that the claustrophobic interior of the Habitat, as described in both book and script, would be truly claustrophobic, not only for the actors, but also for director of photography Adam Greenberg and his camera crew. However, it would create an authentic milieu in which to create the tense human drama and psychological suspense of "Sphere."

Because there were relatively few "flyaway" walls, the director would often have to work from wooden platforms on either side of the set with his bank of video-assist monitors, then climb through the labyrinthine Habitat to work directly with his actors between takes.

Another major set piece was the crashed spacecraft, which was built in two sections on Mare Island soundstages. One set held the flight deck and the other contained the mysterious, eerie catwalk that leads into the cargo bay where the Sphere is discovered.

Reynolds chose to design a vessel both vaguely familiar and otherworldly. "The catwalk is all very spooky and threatening. I went for big, simple shapes, odd pipes and ballast, and Barry shot it in such a way that you don't know where it begins and ends."

The art department was also involved with the design and construction of the underwater tanks, and particularly the huge Habitat exterior sets built inside of them, including the "moon pool" that leads in and out of the facility, the mini-submarine hangar dome and the 50-foot long coral cave and working airlock that leads into the spacecraft entrance, as well as ocean floor seascapes.

"We had to build sets that were tolerant of the type of water in the tanks," explains art director MARK MANSBRIDGE, "which was somewhat corrosive to aluminum. We used fiberglass, some vacuum form, metal and paint, which we had to seal carefully to keep the water as clean and clear as possible."

Reynolds and company also designed two submarines, one for the descent and another for the ascent, the first a work of pure imagination, and the second based on a working prototype but "Normanized" for its "Sphere" usage.

Costumes and Underwater Suits: Form and Function
"I have always felt that I've done my best work with Barry," says costume designer Gloria Gresham, "and part of it is because he does interesting projects and allows creative people to do what they do. If he sees you making a mistake, he'll pull you back, but in general he waits and lets you bring your ideas to him."

But even Gresham's multiple collaborations with Levinson couldn't have prepared her for the creative and technical challenges of designing the costumes for "Sphere," including diving suits and helmets that needed to be not only aesthetically pleasing and suitable for filming, but totally functional as well.

To accomplish this considerable task, Gresham turned to BEV MORGAN, probably the world's most celebrated designer of underwater suits and equipment. Head of the famed Kirby Morgan Corporation, chairman of the board of Diving Systems International and creator of the Body Glove line of wetsuits, Morgan spent six months developing helmets with Gresham and the filmmakers.

In the process, Gresham and Morgan actually revolutionized dive technology by creating a new type of underwater suit and, particularly, a dive helmet with enlarged front and side ports. This allowed greater visibility for both actors and the cameras than any underwater helmet previously developed for either motion picture or commercial usage. (In fact, before "Sphere" had even wrapped, Gresham and Morgan were already being approached by several international navies interested in the new invention).

"We knew the technical end of it and how to make it work underwater," says Bev Morgan, "and Gloria had the eye for design and how to tie it in to what everyone wanted for the film. So between us we came up with a design, which then went through four or five changes."

In fact, the technological advancements made in the helmet's breathing and communications systems were a quantum leap over what was previously available, allowing the actors quieter breathing and easy conversation with Barry Levinson and other personnel topside, as well as dialogue that could be directly recorded during the actual filming rather than looped in at a later date.

The entire underwater suit, with the weighted boots, specially designed backpacks for the oxygen and helmet (which in itself weighed 35 pounds each) came in at a staggering 175 pounds, a burden which had to be shouldered by each of the film's stars until relieved by the effect of being in the water.

Dive School

It's not every film that requires all of its stars to become certified divers, but for "Sphere" it was absolutely necessary. Thus, the cast was charged with becoming expert divers, and doing so in the new helmets and underwater suits designed by Gloria Gresham and Bev Morgan, under the tutelage of dive master KRIS NEWMAN and his partner, JEAN PIERCE, overseen by stunt coordinator Ronnie Rondell.

"We took the cast first through scuba and then helmet training," recalls Newman. "We modeled the helmet training on a progressive evolutionary type of session, first in the Mare Island recreation building swimming pool, and then in the giant tanks where we would actually be filming."

Newman was surprised by how easily all of the cast members slid into their underwater roles. "Some of the cast had had previous scuba experience," he says, "including Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber and Queen Latifah. Samuel Jackson was a champion swimmer in college and was a fish in the water, as was Peter Coyote.

"And Dustin Hoffman absolutely blew me away from the first day of training. After two or three hours of working out in the water, which can be very tiring, he gets out of the pool and pops off about 20 straight-arm pull-ups. This guy's in fantastic shape!"

Samuel L. Jackson has always had almost as much of a passion for swimming as he has for acting. "I love swimming and always have," he enthuses. It's a total blast for me to be able to go down and stay underwater for 45 minutes. And once we were inside the tanks, with the helmets and suits, I felt totally at ease -- so much so that I think I slept down there one day for about half an hour!"

Peter Coyote also admits to having fallen asleep in the water during the filming of the underwater sequences. "We were so surrounded by safety divers and teams that while the lights and cameras were being changed, there wasn't much to do. You can't read a book, so, since I spent a long time in a Zen monastery, I either meditated or fell asleep."

Shooting Wet, Shooting Dry

"Sphere" began production on its only "practical" (i.e. real) location: inside the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, the last of the World War II-era "Liberty Ships." Built in 1943, her wartime activities included supporting the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Now restored and maintained as a living museum by a volunteer organization, the Jeremiah O'Brien was sailed across the San Francisco Bay from her usual berth in the city's Pier 32 to a Mare Island dock. Parts of her interior were temporarily re-designed by Norman Reynolds to function as the set of the ship that carries the team of scientists to their Pacific Ocean destination.

Next, the company entered the three Mare Island buildings serving as soundstages and remained there for nearly the entire length of the shoot.

To the greatest extent possible, Barry Levinson tried to shoot the story in sequence, building incident upon incident for the sake of dramatic integrity. "I try to hang on to those little moments that I find very human," says the director. "You don't want to lose the humanity amidst the hardware."

Certainly, the tight surroundings in the Habitat affected everyone's performance, and how Levinson worked with the actors. "It was very claustrophobic and difficult," says the filmmaker. "You do get a little nuts, but that containment was essential to the story we were telling."

At every turn, the filmmakers worked hard to prevent any undue discomfort to the cast and crew. "One thing that helped a lot was the fact that for the water filtration, we were using a very sophisticated ozonation process rather than chlorine," notes Peter Giuliano. "We knew that on previous underwater films, chlorine proved to be very irritating to the eyes, hair and skin, and we were able to avoid any of those problems."

Aftermath: Special Visual Effects

Although their work started well before the start of principal photography, the majority of visual-effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun and visual effects producer TOM BOLAND's efforts were required after the main unit completed its jobs. Working on the cutting edge of CGI (computer generated imagery) technology, Okun and Boland were charged to create "virtual sets."

"Had the cargo bay of the spacecraft been built as a 'practical' set," says Okun, "it would have been bigger than three football fields. So, working closely with Norman Reynolds, we created a virtual cargo bay, as well as digitally creating the sphere itself. That way, we could keep designing and re-designing right up until the very end, changing the concept according to the way the story developed while the film was being made."

"Sphere" is also filled with underwater creatures that were created by the visual-effects team with a combination of CGI and animatronics. Says Okun, "What Barry did -- and he was very strong on this point -- was to throw out anything that isn't in nature. What he wanted was to take natural things and have them act or look slightly unnatural, like the jellyfish that only has five tentacles. If we tried to sell him on some supernatural stuff, he'd throw books of deep-sea-dwelling creatures on the table and say 'They're scarier than any movie monster I've ever seen.' And he was right."

Warner Bros. Presents A Baltimore Pictures/constant c Production, In Association with Punch Productions, Inc., of A Barry Levinson Film: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson in "Sphere," starring Peter Coyote and Liev Schreiber. The music is by Elliot Goldenthal; the film is edited by Stu Linder; the production designer is Norman Reynolds; and the director of photography is Adam Greenberg, A.S.C. The executive producer is Peter Giuliano. "Sphere" is based on the novel by Michael Crichton; the screenplay is by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, from an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer. "Sphere" is produced by Barry Levinson, Michael Crichton and Andrew Wald and directed by Barry Levinson. It is distributed worldwide by Warner Bros., A Time Warner Entertainment Company.

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