About The Production
Producer Gale Anne Hurd, whose credits include such ground-breaking special effects epics as Terminator and The Abyss, says she "was intrigued by the idea that instead of a virus movie being about some terrible, dreadful disease, this one is actually about computers that have been taken over by an alien life form, with the added thriller element of a number of characters being stuck in a confined place.
"I liked the idea of a thriller in a non-traditional vein," Hurd continues. "Rather than setting it in the past, or land-bound, or in the future in outer space, I thought the idea of a contemporary story set in the midst of a tremendous storm in the Pacific was truly frightening."
The challenge of Virus centered on the wide range of the action depicted onscreen. Its a story that begins in space, then spends a lot of time on board a ship with various mechanical and biomechanical creatures attempting to kill the new crew, and a raging hurricane periodically coming into play.
"There's a lot involved in bringing all of this to life in a way that will make the audience believe that it's really happening," Bruno says, adding that his previous experience on large-scale action adventure films prepared him for the challenge of directing a major studio release, his first time behind the camera. "I spent a number of years with Jim Cameron solving problems for him. It was my job to make sure that all the fantastic images that were concocted were possible."
To solve the problems presented by Virus, Bruno brought together a crack team of effects experts. The opening sequence features the attack on the MIR and the Volkov by the alien which at this stage resembles a mass of intelligent ball lightning. The action then moves to the brutal storm that the crew of the Sea Star are caught in; clearly a job for computer animation from Brunos old friends at Fantasy II.
"Gene Warren, who I worked with on both The Abyss and Terminator 2, created the opening of the movie with the Volkov and the MIR Space Station as well as the wet-for-wet miniatures," notes Bruno.
"The miniature work that Fantasy II created for this sequence is among the most spectacular ever filmed. It is completely realistic and compelling," adds Hurd.
Completely different challenges involved the mechanical and biomechanical droids constructed and animated by the alien to pursue the humans. Where the pure alien required electronic pyrotechnics, the aliens creatures and their laboratory and machine shop environments called for more of a "monster" approach, like Robocop crossed with Frankenstein run amok, only more so. This would require both live action and computer graphics, and often a blending of both.
"With the robotics, we had this team of people just doing robotics on computer screens. Then we had Steve Johnson and his XFX crew creating the droids and biomechanoids, like Bio-Alexi, Bio-Squeaky, Bio-Bob, Bio-Spine and many of the special make up effects, including lots of blood and guts, that went with them. All Effects created the 7-Footer and Goliath," explains Bruno. He adds, "To actually make the creatures move in real time and across great distance, we brought in Phil Tippett, who had just finished Starship Troopers."
"John Bruno with Phil Tippett was a real visual effects dream team," exclaims Hurd.
Tippett, one of the special effects greats who can trace his own methods back to the frame-by-frame stop action techniques of pioneering Ray Harryhausen, brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the project.
"I come from a background of model making and model animation, three-dimensional stop motion animations, the same technique that was used to make King Kong back in 1933," explains Tippett, who now does the work with computers.
"A lot of hope goes into initially thinking that the full-scale props are going to do everything you want them to. Then you get on the set, and mostly as a result of time constraints and sometimes because of the sheer size and scale of the full-sized props, youre not able to do everything you want to do. So we become involved with a job at that point. Its what we call a 911 call. You know, Help. We need a monster. Quick."
Everything was fine with the mechanical "dog droid," the little creature equipped with a nail gun for a weapon, and the green-eyed, toy-like "spider droid" was a breeze; but Goliath was another thing entirely.
"Our job was to create Goliath, whos kind of the culmination of all of these little machines that make machines that make machines that are given life by the Creature from outer space," Tippett relates. "As they become more and more active, and they grow bigger and bigger and bigger, they finally culminate in Goliath, whos basically a robot thats been culled together out of a lot of parts in the machine shop. Theres a bit of a lathe here, a bit of a mill there, and a bunch of drills. And theres a certain amount of human flesh and viscera thats been kind of pulled into the design as well. The Creature is using whatever it can to try and make itself ambulatory."
A skillful blending of live action and Tippetts computer animation create a fearsome monster. But there were other occasions when good old fashioned makeup worked just fine.
"One of the most rewarding scenes was when Donald Sutherland becomes Bio-Bob," Bruno recalls. "He enters what I call 'the creature shop,' the main computer room, where there's lots of fantastic creatures, and they're all over the place. It's where he tries to cut a deal with the creature.
"Donald, being the great sport that he is, sat through six-hours of makeup to become Bio-Bob, which involved a suit and facial makeup, electronics on his head, this whole fantastic bio-mechanoid makeup. We did it like that because he wanted to stay in the suit and shoot the whole scene out. We had a stunt man involved with an alternate suit and a walking robot that was his legs when he entered the room. It was all very complicated, but it turned out looking just great, I must say."
While these elements of Virus could be "realistically" augmented via computer, Bruno felt real ships would be needed to carry off the hurricane scenes. An undisputed master at bringing the fantastic to life, Bruno wanted the project to work on a practical level as well. "To make it work for me," he states, "it had to be grounded in reality. There had to be situations you could really believe, on a ship that could really exist."
"Interestingly enough," Hurd recalls, "when John was still the visual effects supervisor on Titanic, he was one of those aboard the Keldysh, which was the Russian scientific vessel that was used off Nova Scotia as the base for the submersibles that explored the actual wreck of the Titanic. Since our film also takes place on board a research vessel, he had a great deal of experience with what it's really like to be on board a ship that's operating in that capacity."
The actual search for a ship to portray the Volkov had the added twist of hard work getting rewarded with "luck." After extensive research and just plain searching (including fielding an offer of complete cooperation from the Russian Navy if they would film in the Baltic Sea), Bruno and Virus creator/executive producer Chuck Pfarrer, a former Navy SEAL, went to the James River Fleet in Virginia to see a ship called the Redstone. They arrived only to find that it had just been scrapped.
"But the Navy told us, there's another one, the sister ship, Vandenberg," Bruno recalls. "We went to see it. It was basically in very bad shape and the paint was peeling. But I thought, 'If we could paint it and make it look Russian, we could do a lot with this. We could shoot a lot of the film on board. They leased it to us for a dollar."
If finding a rusting warship seemed providential, the two tugs obtained to portray the Sea Star were downright miracles. The "new" one was over 90-years-old. Discovered in Morehead City, North Carolina, the Piner was built in 1897 and had been one of the scout vessels during the Spanish-American War. The Comet, the "newer" one, was built in 1906. Both were iron-hulled ships and had been converted to diesel in the '20s.
Having assembled his full-sized fleet, Bruno reached into his past for one of his key models. "We had a 42-foot model left over from The Abyss," he noted. "It was out at a storage facility out in the desert. We managed to turn it into a 50-foot Volkov, which we used in the storm scenes. You could say I came full circle with that one."
With the more prosaic elements in place, Bruno was gleefully in his element putting them to use. Its great to have the right kind of ships, but its even better to put them through some of the most ferocious storms ever portrayed on the screen.
Dissatisfied with the 45-65 mph gusts generated by standard Hollywood wind machines, Bruno was stumped. After all, that wasn't even close to the 72 mph winds needed to be considered "hurricane" force. He was even considering using a jet engine for wind, when he found his solution on TV.
"I was watching the Discovery Channel," he remembers, "and saw an interview with a company called Breeze Maker who designed exhaust fans with big propellers that sit on top of factories and suck out the air. The speed of the exhaust, the velocity of the wind, was 100 mph." That was all Bruno needed to hear. A few telephone calls, and something special was created.
"We contacted the guy and had him design the propeller on a 454 Chevy engine that would generate winds anywhere between 80 and 120 mph. Our big storm sequences on the deck of the ship had wind speeds of 110 to 120 mph sustained for 30 seconds at a time. This was something that was developed strictly for Virus and will change the look for storm sequences in all future productions."
Bruno maintains that these sequences even stack up favorably against the real thing. "I went through Hurricane Louis at sea, and it was the scariest thing I've ever been through in my life. Between the wind machines and these waves, we've created something that people have never seen on the screen before."
Finally, even the sinking of the Sea Star with the errant anchor from the Volkov brought in a specialist. "We worked with Chuck Gaspar and his crew who do full-sized everything; and we got a great full-sized sinking tug."
Of course, effects alone can't sustain any movie, as Bruno is quick to point out. "As good as the effects are in this film, the drama has to play well to be believable, and we had Donald Sutherland, Jamie Lee Curtis and Billy Baldwin working together as a team to make this a believable film."
With the greedy and self-absorbed Captain Everton constantly seeking advantage for himself regardless of the cost to anyone else, he's the perfect foil for the somewhat self-righteous Kit, practical Baker, elegantly simple Hiko and utterly paranoid Nadia. Brash, independent Richie and cowardly Woods have their own comic subtext in a crew that is quirky and entertaining.
"John [Bruno] gave us a lot of leeway and license to play around," Baldwin reveals. "I loved the camaraderie in the script and, by working so closely together, we added these little bits of improvisation that add up to real relationships on screen. It's important because when an audience goes to a film¾ whether it's a romantic comedy or a drama or a sci-fi thriller¾ they want to invest in the characters. They want to care about them."
Getting the audience to care is always easier when working with top quality performers. "Jamie's basically the best sport," Bruno adds. "I mean, when I first talked to her about doing this, it was, like, it's gonna be hard, it's gonna be wet, it's gonna be cold. Theres also a scene where she actually gets tortured by one of the creatures," said Bruno. "Its trying to get information from her, and the way it does is pretty creepy."
"The role of Kit appealed to my sense of athleticism," Curtis notes, "and not worrying about how I looked as much as how many bruises I was going to get each day. One thing I did learn on Virus is that I don't like water dumped on me...I'm just not a fan of having thousands of gallons of water dumped on my head. It scared me, and not much has scared me in a very long time in the movie business."
As with most seafaring ventures, real-life or cinematic, Virus was predominantly male, so Curtis and Pacula, the only female members of the cast, struck up a fast friendship. "Joanna and I really got along well, despite the fact that it's so hard to be in a movie with her because she's so damned beautiful," Curtis jokes. "But she's really just a funny, wonderful woman."
Pacula returns the compliment, saying, "Jamie has so much energy and she's very smart and funny. We were together for almost five months, and we're still friends."
Believable characters, non-stop action, eye-popping visual effects and some of the greatest storm footage ever filmed: Its obvious audiences will have no trouble immersing themselves in the world of the film.
But will they buy into the idea of a hostile alien life form whose goal is the annihilation of the human race? Not to worry, according to producer Hurd, "The vast majority of people believe that there have been alien encounters on Earth, and I am one of them."
©1999 Universal Studios