About the Production...
In the spring of 1991, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias sent his recently finished novel, Fearless, to producers Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg, who had been friends of his for more than 20 years. They were immediately interested in the manuscript as a project for their fledgling Warner Bros. based company, Spring Creek Productions.
"I knew Mark and Paula would respond to "Fearless' because it was an unconventional story and I believed that their appreciation of it would make them the most likely people to get the movie made - and I was right," says Yglesias.
"When Mark and I read this book," remembers Weinstein, "we were instantly drawn by the characters and the fact that Max was a man who, having survived his worst fear, finally felt free to live his life. The story touched on universal themes about life and death and love. Do we live our life in fear of dying or do we live our lives absolutely 'going for it?' He chose to passionately embrace life.
"We knew we had an intelligent, moving and powerful project. And from the moment the script came in we knew we wanted Peter Weir to direct this movie."
Recalls Weir, "I had taken a year off after 'Green Card' and when I was ready to go back to work, I came to California determined that I would meet with writers and studio heads only - no one in between. I wanted to go to the people who paid for scripts, and the people who wrote them.
"Mark Rosenberg, whom I had met years before when he was an executive at Warner Bros., was the only producer who got through my 'only a writer or studio head' decree. In February he sent me 'Fearless', a screenplay which was still a work in progress. Finally, I felt, here was something that was one creative person communicating with another, the way it should be, and I jumped on a plane and came over to meet with Rafe (as his friends call Yglesias)."
As with many novels, the idea for Fearless had its foundation in reality - for Yglesias, like many people, is a white-knuckle flyer. "Because of my fear," the writer explains, "I had a morbid interest in plane crashes and found myself reading all the news accounts when there had been an air disaster. And always, I would imagine what the passengers and crew must have been feeling between the time they first realized the flight was in trouble and the moment the aircraft actually hit the ground."
"I think," adds Weir, "that flying is one of the rare situations in modern life where we are confronted with our mortality in some way other than the death of a loved one. You have no control over the time and place and manner of your demise and it's interesting to me that the whole world of mythology has to do with flying -- somehow the heavens all come into play in some way. Every religion and every past civilization has looked upward and flying is a dream that most people have had at one time or another in their life."
Adds Yglesias, "Death is random and arbitrary and that's a very difficult fact to live with when you're confronted with it. So in that sense, 'Fearless' is about the syndrome of survival, about guilt and trying to make sense of something that doesn't make sense: 'why did I live why did they die?'"
He continues, "Max was a very phobic guy. He tried to deal with fear by learning everything he could about how things work - what is safe and what isn't safe. And that is the way he has dealt with his fear of flying. Then the worst thing that could happen to him actually happens -- he is actually in a plane crash.
"The result of his walking away from that crash with hardly a scratch is that he is turned inside out. Instead of being phobic, he is now completely without fear and is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress. He is thrilled by the fact that he survived death and he keeps trying to recreate that thrill by putting his life in jeopardy. The irony, the paradox, of the story is that, although he is not well, he feels better than he ever has and he doesn't want to give that up."
To portray Max, Peter Weir went directly to Jeff Bridges. "I was familiar with his body of work," explains the director, "and in his two most recent films, 'The Fabulous Baker Boys', and 'The Fisher King', I saw sparks that were way above simply good craft."
In discussing the role with Bridges, Weir told the actor about his own recent experience with a friend who was terminally ill. Recounts the director, "When Iwas first becoming involved with this picture, a dear friend of my wife's and mine died. She had been ill for two years and I remember her coming to the house on one of her last visits out. As I greeted her, she looked me in the eye and all I could think of was that old saying about the eyes being 'the window of the soul.' It was a look without any barrier or artifice. I felt as if I were looking at her soul, seeing her as I'd never looked at her in my life -- or perhaps had never been allowed or permitted to look.
"I told Jeff that I thought Max was in that same place: he had accepted the great turning wheel that we all know is out there. But we can only intellectualize it, we can't feel it somehow. What if you returned from that state, what if you found an ecstasy and, in coming back, found it very difficult to simply pick life up? It's not like someone who's ill and then gets a clean bill of health from the doctor. It's someone who has faced certain death and says, 'I accept this, I willingly go,' and then comes back. You would want to retain that clarity.
"The plane journey is, in a sense, a metaphor for the journey of life. And here Max is, on a strange journey where he must find his way back to life while carrying this precious, beautiful treasure -- this thing he saw and felt as the plane plummeted to the ground."
Weir admits that Max was a very difficult character for him and Bridges to know. "In the long run, I'd say Max is totally selfish. He's trying to deal with this incredible glimpse he's had into eternity and the ecstacy he experienced in giving up his life. No longer afraid to die, he's now no longer afraid to live.
"It's as if he's gone back to basics in the way he sees everything, including his marriage. He's rebuilding things slowly and with great fascination, but he's also unaware of the pain he's causing around him or his own inability to take responsibility for hurting his wife and child."
Initially Bridges was reluctant to take on the part of Max. Having recently completed work on both "American Heart" and "The Vanishing", he was looking forward to some time off when he was given the script. "When you get a terrific script with a terrific director, that's exactly what any actor is looking for," he observes. "When I was presented with this great project, I was totally exhausted and wondered how I would be able to do it.
"And then Peter gave his first bit of direction. He asked me how much time off I would need and when I told him, he said 'Fine. Don't think about the movie at all, don't prepare for the part. Just concentrate on getting your energy back.' That's the first time I've ever been given the blessing of a director to not prepare, to just relax!
"After about six weeks Peter began to send me different material that he thought I could use in preparing for the character. He was wonderful in supplying me with source material. He is a very inclusive director. You never feel that he's patronizing you. He listens to all your ideas and encourages your input. It's a very exciting and collaborative way to work.
"A great luxury for me," Bridges continues, "was that at various times, Rafe was on hand during filming. I always love to meet the writers because, as the source, they always have great ideas about who the character is. Plus, he had written the novel. I had a copy in galley form and I found it described details, like the feelings of the characters at a particular moment or the history of why a person would be having certain feelings. It was very helpful. And it's always good to feel from a writer that you have his blessings!"
Comments Weinstein, "I think what Jeff and Peter have created is an extremely complicated man. Jeff, as Max, has been able to burst forth and be withdrawn. There are wonderful shadings of a man who's embracing life and, at the same time, daring everything in his presence. He's upfront, incredibly alone and in a deep struggle."
With Jeff Bridges signed for the role of Max, Weir began to search for the two women who would play such an important part in his journey. Says Weir, "I tried to cast them at the same time so that there would be a balance between his wife and his fellow passenger. I felt strongly that I wanted to avoid the story bogging down into a triangular love story.
"Interestingly, the women came from two Latin cultures, which seemed to be something that Max is drawn to in some subliminal way. It's implied that his wife, Laura, is Italian and that Carla is Puerto Rican.
"I felt his wife should be foreign because I didn't want English and the command of the language to be the first choice of communicating with her husband. By bringing in the fact that she teaches ballet, we were able to add the musical world so she could communicate more through music. This way she doesn't have the glibness and command of English that a modern American woman has, where she might say 'let's talk' and the situation is then explained and realized through dialogue. As an Italian, she would have a different way of dealing with men and dealing with problems of life."
"For me, the plane crash is irrelevant," says Rossellini. "It could have been any life-threatening accident. The crux is that someone went to the edge of the horizon, the other side of the rainbow so to speak, and now he sees everything with a kind of crystal clarity. Laura is quite fascinated by Max's new persona, but the fact that he doesn't allow her in to share it leave her frustrated and angry.
In summing up his cast, director Weir says, "I've dealt more with character in this picture than I have in any other movie. By the end of filming, I had really come to think of them as a theatre company, such was the ensemble nature of the group.
The company spent a month filming in and around San Francisco at such diverse sites as a stately apartment on Russian Hill, a modest home in the Mission District, the North Beach's landmark Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a rooftop in the financial district, a ferry traversing the bay and an abandoned freeway ramp, victim of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Explains Weir, "San Francisco was new ground, a city of mystery and of fascinating architecture. I selected locations which I thought had not been used before because I wanted to see San Francisco the way Max would see it, freshly. Not the high-rises, but the details that you don't see because you don't look up much. And I thought Max would be looking up and noting these things. Then, through Carla, I found myself filming lots of churches and church architecture, spires and the like.
"I watched a lot of movies filmed in San Francisco and found that, generally speaking, the point of view is towards the water, so I found myself facing the other direction. In turning into the city I was reminded of all sorts of places, the Meditteranean or Lebanon before the war -- even Greece at times, with the white houses hanging to the hillsides."
Charged with translating Weir's vision to celluloid was noted cinematographer Allen Daviau, who met with the director before even reading the script.
"He is so much a cinematographer's director," Daviau relates. "I met with him and we talked about visuals and immediately I got the drift of what he was saying. He wanted a clarity and solidity to the images and he didn't want anything that bordered on science fiction. He wanted Max to be experiencing hyper-reality and a type of perception that was very clear. We talked about it in technical terms and in conceptual terms and talked about all the things we could try.
"Once I had read the screenplay, I realized that what he and Rafe conceived was a fascinating portrait of a man in search of the truth. I knew that I would have to go for a purity of light in those scenes so that the modulation of light would convey the emotion of the scene.
"I'm a great believer," he continues, "that making a picture is a process of discovery. When you work with Peter Weir and he wants to go someplace and you go on the journey with him, you discover things along the way."
The person who perhaps more than any other shares Peter Weir's vision is his wife, Wendy Stites, who acted as the visual consultant on "Fearless".
"I'm a person who always thinks in colors," she explains, "and I think in most films the look evolves right out of the story. For example, on 'Witness', everything was green, blue, black and white because Amish have very strict rules about colors. So you could only have your walls blue or green, which I guess is to reflect nature.
"With 'Fearless', I found what evolved was the white buildings and the grey-white of the city. In some ways, San Francisco began to look like Tunis -- white and beige. And it somehow seemed to be reflecting in Max, like when he was walking through the city. I couldn't figure out if it was coincidence or a wonderful accident, but he seemed to be part of the city and the buildings."
Jeff Bridges was particularly pleased that when it came to the home Max shares with Laura, Wendy included them in some of the decisions, "She was always interested in the kind of things I'd like in my studio," he relates, "and we'd go shopping for various articles. It was the same with the wardrobe. For me, one of the most important aspects is what my character will be wearing. I never really know who the person is until I go to the first dailies and I see him on the screen. It serves as a kind of armature to pile clay on."
The company later spent a week filming in Bakersfield, where, early in the summer, 85 acres of corn had been planted to director Weir's specifications. The site of the crash's destruction, the field borders Highway 99 and the sudden appearance of cranes, trucks and large sections of airplane being placed among the fully grown stalks caused a certain amount of confusion among Kern County residents, until a sign was mounted explaining that a motion picture company was on its way.
One of the more dramatic sets in "Fearless" for production designer John Stoddart was at the Bakersfield location. "Most of the work to convincingly set the crash scene couldn't be done until the day before the company planned to film because corn dies very quickly once it's knocked down. The aircraft itself," he recounts, "came from a well-known plane junkyard called Aviation Warehouse. We drew up blueprints showing exactly what we wanted and then they manufactured the 'set' from real plane parts, scoring, breaking apart, blow torching, doing whatever was necessary to make it exactly to our specifications.
"It took more that 10 days just to set the 'stage' for the scene," Stoddart continues. "Once we got the plane parts in position, we brought in more than 600 suitcases filled with clothes bought at the Goodwill, golf club bags, baby strollers -- you name it, anything you might find on an airplane.
"We closed down one of Bakersfield's main thoroughfares, Bear Mountain Avenue, for an entire week and then had Pacific Gas and Electric knock down a pole and de-energize and tangle half a mile of electric line."
To ensure the scene's authenticity, nearly 40 members of the Kern County and the Bakersfield Fire Departments came to work with the crew. In addition, the company hired over 140 people from the area as extras in the scene.
Every department was strained to the maximum as the week went on. Even makeup artist Ed Henriques, veteran of many action films, was astounded at the amount of work he and his team did. "The scene was far bigger than I originally expected because I hadn't realized that to Peter there is no such thing as 'background' atmosphere. As he said, 'there are no extras in my movies, only actors.' Instead of only making up the principals and those directly around them, we had to put wounds, blood, etc. on everyone because you never knew which person might catch his eye and suddenly be front and center in the scene."
When Weir saw the dailies from Bakersfield, he was pleased. "The cornfield reminded me of an underwater sequence," he relates, "as though there had been a shipwreck at sea. It looked like a complete violation of nature -- the survivors, the plane and the carnage -- and at the same time, bees and insects humming and moving from stalk to stalk."
The final leg of the film's production took place in and around Los Angeles and on sound stages at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
The finishing touch to a film is its musical score. Celebrated composer Maurice Jarre, a long-time collaborator with Weir, again joined forces with the director. "I have always wanted to do an orchestral score for a film of mine, but in the past it's never been appropriate," says Weir. "With 'Fearless', I think because the theme is so weighty, and the images at times so familiar, it needs a thick, rich score. The music, in a way, should be saying 'there is sorrow and pity and night and day, but life just rolls on. It should be reminiscent of nature, which has no heart, no concern for any one individual."
Warner Bros. Presents a Spring Creek Production: Jeff Bridges in "Fearless",
starring Isabella Rossellini and Rosie Perez with Tom Hulce and John Turturro.
The film is directed by Peter Weir and produced by Paula Weinstein and
Mark Rosenberg, with a screenplay by Rafael Yglesias based upon his novel.
The co-producers are Robin Forman and William Beasley. The director of
photography is Allen Daviau, A.S.C.; the production is designed by John
Stoddart; and the film editor is William Anderson, A.C.E. The music is
by Maurice Jarre. "Fearless" is distributed by Warner Bros., A Time Warner