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SHAKE, RATTLE AND SWIM; `SUNSET BEACH' EARTHQUAKE, TSUNAMI BUFFETING DAYTIME.

Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

George Becket's orders were clear and concise: Create a major earthquake that will cause mayhem and trap people in life-threatening situations. Devise a resulting tsunami that overturns a cruise ship packed with beautiful people. And build the interior of a ``Poseidon''-like capsized ship, from which the panicked people must try to escape.

Piece of cake, said Becket, a West Hills resident and production director for the NBC soap opera ``Sunset Beach'' (2 p.m. weekdays, Channel 4), who for the past month has organized the on-screen disaster in pursuit of new summer viewers.

The story line, which the ``SB'' powers that be have dubbed ``Shock Wave,'' is the show's answer to strong network hints that one of NBC's daytime dramas will likely have to ride off into cancellation sunset to make way for a new series under development - unless the ratings begin to climb substantially.

Faced with that possibility, executive producer Gary Tomlin came up with daytime's ultimate disaster story line.

Tomlin, who shares executive-producer credits with TV icon Aaron Spelling, hopes the doom-and-disaster story line - which airs into mid-August and sends other story-line complexities spinning for months more - will pump up the popularity of the 18-month-old soap. ``SB'' consistently ranks No. 11 among the 11 daytime soaps, with about 1.8 million viewers daily - most of them females age 12 to 34.

``A lot of people don't even know we're on the air,'' said co-head writer Christopher Whitesell, who with Meg Bennett penned the disaster epic. ``You need something to make 'em stand up and take notice. This is it.''

So far, it's working. Even before the disaster-at-sea scenes began airing July 31, the earthquake sequences had grabbed an additional 300,000 viewers nationwide, giving ``SB'' its highest ratings yet, according to Nielsen Media Research. And in an effort to draw additional viewers, ``SB'' will air an hourlong recap of the entire disaster story line at 8 p.m. Aug. 28.

Just add water ...

Tomlin said he had originally planned to hit the fictional town of Sunset Beach, Calif., with an earthquake, and envisioned sending the soap's younger cast members off on a charity cruise as a lighter counterpoint to the disaster story line. Then somebody said ``tsunami.''

``We decided to pull out all the stops and do both,'' Tomlin said. ``The network said, `Can you really do that?' And I said, `Sure.' ''

He was bluffing ... just a bit.

``When I came up with this idea, I never thought we'd be able to execute it,'' Tomlin admits.

That's where Becket - a veteran of action movies and the TV show ``JAG'' came in. While the earthquake scenes involved mostly falling objects, falling-apart sets and trapped people, making a few sections of scenery in a tank of water look like a capsized cruise ship was more difficult. Construction, lighting and sound-effects crews under Becket's direction had to manufacture explosions, steam and the force of rushing water strong enough to knock actors off their feet, plus build interior sections of a luxury cruise liner twice - once right-side up and once upside-down.

``It really wasn't very difficult,'' Becket said modestly. ``I told them it would be no problem. There's nothing new. It's all been done before. Just not on a soap.''

The closest thing seen on film recently was 1997's Oscar winner for Best Picture, ``Titanic,'' which took more than a year to produce and film at an estimated cost of $200 million. ``SB'' is admittedly no ``Titanic,'' but its summer story line has many of the same elements going for it: on-screen death and destruction, treachery and betrayal, heroics, peril at sea, young love fighting life's odds.

One of the characters is even eaten alive on screen by a shark (OK, it's animatronic) - and ``Titanic'' didn't have that.

Keep on shooting

``It only took us 28 days to do it all,'' said Becket, who worked with actors, directors, special-effects and stunt people, wardrobe, makeup, construction and lighting people to pull the whole thing together. ``We filmed 40 to 48 scenes a day, 12-hour days, to get 48 minutes on air a day - not the minute or two of film you'd get if you were working on a feature film.''

Nobody will say how much executing the ambitious story line cost, but Becket says the additional cost - paid by ``SB'' creator Spelling and the network - is ``many, many, many'' times the cost of the soap's usual episodes.

The action began in the closing seconds of the show's July 17 episode, when - with a special attachment shaking cameras and specially built sets destructing - a major earthquake hit Sunset Beach. When the show opened July 20, viewers saw characters trapped under rubble in a mansion, in a hospital, at a construction site. And, soaps being what they are, everybody seemed to be trapped with somebody they hate.

Then a second quake hit, sending ceilings splitting, trees falling, floors breaking open and characters screaming as they were buried under a new wave of rubble.

The two quakes buried Lesley-Anne Down, who plays doyenne Olivia Richards, beneath pieces of walls and shards of timber in the foyer of her character's mansion. But, with kneepads under her costume to make the hard floor not quite so hard, Down showed how the crew had actually made her a little cave that she could wiggle in and out of.

``I never have 100 percent confidence in any stunt,'' Down said, examining her unpadded, scraped elbows and fluffing plaster dust out of her eyelashes. Her hair was grimy with dust and debris, her makeup smudged with ``blood'' and dirt. ``But you have to go into it thinking that (safety) people are totally trustworthy and are going to protect you.

``But,'' she added, gazing into the mansion's wrecked foyer as a prop chandelier was dropped onto her stunt double, ``I'm glad I'm not involved in that.''

Into the tank

Actors in the cruise-ship scenes spent their days soaked to the skin in a 30-foot-diameter tank into which a dozen or more upside-down sets were lowered for different scenes. Actors got safety instructions for the underwater scenes, and a safety coordinator and a half-dozen divers hovered just out of camera range ready to lend a hand if something went wrong.

Actor Bernie Kopell, who played Doc on Spelling's '70s TV hit ``The Love Boat,'' plays the captain of the SS Neptune, the cruise ship that capsizes, but he is seen only briefly. Capt. Nelson is on the bridge when the tidal wave hits and, like the captain of the Titanic, he goes down with the ship.

Most of the young actors had a ball splashing around in between scenes.

``It's fun to do stunts like this,'' Randy Spelling, who plays heartthrob Sean Richards, said as he treaded 85-degree water in the 1,000-gallon tank. He was waiting to have another go at a minutelong scene in which he and Christi Ellen Harris, who plays ingenue Emily Davis, dove underwater, swam through an air shaft and emerged in another, drier part of what on screen appears to be a full-size, submerged ship.

The two weren't dressed for swimming: Spelling was wearing a tuxedo minus the jacket, and Harris wore an evening gown, garnet necklace and earrings - and high heels.

``We were in the ballroom on the boat, arguing, dancing, whatever, and then all of a sudden, the boat flips over,'' Spelling said.

``People were flying and falling,'' said Harris. ``We got to fall down an 80-degree-incline wall into the water. It was so exciting, so much fun.''

``And from then on, everything was upside down,'' Spelling said. ``It was real disorienting.''

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos

Photo: (1) Olivia Richards (Lesley-Anne Down) checks on Annie Douglas (Sarah Buxton) - her ex-husband's new wife - after the earthquake hits on ``Sunset Beach,'' on NBC.

(2--3) At left, Ricardo Torres (Hank Cheyne) and Gabi Martinez (Priscilla Garita) watch the tsunami's approach to their cruise ship. Above, Martinez and Torres fight for their lives after the massive wave hits.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 10, 1998
Words:1336
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