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`SPEED' DEMONS; STARS BULLOCK AND PATRIC FOLLOW DIRECTOR DE BONT'S LEAD IN GOING ALL OUT.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Writer

Jan De Bont just could not believe it. The excitable Dutch director, whose ``Speed'' and ``Twister'' redefined cinematic notions of hair-raising momentum, had been shooting the sequel ``Speed 2: Cruise Control'' in the Caribbean with a real-life luxury liner, the Seabourn Legend, at his command.

Twentieth Century Fox had rented the ship for six weeks - just one of many costly expenditures on a production hit with three hurricanes, one star defection and a key scene in which a cruise ship plows into the population center of French St. Martin. And even though the Legend's Norwegian crew had been more than accommodating to the $120 million-odd action production, De Bont was having a devil of a time getting the captain to do his bidding.

``It seemed so easy; all I wanted him to do was hit a bunch of small, 30-foot sailing boats in the harbor, and he never really did it,'' De Bont laments. ``We aimed the ship, put video cameras on the boats so the captain could look at them on the bridge. But he'd pass on the left side, then pass on the right.

``It was like a bad golfer. I guess they're just taught not to hit anything,'' De Bont reckons, then ignores the inherent logic of his own statement. ``It just didn't work. I was so disappointed.''

At that point, though, De Bont had already dealt with a series of ``Speed 2'' setbacks, beginning with the failure of hundreds of ideas submitted for his bomb-on-a-bus hit's sequel to capture his imagination. De Bont himself had a dream image of a big boat weaving a path of destruction across an island, and with writers Jeff Nathanson and Randall McCormick decided to craft a story backward from there.

So in ``Speed 2,'' Sandra Bullock's plucky but bad bus driver takes off on a Caribbean cruise with her new cop boyfriend, played by smoldering-eyed, heavy drama specialist Jason Patric (``After Dark My Sweet,'' ``Rush,'' ``Sleepers''). Unbeknownst to them, Willem Dafoe's disgruntled computer genius comes aboard to take cyber-control of the high-tech vessel and send it hurtling toward supertankers, tourist towns and those elusive little catamarans the director never successfully split down the middle as he'd hoped.

But before that happened, a bigger disappointment. Keanu Reeves, who shot to superstardom as the hero of the first ``Speed,'' pulled out of the sequel project shortly before filming was scheduled to commence late last summer.

``I wasn't happy about it, obviously,'' De Bont says. ``We met several times about the project, and at the beginning we were all very excited about it. Then something happened - I think it had to do with the movie he was working on at the time, `Chain Reaction' - and Keanu started getting worried about all the physicality of this. In this movie, he needed to do all this stuff underwater, and I think that scared him.

``I also think he was afraid of having to carry the movie,'' De Bont continues. ``Keanu always told me he didn't want to be a movie star. Movies like this make you into stars, and there's nothing you can do about it. But it's not a bad thing.''

Jason Patric has a reputation for stardom-phobia, too. But as he explains, that's not precisely accurate.

``I think I'm pretty much going to stay the same,'' the blase Patric says. ``You're not going to see me at the premieres I haven't been to, I'm not going to be in the kinds of pictures I haven't been in, and you can still buy your favorite magazine and I won't be on the cover. But I never said I don't want to be a movie star. I said I'm not going to do things to become a movie star. I think there's a big difference.''

However, as Patric painfully recalls, if Reeves dropped out because of ``Speed 2's'' heavy physical demands, it certainly wasn't a bad reason for declining.

``Yes, being dragged by a seaplane and jumping onto collapsing buildings or doing scuba when you're being pulled by a ship, that stuff's all difficult, and when you see it, it will look exciting,'' the actor acknowledges. ``But it's the day-in and day-out of five months that does you in. It's also difficult treading water for two hours hanging off the side of a ship, but you'll only see two minutes of that. You don't see the 10-foot swells whacking you into the boat, or the extra water I swallow holding Sandy up because she's got her hands tied and weights attached to her feet.''

Or how much Bullock almost swallowed, either. Afraid of the ocean since a childhood near-drowning, the rising superstar - who reportedly received $12.5 million (a figure she disputes) to reprise her ``Speed'' role of Annie Porter - experienced some deja vu in the blue waters of the Caribbean.

Not that she was prepared to give up her reputation as the highest-paid good sport in show business for a few cheap gulps of air.

``We had a great marine department, and the crew was always on guard, so everyone could see if something went wrong quickly,'' Bullock notes. ``But Jason was the only one who was in the water with me, so if anything went wrong - which happened once or twice - he had to stop things, because I wasn't about to stop; I'd rather drown before I quit.''

Bullock, who ``Speed'' arguably made an even bigger star than Reeves, readily acknowledges her debt to De Bont. That partially explains her willingness to drown for him. But there's another reason for her general willingness to tolerate De Bont, a demanding daredevil whose rantings on the set of ``Twister'' are legend.

``Show me somebody in this business who's brave and isn't a lunatic?'' Bullock asks rhetorically. ``Jan and I fight really well. It's like he has Tourette's (syndrome); the words come out but the intention behind them isn't malicious. He's not an evil man.

``He is insane, certifiably,'' Bullock admits. ``Anyone who does films like this needs to have an element of danger in them or he'll never do what he does. He invented this style; even before he started directing (when he was director of photography for ``Die Hard,'' ``Lethal Weapon 3'' and ``Basic Instinct,'' among others), you can see a Jan De Bont film by the way he told the story through the camera. Now, every time he directs, he has to top himself. He's responsible for it, so he has to fight for what he believes in. Whether I or the studio or the crew agrees with him is not the point.''

De Bont is indeed willing to do just about anything to top himself. Look at the climactic moment of ``Speed 2,'' when the Seabourn Legend crashes into the dock - and through half the town - of Marigot, St. Martin. Even De Bont understood that he could not expect the captain to ram the real vessel into shore, so he had a 130-foot replica of the boat's front section built and tugged 1,000 feet into a fake, breakaway seafront on a submerged, gear-driven rail track.

The smashed buildings were built by the film company on land where a hurricane had demolished real structures a year earlier. Just to make things fun, though, another big storm threatened the island just as construction began, so even the sets marked for destruction had to be built to gale-force tolerances.

Total price tag for the six-minute sequence: $25 million.

Many months later in his Santa Monica office, De Bont worked on computer graphics enhancements for ``Speed 2's'' major scenes while musing on the difficulties of filming such a monster in mostly full-scale live-action.

``Filming on water was a big mistake,'' he admits while, on a monitor, CG sparks and scratch marks form on the Legend's port side as it appears to sideswipe a supertanker. ``Basically, it was a different problem every day, and you couldn't anticipate them no matter how well you planned.

`I mean, one of the hardest things was to convince this captain to push his boat as close to the tanker as he possibly could,'' De Bont explains. ``How do you do that? He'd go, `Are you nuts,' and he was probably right.

``But I needed that shot. There are some things you cannot do just with CG and miniatures. And to get this boat as close to the tanker as we finally did was amazing. I saw the captain sweating a little on the bridge, but I'm very grateful that he did what he could.''

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

Photo: (1) Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) tries to outrun a disgruntled computer genius (Willem Dafoe) intent on plowing a cruise ship into other vessels and Caribbean towns in ``Speed 2.''

(2) ``Speed 2'' director Jan De Bont honed his filmmaking style as director of photography on such movies as ``Die Hard,'' ``Lethal Weapon 3'' and ``Basic Instinct.''

(3) Jason Patric, foreground, stepped into the ``Speed 2'' role vacated by Keanu Reeves.

(4--Cover--Color) Wet & Wild; Put on your snokel and seat belt- here comes `Speed 2'
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 11, 1997
Words:1520
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