Far from home, at work amid danger and beauty
The mist was slowly lifting in the Andes, and Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, stars of the new film "Proof of Life," were waiting for director Taylor Hackford to say, "Action." It had rained and hailed most of the night.
"Hail stones as big as fried eggs," Crowe says, as he recalls filming on location in Ecuador.
Once the sun pierced the clouds, Hackford filmed a spectacular scene with the lush green foliage of the rain forest, which formed an ideal backdrop.
"Good thing he did," Crowe says. "Twenty minutes later, the road slipped down the mountain. It's all volcanic ground in this section of Ecuador. You know that saying, 'Now you see it, now you don't.' [It] was written to describe this terrain."
Hackford, who'd lived in Bolivia during his days with the Peace Corps, had traveled the world seeking the perfect locations for "Proof of Life." He selected Ecuador, England, and Poland. Ecuador didn't have the moviemaking infrastructure for a big US film, but "what it did have," Hackford says, "was the most beautiful natural scenery in the world."
"Proof of Life" is inspired by a 1998 Vanity Fair article by William Prochnau. The story opens with Peter Bowman (David Morse), the husband of Alice Bowman (Ryan), being kidnapped in a Latin American country.
Terry Thorne (Crowe), an expert in winning the release of hostages, is called in to negotiate. Thorne has to demand a "proof of life" so he knows that Bowman is still alive. As proof, the kidnappers send a photo of the prisoner holding a newspaper showing the date.
To prepare for the role, Crowe spent three weeks talking with real-life K&R (kidnap and rescue) men, many of them former intelligence officers and military men. He learned that when you meet with the victim's family, "you have to be calm, sensitive, and relieve any hysteria."
"The guys I talked with said the rules are the victim's wife is to be kept out of the loop because she'll be too emotional. [But] as I got to know them, they said sometimes they found the wife is the most reasonable 'tiger' in the group. She cooperates because she wants her husband back."
When filming began, Crowe found it heartwarming that his "Gladiator" British film crew agreed to work on "Proof."
"Movie crews don't fancy being that far from home and working under those conditions," says Crowe, who was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia. "If the road washed away, they had to rebuild it. I have to admit those English blokes are good to be with when the going gets rough. We Aussies kid them a lot, but they're the ones to be with in the trenches."
Interlaced with the crew were former Royal marines and US marines, who provided security.
"Every role is an education," Crowe says. "The action in this film was new territory.
"For all its beauty, the locations had dangers, too. Landslides were a regular occurrence. Then, we're working at an altitude of 11,000 feet. Twenty members of the crew had to be sent home [because they weren't accustomed to working at such high altitudes]."
Hackford was more than a little concerned when Crowe decided he'd bed down in his trailer in the jungle rather than make the daily two-hour drive from the hotel to the location.
Crowe explains, "Mate, those roads had potholes as big as a cow! They'd drive in the center of the dirt road. It seemed deserted until you'd make a curve, and there was a truck also in the center. I'd yell out, 'Holy moly! Move over!' The trucks would just squeeze by. There were more prayers going than at church."
After four months of being away from civilization, the cast and crew had bonded. "There wasn't any paparazzi in the rain forest. When we came back to England to finish the movie ... there were photographers at every turn."
Crowe is known as an action-movie star now, but he's also got a lighter side. "I'm the type who likes to be a comic," he says. "When I was a kid going to military school, I thought everyone wearing those same uniforms and marching down the parade ground wasn't much fun. So when all the cadets turned right, I turned left, and got a big laugh from the crowd - also a big reprimand!"
Crowe channels much of that energy into music. His band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, have their own Web site, www.gruntland.com.
"After 20,000 hits, it crashed - too much traffic," he says. "I love the guys in the band.... When we get together, it's really fertile. Songs just seem to pop out of our heads. I think it's because we don't live in each other's pockets all the time."
Crowe gets up from the couch, smooths the wrinkles from his checkered lumberjack shirt, and does a healthy stretch. "It's been a busy year. In the last 12 months, I've only slept 22 nights on my farm in Australia. I've got to get back to the cows."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society