The making of ”Proof of Life”
The thing that worries taylor Hackford most about Proof of Life? What if everyone is so sick of this Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe romance business that they won’t want to see the movie that spawned it? ”My biggest fear,” says the director, ”is that there’s been so much exposure, people will think they’ve already seen this film. And they haven’t.”
What Hackford — who earned his stripes with 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman and whose films since include 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate — means is that anyone expecting When Gladiator Met Sally… will either be greatly surprised or gravely disappointed. The action drama — which cost an estimated $80 million and was shot over six months in England, Poland, and Ecuador — tells an invented tale suggested by the real world’s burgeoning ”kidnap and ransom” trade, in which a professional K&R expert (Crowe) travels to fictitious Tecala to rescue an American engineer (The Green Mile’s David Morse) abducted by cocaine-farming guerrillas and ends up falling for the man’s wife (Ryan).
Still, as much as the Ryan-Crowe affair has imbued Life with unintended irony (and has complicated Warner Bros.’ marketing efforts, which have deliberately muted the film’s love story), it was just one among many behind-the-scenes dramas that defined Hackford’s movie. For the record, the director claims he was clueless about the romance until late into the filming — when he read about it in the tabloids — and would not have been invited into the gossip loop anyway: ”At the end of the day, everyone just wanted to relax and not have to see the face of the man forcing them to do all this.”
Drawing on memories from his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America, the 55-year-old filmmaker insisted on shooting in the mountains outside Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Among the logistical nightmares: landslides, volcanoes, zero-visibility ”cloud forests,” and lots of mud. At one location 14,000 feet up, 26 members of the crew came down with altitude sickness. ”Eventually,” says Morse, ”all of us started feeling like real hostages.” Ultimately, Ecuador proved deadly when Will Gaffney, a stand-in for Morse, was killed after a truck carrying him plummeted over the side of a mountain road. ”I don’t think any film is worth losing your life (for),” says Hackford, his blue eyes darkening. ”It’s something I’ll always carry with me.”
Hackford’s zeal for authenticity is rooted in his documentary background (among other nonfiction work, he produced and helped edit 1996’s Oscar-winning When We Were Kings). Moreover, says Life screenwriter and frequent collaborator Tony Gilroy, ”Taylor loves the concept of grand filmmaking. He’s going for the big thing every time, and it’s inspiring.” But the admittedly ”thorny” Hackford could be merciless in pursuing his vision on Proof of Life. There were tantrums, including one that led to an apology to cast and crew. ”That was a turning point,” says Morse. ”That was the sign of a guy who was really a leader — to humble himself in front of that many people. I was glad to see it.”
Exhausted after a race-to-the-awards-season editing scramble, Hackford says it’ll take some time to recover from this film before making another. ”I’m really proud of it, though when you’re this close, you lack perspective,” he says. ”I know this: It was a life experience.”