With Das Boot, Outbreak, and The Perfect Storm on his résumé, Wolfgang Petersen knows something about disaster movies. But his latest a $175 million adaptation of Paul Gallico's 1969 novel The Poseidon Adventure allowed the director to turn the familiar genre on its head. Literally. ''Normal people like you and me are on a good ship, on New Year's Eve, having a great time,'' he says, ''and then it happens.'' The ''it'' being a rogue wave that capsizes the ocean liner and leaves a small band of passengers including a poker shark (Josh Lucas), a father and daughter (Kurt Russell and Emmy Rossum), a young mother (Jacinda Barrett), and a suicidal gay man (Richard Dreyfuss) struggling to escape. The result aims less to re-create the beloved 1972 Gene Hackmanâ€“Shelley Winters adventure than to evoke the dramatic themes of a certain other blockbuster about a giant sinking boat. ''I always liked the immediate symbolic idea of the ship going upside down,'' Petersen says in his smooth German accent. ''If you're rich or poor, it doesn't matter. If you're young or old, you have to deal with this situation.''
There was plenty to deal with during last year's five-month shoot on several Burbank soundstages. Petersen's crew constructed a number of upside-down sets and filled a 22-foot-deep tank (a.k.a. ''Petersen's Pond,'' where he also shot The Perfect Storm) with 1.3 million unruly gallons of water. ''It was a wild, dangerous shoot,'' says Lucas, who got some souvenir stitches after a wayward flashlight gashed his face. Scrapes, falls, sicknesses borne by the warm standing water, and a minor electrocution befell other co-workers. (Everybody's fine now.) But, hey, Lucas says, it happens: ''Wolfgang creates an environment that is exceptionally realistic. It would be impossible to go through the sinking of a cruise ship without being pretty badly bashed up.''