Days Of Hell

The entire town of Port Douglas, a two-block strip of restaurants and knickknack shops, has been overrun by the production. The Community Women's Association building has been converted into a makeshift movie theater. At the end of each day, senior crew members sit on metal folding chairs, beer in hand, and watch dailies. The standard uniform is outback shorts and work boots, and everyone is perpetually dirty. Malick doesn't watch dailies, though he sometimes looks at selected footage on Sunday, the production's day off.

It's now mid-September of 1997, and by the time an EW reporter visits the set, the cast and crew, which arrived in early June, are tired, homesick, and stir-crazy. There are few extracurricular activities, other than a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef and pickup basketball games on Sundays. So many families have visited that a day-care center has been set up. The only real pecking order is in the accommodations. Penn and Harrelson have houses, while Nolte and Cusack are staying in bungalows at the Sheraton Mirage Resort. Stevens, the exec producer, has installed a satellite dish on his bungalow so he can watch the U.S. Open. But most of the young actors are crammed into the Tropical Sands, which smells like a frat house, and much of the amusement has come from an elaborate, after-hours war of pranks between Penn and Harrelson. ''It's a seductively simple life of isolation,'' explains John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights), briefly visible in the film as Mess Sergeant Storm.

As the shoot proceeded, it became clear that the Thin Red Line had so many story lines and such a meandering shooting style that the actors weren't sure whether they'd appear in the finished film. Malick often shot part of a scene in the bright morning sun and then completed it a week later in the golden light of a sunset. While maddening to the actors, the wait often changed how everyone felt about the scene. ''It was a way of allowing something beyond what the scene is to come into play,'' explains Nolte (Colonel Tall). ''What Terry's asking for is a search for the truth that goes beyond all preconceptions. He's asking for divine inspiration in a way, but what he's really asking is for the film to tell him what it's about.''

Malick himself seemed to be the calm in the middle of his own storm. When he was angry, the director would turn his back and take a deep breath rather than throw a tantrum. One afternoon when torrential rains interrupted filming, he huddled the crew under a makeshift tent and led them in a rain dance. At lunch that day, Malick waved off the production truck and hiked up the hill with his tired cast. ''He knew everyone's name and treated everyone as equals,'' Caviezel says.

While Chaplin and Caviezel say they were inspired by Malick's direction, Elias Koteas had a more unsettling experience. Hired to play Captain Stein at the last minute, he missed half of the cast-bonding boot-camp sessions, arriving in Australia only to discover that Malick had changed his character's name from Stein to Staros. In Jones' novel, the essence of Stein's character is his Jewishness, and the reaction of gentile soldiers to a Jewish commanding officer is an important subtext that figures into the plot. Geisler, Malick's now-estranged producer, says he was saddened when he heard of the change but not surprised. ''He was uncomfortable with Stein's Jewishness,'' Geisler opines, ''and he would cringe at the thought of an actor who was obviously Jewish playing the part. Casting a Greek actor gave him the out he was looking for.'' Allies of Malick strongly deny this, and all assert that the casting of Koteas inspired the change. ''We got a Greek guy to play the part and thought, 'Wouldn't it be better if the character were Greek?''' says Medavoy.

The character change was made so late that Koteas played Staros wearing uniforms with ''Stein'' stitched on the inside and imprinted on his dog tag. It left Koteas disoriented. ''It added to my angst, to my sense of not belonging, my sense of not knowing who I was and why am I here,'' he says. Koteas was scheduled to finish on Sept. 18, but when his work schedule was extended a month, he nearly snapped. ''I was freaked out,'' he recalls. ''I needed to go home.'' He was given a week's furlough. When he arrived in L.A., Koteas took his dog out of the kennel and drove to Santa Barbara. ''I rented a bungalow and sat there in shock staring at the ocean and hugging my dog,'' he says. ''When I had to go back, it was like going back to war.''

Malick shot for 100 days in Australia, 24 in the Solomon Islands, and 3 in the U.S. He finished on time and on budget. Even Caviezel, who was regarded as Malick's favorite, was worn down by the end. ''It seemed like it went on for a long time and all of a sudden it was over,'' he recalls. ''We were up on the hill eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches one day, dead tired from running up and down the hill all day, and [cinematographer] John Toll goes, 'Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.' I hadn't been so homesick in all my life.''

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