Cover Story

Aboard the Superstar Subs

Inside the ''Red October'' submarine -- The lowdown on the new thriller's high-tech look: Is this what the interior of a real sub looks like?

Capt. Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) presides over the Red October, a new top-secret Soviet sub that runs fast, silent, and deep, carrying a payload of missiles that could wipe out a dozen cities in a flash. Ramius' domain is the dark-hued control room, where large consoles are alive with dozens of dials, gauges, luminous screens, and scopes glowing green, yellow, and soft white.

Nearby in the icy depths lurks the Dallas, an American attack submarine. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) and Capt. Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) look over a sonar operator's shoulder at a bank of computer screens, trying to pinpoint the Red October's exact location.

Miles away, another Soviet sub — a more compact attack vessel — races across the North Atlantic toward them, and the cat-and-mouse drama begins in The Hunt for Red October, the big-budget thriller that opens this week.

Much of the drama unfolds aboard these three subs, and their interiors look great — clean, sleek, ultra high-tech. But after you see the movie, the question arises: Are they real? Is this what the inside of a state-of-the-art nuclear sub actually looks like? Well — yes and no.

Getting the right look and feel for Red October required the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. And luckily for the filmmakers, the military's recent experience with Hollywood eased the way. ''Top Gun did well as a recruitment tool (for pilots),'' says James H. Patton Jr., a retired Navy sub commander who consulted on Red October. ''But it probably hurt the submarine force (because) we compete for the same kids.''

The Navy wanted a promotion vehicle to call its own, notes Capt. Michael T. Sherman, director of the Navy Office of Information West. ''The problem with submarines, though, is that when the public sees them, they are tied to a pier. We do a good job at sea, but we can't take the public out there.''

But the Navy could take the film's production team out to sea, and they did. Production designer Terence Marsh, art director Dianne Wager, and set director Mickey S. Michaels, along with other production crew and cast members, climbed on board during scheduled sub maneuvers to get a feel for the real thing.

One look around two U.S. subs — a Los Angeles class (like the Dallas) and a larger Ohio class — was enough to convince Marsh that some alterations were going to be necessary for Red October. It turns out that the inside of a modern sub looks more like something out of a World War II picture — cluttered, greasy, designed more for action and access than for show.

''It didn't look 1980s high-tech,'' says Marsh. ''And what looks right to the audience is right, we always say. And if it doesn't look right to the audience, it isn't right.''

So, a few changes were made. Working from military research books, defense- industry manuals, and pictures that the Navy let them take after covering the top-secret stuff, like speed gauges and depth gauges, Marsh's production team took the basic elements of a real sub's control room, rearranged them, and dressed them up for the movie. ''It got a much slicker look,'' he says.

In one case, the Navy's own sense of drama helped. A real sub's control room — ''the con'' — is bathed in a red light to focus the crew's attention on the tasks at hand. Elements of that lighting scheme were used in the film.

Creating the look of the Red October and the other Soviet sub, the Konovalov, called for a bit of guesswork. ''We had no basic invitations to visit the Russians, but we had references,'' Marsh says. ''We knew we couldn't be far wrong if we based our design on common knowledge, then added our own touches of 'Evil Empire,''' like an ominous black-and-chrome color scheme.

The final result is striking. The ships' interiors definitely look like super-subs should. One report has it that a member of the Navy brass took a tour of the set, realized that some elements looked too accurate, and immediately reported the entire production crew to the FBI — apparently unaware that the military had been cooperating all along. The Navy declines to comment on the matter.

Not surprisingly, the film's sub consultants don't have much to say about the accuracy of the film's look in general. When pressed, Patton cites the military community's code regarding U.S. nuclear capabilities: ''Don't confirm. Don't deny. Do not attest to validity.''

OK, what about the sub chase scenes? Are they realistic? ''I can't tell you how deep subs go,'' Sherman says. ''That's classified. The official Navy position is 'in excess of 400 feet.' So when (the movie sub) goes down 1,200 feet, that's Hollywood. But it is credible.''

One thing that's definitely not credible is the Red October's periscope. In order to differentiate between the ''cons'' of the U.S. and Soviet subs, the production team wanted a recessed area for the Soviet ship's periscope. ''I advised them that technically this was unlikely,'' says Patton, because the sub would have to go into shallower water to up periscope. ''They listened, but they went ahead anyway because they wanted this visual effect.''

But wait a minute. How can these U.S. Navy guys be sure that this isn't what the inside of a Russian sub looks like? How do they know? Have they ever seen one? ''I have no knowledge of the inside of a Russian sub,'' says Sherman. ''I have no knowledge of the inside of a Russian sub,'' says Patton.

Originally posted Mar 02, 1990 Published in issue #3 Mar 02, 1990 Order article reprints