For the second time, and against his own promise to himself, Dan Curtis is undertaking the single largest film project ever.
The first was "The Winds of War," the 18-hour ABC miniseries that aired in February, 1983, after 13 months of shooting, a year of post-production and a million feet of exposed film.
The second is "War and Remembrance," novelist Herman Wouk's sequel to "Winds," on which Curtis once again will serve as producer and director. This one will probably run 20 hours or more, with a budget perhaps 1 1/2 times the $40-million price tag on "Winds." So complicated and massive a project is "War and Remembrance" that it will not likely air until fall of 1988--and it already has been in pre-production for 10 months.
"When we finished the last one, I said I wouldn't do it again . . . for many reasons," Curtis said the other day. "One was, I had already done this thing I set out to do that everybody thought was undoable. I had done it, and I just didn't want to go back and do it again.
"As tough as that was--and believe me, it was tough--this is at least twice as tough and--more than that--far more complicated, far bigger, sequences far more difficult to do. Massive. Makes the other one look like a Mickey Mouse cartoon."
Curtis, 57, revels in the size of it all. A thick-necked, powerful-looking man who proclaims himself a "frustrated soldier of fortune," he clearly loves describing the heft of "Winds of War's" 975-page script and how it had to be carried "in a huge case, over your shoulder, so that it hurt." The script for "War and Remembrance," on which he, Wouk and Earl W. Wallace are collaborating, will be even heftier, an estimated 1,500 pages or so.
After "Winds," and until he agreed to do the sequel, everything else shriveled by contrast. Normal 120-page screenplays looked like scratch pads.
"I'd get a script, I'd look at something this thick"--he held his thumb and forefinger so they were almost touching--"I'd throw it on the table and I'd say, 'Fine, I'll direct it from my house!' That's not even a scene for me.
"On top of it, they didn't have the re-creating of the historical sequences," Curtis said. "The battleships cruising up alongside; Churchill meeting Roosevelt. Great stuff!"
"War and Remembrance" presented a challenge not even "Winds of War" had offered: "This, this , is everything," Curtis said. "It picks up at Pearl Harbor and goes all the way through World War II. The other one is just a prologue. 'The Winds of War' is half a story. Natalie's trying to get out of Italy, Pug is ready to go to the war. Everybody has their leg in mid-air and it's over."
But it was neither the challenge nor the prospect of completing the story that convinced Curtis to take on "War and Remembrance." It wasn't even the money. There was more. Curtis became quieter but somehow more intense: "This is in the novel, and will be in the film, the only true representation of the Holocaust that will ever be done or has ever been done."
He is deadly serious about this. "The Holocaust," "Playing for Time," "Sophie's Choice"--all fall short, he says, of telling the story of the Nazis' mass extermination of millions of people, mostly Jews, the way "War and Remembrance" will tell it.
"All you ever see that has any authenticity to it are the documentaries that are dealing with after the Holocaust, when the bulldozers come in and they push the bodies and all the rest of it. But no one in terms of a dramatization has touched it. Most of the things I've seen are not believable, a lot of it seems staged. 'Playing for Time' was not bad, but it's a limited area. Mine goes way beyond the requirements of 'Playing for Time.' "
None of the other Holocaust films--documentary or otherwise--captures a quality Curtis credits Wouk with giving the reader in "War and Remembrance": "The ongoing, day-to-day horror, the utter fear that your life could be taken in an instant. No one has ever really done that, and no one has ever told you how it was done, about the people who did it, what they were like.
"For instance, he (Wouk) describes how one of our main characters is walking from the latrine and he passes a kapo (an inmate, typically a political prisoner, delegated for guard and enforcement duty by the SS) and he talks about how terrifying these kapos are, because at the slightest whim, they can kill you. They can take a club and smash your head in--and no one will do anything about it.
"It's this thing that goes on in the novel that established in your mind the ongoing terror, the incredible brutality."
Adapting the novel for the screen, he said, "is almost like making a horror movie. Once you establish in the mind of your viewer the horror, the unrelenting terrifying horror, then every time you mention the word Auschwitz you're going to feel it, you're going to feel the hackles go up on your back. And since this is what our people are heading for, Natalie and her uncle, that is the horror that hangs over the horizon."
The magnitude of the project becomes apparent as Curtis talks about "War and Remembrance's" "dual story." The continuing thread is the personal tale of Victor (Pug) Henry, who becomes a rear admiral and naval aide to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman; his son Byron, a submarine commander, and Natalie, Byron's Jewish wife, who, along with her uncle Aaron Jastrow and her young son, Louis, is imprisoned in a German concentration camp. But the broader story, the Holocaust, as Curtis describes it, is what lends "War and Remembrance" import beyond that of its predecessor.
Curtis said he is determined not to pull any punches. "For instance, we take it from the point where the Germans decided to build Auschwitz/Birkenau"--the largest of the extermination facilities, located in German-occupied Poland. "You come to learn that the biggest problem they had was in disposal, and how they didn't have facilities big enough to do it, and how they then decided to build the crematoriums, the big shiny new fancy crematoriums.
"We take you there on the day they tested Crematorium 2. And we have the actual names of the German industrialists, civilian, in their wonderful fedoras and their terrific shoes, working side by side with these prisoners, and we lay facts on you that you would not even believe."
Curtis, who created the vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows" and directed the movie "Burnt Offerings," glared at the suggestion he might be exploiting the horror value of the Holocaust for the sake of ratings.
"I'll tell you something, I could do 'War and Remembrance' without this and just do the Pug Henry story and do Natalie without ever getting involved in it (the Holocaust), make up something, and it would get a 55 share. I'm not worried about whether this is going to get us an audience. I know we're going to get an audience no matter what we do. The world is waiting to see the sequel. They don't know it involves the Holocaust.
"It has nothing to do with the ratings. It has to do with a story that should be told. Maybe because I'm a Jew, but I think because I'm a human being."
He refers to the retelling of the Holocaust, as written by Wouk, as a mission, without which "I couldn't put myself through four to five more years of this."
Curtis' production team is augmenting Wouk's extensive research with some digging of its own. The Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in West Los Angeles has opened its files for Curtis. The team has already toured Auschwitz, which is maintained by the Polish government as a museum. Paintings of the atrocities, done by liberated inmates after the war,were photographed and now hang in one of ABC Circle Films' Century City offices, where theyserve as examples of the emotional impact that "War and Remembrance" will attempt to create.
And Curtis is negotiating with the Polish government to shoot Holocaust scenes at Auschwitz, something which no major dramatic production has done.
"It may not be advisable to shoot there," Curtis said. "I'm going to have to make that decision. It could endanger this picture unless we get certain guarantees. Like what? Like tomorrow we're supposed to have 3,000 extras show up and they're not there. These are the kind of problems we could run into."
Some of those problems will be addressed in the course of a two-month pre-production trip that will take Curtis through Europe and Scandinavia. He leaves on Monday.
Simultaneously, the production team is working on "the unknown factor here, the really difficult concept beyond the concentration camp: How do I do the gigantic naval battles? The miniature work is mind-boggling."
Fans of "Winds of War," however, are probably less interested in sinking ships than they are in who will play the leading characters. One criticism of "Winds of War" was that Robert Mitchum as Pug and Ali MacGraw as Natalie were too old for their roles when the miniseries was shot three years ago. Even if they wanted to return to the sequel, would they be right for the roles?
"That's one of the problems," Curtis said. "There's no doubt about the fact that in reality they were too old." But he added that he "was very, very happy with all of them" and that the show's status as the third-highest-rated miniseries ever (after "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds") indicated that "so was the audience."
Though Curtis said he "would love to be able to go with the same cast," he believes that viewers would accept new faces in the old roles "as long as the actors are good. I remember when I did 'Dark Shadows,' we'd replace actors in one day, and if they were terrific the audience took about 15 minutes to adjust."
Right now, he said, "we have had no conversations with anybody." The major roles will be cast when he returns from Europe in March. Soon after that, the script will be completed and the budget set, with start of production targeted for next fall.
Dan Curtis, for one, is looking forward to it. "I love shooting. I only like it when the bombs are going off and the planes are coming over the horizon and there's 10,000 troops. . . ."