Dan Curtis, lunching at St. Germain in Hollywood, started suddenly as he fiddled with the control on his hearing aid. “When I turned it up, I think I got LAX (Los Angeles International Airport),” he apologized, hurriedly cranking it down.
The hearing aid represents a Purple Heart of sorts for Curtis: His hearing loss is a battle scar from 3-year service as producer, director and co-writer of the 1983 ABC miniseries “The Winds of War,” based on the Herman Wouk novel. “I always had a hearing problem, and some guy with a machine gun opened up very close to me and that was that,” Curtis growled. “That just put me over the top. I lost 15% of my hearing.”
If Curtis lost his hearing on “Winds of War,” he came close to losing his mind as executive producer of the sequel--"War and Remembrance,” a 32-hour, $104-million miniseries that is the biggest, longest, most expensive TV project in history. The first 18 hours of the World War II drama starts Sunday and will continue through Nov. 23. The second half will air next spring.
Once adamant in his unwillingness to undertake adapting the second novel to the small screen, Curtis wound up devoting 5 years of his life to “War and Remembrance,” which continues Wouk’s saga of Victor (Pug) Henry and his family. Writing the script took more than a year, location scouting took two years, and production required 21 months, with filming in 10 countries--including sub-zero winter sites in Poland and Montreal.
“Winds of War” ended with Pearl Harbor. “War and Remembrance” continues the story through 3 1/2 years of World War II--spanning the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Bulge and the Holocaust.
Barbara Steele, who was associate producer on “Winds of War” and producer of the sequel, describes “War and Remembrance” as “a very different show. This show is much darker, and has much more social responsibility,” she said. “I think this book is much more intense and gripping.”
Despite Curtis’ initial reluctance to get involved with the sequel following three years of making the 18-hour “Winds of War,” ABC was able to hook him by promising him a budget far above the ordinary for a TV miniseries and agreeing to give him free reign to depict the graphic horror of the Holocaust--including extreme violence and nudity.
“I told them to forget the rest of it--I didn’t know how I was going to do the Battle of Midway, I didn’t know how I was going to do submarine warfare and all of that stuff--but on the Holocaust,” Curtis recalled, “I cannot be censored. How can you worry about seeing frontal nudity when you’re talking about massacring 11 million people?”
Alfred Schneider, ABC’s vice president of standards and practices, said the network was more than willing to suspend its usual restrictions in the name of reality. The network will run parental advisories about the content prior to episodes that will begin before 8 p.m.
Schneider believes that since the violence escalates slowly during the episodes, audiences will be able to handle it.
“It is one thing to come into an area cold, but by that point you are prepared for it; it becomes digestible in a certain way,” Schneider said. “The mind can take it--it doesn’t look at it as exploitation or sensationalism. It’s documentation.”
That wasn’t the only tough pill for ABC to swallow. Curtis said that when the network purchased rights to the project from Paramount, which had decided not to make the sequel, the studio’s conservative estimate was that the miniseries would cost about $65 million and would run 20 hours. Once it had the rights and began wooing Curtis, he told network executives that a more accurate estimate was $100 million and 30 hours.
On top of that, Wouk’s unusual contract gave him the right to veto the advertising of certain products during “War and Remembrance,” including all personal care products, foods and promotions for ABC’s own programming.
ABC now says it could lose $20 million on the project.
Curtis recast several major roles in the sequel in most cases, he said, because the actors had aged too much to re-create their roles. Jane Seymour replaced Ali McGraw as Natalie Jastrow Henry; Sir John Gielgud replaced John Houseman as her elderly uncle, Aaron Jastrow; Hart Bochner took over from Jan-Michael Vincent as Natalie’s husband, Byron Henry.
Remaining from the original cast were Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry, as well as Victoria Tennant, Polly Bergen, David Dukes, Peter Graves, Chaim Topol, Jeremy Kemp and Ralph Bellamy.
Curtis’ major coup during his two years of location scouting was getting permission from the Polish government to film concentration camp sequences at the most infamous camp of them all--Auschwitz.
He described the difficult business of negotiating for that permission like “something from out of a spy movie"--unsmiling Polish officials on one side of the table, the American producers on the other, a bottle of vodka in the middle and the bitter winds of Poland’s winter pounding against the windows.
“If I had had one word (in the script) about Polish anti-Semitism (during the war), we never could have shot there,” Curtis said at a news conference last summer.
Once permission was secured, however, there was another problem--nuclear fallout from 1986’s Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster two weeks prior to planned filming at Auschwitz, where Byron Henry’s Jewish wife Natalie and her uncle are interned in the story.
Although scientific testing conducted by the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna deemed the area safe, cast and crew were given a choice as to whether they would go. Almost all agreed to go.
Then sub-zero temperatures resulted in cases of walking pneumonia for Curtis and star Jane Seymour.
Although Curtis hastens to assure viewers that “War and Remembrance” is not a Holocaust story, he says the chance to depict that part of the war realistically was both his biggest headache and his greatest triumph. He acknowledges that the Holocaust has been shown both through documentaries, such as the feature film “Shoah,” and in fictional treatments that include the 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” but he believes “War and Remembrance” breaks new ground.
“Documentaries are different--they show you the aftermath,” Curtis said. “The bulldozers and the mountains of corpses--sure, it makes you want to throw up. But it’s different; it’s not the same. This is what’s happening--this is the way it happened.
“No one has ever shown it, no one has attempted to put it on film. It’s all fact; I didn’t make up one thing. When we show a horror, it happened. And people will say, ‘My God, this is what happened, and this is what’s always lying out there waiting to happen if we let it’ .”