COVER STORY : Hollywood's Big-Bang Theorist : On the set of 'Demolition Man' with producer Joel Silver as he pushes his Whammo Chart to the max with Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and a whole lot of mayhem. So, when is too much enough?

Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Even the walkie-talkies, which sing all day like canaries in a coal mine, have fallen silent.

It is a rare, quiet moment on the futuristic set of "Demolition Man," the Warner Bros. action film that has been shooting forever--well, since Feb. 8--here on the Burbank back lot.

All the expensive smoke machines and fancy lighting rigs have been shut down. The crew is off to lunch.

It is time to decide how to stage a climactic fight scene between the film's 21st-Century adversaries: Sgt. John Spartan, played by Sylvester Stallone, and his psychotic criminal nemesis, Simon Phoenix, played by Wesley Snipes.

Standing with "Demolition Man's" rookie director Marco Brambilla, veteran stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni Sr. and producer Joel Silver, the two film stars watch as their stunt doubles rehearse the fight: flipping over huge barrels, smashing into walls, leveling each other with upper-cuts and roundhouse rights.

Everybody seems to like the fight--except Stallone. Shaking his head, he circles behind the stuntmen, retracing their route, like a golfer walking the course before a big tournament.

"This is all pretty good," he says diplomatically. "But the hand motion gets a little too frenetic. I know something about pacing. (My character) comes in for the kill too soon. We're not building enough momentum."

Brambilla shrugs. "We can tone it down," he says. "Don't you think it has a nice feel to it?"

But Stallone is already blocking out a new version of the fight. He bounds across the set, bobbing and weaving, pantomiming a flurry of punches, the Hermes Pan of fight-to-the-death choreography.

"Pow! Pow! Pow!" he grunts, delivering savage blows to an imaginary adversary. "We should have such a flurry of punches that we actually look tired of hitting each other. We need things we haven't seen before. I'd like a different geometric angle. Something bizarre."

He turns to Snipes. "Like you jumping on top of me, coming right down on my throat, going for the coup de grace. "

"That's good, Sly," says Silver, who's been nervously checking his watch. "But we aren't that far into the fight yet. I'd rather hold that idea till the very end."

The brainstorming session continues with Brambilla standing on the sidelines, deferring to the real powers on the set--Stallone and Silver. After three stints as "Rambo," five as "Rocky" and a high-wire act in "Cliffhanger," Stallone, at 46, could be the world's longest-running action hero.

But if anyone can match Sly dollar for dollar at the box-office, it's Silver, who has produced the hit "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard" and "Predator" action franchises.

They are the Twin Towers of action movies, working together for the first time. With Stallone coming off some box-office duds ("Oscar," "Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot") and Silver still bruised from the mega-flop "Hudson Hawk," both men may have needed a little psychological reassurance. Embarking on a $45-million movie, perhaps it was time to share the high-rolling risk with a heavyweight partner.

Seeing them on the set, Stallone's rippling muscles encased in a tiny tank top, Silver's couch-potato girth hidden under baggy pajama-style shirts and slacks, they even look like the classic Hollywood buddy movie team--Sly supplies the brawn, Silver brings the big mouth.

On the set, the fight rehearsal continues. With their doubles watching, Stallone and Snipes try out a new move, where Snipes slashes at Stallone's arm with a knife. Sly roars like a wounded lion, leaping forward, rocking his adversary with a furious punch to the jaw.

Stallone flicks his arm, as if casually brushing away a huge glob of blood. Then he squares off with Snipes.

You know it's time for the special moment that defines Hollywood Tough Guy cinema--the action hero's epiphany--when a man can voice the depth of his rage in only one way: with a wisecrack.

Nowhere to be found in the script, the line sounds so right that you wonder if Sly has just thought it up himself.

"OK," he says with a menacing scowl. "Now I'm pissed. "

Asked how long "Demolition Man" has been behind schedule, a crew hand says with a laugh: "Only since the first week of shooting." The film's budget was originally set at about $45 million but has climbed steadily as shooting continues.

Initially scheduled as a 72-day production, the film passed its 110th shooting day last Wednesday, with shooting slated to conclude on Friday. Three days into filming, the film's female lead, Lori Petty, was replaced by Sandra Bullock. Stallone also missed nine days with a pinched vein in his shoulder.

By mid-July, the film had gone through five assistant directors and innumerable crew members, many whom left because of prior commitments to other films.

"Hiring five assistant directors has got to be a record," said one crew hand. "There's probably only a dozen original crew left (from a main crew of 160). Joel and Marco don't even know anyone's name any more. They just yell out, 'Grip! Gaffer!' "

In late June, Warner Bros. dispatched studio executive Bob Anderson to serve as a "watchdog," with orders to ride herd on Silver's expenditures (a move Silver claims Warners made at his request, so the studio would be better informed about the film's progress).

According to Warners' insiders and crew hands, the film's delays are largely attributable to Silver's hiring of a director with no feature-film experience. "Marco has a great future ahead of him," said one crew member. "But asking him to direct a huge action film is like teaching someone to drive and entering them into the Indy 500 the next day."

Silver stoutly defends Brambilla, saying "Marco's done a brilliant job. We're over-schedule because this is a very hard movie to make, not because Marco is inexperienced."

Despite the delays, Silver insists he enjoys the total support of the studio top brass, a claim confirmed by Warners' insiders, who point to Silver's close friendship with studio President Terry Semel. (Semel threw a 41st birthday party for Silver in mid-July after Silver produced a lavish film celebrating Semel's 50th birthday earlier in the year.)

"If this were Disney, who knows what kind of punitive measures would've happened by now," says one Warners' insider. "Nobody's happy that Joel has spent so much money, but at this studio he's considered family. He understands action pictures so well that you have to give him a lot of leeway."

Warners' sources estimate the film's budget at anywhere from $60 million to $70 million. Silver says those figures are inflated, predicting the picture, which is due out this October, will come in at "about $56 or $57 million."

To see where the money went, just duck into historic Stage 16. Inspecting the immense sound stage, you feel like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Home to such movies as "Camelot," it towers above all the other stages on the Burbank lot, a skyscraper among townhouses.

The film's showpiece set is an enormous three-story Cryo Jail, circa 2032 A.D., a gleaming circular structure stocked with criminals frozen in huge hockey puck-shaped glass cells that are embedded in the ceiling of each floor.

Director Brambilla, who landed the film after making a series of striking Nike and Pepsi TV commercials for Ridley Scott's commercial company, describes the set this way: "Imagine the Guggenheim Museum as a maximum-security prison."

Of course, what really counts in for "Demolition Man's" target audience of heavy-lidded 17-year-old head-bangers isn't set decor but testosterone-pulsing action.

According to stunt coordinator Picerni, the film's enticements include a futuristic car flying through a 30-foot-high plate-glass window and plunging 100 feet into a lake.

Not to mention a stunt where the film's hero takes a 250-foot bungee-jump-style fall out of a roaring Chinook helicopter, bounding within 10 feet of the ground.

"That's a first," Picerni says proudly. "We've done that off of buildings before, but never out of a helicopter."

To hear Joel Silver talk, you'd think he was some tweedy preservationist, rhapsodizing about a striking urban landmark, downtown Los Angeles' original Department of Water and Power building.

"It was quite a spectacular building," he say, buzzing across the Burbank lot in his golf cart. "It's a big masonry structure, built in 1928. All the bathrooms were marble."

Owner of two historic Frank Lloyd Wright homes, Silver would've been just the guy to restore the building to its former grandeur. But "Demolition Man" needed a spectacular opening sequence, so Silver did to the DWP building what he does best.

He blew it up.

"If an explosion can be artistic, ours was," Silver explains. "We designed the blast so that we'd have a crater in the center of the building, but the sides would still be standing, which gave it a very theatrical effect."

This was a much-improved arrangement over Silver's last movie blast, where he was allowed to film the destruction of Orlando's aged City Hall building for a scene in "Lethal Weapon 3," but only after haggling with the city fathers, who retained control over the demolition process.

"I told them we had to have an exclusive," he recalls. "I didn't want the same blast showing up on two TV movies and three HBO films."

Word gets around. When Steve Wynn first made plans to demolish Las Vegas' aging Dunes Hotel (scheduled for this October), he didn't call a wrecking crew. He called Silver.

Dubbed the Selznick of Schlock by Premiere magazine, the 41- year-old producer is a throwback to the mercurial studio moguls of Old Hollywood, full of bluster, manipulative zeal and a love for movies--good ones, obscure ones, even awful ones.

Sometimes loud and abrasive, sometimes engaging and even disarming, Silver is always refreshingly blunt. When a reporter first arrives on his set, Silver immediately gets down to business.

"You're not going to (expletive) me again, are you?" he says, recalling a past journalistic slight. "You don't like my movies and I don't like you. So we'll get along fine."

Silver doesn't get along fine with many top studio executives, who often complain (though always off the record) about his bullying, confrontational style. His mercurial relations with film directors can best be described by their choice of gifts.

Richard Donner, who as directed Silver's "Lethal Weapon" series, gave the producer a customized pinball machine as a Christmas present in 1991. However, when Tony Scott, who directed "The Last Boy Scout" for Silver, heard that Marco Brambilla was working for the producer on "Demolition Man," he sent the director a toy gun with a note saying "You'll understand later."

Silver is a human steamroller, always on the offensive. Over lunch in the Warners executive commissary, he buttonholes Mel Gibson, woos a director he wants for an upcoming project and corners the studio's advertising chief, needling him like a basketball coach working a referee.

Heading back to the set, a staffer tells him she has spotted Warren Beatty, who is making a new film. Silver immediately races to a nearby sound stage, driving his golf cart up the ramp and inside. "Beatty! Beatty!" he bellows. "Where are you?"

Silver always communicates at a high decibel level. "Joel screams at me, I scream at him," says Stuart Baird, a noted film editor who has done six films with Silver. "He's never been unpleasant. It's just his personality. He's a showman."

How much confidence does Warner Bros. have in Silver's showman instincts? When he first saw an early "Demolition Man" script, the film was hopelessly entangled in litigation between its original screenwriter, Peter Lenkov, two other script hands and a producer who claimed Lenkov had been employed by her.

Once Silver came on board, Warners gave the warring factions two weeks to settle their differences and disappear in return for money and possible credits. Nearly six years and four additional screenwriters later, after a brief stay in Steven Seagal's stable of projects, the film finally went before the cameras.

(Lenkov now shares a "story by" credit with Robert Reneau and screenplay with Reneau and Daniel Waters.)

"No one but Joel could've done this movie," says Baird. "It's like hiring a housing contractor. Do you want the person who'll do the work cheaply or the one who'll do it right?"

Explosions and car wrecks and Guggenheim-style prison decor don't come cheap. In fact, Silver says action movie costs have, well, exploded.

"When we made 'The Last Boy Scout,' we used a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles that cost $500 a day," Silver says. "We used the same parking lot on this film--and it cost $5,000 a day!"

Exasperated by so many queries about his budget difficulties, Silver launches into a lively dissertation on the complications that send action-movie budgets soaring.

"Look, the rule of thumb when you're making a movie is that you're supposed to shoot two pages of script a day," he says patiently, as if explaining a simple geometry formula. "If you do less than two pages, you're not going fast enough.

"But in an action movie, we have one line--one-eighth of a script page--that says: 'Phoenix and Spartan fight to the death as the Cryo Prison slowly freezes.' But when you're making a complicated hardware movie like this, with all the steam and smoke and nitrogen gas and Sly hanging from a claw that's supposed to swing him through the air, that one-eighth of a page can take you two weeks."

Silver observes that filmmakers weren't always subject to such microscopic media scrutiny. "In the middle of 'The Wizard of Oz,' Buddy Ebsen ended up with a skin problem from the makeup he wore as the Tin Man and they had to bring in Jack Haley," he recounts. "There was no People magazine in 1939 saying, 'Ebsen Out With Skin Malady. Replaced by Haley.'

"Nobody knew then. It's Hollywood lore. But today, it would be a half-hour special on 'Entertainment Tonight.' "

Silver is warming to his topic now. "We might as well have a press office at each film studio, just like they do at the White House. They could have ticker-tape machines and computers and the press secretary would come in and take questions."

Silver imitates a scrum of reporters, wrestling for position, shouting rapid-fire questions: "Who did (Warners' CEO Robert) Daley and Semel meet with today? . . . What was that meeting about? . . . Where's Semel going after lunch? . . . What about that movie on Stage 17? . . . How much did that set cost?"

But back to those "Demolition Man" budget overruns.

"I wish you people wouldn't judge the film until after you've seen the finished movie," Silver says, shifting effortlessly into his salesman mode. "Terry Semel just left me moments ago after having seen the trailer. He was beaming he was so happy."

If "Demolition Man" turns out to be a huge hit, as Silver confidently predicts, he knows its budgetary excesses will be forgotten. In fact, the producer boasts that "Demolition Man" isn't even the most expensive film he's made. Not even close.

"Other movies I've made have cost lots more," Silver says, lowering his voice to a soothing purr.

" 'Die Hard 2' was in another league. It was a lot higher than this."

Dressed all in black, Sylvester Stallone puffs away as his makeup man touches up a jagged ribbon of movie blood running down his right cheek.

Joking with the crew, he borrows a Q-Tip and uses it as a make-shift microphone, belting out a chorus of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."

Sly seems surprisingly cheery for someone who has spent all morning wedged in the grip of a giant hydraulic claw, dangling 30 feet above a sizzling vat of Cryo Jail defrosting fluid. Strapped into a protective harness, he's been bashed into walls and railings, all the while ducking machine-gun fire from his arch-rival.

After Stallone is lowered to the ground, he guides a visitor back to his trailer, a towel slung around his neck, eager to expand on the topic of how hard it is to make action movies.

"This stuff is often dismissed as frolicking among men, like it's just one big recess period," he says, kneading a bruised right wrist. "But look at me. When I went home last night, my ribs were Technicolor. I had to do acupuncture and ultrasound until midnight."

If Sly sounds unusually philosophical these days, perhaps it's his current reading material. He points to a stack of books, which are topped off by Stephen Hawkings' "A Brief History of Time" and Bill Moyers' "A World of Ideas."

Studying Moyers' encounters with various wise men has given Stallone pause. He's begun to brood that "Demolition Man" isn't--dare we say it--as sensitive as it could be.

"I'm trying to convince Joel that we should sprinkle this film with a little more femininity," Sly explains. "I hope we have a moment at the end of the movie--a somber moment--to show why Wesley and I are at each other's throats."

Sly stares pensively out the window. "I'd like to show the bond between the hunter and his prey," he says. "The ying and the yang. It's something you don't see in these pictures--that we have a bit of heaven and hell in each of us."

Heaven and hell will have to wait. Today, five takes into another Cryo Jail fight scene, Brambilla is trying to get Stallone revved up an extra notch. "Act angry, " the director says encouragingly. "Really angry now."

Nearby, stunt coordinator Picerni is nodding his head approvingly. "That's real action directing," he says. "Renny Harlin was always telling Bruce Willis the same thing on 'Die Hard 2.'

"Finally, one day Bruce complained, 'Why am I so damn angry?' And Renny told him, in his Finnish accent, 'Because you are pissed off.' "

Having studied under the tutelage of veteran producer (and ex-partner) Lawrence Gordon, Silver has actually designed a blueprint-style action formula, as if he were constructing an amusement park ride.

Hence Silver's Whammo Chart, which proposes that every 10 minutes, there should be an action "beat." (Simple translation: a huge explosion.) "It gives the movies some zip," Silver says.

Baird, who has been editing "Demolition Man" as the film continues to shoot, says the true craft of action cinema isn't just the staging of a big explosion or chase scene, but the way a film builds up to a climax.

"The more anticipation you create in the audience, the more you can raise the level of tension, building layer after layer," he explains, sitting in his inky editing lair, surrounded by reels of footage. "If you don't let it build long enough, you don't get a big enough release. But if you wait too long, you exhaust the audience."

Baird casually snaps his fingers. "When you release the tension at the right moment, the audience goes, ' yeeehhhhhh! ' They actually shout in the theater."

Baird grins. "Joel calls it the Cheer Factor."

Sly Stallone is trying to think of the right word to describe his producer. "Joel gets excited about everything," he says. "He's like . . . a child. But a brilliant child."

For years, the two have kept their distance while Silver toiled with lesser mortals, first making a star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, now Stallone's arch-rival, then beefing up the career of Bruce Willis.

Stallone laughs. "One day I punched Joel in the arm and he said, 'Hey! Never do that again. This is a Jewish arm. This is not meant for punching. It's meant for thinking. ' "

Every "Demolition Man" crew member has a Silver story. According to one popular tale, a production assistant answered the phone one day. There was so much static on the line that she couldn't make out who was calling. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can't hear you. Who is this?"

The person on the other end screamed: "It's me, you (expletive) moron!" Without hesitation, the assistant turned to her boss and said, "It's Joel."

Despite his excesses, Silver is respected by most crew hands.

"Joel knows how to make a movie, inside and out," says Tim Cooney, the film's sound mixer. "He could come into a dubbing studio, kick us out and do it himself. If there's a problem, he knows how to solve it. All he wants is that you do your job as well as he does his."

Silver vividly recalls the visceral kick he got as a boy, sitting transfixed in a huge darkened theater, watching brawny thrillers like "The Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen." It wounds him that his updated versions of these male-bonding epics get no respect.

"It's part of the politically correct world of the media that you need to have a reason for everything," Silver says. "Just to be entertaining isn't enough. It's considered bad to make movies which are just meant to be commercial and entertaining.

"Look at 'Jurassic Park.' It's an entertaining adventure movie for everybody."

He quivers with sarcasm. "How horrible ! What a horrible concept, to make an entertaining movie! And Steven Spielberg has to follow it up with 'Schindler's List,' because even someone as talented as him feels pangs of guilt for making a movie that's so commercial!"

The voluble producer falls silent. He has a fiendish plan--call it an elaborate revenge fantasy--that neatly draws on both his encyclopedic love for film and his disgust for the snarling pack of politically correct media wolves.

"Somebody should take all those (expletive) journalists, put toothpicks in their eyes like they did in 'Clockwork Orange' and make them watch Preston Sturges' 'Sullivan's Travels,' " he says. "Here's a movie about a guy who wants to make (socially conscious) films like 'The Forgotten Man' and 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.' But when he goes out into the world and really lives a life, he realizes there's a lot to say about entertaining people.

"Maybe he should make them laugh. Maybe he should make (silly comedies like) 'Hay Hay in the Hayloft' and 'Ants in Your Pants 1939.' " He realized there was nothing wrong with entertaining people.

Silver finally explodes. "I mean, that's what we're here for!"

As Silver heads back to his huge film set, you are reminded of the way Baird compares the producer to a World War II general, a Patton or a Montgomery, leading men into battle: Nobody worried how much the war cost, only if it was won.

And if you view moviemaking as a series of battles, the crew as your infantry, the stars as your heavy artillery, then you begin to understand why action movies seem so much bigger than life here on the studio lot, where producers rush to the front, a golf cart as their Jeep, rallying the troops, throwing caution to the wind, spending more money on a two-hour celluloid Thrill Ride than it cost Ulysses S. Grant to fight the Civil War.

Today the action is on the Cryo Jail set, where we find Silver, his khaki cotton suit looking like baggy army fatigues, barking orders, making instant decisions as he goes.

"You know, the only way we could build a set like this was by getting everything out of it," Silver explains proudly, stopping to admire its sleek, futuristic design. "We establish it all the way through the film so it really pays off at the end."

He points at the prison walls, arching skyward. "Now we get to do the fun part. We get to destroy it."

It's hard to imagine Silver looking any happier.

"There's no reason to build a set like this," he says, "if you're not going to tear it apart."

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