Armed only with a flashlight, director Mick Jackson leads his “Volcano” camera crew into the inky depths of a 100-foot-long tube that’s dressed up like a Los Angeles storm drain. His flashlight beam bounces off walls coated with blackened gunk, playing on motor oil cans scattered on the floor and a thicket of stalactite-like roots.
“The heat is increasing, the infrared sensor is going crazy and the shaking is getting worse,” Jackson says, describing to his crew how he envisions a scene in which the film’s rugged emergency management expert, played by the equally rugged Tommy Lee Jones, explores a pipeline damaged by a mysterious heat explosion.
The British-born director, best known for the films “L.A. Story” and “The Bodyguard,” aims the light down the tunnel, just one of the many underground L.A. props--including a 376-foot-long Metro Rail subway tunnel--that have been constructed at a warehouse in the city of Commerce.
“There should be some dead rats there, rats that have been charred from the heat,” he says. “And here’s where we see a fissure in the wall. When it starts to explode, steam fills the tunnel, spreading yellow vapor everywhere.”
When Jackson finishes sketching out the scene, he heads back toward the mouth of the tunnel. “We could get a close-up of a dead rat, with a sign on it saying, ‘Fox executive,’ ” a crew member slyly suggests. “Or wouldn’t that play well?”
Jackson laughs. “That plays well with me.”
Don’t worry--he’s only joking. Jackson isn’t upset with 20th Century Fox, the studio financing “Volcano.” He doesn’t have time to be upset. Barely a month into a grueling 80-days-plus shooting schedule that runs through October, Jackson is in the midst of a high-stakes Hollywood horse race, with his volcano film going up against “Dante’s Peak,” the rival volcano movie from Universal Pictures. “Volcano’s” advantage, according to its makers, is its enticing (if farfetched) hook: Volcano Destroys City You Love to Hate.
“When you mention the premise of the film--lava engulfing Los Angeles--everyone gets very excited,” says Jackson, who fell in love with the city while making “L.A. Story” (1991). “They all have their favorite targets: Creative Artists, L’Orangerie. Everyone’s looking for someone to get their comeuppance.”
The L.A. setting offers plenty of local color: bone-rattling earthquakes, lava bombs pelting the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Metro Rail trains melting on the tracks.
And of course, there will be lava everywhere, first oozing out of the La Brea tar pits, then flowing down Wilshire Boulevard to the edge of the Beverly Center. (There’s no lava on the set--it’s a digital effect added during post-production.)
Despite its title, the filmmakers insist that “Volcano” is more than just a volcano movie. “It’s really about the chaos of Los Angeles,” Jackson says. “We have earthquakes and mudslides and fires. This city really shouldn’t be here--it’s built in a silly place, right by a fault line.”
The film’s script, written by Jerome D. Armstrong, with a rewrite by Billy Ray and Barbara Benedek, depicts many of the city’s ethnic divisions, showing tensions between the affluent West Side and the ethnic East Side as well as turf battles among city agencies.
“It’s the great thing about this movie--you can never exaggerate too much about Los Angeles,” Jackson says. “You should have seen us when we went out on our location scouts, 30 of us tumbling out of a huge van, everyone with a cell phone glued to their ear.”
Jackson takes out a note pad and scribbles down a reminder. “A new image for the movie,” he says brightly. “Molten lava oozing over a cell phone.”
Last fall Hollywood got Volcano Fever. Armstrong had just finished a draft of his “Volcano” script when he and producer Neil Moritz began hearing about rival volcano projects. Moritz rushed copies of the script out to several studios on a Wednesday. By Friday, he had an offer from Fox 2000.
The presence of rival projects helped speed the sale. “So much of this town is based on hype that when you’ve got it, you take advantage of it,” says Moritz, who’s producing “Volcano” with Andy Davis. “People want to buy things when they know other people want them too.”
Budgeted at close to $70 million, “Volcano” was designed--much like “Independence Day"--as a film where the concept itself would be the draw. But when Jones expressed interest, the studio signed up the actor as box-office insurance at a $9-million salary. As further insurance, Fox brought in executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who has overseen several effects-laden pictures, including “Free Willy” and “Ladyhawke.”
With Fox expecting to see a cut of the film by January, the filmmakers are under constant pressure to stay on schedule--they’ve even hired Chris Menault, best known for directing the British TV series “Prime Suspect,” to film both second-unit action scenes and additional dramatic footage in a style that will match Jackson’s.
“I think it would be nice to be first,” Donner says. “But what really counts is that our story is so original. When there’s more than one story out there, the movie that usually wins is the one that’s best.”
Donner says she was so busy filming she didn’t even see Variety the day that Universal ran a full-page ad announcing it had moved up the release of its film. Noticing a disbelieving look on her visitor’s face, she starts to laugh--"OK, maybe I read the trades in the afternoon.”
With the first days of shooting approaching, the filmmaker still hadn’t entirely solved a fundamental script puzzle: If L.A were to be saved, where would the lava go? One possible idea--dousing the inferno with water diverted from the Hollywood Reservoir--seemed unnecessarily complicated. One morning a solution presented itself. The Times’ Metro section ran a story about the construction of a trench that will funnel winter-storm rainwater down Crescent Heights Boulevard to the Ballona Creek.
“We all came in that morning saying, ‘Oh my God, what a perfect way to get the lava to the sea,’ ” Davis recalls.
The film’s Metro Rail scenes also take advantage of topical concerns. Even if it seems farfetched to imagine a lava geyser at the corner of 3rd and San Vicente, it’s hardly a stretch to envision yourself trapped in a subway car, being scared witless by a quake.
For that scene, Jackson used a replica of a Metro Rail car, complete with authentic Metro Red Line maps and signs warning passengers of $250 fines for “smoking, spitting, acting loud or evading fare payments.”
Seated in the car are extras from various ethnic groups, whom Jackson has instructed to scream in terror and tumble out of their seats when the quake strikes. The car’s diverse ridership brings to mind how much “Volcano’s” structure--a multiethnic city unites to battle an all-powerful foe--resembles the premise of “Independence Day,” with a volcano substituting for alien invaders.
“It is similar in the way it unifies people against a common enemy,” Jackson says. “I suppose we all should he happy if at this time next year, Bob Dole is buying a tub of popcorn and seeing our film. I would hope he’d like our exploding palm trees.”