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Attack of the $100- Million Insects

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ed Neumeier had a dream. “I wanted to do a big, silly, jingoistic, xenophobic, let’s-go-out-and-kill-the-enemy movie, and I had settled on the idea that it should be against insects,” says the screenwriter-co-producer (“RoboCop”). “I wanted to make a war movie, but I also wanted to make a teenage romance movie.”

Which brings us today to the site of Neumeier’s reunion with “RoboCop” director Paul Verhoeven, the Fountain Valley set of “Starship Troopers"--a sprawling, futuristic military base dotted with olive-drab, Hershey’s-Kiss-shaped cabins and silver Mylar pup tents. Flags ominously melding the images of an eagle and a jet fighter flap listlessly overhead; scores of crew members linger under a merciless sun as Verhoeven makes a point. He’s explaining, thoroughly, to the film’s star and heartthrob-in-waiting, Casper Van Dien, how to hurl a shiny flat knife.

Van Dien’s practice tosses glance off the target repeatedly, the knives clanging as they hit the ground in frustrating failure. When cameras roll, however, and Van Dien’s first toss is no more than an inch from piercing the bulls-eye. Published reports say $100 million is being spent on “Starship Troopers.” In the wake of mega-hit “Independence Day” and the upcoming Christmas extravaganza “Mars Attacks,” moviegoers may have maxed-out on aliens-whipping-Earthling-butt-and-vice-versa flicks by next July 2, when “Troopers” marches into the nation’s theaters.

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But what everyone really wants to know about this movie is, how are the bugs? “Troopers,” based on the last juvenile sci-fi book by Robert A. Heinlein before he moved on to more adult novels, was not green-lit until Verhoeven shot some test footage three years ago with Oscar-winning special-effects master Phil Tippett (“Jurassic Park”), who whipped up some menacing, computer-generated arachnids attacking two soldiers on rocky terrain. This 40-second clip immediately sold all who would get involved with the film on its essential viability, as well as its tone and visual style.

Verhoeven, who describes his film as being like “The Battle of the Bulge” or “A Bridge Too Far” “if the Germans were insects,” considers his collaboration with Tippett a “co-directorship.” “I never would have thought of making this movie if not with the cooperation of Phil Tippett,” he says. “He’s a genius at this kind of fantasy.”

Tippett says as preparation he saw just about every wildlife show about insects ever made, and his Bay Area studio is filled with live models. “I respond with revulsion to some of the pets we have around here--well, the hissing cockroaches are pretty nice,” Tippett says amiably. “But I draw the line at spiders and pulpy creatures.”

Screenwriter and co-producer Neumeier confesses, “One of my original inspirations was my wife’s catatonic fear of insects.” The bugs have been changed from Heinlein’s original description, he reports: “Paul said, ‘I just can’t see a bug with a gun in his hand.’ ”

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Most of the insects are arachnids measuring seven feet tall with a 15-foot leg span and enormous jaws, though there are 30-foot-long “tanker” bugs and 80-foot-long “plasma” bugs. “They’re like insects as sharks--all they do is come up to you and kill you,” Neumeier says. “They have a ground speed of 35 mph. Their mode of attack is overwhelming force. My science teacher in seventh grade said, ‘The Chinese, they’ll march at you like zombies, with wooden sticks in their hands, and even if you had a machine gun in your hand they’d overwhelm you!’ That’s what I think about the bugs.”

Anyone expecting the Mayhem Lite of “Independence Day” has obviously forgotten who’s directing this thing. “This is not benevolent, it’s not sugar-coated,” Verhoeven says. “I treat this as a matter of life and death. We’re killing off some of our heroes--not everyone gets through the movie.” As a result, bugs will gut and slash human soldiers in half, and the insects’ very sticky, extremely gory viscera will be shown in Verhoevenly visceral detail.

But all this tantalizing information doesn’t help the actors much when they’re on the set. As Van Dien, who plays the leader of a bug-battling battalion, says: “We’re fighting an enemy that’s not there. We’re fighting tennis balls on sticks.”

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Van Dien, a former soap actor (“Beverly Hills, 90210" and “One Life to Live,” where he played “a hick who came in and ripped my clothes off and had sex with a woman once a week for 10 months”) with a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise, went through eight months of training for the role, losing 3 1/2 inches off his waist, yet adding 5 pounds of muscle. All of which helped in one sequence shot in Wyoming in which the 27-year-old actor performed a noggin-rattling stunt that sounds like a potential amusement-park ride.

“They had a tanker bug with a 30-foot back, it’s like the hull of a boat, upside down, all fiberglass,” he recalls. “I rode the bug, side to side to side and back and forth! Forward and back and spinning, all these different motions. I was slammed! These ropes were tying me down, and if I caught my balance a little bit, the bug would go the other way, then shift and throw me, slam me on my face, slam me on my back!

“I chipped my tooth, bruised my rips--see these scars?” He shows off the wounds on his elbows. “We did that for 3 1/2 days. I wasn’t going to say, [affecting a wimpy voice], ‘Oh, this hurts too much,’ because I really want to do this job and I’m psycho crazy nuts. Anything I can do not in the realm of dying I want to do for a role.”

To save time on what is, after all, a monumental shoot, both first- and second-unit cameras roll simultaneously, until both units end up wrestling over the availability of co-star Clancy Brown, who is called on to deliver what he drolly calls “a couple of our subtle fascist moments” before both sets of cameras.

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Brown is perhaps the sole actor who is not wowed by the bugs--"I’m fortunate in that I may be the only one here who doesn’t have to pretend to see something that’s being created in some computer,” he says--but by the satirical underpinnings of the film. Heinlein’s book actually suggested that the best societies would be run by military dictatorships, an idea Neumeier happily explores in his script.

“That’s what attracted me, actually, was the not-so-subtle fascist comments,” Brown says. “That’s much more salient to Verhoeven’s world, as a European, but completely valuable as a cautionary message.” Brown is speaking on a day in which a poll reveals that many Americans are willing to sacrifice some of their freedoms to combat terrorism. “That’s a little scary, isn’t it? Even Newt Gingrich said, ‘Let’s be a little careful here. We don’t want to go overboard,’ which is something to hear, coming out of his mouth. This movie will bring up a lot of questions. Or maybe it’ll just end up being kids vs. bugs, and that’ll be OK too.”


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