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Water Whirl

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

A bus it ain’t. The set for “Speed 2: Cruise Control” is a ship, the $2,000-a-night-per-couple variety, whose glittery yellow ballroom has been meticulously re-created on Stage 30 of Sony’s Culver City lot. R&B; singer Tamia--a four-time Grammy nominee--belts out “Make Tonight Beautiful” to a sea of decolletages. Sandra Bullock, apple-pie image cut by a two-piece black lace mini-dress, sways on the dance floor, nestling her head against her square-jawed beau.

And, as anyone who follows Hollywood knows, Keanu Reeves he ain’t. Though director Jan De Bont’s $30-million “Speed” took in a surprising $346 million worldwide in 1994, its hero refused to re-up. Another action movie would pigeonhole him, Reeves told 20th Century Fox. Besides, he wanted to tour with his band.

“Keanu Reeves peed in his chili, to use an old Southern expression,” said Georgia-born actress Patrika Darbo, who, with the rest of the cast, spent the better part of a month aboard the luxurious Seabourn Legend. “Jason Patric will have the ladies falling all over themselves. . . . I’ve had several hot flashes myself.”

It’s Patric, as a vacationing Los Angeles policeman, who intervenes when a terminally ill, disgruntled ex-employee (Willem Dafoe) commandeers the computer, trying to blow up the ship as his swan song.

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With visitors Jamie Gertz (De Bont’s “Twister”), director Jim Brooks, and Tamia mentor Quincy Jones looking on, a glass mural shatters and people scatter as the initial tremors erupt.

De Bont--a notoriously hands-on director and former cinematographer (“Basic Instinct,” “Die Hard”)--shadows director of photography Jack Green around the room. Crouching down Groucho-style, he peers into the camera’s viewfinder.

“We call him the Flying Dutchman . . . and other things,” Bullock says with a grin.

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Adds Tamuera Morrison (“Once Were Warriors”), who plays the ship’s first officer: “De Bont has his vision--he knows what he wants. And instead of employing diplomacy, he takes the shortest possible route to get there.”

That morning, De Bont arrived in the editing room at 6:30--half an hour before phoning Industrial Light & Magic to talk special effects. Digging into some fish and rice during a lunch break in his trailer, he makes no apologies for his brusque professional style.

“You have to be strong--and strong-willed--or everyone starts making his own little movie,” he says, a shock of silver hair setting off piercing blue eyes. “It’s chaos--and I’ve seen that happen a lot. Nearly 600 people need to be told what to do. Technical problems must be solved. On top of that, there are characters to develop. Action films are a very underrated genre. Nothing is so difficult as making one that works.”

Internal and external pressures to top “Speed” (not to mention his 1996 blockbuster, “Twister”), De Bont says, culminated in a film “five times” the size of the original.

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Since the director wanted to avoid miniatures, production designer Joseph Nemec III spent 4 1/2 months constructing a 20-building town on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. And giant steel beams had to be placed 50 to 100 feet under water to support a five-story, 650,000-pound re-creation of the ship’s bow.

Shooting on water, moreover, was a well-documented nightmare even before the disasters of “Waterworld.” De Bont had to cope with 20-foot swells and running from Hurricane Lili, which struck on Week 2 of the shoot.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” says the director, who came up with the nautical theme himself. “We aren’t shipbuilders or marine engineers. . . . This had nothing to do with movie-making.”

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To add to the load, Bullock had almost drowned as a child and arrived at the set with a deep-seated fear of the water. One scene called on her to float tied up--and because De Bont favors close-ups to promote audience identification, no double could be used. One day she made an unscripted leap onto the wing of a seaplane. On another, she and Patric were nearly sucked under the propellers of two motorboats whizzing by.

“Speed” worked so well because it showed ordinary people doing extraordinary things, the actress says. And action films demand physicality that produces an emotional high.

“I’ve been stigmatized as the girl next door . . . and that’s OK,” Bullock says. “People want someone with whom they can identify rather than the bombshell they can never be. But, in addition to being showered and flowered, a girl next door can stamp her feet and stand up for what she wants. Doris Day was no Mary Poppins. . . . She was a saucy broad with edge.”

Michael Peyser, De Bont’s producing partner for the past six months and executive producer of the film, agrees. “Sandy is the girl next door, [but with] a strong libido and a sense of adventure--so she’s everyone’s alter ego.”

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Bullock’s bubbly disposition and down-to-earth ways--picking lint off an extra’s jacket, throwing two parties for cast and crew--make her a favorite on the set. The more internal Patric, while also well-liked, took a while to loosen up.

“There’s nothing false about Jason,” Bullock says, hoisting herself onto a makeshift table. “He doesn’t schmooze or suck up. In a town full of stroking and people afraid to burn bridges, some get offended because he’s so uncompromising and blunt.”

De Bont has his own theory on the actor, whom Bullock suggested he cast. Starring in off-center movies such as “Rush” (1991), “The Journey of August King” (1995) and “Sleepers” (1996), Patric made his aversion to populist fare well-known. Until he auditioned so well with the actress, the director says, he was far from the obvious choice. “Jason is heavy and serious and had no history with movies like this,” De Bont says. “And he was worried about filling Keanu’s shoes--with good reason. If I was doing a script written with Keanu in mind, I’d be insecure too.”

Patric, for his part, denies that Keanu’s ghost loomed large. In sequels to “Batman,” “Indiana Jones” and James Bond, he says, people pay to see the same characters again and again. In “Speed,” he felt free to develop a new relationship since the movie--and the director--were the stars.

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Plunging into this genre was a departure, the actor concedes--one that made him apprehensive at first. But action movies have replaced westerns in the American consciousness, he says. If he were to do one, he wanted to be young and fit.

“Ninety-eight percent of these movies are completely phoned in, so I worried about being soulless--a container, a Burger King cup,” says the 30-year-old Patric, in one of his rare press interviews. “I got a lot more out of it than expected. Battling the elements forced me into different parts of myself. And being on the sea for four months was one of the few adventures left in life when everything comes into your home on CNN.”

One beautiful day, the actor recalls, he looked up from a seaplane to see a helicopter above and five Jet Skis zipping alongside. Wagner should have been pumping out of the hills, he says; there was a “Lawrence of Arabia"-type feel.

“Jan goes beyond ‘visual’ to ‘visceral,’ ” Patric says. “He uses four cameras to shoot a dialogue scene--up to 15 when the action steps up. He knows exactly where every one of them is--and which of the moments he’ll use. With all that, he was still open to my place--my determination to do more than just ‘save the ship.’ . . . And, given the enormous cost of this movie, I’m sure he had apprehensions about me, as well.”

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De Bont acknowledges that the movie came in over budget but shoots down reports that the original $100 million has soared into the $135-million to $160-million range. The movie is on schedule, he says. It’s not out of control. When the movie wraps at the end of this month, it should come in “close to $110 million"--providing nothing untoward erupts.

“Every movie goes over an average of 10%,” De Bont says. “There are so many uncertainties in filmmaking, you can’t foresee every little cost. That’s why studios cut the budget 10% just before production . . . which drives directors crazy. If a famous architect begins a 20-story, supposedly $100-million building, I guarantee it will cost $30 million or $40 million more. No one gets upset when that happens . . . but they’re fascinated by movie overages. I feel sorry for Jim Cameron. No one wants to go over, but circumstances are tough.”

As of now, “Speed 2" is scheduled to open July 2, two days before Cameron’s “Titanic"--a seagoing epic co-produced by Paramount and Fox. Paramount, as the domestic distributor of the latter, gets to set its release date. But according to insiders, Fox has the right to create a window of at least two weeks between the two. Unless “Speed 2" is moved up, they say, “Titanic” will probably be moved back.

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Fox marketing chief Bob Harper says the studio is unperturbed. “Every day of the week is a big day in the summertime,” he says. “When movies open two weeks apart, you have 14 days of gigantic playing time. The summer isn’t driven by one picture because the marketplace expands to fill the demand. What happened to ‘Twister’ last summer when ‘Mission: Impossible’ came out? Nothing. It went on to do $241 million in the U.S. and Canada--$462 million worldwide.”

The filmmakers, however, are a little more concerned. No matter how hard you train, Peyser says, you never know if you’re in the money until the horse is out of the gate. “It all boils down to the water cooler on Monday morning--the perennial word of mouth,” he says. “How many balls of fire can come down a hallway? How many action films can you have?”

De Bont, for another, doesn’t like the odds. “This summer is really disgusting--there’s major competition this year,” he says. “And to put all these movies against each other is almost sinful when the directors work so hard. The studios keep thinking bigger and bigger, afraid that other movies will have something they don’t have. Crews get bigger, effects are more expensive--everything is out of line.”

“Speed” and De Bont have made her career, Bullock says. But she’s going for balance, in the end. For the past year and a half, she’s been pulling together “Hope Floats” for Fox, a project about three generations of small-town women struggling with life and love, which she’s co-producing with Lynda Obst.

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“It’s been a heady year doing ‘Speed 2,’ ” says the actress. “But I feel the need to cleanse. You have to do what moves you--not what moves your pocketbook. Some people can create with huge salaries but sometimes the messages in the big money movies are not the ones you want to send.”

Patric, as always, is in the moment. If industry observers view “Speed 2" as his breakthrough movie, he refuses to buy in. “That ‘Absolute Power’ Clint Eastwood poster on buses is the same picture they’ve used for his last six pictures,” the actor says. “Most actors are content to keep selling themselves again and again. Whatever happens with ‘Speed'--fortunately or unfortunately--I’m never going to be the ‘next anybody.’ ”

As for De Bont, he’s committed to five or six more “event” movies--most of them for Fox. If bottom-line-oriented studios permit, however, he’d like to downsize from time to time. One leading "$10-million to $15-million contender” is “Paper Boy,” Pete Dexter’s (“Paris Trout”) look at the lies inherent in families and journalism. Peyser says they’re also in the market for musicals and social comedies and plan to support filmmakers such as “A Taxing Woman’s” Juzo Itami.

“Jan is a European intellectual who listens to opera,” the producer says. “The name of our production company is Blue Tulip--derived from the myth in the era of great Dutch painting that a blue tulip, in terms of shading and color, was the hardest to create. Though Jan is great at wowing people with 18-ring circuses like ‘Speed 2,’ it’s about developing characters without a helicopter getting in the way--striving for an ideal.”

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