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What Have They Unearthed?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Brendan Fraser’s athletic hunk is a far cry from David Manners’ drawing-room twit, and Rachel Weisz’s spiky librarian is just as far from Zita Johann’s languid femme fatale.

In time, it’s 67 years from the romantic leads of Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic “The Mummy” (with Boris Karloff in the title role) to those of its remake, also called “The Mummy.” And geographically, it’s about 7,000 miles from the California desert and Universal back lot of the original to the Moroccan Sahara. That’s the stand-in for politically risky Egypt in Universal’s new version, which kicks off the summer moviegoing season Friday.

“Surreal and eternal” is how Fraser, star of the 1997 “George of the Jungle” and the upcoming “Dudley Do-Right,” describes his surroundings during a break in shooting near Erfoud. This settlement of 7,000 people is 4 1/2 hours by car deeper into the desert than the spot where Martin Scorsese shot “Kundun.” And with the unforgiving heat--132 degrees one day--and “Lawrence of Arabia"-like vistas, a visiting reporter doesn’t argue.

“Dynamic and exciting and romantic,” Fraser’s words for the screenplay of the new “Mummy” by the film’s director, Stephen Sommers, also seem apt. The script’s action-adventure elements resemble “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The script also recalls the Bogart-Hepburn “African Queen” in its Mr. Hard Case/Miss Snooty love story between Fraser’s renegade American-born French Foreign Legionnaire and the English Egyptologist played by Weisz (who was in last year’s “Swept From the Sea” and “The Land Girls”).

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“At the same time,” Fraser adds, “it harkens back to the treatment of the material in the Boris Karloff film. It has many of the same names and situations and the same exotic allure"--indeed, maybe twice as many ancient legends, cults and curses as the 72-minute original--"but all brought up to speed with special effects from ILM.”

As in the Karloff version, the new “Mummy’s” title character is an Egyptian high priest named Imhotep who was buried alive as punishment for falling in love with his pharaoh’s mistress, and then 3,000 years later is inadvertently resuscitated by a team of archeologists.

In the remake, which like the original is set against the archeological frenzy after the 1921 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, Imhotep is played by South African-born Arnold Vosloo. Or, more precisely, by Vosloo in combination with those effects from Industrial Light & Magic.

Fraser, after some thigh stretches, goes to stand at the center of an extinct volcano adorned with ruined pillars and statuary to suggest Hamanaptra, the mythic City of the Dead. As he gives the camera his startled reaction to the sands that erupt at his feet to offer him his first glimpse of Imhotep’s buried face (an ILM effect yet to come), producer Jim Jacks recounts the genesis of the project.

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“After the Coppola ‘Dracula’ and [Kenneth Branagh’s] ‘Frankenstein’ "--not to mention Mike Nichols’ vaguely wolfman-like “Wolf"--" 'The Mummy’ was the last Universal monster the studio could do a remake of,” Jacks says. The studio, originator of all those franchises in the ‘30s, did four increasingly dim “Mummy” sequels in the ‘40s, none with Karloff. The English horror factory Hammer Films did a version, also called “The Mummy,” in 1959, with Christopher Lee in the title role, and then three again increasingly dim sequels, none with Lee.

“In fact,” continues Jacks, keeping one eye on Fraser and the erupting sands and looking out for camel dung with the other, “Universal was developing a ‘Mummy’ remake off and on for years. Even before we got involved with it-- six, seven years ago.”

Many Versions

for the ‘90s ‘Mummy’

“We” is Jacks and Sean Daniel, his partner in Alphaville Films (“Tombstone,” “Michael” and “A Simple Plan”) with whom he’s producing “The Mummy.” They began with a futuristic “kind of ‘Hellraiser'-ish” script by director Clive Barker. Then came a contemporary version written by John Sayles for Joe Dante (“Gremlins,” “Small Soldiers”) to direct; then lower-budgeted versions, also set in the ‘90s, that Mick Garris (the miniseries “The Stand”) and George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”) might have directed; and a “very serious, very dark version set in the ‘20s” that Kevin Jarre and Lloyd Fonveille wrote for no particular director.

“There were arguments for each of them,” Jacks notes. “And arguments against each,” as there eventually were for the version Jacks calls “a period romantic adventure with major scares,” written by director Sommers in six breakneck weeks in mid-1997. The argument against (“it was the most expensive version we’d had,” Jacks says) was outweighed by the argument for (“it was also the biggest movie”). Daniel credits departed Universal Chairman Casey Silver in particular for “getting behind this way of doing it--as an event.”

“Expensive,” Jacks stresses, “doesn’t mean we’re in any budget derby.” He discloses that the budget was about $78 million only to underscore how sensibly it’s being spent. Above-the-line costs (actors, producers, writer-director) account for $10 million. ILM’s special effects will total $20 million. He says the remainder is for “physical” production in Morocco and at Shepperton Studios in London, and includes the tab for 350 British crew members that “Mummy” co-producer Patricia Carr offhandedly calls “the basic ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders’ crew.”

‘Scary’ and ‘Funny’

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Became Watchwords

As for their approach to the material, Jacks and Sommers are determined to make the film “scary, not gross; funny, not campy.”

It became a mantra for Sommers, who delivered enough wit to appeal to parents whose kids dragged them to see his 1994 live-action “The Jungle Book.”

“It’s a fine line” to keep it funny, not campy, he says while scarfing an 11 p.m. roast-chicken “lunch” during a night shoot.

“The comedy has to come out of the characters and the situations,” he says, “because the minute it becomes tongue-in-cheek or campy, you risk destroying the horror element.”

To help him arrive at an appropriate level of humor, Sommers filmed alternate versions of many dialogue scenes.

Back at work on the rim of the volcano--with the “12 snake men” noted on the call sheet who were in place to ward off nocturnal serpentine invaders--the director provides an example of his method as he takes Fraser and Weisz through the film’s Ms. Stuck-Up-gets-drunk-and-kisses-Mr. Lowlife scene. Fumbling to explain “what a place like me is doing in a girl like this,” Weisz eventually offers the non sequitur, “I am a librarian!” After a good “standard” reading, Sommers, with rarely more than a “Let’s go again--play with it,” watches as Weisz stresses the “I” or the “librarian” (with varying intensity), and pauses before “am” or “librarian” (at varying lengths).

Throughout, Fraser calibrates his amusement to Weisz’s vehemence. And when one particularly good take is interrupted by a horse’s whinny from a rival archeological team’s camp, he saves it by improvising, “Hey, keep it quiet down there"--without missing a beat.

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“With all the different performance levels, there are provisions for lots of different choices” in the editing room, Fraser explains later. The actor, who skillfully walked a fine line between maladroit goofiness and romantic heroism in “George of the Jungle,” adds: “I support that technique--I think it’s really productive.” Fraser also compliments Sommers on his seemingly limitless energy: “We tell him, ‘Stop the coffee already!’ ”

Weisz says she was attracted to the project because she “thought it would be fun,” but soon enough had “big sores” on her backside from camel-riding lessons, as well as concerns about the film’s comedic “tightrope walk.”

The director, she reports, told her “to play it truthfully always, don’t try to be funny.” That was her own instinct, and since her character’s “comedy comes from her earnestness, the more serious I am, the funnier--I hope--it gets.”

‘You Have to Trust

the Director’

John Hannah was also expecting fun when he signed on to play Weisz’s charming scoundrel brother. But to get to anything approaching it, the endearingly worrywart Scottish actor (he was Gwyneth Paltrow’s co-star in “Sliding Doors”) says he first had to work his way through his anxieties “about whether I could suspend my own disbelief about facing up to a 3,000-year-old mummy. Steve helped by suggesting it was no different than Hamlet facing up to his father’s ghost.”

Then Hannah feared that with all the different readings on each scene, Sommers “could make half a dozen films in the editing room"--including, he notes with a wince, one featuring only his broadest readings. Yet after a month, he was ready to kiss a camel on the mouth if Sommers asked him to. (He didn’t.) “I just decided you have to trust the director.”

In contrast with the other actors, Arnold Vosloo, the Mummy himself, has had to stick to a narrow path. This path, which he marked out for himself, helped him get the role.

“I saw this as a grand opportunity to play not one of the seminal monsters, but one of the great romantic figures,” Vosloo says. “And when I went in to meet with the producers and Steve Sommers, I was adamant about playing a man in love. Nothing existed except himself and her"--his beloved of 3,000 years earlier.

A Realistic

On-Screen Threat

Another thing in Vosloo’s favor was his physicality. In his late 30s, he has dark, piercing eyes and is burly enough to pose a realistic on-screen threat to the big, buff Fraser. He also was relatively unknown, his most notable movie role being in support of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1993 Jacks production “Hard Target.” Sommers says he didn’t want audiences to think, “Oh God, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Mummy.”

Of course, Vosloo, whose parents are actors in South Africa, now has to ponder the question of his mother: “How do you feel as a theater-trained actor about being known, certainly to this generation that hasn’t seen Karloff, as the Mummy?”

His response: “I’m comfortable with that. If I’m doomed to play high priests in movies, so be it--I’ll look to the stage for more variety.” As it happens, Vosloo’s preparation for Imhotep was as serious as that for, say, his stage role of John the Baptist (to Al Pacino’s Herod) in the outre 1992 Broadway version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome.” He phonetically learned the approximation of ancient Egyptian devised for the film by UC Santa Barbara Egyptologist Dr. Stuart Smith, and read extensively about the “incredibly disciplined and narrow” lives of Egyptian priests before donning his “dental floss” G-string costume.

Vosloo’s preparation may also account for why he was comfortable playing a character that is to varying degrees a computer-generated special effect, depending on the stages in the Mummy’s regeneration.

While filming scenes that call for computer-generated augmentation, Vosloo wears tracking sensors to chart the position of the effects. Vosloo says he doesn’t completely understand the technology but he’s been greatly encouraged by the ILM crew’s insistence that he forget the effects and “give us everything because it will be up there.”

What will be up there goes back to the “scary, not gross” part of the film’s mantra. It is, according to Sommers, a somewhat easier line to navigate than the “funny, not campy” one because, in contrast to humor, with its dependence on the chemistry between actors, horror is relatively calculable in advance.

It Takes a Lot More

to Scare People Today

“I wanted to make sure that my guy was really terrifying,” Sommers says. Though the director says Karloff’s somnambulistic Mummy “scared the hell out of me” when he first saw it on TV at age 8, he’s well aware that “it takes different things to scare people today. To scare people now you’ve got to be very graphic or very clever.

“But,” he goes on, “how much blood can you spew? And how much is appropriate in what is at heart a romantic adventure movie? I think the great ‘boo!’ scares, the ones that make people jump or scream, are generally not graphic. To me, the scariest thing in ‘Jaws’ is the girl getting nailed by the shark at the beginning--and you don’t see a thing. So we’ve decided to be clever, and, hopefully, we will be.”

In fact, Sommers’ script calls for any number of “boo!” scares, or what Fraser admiringly calls “off-screen stings.” Yet despite that and producer Daniel’s assurance that “the visual effects will be organic to the story, with nothing happening for volume or size,” there’s also considerable potential for graphic horror.

For example, to regenerate himself, Imhotep must appropriate his missing organs from the living. And of course, there is always the pressure--from studios, audiences and even from within the special-effects community--to be groundbreaking.

“Groundbreaking,” says John Berton, ILM visual effects supervisor for the movie, “often means doing something in a more believable way than it was done in the past.” If “The Mummy” is going to be groundbreaking, Berton thinks one way will be in its approximation of human skin textures on the title character. “It’s got to be jaw-dropping, it’s got to be something you cannot believe you’re looking at--but you must believe you are looking at.”

The PG-13 Rating

Was Part of the Deal

It’s also, Berton says, got to fit “the scheme of the movie and the marketing and the intended audience.” Which is another way of saying “scary, not gross"--or PG-13, the MPAA rating that Universal set as a condition of its investment. “I think we’re going for the 13 in PG-13,” Berton says.

Despite the periodic death knells sounded for this or that sequel franchise, “Lethal Weapon 4" was unexpectedly hot, “Mission: Impossible 2" is rolling and “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” is among the most eagerly awaited movies in history. How do the progenitors of the new “Mummy” feel about the possibility of reviving the “Mummy” series?

“I’m sure the studio looks at it as a [potential] franchise,” Jacks concedes.

“May this movie be successful enough to make that a subject for discussion,” Daniel says.

“I wouldn’t rush to do a sequel unless I felt I had as good a story to tell and could take the characters to another level,” Sommers says.

Back in Los Angeles and sounding as caffeinated as ever after two previews of “The Mummy,” he says, “We seem to be scaring the hell out of them, and they’re laughing too.” Still, he went on to cut “some great one-liners, stuff that broke us up when we shot it and got big laughs--because of that fine line.”

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