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Venturing Into Rough Seas

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

As actor Harrison Ford goes before the cameras this month in Moscow for his new big-budget Cold War naval thriller, “K-19: The Widowmaker,” the screen star finds himself at the center of a raging controversy over whether Hollywood is accurately portraying the actions of Russian sailors who struggled to avert a nuclear accident on board a Soviet submarine in 1961 that could have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Even as shooting began, some of the surviving crewmen and relatives of the dead submariners who served on the Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine K-19 expressed outrage over an early draft of the movie’s script they had read. They contend, in a letter to Ford and the filmmakers, it portrays the crew as “uncultured, uneducated people who suffer from lack of discipline, alcoholism and technical illiteracy.” They called the tone of the script a sacrilege to the Russian submarine fleet and asked the Russian navy not to cooperate with the production.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 18, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 18, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Film distributor--Intermedia will be the primary overseas distributor of “K-19: The Widowmaker.” Paramount Pictures will be a partner with Intermedia in some territories. A story in the March 4 Sunday Calendar provided incorrect information about the film’s foreign distribution.

The protest has not only placed Ford and the filmmakers at the center of a debate over historical accuracy in movies, but has also focused attention on one of the film’s producers--the National Geographic Society. The project represents the venerable society’s first foray into the world of Hollywood-style movie-making.

“In the script, our crew [is] depicted as a bunch of stupid, ignorant and unruly characters,” said retired Capt. 1st Rank Yuri F. Mukhin, who was commander of the combat missile unit aboard the K-19. “In the script, when an emergency situation is announced on the submarine, the crew begins to study the instructions to find out how to behave in the given situation. It has nothing to do with reality. We were well-trained and knew quite well what we had to do in any situation. . . . Even Harrison Ford can’t save this story.”

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Said Irina N. Zateyeva, daughter of the sub’s late commander, Capt. Nikolai Zateyev. “When I first heard last fall that Ford will be playing my father, I was so happy. I thought it was a miracle. I didn’t know about the script then.”

The controversy also comes as lawsuits have been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by competing movie companies over who has the rights to the submariners’ life stories.

Ford, who has starred in such blockbusters as the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones movies as well as portraying a U.S. president in “Air Force One,” has sought to reassure the Russians that the film will in no way besmirch the heroism of the doomed submariners.

When asked about complaints that the script depicts the submariners as uneducated drunks who play cards while the alarms sound, Ford replied: “That has never been the case. No version of the script that I saw ever had that particular incident as part of it.

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“The whole success of the piece depends on the audience coming to an appreciation of the men who served on that crew,” he continued. “Like any crew, they were like any group of men. There were variations. Some of them were more educated than others. Some of them came from different circumstances. Some of them were scared and some of them were brave. We are talking about what we think is very heroic and selfless behavior. It’s no aid to the success of this story to have these guys made out to be fools and louts and drunks.”

Ford, who is being paid about $25 million to star in the movie, stressed that the relationship between his character and the executive officer played by Liam Neeson “is entirely fictionalized,” adding, “It’s a movie.”

The film’s producers said movies, by their very nature, compress events or make composite characters out of several people to tell a dramatic story. In recent years, Hollywood has been criticized for the way its films play loose with the facts when telling stories of real-life personalities and events.

“Certainly, the essence of the real story is there--that is what is most important when you are making a dramatic film,” said producer Joni Sighvatsson of Palomar Pictures, which is producing the film with the National Geographic Society and director Kathryn Bigelow’s production company, First Light. Christine Whitaker, a producer who represents the National Geographic Society, added that the film won’t be a parody of the Russian experience.

With a production budget approaching $100 million, the film was written by Christopher Kyle, Louis Nowra and Tom Stoppard. After filming for 10 days in Moscow, the production will move to Toronto and Halifax, Canada.

The independently financed movie has its roots in the real-life drama at sea four decades ago when Zateyev asked for volunteers among his crew of 128 men to go into the K-19’s reactor compartment and try to repair the damaged cooling system.

As radiation levels rose to lethal levels, crew members heroically entered the compartment and welded the cooling system, but eight submariners died of radiation poisoning within days of the accident.

“The ordeal lasted for eight hours,” recalled retired Capt. 2nd Rank Yuri V. Yerastov, who at the time was the commander of the unit in charge of the sub’s nuclear reactor. In addition to the eight crewmen who died immediately afterward, other K-19 submariners died from illnesses in later years that might have been related to the radiation in the sub.

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“They were real heroes,” Yerastov said from his home in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. “They knew how lethal the danger was, but they also knew that they had to go down and do it to prevent the imminent nuclear catastrophe.” The film posits the doomsday scenario that had the meltdown occurred aboard the K-19, it would have triggered a Chernobyl-like explosion that could have led to an East-West confrontation.

The crew’s heroism, however, was kept a secret for more than 30 years by the Soviet government. Only with the fall of Communism did the story become public in the 1990s.

It is ironic that the National Geographic Society, of all groups, is producing a film whose historical accuracy is being challenged.

Since its founding in 1888, the Washington-based organization has funded some of the world’s great expeditions. Among them have been Robert E. Peary’s trek to the North Pole in 1909, Richard E. Byrd’s first flight over the South Pole in 1929, Jacques Cousteau’s pioneering ocean exploration and Robert Ballard’s series of spectacular underwater finds, including his discovery in 1985 of the sunken Titanic.

In more recent years, the society has expanded beyond its flagship magazine with such publications as Adventure, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic World for children, as well as books and CD-ROMs. For television, the society has created the National Geographic Channel, and produces the program “Explorer,” as well as its signature specials.

Realizing that questions are bound to be raised when “K-19: The Widowmaker” is released by Regency Enterprises through 20th Century Fox in the U.S. and overseas by Paramount Pictures, the society said it plans to produce a documentary about the submarine accident to coincide with the movie’s debut--scheduled for 2002--so audiences can study the historical events upon which the film is based.

The society also plans a Web site that will seek to answer questions the public might have when trying to sort fact from fiction.

Rick Allen, president and chief executive officer of National Geographic Ventures, the for-profit subsidiary of the society responsible for television programs and films, said the Web site will ask the “big questions” that inspired the film. Those include why filmmakers make the choices they do, what pieces of the historical record filmmakers include or leave out, and how they consolidate the number of real people who took part in an event into a fictional composite character.

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“This is a dramatic film based on real events,” Allen said. “That leads to judgment calls by the filmmakers. When you are dealing with real events, those judgment calls have to be made in an incredibly thoughtful manner.”

Added Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television: “We think when the [Russian] submariners see the final product, we hope they will be satisfied that we were true to what happened.” The society also has other fictionalized projects on the drawing boards that are based on real-life events. They include a movie called “Endurance,” based on an Antarctic expedition by explorer Ernest Shackleton, which is set up at Sony Pictures Entertainment with Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) attached to direct, and a four-hour miniseries called “Lewis and Clark,” which is based on the Stephen Ambrose book “Undaunted Courage.”

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As recently as Dec. 8, Ford and the “K-19" filmmakers had a cordial meeting in St. Petersburg with surviving crew members.

“The meeting was very pleasant,” Yerastov recalled. “A lot of good words were said. I saw him in the movies before. I think he is a good actor. He was very good in this film where he fought against fascists and fell in this pit with snakes [‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’].”

But events were occurring in Los Angeles that would have an impact on their emotions.

A Russian-born film producer named Inna Gotman, who had been developing a movie script by Australian screenwriter Michael Brindley about the K-19, was crying foul. Gotman said she had obtained written permission from Zateyev in 1994 giving her production company, Drawbridge Films, the exclusive rights to his life story. Zateyev died of cancer in 1998.

Gotman, a former concert pianist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1977, said she first learned that Bigelow was making a K-19 movie last September when she read an interview with the director in the American press. The story mentioned that the film would be financed by Intermedia, the same firm Gotman said she pitched her own K-19 movie to in 1999. Intermedia is an independent film financing and distribution company with offices in Munich, London and Beverly Hills that has bankrolled such films as “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez, and “Nurse Betty,” starring Renee Zellweger.

In January, Gotman’s attorneys, Arthur H. Barens and Adam Siegler, filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court charging that Intermedia “took [Gotman’s] movie and all her ideas, contacts, research and vision, entered into an agreement with the different director and cut [Gotman] out of the picture.” The National Geographic Society was not named a party to the suit.

But attorney Daniel Petrocelli, representing Intermedia, fired off a suit accusing Drawbridge of interfering with the movie by offering the retired submariners large sums of money if they signed with Drawbridge and telling them that they would go to jail if they continued to assist the Harrison Ford movie.

The suit also claims that Bigelow’s project obtained the rights to the submariners’ stories from London-based Working Title Films. The suit says Working Title entered into written agreements with the submariners in October 1997 before choosing not to make the movie.

Both lawsuits are still pending.

Zateyev’s widow, however, issued a statement saying that although Working Title did approach her husband with a suggestion that he enter an agreement, he rejected the company’s proposal. She said her husband “was gravely ill and never left home. Throughout the period, nobody ever visited him or delivered any documents to sign.”

The filmmakers decided at the last minute to give Ford’s character the fictional name Capt. Alexei Vostrikov, rather than use Zateyev’s real name.

Gotman and her Russian-based partner, Lev Slavin, said they have developed a close relationship with the retired submariners and want to do right by them.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Gotman said. “I talk to these people on the phone because they turned to me for help. After they met with Harrison Ford in December, they contacted me and asked, ‘Can you take us under your wing?’ They all give me the right to be their mouthpiece. All of a sudden, I become Joan of Arc, which I really didn’t plan.”

Slavin admits that he has helped the retired submariners get their story told in the Russian media as well as putting their thoughts down in a letter to Russian navy commander in chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov asking that the navy not offer assistance to the Bigelow film, but Slavin denied orchestrating their protest.

Former K-19 submariner Yerastov told The Times that after the December meeting, Slavin approached them and said they were being used by Intermedia. Yerastov said a number of former crew members have signed agreements with Slavin.

“Since then, Slavin helped us a lot,” he said. “He helped us when we tried to have our story highlighted by [the Russian] mass media and composed this letter to Russian navy commander in chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov. . . . He was putting our ideas on paper and editing them so that they would sound right. The idea of this letter was that we insisted that the Russian navy should refrain from offering their bases and facilities to the Bigelow crew for the shooting of their film. Slavin also helped faxing this letter to Kuroyedov.” Producer Whitaker said the Russian navy did provide some technical assistance during the Moscow shoot.

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While the dispute raged, Ford said he chose the K-19 as his next starring vehicle because Americans haven’t seen many Hollywood films that depict the Russian experience during the Cold War.

“There are no Americans in this story,” he said. “There are no good guys and bad guys. The Russians are not the bad guys.”

Ford said the movie depicts a moment in our history when the world came dangerously close to nuclear war.

“It’s entirely possible that these events might have led to an accidental engagement,” the actor said.

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Sergei L. Loiko in The Times’ Moscow bureau contributed to this story.


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