Actors who wanted to be in John Stockwell's horror-thriller "Turistas," the first American film to be shot completely in Brazil, got a distinctly unglamorous pitch.
"You're going to be staying in a tent; you'll have an air mattress. No director's chairs; you'll sit on a rock. You're going to be in that water filled with bat [droppings]," Stockwell warned potential cast members. "You're probably going to get scraped up and hurt, but I can give you 95% assurance you're not going to die."
Roughing it set the right tone for a film that depicts a tourist's worst nightmare: Its photogenic young protagonists get lost in the jungle, where they are drugged and robbed. And then things get bad. Stockwell, director of surf-and-sand movies "Blue Crush" and "Into the Blue," says a rattling experience on a Peruvian surfing trip motivated him to take on the project.
"I had been robbed by a group of 13-year-old, glue-sniffing kids and gotten shot at," he says in the safety of the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. "I went to the cops, and they basically told us, 'If you give us $300, we'll let you kill these kids.' And I thought, if that kind of [stuff] is possible.... I came home and read the script and it resonated."
Josh Duhamel of TV's "Las Vegas" plays reluctant tourist Alex. Despite less-than-cozy working conditions on a film that threatens to reveal whether one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People also has some of the 50 most beautiful internal organs, Duhamel (pronounced doo-MEL) says he loved working in Brazil. The camaraderie that developed on the set is evident as Stockwell barges into Duhamel's interview.
"I would say that the Brazilians are very good at mixing business and pleasure," the director says. "They work hard, they play hard. So did Josh."
"Yes, I did. So did John," the actor responds soberly.
"You partied harder than I did."
However, the filmmakers' Brazilian journey didn't get off to such a delightful start. On Stockwell's first scouting trip, his and the producers' anxieties proved well founded.
"They've heard the stories, they've seen 'City of God,' they're like, 'Uh-oh, bad place, let's get out,' " says the director. "Three minutes outside of the airport, 9 in the morning, in the middle of the week, rush-hour traffic, we look over and there's, like, a 17-year-old kid with a 9-millimeter, robbing a woman in the car next to us."
Rather than be scared off, the production went low-key -- no armored SUVs or giant trailers -- and hired locals for spots in front of and behind the camera.
"If you need someone to jump off this waterfall, which is treacherous, you don't bring in a stuntman from the U.S.; you hire the kid in the village who does it every day," Stockwell says.
One location where the locals couldn't help was an underwater cave system, a nature reserve.
Duhamel laughs and says the director's desire for a pretty shot made for an ugly situation for the actors: "However many years of [guano] are lining the walls, we go in there and spray them down. [Stockwell says,] 'OK, I need you guys to all go underwater,' and we're like, 'What?' "
Olivia Wilde, best known for a stint on "The O.C.," plays Alex's sister, Bea, and likens the shoot to being a participant on "Survivor" -- though "Fear Factor" may be a better comparison.
"John would do anything that he would ask you to do," she says. For one scene, she was supposed to squeeze into a hole in the hillside to hide from her pursuers, but it was infested with spiders. "He knew I was uncomfortable, so he jumped in there instead of me for the [shot setup]. He said: 'This is great, this is great! It looks really real! Look at all these spiders over here; I hope they crawl on you!' "
At times, though, the shoot went from "Fear Factor" to shades of "Saw."
Stockwell admits that "Josh was in real danger a lot of the time. Things like those underwater caves, there was no easy escape. [He had] to swim 100 yards through a hole and get up to the other side. If he didn't make it...." He shrugs. Somewhere, the producers of "Las Vegas" shudder.
For one shot, Duhamel had to swim underwater a fair distance from one air pocket to another, but he says, "I panicked a little and had to swim back out after, like, 15 or 20 seconds. Then right after that, Olivia Wilde goes in and does it like she does it every day."
"But Olivia almost died too," Stockton interjects.
Later, Wilde explains that in one shot, she used up the oxygen in an air pocket too quickly and lost her bearings in the darkness. "I start flailing around, having forgotten the emergency signal. But, of course, my character is supposed to be flailing, so every time I look frightened, they're like, 'Great, Olivia, great!' "
All lived to tell the tale, but did this Brazilian adventure result in a suspense classic? Although Stockwell admits to making concessions to the genre while creating "Turistas," his idea of horror is a little offbeat: " 'Little Miss Sunshine,' " he says. "That freaked me out."