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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 5, 2004

'Tides' picks up pace

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Adrian Paul, left, and Matt Battaglia star in "Tides of War," which is being filmed at several spots on O'ahu. The project has attracted an unusual amount of early attention, mostly because the character portrayed by "Highlander" star Paul is gay.

Photos by Christina Simpkins

Producer/director Brian Trenchard-Smith, left, joins, from left, Eileen Grubba, Adrian Paul and Matt Battaglia, on the set of "Tides of War."

Extreme athlete Eitan Kramer, left, and Catherine Dent, from "The Shield," appear in "Tides of War," an action-adventure film set on an American attack submarine traveling in waters off North Korea.
The cobalt and pumpkin sky betrays nothing — it could be dawn, could be twilight.

The cast and crew of the new independent film "Tides of War" have no way of telling as they step squinting from the dark warehouse studio into the small lot where their well-deserved "lunch" awaits.

For those who still bother to keep track, it's 6 p.m. on a warm evening in Halawa Valley, the midpoint of what may well be another 14-hour day of filming.

The production has been working efficiently within the constraints of a $3 million budget and an accelerated three-week shooting schedule. But with just more than three days of filming left before the project moves on to Los Angeles for post-production, there is little room for error or delay.

"Tides of War," an action-adventure film set on an American attack submarine traveling in waters off North Korea, is an ambitious first offering by the new Hawai'i-based production company Pacific Films, which has four other film projects scheduled to begin production within the next year.

Adrian Paul (star of the "Highlander" TV series) plays Burt Habley, a veteran submarine commander facing court-martial for an engagement with an enemy sub that ends in personal tragedy. Habley's shot at vindication comes when he's asked to lead a covert mission to the same area, a mission quickly threatened by dissent within the crew.

The film also stars Mathew St. Patrick ("Six Feet Under"), Catherine Dent ("The Shield"), Matt Battaglia ("Universal Soldier II and III"), and extreme athlete Eitan Kramer.

"It's a big movie to do in a relatively short space of time and with limited resources," says producer/director Brian Trenchard-Smith. "We've had three very full weeks of shooting."

Line producer Genie Joseph says cast, crew and producers are trying to cram 45-days worth of filming into 15 days, wringing a 90-minute feature film out of a budget roughly equal to one episode of a network TV drama.

Battaglia, who plays Dizzy Malone, the chief of the second boat and Habley's staunchest ally, says the shooting schedule is intense, to say the least.

"I've never shot this fast before," he says, not complaining. "We're doing about nine pages today. On average, we're doing about seven pages a day — which is a lot."

St. Patrick, who plays Habley's by-the-books counterpoint Cmdr. Steven Barker, embraces the challenge.

"The schedule forces you to focus," he says. "You have to show and be ready every day. You can't lose your focus."

Tides of Miscellanea:

• Director Brian Trenchard-Smith's first experience filming in Hawai'i was in 1971 as part of an Australian TV crew shooting a "Hawaii Five-0" promo with Jack Lord.

• "Tides of War" is Trenchard-Smith's 33rd film.

• Despite the hectic shooting schedule, Matt Battaglia has made it a point to hit some of the island's most popular surf areas, including Waikiki ("little baby waves, but you can get run over by someone who's even more of a beginner than you"), Diamond Head ("longer waves but it can get choppy depending on the wind") and the North Shore ("higher and faster than we could have imagined").

• Art director Hayden Yates studied zoology at the University of Hawai'i before getting into production design and art direction.

• Director of photography Paul Atkins filmed storm and wave scenes for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." He was also the cinematographer for the local short film "Silent Years," which won the Cades Shutte and the Cades Foundation Hawaii Film & Videomaker Award at this year's Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival.

• Mark Sanderson, who wrote the screenplay for "Tides of War," plays a communications officer in the film.

The on-land scenes in "Tides of War" were shot at several spots on O'ahu, including the Luana Hills Golf Club, the State Veterans Cemetery at Kane'ohe, Tantalus, Round Top, Portlock, and a drydock ship at Barbers Point.

Because of the film's limited budget, all of the action sequences — about eight minutes' worth — will be added during post-production, with some scenes culled from outtakes of other films.

The project has attracted an unusual amount of early attention, mostly because the Habley character is gay. (Habley's long-time partner dies in a fire that occurs as a result of the first battle.)

Two versions of the film are being shot simultaneously.

The version that depicts Habley's relationship with the other submariner will be aired on here! TV, the gay and lesbian premium cable network. A "straight" version will be made available for international distribution.

Joseph says the only significant difference is a few scenes at the beginning and end of the film.

"It's not a gay sex film like some people try to make it out to be," Joseph says. "(Habley's) sexuality is not a big part of the film, although even in the 'straight' cut, there is still a sense of the specialness of the relationship. The subtext is still there, which may make that version even stronger than the other one."

If anything, Trenchard-Smith says, the film serves as a reminder about the human consequence of political conflict.

"I've done a number of war films, and all of them have shown that war is unpleasant and should be avoided at all costs," he says. "I would be very sad if what happened in the film happened in real life.

"All war films should serve as cautionary films to show the unpleasant reality of combat," he says.

Trenchard-Smith says the screenplay, written by Mark Sanderson ("I'll Remember April"), is powered by personal conflict, heightened by the physically and emotionally constrictive environment of the submarine.

"Drama is about conflict, both external and internal," he says. "There are conflicting personalities among the main characters — some believe in (Habley) and some don't.

"We also see how these things are resolved by compromise, which is how all political conflicts of a global scale should be resolved," he says.

On this day, cast and crew are shooting a series of scenes in the submarine's control room. These take place after Habley has been relieved of his duty by St. Patrick's character.

Roughly half of the film is shot in this meticulously constructed control room set.

A 15-person design crew led by art director Hayden Yates (a University of Hawai'i graduate) and noted production designer Fu Ding Cheng conceived and built the modular set in less than a month.

Yates and Cheng, who have collaborated on several projects over the past 16 years, did extensive research to try to capture the appropriate look and feel for the boat. In addition to studying such films as "Hunt for Red October," "Crimson Tide," and "Das Boot" for ideas on lighting and camera angles, the two old friends also visited two Los Angeles-class attack submarines — the USS Santa Fe and the USS Louisville — to experience the real thing.

"We weren't allowed to take photos so we had to rely on our memory of what inside looked like and what sort of equipment they had," Yates says.

The designers re-cast a wide variety of common items to replicate the high-tech look of the control room, from Tupperware boxes and PVC pipes to ropes painted to look like electrical wiring and a big bag of dials and knobs corralled by ultra-versatile set photographer Christina Simpkins. They even fashioned a periscope out of foam and wood.

"We had to figure out how to make a $50 million sub out of a thousand dollars' worth of pipe," Cheng says.

Much help came from consultant Robert Shoemake, a former Navy man who was stationed on a submarine at Pearl Harbor for five years. Shoemake's emphasis on personalizing the high-tech space can be seen in the fuzzy dice and coffee holder seen near the main control panel.

The control room set is designed so that any one of the walls can be removed, allowing for 360-degree camera coverage.

While the designers tried to be as accurate as possible, a few tweaks were made to make the set more camera-friendly. Cheng replaced a front-facing door ("bad feng shui") with a large radar screen; dull glass monitors were replaced by backlit transparent acetate. That worked well with Cheng's color scheme of monochromatic backgrounds punctuated by vivid lights and colors.

The ultra-tight spaces of real submarines proved too restrictive for filming purposes, so the designers cleared just enough space for the actors and cameramen to move around while still capturing the feeling of oppressive enclosure.

"The set has to work as a counterpart to the themes of the film" Cheng explains.

More than 300 local actors tried out for roles in the film. Four were given limited speaking roles, and a hundred more were hired as extras.

Joseph says Pacific Films was established to provide new and better opportunities for Hawai'i-based actors and crew. They've already provided entry-level jobs to industry newbies and have given experienced workers the chance to advance to higher positions.

Pacific Films will likely enter "Tides of War" for the spring Hawaii International Film Festival. Theatrical releases in New York and Los Angeles are also in the works as part of a charitable effort.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.