Causing a Chain Reaction
Gruelling sub-zero temperatures, a killer shockwave and a scary bridge stunt... Has making Chain Reaction cured adrenalin-junkie Keanu Reeves of action flicks forever?
Tim Prokop goes behind the scenes.
When Fox agreed to pay $1.2 million for the rights to Josh Friedman's first screenplay, Dead Drop, it was clear that the studio had big things in mind.
The action-packed story, now titled Chain Reaction, centres on Eddie Kasalivich, an American scientist who becomes a fugitive from his own government when he discovers an environmentally safe way to extract energy from water and attempts to broadcast his findings over the Internet. Since Fox had signed a two-year deal with Keanu Reeves after the runaway success of Speed, the script was immediately viewed as a potential vehicle for the popular star.
Rewrites by Peter Osterlund and Amy Baker, the better-known duo of Jeb Stuart and David Twohy (The Fugitive), and credited screenwriters, JF Lawton (Under Siege, Pretty Woman) and Michael Bortman, tailored the script for Keanu. Among the changes was the character of Eddie Kasalivich himself, who was transformed from a scientist to a motorcycle-riding physics student/machinist, who stumbles across the major discovery when sampling soundwaves through a keyboard.
Perhaps coincidentally, Keanu's pride and joy are his two Norton motorbikes and, when he's not acting, the star plays with his band Dogstar. On being shown the script, Keanu signed for a cool $7 million, along with five per cent of the first dollar gross.
"I was attracted to the journey that Eddie has to take," says Keanu. "He's a young man who has to come to terms with what he is actually participating in by creating this technology. Suddenly he finds himself involved with the government and big business."
Starring with Keanu is Rachel Weisz, the British actress who dazzled audiences in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Rachel plays the role of Lily Sinclair, a brilliant research scientist who, along with Eddie, is framed by a government agency that wants to reserve the energy-making process for the military. Heading the agency, and the attempt to capture Eddie and Lily after they escape with their information, is an enigmatic figure known as Shannon, played by three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman.
To prepare for their roles, Keanu, Rachel and Morgan spent two weeks with some of the world's leading scientists at Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory, where much of the movie's filming took place. Keanu, known for his meticulous preparation, also went on the road with CIA agents to get a feel for the mentality of those pursuing him and the difficulties his character would face. To understand how a physics student and machinist might feel when surrounded by world-class scientists, Keanu visited the University of Chicago, where he spent time with students and teachers.
As head of the government agency, Shannon is determined to keep Eddie's scientific breakthrough a secret - and the extent he will go to becomes apparent when Eddie finds the head of the laboratory killed. Eddie escapes on his motorbike, moments before a bomb unleashes a violent shockwave that destroys the lab and everything around it. Under the direction of Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), this sequence becomes a high point that sets an exciting tone for the chase that follows.
The widespread destruction that transforms eight city blocks into smoking rubble was created using a combination of miniature special effects and full-size demolitions, created under the supervision of Nick Davis. Fortuitous timing allowed the full-size effects to be filmed at an abandoned steel mill that was discovered by production designer Maher Ahmad.
"We heard about a steel mill on the south side of Chicago that was in the process of being completely torn down," says Maher. "We arranged our schedule so that we would be filming while they were destroying some of the buildings."
The visual effects that highlight the explosion - and place Keanu in front of a cataclysmic shockwave that destroys everything in its path - were created by Digital Domain (True Lies, Apollo 13), under the supervision of Pat McClung. Working from photographs of the Chicago location, a team of modellers recreated the enormous laboratory structure in miniature. The miniature was then assembled at Lake Castaic, a remote desert area north of Los Angeles, and photographed with high-speed cameras as it was blown up by pyrotechnic expert Richard Stutsman.
To create the shockwave that follows, models of the surrounding buildings were positioned along both sides of a miniature street, upon which Keanu appears to ride for his life. Tents were placed over the miniatures to protect them from the elements as they were assembled at Lake Castaic, in front of two enormous painted backdrops recreating the night-time sky above Chicago. To suggest a rapidly moving wall of force, Richard Stutsman destroyed the buildings through a carefully timed series of explosions that worked their way towards the camera. After studying reference footage filmed by the US Army during nuclear tests in the 1950s, David Isyomin and a team of six digital effects artists then used computers to create the realistic shockwave seen in the film.
Digital effects were also used to place Keanu in the middle of this apocalypse, as he rides his bike in front of the oncoming wave of destruction. Keanu was filmed against a brightly lit green background, seated on a motorbike which was suspended by a computer-controlled arm. This arm leaned the bike from side to side and raised the front wheel to accompany the action of Keanu looking behind him and cranking up the revs. A large fan suggested Keanu's forward movement by blowing wind through his hair, while powerful lights simulated the glare from the explosion and the shockwave.
When the green screen photography was completed, the film images were transferred to a digital format that allowed the scene to be manipulated in the Digital Domain computers. Keanu was separated from the background by digitally removing the colour green, and composited in front of the explosion and shockwave. A 1.2-metre long semitrailer, also photographed separately, was added to create a big rig that's blown past Keanu by the force of the explosion. Careful blending with interactive light, shadows and computer-generated debris helped combine these elements and create seamless visual effects that highlight Keanu's race to safety.
In the aftermath of the blast, Eddie and Lily learn that they have been accused of selling military secrets to the Chinese and planting the bomb to cover their actions. Pursued by the police, the FBI, the CIA and just about every other government agency in the US (where there is no shortage of them), the pair is forced to rely on their legs as they attempt to prove their innocence and turn the tables on Shannon and his team. Initially, it's Eddie's street wisdom that gets the two out of a series of sticky situations but Lily quickly adapts to her sudden change in circumstances.
"My character is a highly qualified physicist who has spent her life buried in books," says Rachel. "She's not very streetwise. I used to tell Keanu he was the medieval knight rescuing the bookish damsel in peril - but she's a fast learner who graduates from damsel in distress to his right-hand man."
Rachel's character is still in helpless mode when Eddie flees onto Chicago's Michigan Avenue bridge, pursued by police squad cars, helicopters and federal agents. His choice of escape route is poor - the bridge begins to open, forcing Keanu to climb up the rising structure and down to the second level, a stunt that he performed himself after careful coaching from stunt coordinator, Walter Scott.
"Because of the danger and logistics involved in a scene like this - the raised bridge, helicopters, boats in the river and hundreds of extras," says Andrew Davis, "you can't shoot it 17 times from 17 different angles. We did it three times from five different angles and made sure we got the shot."
Complicating the stunt were icy weather conditions, well below freezing for most of the production. Keanu, a former ice-hockey goalkeeper who was nicknamed "The Wall", proved he's no stranger to ice when he performed the dangerous stunt without difficulty.
"People kept telling me it was crazy to film in Chicago in the middle of winter, especially when we had metal bridges, ice, abandoned steel mills and subterranean tunnels," says Andrew. "But Chain Reaction is a survival movie. It's a struggle, a dangerous and scary journey, and shooting it in winter gave it more energy, more of an edge."
Temperatures dropped below minus-32 degrees Celsius at times. Beepers, cellular phones and even the cameras began to freeze but the crew and the stars continued to shoot difficult exterior scenes.
"During one night, it got so cold that the Chicago Fire Department notified its personnel to stop working with us unless it was an emergency. But there we were, still shooting," says Andrew. "Some scientist friends, who were members of a research team at the South Pole sent an E-mail telling us it was warmer there than it was in Chicago!"
The cold did produce one benefit for the production, when it came time to film a dramatic ice boat chase as helicopters pursue the pair of fugitives across Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.
"I always wanted to film this sequence on a frozen lake but everyone said it would be melted by the time we got there," says Andrew. "When we got there to shoot, the lake was still frozen solid. We found a fan-driven rescue craft... that had a bulletproof bottom to protect the hull from ice. With that we were able to fly across the lake at 150 kilometres an hour."
During large-scale action scenes such as this, the activity behind the camera rivalled that in front of it, as Andrew and his team struggled to coordinate actors, helicopters, extras and stuntpeople.
"I sometimes felt that the experience of shooting this film was like being caught in a war," laughs Andrew. "At other times I felt like we were part of a troupe of troubadours and actors, bundled up, travelling through Czechoslovakia in the Middle Ages. That's what making movies is - a blend of carnival and warfare."
For Keanu, the return to action movies seems to have taken its toll. In June, the actor turned down an $11 million offer to star opposite Sandra Bullock in Speed II, and he recently signed to play a lawyer in the suspense, non-action thriller Devil's Advocate. A Keanu spokesman explains that the actor simply doesn't see himself as an action star. And, in Chain Reaction, Keanu demonstrates that you don't have to talk the talk when you can successfully cross all the action bridges that are placed in front of you.