Looking For A Few Good Men
In the world of the future of Warner Bros.' Soldier, which opens today, careers are chosen at birth and children are raised to fulfill their destinies. Those selected to become soldiers are separated from society and molded into emotionless automatons who kill without mercy. When they become obsolete, they are replaced by newer models...until one regains the humanity he lost.
Much like the weapons which they use in battle, the soldiers of this futuristic armed forces are slated for replacement with newer, better models. The protagonist, Todd (Kurt Russell), grew up schooled in the "Rules For Life" issued by the American Forces: never question authority, strength beats knowledge, show no mercy, weakness=death. With their names and serial numbers tattooed on their faces, the soldiers who survive are the ones who best adhere to this system.
Having lived by those rules from childhood and fought in many galactic struggles, Todd is nonetheless unprepared for the scientifically designed human fighting machines exemplified by Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee), who, in a government test designed to demonstrate his superiority, slaughters Todd's squad. Left for dead on a garbage outpost, Todd is nursed back to health and humanity by the pacifistic pioneers of that world. Then Caine 607 and his peers arrive.
Director Paul Anderson describes the film as "a western set in space," with "the classic narrative structure of a western like Shane set in a science-fiction backdrop. Our hero, basically a lone gunfighter, comes to town and everyone in the settlement is afraid of him...but later he protects the settlers. It's a movie about how men are brutalized by the violence of war and the impossibility of leaving that behind. Although a man can stop going to war, he doesn't necessarily stop the war inside himself."
Producer Jerry Weintraub, who bought Academy Award-winner David Webb Peoples' script when he first read it five years ago, described the film as a morality play as well, pitting the human element of the soldiers against the march toward progress. Peoples wrote the script for Soldier during the same period in which he produced early drafts of the screenplays for Blade Runner and Unforgiven. Todd bears similarities to Batty, the deadly android of Blade Runner condemned in the end by his obsolescence, as well as with Munny, the retired gunslinger of Unforgiven who must give up his newfound pacifism in order to protect innocent people.
Both the director and producer said Russell was a unanimous choice to play Todd. "Kurt is a wonderful combination of an incredibly physical actor, which is very important to a film like this, and a really first-rate actor. Here's a man who has to go from being a near-machine to someone who almost has a nervous breakdown and, finally, to a balanced human being by the end," said Anderson.
Russell was attracted to the story of a fighting machine discovering his humanity, though he knew the film would require him to be in top physical form and perform many of his own stunts. "Todd and the other veteran soldiers have been raised in a Lord of the Flies-type situation within a military environment. The way these soldiers are raised - taken from a nursery, inducted into the military and raised without exposure to love - is really the ultimate form of child abuse," he noted. "The physicality of this movie is really the least interesting thing to me; it's his mentality that's interesting."
Russell has very little dialogue in the film, which he said made the part more interesting for him and compared the performance to mime. "One of my beliefs on film acting is that if you think it, it will be there on screen, the audience will understand what you are thinking," he said. Producer Weintraub agreed: "It's all in Kurt's eyes."
It was important to Russell to look like a man who has been at war for thirty years. "I am a great believer in the physicality of acting," the actor revealed. "Plus, it was a good thing to discipline myself in that regard, three hours every morning, just training. That mind-set is similar to what Todd experiences." Trainer Greg Isaacs, director of the Warner Bros. Fitness Center who worked with Russell on his workout, appears in the film as one of the old soldiers in Todd's regiment.
The producers chose to cast against type for the other lead roles: they selected Jason Scott Lee, who had previously played only heroes, as Caine 607, and Gary Busey, famous for playing many villains, as Todd's captain, Church. Both balk at the notion that their characters could be considered bad guys, though they represent the dehumanizing forces which have afflicted Todd all his life.
"In essence, my character is not an evil character - in my mind, Caine is just a soldier doing his duty," said Lee, pointing out the similarities between Todd and Caine, who is merely a later version of Todd without the humanizing influence of the settlers. "His intentions are not evil. There is a certain purity in his single-mindedness, much like a samurai. I found a liking for this character because it was very pure."
"Captain Church is a career military man and he builds soldiers," explained Busey in turn. "His family and all of the emotions that are associated with that are represented by his veteran soldiers. They're his pride and his job." Producer Weintraub also pointed out the similarities among the men, noting that, essentially, Caine and Todd are the same person.
Todd and Caine engage in hand-to-hand combat on chains 50 feet above the ground and during a driving rainstorm amidst the refuge of the garbage planet. Both director Anderson and actor Lee stressed the complexity of filming the sequences, though Russell stressed that the mental gymnastics of playing Todd were as complicated as the physical work. "Staged combat is probably the most difficult type of action you can do because you're not doing it by yourself," noted Lee. "You're in relationship with another human being, so there is much more room for something to go wrong." Lee underwent intense physical preparation for the role, gaining 15 pounds of bulk through a combination of martial-arts training and a special diet, and working with fight choreographers Jerry Poteet and Fran Joseph.
Rounding out the principals are Connie Nielsen and Michael Chiklis as Sandra and Jimmy, two pioneers who help Todd rediscover his emotions. "Connie's role is really key because she unlocks the humanity in Kurt's character," Anderson commented. "He becomes a child in her hands." Sandra, her husband and their son are the first nuclear family that Todd has ever seen. Nielsen stressed the character's "great sense of dignity, intelligence and strength. She is the catalyst for Todd's emotional awakening. She is his introduction to life as we know it."
Chiklis portrays boisterous pioneer Jimmy Pig, who provides the film's comic relief. Todd rescues Jimmy from certain death in a windstorm, and Jimmy becomes one of the only villagers who trusts the newcomer from the start. "There's some humanity in him that the others can't see, and I can," explained the actor, adding that during the rescue scene, "I become a human kite. My pulse has been in my throat a number of times during filming. When Caine's soldiers come, they fire 50-millimeter Gatling guns at us - they really fired. It was like being in front of a wall of loudspeakers at a Pearl Jam concert."
Chiklis was particularly impressed by the design of the production, which he said made it easy to get into character. "The moment you put on your costume, you are halfway there. Then, you walk on to the set and there is this whole world - everything is provided for you. You don't have to fabricate anything."
The garbage planet, littered with 1,000-foot-high piles of non-biodegradable trash, comes across as environmentally hostile yet welcome to the pioneers who inhabit the world. Filmmakers set about constructing the main set more than two months before principal photography began, covering a soundstage with refuse. Large set pieces from previous films, including the F-117 stealth bomber from Executive Decision, the wheelchair from Demolition Man, and a replica of a spinner car from Blade Runner In addition, a piece of the space ship from Paul Anderson's Event Horizon was featured even though it was not a Warner Bros. film.
""We have a lot of futuristic weaponry for the soldiers, which is fun for an Englishman because we don't have guns in England," Anderson joked. "Soldier has cool science-fiction hardware in spades. The biggest pieces of hardware in the movie are the two crawlers - basically armored personnel carriers - [which] are the biggest vehicles ever built for a movie. When the crawlers crush something, they really crush something." The futuristic tanks were constructed on the basic bodies of Caterpillar 777 earth-movers, which are industrial trucks used for heavy construction and weighed in at 65 tons even before the modifications. The crawlers were equipped with shell-spewing cannons mounted on gun turrets, plus twin 50-caliber Browning machine guns and 10,000-watt searchlights.
The production filmed in locations throughout Southern California, including the Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, where Kurt Russell's son Wyatt portrayed 11-year-old Todd. In addition to the soundstage containing the sets for the garbage planet, the filmmakers made use of the Barker Airplane Hanger in Santa Monica, where the chain fight sequence was filmed, as well as downtown Los Angeles and Azusa, to which the crawlers were transported by special permit on wide-load truck.
Nonetheless, it was important to the producers at Morgan Creek that the visuals not overwhelm the heart of the story. "Soldier is very much a character piece because the story is not driven by special effects or explosions, but instead by movement and contact with the characters on screen, things that are the same in any language," said Weintraub. "I make movies about people, movies about characters the audience gets invested in."