First post-Katrina pic shot in New Orleans mixes physics and fantasy

In his upcoming time-travel thriller, “Deja Vu,” director Tony Scott spikes futuristic physics with healthy doses of Hollywood romance, crime and big-budget action. The film, which finished shooting in mid-June and is set for release in November, gleefully mixes familiar genres.

But what “Deja Vu” should not be considered, Scott repeatedly told Denzel Washington and other cast members, is science fiction.

“I didn’t use that word,” Washington swiftly notes.

Washington plays an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called in to investigate a terrorist bombing of a canal ferry in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. After hooking up with an FBI agent (played by Val Kilmer) and visiting the agency’s “time lab,” Washington is able to turn back the clock to prevent the bombing.

While the plot may sound like the stuff of “Star Trek” and H.G. Wells, Scott prefers the label “science fact” in referring to a film that draws inspiration from cutting-edge physics research.

“We’re trying to create a sense that time travel is possible — let the audience believe in it by relying on real science, real research to help that process,” says Chad Oman, president of production for Bruckheimer Films. “Whether it’s (physics and mathematic professor) Brian Green, author of ‘The Elegant Universe,’ who worked on the script, to (Bureau) officers, (we did) everything possible to give us as much reality as we could.”

“Deja Vu” is the latest collaboration between Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose previous work together includes “Crimson Tide” and the milestone “Top Gun.”

While the two men dabble in particle accelerators and wormholes in their latest outing, “Deja Vu” certainly won’t overburden viewers with too much fact. The film features a giant explosion, with flames reaching 350 feet high; terrorists in masks; federal agents who look like Kilmer; and what’s described as a “reverse love story.”

As he investigates, Washington picks up the trail of a woman caught on surveillance cameras prior to the explosion. He begins to fall in love as he learns about her life, then travels back to try to save her and prevent the bombing.

The film marks the first foray by a big studio into New Orleans after the city was laid waste by Hurricane Katrina last year. Its opening scene, shot in February, captures the Big Easy back in celebration mode during Mardi Gras.

Though the film is not out to score political points, “Deja Vu” does not gloss over the storm’s legacy. Rather, it presents the city’s still-visible wounds — street scenes with debris, an abandoned car and boarded-up windows — without fanfare as a fact of life.

The Disney release “reflects what’s going on in the town,” Washington says. “It’s not about Katrina, but it’s post-Katrina.”

Production on the film was gearing up when Katrina hit. Despite the damage, uncertainty and inevitable delay, Scott pushed hard to keep New Orleans as the film’s setting.

“Tony Scott was very strong with the studios and very forceful about shooting there,” Kilmer says. “There’s really nothing like the film business when it comes to bringing in so much money to a community in such a short period of time.”

Generous local tax breaks for film shoots were a major incentive for staying in New Orleans. But Bruckheimer says the decision also was motivated by a love for the city and a desire to help its residents.

Shooting was delayed until February, and the script was changed to reflect the post-hurricane ruin.

After “Deja Vu’s” arrival in New Orleans last winter, a rush of films followed, including a Coast Guard action pic called “The Guardian” and the Sandra Bullock thriller “Premonition.”

It seems like productions are now “lined up like planes over Cleveland,” Washington says.

“Deja Vu” makes extensive use of familiar landmarks, from the canal ferry to the well-preserved environs of the French Quarter and the Garden District. But Scott also shot footage in the decimated 9th Ward.

“One thing we discovered,” says Oman, “is that the picture you get from television coverage is a very strong understatement of what it was like in the devastated areas.”

In some spots, the crew left behind small improvements, such as adding a missing sign to a ferry landing and putting up lights on a bridge spanning the Mississippi.

For a scene that called for a street car, the film had to cheat. The production hired an out-of-work driver and towed a street car supplied by the city along the tracks for a shot featuring Washington as a passenger.

While on location, Washington says, he tried to get around the city and meet people in different neighborhoods. On weekends, he saw people trying to clean up, and a lot of “little old ladies picking up twigs” outside their homes.

“People are trying to move forward,” he says. “The problem is housing.”

Bruckheimer says he was pleased that the production hired local technicians, many of them out of work.

“Some of them were living in trailers and had no income for a long time,” he explains. “The business kind of left in October, so, you know, women would cry and (be) hugging us.”

Kilmer says he felt the city still looked like it had been hit by “an atom bomb.”

“They’re wiped out,” he says. “That community will never be like it was.” Residents, he says, “had this shell-shocked look on their faces … like they can’t believe what happened.”

That sense of lingering shock, Kilmer adds, is “very vivid in the story.” Still, he sees a positive message in the film in which Washington’s investigator can go back in time and search for an alternative to disaster.

“Things can happen that can be terrible,” he says. “But there’s a strength of character that comes out of the human spirit that can make a miracle happen. And that’s Denzel’s character.”

Katrina wasn’t the only early jolt to the production. At one point, Scott abruptly left the project in a move initially described as a business decision but motivated by what he called “creative head-butting.”

Bruckheimer’s office says there were differing opinions over how to sell parts of the story to the audience, and a compromise was reached in which “Tony was doing the movie he felt he’d signed on to, and we felt we were doing the movie we sent him in the script.”

Says the director: “It was a difficult process. I’m in this industry to make something I want to make and can be proud of. I was struggling with this head-butting (over the script) when Katrina came along.”

He adds that the combination of resolving his differences with the writers through Bruckheimer’s intervention and the devastation of New Orleans brought him back onboard.

“It’s a city like no other American city,” he says, “a city caught in a time warp — and it’s a time-travel story.”

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