Smooth sailing for ‘Sphere’

GOOD MORNING: With all the horror stories about shooting water-based movies, it’s a pleasure to report one star-studded extravaganza wound under sked and under budget. “It’s amazing!” admits “Sphere” director Barry Levinson, who completed principal photography Monday of the WB version of Michael Crichton’s book. It’s even more amazing because Levinson wound the (reportedly) $73 million “Sphere” immediately after completing his New Line “Wag the Dog” for a budget he describes as “in the teens.” That feat, he says, was accomplished because “None of us took any money off the top. We all worked for scale.” “Dog” stars include Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Bill Macy, Willie Nelson, Denis Leary, etc. He shot “Dog” in 29 days from David Mamet’s script in L.A., Bakersfield and Washington. He admits, “It was the only way to do this movie–” and be ready to start “Sphere” with the other thesps’ availability. The cast of “Sphere” includes Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Coyote, none of whom worked for scale — neither did Levinson. Aside from a few days of second-unit work in Hawaii, “Sphere” filmed 68 days totally on Mare Island, in the former Navy facility converted into a movie studio, stages, offices, commissary, wardrobe dept., props shop, etc. All the underwater scenes — they are supposed to be 1,000 feet under water — were created in tanks in the former hangars, thanks to creative production designer Norman Reynolds. The Navy’s Treasure Island is also home to movie and TV companies these days, but Mare Island is the granddaddy of them all: the largest and the oldest, with buildings chronicling over a century of U.S. and naval history. One of the buildings supposedly housed the A-bombs before they were shipped off to their destinations in Japan. The base once housed as many as 20,000 men (and women) Levinson told me the movie is “faithful” to what Crichton wrote; the author visited the sets twice and viewed footage, about which Levinson said he was “excited.” The film goes into “an awesome” post-production. Release is probably Easter ’98. Director of photography Adam Grenbert had an imposing task, says Levinson: He had to work in cramped quarters of the habitat which made for a minimum number of crew members within. “It got a little nuts!” admitted Levinson. But the actors “were a good group, even though they were squeezed on top of one another.” Does the pic lend itself to a sequel? “Oh God!” exclaimed the just-freed-from-the-“Sphere” Levinson. But then he quickly added, “If it does well enough!” He continues to work (seven years) on his “Diner” group’s coming-of-ages and the unfinished script(s) of the Bobby Darin biopic.

IN TRUE MITCHUM STYLE, though dying of cancer and emphysema, Bob got out of bed during the night Monday, at home — he had an aversion to hospitals — and grabbed one, last cigarette, his son (actor) Chris told me as the family gathered at the Mitchum Santa Barbara home Tuesday. Daughter Trina, a writer, winged up from Burbank, and son Jim (a rancher) arrived from Paradise Valley, Ariz., to be at their mother Dorothy’s side. Bob’s ashes will be returned to the family Thursday, at which time his wishes to be buried at sea will be carried out. As for a memorial of any kind, Trina admitted, “Dad had told me at John Huston’s memorial at the DGA — he’d like that, too.” The date is to be set. Despite the (well-acted) gruff exterior, Mitchum had one regret: He did not receive recognition from his peers — an Oscar. (He was nominated as supporting actor for “G.I. Joe.”) However, he did learn that many, like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, had requested an honorary Oscar for him. Who more deserving for his versatile performances? I’d known him since his raucous days at RKO, when he easily slipped into the most dramatic of scenes, fresh from a liquid lunch at Lucey’s restaurant with journalists. He is still to be seen on screen in “Waiting for Sunset,” which Kushner/Locke and Alan Oberholzer will distribute. Cliff Robertson co-stars. Mitchum’s also to be seen portraying George Stevens in the James Dean story, “Race With Destiny,” in which Bob’s granddaughter Carrie plays Pier Angeli to Casper Van Dien’s James Dean. … AMC plays a tribute to Bob Mitchum Thursday, airing nine of his films. Sept. 25, he’s honored at AMC’s annual Film Preservation Festival for the film noir at the El Rey theater.

ALTHOUGH HE STARRED in the “Mission: Impossible” series, Oscar winner (“Ed Wood”) Martin Landau didn’t get to do the movie — however, now he’s to be a star of the “X-Files” bigscreen feature — never having been in that TV series. Chris Carter is keeping the pic so secret, script copies are reportedly printed on un-reproduceable paper. And cast members are given phony character names in advance of filming.

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