From Andrew Davis, the director of the action-adventure classic “The Fugitive,” and starring Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher and a cast of veteran and breakout stars comes THE GUARDIAN, a riveting, white-knuckle story of hardcore courage and selfless sacrifice set inside the never-before-seen world of Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers – a special breed of men and women who risk their lives against the biggest storms and most monstrous waves in service to the motto: “So that others may live!” Previously seen by most Americans only as the unsung, daredevil heroes who saved thousands in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly floods, the lives and teamwork of Rescue Swimmers come to the fore in this heart-stopping adventure.
As THE GUARDIAN begins, legendary rescue swimmer Ben Randall (COSTNER) becomes the sole survivor of a deadly crash at the height of a massive storm. In the wake of the accident, he is sent against his will to teach at “A” School – the elite training program that turns arrogant young recruits into the best and bravest of Rescue Swimmers. Reeling with grief and regret, Ben throws himself into teaching the only way he knows how, turning the entire program upside down with his unconventional, out-of-the-box training methods.
But Ben understands exactly what’s at stake –he knows that his students will one day have to make tough decisions between who dies and who lives. When he knocks heads with the cocky swimming champ, Jake Fischer (KUTCHER), Ben sees someone with what it takes to be the best of the best – if only he can combine his raw talent with the heart and dedication necessary and avoid the mistakes that Ben himself has made. Heading out on his first treacherous mission, to the fierce, turbulent waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea, Jake will have to put all that he’s learned into action as he discovers just what it means to truly risk everything.
The film was created with the Coast Guard’s full cooperation, utilizing true-life rescue heroes as advisors and as part of the cast. In a production that was itself constantly battling weather and the elements – and which was designed around a massive, innovative wave tank that simulated the wild, rolling waves of the open ocean – THE GUARDIAN provides some of the most viscerally realistic scenes of water rescue yet seen on film.
STARRING: Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Costner, Melissa Sagemiller, Sela Ward, Neal McDonough, Clancy Brown, Brian Geraghty
DIRECTOR: Andrew Davis
STUDIO: Touchstone Pictures
Wild About Movies Grade: B
Behind The Scenes
INTRODUCING THE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE SEA: THE GUARDIAN BRINGS THE WORLD OF RESCUE SWIMMERS TO THE FORE
There are many kinds of heroes in this world. There are the well-known lifesavers we encounter everyday – firefighters, policeman and doctors – and then there are those who work mainly in the shadows, who will risk anything and everything to save total strangers under the most extreme and rare of circumstances. In this category are the Coast Guard’s extraordinary but little known Rescue Swimmers. These brave men and women are an elite few possessing the uncommon physical and mental fortitude to free-fall from helicopters directly into raging seas and massive storm-floods to rescue those in harm’s way, no matter the costs. Though rarely celebrated publicly, the Coast Guard saves in the vicinity of 5,000 lives and $2.5 billion worth of property in an average year – and during the devastating 2005 hurricane season, they rescued or evacuated an estimated 33,520 people in the Gulf States ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The teeth-gritting training program of the Rescue Swimmers is considered the toughest in all of the military – with nearly 50% of those who enter dropping out. And for those remarkable few who actually make it, what lies ahead are perilous missions in the darkest, coldest, roughest waters known to humankind, where they must battle disorientation, exhaustion, hypothermia and lack of oxygen while trying to help the stranded, the panicked and those who have given up all hope.
In just 20 years of existence, the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program has become one of the most respected in the entire military profession. The Rescue Swimmer program was first mandated by Congress in 1984, after a cargo ship tragically lost 31 crew members to stormy waters on the Eastern Seaboard with only one courageous but out-matched Naval helicopter unit to assist. Since then, the Rescue Swimmer program – the only one of its kind open to both men and women – has developed into a crack unit called upon whenever disasters involving high water strike.
Yet their code of quiet bravery has meant that their stories have rarely been told. Many Americans had never seen them in action until the unforgettable news-clips of helicopters plucking victims from the rooftops and floodwaters of New Orleans. Now THE GUARDIAN story of a legendary Rescue Swimmer passing his torch to the next generation, brings out the heart of what makes Rescue Swimmers so fascinating: the indomitable human drive to help others.
The film’s genesis began when screenwriter Ron L. Brinkerhoff was inspired to write a movie that would explore the nature of heroism, but was in search of a fresh approach. “Cops and firemen have been done over and over, but the world of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program had never been explored on screen,” he explains. “What I found most compelling is that the Coast Guard is the only branch of the military whose mandate is entirely to save lives . . . not take them.” After beginning his research, Brinkerhoff decided to focus his screenplay on two men – one a revered veteran of fabled deep-water rescues nearing retirement, the other a bold, brash, self-assured young man just starting his training – and explore how bravery and wisdom are gained through their intense experiences. “In approaching the story, I wanted to kind of deconstruct the quintessential action hero,” says Brinkerhoff “I wanted to highlight the physical, psychological and emotional toll this kind of profession takes and underline the remarkable sacrifices ultimately required of them as human beings.” Early on, Brinkerhoff brought the idea to producers Tripp Vinson and Beau Flynn at Contrafilm, who coincidentally had themselves also been considering the world of Rescue Swimmers as the setting for a future film. “We were excited about the idea of combining dramatic human moments with a big action canvas,” says Vinson. “We also wanted to peel back the question of what makes a hero and ask why does somebody do this and what price do they pay. In looking at that, it makes these guys seem even more heroic.”
Before going any further with development, Vinson and Flynn went directly to the Coast Guard for their blessing– knowing their unalloyed support would be absolutely key to bringing a visceral authenticity and heart to the production. “We pitched the Coast Guard before we even pitched Disney,” notes Vinson. “The Coast Guard was integral to this movie and we wanted to make sure they were completely behind us. Ultimately, they invited us into their training facilities, offered up their personnel to us, helped us acquire equipment and the list goes on and on. I can’t say enough about how supportive and inspirational they have been.”
Also coming on board were executive producers Armyan Bernstein, Charlie Lyons and Zanne Devine of Beacon Communications, one of the film industry’s most successful independent production companies, with a keen eye for strong material; and later, executive producer Peter Macgregor-Scott, widely acknowledged as one of the most skilled hands-on producers for complex productions, who has previously worked with Andrew Davis on three films, including the runaway hit “The Fugitive.”
“We’re always looking for compelling stories and when this script came along, I think it touched all of us in the same way as having tremendous potential to be a great experience on screen,” says Bernstein. The more they learned about the Rescue Swimmer program, the more intrigued they became. Notes Charlie Lyons: “Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers are a unique blend of extreme professional athlete, surgeon, psychiatrist and clergymen. Not only do they have to decide who to save, but it is not uncommon for them to deliver last rites to a victim at sea.”
With the Coast Guard’s cooperation, screenwriter Brinkerhoff now had a chance to dive much deeper into understanding the everyday life and experiences of Rescue Swimmers. He spent significant time at “A” School watching young would-be heroes suffering through the infamous training regimens. He then journeyed to Kodiak, Alaska to meet as many experienced Rescue Swimmers as he could – weaving their life-and-death stories into the final screenplay.
Eventually that screenplay would attract the attention of a director known for his consummate skill with smart, taut, character-driven thrillers – Andrew Davis, whose work includes “The Fugitive,” the dramatically intense action epic which garnered seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, as well as “Under Siege,” “A Perfect Murder” and the hit family adventure “Holes” among others. Says Davis of his attraction to THE GUARDIAN: “What’s unique about this story is that it takes you into a world that nobody has ever really seen before. Nobody has actually been in the Bering Sea at night rescuing people, jumping into 20 foot waves in freezing temperatures, and saving lives, so this is a unique opportunity to experience something amazing like that.”
Davis also brings to the film his own life-long fascination with the power and dangers of water. “I was on the South Chicago YMCA swim team, was a lifeguard in college and have a sailboat. I’ve lived near the water all my life – and I’m very intrigued by what it means to go out in a terrible storm and try to survive,” he says.
For the producers there was no one better suited to the daunting task of capturing Rescue Swimmers in action than Davis. “The tension, drama and danger of the situations these characters find themselves in required someone who could convey that in a spectacular visual way and, at the same time, the story needed someone who is really good with character, performances and drama. Andrew has that balance,” says Vinson. Adds executive producer Charlie Lyons: “What Andrew did is create a character out of the ocean right next to Kevin, Ashton and the Coast Guard guys.” Davis knew that he would be up against extraordinary technical challenges in attempting to create on screen the kinds of furious storms and choppy seas faced by Rescue Swimmers. Though he relished the chance to work with the unruly elements of water and weather, there was far more to the film’s appeal for Davis. Acutely interested in human nature, Davis was especially intrigued by the complex relationship between Kevin Costner’s Ben Randall and his over-confident but promising young student Jake Fischer, played by Ashton Kutcher.
“The story is really about these two men, and about the passing of a mantle -- and how the younger man comes to replace the legend,” comments Davis. “What I loved in the writing is the honesty of their relationship. It’s about one man facing the reality of growing older and another learning from his mentor what life is really about and how not to make same mistakes. It’s this human element in the midst of these incredible natural forces that makes THE GUARDIAN so fascinating.”
Davis felt right from the start that key to making a powerful motion picture would be to trust the incredible experience and expertise of the Coast Guard. He collaborated closely with three Rescue Swimmer legends in their own right, who served as consultants as well as taking roles in the film: renowned Coast Guard instructor and rescue survival specialist Robert E. Watson; John F. Hall, who was responsible for numerous rescues after Katrina; and Joseph “Butch” Flythe, a much-decorated swimmer and one of five original Rescue Swimmers chosen for the Coast Guard program.
Once they learned that Davis intended to be painstakingly accurate in his portrayal of the Coast Guard, these three self-effacing heroes of countless rescues were more than pleased to lend their knowledge to THE GUARDIAN. “The commitment to doing the movie correctly was phenomenal,” says Watson. “Everyone was constantly asking us ‘is this how things really would be done’? The way they bent over backwards to represent us in a true way was awesome.”
The admiration was even stronger on the other side. Says Andrew Davis: “These three men really set the standard that Kevin, Ashton and the 22 swimmers in our cast had to live up to.”
THE LEGEND MEETS THE NOVICE: KEVIN COSTNER AND ASHTON KUTCHER HEAD THE GUARDIAN’S TEAM
Even before the screenplay was completed, THE GUARDIAN’s filmmakers knew that the fate of the film would turn on being able to cast the right two actors as haunted veteran Ben Randall and high-energy newcomer Jake Fischer – who both antagonize and bring out the best in one another. That’s why they were so gratified when two of Hollywood’s biggest stars immediately signed on: Academy Award® winner Kevin Costner and rising leading man Ashton Kutcher.
Costner was an early choice for director Andrew Davis. “He is perfect for this role because he has that kind of masculine power as a leading man combined with being a sensitive human being – so he can play a guy who is not only tough and capable but also looking inward to see where his life is heading,” he says.
For Costner, whose roles have ranged from his passion project “Dances With Wolves” to such blockbuster hits as “No Way Out,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “The Bodyguard” to the recent acclaimed drama “The Upside of Anger,” the script was hard to resist. “The excitement of the opening and the moving nature of the ending absolutely grabbed me,” he says.
Costner says it was the script’s “mythic quality” that drew him most of all. “I think all of us would like to think if we were lost at sea, someone would come and find us, even when conditions couldn’t be worse,” Costner says. “That’s a comforting feeling, which translates into a heroic or a romantic idea – the notion that someone will always come to the rescue. And I believe that’s the awesome promise of the Rescue Swimmers, that when all the ports are shut, when other people won’t go out, they will! They’re willing to put their lives on the line at any time, and I think screenwriter Ron Brinkerhoff did a great job of capturing the emotions and personalities behind that. From the beginning of the story to its riveting climactic conclusion, there’s the sense of what it’s like to be that person who helps the scared and the lost to hold on.”
The more he learned, the more impressed Costner was with the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program. “These guys go out and risk their own lives for complete strangers and that’s something that only human beings do for one another – it’s really one of those things that can make us proud of who we are,” he says.
Costner’s character, Ben Randall, is someone who has always been there right on the frontlines of rescue missions, but now in the wake of a terrible tragedy, he has to face change on the horizon. “Ben reminds me of one of those great athletes like Michael Jordan who keeps coming out of retirement because he still has the bug and he can’t get rid of it,” observes Tripp Vinson. “Rescue is the only thing Ben knows and he can’t let it go and he can’t move on with his life to the next chapter . . until he sees himself in this kid, Jake.”
Adds Costner: “Ben’s a lifer. They say you don’t make Rescue Swimmers, you find them and he’s a part of that breed. It’s far more than just a job for him, it’s a calling, but that has also taken its toll. So when we meet Ben, we also see a slightly bruised and broken character.” Despite his flaws, Ben must step up to a new and unexpected mission – passing along his knowledge to a group of raw recruits who have no idea what they will experience ahead. “Ben’s not a natural teacher,” Costner admits, “so his methods are quite unorthodox. He’s faced with these cocky kids and he tries to find ways to give them a strong sense of responsibility.”
The urge to knock some sense into his talented young students reaches its apex with Jake Fischer, whose strength as a swimmer is exceeded only by the power of his youthful confidence. Costner enjoyed the opportunity in THE GUARDIAN to watch Ashton Kutcher bring the character of Jake full circle – from tough kid to heroic man -- with his own unique touches. “Ashton has an ability to sense the dramatic opportunities that aren’t necessarily on the page, seize them and translate them into dramatic moments on film, thereby making the picture jump a level,” Costner says of his co-star. On top of the film’s psychological intensity came the physical challenges. Despite having trained for an exceptionally long list of intensely physical, action-oriented roles before, THE GUARDIAN jumped right into Costner’s list of the toughest. “This film taxed all my physical abilities,” admits Costner. “I’m 51 and these other guys in the movies are all in their 20s, so the training was a real labor of love for me.” For Costner it was all worth it just to capture the experience of the Rescue Swimmers who jump in first when someone needs help. “I don’t pretend for a second that I could do what they do – but I think this film feels very real and gives you a grasp and appreciation for who these guys are. It puts you in their place for an exhilarating moment,” he says As an award-winning director himself, Costner was especially impressed by Davis’s skill at integrating all the elements of such a demanding production. “Andy was able to deliver a big action movie on a short schedule and a tight budget with many challenging circumstances. As a director, I couldn’t have done what he did,” offers Costner.
Like Costner, Ashton Kutcher was instantly compelled by the script for THE GUARDIAN – and saw that it offered an unusual opportunity. “I was definitely looking to do something that was a total departure from what I’ve done before, and this is definitely that,” says Kutcher. “I was also looking for the chance to work with actors who I look up to and who I could learn from. And this film not only offered many opportunities for me to learn and stretch myself, that’s also what it’s about – one generation learning from the one just ahead.”
Kutcher also was inspired to dig deeper behind the exploits of the Rescue Swimmers. “The guys in the Coast Guard are the kind of heroes who don’t talk about themselves,” notes the actor. “And I hold very high regard for those kinds of people.” Kutcher threw himself with total devotion into the role, knowing he would need to undertake the same kind of grueling training Coast Guard swimmers really go through. “If I was going to do a film about Rescue Swimmers and portray these kind of heroes, I wanted to do them proud,” he comments. “I definitely didn’t want to have somebody else come in and double for me. I figured that these guys are saving lives for a living and for me, as an actor, to get into shape and be able to portray them is small potatoes and the least I could do.” The actor soon found himself along with the rest of the cast in a gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing boot camp that would test his resolve. “The boot camp with the Aviation Survival Technician teachers was an unforgettable experience,” he says. “I’ve never been yelled at so much by someone I respect so much in my life except maybe my parents. These guys rode us, and they rode us hard! In the actual ‘A School’ style of training, the instructors never ask the students to do anything that they don’t do. So if they yell at you, tell you to get down and do 40 or 50 push-ups, they’ll do ‘em right there with you. And so you just have the most enormous respect for them.” The ultimate result was that Kutcher was able to meet all the stringent requirements of a Coast Guard Swimmer well before the end of his training – including tests of speed, strength and endurance -- and his instructors noted that he seemed to have what it takes to join their ranks. Ironically, the biggest challenge for Kutcher in the beginning was his own lack of comfort in the water. “I don’t really like the water,” he laughs. “I mean if I get thrown in a pool, I’m not going to drown, but this is a whole different kind of swimming. The hardest thing for me was simply diving in first thing every morning. Still, I was just happy to be in a wave tank, and not the open ocean, where if something went awry, they could have pulled me out.”
Andrew Davis was very impressed with Kutcher’s devotion to the role. “He did an amazing job preparing for this movie. We needed to find a spunky, worldly kid capable of taking on the mantle of a great Rescue Swimmer – and that’s exactly who Ashton was,” says the director. “I think he gained ten or fifteen pounds of pure muscle in his training.”
Davis continues: “Both Ashton and Kevin brought a lot to the table in terms of developing Ben and Jake. As a director in his own right, Kevin’s sense of timing and character has been an important part of the evolution of the script and Ashton is very smart and a great improviser with a terrific sense of commitment.”
Once on the set, working through risky sequences and emotional confrontations, Costner and Kutcher developed a tight bond that seemed to mirror that of their characters. Sums up producer Vinson: “The real bonus in casting Kevin and Ashton is that they had such great chemistry together. It’s probably the thing that most excited me about making this movie. I think they’re really going to surprise audiences.”
DIVING IN: THE CAST GOES TO “A” SCHOOL
Joining Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher in THE GUARDIAN is the diverse cast that makes up the 22 young recruits at “A” School – a group made up not only of exciting young actors but also several Olympic level swimmers, competitive triathletes and a coupe of real-life Rescue Swimmers. “I really went out of my way to make sure we cast real swimmers,” says Andrew Davis, “and at the same time to create a great mix of different sizes, genders and personalities in the class. Having so many accomplished athletes and members of the Coast Guard in the cast really elevated the actors, because everybody was trying to keep up with each other.”
To further prepare the cast for the exceptional rigors and dangers of even simulating water rescues, those playing Rescue Swimmers and trainees were shipped off to attend an abbreviated but definitely no-holds-barred “A” School led by the Coast Guard’s Robert Watson, John Hall and Butch Flythe. Andrew Davis notes that just being in the presence of the real Rescue Swimmers was a constant inspiration. “There’s a certain way they carry themselves, a certain sense of discipline and a general view of life they have that is just terrific,” he says. “We felt very blessed to have people who have actually saved the lives of others right there on set with us, giving us feedback.”
The cast was also excited – but felt the considerable weight of trying to live up to the heroism of the men and women they were portraying. Says Brian Geraghty, the young star who plays the underdog trainee “Hodge”: “We knew these guys we were working with had saved a lot of lives so that puts a lot of pressure on you to get it right.” Geraghty continues: “But man, this training was ridiculous! I’ve been surfing my whole life and I love the water but this was so tough physically and mentally it was like nothing else.”
Notes Butch Flythe: “We put the actors through what we would call Rescue Swimmer Lite but it was still very intense. They worked incredibly hard -- and if you looked on the pool deck at any moment you wouldn’t be able to tell this wasn’t a real ‘A’ School class, which was very impressive to us.”
Although many of the actors in THE GUARDIAN had been through various film “boot camps” before, nothing seemed to compare. “It was a great experience because it bonded us all together,” says Tripp Vinson. “We had a very athletic cast but everyone was dead tired by the end of it and we were really proud of that.”
Coast Guard technical advisor Jeffrey D. Loftus believes that the hard-core training helped both cast and filmmakers to take more creative risks. “Between the real swimmers being around all the time and the training and the exposure, the cast got the rescue techniques at boot camp, they were able to take things much further,” he says. “They got great opportunities to see the things that a swimmer goes through that normal people can’t really imagine. I think that helped them to really represent the professionalism, dignity and honor that distinguish Rescue Swimmers.”
For Rescue Swimmer Robert Watson the experience of working on a Hollywood film production was equally eye-opening. “As Rescue Swimmers, we came in with our perceptions of Hollywood, but we found Kevin, Ashton and the rest of the cast to be truly honorable,” he says. “They had a job to do and they wanted to do it right. We train very hard to do our jobs and it was cool to be around other professionals who also put their heart and soul into what they do.”
Meanwhile, in exploring the world of Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, THE GUARDIAN also delves into the job’s resonant effect on the swimmers’ outside lives and relationships. This emerges through two of the film’s female characters: Ben Randall’s frustrated wife Helen, played by popular TV and film star Sela Ward, and Jake Fischer’s blossoming love interest, Emily, portrayed by rising star Melissa Sagemiller, who recently came to attention in Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell” series.
Ward was thrilled to reunite with Andrew Davis, having previously starred as Harrison Ford’s wife in “The Fugitive.” “I really wanted to work with him again and I’d never worked with Kevin Costner before so I thought this would be a lot of fun,” she says. “There’s also enough to the role of Helen that I thought I could really showcase something special and make each scene count.”
Ward sees Helen as “a very strong, artistic woman who lives a far bigger life than Kodiak, Alaska can offer her.” She continues: “I think Helen thought that she and Ben would one day have much bigger plans together, but now she sees very little of him with his work demands. They are really two people who should be together but can’t seem to be under the circumstances and have grown apart.” Despite being realistic about the toll such a career can take on families and marriages, Ward also developed immense respect for the Rescue Swimmers in the course of the production. “They are really about the human ability to give of oneself for another human being,” she observes. “That’s the heart of this movie.”
Sagemiller was also moved by the real-life Rescue Swimmers – but her character Emily is less than blown away by Jake Fischer’s bravado at first. “Emily is a schoolteacher and a kind of no-nonsense, firecracker sort of girl who meets Jake, thinks he’s cute but a smart-ass and is just not that impressed,” laughs Sagemiller. “She thinks he’s got a lot of work to do on himself!”
She continues: “The two of us right away have this very intense chemistry. There’s a lot of back-and-forth game-playing where we’re constantly one-upping each other, but in the process of all these games, we completely fall for each other.”
But as their relationship deepens, Emily’s honesty towards Jake becomes invaluable to him. “Emily can see right through Jake, whereas Jake can’t always see through his ego and what’s going on with him and his struggle,” comments Sagemiller. “She gives him that sort of feminine intuitive point of view he really needs. She’s a really fun, spicy character to play.”
Working with Ashton Kutcher was a big bonus for Sagemiller. “He’s incredibly fun and spontaneous,” she says. “He’s always telling jokes and he’s got this great energy and magnetism. We hit it off right away – and it was great to see his intense commitment to his character.”
Rounding out the female cast are also 60s singing star Bonnie Bramlett in the role of Maggie, the bar owner and widow who is intimately connected to the “A” School; and Shelby Fenner, an exciting newcomer, previously seen on television’s “C.S.I” and “Charmed,” who takes the action-oriented role of Cate Lindsey, one of the female recruits at “A” School. Fenner was intrigued to learn that the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program is the only one of its kind that is “gender blind” and allows women to enter if they can meet the physical requirements. Now she had the honor of joining Ashton Kutcher and the other men in training at the production’s challenging boot camp – and to portray one of the handful of exceptional women currently working as Rescue Swimmers.
INTO THE CRASHING SEA: DESIGNING THE FILM’S INNOVATIVE WAVE TANK
As production for THE GUARDIAN got underway, the filmmakers would find themselves in an unusual position: battling severe weather – including the after-effects of hurricanes and volcanoes – while simultaneously coming up with creative ways to recreate it.
As soon as he had read the script for THE GUARDIAN, director Andrew Davis knew he would be up against a serious challenge. After all, how exactly does one make a film set in an utterly un-filmable location such as the lethal waters of the Bering Sea? “I was very concerned about how we were going to simulate the Bering Sea, and at the same time, create a real, fascinating character out of the ocean,” he says. “That was the big question.”
To help him find the answers, Davis turned to two of his long-time collaborators: production designer Maher Ahmad, who would ultimately oversee the creation of the film’s unprecedented wave tank and submersed sets; and visual effects supervisor William Mesa, whose inventive work created some of the most realistic computer-generated images of storms ever seen. “William Mesa and Maher Ahmad were key to figuring out how to create a realistic world of water,” says Davis. “We looked at the most outrageous footage of real storms and rescue scenes and, amazingly, they delivered something just as powerful.”
Adds Peter Macgregor-Scott: “William Mesa gave us the jet fighters in ‘Under Siege,’ he gave us the train chase in ‘The Fugitive,’ and now he has given us the raging storms in THE GUARDIAN all with amazing reality.”
For his part, Ahmad was thrilled to reunite once again with Davis, but was especially excited to take on a design task that would ultimately combine innovative engineering with old-fashioned motion picture artistry. “It was great fun because we got to create all kinds of things you don’t generally get to do in movies,” muses Ahmad. “Usually, you’re designing kitchen and living room interiors but here we were designing vast water environments – caves and boats and the open sea.”
At the center of the design would be the film’s most vital “set”: a water tank that would serve as a virtual ocean through the film’s most suspenseful action sequences. Creating the tank turned out to be an incredible adventure. “I’ve done a lot of big films but this water tank is truly something spectacular and unique,” says MacGregor-Scott. “It’s the only one of its kind in the world.”
The tank was just in the beginning stages when, as irony would have it, an all-too-real monster storm would impact the production of THE GUARDIAN. Originally slated to shoot in New Orleans in 2005, the film was forced to move to Shreveport, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck, shattering much of the city. “Despite having to roll with the changes, we still felt there could no better place to shoot a movie about Rescue Swimmers than Louisiana, especially after Katrina,” says Tripp Vinson.
Now it fell to Ahmad to start to re-build the wave tank in a state still reeling from its own need for rescue. “Under the gun, we had to hire new engineers, find new locations, engage new contractors and really start all over again from scratch under a great deal of stress and time pressure – yet in the end, it turned out far better than any of our hopes,” sums up Ahmad. “It involved the skills of an enormous number of people.”
The foundation of the water tank was an eight-chambered, 100 x 80 foot concrete pool capable of holding 3/4 of a million gallons when full – built in front of a 50-foot tall blue screen wall. To assure the utmost in technical safety and authenticity, Ahmad brought in a full panoply of engineers -- including soil engineers, civil engineers, structural engineers, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers -- to assure everything would work just right.
Then came the crux: generating the tank’s surging, 6 to 9 foot waves replete with bubbling foam and cresting white caps. To create the ultimate wave machine, the production brought in the New York-based firm Aquatic Development Company (ADC), who designed a novel system utilizing three 150 horse-power engines which drive fans capable of producing enough air pressure to knock out truly oceanic, “rolling” waves, one after another. The full effect of the waves emerges when they hit the rear end of the water tank, reflecting in a crashing motion to the next wave being generated, creating a perpetually undulating motion just like the ocean.
“ADC has frequently made wave tanks for amusement parks but they’d never done something like this where the waves had to become incredibly strong and hectic, so now they were working in unknown territory,” says Ahmad. “It was a gratifying day when we saw how wonderful the waves are. It looked just like an angry winter’s day in the Bering Sea – and they were strong enough that they actually made some of the stunt guys nauseous!”
The water tank exceeded everyone’s expectations. Recalls Davis: “What was really exciting is that when Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Robert Watson saw the waves, he said ‘I’m getting goosebumps because this is so real!’ Another amazing thing is that we were able to constantly fine tune it – we could have rolling patterns of waves, diamond patterns, different heights, different frequencies. We were basically able to decide on the palette of waves we wanted in each scene.”
Once the water/wave tank was up and running, Maher Ahmad began to design three major sets that would sit inside the tank: the cave, the fishing boat set and the engine room set. One of Ahmad’s biggest challenges was creating the sea-cave, where one of the film’s most harrowing rescues unfolds. “The cave had to be completely built outside the tank, then transported with two giant 150-ton cranes and dropped into the water,” Ahmad explains. “It also had to be able to withstand the pounding forces of six foot waves hitting it. To keep it light but tough, we used a very dense foam that was hand-carved like rock and then spray-coated it with a hard-coat plastic. It was very successful and turned out quite impressive looking.”
For the fishing boat, the production had initially purchased a 72-foot trawler just south of New Orleans – and was stunned to find later that the very location where they had bought the boat was wiped off the map during Katrina. Now they had to find a way to transport the boat, trapped by Katrina’s debris in Lake Ponchartrain, to Shreveport. This was no mean feat – involving an 800-mile trip up the Mississippi by tow-barge –and that was just the beginning. “Once we got it to Shreveport, there was a lot of work still to be done,” Ahmad recalls. “We had to rebuild a lot of it and re-do all of the rigging to accommodate the stunt work and then it got a complete paint and aging job.”
Then came the most important touch: the boat was mounted on a pneumatic gimbal that rocked and rolled the structure to replicate the pitching of huge waves. In these sequences, huge drums of water were dropped down 35-foot chutes to form additional rogue waves that would douse both the sets and the actors. To further add to the water-logged atmosphere, Ahmad used gargantuan fans to create gale-force winds and misting rains.
Another intricate set design involved the flooded engine room where Jake becomes terrifyingly trapped. “This entire set had to be built so that it could still function while soaked in water,” explains Ahmad. That presented a lot of challenges in ways you wouldn’t even think about at first – like the lighting, which all had to be completely water-proofed because you wouldn’t want to electrocute anybody!”
Ultimately, the water tank provided the cast and crew with their own personal sense of what it would be like to work at high intensity in cold, wet conditions for hours on end. It also brought back haunting memories for some of the real Rescue Swimmers on the set. “One of the hardest scenes to watch was when Randall is caught in the net in his dream,” admits Butch Flythe. “That was a really spooky scene because every Rescue Swimmer’s biggest fear is ‘am I going to jump into something that I can’t get out of?’ It gave me a real chill.”
That’s exactly what the filmmakers were hoping for. “There’s never been a movie made in the Bering Sea, because it’s not somewhere you can afford to go and get in trouble,” notes Scott. “But when all our Coast Guard instructors and consultants told us that we recreated it amazingly well that meant a lot to us.”
A sense of adventure was required for all members of the crew, especially cinematographer Stephen St. John, whose cameras were intentionally placed as close to the action as possible to give the audience a sense of being right in the water with the film’s characters. “The bottom line was that we wanted everything to feel real,” says Vinson. “If the movie has some grit, that’s OK, if there’s water drops on the lenses, that’s OK, because that’s the way things really are in a rescue situation.”
To further add to the authenticity of the film, the second unit traveled to the choppy coast of Oregon to shoot actual Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers in action – jumping out of helicopters and into the waves. They then went north to Alaska, to capture soaring aerials of Kodiak Island, where a recent volcanic explosion created more challenges. On dry land, Ahmad created detailed mock-ups of the Coast Guard’s Jay Hawk helicopters, from which the Rescue Swimmers jump and conduct their rescues. He also designed the “A” School itself inside several empty buildings on a National Guard base – starting from scratch but trying to match the precise atmosphere of the Coast Guard’s premiere school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Another few days of filming took place in Elizabeth City, to capture the ambiance of a large Coast Guard air station.
But the heart of the film remains the water scenes, because it is in these moments that the characters are tested right down to their very souls. In post-production, the water sequences truly came alive due to the creative work of visual effects supervisor William Mesa. “The challenge was creating realistic oceans that could be integrated with both the real and digital environments of the film,” Mesa says. “You have scenes that are very layered and complicated with boats sinking, objects exploding and big seas breaking over everything.”
Mesa worked extensively with the wave tank, so that he could take footage of the waves created inside and literally “morph” them into the menacing 30-foot seas into which the Rescue Swimmers venture. Working with water can be a digital nightmare, Mesa admits, but he took a very original approach that brought astonishing results. “Water is probably the most difficult of all computer-generated objects because it’s organic,” he explains. “A real storm is so complex it’s really can’t be programmed, so most storm footage you’ve seen in recent movies just repeats the same patterns over and over. But what we’ve done that’s unique is actually animate over the top of the surface of real storms to make our footage appear much more real.”
The challenges may never have stopped on THE GUARDIAN, but no matter what the cast and crew faced, they knew it would never compare to what real Rescue Swimmers go through to save those in dire need. The hope was simply to capture some of that human strength and compassion in action. “We had a number of people on the set who rescued people during Katrina and when you hear their stories it just brings tears to your eyes,” sums up Davis. “These guys are the real thing and they have so much humility and loyalty to each other –that’s what it’s really all about.”