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September 12, 2004

FALL SNEAKS

Fearsome phalanx

Executing his vision of grandeur, Oliver Stone leads a front line of powder-keg actors across 3 continents. What could go wrong?

By David Gritten, Special to The Times

It's an appropriate setting for what everyone on set is calling "the end of the world scene": a harsh landscape dotted with scrub and a few parched bushes, the ground underfoot a dark gray volcanic rock. It rises to a cliff with a sheer drop, and from its edge, one glimpses the republic of Laos across the wide, muddy Mekong River. You feel you've gone as far as you're going.

On high ground, close to the cliff's edge, Irish actor Colin Farrell, dressed like the ancient Macedonian warrior Alexander the Great, hair dyed blond, is haranguing dozens of sullen-faced soldiers who have taken a cue from the terrain and decided: This far, but no farther. The Mekong is meant to be the river Beas in India, where 2,300 years ago Alexander's men -- weary from years of fighting battles, discovering new lands and extending his huge empire east -- mutinied, demanding to go home.

Farrell rounds on the men, reminding them he has suffered alongside them: "There's no part of me without a scar or a bone broken. By sword, knife, stone, catapult and club, I've shared every hardship with you." He urges them to stay on with him at least for another month.

The real-life parallels abound.

There are just three days to go until "Alexander," this modern-day epic written and directed by Oliver Stone, finally wraps. A grueling five-month shoot has taken cast and crew to three continents, with locations including Morocco, London and Thailand. For Stone, this is a sweet culmination. Back in film school in the 1960s, he dreamed of creating an epic film about Alexander, and now he is finally within sight of his ambitions.

As for Farrell, this speech in this setting carries yet another set of resonances. During the shoot he has fallen twice from his horse; on one occasion the animal reared and fell on him. He has suffered chronic back pain and cracked ribs, and the day after the scene beside the Mekong, he will accidentally fall on the grounds of his hotel and sustain a hairline fracture in his heel. On the last day of shooting Farrell will learn he has also broken his wrist.

Despite having been saddled with a "bad boy" image in sections of the media, he has learned to lead by example and to shoulder responsibility for seeing the film though to its conclusion.

"He's not in this for the money," Stone says of Farrell's starring role in "Alexander," budgeted at an estimated $150 million. "This was so expensive, it was a no-money film from the start." Stone adamantly denies reports that Farrell earned an $8 million fee: "He didn't come close. We both had to defer so much money as well as guarantee. He could have gone out and done another movie for three times what he received. He was worth far more on the market. But he stuck to his word. He said: 'I'll do this movie with you, and whatever you're getting, I'll do in proportion to you.' "

Driving the film, which received its primary backing from German producers Thomas Schuhly and Moritz Borman of Intermedia and will be distributed by Warner Bros. in the U.S., was an obsession with one of the great figures in all of history, a military conqueror and an idealist inspired by the gods and ancient myths, a man who, as Stone puts it, "dreamed big dreams and took big chances. He had the ferocious energy of a lion, he was a mover and shaker, he combined intellect with action. He built cities and libraries, he had a vision of the world. And as a commander, no one eluded him."

Even Stone's numerous detractors might concede that he too dreams big dreams and takes big chances. Make a film about Alexander the Great, and you end up tackling huge themes: power and fame and their corrupting qualities; the isolating effect of greatness; man's constant desire to push to the very limits; and the resolution of feelings toward two parents who used Alexander as a pawn to combat each other.

The story has interested numerous filmmakers over time -- Baz Lurhman and producer Dino De Laurentiis insist they are still moving forward on their version with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role for Universal and DreamWorks, with David Hare working on the script. But that film, which initially had been viewed as a competitor with Stone's project, remains a long way from production.

Get the tale right, and it could be an extraordinary triumph; get it wrong and it could be a catastrophic failure. "Ah, yes," Stone says, grinning his gap-toothed grin. "Hubris!"

Yet some aspects of "Alexander" leave one wondering if Stone isn't almost inviting the gods to rain disaster down on his head. There's the film's massive cost -- Variety describes the financing as a "Europudding" that was arranged by Borman's Intermedia, foreign sales company Summit Entertainment and includes French subsidies and British tax breaks -- and its daunting transcontinental shooting schedule; the potentially combustible chemistry between two strong characters, Stone and Farrell; the inspired, or maybe just eccentric decision to have the Macedonians speak with an Irish lilt, and the Greeks with English accents.

Stone also has not balked at tackling the same-sex relationships in Alexander's life; scenes between Farrell and Jared Leto, who plays Alexander's closest friend, Hephaistion, make clear the level of the men's intimacy. "It's an objective part of the story," Stone says, shrugging. "He had bisexual relationships. It was a different culture back then. Women were considered primarily as receptacles." Leto adds: "Colin and I immediately understood the love these two men had for each other. But we barely talked about it. It's so unimportant. I wouldn't characterize it as gay. To me, gay seems such a modern idea."

Finally there's the eye-popping casting for Alexander's parents: Val Kilmer (who portrayed Jim Morrison for Stone in "The Doors") as Philip, and Angelina Jolie, at 29 only one year older than Farrell, as his mother, Olympias. "That's right!" says Stone, smiling again. "Me and Colin, and Val and Angelina too. Four basket cases together!"

FROM GREAT HEIGHTS

ON the cliff beside the Mekong River, actor Rory McCann is readying himself for his big speech. McCann plays Crateros, one of Alexander's Macedonian lieutenants, to date unswervingly loyal but now wanting above all to return home. He must tell Alexander his compatriots are weary of combat and miss their wives and families.

McCann is imposing -- 6 feet 6, about 230 pounds -- and his deep voice rumbles across the clearing where Alexander's troops stand sullenly facing their leader. After two attempts, Stone is pleased, and McCann, the one Scot among the actors (known as "the first team") who play Alexander's closest confidants, is equally happy, if slightly dazed.

"My part has increased big time through filming," he says. "I went in with six lines, but came out with a whole lot more." Stone simply liked McCann and increased his role as filming progressed, giving him the lines of an injured actor. "He let me keep my Scottish accent, though the others are Irish," McCann says. "We're all Celts, I suppose. Oliver even asked me to speak my lines in more of a Scottish accent. And to put me in the mood, he arranged for bagpipe music to be playing before one of my scenes."

Stone extended this capriciousness in his casting to others. Chris Aberdare, one of the film's armorers (who supply the film's weapons and shields) had a face full of character that appealed to the director, so after two days on set he was drafted to play a veteran Macedonian officer Polyperchon. The eminent British historian Robin Lane Fox, whose biography of Alexander is a primary source for Stone's script, showed up to observe filming in Morocco -- and Stone awarded him a small role.

After McCann ended his speech, the first team clustered around him, offering high fives and showering him with genuine congratulations. A sense of bonding was evident, but after five months, these men were homesick and punchy: During one long break between scenes they served up an impromptu a cappella performance of "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do."

This closeness has been fostered by a retired soldier, Capt. Dale Dye, military advisor on six of Stone's films, starting with "Platoon," and now also promoted to second unit director on "Alexander," shooting stunts and combat scenes (including a spectacular Indian forest battle with elephants). Dye devised a three-week boot camp before filming, putting Farrell and about 50 other actors through rigorous training, including drills with javelins, slings, shields and 18-foot spears. They slept in primitive tents, and by day learned how to move in a fearsome phalanx, a formation of 256 men.

"We spent three weeks trying to get inside the heart and minds of the average Macedonian soldier of 2,300 years ago," Dye says.

Farrell says that playing Alexander has affected him profoundly. "I've come to love Alexander very much, or at least my idea of Alexander," he muses, 48 hours after the Mekong scene, sitting on his hotel terrace, his fractured heel elevated on a nearby chair. As ever, his Irish brogue is littered with expletives.

"When we broke over Christmas, I went to Greece for five days, stayed at Thessaloniki, and went to visit [Alexander's father] Philip's tomb. And I cried like a baby. It was five of the most amazing days. I've done enough movies now that I know when something's going to be good. But I've never done anything like this. Even if it doesn't end up being the vision it should be, it's a very noble endeavor, this film."

Different from anything he's done before? Farrell sighs. "It ain't 'S.W.A.T.' It just ain't."

The entire venture of "Alexander" has been conducted with a spirit of discovery, he says. "On one level, I couldn't tell you what it's about. I'm still asking the questions this script poses about our very being, our essence, our humanity. It's a beautiful script. If the film doesn't work, it's my fault, not Oliver's, I'll tell you that now -- because it's all there on the page. And when he shoots, no matter what problems arise, he just loves the doing of it."

In those last days of this marathon shoot, it did indeed seem Stone was relishing all the setbacks fate threw his way. His lead actor was injured; 30,000 feet of film were damaged, and had to be inspected for flaws frame by frame; and an outbreak of avian flu in Thailand threatened to close filming altogether.

"Those three crises have brought the juices up," Stone says. "It makes you feel alive. We've been really down to the wire, and I've told the crew, this is a real Alexander ending." In the end, though, they all made it to a wrap. Stone was content to have surmounted the final hurdle, and allowed himself a bullish moment. Smiling happily, he joked: "Every reaction shot's an epic!"