The Unstoppable Michael Douglas
Even wild lions couldn't keep him away from 'Ghost and the Darkness'
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Michael Douglas describes his career as slow-simmering bouillabaisse.
It wasn't until he graduated from college that he decided on a career in acting, he says. And then it took him about 10 years to get fired up about going to work each day.
"Learning patience," he says with a smile, "was not an easy lesson." Yet even at his lowest moments, Mr. Douglas has always found something to be passionate about.
Today, with two Oscars on his mantel, one for producing the 1975 winner of the best-picture award, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and the other for best actor in Oliver Stone's 1987 drama "Wall Street," Douglas is still happiest when dangling out on a limb.
"If you're work isn't exciting, doesn't stir the emotions, where's the challenge? Where's the progress if you always play it safe?"
His latest picture, "The Ghost and the Darkness," produced by his newly formed company, Constellation Films, in association with Paramount, is a perfect example. It is based on a true story about man-eating lions in Africa during the late 19th century, when the British were attempting to build a railway across the continent.
"My partner at Constellation, Steve Reuther, and I were looking over scripts Paramount had optioned," he says, explaining his deal with the studio is to produce at least 12 films over the next four years. "One script, written by William Goldman, caught my eye. Goldman has a great track record; he wrote 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' and won the Oscar in 1984."
Douglas chose the script for his company's first production. For nine years others had tried to make the film and given up. "This was indeed a risk-taking problem ... or opportunity," he says.
"The Ghost and the Darkness" involved challenges that most producers wouldn't relish: filming in Africa, getting tribes to act, unfamiliar terrain, unpredictable weather, and most of all training two lions. In the story, the two lions, known as man-eaters of Tsavo, devour 130 people over a three-month period. It is the only time in history this has happened. (This involves some violent and gory scenes in the film.)
So, with "Ghost and the Darkness" he once again ended up out on the limb. It's a familiar place for the actor.
Check his record. In the 1970s, he co-starred with Karl Malden in the hit TV series "The Streets of San Francisco." This experience exposed him to scripts, story structure, production, even some directing. "It was one of the best experiences of my career," he says.
But at the height of the show's popularity, Douglas left to produce his first film. "When [my colleagues] heard the movie was about an insane asylum, they thought I should be in one," he recalls.
That movie was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which gathered 15 Oscar nominations and five Oscars including best picture.
The "Ghost and the Darkness" crew ran into some unconventional challenges. Most of the film was shot at the Songimelvo Game Reserve at the South Africa/Swaziland border. The government was cooperative, but the weather was not.
The film company built bridges and roads, but two days before filming, the rains came, ending a seven-year drought and washing away everything they'd built.
The crew had to be taken to the location by rubber rafts while keeping a watchful eye for hippos.
There were few casting problems, though. Val Kilmer knew the true story and he had spent a month each year in Africa for the past 12 years, so he was a natural for the lead.
Other actors weren't quite as experienced, but they still pulled it off, says Douglas. "We needed 30 lion-killing warriors, so 30 Samburu were transported from their village in the rugged Northern Frontier District in East Africa to Songimelvo. It was their first time on an airplane, and they were great."
The movie was in production, but they still hadn't cast the role of Remington, the American wild-animal hunter who comes to the camp to help Kilmer's character stop the killings. So Douglas cast himself in the role.
"I began to like this character role, a scruffy, ex-Confederate soldier, who has lost everything. It's not the largest role, he's not a hero, and did I mention I'd never been to Africa?
"It was hardest to cast the lions," he says. Five lions were flown to Africa from California, Canada, and France three months before filming. Born in captivity, they had to get used to the environment.
Despite the many obstacles, Douglas says he'd do it all over again. "There is something about seeing rhinos and lions running free that excites you. It's not that you feel afraid, it's more like you're liberated by seeing them."
When Douglas's family came for Christmas, he took them to a small game reserve, where one night they went on a tracking expedition and came within a few feet of a lion devouring a wildebeest and the female waiting to join him.
Douglas turned to the guide and asked, "Is it safe for us to be here, between these two?"
Without explaining that a well-fed lion isn't looking for more prey, the guide replied, "Not for you, Mr. Douglas. I've seen your movies; nothing frightens you."
"Well," gulped Douglas, "there are times."