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After establishing himself in his native Germany, director Wolfgang Petersen enjoyed a huge international success with the tense submarine thriller, "Das Boot" (1981), which opened the doors wide open for what proved to be a successful career making blockbuster Hollywood movies. Following "Das Boot," Petersen earned critical acclaim for his touching, but visually dynamic children's fantasy, "The Neverending Story" (1984), an American debut that trumpeted his arrival on the scene. But he failed to have another success until almost a decade later with "In the Line of Fire" (1993), a tense and well-received action thriller that benefited greatly from the cat-and-mouse between star Clint Eastwood and his onscreen tormentor John Malkovich. Following that picture's commercial success, Petersen floundered with the ill-received "Outbreak" (1995), though he bounced back with the blockbuster "Air Force One" (1997), a sometimes silly and implausible thriller that harkened back to the previous decade's action hits. Entering the next century, Petersen raised the stakes - both onscreen and with his budget - for "A Perfect Storm" (2000), a less-than-factual accounting of real-life events that struggled to recoup...
After establishing himself in his native Germany, director Wolfgang Petersen enjoyed a huge international success with the tense submarine thriller, "Das Boot" (1981), which opened the doors wide open for what proved to be a successful career making blockbuster Hollywood movies. Following "Das Boot," Petersen earned critical acclaim for his touching, but visually dynamic children's fantasy, "The Neverending Story" (1984), an American debut that trumpeted his arrival on the scene. But he failed to have another success until almost a decade later with "In the Line of Fire" (1993), a tense and well-received action thriller that benefited greatly from the cat-and-mouse between star Clint Eastwood and his onscreen tormentor John Malkovich. Following that picture's commercial success, Petersen floundered with the ill-received "Outbreak" (1995), though he bounced back with the blockbuster "Air Force One" (1997), a sometimes silly and implausible thriller that harkened back to the previous decade's action hits. Entering the next century, Petersen raised the stakes - both onscreen and with his budget - for "A Perfect Storm" (2000), a less-than-factual accounting of real-life events that struggled to recoup its financials at the box office. Following the even more bloated "Troy" (2004) and "Poseidon" (2006), Petersen had without a doubt cemented his reputation as a fine technical director who, despite his early successes, unfortunately struggled later in his career with presenting compelling characters audiences could relate to.
Petersen was born in the cauldron of World War II on March 14, 1941 in Emden, Germany, a northern seaport city that saw its saw its share of wartime action, including a devastating Allied bombing raid in 1944 that nearly wiped out the entire city center. After the war, Petersen developed a passion for all things American and by the age of 11 became obsessed with the idea of making movies - to his mind an essentially American art form. Initially drawn to the films of John Ford for their clear presentation of good and evil - a stark contrast to the ambiguously drawn Europe of the day - Petersen later immersed himself in the directors of the French Nouvelle Vague, particularly Francois Truffaut, whom he cited as his most important influence, though his movies were quintessentially American. After attending the Johanneum School in Hamburg, where he studied acting before becoming an assistant director at the Ernst Deutsch Theater at 19 years old. He soon made his stage directing debut and later enrolled at the German Film and Television Academy, where he devoted himself fully to the idea of becoming a filmmaker.
Shortly after graduating the Academy, Petersen made his professional directorial debut for German television with "I Will Kill You, Wolf" (1970) before moving on to helm six episodes of what became one of Germany's longest running shows, "Tatort" ("Scene of the Crime") (ARD, 1970- ). With his reputation greatly enhanced from his excellent work, Petersen moved to features with "Einer von uns beiden" ("One or the Other of Us") (1973), the story of a failed student (Jürgen Prochnow) who blackmails a respected professor (Klaus Schwarzkopf). He next directed the highly controversial homosexual love story, "Die Konsequenz" ("The Consequence") (1977), which starred Prochnow as a prison inmate who falls in love with the Warden's 16-year-old son (Ernst Hannawald). But when the inmate is released, his young lover falls into a downward spiral brought about by society's efforts to straighten him out. After the chess thriller "Black and White Like Night and Day" (1978), Petersen reunited with Prochnow on "Das Boot" (1981), at the time the most expensive German film ever made. Based on war correspondent Lothar-Guenther Buchheim's bestseller, the film authentically recreated a single mission aboard a German U-boat during World War II while remaining faithful to the anti-war point-of-view of the book. With the odds stacked against them, the crew descends to the depths, taking the audience on a suspense-filled ride to the bottom of the ocean that culminated in a surprise ending back at their port of origin. "Das Boot" won widespread international acclaim and surprisingly became a hit in the U.S., where it earned Petersen Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The international success of "Das Boot" gave Petersen caché in Hollywood, where he remained a prominent filmmaker for the remainder of his career. His first American film was the charming Frank Capra-esque fairy tale "The Neverending Story" (1984), which followed a sensitive young boy (Barret Oliver), still grieving over the loss of his mother, who finds respite in the pages of a book that chronicle the plight of the magical land of Fantasia. Carrying a price tag of $27 million, Petersen's first English-language picture became the highest grosser in German box office history and would be the director's most successful studio film for nearly a decade. Neither his sci-fi adventure "Enemy Mine" (1985) nor his Hitchcockian thriller "Shattered" (1991) scored well with critics or audiences, leaving his Hollywood career in doubt. But Petersen rebounded with the taut, suspenseful thriller, "In the Line of Fire" (1993), Clint Eastwood's aging Secret Service Agent, still suffering from his inability to protect John F. Kennedy in Dallas, was pitted against John Malkovich's psychotic, but intelligent would-be presidential assassin in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. A smart action thriller with tense confrontations between hero and villain, "In the Line of Fire" was a huge critical and commercial success for the German director.
With his status boosted by his last film's $100 million-plus gross, Petersen had the pick of the litter and followed with "Outbreak" (1995), a rather underwhelming thriller about the race to stop the spread of a deadly virus. Despite a fine star turn by Dustin Hoffman and support from the likes of Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, "Outbreak" fell far short commercially of the mark set by "In the Line of Fire." Returning to the film that made him, Petersen supervised the director's cut of "Das Boot," re-released to critical acclaim in 1997. Drawing on the additional footage available from the five-hour epic made simultaneously for German television, he expanded the 128 minutes of the original U.S. release to his definitive feature-length of 210 minutes. Later that year, Petersen teamed with box-office heavy Harrison Ford, who portrayed a U.S. President battling a group of Kazakhstani terrorists (led by Gary Oldman) after "Air Force One" (1997) has been hijacked. The summer blockbuster reunited the director with old friend Jürgen Prochnow, who had a silent cameo as a fascist general captured by commandos during the prologue. Despite some critical misgivings concerning the plausibility of the movie, Petersen reinforced his box office clout after his movie took in more than $170 million on the domestic front.
Petersen went back to sea to recreate "The Perfect Storm" (2000), the best-selling nonfiction work by Sebastian Junger that told the story of a doomed fishing vessel caught in a storm of unmatched ferocity. The digital water/ocean effects of Industrial Light & Magic notwithstanding, critics remained divided regarding the film's merits, many pointing the finger at the unsympathetic lead character played by George Clooney, while the blockbuster vehicle faced rough weather recouping its $140 million budget. For his next project, Petersen journeyed back to the ancient world with "Troy" (2004), a stripped-down telling of Homer's Iliad sans Greek gods that focused on the real-life siege on the famed Spartan city by a jealous Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who launches 1,000 ships after Paris (Orlando Bloom) makes off with the beautiful Helen (Diana Kruger), while hot-shot Achilles (Brad Pitt) seeks to settle a personal score with Prince Hector (Eric Bana). With an overinflated budget, myriad of on-set problems and the tabloids having a field day publishing pictures of Brad Pitt talking on his cell phone while wearing a skirt and breastplate, Petersen was later forced to endured mediocre-at-best reviews, though the film managed to pull in over $400 million both domestically and abroad.
Two years later, Petersen was back with his next film, "Poseidon" (2006), a remake of the campy disaster flick, "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). Much like the original, "Poseidon" depicted a small but determined group of passengers trying to escape an ocean liner after a massive tidal wave capsizes the ship. With the benefit of computer generated visual effects, Petersen was able to show the wave bearing down on the doomed ship - a distinct advantage over the original which instead relied on the audience's imagination. But inside the ship during the big moment, Petersen opted for live action special effects, including hundreds of tons of water pumped onto the set-much to the dismay of stars Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas and Emmy Rossum, who endured hours of being soaking wet. Cast and crew members were ill for a majority of the shoot because of shared germs and bacteria in the water, while injuries plagued the set. All the pain and suffering endured by cast and crew failed to pay off, with "Poseidon" being largely dismissed by critics while barely breaking even at the box office. After that film, Petersen retreated to the background, remaining in development on several projects while failing to make another film over the next five years.
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Petersen and Gail Katz's production company is Radiant Productions.
"I grew up in the 'fifties. The Americans came to Germany and they were like people from Mars. It was like a new vision with the most positive messages. I was a kid, 7 or 8, in Hamburg. And the American ships came in one morning and it was like a vision, like out of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. We had no money, and these big shiny ships came in, and the troops on the ships began throwing down chewing gum and oranges and bananas. It was like gifts from heaven. I fell in love with America then and there." --Wolfgang Petersen to Bernard Weinraub in The New York Times, July 6, 1993.
"Even the thought of directing Clint [Eastwood] made me sweat. Coming from Europe, coming from Germany, I was awed by Eastwood. He's even more of a legend there than he is here. To have him say, 'We want you to direct this script' is very intimidating.
"But Clint, from the first day, said he would not interfere. And he never did. I've worked with a lot of actors and he was probably the easiest. There were no star things, no ego problems. And he has the power--he could have done that--but he never did." --Petersen in The New York Times, July 6, 1993.
"I've always aspired to work in the manner of David Lean, who had a great talent for combining the excitement of a large-scale visual experience, with very concentrrated, intimate character studies. I'm not interested in wall-to-wall action--I want to be touched and moved--but that doesn't mean the characters have to sit in the kitchen all the time and talk. This is, after all, a visual medium." --Petersen to Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1993.
On the director's cut of "Das Boot": "I always thought that even though the film version I delivered worked well it would be wonderful to one day go back and cut my own ideal version--to ask what is the best way for me to tell the story of 'Das Boot' based purley on creative rather than commercial considerations . . .
"My vision for 'Das Boot' was always to show the gritty and terrible reality of war, and to combine it with a highly entertaining story and fast-paced action style that would pull audiences into the experience of these young men out there. This cut represents my ideal version of that experience. Thanks to new technology, the film now comes even closer to revealing the shocking realities of life in a U-boat--the way it sounded, the way it felt, the way it affected people so strongly--and I think that this new cut will be even more shocking and affecting for audiences." --Petersen, quoted on dasboot.com.
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