Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to filming at sea: To shoot his oceangoing thriller Dead Calm, he spent 14 weeks floating around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on a 65-foot yacht. But with only five days to stage the climactic, stormed-tossed chase scene of Patriot Games, Noyce knew the weather would be too unpredictable and the logistics too dangerous to film in the Chesapeake Bay, where the scene ostensibly takes place, or in any other natural body of water. Instead he discovered a stand-in right in his own backyard. When the Jags and Porsches are removed, Paramount’s recessed, half-acre outdoor parking lot off Melrose Avenue conveniently converts into a 2 million-gallon tank. It’s where Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments and Spock cavorted with whales in Star Trek IV.
Of course, it’s not as simple as just adding water. To fake a nighttime storm, the filmmakers imported a dozen 95-foot poles from Oregon, from which to hang a sprinkler system to make rain, and huge silk tarps to diffuse the light. Two 20-foot speedboats, four wind machines, a couple of wave machines, and numerous fire hoses helped complete the illusion.
”This is old-time moviemaking,” producer Mace Neufeld said as he eyed the elaborate rigging. ”Until you get it going, you don’t know how it’s going to work.” And at first, it barely worked at all. Despite the set’s carnival atmosphere with normally jaded studio staffers gawking like tourists — Noyce huddled tensely with his crew. ”I thought this was my Waterloo,” he later admitted. ”The wind machines broke. The lighting was shooting in the wrong directions. The special-effects guys in the water got hypothermia. And Harrison bumped his head. All I could see were a couple of boats driving around in a swimming pool.”
For take after take, Harrison Ford, in a drenched suit and tie, gamely stood at the wheel of a Wellcraft speedboat mounted on a hydraulic rig. With water hoses trained on him full force, he leaned into the gathering darkness as his character, Jack Ryan, tried to escape from terrorists. But is there room for acting when all the elements conspire against you? Certainly, Ford says, ”If I can’t open my eyes because the wind machines are too high and the raindrops too big, then I have to say, ‘Guys, I can’t open my eyes.’ If I can’t open my eyes, I can’t f—ing act. I can’t tell the story.”
Piece by piece, after several difficult nights, the story did get told. ”It was a desperate experiment, but we finally got some footage we were happy with,” Noyce says. ”When it looked like the boats weren’t going fast enough, we discovered we could perform some sleight of hand by just moving the water past them.” The end result is so strikingly realistic that the only people who may realize it’s all an illusion are readers of this article, the movie’s cast and crew, and several hundred Paramount executives who had to make alternate parking arrangements for 31/2 weeks.