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Fall movie preview: Into the woods

The epic battle to shoot Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans’

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On a spring day last year, a few months before filming was to begin on The Last of the Mohicans, actor Daniel Day-Lewis and director Michael Mann crouched in a clearing in an Alabama forest. Gathering the wood they had cut with their own tomahawks, they began trying to light a fire the way an 18th- century woodsman would have, by striking together a flint and steel. Finally, one of the sparks caught in the dry tinder and the two stood and watched with satisfaction as the flicker grew into a modest blaze.

Though the time they spent developing their primitive skills proved an intense bonding experience, this was no men’s movement retreat. Day-Lewis had spent a month in Alabama’s Special Operations Center, a private antiterrorist training camp, whose staff has studied survival techniques past and present, and Mann frequently joined him on forays into the brush. And the weeks of observing the hunting and skinning of animals, shooting period rifles, and fighting teachers with tomahawks and knives were just a warm-up for another ordeal: the grueling 21 2-month production of Mohicans in the North Carolina wilderness.

Set during the 1757 war between France and Britain in the American colonies, Mohicans may be the most ambitious attempt to create a genuine epic in years, and it is the kind of gamble studios are reluctant to make these days. Day-Lewis stars as Nathaniel Poe, a white man nicknamed Hawkeye by the Mohican tribe that raised him, and Madeleine Stowe is his unlikely love interest, Cora Munro, the headstrong daughter of a British officer. Both actors remain unproven commercially, despite Stowe’s current hit thriller Unlawful Entry and Day-Lewis’ Oscar for the 1989 drama My Left Foot. And Mann, who is more famous for his television series Miami Vice and Crime Story than for his low-budget features Thief and Manhunter, is seen in the industry as a gifted but infuriatingly uncompromising director. Unleashing him on an elaborate period production shot almost entirely in Southern wilds with hundreds of extras must have given the studio pause.

”In terms of physical problems, this has all the precariousness of a Die Hard or a Lethal Weapon, except three times that, because it takes place a couple of hundred years ago,” says Joe Roth, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, which is releasing the film. But though the budget swelled to what he will only describe as ”not exceeding $40 million,” Roth was confident that Mann’s experience as a producer would help keep the production on track. As for Mann’s ability to direct such a huge project, Roth says, ”I just went on a leap of faith.”

Dances With Wolves it’s not. While Mohicans has the stunning look and romantic sweep of a traditional epic, its tone is darkly modern and violent. ”Dances With Wolves is an old-fashioned epic where you sit back and enjoy yourself,” says Roth. ”This one never gives you that luxury, it’s in your face all the time.” Indian activist Russell Means, who plays Hawkeye’s Mohican father, Chingachgook, also contrasts the movie with Dances, saying this script’s wide range of Indian characters appealed to him: ”Unlike in ‘Lawrence of the Plains,’ these Indians are not made out of papier-mache.”

Crafting a modern drama out of the famous James Fenimore Cooper novel posed | another challenge for Mann (who cowrote the script with Christopher Crowe). Though a rousing classic, Cooper’s sentimental adventure isn’t strong on historical accuracy. ”The book diminishes the Indians by making them into noble savages that we should feel sorry for, and that’s bulls — -. These people were tremendously powerful,” Mann says. But he doesn’t mean the movie to be a history lesson. ”I don’t want to make historical mistakes, but there is no virtue in reality in and of itself,” he says. ”Its value is that it’s tremendously exciting.” Still, he was unsparing in his efforts to avoid historical mistakes. A 20-acre frontier farm, a Huron village, and a fort were all constructed from scratch. ”There was nothing to rent,” Mann says, ”We had to make everything.”

”It was like a small war taking over a little country,” says visual consultant Gusmano Cesaretti of the re-creation of Fort William Henry, the historic battle site near Albany, N.Y. The replica’s locale near North Carolina’s Lake James was so remote that the crew had to build a road just to get there. Hills were leveled, 38 acres of trees cleared, and 130 carpenters hired to create the 400-foot-by-300-foot fort.

Small details received the same attention. ”It wasn’t good enough that the moccasins looked as they would have back then, we had to wear them out to see how they looked after 60 miles,” says visual consultant Lee Teter, a specialist on Northeastern American Indians. For the battle scenes, 1,000 Native American actors had to be outfitted in traditional garb-and trained to fight with tomahawks.

Mann’s unrelenting approach pushed some of his crew too far. ”He wanted to do everything himself,” says Doug Milsome, the director of photography who was fired midway through the project. ”If you are a sycophantic, sniveling yard dog and want to be a camp follower, then you stay. I couldn’t.” Neither could James Acheson, the first costume designer, who quit. The director is unapologetic about what he terms ”the attrition.” ”If something isn’t quite right so the effect of the scene is diluted, or one extra pops out wrong to your eye and blows the authenticity of a major moment, these things can’t be allowed to happen,” he says.

Still, Mann wasn’t altogether in enemy territory. His maniacal commitment was matched by that of his stars. Even during his training for his role, Day- Lewis wore a loincloth and moccasins. By the end of a month he was proficient with his 18th-century muzzle-loading rifle-and carried it even on | his morning jogs.

”I really admired Mann’s absolute perfectionism,” Stowe says. ”He wouldn’t roll the cameras until they were lined up exactly as he wanted.” For an emotional scene at a waterfall, when Nathaniel and Cora must separate, the actors stood in bone-chilling water for three straight days. ”We had to stop shivering every time the cameras rolled,” Stowe recalls. ”We were so completely involved in what we were doing that we were almost in this hallucinatory state. I almost felt that Michael was in the scene with us. I would do it again for him in a minute.”

Mann himself is in a bit less of a rush to shoot again in the wild. ”If there is one thing I can walk away from this thing with, it’s that it’s great to be in a parking lot, standing under a neon lamp, away from green things,” he says. ”In my next movie, people will definitely have zippers.”