Dallas, you have a problem.
On a nippy December night on a tucked-away Burbank backlot, scads of workers are scurrying about, crunching data, pointing, clicking, hammering, drilling, and otherwise plotting the destruction of the Texas metropolis. Moments from now, after weeks of round-the-clock, to-the-millimeter scheming, the crew will unleash the city’s biggest nightmare since J.R. Ewing.
The workers retreat hastily as the warning is barked: ”Watch your eyes!” Smoke floods the vicinity, explosions rip through the air, pyro-flashes blanket the dark sky, and flaming debris shoots every which way. Seconds later, annihilation has been achieved. A cheer rises slowly around the ashes. ”It’s sort of like performance art, huh?” grins high-tech wizard Sam Nicholson, surveying his smoldering success. ”And this is the Big One.”
Or so NBC hopes. Asteroid, a buckle-your-seat-belt Peacock mini-series about a meteorite plummeting toward earth, is headed for your television set Feb. 16 and 17. Boasting a hefty $19 million budget and 265 boffo special-effects scenes, the four-hour TV movie represents perhaps the most ambitious sci-fi film ever made for the small screen. ”A huge rock, exploding buildings, people fleeing…what’s not to love?” raves NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.
NBC is counting on ratings that will equal — if not top — its most ambitious homegrown movies of last year, Gulliver’s Travels and The Beast, both of which averaged a boffo 30 million viewers per night. How will the other networks defend themselves? With another kind of star power: ABC is banking on a rare Meryl Streep TV movie to lure at least women away; Fox will stick with its top show, The X-Files; CBS will air the feature film Dave, with Kevin Kline, on Sunday. ”Obviously the muscle NBC is able to exert makes them formidable no matter what,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment scheduling VP. ”But I expect Asteroid to skew like their minis in the past — fairly young and male. With Dave, we’re looking for something middle-of-the-road, with wide appeal to all age groups, to men and women. It’s a broad comedy, an alternative to the end of the world or weeping with Meryl Streep.”
Asteroid was born back in 1994, after NBC movies chief Lindy DeKoven saw news reports about meteors colliding with Jupiter and promptly dialed up producer John Davis (Waterworld, Daylight). Davis then developed an action-adventure drama about American heroes racing to save the world from destruction, though Dallas and Kansas City don’t fare so well. Michael Biehn (The Terminator) was tapped to star as a gritty Federal Emergency Management Agency director; Annabella Sciorra (Jungle Fever) plays the Colorado astronomer who first charts the impending disaster. ”There’s definitely more of a theatrical quality to this,” notes DeKoven, ”unlike any other miniseries we’ve done before.”
It’s an offer you’ve probably found hard to ignore. In typical Peacock style, the network has bombarded the public since November sweeps with on-air spots, shrink-wrapped buses, and radio campaigns (win a free telescope to spot your own catastrophe!); a corner of the network’s Burbank studio lot is even being remodeled to look like it had suffered an asteroid collision, complete with smashed cars and apocalyptic rubble. Total promo bill: $2 million.
NBC didn’t skimp on explosives, either. During production, Nicholson’s visual-effects company, Stargate Films (Ghostbusters II, Twister), burned through 40,000 gallons of liquid propane (for fire effects), 2,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen (for steam), and 500 black-powder bombs. But there were more serious costs. “I don’t think any of us knew how daunting a task this was going to be,” sighs exec producer Davis, of several close calls for crew members. “Thank God no one was killed. But we ended up with stuff you never see in movies made for TV.”
One of the 200-member Stargate crew had to be treated for burns after the set heaters prematurely ignited a bomb; another wound up with “an oily, smoking head of hair,” says Nicholson, when a machine blew up in his face yet did not injure him. Nicholson nearly bought the farm when a 200-foot fireball from a detonated house just missed his hovering helicopter.
Fitting this big-bang effort into a small-screen schedule provided additional challenges. Asteroid‘s principal photography took less than 60 days—in L.A. and Denver—with only 60 more devoted to postproduction, right up to airdate. In comparison, postproduction on effects-heavy feature films can take six months. “It’s like an elephant sitting on my face,” notes director Bradford May. “A male elephant.”
Here’s an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at some of the toughest–and most spectacular–sequences, shot primarily at Stargate’s Burbank studios:
—The pre-pulverized version of a Dallas business district, a 30-foot- by 50-foot model, required eight weeks to construct. Lined with small explosives, the set was built on a carpet suspended above a rolling contraption designed to simulate ground-rippling shock waves from an asteroid smash. (By the way, the prop asteroids, which weighed anywhere from 50 to 700 pounds, were made from lava and prettied up with pumice, glitter, and iridescent paints.) This sequence had to be shot twice because the roller hit a snag during the first run, “destroying” only half the model. (It took another week to refurbish it for a reshoot.) What the viewer will see, says May, “are cars flipping and exploding, people running on fire, people blowing out of windows of buildings, and just overall hell on earth.”
—The giant crater and fire-baked Dallas required a second intricate model that also took eight weeks to build. Made of wood, steel mesh, and fotex (a flameproof plaster), it’s wired to leak smoky liquid nitrogen. “Everybody kept sliding into the hole because it was so steep. We all had crater-burn skid marks,” says Nicholson. Shooting lasted for two weeks inside the crater, though this wasn’t live action; actors were filmed in front of green screens and later edited into about 80 shots. “When you’re throwing yourself off balance, pretending to be on a building shaking in an earthquake, it looks ridiculous,” notes Biehn. “I’m always amazed how good it turns out, because while you’re doing it with no set behind you, you’re thinking ‘God, this is silly.'”
—To create the dam busting and flooding of a street in Kansas City, the crew crafted a 12-foot-high, 15-foot-wide wall made of pyrocil, a featherweight substance that “looks like cement but breaks like eggshells,” according to Nicholson. Once the dam was detonated, 10 mortars blasted hundreds of gallons of water at speeds up to 150 mph. (“We ended up cleaning the streets of Burbank for a week,” Nicholson notes.) The force of the water flow—40,000 gallons in 15 seconds—washed away three cameramen during a take; they resurfaced, but two cameras totalling $80,000 were ruined.
If the final version gets your rocks off, so to speak, consider it an appetizer, for Asteroid is just one of several meteorites-on-a-collision-course-with-earth movies in the works. Two feature films begin shooting this spring: Michael Bay will direct Touchstone’s Armageddon, and Mimi Leder will helm Deep Impact for Paramount and DreamWorks. In addition, James Cameron (currently making Titanic, which could end up being the most expensive disaster movie of all time) is producing an as-yet-untitled project. In 1997, it seems, no stone will be left unturned.