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"Pearl" Bucks

Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” leaves port with a record-breaking price tag.

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It’s a budget that will live in infamy. Disney agreed Jan. 27 to shell out between $130 million and $135 million to cover the costs of the WWII epic Pearl Harbor, making it the most expensive movie ever greenlit. But behind those explosive numbers (and splashy casting prospects, including Kevin Costner and Charlize Theron) lies the tale of a months-long Hollywood battle: the filmmakers on one side pitching their seaborne love story as the next Titanic; skittish studio execs on the other, fearing another Waterworld.

”It was really, really tough,” says director Michael Bay (Armageddon), who, during tortured negotiations, agreed to pay for cost overruns out of his own pocket. ”But I knew you only get a chance to do an important movie like this maybe once or twice in your career.”

So what’s this important, budget-busting movie? The script by Randall Wallace (Braveheart) follows two fighter-pilot buddies from Tennessee who fall in love with the same nurse on the eve of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II. Among the stars up for lead roles: Theron, Wes Bentley (American Beauty), Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line), and Gene Hackman as FDR. And EW has learned a battalion of others may come on board: Renee Zellweger, Edward Burns, Josh Hartnett (The Faculty), Cuba Gooding Jr. as a decorated cook, and Costner as Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle.

Kevin Costner on water, you say? Yikes! The actor’s 1995 Waterworld was greenlit at $65 million, but eventually ballooned up to a budget of $175 million. Likewise, 1997’s ocean-themed Titanic was okayed at under $100 million but ended up costing $200 million.

In other words, Disney had reason for budget jitters. ”We all knew from the very beginning we were dealing with scary numbers,” says Buena Vista Motion Picture Group co-president Todd Garner. He knows from scary. The initial proposal Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer made in April was for a Scream-worthy $180 million. But current Disney studio chief Peter Schneider — along with Disney CEO Michael Eisner and then-studio chief Joe Roth — haggled them down. Just as important, Disney negotiated several unusual restrictions: Bay will forfeit his $6 million directing fee until the film breaks even and won’t get a percentage of the profits. Actors will work for just above scale. Many crew members agreed to defer part of their salary. And Bay and Bruckheimer (whose Armageddon, which came in at $135 million, was also a budget buster) will split any budget overages. ”Everybody took the hit,” says Bruckheimer, ”and took it big.”

As for the script itself, key battle scenes were chopped, including one with exploding submarines. But Schneider insists, ”They’re cuts that made the movie better and would have ended up on the editing floor anyway.”

Fear not: There’s still plenty of spending ahead. ”Pearl Harbor 1941 doesn’t really exist anymore, so we have to re-create it completely,” Garner says. ”Anything done less than perfectly would be disrespectful to the Americans who lost their lives there.” To that end, dozens of vintage fighter planes and boats are being shipped to Hawaii for the shoot, which begins in the spring (Harbor is set for a summer 2001 release). Other scenes will be shot in the same Baja California water tank used in Titanic.