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Wing Commander is the latest computer game to be made into a big budget feature. Jim Swallow talks to director Chris Roberts and the cast about war movies, hair bleach and Star Wars

THE HISTORY OF VIDEO GAME conversions into big screen features has been a pretty rocky one; for every Mortal Kombat there's a Street Fighter and a Super Mario Brothers just waiting in the wings, and yet Hollywood still plunders the world of pixels to find new source material. Currently, game-inspired scripts for movies based on Doom, Duke Nukem, Tomb Raider and a handful of others languish in various states of production hell, but for what might be the first time, a movie of-the-game has hit the scene that actually grows beyond its digital roots.

Directed by Chris Roberts, the original creator of the million-selling combat simulator game franchise, Wing Commander is a space war action adventure evoking memories of classic World War II flicks like The Battle of Midway, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Run Silent, Run Deep alongside comparisons to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Starship Troopers. Based on a series of games that first hit the PC market in 1990, Roberts guided the franchise through five incarnations, taking the games towards feature film quality with their development from space battle simulators into interactive movies.

The director is quick to admit his love for Star Wars, et al, and that he always tried to imbue the games with the same sense of adventure. "I think the Wing Commander games were so successful because they became increasingly cinematic - we shot on film and had motion picture production values. Each time it was like making a film, so going to the big screen felt like the next step. After I did (the game) Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, I was pretty much set in my mind that I wanted to do a feature film version. The fourth game in the series, The Price of Freedom, was the first to shoot on 35mm film, and with the skills learnt in the digital arena, I realised I was ready for the real thing."

Roberts' movie takes the hero of his game saga, Christopher Blair, and sets the clock back to his early years as a newly- minted fighter pilot in the war with the deadly cat -like alien Kilrathi. A young lad with a confused parentage - his mother was an übermensch Pilgrim space explorer - Blair is dropped in at the deep end when he and his crew mates aboard the lone carrier Tiger Claw must waylay a Kilrathi invasion force in order to buy time for the Earth's defenders.

Perhaps fittingly, Blair is played by a young star with a self-confessed love of video games, Freddie Prinze Jr. "The cool thing about Wing Commander (the game) is that Chris Roberts did something nobody else did," says the actor; hammering away at his PlayStation between takes. "Most games were about beating your friends and high scores, but his had a story. He revolutionised the way cool video games are made."

Fast becoming a heart-throb thanks to the success of his recent romantic comedy She's All That, Wing Commander is Prinze's first foray into science fiction, having made a name for himself in the teen slasher flick I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel; "I've just been immortalised," he smiles. "Now I'm a video game, action figure type of character, so I'll be around forever!

"I've always loved SF movies, war movies, flying movies and this had all of those elements in one script. I was so jazzed by it, I told (producer) Todd Moyer, `Let's do it - I want to fly a spaceship tomorrow!' Chris Blair has a chip on his shoulder and he's half- Pilgrim, which means he's not a regular human being. He's got different issues from the other characters because of that and it becomes a racial thing. Because of the discrimination forced upon him, Blair has to work twice as hard to make the grade aboard the Tiger Claw," Prinze says. "It's very much a character driven piece, which is the trick to the script. That's what makes it stand apart from the rest of the space movies I read that I didn't want to do."

With the heavy effects content of Wing Commander, Prinze has found himself faced with new challenges. "You don't have to act when you're in the gimbal," he notes, referring to the hydraulic mechanism used for the in-cockpit green-screen scenes. "That's been my favourite part of the filming so far, because it was like an instant time-warp back to my childhood!" The actor feels, like many of his fellows, that the biggest challenge of the shoot has been to be sequestered out at the Luxembourg soundstage for months, away from family and friends. This was hard, both physically and mentally. "I did my own stunts, being dragged around and sucked out of airlocks five hundred times in one day... it gets a little painful." But that said, the actor is ready to come back, should a Wing Commander II be the order of the day. "I'm already signed on to do it, that's how much faith I had in the project. There are certain movies that you want to see another one of, and this is one of them." Prinze is definite about what Wing Commander's appeal stems from. "This is a war movie, and those are coming back in a big way. These are stories about regular people in unreal circumstances."

Blair's adrenaline-junkie wingman and confidante is the suitably-named Todd Maniac Marshall, played with fierce energy by Hackers and Scream star Matthew Lillard. Like Prinze, Lillard is another child of the Star Wars generation and he embraces the opportunity Wing Commander gives him to play at being a sci-fi hero. "I told Chris Roberts I was ready to make extreme choices for this role," he begins, "and they made me bleach my hair blonde! It sucks!"

Hair colour aside, the actor's enthusiasm for Wing Commander is infectious, and, like Prinze, he clearly sees parallels with the current trend for war movies. "I think this is a really interesting take (on SF), a Second World War movie in space - its like the classic war movies of the 'S0s and '60s, based on relationships during wartime. With a film like this, an actor is supported by the special effects without having to depend on them, which seemed to happen with Starship Troopers. We've a lot smaller budget, and we're hopefully a lot more personally driven."

Lillard admits that working in conjunction with complex effects doesn't faze him. "It hasn't really been that difficult, because when you sit in these fighter cockpits, how hard is it to pretend you're flying ?" He mentions the effort put into the lengthy shoot. "A movie like this has a lot to do with endurance; you do fourteen takes from one angle, then you go to another angle. On a smaller budget movie like Scream or Dead Man's Curve, you just don't have access to that kind of film, time, money and manpower."

The actor jokes that the multilingual cast and crew has made the Wing Commander set like the Tower of Babel. "Nobody can understand what anybody is saying, especially if they're pissed off! But I think we've collected some of the best talent from around the world... we're taking the best of the best, a real international force to be reckoned with and hopefully that will play out."

Lillard is clear that he wanted his take on Maniac's character not to clash with that of Back to the Future trilogy star Tom Wilson, who played the role in the video games. "I played the games, but when this project was coming down the pipe, I stayed away from it, because I didn't want to live in Tom's shoes. He was great as Maniac, but you still want to make it your own. I wanted to be true to the role, but not mimic it." The actor hopes that the crowd pleaser elements of the movie will not just be the cutting -edge effects. "We're the first movie to have all digital effects like this the next one will be The Phantom Menace but I hope that the audience will tune in to the humanity behind the movie."

Of course, the war zones of the Wing Commander future are equal- opportunities battlefields, and fighting alongside the male heroes are the equally capable heroines Angel Deveraux and Rosie Forbes, played by British actresses Saffron Burrows and Ginny Holder respectively. "I wasn't familiar with the games, so I came to it with a completely fresh take," notes Burrows. "(The role) is a real challenge, not so much the technical side of it as the character herself is unlike people that I've played before. She's the Wing Commander of the squadron, an authoritarian who is very confident she knows her thing, in charge of this whole fleet of fighter pilots. Also, there's a romance there with a younger man, and that's quite fun. I've had to work a bit at it." For Burrows, Wing Commander is not her first approach to genre roles, having also appeared in Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus and the low- budget horror flick Welcome II the Terradome. Better known for appearances in mainstream movies like Circle of Friends and Celebrity, the actress has returned to genre action in the forthcoming thriller Deep Blue Sea. Burrows smiles when Angel is compared to other female SF leads like Ripley and Captain Janeway. "I'm terribly flattered! What's refreshing is that she doesn't use her sexuality in what she does in fact she probably suppresses it, and I like that, getting away from the cliché of using femininity. Angel is someone who doesn't have a lot of qualities that are familiar to me she doesn't let her emotions out very much, while I tend to be quite open."

The actress says that the toughest part of becoming Deveraux was cultivating an air of relaxed command. "I think this movie is a lot more stylish, a lot classier than many movies in this genre. I love the fact that the movie is inspired by war films and that era I'm very fond of 1940s films and I think there's something very moving about the idea of going to war together." She jokes that many of the cast brought their love of classic British war flicks into Wing Commander. "David Suchet is playing our captain and he's doing an ode to Jack Hawkins! I was happy to play Angel as an American, but Chris wanted her British, so we all bring our sense of British history to the film."

Ginny Holder freely admits that she is not a computer games person and unfamiliar with the Wing Commander games, but at the same time she embraces the role of fighter ace Rosie Forbes with gusto. An experienced theatre actress, having previously appeared in Crocodile Shoes and a blink - and you'll- miss -it part in The Saint, Holder's more meaty role here will hopefully help her break further into feature films. "I love things like Star Trek, but this is new to me in the sense of working on the huge sets, flying these Rapier fighters and being at war in space."

Alongside the young bucks who fight and die in the war with the Kilrathi are the older cadré of seasoned warriors; beside actors like David Suchet (Executive Decision, Poirot) as the Tiger Claws commander Captain Sansky and genre veteran David Warner, who takes on Malcolm McDowell's role of Admiral Tolwyn from the games, are two of Europe's hardest - working film stars, Tcheky Karyo and Jürgen Prochnow. "I think that in a story like this, there is more at stake for the imagination," says Karyo. "We have to deal with the unknown, navigate quasars and singularities, jump black holes... we have to discover realms beyond what we know." The actor plays Paladin, a character originally envisaged as a Sean Connery -type, later played by Sliders' John Rhys Davis in the games, the hardened loner and mentor figure to the troubled young Blair. Having previously played out action roles in contemporary movies like La Femme Nikita, GoldenEye and Bad Boys, the unreal world of Wing Commander is something of a new frontier for him. "The difference (comes from) the designers who merge these very futuristic costumes and sets with the looks of the ships. But there's also this human side, a desire to bring humanity to the stars because this is not just an action movie, not just a sci -fi movie it's both, but it has a human implication and a connection between its characters."

While at first Paladin appears to be an outsider, the veteran pilot soon reveals a hidden side to his personality as the action unfolds. "That (duality) is basically his essence. He's like Captain Nemo, like Admiral Nelson who was always sent on the very shady, difficult missions. People don't like him, and he's bold but also very alone. It's nice to be a little schizophrenic at times, to play a character on two levels." Karyo mentions the relationship between his character and that of Freddie Prince. "He's important in teaching Blair about his heritage as a half Pilgrim. Through Paladin, the young pilot discovers his innate Pilgrim gift, an instinctive ability to navigate the dangerous gravity wells of a black hole jump- point." The actor adds a little of his own take on the human condition to his portrayal of the tough space warrior. "It's becoming more real every day to think of us flying up there in space; without wanting to sound mystical, if we are here now, we could be there in the future." Karyo, a man with a lineage that encompasses Turkish, Greek and Spanish goes on to describe the Wing Commander shoot as a melting pot of international talent. "For me, this is like being at home!"

Director Chris Roberts stated desire to make Wing Commander a World War II film in space also influenced his casting choices, leading him to bring in German star Jürgen Prochnow to play the same kind of tough commander he did in The Boat. With SF credits like Dune and Judge Dredd, as well as appearing in the Wing Commander spin -off game Privateer II: The Darkening, Prochnow has the pulse of his role as First Officer Commander Gerald. "There are a couple of similarities between this film and The Boat. This is a special effects movie and we have a lot of green- screen work in it, and that is something that's not so easy to achieve until you get accustomed to it. The technique of making this kind of film is strange when you do it the first time, it's difficult to imagine it as the director says, `now react to the sandworms coming out of the ground, it's three hundred yards long...' In comparison, if you work with other actors, it's easier to build something. They're very different techniques." At first, Prochnow's character resents the young Blair for his Pilgrim roots, but as the movie progresses, a grudging respect develops between them. "The way (Gerald) is written, the audience is misled to begin with, into thinking that he is a traitor, but as an actor it's a problem to create this new character, to find a way that you want to do him going through the stages of the story. Every character has his own life and connection to the other characters and you have to find that. With Commander Gerald, he's not very trusting because of things that have happened in the past with the Pilgrims.

"We're a story about the adventure of young people, and we're going to appeal to a young audience," he adds. "What is exciting about being here are the sets, which are fantastic," says the actor, praising the work of Oscar winning production designer Peter Lamont. "The construction is very clever. W'e're in a hangar that has been made up as a studio to look like a spaceship and the look of it is spectacular." Prochnow sees the appeal of SF adventures in straightforward terms. "It's fantasy. People are thinking about their lives and where their future is, and this is something that interests them it is speculation, but it is also adventure." SFX


Though this delightful
chapeau does not show it,
WC costume design is tops.

(Top row)
The production designers managed to
cobble together a realisticagy grungy
military environment out of all sorts
of odds and ends, including real
fighter cockpits.

The crew of the Tiger Claw perfect
their Hokey-Cokey dance routine in
between harrowing combat missions.

Gor blimey! It's David Suchet. No
doubt investigating the demise of the local vicar.

(Bottom right)
A clear view of the
army surplus props.

(Top Row)
Behind-the-scenes of
Wing Commander.

Atmospheric lighting plays a crucial
part in jacking up the tension aboard
the Tiger Claw.

(Bottom Row)
"My God! Look at the size of that
special effect!" The cast goggle
in awe.

More girders than you can shake a stick
at. Aren't they lovely?

Post production digital effects were seamlessly
blended in later to create WC.

They say that working on film sets is intensely
boring. Looks like it too.

A huge disused factory in Luxembourg doubled
as the tiger Claw during shooting.

The film eschews the hi-tech for a deliberate
World War II feel.

Two of the girls get ready for some hot dogfight
action. Go for It, dolls!

Red jumpsuits. A military necessity turned
fashion disaster.

Creator\director Chris Roberts on the set of the
film version of Wing Commander.