Starlog-262-May '99-Space Ace /Wing Commandos
This series of articles appeared in the May 1999 issue of Starlog magazine (issue #262) Pages 62 - 69 Cover caption: "Freddit Prinze Jr. flies high"
By BILL FLORENCE
Like most kids who grew up in the 1980s. Freddie Prinze Jr. loved video games. It was a teenage Prinze who discovered Wing Commander — an epic SF war adventure which mingled live-action video with computerized starfighter simulations to create a type of interactive movie. The game featured Mark Hamill as young fighter pilot Christopher Blair, a rookie with a mysterious past and a feel for the stars. Prinze fell in love with Wing Commander and bought each successive version as soon as it debuted.
Now Wing Commander has flown to the big screen compliments of 20th Century Fox, and as luck would have it, Prinze has the part immortalized by Hamill. "This is the first time I'm playing the lead of a film," says Prinze, who found success co-starring in / Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel as well as the teen romance She's All That and the recent Sparkler. "[Wing Commander creator/director] Chris Roberts had faith in me — to cast me in the Blair role—and it's very exciting. This is Christopher Blair! He's the man! He's Mark Hamill from the video games, and I'm so proud to have won this role."
Blair is a hot-shot pilot called upon to help the human Confederation defeat the Kilrathi invaders. He is also half-Pilgrim—a subset of humanity that broke off and eventually went to war with the Confederation. The Pilgrims were defeated, and those who remain and their descendants still suffer the distrust and bigotry of other humans.
Prinze loved Hamill' s performance as Blair in the video game, but the actor naturally wanted to establish his own rendition of the mysterious hero. "I couldn 't do Mark Hamill's Christopher Blair," he insists. "It would have been foolish to try. Hamill and I do some similar things with the role, but I tried to make Blair my own. Blair, to me, is fresh out of the Academy. He's a guy who thinks he knows a little more than he really does, and he's too cocky for his own good.
"My Blair also has a chip on his shoulder because of his Pilgrim heritage. He hides his Pilgrim cross under his clothes so no one can see it. He doesn't know who he is or who he can be, he just has an idea of who he wants to be. By making Blair very passionate about that, I was able to drive my character forward and leave other things unsaid. As an actor, you have the freedom to make your characters as bad-ass as you want by the choices you make. I didn't want Blair to be the baddest ass in the world until it was time for him to save the world. So I tried to make him young and confused.
"Hamill was the legendary Christopher Blair. You can see it in Wing Commander 3 and 4 — he's a total legend in those games. Mark is Chris Blair and I'm Chris Blair — there are huge similarities, naturally, because we're playing the same character. But at the same time. Mark added his own touch and I've added mine."
Prinze liked the Wing Commander script, and he was primed to sign on board from the start. "You always worry with SF and action movies that the script will be the soft part of the film." the actor notes. "When I read this script, I saw that it was different. There was no one attached to it the first time I read for it except for Chris, a debut director. But Chris was passionate about his story, and he had a dream to make this film.
"I've read other SF scripts—because it has been a dream of mine to make an SF movie — but they just didn't do it for me," Prinze admits. "The difference was that this one was character-driven; it was an actors' script with an actual story. It reminded me of those old war movies that kicked so much ass. But I saw that it wasn't just about war, killing aliens and aliens killing us. So I was ready to do it."
Prinze's comments recall the rumor that he had been offered a part in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers but turned it down. Not so, he insists. "I've heard that before, but it's not true. The thing is, I did read that script, and I wasn't crazy about it. I've always felt, even when I wasn't working, that I never wanted to be part of a film that I wouldn't be particularly proud of. I'm not trying to rag on anybody, this is my own personal thing. I wasn't nuts about the Troopers script, so I didn't even want to go in and read. Everybody was like, 'What, are you stupid? You're not getting offered a ton of parts.' And you know what? I'm still not getting offered a lot of parts. But I will not do a movie that I can't be proud of. That's just my thing. Everybody else can do their thing, and that's all fine with me. But somehow over the last year, this has been misconstrued into, 'Freddie was offered the lead in Starship Troopers and he turned it down.' That's not cool.
"Ever since I first moved to LA," he adds, "I didn't want to do things that I didn't feel I was ready for, things that I didn't feel would help me grow as an actor or things I wouldn't be proud to do. You know how embarrassing that can be, to be a part of something that you think will be one thing but it ends up something else completely? You're screwed! Fortunately, that has never happened to me, but if it ever does, God forbid, I will be embarrassed."
Feeling secure that Wing Commander wouldn't come anywhere close to embarrassing him, Prinze eagerly signed on as Blair. But his agents, still reveling in their client's success in / Know What You Did Last Summer, took a more deliberative course. "They were like, 'We want an offer on the table,' " Prinze reveals sheepishly. "But I'm a bum, you know? I'm not getting offers thrown at me every day. So of course, Fox asked me to read for the part, which was cool. I love going in a room and reading, because I work really well like that. Chris and I busted out two scenes that we thought were really good. We worked the scenes a couple of different ways, and then they gave my material to Fox. A week later, they came to me with an offer. I was all over it. I wanted to make Wing Commander so bad, because I'm the coolest character in the world in this movie."
Always an SF fan, Prinze also read many comic books growing up. He cites Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, an SF epic lent him by Wing Commander co-star Matt Lillard. for particular merit. "I had read it before, and Matt gave it to me in Luxembourg, so I got to read it again. I barely remembered the book, so it was like reading it for the first time. It's amazing. I always liked both Star Wars and Star Trek, so getting to be in Wing Commander and flying my own jet in outer space was a great deal of fun."
In addition, the film set in Luxembourg impressed Prinze with its size and scope. "I had never been in a movie with a huge budget," he says. "I Know What You Did Last Summer had a medium-sized budget, but Wing Commander is definitely a big-budget movie. To see these huge, elaborate sets and the special FX they were creating—it was incredible."
Soon, he was careening through space in the cockpit of a Rapier starfighter (actually a sheet metal, plywood and resin-transformed British Electric Lightning fighter plane) alongside other cast members, including Lillard (Maniac), Saffron Burrows ("Angel" Deveraux) and Ginny Holder (Forbes). To help get into fighting spirit, the cast listened to music during the filming of space battle sequences. "They had us wear ear pieces so we could hear dialogue and directions from Chris while we were in these cockpits." Prinze explains. "I asked the sound guy, Marco, to put my Puff Daddy CD in and hook me up with some music when we did the scenes. That made it more like doing the movie. When you watch these things, like in Top Gun, it's all scored, and that makes it more exciting. So I would have Marco turn it up as loud as he could, to where I couldn't hear when Chris said, 'Action.' I would just go off and do my thing. It made it even more fun than it already was. You're already on a hydraulic gimbal that moves you all around. Then to have music incorporated, it becomes terrific. I loaned my Puffy CD to Saffron, and she started listening to it in her cockpit."
The unfamiliar Luxembourg location helped bring the cast together and create friendships off the set. "Saffron spoke French, but she was the only one." recalls Prinze. "Matt and I became really good friends over there. We talked to each other about relationships, girl friends, how we grew up, our families and life in general. We still hang out and play basketball together. We like similar music, and that was our initial bond. We exchanged CDs because we had totally different views of what great hiphop was."
On screen, Lillard's Maniac and Prinze's Blair are close friends, and the two actors' styles complemented each other when cameras rolled. "The way I work, I'm like a sponge. I try to absorb what people are throwing off. and then give back. And that works great with Matthew, because he just explodes energy and brings so much to the table.
"We would psych each other up and bang on each other like football players on the field," Prinze continues. "We had to react to things that would be added in postproduction, like when Forbes' ship crashes outside the flight deck and Maniac wants to go to her. So Matt and I worked each other up to a point where, when they say, 'Action,' everything that we see is you-bet-your-life 100 percent real. Everything Matt feels is 100 percent, and when he tries to run through the airlock to help Forbes, I worked myself up to the point where I really felt that if I didn't tackle him. he's dead. So we hit hard. That's the way we like to work. We like to go big. Matthew and me. We make it real and we make it strong. It's life-or-death stakes on every single take."
With that kind of energy, and with a small but built-in audience of Wing Commander game fans, the film may do well at the box office. "I think it's going to do huge business." says Prinze. "I have faith in it. Success depends on whether the movie speaks to people or not, and I know it speaks to me. I hope when people see it, they feel the passion and love I brought to Blair. If they feel that, then the movie's a huge hit. If they don't, then that's on me, and I have to work even harder next time."
Hard work certainly paid off in the case of I Know What You Did Last Summer. The film was a bigger success than anyone anticipated, including Prinze. "I knew we were making a good film that didn't talk down to its audience, but I had no idea the movie would make as much money as it did," he says. "That was the movie that got me enough recognition to do Wing Commander. Because as much as every actor would like, it can't all be about the work. Film companies want some marketability in their film, and they want the actor to be seen in at least one other good thing. That's the nature of the beast. It's not the greatest deal in the world, but that's the way it is. That movie did a lot for me, and I'm proud of it."
Of course, his experience working on the horror flick was quite different from making Wing Commander. The latter film's special effects account for the lion's share of the difference. "Working on Wing Commander, you're looking up at a big bright green screen, and that's supposed to be fighter ships going to war," Prinze offers. "So that's certainly different. As for the actors, everybody worked hard and wanted to make a good project on both films. Jim Gillespie was a very hands-on director [on I Know], whereas Chris Roberts tended to give us the structure of the scene and let us run with it. Both were great to work with, but different."
As he prepares to make his next film, a college-bound romantic comedy called Down to You, Prinze offers a few final thoughts on what shape a real first contact with aliens might ultimately take. "There has to be someone else out there besides us," he says. "I hope they won't be hostile, and I hope Earth is cool and doesn't screw up first contact. No doubt our military will be there to greet them, defending the country. That's not good. These aliens will come out and they're not going to be heavily armed, because they're not about that. We have to be mellow and peaceful. If that happens, it'll be cool. But I don't think it'll happen that way. I think we'll come hard, which is probably standard operating procedure.
"And that's not a cool thing," says Freddie Prinze Jr. "because we'll probably get worked."
THE EMBATTLED SKIES ARE THE LIMIT FOR WING COMMANDER'S FREDDIE PRINZE JR.
Rookie pilot Christopher Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.) flies through the firestorms of war, and emerges as a battle-scarred hero.
Best friends, the passionate Blair and the irrepressible Maniac (Matt Lillard) balance each other to make an invincible team.
"I'M THE COOLEST CHARACTER IN THE WORLD IN THIS MOVIE."
Prinze's bad shoulder made pulling off this stunt quite a pain for the actor.
Prinze netted a mainstream* film role opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt in / Know What You Did Last Summer, and, right away, the charming actor had audiences hooked.
Facing discrimination due to his blood ties to the obscure and outcast Pilgrim race, Prinze's character nonetheless takes pride in his heritage...once he learns of it!
"This is Christopher Blair! He's the man! He's Mark Hamill from the video games, and I'm so proud to have won this role," says Prinze.
"AS AN ACTOR, YOU HAVE THE FREEDOM TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS AS BAD-ASS AS YOU WANT"
Even as a long standing video game aficionado, Prinze did not immediately recognize the Wing Commander script as an adaption of the CD-ROM game.
In / Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Prinze made staving off bloodthirsty fishermen look easy.
By BILL FLORENCE
Three flying aces trump the Kilrathi invasion of Earth
In Wing Commander, Chris Robert's SF war saga based on the popular video game, Christoper Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is the Confederation pilot whose innate feel for the stars helps him save the Earth from the Kilrathi. But Blair couldn't do it without help. Just as Luke Skywalker had Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca behind him, and Starbuck and Apollo had Boomer, Sheba and Greenbean, so too does Blair get assistance from three capable young fighter pilots: "Angel" Deveraux, Todd "Maniac" Marshall and Rosie Forbes.
British actress Saffron (Circle of Friends) Burrows plays Deveraux, the squadron's Wing Commander. "She is quite unlike me in many ways," Burrows attests. "Deveraux is someone burdened with many responsibilities in the war zone, which is an environment that's unknown to me. She is very closed, hard, cold and determined, but deep down Angel fears passion - she fears living. Playing her was a great experience."
Angel reacts antagonistically to Blair at first, but later a bond develops between them. "In the beginning, her intelligence and wisdom are pitted against Blair's youth and cockiness. Then they develop a respect for each other and start to care about eachother, and they also kind of dig each other, too. There are many different elements in that relationship, and it evolves through the film."
Blair's energetic best friend, Maniac, is essayed by Matt (Scream) Lillard. "He's a crazy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants action figure," the actor says. "Maniac loves the fact that he's out there to save the universe. He lives on adrenaline. Blair is his counterpart. They're yin and yang. Blair is confronted with these racist ideas because he's a Pilgrim, and Maniac stands by his side, helping him get through that. Everything Blair does is calculated and specific, whereas Maniac is impulsive. That's how Maniac gets his moniker. It was a blast of a part, because he gets to be funny and gigger than life. Of course Tom [Back to the Future] Wilson played my role in the video game, and those were big shoes to fill. Tom has a following across the world for his Maniac interpretation, and here I am stepping in and trying to be Maniac. That was a challenge."
Maniac meets a fighter pilot on the Confederation ship Tiger Claw who is just as big a show -off as he is: Rosie Forbes, played by Ginny (The Saint) Holder. "Forbes is good at what she does, and she has a bit of an attitude," Holder reflects. "She isn't weepy. She's strong and ambitious. It's not everyday that you get a character with all those qualities. Forbes is loyal to the w orld in the sense that she's up in space, defending Earth from the Kilrathi. She takes great pride in her work. When she's in the cockpit of her fighter, she is focused on her mission. Even though she knows she may never see anyone again, she also knows she must do her best."
Forbes and Maniac, hot-shot wing mates under Angel's command, become lovers as well as competitors. Both actors deeply enjoyed playing out the relationship to its tragic end. "Forbes' death was an interesting scene to do," Holder reflects. "It's unfortunate what happens to her, especially because it's purely by accident. She's trying to cover Maniac in her Rapier, and she doesn't get out of the way in time. After her plane is damaged, Forbes knows she is going to die. Staring death in the face, she tries to put on a brave front. She acts like everything is fine, everything is cool, and she jokes around. I played it with a mixture of control, humor and the fear of dying. And then her ship crashes and there's nothing she can do. She doesn't contact anyone, because she knows they have to get on with the battle. She doesn't come apart emotionally."
Lillard's reflections on Forbes' death reveal how important those scenes were to him. "Some of Maniac's actions have life-or-death consequences," Lillard says. "For me as an actor, to play Maniac as this charged-up kind of action figure guy who's out there flying by the seat of his pants, and still have some basis in reality with real emotional substance—that was hard. But it was also why I took the role. As Maniac, I got to do everything. Maniac is funny, he's a hero, he saves Blair, he loses his girl friend. So I ran the gamut of the emotional spectrum. The scene where I lose Forbes—that's the stuff you want to do as an actor. It was exhilarating, and it made the whole paycheck worthwhile."
Holder says their mutual cockiness helps bring Forbes and Maniac together. "Maniac comes on the Tiger Claw straight from the Academy, and he's really ballsy. So Forbes wants to put him in his place. They go out flying, and she shows him a few tricks. Maniac is as cocky as Forbes was when she first came out of the Academy. So there's a mutual attraction between them. Maniac's not quite as skilled in the cockpit as Forbes, but there's something about his energy that excites her. Plus, he's the new bloke on the ship, and that makes him interesting."
And it's the "new bloke," jokes the tongue-in-cheek Lillard, that makes whole movie interesting. "I know people have read the script and said, 'Well, it's all right.' But I got a kick out of it. It's a traditional story of good against evil, with Blair and the rest of us saving the universe at the end. How is it imperfect? It needs more Maniac. I think the sequel, if there is one, should be the Maniac story."
Lillard, like Prinze, was familiar with Wing Commander's history as a ground-breaking computer game and frequently played it on his Sony PlayStation. "It's a great game," he states. "I hadn't realized it actually changed the way the entire gaming world played, though. Before Wing Commander, you basically played for highest score. When the first generation of Wing Commander came around, it was in essence a revelation — play for the characters and the storyline. That's why [creator/director] Chris Roberts is such a visionary. He integrated his two favorite things: video games and movies."
Burrows and Holder, on the other hand, came to the project completely unaware of the material's lineage.
"I'm not a computer person," Holder admits. "I can't play computer games because I get too excited. I was in an arcade with my boy friend once playing some video game. Pretty soon I had an audience of like 150 people, because I was going ballistic, screaming my head off as I played. So, out of concern for my neighbors and such, I just won't go down that path. I become a bit too loud."
Adds Burrows, "I didn't know much about the Wing Commander legacy at first, but when I would mention it to others, people seemed to know an awful lot about it. So I learned Chris had developed this amazing thing, and I caught up with his history. He's a highly intelligent young man who created this wondrous computer game. But I am not a computer game junkie—not at all."
A common element that emerges from conversations with the actors is a portrait of a happy, unified cast. Prinze and Lillard became close friends during lensing, as did Burrows and Holder. The four frequently socialized together off the set, although there wasn't much to do in tiny Luxembourg. "For such a small place, it does have a lot of production facilities, or at least it did for Wing Commander," Holder relates. "But because the place was so small, it brought us together. We were all in the same hotel, and we were a team on and off camera. It wasn't people going home and doing their own thing. Luxembourg has some fantastic restaurants, but that's about it. So we went to restaurants and bars together. We hung out and had chats."
Burrows remembers the shoot fondly. "We all developed this attachment to each other and took care of each other," she says. "Matt and Freddie were very funny to be with. They insisted that an Englishwoman swearing just didn't work. So we would have swearing matches."
Sometimes they enacted gags as the cameras rolled. "Once, for fun, Freddie and I pulled a gag in a shot where we were coming out of an elevator, just as we were about to go into battle," Burrows recalls. "It's supposed to be a serious moment. The camera was pointed at the outside of the elevator door. We lay down on the floor. Freddie on top of me, and proceeded to look like we were making out. Then the doors opened and we acted as if we had been caught in the act. They got that on film, and it was quite funny."
The relaxed atmosphere on the set was established early by director Roberts, who earned his cast members' admiration when he invited them all to pore over the script and offer suggestions.
"We had a good rehearsal period which broke the ice," notes Burrows. "On the first day, we all sat around a table and discussed the film. We got to improvise a bit, and just make it work for us, which was nice."
Lillard elaborates, "For the first time since I became a professional actor, we actually worked on the script, and we did it intensely. Many times in Hollywood, you come in, read the script twice in a day and that's rehearsal. But on Wing Commander, it was extensive, eight-to-10-hour days, working scenes and the emotional realities. We dug in and made it our own. Chris was really great about that. We came in and said, 'What about this and this and this?' and he said, 'no' or 'yes.' It validated us as actors."
While Holder appreciated her director's open-door policy, she also valued Roberts' incredibly strong handle on the Wing Commander Universe. "Chris knows this worldbetter than anybody, and he brings you into it, which makes acting in that world much easier. He allows you to have input, but he gives a clear picture of what he wants and needs for this whole thing to work as one." Unlike director Paul Verhoeven of Starship Troopers, Roberts did not stage an elaborate mini-boot camp to prepare his actors for the film's military environment. Lillard snorts at the thought.
"No, we did nothing even remotely like that, Not to laugh, but it might make sense for me to do something like that for Saving Private Ryan, but for Starship Troopers?'
Burrows, who worked for director Renny Harlin in Deep Blue Sea following her tour of duty in Wing Commander, says it's hard to compare Harlin to Roberts. "Renny has made many more films than Chris, so there's obviously a different level of experience there," she admits. "Renny has an amazing energy, and he bounds around the set. Chris is much calmer, but he's very good at what he does. He's highly sensitive to nuance, and he's open to being approached with new ideas."
Roberts' technological know-how particularly impressed Lillard, who found his director's grasp of digital effects a boon to the production. "Chris brings this whole history of gaming, digital effects and his amazing imagination to the project that is enough to lead and govern," Lillard remarks. "When you're working on a movie, it's like being on a ship with a captain. You have to be able to follow that captain through thick and thin. Because of his accomplishments, and the success of his games and digital company, I felt I could trust him implicitly."
Wing Commander pits humans against aliens in a battle where the stakes are nothing less than the destruction of Earth itself. That's a pretty grim alien-encounter scenario, one that the actors don't necessarily universally accept. Burrows admits, however, that a real-life first contact, if it ever happens, could bring us face-to-face with hostile beings.
"I think it could well be hostile," she says. "First of all, it would be arrogant of us to think we're the only people out there. Personally, I feel this world is interesting, beautiful and diverse enough to satisfy me. I have no desire to go into space. But it's quite humbling when you think how small we are, really. It certainly puts things in perspective. There may be other life forms out there."
Holder likes the film's assumption that humanity would unite in the face of a common threat. "On this ship, the Tiger Claw, there are so many different races and cultures — French, German. British, American. The whole world's forces come together to fight the same cause. That's how I suppose it would be in reality, too. I think we'll get to that point of cooperation. If aliens ever attacked Earth, I'm sure we would come together as a whole force and fight together."
Lillard is not so sure we'll need to fight. "Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if first contact has already happened. But if it is still to come, I don't think it'll be hostile," he ponders. "If it is, we'll get our asses kicked, so I hope it's not hostile. If somebody's coming to visit us, clearly their technology is going to be more advanced than ours."
But in Wing Commander, the human race triumphs over its attackers. "Yeah," says Matt Lillard with a laugh, "Wing Commander is a big phat movie."
Reckless and swaggering, Todd "Maniac" Marshall (Matt Lillard) must endure the tragic consequences of his foolhardiness before he learns self-restraint
Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux (Saffron Burrows) is hardened by a lifetime of war.
In the wake of some too-fancy flying by Maniac, Rosie Forbes (Ginny Holder) forfeits her life. But the combat wages on...
Holder notes that playing the "strong and ambitious" Forbes was a great challenge.
"Maniac is funny, he's a hero, he saves Blair, he loses his girl friend."
This summer, Burrows faces a menace even more deadly than Kilrathi, the intelligent killer sharks of Deep Blue Sea.
"Deep down. Angel fears passion - She fears living."
Wing Commander isn't the only movie in which Lillard has played a maniac! He was also the boisterous killer in Scream.
"Forbes is good at what she does"
Lillard felt his role's real challenge was "to play Maniac as this charged-up kind of action figure guy... and still have some basis in reality."