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Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz star in Sahara, the desert action-adventure paying modern homage to the classics of its kind. Max Levant reports.

Adapted from one of bestselling author Clive Cussler’s most successful Dirk Pitt adventures, Sahara is the kind of movie they keep telling you no one makes any more. It is a witty, romantic, heart-in-the-right place action-adventure set in an exotic location (the title should give you a clue as to which one), involving a secret treasure dating back to the American Civil War. And that, in turn, may also hold the key to a much more modern - and much more dangerous - secret.

“There’s this mystery that’s been going on for 150 years – what happened to a missing Ironclad battleship – and Dirk’s determined to get to the bottom of it,” says director Breck Eisner, who makes his feature debut with Sahara after winning acclaim for the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken. “That’s where the story starts; and it ends up thousands of miles away, in the middle of the Sahara desert. It’s an action-adventure movie in the spirit of the great serials and action films that came before it.”

"You could call Sahara a buddy movie, too, except that it’s about a trio"

You could call Sahara a buddy movie, too, except that it’s about a trio rather than a couple. There are the two old friends, Dirk Pitt - a recurrent character in Cussler’s novels, played here by Matthew McConaughey; and his lifelong friend, Al (Steve Zahn). They are members of NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, whose job, not surprisingly, is to tackle problems and find things lost underwater - like a Civil War battleship which may contain a hidden treasure. Improbably (at first), their search takes them to Africa, where they meet up with a Spanish scientist, Dr Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who will quickly become the third member of the group. She is looking for something, too. But her quest concerns a different kind of enigma which may threaten the future of the planet.

“I’ve read many screenplays where the male characters are much more interesting than the female characters,” says the Spanish actress, who these days divides her career between the US and Europe. “That’s not the case here. Eva has so many layers and colours; she’s an integral part of the story. What she has to say is important. And what she discovers is important.

“I like her personality a lot,” adds Cruz. “She’s up for just as much adventure as the boys. She’s a very, very fun character, completely different from anything I’ve ever done before.”

“Penelope came into the shoot in the same way that Eva comes into the story,” says Eisner. “We had been shooting for about a week when she got to Morocco. We were a tight-knit group, Matthew, Steve and I, and then we brought in somebody from the outside world. That’s what Eva has to go through; here’s these two guys who have known each other since childhood, and she comes in and has to deal with that.”

Cruz also had a bit of action-training to catch up on, since the two boys had already spent a month being put through the wringer by US special operations outfit the Navy SEALS, and McConaughey was constantly hassling Eisner to be allowed to do his own stunts. Given the scope of the action - which involves a full-scale battle scene complete with tanks, armoured personnel-carriers and helicopters (all courtesy of the Moroccan army) - this obviously wasn’t going to be possible. But it didn’t stop McConaughey from trying.

"the most physical role I’ve had"

“I think audiences are smart enough that if they see something happen on a wide shot, they think, ‘Oh, that’s not really him’,” says the Texas-born star. “We tried to film it in a way that we kept Dirk in the frame a little longer so it’s more believable that it’s really me doing that. This was by far the most physical role I’ve had.”

“I think Matthew would have done every stunt in the movie if the insurance company had let him,” confirms Eisner. “As a director, that’s the best possible situation; you can get right in there with the camera and see that it’s really the star. You can shoot it the way you’d like and not worry about accidentally revealing the stuntman’s face. It really opens up the palette.”

“I’ve never done as much prep for a movie, ever,” adds Zahn. “We spent a week at Shepperton Studios in London, familiarising ourselves with all the weapons we were going to be using. Then, Matthew and I and Harry Humphries, our military advisor, went to Erfoud [where most of the movie was shot, close to the border between Morocco and Algeria] about two weeks before the rest of the cast and crew. We spent the time running around the desert, adjusting to the environment, and getting all the dune workouts that the military gets. You don’t complain; it’s like a sport. You practice hard to be ready so that when the ball is thrown to you, you catch it. Otherwise, you’re going to be benched.”

The camaraderie of the sports field is one of the things that gives Sahara its edge, much as it did for the relationships between Indiana Jones and his various sidekicks, or between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. Dirk Pitt is a hero for the modern age, with just that bit of rebellious edge to offset the bravery.

“He’s the ultimate Renaissance man,” says McConaughey. “Dirk’s the kind of guy who could be wrestling alligators on a Saturday morning and then wear a tux to dance with the Queen at a ball on Saturday night. He’s a senator’s son, a scientist, a polished, blue-ribbon guy; at the same time, he’s a treasure-hunting pirate, a rascally rogue, a bar-room-brawling, tequila-drinking scoundrel. But he’s always a gentleman.”

Zahn’s Al, meanwhile, is the traditional sidekick. “Plain and simple, Dirk couldn’t survive without Al,” argues Zahn. “Sure, Dirk looks good – he’s a smooth dude, a talker, a politician of sorts. But Al’s the one who knows where the lug nuts are kept, if you know what I mean. They’ve got different talents, and that makes them an unstoppable duo. Sure, whenever there’s danger, Dirk’s the one who dives in first, but Al’s right behind him – and right behind Dirk isn’t always the safest place to be.”

"the rigours of a desert shoot"

Working with a top crew - including production designer Allan Cameron, who did the Mummy films and Tomorrow Never Dies; and cinematographer Seamus Garvey, who is known for more ‘realistic’ movies like The Hours and Mike Nichols’ Wit - Eisner and the cast built a small Malian town near Erfoud and faced up to the rigours of a desert shoot.

“We would be constructing our sets and we’d be able to see clearly for miles and miles,” says Cameron. “Ten minutes later, I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. And it’s hot. Standing on the dunes, it’s 120 degrees.”

“I’ve always thought that Hollywood movies exaggerated the effects of sandstorms,” adds Eisner, “but I must say that a sandstorm coming up is an impressive and frightening sight. You only get 30 seconds warning before you have to find cover. It can ruin an entire day’s shoot.”

It was, Cruz reckons, Eisner’s energy which kept the whole thing going forward, even with the time lost to sandstorms. “He was the first one on set in the morning, and he was the last one to leave the meetings at 10.00 at night. He did that every day for months. This movie needed him. It needed his energy.”

But above all the movie needed the right tone. “Nothing in this story should be taken overly seriously,” says McConaughey. “This is an adventure, a fable. We take a certain amount of movie magic and turn it into reality. Everything adds up in a satisfying way when that magic kicks in.”

The irony is, for the magic to work, you need to believe in it, which is why the relationship between the two male leads is so important. “Al and Dirk are always messing with each other about something or other,” notes McConaughey, “but they have each other’s back the whole way. There’s constant ribbing, but when it’s time to get serious, they’re professionals. They can handle everything they need to handle."

"there’s no pretence when you’re huffin’ and puffin’"

And for Zahn, a lot of that came down to the early physical training that the two of them had done together. “It’s going to sound clichéd,” he says, “but you do get closer to a guy when you sweat your butt off for 12 hours a day in the heat. You really get to know a person on another level – there’s no pretence when you’re huffin’ and puffin’.

“The story is a bit crazy,” he concludes, “so we grounded it in reality with the training. Because Matthew and I know what we’re doing, the audience can believe that these two guys could get into – and out of – these situations. I don’t care how good the action is, how fast the helicopters are, how big the explosions are. If you didn’t believe these two guys are buddies, the movie wouldn’t work.”

Published April 7, 2005

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