"Swordfish" unfolds in a world in which nothing is what it seems and every character's allegiances are obscured. "The central question in 'Swordfish' is what these characters are really up to and why," says producer Joel Silver, who has scored in recent years with such back-to-back hits as Oscar winner Matrix, the (1999) House on Haunted Hill (1999), Romeo Must Die (2000) and Exit Wounds (2001). "The circumstances are constantly in question. Who is bad and who is good? Gabriel is not the film's hero, but is he really bad? And Stanley is the good guy, but how good is he really? Everything is changing and shifting and every character has shades of gray."
Two-time Academy Award nominee John Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, a man whose ties seemingly reach deep into covert channels within the government. "Gabriel is clearly a spy of some sort, or former spy," says Travolta. "You get the sense that he is someone other than who he presents himself as. He has this look of a European playboy type with the haircut and soul patch, but that's not necessarily who he is. In fact, in his mind he is not the bad guy at all. "
When Gabriel sets his sights on a hidden cache of funds accumulated in a Drug Enforcement Agency money-laundering scheme - code-named Swordfish - nothing will get in his way of stealing it. "It has just been sitting there, gaining interest," Travolta explains. "And Gabriel thinks this money is really nobody's money. It's bad money, basically. So, why not take it for good use?"
"Gabriel is a patriot of sorts," Travolta continues. "He has his own ideas that are very strong about how to handle international terrorism. But you need money to do it, lots of money. And that's where this slush fund comes in."
Gabriel's plan to raid the DEA slush fund involves storming the bank in broad daylight using a dozen mercenaries, massive weaponry and hostages. But to pull off a cyber-heist of this magnitude requires the services of one of the top hackers in the world. "Computer hackers have extraordinary power and because they're young and rebellious the damage they can do is amazing," says Hugh Jackman, who shot to international attention as Wolverine in X-Men (2000)."
Stanley Jobson (Jackman) is exactly who Gabriel is looking for. Jackman describes Stanley as "sort of a reluctant hero. He's everyman in a way. He just happens to be extraordinary at what he does, which is being a computer hacker. Stanley didn't just hack into something for the hell of it; he hacked into an FBI program that was doing Big Brother-like surveillance on Americans. So, he went in and destroyed it. "
But the stunt cost Stanley his freedom and caused him to lose custody of his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes). "The only thing Stanley is living for is his daughter, and he has no access to her," says Jackman. "He can't see her or talk to her. So when we first meet him in the film, he is in despair."
The other love of Stanley's life, Jackman points out, is computers - but the terms of his parole prevent him from coming within 50 yards of one. "He has got a Mozart kind of ability with them," says Jackman. "He sees code the way great musicians hear music in their heads."
Only a handful of hackers in the world can hack in and get out as quickly as Gabriel needs to in order to access the DEA money and delete any records of the transfer. And when one operative is apprehended trying to get through customs (and consequently murdered), Gabriel sends his most alluring associate, Ginger (Halle Berry) after Stanley.
"Ginger is a confident, smart and sexy woman," says Berry, who starred as Storm opposite Jackman's Wolverine in the hit X-Men (2000) and garnered accolades and a Golden Globe Award for her work in the title role of the HBO telefilm 'Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.' "When she goes out to get him, she will not take no for an answer. She is a woman who is not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants. It takes her three tries, but she gets the guy."
At the same time, Stanley is being watched. Don Cheadle, whose performances in such films as Traffic (2000), Boogie Nights (1997) and Bulworth (1998) have earned universal acclaim, plays burned-out cyber crimes agent Roberts. "This is the fed who used to head the largest task force on cyber crime in the country," Cheadle says. "He was the person responsible for catching Stanley in the first place. But he snapped and became violent on a suspect and his career went downhill from there. "
"When Roberts sees a surveillance image of Stanley arriving in Los Angeles, he gets plugged into this plot without having any idea how big it is or how high it goes," says Cheadle.
Meanwhile, as Ginger draws Stanley into Gabriel's world, their edgy connection deepens. "Ginger is really Gabriel's right-hand person," says Travolta. "But she seduces Stanley in various ways and he gets confused about what she really is. "
When Stanley discovers Ginger wearing a wire, she tells him she is an undercover DEA agent trying to find out whom Gabriel is working for. "Their relationship develops but he never really knows if their connection is real, or if it's just an act," says Berry. "There are a lot of mixed signals also about her relationship with Gabriel. Are they lovers? Are they partners? What is she in it for?"
Gabriel's motives are equally enigmatic. "Stanley initially believes that Gabriel is in it for the money," says Silver. "He doesn't agree with it, but he understands it. At the very end of the piece, he discovers what the heist is really about and it's far stranger and more complex than he ever imagined. And by then it's too late to back out. But Stanley is not without a few surprises of his own."
At the moment of truth, when Gabriel, his henchman Marco (Vinnie Jones), Ginger and Stanley, along with a small army of mercenaries, converge at the World Banc Investors Group in West Los Angeles, all hell breaks loose and Stanley learns the truth about what he has done. "Stanley also has an ace up his sleeve," says Jackman. "And when push comes to shove he can pull that little ace out and try to manipulate the situation. But Gabriel is equally smart and a hell of a lot more manipulative, so it really is a fight to the end between them. "
About The Production
Producer Joel Silver sees "Swordfish" as "unique, innovative storytelling." The veteran producer, currently at work on the Matrix, the (1999) sequels, feels the world of hackers and cyber crime is an ideal backdrop for this type of complex thriller. "The Internet allows people with a talent for hacking to do things that ordinary people can't do," Silver notes. "And if you reach a certain skill level, or have an innate talent for it, no amount of security or encryption can stop you."
For Jonathan D. Krane, whose work with Travolta includes some of the most popular and acclaimed films of the past decade, including the award winning comedy Look Who's Talking (1989) and films of virtually all genres such as Primary Colors (1998), civil Action, A (1998) and Michael (1996), the challenge in producing "Swordfish" was to make complex computer issues accessible. "I read an article that described something that is right out of our movie," Krane recalls, "and to me that means our story is not only on the cutting edge but also authentic. We're pushing the envelope of what the world of computers can do, both good and bad, for people. But we're also keeping the story within the realm of possibility. "
Skip Woods's screenplay opens in a coffee shop while the bank heist is in full swing and then moves backward and forward in time. Travolta was taken by this scene alone. "I read this scene where I'm sitting at a coffee bar and pontificating about movies, in particular Dog Day Afternoon (1975)," he remembers. "I knew I loved it immediately. The best blueprint for the whole character was in those first three or four pages."
Silver, who has known Travolta for years, was thrilled to undertake a project featuring a character so perfectly suited for the actor. "John is so charming naturally that when he creates a character like Gabriel, there is an ambiguity that throws you off," says the producer. "It makes it hard to know if he's bad; you want him to be the good guy. This is such a vital component to the character and only an actor of John's caliber and charisma could possibly pull it off. "
Travolta and Krane were equally thrilled to make "Swordfish" with Joel Silver. "I only feel you should do action films if your guns are loaded, and I mean that metaphorically," says Travolta. "If you have a great action producer, which Joel is, a great director, and wonderful actors that you can work with, like Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry, then you have something that can potentially be phenomenal. "
To fulfill the potential of a story infused with a range of intriguing, shaded characters, it was important to select a cast that could express every side to them.
"Hugh Jackman is such a pro," Travolta observes. "To me, he is like the best mix of Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery: he's a great star as well as a fine actor. I felt very lucky to get him in this movie. And Halle is such a beauty and a terrific actress."
Silver, who worked with Halle Berry when she appeared in Executive Decision (1996), wanted the actress from the beginning. "People are blinded by Halle's beauty but in fact she is a formidable actress with great talent," says Silver. "Now, with her Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, she is coming into her own and people are beginning to see what she can do. She brings so much conflict, wisdom and raw sexiness to Ginger. She is the ideal counterpoint to John and Hugh. "
The final piece in the puzzle was the character of Roberts, the FBI cyber crimes agent whose history with Stanley draws him into Gabriel's plot. To portray Roberts, Silver called on Don Cheadle, who has turned in acclaimed, standout performances in such films as Boogie Nights (1997), Traffic (2000) and the telefilm "The Rat Pack," for which he was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. "Don is among the finest actors of his generation and we are thrilled to have him in this film," Silver says. "He brought so much intelligence and intensity to Roberts and truly elevated the role, creating a character that, like Stanley and Gabriel, has more going on than you initially might think. "
Rounding out the cast are British actor Vinnie Jones, an English football star who shot to international attention in the Guy Ritchie films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (1999), as Gabriel's top operative, Marco; and Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and acclaimed actor and director, as Senator Reisman, who has a hidden connection to Gabriel.
The filmmakers brought in director Dominic Sena, who made an impact on audiences with the fast-paced, auto-theft thriller Gone In 60 Seconds (2000), to helm. Silver admired the work of Sena and his team from the earliest stages of production. "Dominic comes with his baggage, which in this case is very good," says the producer. "He works with the incredible cinematographer Paul Cameron and production designer Jeff Mann. The incomparable work of the three of them gives this movie a feel like you've never seen before. They created a Los Angeles for this movie using all physical locations and minimal soundstage work, that is at once completely authentic and yet totally unique. It is a breathtaking vision. "
"Swordfish" began production on location in Bend, Oregon, where the filming kicked off with an exciting aerial sequence involving John Travolta and Sam Shepard. Gabriel flies over Reisman in his jet-black helicopter, buzzing the Senator as he is fishing in the river. The scene took several days to complete with the crew spending most of their time wading back and forth across the swift-running river. Shepard is an ardent fly-fisherman and not only enjoyed partaking of his favorite pastime and getting paid for it, but he also caught several trout between takes.
After wrapping work in Oregon, the crew moved back to home ground in Los Angeles. One of the most significant locations utilized was Main Street, Ventura, which stood in for a swank West Los Angeles street corner. For nearly four weeks the production commandeered an intersection, a feat that has rarely been achieved in Southern California. This location was chosen because the production was able to construct the exterior and interiors of the bank and coffee shop sets on opposite sides of the street as required by the script.
The location for the stylish coffee shop set is, in reality, a bookstore. The store's owners agreed to let the filmmakers rent their building and completely revamp it. "I wanted the coffee shop to have a very high-end, corporate look, versus your neighborhood beatnik poetry reading coffee shop," explains production designer Jeff Mann.
The company then moved into a grueling night schedule in downtown Los Angeles, where a thrilling car chase sequence involving Travolta and Jackman was shot. The stars were filmed while driving an exclusive British sports car called a TVR, which is manufactured in the U. K. and was imported especially for the production. Prior to the chase, Travolta and Jackman spent time working with the stunt coordinator to hone their driving skills until they were able to perform the majority of the chase sequence themselves.
Jackman particularly enjoyed the experience. "I did five days full-time training," he reports. "I'm now fully registered as a stunt-driver and I can do 90s, reverse 180s, back up at 130 miles an hour and not lose control of the vehicle. I had a lot of fun with the car."
The film's intricate, elaborate and dangerous stunt sequences presented unique challenges to the crew, and demanded the collaboration of the visual effects, stunts and special effects departments. "There's a kind of synergy when all this talent comes together to do something that hasn't been done before," says visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis. "Or, to give a familiar visual a new twist or take it to a new level. It makes it very exciting."
Jeff Mann, who collaborated with director Dominic Sena on Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) and many of his music videos and commercials, was instrumental in creating the film's finale - an incredible stunt involving a Sikorski helicopter and a bus full of hostages. "At the climax of the film, Gabriel has loaded the hostages on the bus and they are surrounded by SWAT teams," Mann explains. "There doesn't seem to be any way out. I envisioned a spectacular escape that Gabriel and his operatives would have planned months before. This massive sky crane appears like some huge insect and swoops down, plucking them off the ground and depositing them on the roof of a skyscraper. "
At the time Mann pitched the idea to Sena, they didn't know if it was actually feasible to do the scene physically. "When we started to do the research," says Mann, "we were taking a 7,000-pound liberty. "
Mann met with representatives from Erickson Sky Crane, a firm that specializes primarily in putting out fires, transporting lumber and positioning large air conditioning units on very tall buildings. To execute such tasks, the company designed a custom rig that counter-balances and stabilizes heavy equipment so it doesn't twist dangerously while being hoisted through the air.
After numerous discussions, the filmmakers decided that it was feasible to fly a bus through downtown L. A. using the special crane, but there were too many liabilities and insurance issues to set the bus down on an actual rooftop. After initially considering a graphic solution, it was decided it would be simpler to build a rooftop set.
Mann created an exact replica of a downtown rooftop and built it in the mountains above Chatsworth. One of the considerations in choosing the location was that they needed a clear vista looking west and south.
In order to pull off the unprecedented flying bus stunt, explains Boyd Shermis, "We did a pre-visualization of the bus's flight path by creating a very detailed version of the area, in a virtual sense, so we could literally put ourselves on top of any number of buildings along that pathway and know exactly what we were going to see and how we could place the cameras. "
Shermis placed a virtual camera on just about every rooftop along the bus's flight path and was able to give director Sena a range of options in terms of their positions and lenses. "There were legions of cameramen," says Sena. "It was sort of like Napoleon's army. We had 14 or 16 cameras shooting at a time. "
The day finally arrived and the filmmakers' dream became reality. The massive sky crane sat in a downtown parking lot as the crew looked on expectantly. As the rotor blades began to rotate, an ungodly noise filled the air and spectators covered their ears. The huge machine slowly rose and dust and debris filled the air. It hovered above the bus as the cables were attached. As it swept by base camp, a violent wind buffeted the onlookers and they turned away covering their faces trying to stay upright as the wind reached almost hurricane force.
"This thing would knock you to the ground and just hold you there," Sena notes with a laugh. "The rotors seemed to be about 80 feet across, and the rotor wash was devastating if you were under it. I made the mistake of doing that once as it was hovering to take off on North Hope, and it just sucked the breath out of my lungs. "
The following Sunday, the bus was hoisted up from the 1st Street Bridge and flown through the downtown streets of Los Angeles. It was lifted to building height, which is about 15 stories from street level, and traveled down the street in close proximity to the adjacent buildings, sometimes with a mere 40 inches on either side. Cameras were set on platforms on the edges of skyscrapers and as the sky crane made its turn, the bus swung in a curve within a few feet of the lens.
"This is a sequence that could have been done with CGI, but we felt it was important to actually do it live; nothing like this has ever been seen before, and that cutting-edge feeling was what we were after with this movie," Silver enthuses. "We wanted to make it bigger, better, more exciting and thrilling and give people a real wild ride. And if we've done that, then we've done our job. "
Safety was obviously the primary concern, and although the majority of the flying bus sequence was a physical effect, some elements were turned over to the visual effects team. There was a certain amount of blue screen work involved, mainly for the interior of the bus and the view from inside the bus. (In the story, the hostages are still inside the bus when it is airlifted through the canyons of the city. ) A blue screen was erected at the TWA hangar at Los Angeles International Airport to accommodate the huge set. The bus was hung 60 feet off the ground from a crane so it could swing free.
The interior shots presented a challenge for stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director Dan Bradley. "What I needed to do was to match the energy inside a bus flying throughout downtown L. A. in a hostage situation," Bradley relates. "We needed people to react in broader ways. " Bradley spent days working out the logistics with special effects coordinator Michael Meinardus.
One of the most important things to determine was how much weight the bus would hold. "We did test after test," says Bradley. "As the bus dropped, everybody goes weightless and we needed to create that effect. As the bus traveled through its arc, they got a lot of negative and positive G's, floating out of the seats, starting to crawl back. Then when it hit the bottom of the arc, they're turned upside down. It's very disorienting. "
It was also a very small space in which Bradley's stunt team could do their work. "We didn't want to do a straight fall; we wanted to do a tumbling fall of about twelve feet over the tops of the seat," he says. "We spent almost a full week rehearsing and rigging it. " In addition to his stunt men, Bradley also coordinated the cast members' action. The members of the principal cast that were actually inside the bus had to be invisibly harnessed to protect them from harm.
Visual effects supervisor Shermis especially relished one challenge presented by the opening scene of the film, during which a hostage wired with explosives steps out of the safe range. For this, director Sena wanted to use some of the innovative camera techniques pioneered in Silver's groundbreaking smash Matrix, the (1999). "During that scene, police cars are exploding, guys are flying through the air, and it had to be timed so that when we got to camera number 125, this guy had to be flying in the frame. I'd never seen a more difficult shot to set up. It was just all the layers and passes. One layer for the explosion, one layer for the car being thrown through the air, one layer for the people who were supposed to be next to the car. That was a separate pass so that nobody got hurt. So it was just layers upon layers. To get one 30-second shot took days. "
The shot involved using the multi-cam system, a specially designed rig created by Bill Gill which is able to hold 135 still cameras.
This one shot took roughly three months of planning. Shermis started with an extensive computer graphic pre-visualization. The area was mapped out very specifically to about a half-inch so they knew exactly where to place the cameras and the components were exactly where they needed to be. The timing was literally scheduled to the millisecond and the special effects and stunt teams had to make sure everything happened exactly as planned.
Although a certain amount of this sequence was rendered using CGI, over 85% of the shot was done physically. The only elements to be computer-generated were those that would be safety hazards, such as the flying ball bearings and shattering glass at close proximity to the cast and crew.
Stunt coordinator Bradley utilized an amazing rig in order to achieve the spectacular flips and turns required by the shot. The rig utilizes a cable system, which is attached to harnesses worn by the stunt men and which literally hoists them into the air and flips them. It enables them to perform moves that haven't been seen before.
"Every sequence presented its own challenge," says Sena. "And we would use a different technique for each. One had to be very formal and locked off; another might have been a complicated dolly move; and yet another needed to be hand-held to give a rough and imperfect feel. "
When it came to creating the overall look of the film, Sena wanted to give Gabriel's world a high sheen of glamour, while not being afraid of color. "We were constantly mixing gels and the color palette is pretty strong," Sena explains. "Each location had a color palette assigned to it and the practical lighting dictated the light we would use on the actors. For instance, if there was a green lantern, the light on the faces would be green instead of trying to create perfect flesh tones. It looks glossy and sexy, which is the right look for this picture. "
An example of this approach is a scene in which the mercenaries are preparing for a heist on the bank. Originally, the scene was set in a warehouse. "I had this vision of it being in an old, decrepit theater downtown," says production designer Mann. "I felt it was the perfect setting for the grandeur and theatricality of John Travolta's character. We scouted and found a place downtown that hadn't been shot to death in every music video in the universe. I was very happy with the result; it was visually a lot more interesting and really set up the character well. "
Finding an appropriate setting to express the characters is a very important element of production design. To this end, Jeff Mann chose a house in Chatsworth, designed by the architect responsible for the Transamerica building in downtown Los Angeles, to serve as Gabriel's compound. The house was originally built for Robert Young in 1951; later it was owned by Lucille Ball and then Frank Sinatra.
Mann also created an incredible nightclub set. "In the script, the nightclub was named 'Prague,'" says Mann, "and the description refers to the Euro-trash club-goers that frequent the place. We designed this club that had a kind of oppressive, bunker-like feel to it. "
Costume designer Ha Ngyen's first thought when she read the script was that she wanted John Travolta to look very different than in any other role. "He came from Europe and was someone with lots of money," explains Ngyen. "I wanted him to be quite stylish and have very expensive things, but many of them would be custom-made for him. "
The complexity of Stanley's character gave Ngyen greater freedom in designing for Hugh Jackman. "He is always doing something unexpected," she explains. "There is a whole different side to what he appears to be on the surface. "
Ngyen also designed the majority of the clothes for Halle Berry. "Her character is quite aggressive for a woman," explains Ngyen. "She knows who she is and exactly what she wants. I wanted her clothes to be very bright and to have strong colors. Many of the dresses were made of matte jersey which clings to her figure. "
Although Don Cheadle's character Roberts is a conservative FBI agent, Ngyen added unusual touches to his wardrobe, such as mauve or mustard colors, to make Roberts more intriguing.
Clothes are very important to Vinnie Jones and Ngyen incorporated his personal style into Marco's wardrobe. "I looked at the kind of clothes that he liked and adapted them to the role. He wears his clothes almost like a uniform."
For the nightclub, Ngyen used a combination of '70s and '80s clothes to create the dance club style required, which was also in keeping with her prediction of fashion for 2001.