Part 4: The Phantom

Blake J. Harris: So now, to the big question: The Phantom. How’d you get involved?

Simon Wincer: It’s got an interesting history because I was making a movie for Disney called Operation Dumbo Drop and I was literally about to fly to London to do the score, and I got a call from John Goldwyn at Paramount and Sherry Lansing. “We want to make this film, The Phantom.” Would you be interested? Well, I’d grown up with the comic. The Phantom was a very, very popular comic in Australia. Probably the most popular comic in the country when I was a kid. Just incredibly popular. And what had happened was they tried to make this film with Joe Dante directing and they were going to shoot it (part it) in Australia, Queensland. But for some reason or another—I think the financing fell through—it didn’t happen. It was owned by Paramount and the script was by Jeffrey Boam—a terrific writer, Jeffrey wrote some of the Lethal Weapon films.

Blake J. Harris: Yup. Lethal Weapons 2 & 3.

Simon Wincer: Anyway, the reason they rang—why they offered me the film—was they need it in a hurry. Because they were doing a movie called The Saint, with Val Kilmer, and for some reason or another the film had to be delayed by six months. And so they needed a film for that slot. How about The Phantom? [laughing] So they offered it to me. So I literally went to Paramount on the way to Los Angeles Airport (on my way to London for Operation Dumbo Drop) to meet with Sherry and John and they said, “We’d love you to do the film. That’s the good news. The bad news is we want it for next June.”

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Simon Wincer: And this would have been July or August. So anyway, I literally read the script on the plane going to London. Rang them and said, “Yes, okay, I’ll commit to it.” So that’s sort of how it came about. Then when I got back and we started working out the logistics of it. [Laughing] I remember I was in a casting session. And I was actually reading a young actress called Jennifer Lopez. She was auditioning for the part that Catherine Zeta-Jones ended up playing.

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Simon Wincer: There was an urgent call from the executive office And it was John Goldwyn saying, “I’ve just seen the budget” and he was yelling and screaming. You can’t make the film for this much money! We don’t have that much money and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. Because Paramount had wanted to make the film in Mexico and Hawaii and Los Angeles. And they were all pretty expensive places to film. And I’d just done Operation Dumbo Drop in Thailand, so I paid to have a location manager go there and shoot some footage. But they didn’t want to know about Thailand. They just thought it was too third world and ridiculous to make a movie there. But I’d just had a really good experience there. Anyway, this phone call to John—and I remember it very clearly; Jennifer Lopez was standing in the corner while I was talking on the phone—I said, “Give me 24 hours and I’ll find a way to get it down to the number you want.” I think it was about $40 million and this budget had come in at like $54 million. So that night I went through the script and I came up with a scenario: 2 weeks filming in Los Angeles, probably about 8 weeks in Thailand and then about 6 weeks on stages in Queensland. And by doing it that way, the budget was much closer to $40 million than $54 million. So at 8 o’clock the next morning, we were all in the head of production at Paramount and I put them through my proposed scenario. And with lots of reluctance, they agreed. And we took off to Thailand, did a quick scout and smiles all around.

Blake J. Harris: Did the plan work?

Simon Wincer: Yeah. So we shot for 2 weeks in Los Angeles, on the back lot at Universal. Shot the New York scenes there. It was just fantastic. Some great art-deco buildings in Los Angeles. Then we went over to Thailand, had a bit of a break over Christmas, and then finished up filming in Australia. Yeah, it was a terrific experience. A great movie to do, you know? Thailand’s got such rich locations, it was perfect for that film. I remember Roger Ebert’s review opened with something like “one of the finest-looking movies I’ve ever seen.” We had a great art department. The cinematography of David Burr was just breathtaking. Paul Peters, the production designer, did a great job. And actually my wife Liz was the art director. They were a great team.

Blake J. Harris: Oh wow, I didn’t realize.

Simon Wincer: So it was a very, very happy shoot. Though I remember, we got miles behind schedule because the monsoon kind of hung over in Thailand. And actually Sherry Lansing came to visit us. We were filming summer in the jungle and it started to piss with rain. So when we got back in the hotel, ”wading through the foyer in ankle deep water , she said and she said, “I totally understand why you’re behind schedule!”

Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing.

Simon Wincer: [cracking up] So it was fun to do. I was disappointed the film didn’t do better. I remember we had a preview at the Director’s Guild one Sunday morning. It was families and all that. Got a fantastic reaction and Sherry was railing at all of her executives. “This film’s opening in ten days and no one knows it’s happening! What are we gonna do?” Well, that’s the way it goes. You win some, you lose some, you know?

Blake J. Harris: Yeah. But you had a great experience, that counts as winning.

Simon Wincer: Oh yeah, yeah. And I’m proud of the film. And the thing about the Phantom; yes, he’s a superhero. But he doesn’t have any gadgets. He has a Wolf Dog and a revolver and a Phantom Ring that [laughing] doesn’t do much. And I guess we were sort of competing against much more sophisticated superheroes like Batman and Superman and all that kind of stuff. Who knows? But the film’s got heart, you know?

Blake J. Harris: How did you end up casting Billy Zane?

Simon Wincer: Well he was actually pretty much attached to it from the start. Originally, when they were gonna make it some years earlier in Australia he had already been cast and Paramount liked him. So he was pretty much attached when they decided to revisit.

Blake J. Harris: What was he like to work with on the film?

Simon Wincer: Oh, Billy? He was okay, he was okay. He was very into his body image and all that stuff—which I guess was right for the character—and it used to drive us all crazy, but his heart was in the right place. [laughing] Occasionally he would pump up before a take and it use to drive Patrick McGoohan crazy.

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Simon Wincer: But yeah, I suppose, one of the nice things about our job is that you get to go to fantastic parts of the world and work with some really interesting and terrific people. You work hard, but you all have a common goal, which is great.

The Phantom Catherine Zeta-Jones

Blake J. Harris: And what about Catherine Zeta-Jones? You’d mentioned Jennifer Lopez auditioning for that part. How did you end up with Catherine?

Simon Wincer: Well actually, I found Catherine Zeta-Jones from an episode I did of Young Indiana Jones. Where she played a double-agent. I had her and another unknown actor in this episode and the other unknown actor was Daniel Craig.

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Simon Wincer: And they were the two leads. He played a German baddie and it was an episode written by Frank Darabont. Anyway, we did this episode for Young Indiana Jones. Originally, the role was supposed to be played by Minnie Driver. But right before we were going to shoot in Istanbul, she had been offered a part with the BBC and asked if it would be okay to go off and do that. So we needed to find someone else in a hurry. Casting sent me this tape and it was Catherine Zeta -ones. And it was a movie. I can’t even remember the name of it, all I can remember—and I’m sure it’s long since been erased by everyone’s memory—she was literally totally naked the entire film.

The film Wincer must be referring to is Les 1001 Nuits

Simon Wincer: I’m sure Michael Douglas must have bought up every copy! But anyway, I said, “Yeah, she looks fine.” But I didn’t have time to meet her ahead of time. So when she turned up in Istanbul, it was quite late one night and we were sitting in the hotel bar. Catherine walked over and I said, “It’s nice to meet you with clothes on.” She laughed and she was a great sport. Because I’d only seen her naked in this film! Anyway, she turned out to be a real sport. Just wonderful. And when we were casting The Phantom, I wanted to screen test Catherine. We did them in the studio on Paramount lot. And when Sherry Lansing saw them, she just went over the moon. “God, she’s great, she’s great. She’s gonna be a star!” And it wasn’t long after that The Phantom she caught Spielberg’s eye and was cast in Zorro.

Blake J. Harris: One more question about The Phantom. I know you said you’re proud of the film, but I was wondering if how that situation played out made you wary of entering other situations were a film was needed in a hurry to fill a slot.

Simon Wincer: Having grown up in television, I guess, you’ve got so much more mileage under your belt. Now look, I don’t think the way it turned out is any reflection on the amount of time we had to make it. The schedule turned out to be fine. And the post-production was pretty tight, but not unusual. So from that point of view: no, I wouldn’t say it was a compromise, you know? It was what it was. We made what was on paper pretty much.

free willy


Part 5: Authenticity, Serendipity and Heart

Blake J. Harris: One thing I’m curious about…You’re not American-born, but you’ve directed a lot of great stories about the American West. Even though the genre has waned in recent years, it’s still something we seem to be fascinated with. Why do you think that is and, also, what has been your approach to telling those stories?

Simon Wincer: I mean, I love stories of the American West. And I guess, the thing about Lonesome Dove for me was—when that was released—the western had become so bastardized. With these half hour TV westerns and stuff like that, you know? Wearing silly hats and jeans and stuff like that. So myself, Bill Wittliff, Cary White (the production designer) and Van Ramsey (the costume designer), we went back to the history books and the old photographs. And Larry McMurtry had written such a wonderful book. It was just so original and the characters—my god—they were so real and so wonderful. So we wanted to stay true to that material. Like I remember people would be rushing in to clear manure off the street and I would be saying, “No! Leave it there! Leave it there! It’s real.”

Blake J. Harris: Haha

Simon Wincer: And the flies and the dust and the wind and all that, it’s all sort of life in the west in those days…and I suppose the other thing about the form. There are great stories of good triumphing over evil and that sort of stuff, so I’m always drawn to stories with a strong emotional through-line. Those are stories that appeal to me, stories that make people cry.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because it’s a good segue to the last thing I wanted to ask. One common thread throughout your work is that your films “have heart.” And, I mean, every director would like to believe that his stories have heart. But it’s not that easy. It’s hard to capture. So how have you continually manage to capture “heart?”

Simon Wincer: [laughing] That’s a wonderful question. Very interesting. [thinks for a couple moments] You know, the script has to get me in the heart, I suppose. I can’t quite articulate how I capture it. I guess it is a combination of three things. Firstly, the screenplay. Secondly the cast. And thirdly…what I look for when I’m editing a film is those moments when all the elements of performance, sound effects, music and cinematography combine to send a shiver up your spine. You really try to get those key moments, you know?

Blake J. Harris: That makes sense.

Simon Wincer: It’s those moments. Like the whale leaping over the wall. Finding those moments and it’s the sum total of everything that’s come before. It’s about mountains and valleys. Putting a character in a deep valley and then watching them climb out of it and that, to me, is what you have to deliver.

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