Embracing the challenges of 'Alive'


How do you get audiences into theaters to see a movie abou cannibalism? A movie -- based on a true-life event -- that had already been the stuff of a schlocky production (1976's "Survive!") about a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes and whose survivors endured subzero temperatures, blizzards, avalanches and the frozen meat of their dead teammates for 10 weeks on a barren mountainside?

If you are director Frank Marshall and Disney's Touchstone Pictures, you sell the movie very carefully. Trailers, which have been running in multiplexes for months, make no allusion to the dietary regimen of the stranded young men. TV spots alternate between ones that depict corpses splayed in the snow, being cut up for food, and ones that avoid such grisly details and focus instead on "Alive's" themes of resilience, endurance and the indomitable spirit of humankind.

From the beginning, Mr. Marshall said, he and Touchstone executives worried how to market the film. "I have always been afraid that people will dismiss the movie as 'Oh yeah, it's the rugby team that ate each other,' which is not what the movie's about. So I wanted to be careful that we were presenting the movie on a higher level. But I also didn't want to skirt the issue," he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

"Cannibalism certainly is part of the story, and it is one of the obstacles that they faced in surviving. So we had to deal with it.

"It was a tough sell. The head of publicity said to me, 'Look, can you make a romantic comedy next time? We had trouble selling "Arachnophobia," and now this.' "

"Arachnophobia," 1990's creepy-crawler thriller about killer spiders, marked Mr. Marshall's directorial debut. Mr. Marshall, who served as Steven Spielberg's longtime producer ("Hook," "The Color Purple," "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), had decided to try his hand at directing -- and liked it. In 1991, Disney offered him several projects, including "Alive" and "Swing Kids," a musical drama about jazz-loving teen-agers in pre-war Nazi Germany. (Thomas Carter ended up directing the latter, which stars Robert Sean Leonard, Barbara Hershey and Kenneth Branagh and opens late next month.)

Mr. Marshall chose "Alive" for a number of reasons: the challenge of shooting 10,000 feet up in the Canadian Rockies; the opportunity to film one of the most dramatic -- and prolonged -- plane-crash sequences in movie history; the story of "ordinary people in extraordinary, impossible situations"; and the fact that just as Mr. Marshall was on the car phone with Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg, a pickup cut in front of him with a bumper sticker that read: "Rugby Players Eat Their Dead."

It's one of those great Hollywood stories, and, insists Mr. Marshall, it's true. He and his producer-partner (and wife) Kathleen Kennedy saw the sticker as a sign, and told Mr. Katzenberg that they'd make "Alive."

"You have to go with those kinds of things," says Mr. Marshall, laughing.

Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck") was brought in to write a new screenplay based on Piers Paul Read's 1974 best seller -- the sixth script since Hollywood first went a-courtin' in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Marshall and Mr. Kennedy flew to Uruguay to interview the survivors and recruited one of them, Nando Parrado (now one of Uruguay's most popular TV personalities), as technical adviser on the $25 million project. In the film, Mr. Parrado's role is played by Ethan Hawke, a young actor best known for "Dead Poets Society" who, over the course of "Alive," assumes a remarkable resemblance to a swashbuckling Errol Flynn.

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