The day I interviewed Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott, the producer and director of "Black Hawk Down" had seen their schedule upended by fog at San Francisco International Airport that delayed the landing of their chartered jet by several hours.
As a result, private interviews had to become roundtable free-for-alls in order to accommodate all the journalists milling around the lobby of the Clift Hotel waiting to talk to them. My list of 20-plus questions had to be whittled down to two or three, since I would be sharing the interview. So I decided to drop certain pointed inquiries that might rub the moviemakers the wrong way. I wouldn't want to be responsible for Bruckheimer or Scott walking out on five other journalists.
I'm telling you this by way of an apology for not asking the one burning question almost certainly on the mind of anyone who has seen Bruckheimer's last two pictures: Mr. Bruckheimer, why didn't you give "Pearl Harbor" the kind of respect and realism you afforded "Black Hawk Down"? Why did you reduce what had been the most infamous attack on American soil into a bogus, insultingly soggy romance featuring cardboard heroes who happen to be in a couple budget-busting battle sequences?
But soon after the two Hollywood heavy hitters arrived for their interview, Bruckheimer -- whose purely popcorn explosion-fest films include "Top Gun," "The Rock," "Con Air" and "Armageddon" -- did at least offer up an explanation of why "Black Hawk Down" was, for a change, conceived as such a grim and stunningly precise recreation of a badly botched military mission in Somalia.
"A lot of it's in the book," he said, referring to author and screenwriter Mark Bowden's meticulously researched non-fiction best seller.
"We had a great book to follow that gave a moment-by-moment account," the producer continued, rolling a cigar in his hand as he spread his arms along the arm and back of his hotel suite's leather couch. "(It takes you) through the history of events, (introduces) the soldiers, then takes you actually into the mission. The book is one of the best war books ever written."
Scott -- the extremely atmospheric director of "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thema and Louise" and "Gladiator" -- lit his own cigar, taken from a leather case in his pants pocket, and nodded. "Nothing in there is invented. It's the events as recorded by Mark in his interviews with these guys."
The guys to whom he refers are the survivors of a Delta Force unit and an Army Ranger unit that went into the war- and starvation-ravaged ruins of downtown Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, to apprehend a war lord in what was supposed to be a 30 minute operation. But the mission imploded when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and several dozen soldiers were surrounded by incensed, heavily armed guerillas. Eighteen American troops were killed and 73 more wounded in the 18-hour battle that followed.
While Scott employs spectacular cinematography and symbolic color filters to artistically ratchet up the imposing ambiance of battle commotion, capturing the chaos that engulfed the soldiers that day was Scott's primary aim in making the film.
"(It's) the human factor that makes it more interesting," he said. "(But) you have to have a plan."
So the director says he wanted to focus the film's energy on the taking of a particular crossroads where the Rangers got caught in crossfire.
"That crossing the street is mayhem. (One soldier) lost his thumb; (another) got blown in half and lived for two hours afterwards. A (severed) hand was picked up off the street and put into bag because it has a military watch on," Scott asserted with dramatic gestures before continuing as if in the voice of the soldiers who pocketed the hand. "I'll pick it up and put it in a bag because later -- maybe, if the guy's alive -- I can have it stitched back on when I know whose hand it is."
"All those things are far more exotic than fiction," he continued. "So I thought, I'll follow that. I'll show that."
Asked why the most indelible news image from this incident -- the corpses of America soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu -- was left out of the film, Scott answers before I can even finish the question.
"One reason is the bodies being carried through the streets took place the next morning. So that was out of context, out of time for these events (in the film). And secondly, those two guys still have two wives."
So it was a sensitivity issue?
"Absolutely," he replies emphatically.
On another topic of sensitivity, Scott says the film was not changed in any way in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Neither he nor Bruckheimer felt it was warranted, and the film was already in the twilight of its post-production that day the world changed and Hollywood got momentarily paranoid about all things violent. "We were proceeding on the editing process and getting the music ready when September the 11th happened."
Besides, says Scott, "Black Hawk Down" is not a film that glorifies violence. It's a film about the horrors of war and about heroism. "I think any war film that's made with serious intent is an anti-war film. But certainly ("Black Hawk Down") is also a celebration of what these guys do for us."