'Guardian' crew saw real heroism in action

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Aside from a title sequence that uses still photographs to illustrate of history of the U.S. Coast Guard and its Rescue Swimmers, who date from 1984, the new movie "The Guardian" does not directly reference the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Director by Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") and scheduled for release by the Walt Disney Studios' Buena Vista distribution arm Sept. 29, the film is set in "A" School, the elite training program conducted by the Coast Guard to train swimmers to jump from hovering helicopters into roiling seas in order to save lives.

A muscular piece of Hollywood filmmaking, "Guardian" follows a tried-and-true template: Kevin Costner plays a veteran Rescue Swimmer -- his record of "saves" is legendary -- who is pulled off the front lines to train the newest batch of raw recruits, Ashton Kutcher is the hot-shot high school swimmer who initially butts heads with Costner's gruff taskmaster, and Melissa Sagemiller is the local girl Kutcher's character romances.

The project, budgeted at $75 million-$80 million, written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff and produced by Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson, had the full cooperation of the Coast Guard. But getting Mother Nature to play along was another matter.

The production, planning to shoot in and around New Orleans, was just six weeks from the start of filming when Katrina swept in. Crew members were hastily evacuated. A massive water tank that had been built in the suburb of Slidell was wiped out by the storm. Technical advisers from the Coast Guard assigned to the film left to work in the rescue effort.

"We were definitely in the eye of the storm," Davis says. But within three days, the production regrouped in Shreveport, which became its new headquarters. The move proved felicitous because the company found the logistics of working in a smaller town easier than dealing with a larger city like New Orleans. And it built another tank: an eight-chambered, 100-by-80-foot concrete pool that used a new technology involving air pressure rather than mechanical devices to create massive waves that allowed the filmmakers -- with digital assists and second unit footage shot in Alaska -- to create scenes of storm-tossed rescues in the Bering Strait.

Still, the aftereffects of both Katrina and Hurricane Rita three weeks later couldn't be avoided. There were 1,000 evacuees living in the gymnasium at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, which was to serve as one of the locations for the movie's training sequences. "We were literally walking around traumatized people," the director recalls, adding that the production hired about 200 evacuees.

The Coast Guard itself is credited with saving an estimated 33,520 people in the Gulf States in the wake of Katrina. In Spike Lee's magisterial documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," witnesses testify that the Coast Guard was just about the only government agency that stood up to the challenge.

As a result, even though "The Guardian" may have originally been designed as nothing more than a four-square, patriotic Hollywood entertainment, the movie is likely to have an added resonance for many viewers.

Davis admits that while the Coast Guard more than merits the attention it earned because of its disaster response, it was hard way to enter the limelight.

"We were totally invested in these guys and gals -- in awe of what they have done and what they are doing," he says. "Katrina was like opening a door and shining a light on what these people do, which is also something we are trying to do with the movie. But even though they deserved the recognition, the circumstances under which it came were certainly bittersweet."
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