Producer-director Richard Donner and his wife and fellow producer Lauren Shuler Donner unveiled their medieval time-travel adventure “Timeline,” based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling book about a group of contemporary archeologists who are transported back to France at the time of the Hundred Years’ War, at a special screening in Dallas recently. After the showing they talked about the project.
“I’ve always wanted to do a Crichton piece,” Donner said, “and we were supposed to do ‘Jurassic Park.’ But Spielberg couldn’t get a job, so I said, give it to him, and we’ll take the next [one]. I knew Crichton, and he sent us the galley–and that was it.”
Returning to the medieval period, Donner admitted, was not the easiest thing for him and Lauren to do. “[‘Ladyhawke’] in a certain way [prepared us],” he said. “I never thought I was going to go back to that period, but we’ve [now] been back there twice, the two of us. That’s how we met.”
Still, they weren’t entirely ready for how difficult the shoot would be. “It was rough,” Donner said. “We shot it all in Montreal. We built that castle from the ground up, and the villages. Everything was done out in a farmyard about an hour outside of Montreal. The weather was tough there.” Shuler Donner agreed: “It was terrible! It rained and it hailed through the two months of shooting–all muddy. It was horrendous.”
Climate was a matter of particular importance because “Timeline” was made the old-fashioned way, without lots of computer-generated effects. “I’m still naive about it,” Donner admitted. “[Lauren]’s the genius–with ‘X-Men,’ doing all that CGI stuff. They say anything you imagine you can do today, but [I have] the feeling that maybe you can still do it the way they used to do it. So it’s really hands-on, and very tangible.”
Shuler Donner added: “It’s more visceral for the actors.” And Donner agreed: “There was a point when we could have CGed a lot of the castle, but I’m telling you–when you got into that castle, and there was mud and muck and it was freezing, it WAS the period for every actor! They got in there, and they got into their costumes, and you had to touch the walls before you believed it was paper mache, or whatever they make the walls out of…it was extraordinarily real.”
The battles were done without much computer trickery, too. “We were fortunate that we got really the best swordsman in the business in Tom Dupont,” Donner said. “He was just brilliant, and worked with everyone. We got a really great archery director, we got a great weapons man. And, surprisingly enough, there was a group in Canada–in Montreal. They recreated the medieval period. They called us and said, could we come in and meet you, and possibly be extras in the movie? They came in–about a hundred [of them]–all in these incredible costumes and [with] things that really work. And they went out on center stage of this warehouse we were in, and they started to stage fights. It was so much better than ours. It was so real. These guys had lived it. They’re all in it. I got all their faces in, in half the battles.” And the weapons were real, as well. “Those trebuchets,”–catapults–“they built them,” Donner explained. “We had an expert on it, and the first night they said we were going to test-fire these things. I think they went three hundred yards with fireballs. Of course, we would pick it up and do close shots, so we could control it. The only things enhanced, really, were the arrows. They were real, but the flaming arrows–a lot of them, the wind would blow them out, so we enhanced those.”
As for Michael Crichton’s reaction to the adaptation of his book, Donner merely said, “He seems very happy.” He, his co-producer and Paramount Pictures surely hope that fans of the novel will feel the same.