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Making ‘Empire Of The Sun’

December 16, 1987 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Probably no one else in today’s budget-conscious movie world could have pulled it off: a World War II epic filmed in China, Spain and England with a cast of literally thousands but no big names, at a cost estimated over $30 million.

But Steven Spielberg did with ″Empire of the Sun.″

The most successful filmmaker of all time, Spielberg can pretty much call his own shots. For his first film since ″The Color Purple,″ he chose another successful book, ″The Last Empire,″ J.G. Ballard’s reminiscence of his own experiences as an English boy imprisoned after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.

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The project presented a logistical nightmare. How could Spielberg reproduce 1941 Shanghai with its teeming streets and jammed harbor? Reasoning that negotiations to film inside China would be lengthy and perhaps fruitless, co- producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall searched for an alternative in Buenos Aires, Vienna, Liverpool, Stockholm, Lisbon and Hong Kong. None qualified.

The Chinese government was approached through the Shanghai Film Studios and the China Film Co-Production Corporation. Less than a year was required to arrange the three-week location.

The next task was finding out where to reproduce the Japanese prison camp of Lunghua. Spain offered the best terrain and climate, and the camp and adjacent air field was constructed near the ancient farming town of Trubujena, in the heart of sherry country.

The old mansions of Shanghai remained, but they were now occupied by multiple Chinese families. Interiors of the former British residences were built in England.

For the first time in his career, Spielberg worked with an award-winning writer on the script. Tom Stoppard, who won a Tony award for ″The Real Thing,″ is one of England’s most acclaimed playwrights and screen writers (″The Human Factor,″ ″Brazil″). He was hired by executive producer Robert Shapiro before the Spielberg team entered the picture.

″After I met Steve, I wrote another draft,″ said Stoppard during a visit here for the movie’s premiere. ″How did he participate in the process? Oh, a good deal. He pushed it in directions and introduced elements in our meetings, which took place both here and in London.

″We had never met before, and when we first started meeting, I think I was really his amanuensis - his scribe, actually. We discussed a lot of ideas, and then the scribe would go away and write it. We ended up with a more satisfactory relationship, for him as well as me, I guess.″

Stoppard estimates that about three-quarters of the film is his own work. An important element Spielberg introduced was the Japanese youth who shared the English boy’s love of airplanes. It was a typical Spielbergian touch.

Filming began last March in Shanghai, where the streets required little change to reproduce 1941. Five thousand extras in period costumes filled the Bund, the waterfront highway of Shanghai. Another 5,000 were recruited to depict the mass exodus in the wake of the Japanese onslaught.

″It was just like back a hundred years or so,″ said Christian Bale, the film’s 13-year-old star. ″They all live in these wooden shacks. And there’s us in the Sheraton Hotel. ... You look out the window, and there’s washing going on across the road and all these people scurrying about. ... There was dust everywhere, and thousands of people following you wherever you go.″

The prison camp location in Spain proved to be more palatable for the young British actor, but he did grumble a bit when he was prevented from sunbathing - he had to maintain his prison palor.

At the Spanish site, workers constructed a pagoda, prison barracks, a railway line and airfield with a 1,000-foot runway. Three P-51 Mustang fighters were located for the air battles, along with authentic Japanese Zeroes. Six other Mustangs and six Zeroes were built to one-third scale, along with a 12-foot model of a B-29.

Casting people scoured the villages for Spaniards who could double as English or Chinese. After two months of filming, Spielberg directed the bombing of the prison camp and airfield, then the company departed for completion of the film in England. Then came Spielberg’s long period of editing, the addition of the John Williams score, followed by the Warner Bros. marketing campaign to bring ″Empire of the Sun″ to the nation’s theaters.

In addition to its obvious commercial potential as a major Christmas release, ″Empire of the Sun″ seems to be Spielberg’s latest bid to finally capture an Academy Award.

Despite his standing as the top moneymaking director of all time, the filmmaker has never achieved the ultimate peer recognition in Hollywood - an Oscar. Although his films have won in some craft categories, Spielberg has never received one himself as director or producer.

In 1986, Spielberg was not nominated for his direction of ″The Color Purple,″ despite its nomination for best picture and in 10 other categories. The film won no Oscars.

In 1983, ″E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial,″ the biggest grosser in history, failed to win as best picture or for Spielberg’s direction.

Critical reaction to ″Empire in the Sun″ suggest Spielberg could again fall short of his Oscar goal. While generally laudatory of the epic’s spectacle, some reviewers have expressed reservations about the movie’s character, story development and direction.