For more than 25 years, adventure novelist Clive Cussler has chronicled the derring-do of the fictional Dirk Pitt, an international explorer in the employ of the National Underwater Marine Agency, or NUMA. Actor Matthew McConaughey started seeking Cussler out seven years ago in hopes of getting a chance to play Pitt on the big screen. Last year, his own version of creative stalking paid off.
Now, moviegoers have their first look at the final product. "Sahara," a rollicking epic in the quasi-comedic Indiana Jones mode, takes McConaughey and co-star Penelope Cruz across West Africa in search of a mysteriously missing Civil War battleship. The star, 35, doubles as executive producer.
McConaughey recently paused during a cross-country promotional tour to offer an early taste.
Q: How was it different this time, being both executive producer and star?
A: A lot of times, man, I show up, do my job as an actor, and see the finished product later on, and I think, 'Whoa! is that the same movie I was in?' This way, I had more of a hand in all the things I have an opinion on anyway in films. I finally got to be in what they call 'the meeting.' I got to help pick the (script) writers. I interviewed Breck Eisner, the director. I helped in the casting process.
We all came to a meeting of the minds on what the tone and sense of humor of the movie would be; we shone a light on what worked tonally and what didn't. I got some soil under my fingernails in scenes I wasn't even in as an actor. That gives me a sense of ownership I've never had before.
Q: What's the tone you arrived at?
A: It's cool; it's fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously. (Dirk and friends) get themselves into hairy situations, where we're getting shot at and so on, but we handle it like pros; as soon as we escape, we're like -- ahem! That was lucky! I'm Dirk Pitt, the lead, man, and I laugh at myself more than anybody. It's fun and light, with that kind of cool swagger to it.
Q: What's the film about?
A: It's a fun, mysterious treasure hunt. My character, who works for NUMA, is after an iron-clad battleship (from the Civil War era) that I believe made it, somehow, from Virginia, across the Atlantic and up the Niger River to someplace in the Sahara Desert. Penelope (Cruz) plays a World Health Organization doctor who, at the same time, is chasing down the source of a mysterious West African disease.
Could the ship be the same place where the disease is coming from? You have to see the movie to find out.
Q: An exotic premise.
A: Well, this movie has a lot of layers. Dirk's job is an underwater excavator; he brings antiquities from the deep. But the film is set in the Sahara Desert. You learn some real cool science. The rivers that were on the surface (there) hundreds of years ago are now underground. There are aquifers underneath the Sahara that connect to the River Niger, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. All these waterways are linked. Geographically, there's cool stuff happening.
And then there's Africa: The DP (director of photography), the director, and everybody took full advantage of the epic landscape in Africa: You know you're not in Utah, man. And the locals themselves -- they're a whole 'nother character. It's all worth seeing on the big screen.
Q: What was shooting in Morocco like?
A: The Wild, Wild East, man! The desert is a good place to get to know yourself. You have none of the crutches or references you're used to -- no phone, no TV but al-Jazeera, no car, nobody to call up on the phone. You realize everything you have is in your backpack.
So you'd head out in the desert, have a (bongo) drum session under a full moon at one in the morning -- and nomads would come strollin' up on a camel. You'd share food. Even though you weren't tellin' stories in the same vocabulary, after a few hours, everybody was laughing at all the same jokes.
Q: How was the filming itself?
A: (It was) five months in the desert, and a month in Barcelona and London -- all five- and six-day weeks, 14 hours a day. But every day was a new challenge, and not just 'cause of the work. You're ready to shoot, and here comes a sandstorm that blows you away, and you don't know if it's gonna be 15 minutes or 15 days.
We lived in everything from motor hotels to tents; we raced camels and cars across the desert. At one point, we had 600 people in the crew. When you line up 200 vehicles and you say, 'That-a-way!' and there's nothin' out there but desert, and this whole band of gypsies suddenly revs up and heads out -- it's pretty wild.
Q: What does "Sahara," your first action-adventure film, mean to your career?
A: If it does well, it could be an investment in the future for me. (The Pitt) character could be a franchise part. I'm excited about that possibility.
But that is purely up to the people who go see it. I already know we've made a good movie. I'm out here (on the publicity tour) to raise awareness of it.