Producer Jon Kilik says he enjoyed the challenge of making a movie in developing nations, despite less-than-stellar accommodations along the Mekong River near the Thai-Laotian border, and the effort required to wrangle 25 untamed elephants. The 1978 University of Vermont graduate spent "every second of every day" for almost six months on the set of Alexander, director Oliver Stone's new film about the Macedonian warrior who conquered 2 million square miles of the planet in the 4th century B.C.
Kilik will be on hand for a sold-out sneak preview of the 173-minute motion picture at the Majestic in Williston on November 22, two days before it opens nationwide. Although he has collaborated mostly with indie auteurs such as Spike Lee, Tim Robbins and Julian Schnabel, the 47-year-old New Yorker doesn't necessarily see Alexander as his first grand-scale project.
"Malcolm X was an epic, but not in the sense of working with thousands of extras in Third World countries," Kilik points out -- Alexander was shot in Thailand and Morocco. "Still, every film comes down to translating what's on the page."
In this case, the pages were co-written by Stone and based on extensive research. Did he take poetic license to bring history to life? "Not really," Kilik says. "We have no way of knowing what actually happened 2300 years ago." The script suggests "a lot of parallels with today's world," Kilik adds, "but it's not contrived. There was an organic process; Oliver had no other agenda."
Alexander, portrayed by Irish actor Colin Farrell, has a rather dysfunctional family. He is always trying to please his stern father, King Philip II (Val Kilmer), who encourages him to be tough. His spiritually inclined mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), tells the boy he is actually the son of Zeus, descended from Achilles and Hercules. In other words, a god.
The softer side of Alexander emerges as he studies with the philosopher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) at age 13. Just 19 when Philip is assassinated in 336 B.C., the newly crowned teen king begins an eight-year campaign to seize a vast territory that now encompasses Greece, Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Egypt, Libya, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Alexander's reputation as a caring commander keeps his loyal troops galvanized. Undefeated, he returns home and succumbs to excessive drinking that fuels fits of rage and paranoia. Testosterone triumphs.
Before Kilik visited Burlington in May 2003 to speak at the UVM commencement and accept an honorary degree, he mused that Alexander was much more than an imperialist who fought for dominion over the Persian Empire and beyond: "He was trying to unite people, to bring cultures together. He built libraries. This was a man who believed in education."
Kilik's education here -- particularly the film classes taught by Professor Frank Manchel -- led him to pursue the art form right after college. His resume now includes a plethora of acclaimed productions, such as Do the Right Thing, Dead Man Walking, Pollock and Before Night Falls. At more than $100 million, Alexander represents the biggest budget in Kilik's career. He was among those charged with raising the money, which came primarily from Europe when American financiers showed no interest.
His next venture is an as-yet-untitled comedy by Jim Jarmusch that's already shooting in New York with Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny and Julie Delpy. It's due out this time next year; for now, Kilik declines to reveal the plot.
He's a laconic sort who apparently knows how to keep a secret. But his wry humor surfaces with a question about whether anything in Alexander would irritate America's ascendant right-wingers. After all, director Oliver Stone is known for his progressive political views, and the Macedonian monarch was bisexual in a time of pre-Christian morality. "The film is not meant to spark controversy," Kilik says. "It's up to people to make up their own minds. Any parallel to George Bush's homosexuality was purely unintentional."
The biopic features Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, a general who went on to become a pharaoh, and Rosario Dawson as Alexander's wife Roxane. This time around, Stone's cinemato-grapher was Rodrigo Prieto (Frida, 21 Grams) rather than his frequent director of photo-graphy Robert Richardson, who also attended UVM.
The Oscar-winning Stone did bring back Dale Dye, the retired marine captain who helped him establish the military accuracy of Platoon in 1986. "Dale oversaw everything from weaponry to his famous [month-long] boot camp for actors," Kilik recalls.
The filmmakers sought authenticity in set design, props, costumes and music. Legendary Greek composer Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) did the soundtrack. In most cases, the dialogue relies on an amalgam of the Celtic accents spoken by a cast that mostly hails from the United Kingdom.
Then there were the pachyderms, recruited for the spectacle of a famous battle in India. "We thought of using circus elephants, but they didn't have the energy we needed," explains Kilik, who scouted locations with Stone eight months before they began shooting. "So we went to elephant farms all over Thailand. The ones we hired live in an open space. They're not trained. So each elephant had its own trainer who knew it well. The scene was a huge challenge. It took a lot of rehearsals."
Although moviegoers might expect an ancient army to employ hundreds of the enormous beasts, Kilik notes, "Twenty-five elephants go a long way."
The R-rated Alexander, a Warner Bros. release, will have an official world premiere on November 16 in Los Angeles. A week later, Kilik plans to meet and greet Green Mountain State ticket-holders at a reception in Nicco's Cucina, a restaurant adjacent to the Maple Tree Place multiplex. Proceeds from the sold-out show will benefit UVM's general scholarship fund. After introducing the film, Kilik immediately flies to New York City for a private screening at Lincoln Center that evening.
His attachment to Vermont stretches back to childhood, when his New Jersey-based family vacationed in the Lake Dunmore area each summer. His sister Jane is a special-ed teacher in Rutland. He lauded her contribution to society during the 2003 commencement address at UVM.
Kilik is noted in the industry for his commitment to films with social significance, so the Oliver Stone endeavor seems like a natural partnership, albeit one of staggering proportions. Yet Kilik's experience was not that different from what he encountered on 11 "joints," as Spike Lee dubs his films.
"My task is always to help create an environment so directors can work in the way that's most comfortable for them," Kilik says. "On Alexander, we had a lot of good people and a lot of good decision making. It all went smoothly."
A 1956 version of this saga, Alexander the Great, featured Richard Burton in the title role. Plans for a competing contemporary film about Alexander by Baz Luhrmann, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman, have reportedly been postponed. If it goes forward, the result might be a light-hearted, highly stylized musical, given that director's previous flourishes on Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.
Kilik says Stone's Alexander has no comic relief per se, but still makes a terrific holiday movie. "It offers an amazing journey," he suggests. "Alexander travels 22,000 miles, conquering 90 percent of the known world by the age of 25. He and his men go through deserts, mountains, forests, jungles, heat, rain and snow."