Copyright 2000 Time Asia | Author Stephen Short

[ December 12th 2000 ]

This report on filming the Simon West movie Tomb Raider from the religious Temples of Angkor:

This is the fourth day of shooting at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the place is weaving its fabulous and mystical web over cast, crew and Lara Croft. We are sitting with Angelina Jolie who will play the aforementioned hot-pants-clad, whip-cracking Tomb Raider computer-game icon, and Jolie looks like she has been poured out of heaven. Smoking cigarettes in the shade, she is barefoot, dressed in a traditional monk's orange shawl, and her compact, succulent lips pull you in like a plate of oysters. "I can finally be more myself on this project," she exhilarates, "and it's shocking this is who I am. I'm like, my God, why does this feel so normal?"

We point out that she's in Angkor Wat clad in religious costume and is that really normal for an all-American girl? "Yeah, yeah, but you know what I mean. I'm not going to lose any sense of normal." There is not much in this production that is normal. For a start, this is the first time in three decades that any Western crew has filmed in Cambodia. "The only reason we're in Angkor Wat," says American producer Lloyd Levin (Boogie Nights, Die Hard 2), "is because we didn't end up in China. We wanted to shoot at the Great Wall and have Lara crashing through it on a motorbike and underground tomb raiding, but we couldn't get it sorted out."

A contingency plan to shoot in Scotland with a 15-m faux wall was bruited about, but the team decided it was cheaper to go to Angkor Wat. Nevertheless, excess still runs through this movie. The 150-strong crew are fresh in from shooting in both London and Iceland and this is Day 80 of the schedule on a film budgeted at $85 million. On today's slate are two scenes: one of Angelina, dressed as a monk, receiving benediction from fellow holy men, there are 50 of them and another where she takes instruction for her mission from the Yoda of the clan and then levitates.

And this is a light day for Jolie. She is just getting over a blown ankle she ripped a tendon on the set a couple of weeks ago. Good thing she whipped herself into the best physical shape of her life to play the two-dimensional version of a cyberaction heroine. "The thing I love about Lara Croft, the most important thing about her, is that she is absolutely not a man-hating feminist," says Jolie. "She's sensual and sexy and wicked, she's playful, she has a weird sense of humor, she's a bit nutty and she likes people." She hesitates for a moment: "I mean, she's insane in a great way."

This from a woman who is renowned for a life off the set that can be, at times, certifiably insane. Divorced in 1999, she recently married actor Billy Bob Thornton whom she refers to as "lunch" in a shotgun Las Vegas wedding. She is all but estranged from her actor-father Jon Voight, and it is rumored that she was institutionalized prior to her nuptials. This shoot has been taking its toll on Jolie's personal life as well. "The phone is a nightmare," she says. "When I finally get through to Billy, and you try to say something romantic you both end up saying, 'What? You said what? Oh forget it.' Trying to be sexy on a cell phone in Angkor Wat just isn't working."

More challenging is making a computer game based on a woman in a pith helmet chasing down valuable relics sort of a gussied up, more sophisticated Super Mario into a live-action hit. Over a lunch of wilting ham-and-cheese sandwiches, Levin attributes the rise of Lara Croft to a new definition of celebrity. "In a world where pop stars like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and West Life have massive popularity but are so vacuous, maybe a different kind of idol is emerging.

"Lara is intelligent, sexy, fierce and feminine and gives fans more to live through and hold onto." O.K., but she's a computer-game heroine. Director Simon West, whose previous credits include Con Air and The General's Daughter, has a different take: "I wanted to make her dark and a bit edgy she's not meant to be whiter than white, and she's an adrenalin junkie." West was at first skeptical of the project, doubting that a video game could be adapted into a successful film. He quickly came around. "I began to feel the way people must have felt when they first started dreaming up James Bond in the 1960s. Lots of edge, very exciting."

Jolie extends the analogy: "Croft is a female 007, she's a female Indiana Jones and she's also very, very female." Yet Jolie didn't fall for the idea from the outset either. "I'd come to a point in my life where I really didn't want to be an actress. "I'm human after all. But now I've taken on the personality of a tomb raider, I'm no longer a Hollywood actor. I've changed jobs and nobody's noticed." It's enlightening to get her original take on Lara Croft: "My first reaction to playing her is you look at yourself in the mirror and you go, I'm a clumsy, odd, dorky creature.

"When I was married to Jonny, my first husband, we played games together, and he'd play Tomb Raider and it would drive me nuts. You know, like every woman, I'd go, 'Ugh, her! There's a woman who makes me feel inferior.' I hated her and now I'm praying I can live up to her."

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