AS John Frazier recalls it, his marching orders from the producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the director Tony Scott in connection with their forthcoming film, “Déjà Vu,” were clear, if not exactly simple. He was supposed to shock the audience with “a hyper-realistic act to motivate them to sit through an unrealistic exercise that would undo the horror of the realism.”
In other words, Mr. Frazier, a 35-year veteran of the pyrotechnic and special effects business — in film industry jargon, a “powder guy” — was supposed to blow something up. Big time.
Audiences can judge his handiwork when “Déjà Vu” opens on Nov. 22, or they can glimpse it in a trailer now playing on the Web and in theaters. For a scene that culminates the film’s five-minute opening title sequence, Mr. Frazier, who shared a 2005 Academy Award for best visual effects on "Spider-Man 2" and previously worked with Mr. Bruckheimer rigging movie explosions on "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor" engineered the seeming destruction of a 225-foot-long passenger ferry, the Alvin T. Stumpf, by a terrorist bomb.
The explosion triggers a plot in which a federal investigator, played by Denzel Washington, contemplates traveling through time to undo the damage. It also provides an image of disaster that is especially chilling because it occurs in post-Katrina New Orleans. Along the way it underscores one of the many reasons big-studio films continue to make an impression: they spare no expense when it comes to the work of effects masters like Mr. Frazier.
“I saw these incredible flames, and I just burst into tears,” said Bill Marsilii, one of the film’s writers, who was standing 300 yards away when the explosion took place last April. “My first thought was ‘My God, what have I done?’ ”
As an aspiring screenwriter in September 2001, Mr. Marsilii stood on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street, near his Greenwich Village apartment, and watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers fell. Having struggled to conceptualize “Déjà Vu” since 1997, he stopped writing for a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said. Eventually he returned to the story with another writer, Terry Rossio.
But it took Mr. Frazier’s craft to make it, in movie terms, real.
“Déjà Vu” begins with a scene of hundreds of uniformed Navy sailors and their young families bounding onto the Alvin T. Stumpf — an actual working ferry that typically runs between the Canal Street and Algiers ferry landings in New Orleans — during Mardi Gras.
Three minutes into the film, the car radio of an unoccupied Ford Bronco suddenly blares in the automobile parking deck of the ferry. After images of cherubic youngsters on the decks above, the film cuts to the back of the Bronco and a bomb rigging of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, fuel oil and blasting caps (similar to the rigging used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing).
Seconds after the last main title card is shown, the truck bomb explodes and hurls two-ton cars and a mass of burning sailors off the ferry decks. The resulting 300-foot-high fireball is a red and black phantasm of seemingly deadly flame that resembles a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Audiences at recent showings of “Déjà Vu
” recoiled reflexively, despite the ferry explosion’s prominence in the preview trailers and commercials that are currently running in theaters, on television and on the Web.
“The degree of the explosion is what shocks the audience,” Mr. Scott, the director, said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t matter if people are told it’s going to happen. They’re just not prepared for something as extreme as this.”
Mr. Bruckheimer, the producer, added that the effect was powerful because it wasn’t made with miniature models, or with a software program. “The explosion is all real,” he said, “and an audience absorbs this for the rest of the film because they know it’s not faked in a computer.”
Even so, what the tremendous detonation represented, ultimately, was an illusion of danger. “Coordinating the camera helicopters that shoot an explosion is actually more dangerous than detonating the explosion — if the powder is being rigged correctly,” Mr. Bruckheimer added.