Casting An Inevitable Bomb: How 'Sahara' Wound Up As A Matthew McConaughey Vehicle


While it's no secret that movies—especially the huge disasters—rarely go before the cameras with a director or producer's first choice in talent, it's always fun when the divide between a production's lofty, A-list dreams and disappointing B-list reality is somehow exposed. In presenting the highlights of producer Karen Baldwin's testimony in the ongoing, alternately messy and hilarious trial in which novelist Clive Cussler and Philip Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment are trying to determine who is most responsible for the historic bombing of Sahara, the LAT lays out how Paramount wound up in the thoroughly fucked position of having to spend $130 million on a Matthew McConaughey vehicle:

Many top-tier actors were considered for the lead role of the swashbuckling Dirk Pitt, among them Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Owen Wilson, Heath Ledger and Christian Slater. [Producer Karen] Baldwin testified that in a telephone conversation with Cruise, the actor "indicated that he was a fan" of Cussler's books and "excited" about the project.

But Cruise passed on the script, and Baldwin's team turned its attention to Jackman. Paramount executives were "adamant that we move off" Jackman, Baldwin wrote in an e-mail produced in court.

"Hugh Jackman was doing a Broadway play," Baldwin testified. "So it wasn't that they didn't like Hugh, but they didn't want to wait for him."

Crusader Entertainment wanted Christian Bale but ran into opposition from then-Paramount chief Sherry Lansing.

"Sherry said she can't believe we like Christian.... " Baldwin wrote in an e-mail. "I told her, 'I am not trying to be difficult. I honestly do like him a lot.' She said we will ruin the franchise."

Lansing favored McConaughey for the leading role. But [original director Rob] Bowman, who had directed both Bale and McConaughey in "Reign of Fire," objected.

"Rob liked Christian ... and he didn't like McConaughey," Baldwin said.

After performing a screen test to satisfy Paramount, Bale was offered the role but turned it down.

Producers turned to McConaughey, who had been pursuing the part for years.

Wrote Baldwin: "As you all know, Matthew would crawl on his hands and knees to do this part."

One shudders to think of the casting nightmare that might have resulted had McConaughey not been willing to grovel for Christian Bale's sloppy seconds, forcing Paramount to slide a rung further down the star ladder; on the other hand, scaling back the production to a twenty-five day Romanian direct-to-video shoot with Jean-Claude Van Damme might have saved the studio tens of millions of dollars in eventual losses.