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CHILKO TRAGEDY IS REVISTED IN FILM RAFTING ACCIDENT THAT KILLED 5 MARKETING EXECS IS INSPIRATION FOR HBO MOVIE

By Published on .

An upcoming movie and pending book will reopen a 7-year-old marketing industry wound: the Chilko River rafting accident, which claimed the lives of five prominent agency and marketing executives.

HBO Pictures in May will premiere "White Mile," a made-for-cable film based largely on the 1987 accident and its aftermath. HBO and Stonehenge Productions bought the movie rights to a 35-page proposal for a book on the tragedy.

From all accounts, the movie will take an aggressive position on the role ambition-and the particular kind of ambition created in ad agencies-played in setting up the fatal trip and each individual's decision to participate.

"The story allowed us to do a movie that was highly cinematic and adventurous, and provocative on an ethical level, too," said Executive Producer Dick Berg of Stonehenge. "The morality issues of accountability and coercion were what grabbed me."

"White Mile" is a nickname for a particularly rough stretch of Canada's Chilko River that passes through a rocky gap called Lava Canyon, 250 miles north of Vancouver in British Columbia. On Aug. 1, 1987, the "White Mile" claimed five lives as a rafting trip organized by DDB Needham Worldwide's Chicago office for 11 executives, clients and friends went awry when the raft struck a rock. All but one of the men were dumped into the river; only six made it safely to shore.

The five who perished were Robert Goldstein, Procter & Gamble Co. VP-advertising; Richard O'Reilly, who was heading the Media-Advertising Partnership for a Drug-Free America; Stuart Sharpe and Gene Yovetich, both senior VP-directors of account management at DDB Needham; and James Fasules, a retired DDB Needham executive.

The accident led to two lawsuits by widows of the victims. One, filed by Nancy Goldstein, was settled out of court. In the second, DDB Needham was ordered to pay the Fasules family $1.1 million after a U.S. District Court jury in Chicago in November 1991 found Mr. Fasules was only 45% responsible for assuming the dangers of the trip.

In the upcoming movie, actor Robert Loggia, playing a retired account manager named Robert Karas who drowns in the river, bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Fasules. Alan Alda plays Dan Cutler, the "hard-driving ad agency president" who organizes the wilderness excursion-an obvious characterization of then-DDB Needham President Al Wolfe.

Mr. Berg said neither his company nor screenwriter Michael Butler was in touch with Mr. Wolfe, who retired just a year after the Chilko accident.

And he said despite drawing heavily on Mr. Wolfe's real personality, the movie's other characters are largely composites of the real men, while the character of Jack Robbins is a complete invention, Mr. Berg said. The Robbins character, played by Peter Gallagher, is described as an "up and coming agency executive torn between loyalty to his boss and company, and his conscience."

The movie, unedited as of yet, has three distinct acts, Mr. Berg said. An opening section sets up the agency way of life, "showing how important a client can become."

The second section deals with the wilderness trip to Canada, planned as a male bonding trip to help secure a wavering client. The movie does use the Chilko River as its setting, though it was filmed in California.

The third act deals with the aftermath, including the trial of a lawsuit filed by one of the widows. Mr. Gallagher's character is forced to choose whether, and in what fashion, to testify in the case against his employer.

Mr. Berg compares the themes of "White Mile" to those of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street": "*`Wall Street' was about a kind of greed and ambition. `White Mile' allows us to dramatize the fact that man will risk suicide to get ahead. In my head, there are people who will take trips like this whether they're equipped to do so or not."

Like Mr. Berg, the author of the original book proposal, Bob Tamarkin, was intrigued by the drama of the accident and how it came to be.

"The book grapples with the concept of responsibility," said Mr. Tamarkin, a Chicago author and business journalist. "One of the basic themes is the idea of understanding significance-about people getting involved in situations without understanding the significance. Ron Thompson [the raft guide] went down the river 207 times but never went in the river. None of those people understood what would happen if the raft overturned."

In researching the book, Mr. Tamarkin covered the Fasules trial, traveled to British Columbia to interview Mr. Thompson and talked to the widows. But the high-profile survivors, including former Clorox Co. President John Collins, Philip Morris Cos. Chairman Michael Miles and Mr. Wolfe, refused to talk about the accident.

Mr. Tamarkin shared his notes with the screenwriter, Mr. Butler. He said he's trying to finish the book this spring, but the original publisher, a unit of Doubleday Books, has gone out of business.

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