Back in September of 2009, I was invited – along with four other online journalists – to the set of director Sylvain White’s The Losers when the movie was being shot in hot and humid Puerto Rico. While extreme heat and humidity can play havoc with a film shoot, when we got to speak with White, he was still excited and really enthusiastic about how things had been going. During our interview we talked about how he came to the project, why he wanted The Losers to be PG-13 and not R, how he tried to take elements of the graphic novel for the movie, how Peter Berg did the script, and a lot more. It’s a really good and informative interview so read or listen to it after the jump:
Like we always do…you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. And if you haven’t seen the trailer for The Losers, you might want to watch it first:
NOTE – This interview was recorded on September 6, 2009. Statements made on Ronin and other projects have probably changes since this interview
Q: How did you get involved in this project? Were you a big fan of the comic before?
Sylvain White: I was developing another comic book property at Warner Brothers called ‘Ronin’ which is a Frank Miller project, and I heard about this project and then I educated myself on the comic. I went in and applied for the job basically. But I hadn’t heard about the comics until I’d heard about the movie.
Q: What attracted you to the project? What aspect did you like?
Sylvain White: Well, you know. Projects get sent to you, and you read them, and there’s something for you there. There’s something to be done. For me, it was simple. I heard about the project, and I read the screenplay, and I read all the volumes of the graphic novel, and I just fell in love with it. I’d been looking for something like this for like three years. I found this, and I jumped on it. I just had to do it. For me, it was like a brilliant opportunity because of the tone of the source material. It was a chance to do a really good adaptation of a comic book and stay true to the source comic book without veering off and making it too Hollywood or something like that. There are certain things you have to do, but in terms of staying true to the characters and the plot and things like that - we’re really trying to stick with that. And I think this was an amazing opportunity for that.
Q: The film is PG-13. Did you think you could deliver the material like that, or did you worry that maybe this was an R?
Sylvain White: Well, I think to tell you the truth was that the the studio’s intent was to make it an R-rated movie. It was actually kind of my idea to make it PG-13, and the reason for that was because I wanted teenagers to be able to go and see this film. I felt there was a certain amount of violence in the graphic and that it could still be cheated on screen so you could still have a hard PG-13 and open up your audience. Anybody can read the graphic novel. If you’re 14, you can go out and buy it, and I felt that if you’re 14 you should be able to see this movie.
Q: Is there anything about doing a PG-13 where you think you’ll shoot a little bit extra for an unrated DVD?
Sylvain White: Yes. We’re doing that.
Q: Could you talk about one sequence that’s possibly different in case you wanted to go higher?
Sylvain White: Yeah. From anything that involves gunshot wounds - you saw the scene today where Pooch gets shot in both legs. We do insert shots where it’s just squib and blood squirts where you actually see that. That’s a shot where we’ll see if it gets passed the rating, but if it doesn’t, we’ll put it on DVD. The film, just like in the graphic novel in the first volume – these guys don’t got around in ‘Ante Up’ killing everyone. They’re clever. They’ve got gadgets. They’ve got amazing strategy, and it’s fun. I always wanted them to stay good guys through the movie and not just go around killing innocent guards left and right. They’re just guys who are doing their job. They’re not like the Nazis or anything. So I wanted to keep it light in that sense, but it’s not really holding me back. It’s not creating problems for me based on the plot. By the time we get to the end, they shoot a lot of dudes, but the beauty of American ratings is that you can shoot as many people as you want so long as you’re not showing too much blood. We’re not holding back from the amount of kills or the amount of deaths. Even the violent moves and the fights feel very violent. But I just don’t shoot the inserts and the squirts of blood in slow motion. To me, that’s not what the movie’s about.
Q: Columbus talked about how real and ground level the book is compared to a superhero book, but Jock has a very unique graphic style. What kinds of things did you do in filming to bring that to the screen?
Sylvain White: Absolutely. I wanted to reflect as many elements of the graphic novel as possible. Now, I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to go and shoot frame-by-frame the graphic novel. It’s a different medium. But there’s elements of it that I think are key, and I use those throughout the visual motif of the movie. Those are mostly the beautiful color pallet that they use throughout the graphic novel. As these guys travel throughout the world, they go from city to city, and as you look at the graphics you go from Houston to India to New York. It’s always a very distinct color pallet. It always has a very amazing use of primary and secondary colors. It’s so brilliant, in gact, and Jock’s so great at it that that’s how I pay homage to the comic. I keep the colors consistent with the graphic novel. I keep the atmosphere, the tone, the lighting. It’s very similar. When the movie comes out, you won’t go, ‘Oh, I can tell it was from a comic.’ I’m not going to do it like the ‘Hulk’ movie where they did the frames. It’s a movie. You’re watching a movie. But you want to keep the design aesthetic that the artists of the comic came up with and try and reflect that as much as possible in the film.
The other thing that’s great is the realism in it like Columbus mentioned the graphic novels had. I grew up reading a lot of graphic novels in Europe, so a lot of the graphic novels we have there don’t have superheroes. There’s not a lot of the Marvel and DC Comics family of superheroes. A lot of the graphic novels are more like ‘The Losers.’ It’s more adult-oriented. They’re closer to movies – like action films or dramas or thrillers. Erotica. Anything you want. But it’s a very different tone. No superheroes, virtually. That’s why ‘The Losers’ appealed to me. It’s more like the graphic novels I grew up reading in Europe.
Q: Do you think there’s more of a trend behind that with a ‘Dylan Dog’ movie and ‘Tintin’ coming up?
Sylvain White: We’ll see about ‘Tintin.’ ‘Tintin’s’ a very difficult comic to adapt tonally to the screen. It’s the first graphic novel I grew up reading. I’m French, so as soon as I could read I had a ‘Tintin’ in my hand. I love those. I don’t know how they’re going to be able to transfer the tone. It’s very tricky. In terms of the approach, who knows? Every film is different. Who knows if there’s a trend. I don’t know if there’s a particularly good adaptation of a graphic novel out there. ‘Spider-Man’ is good. ‘Batman’ is great, but it’s a very particular adaptation. I think that’s probably the most successful adaptation that’s ever been, but it’s a superhero one. That’s why here I’m going very much with the realism. That’s what it’s all about.
I’ll tell you this: the coolest thing about this project is that tonally you’re doing something new and fresh that hasn’t been done before whether it’s an adaptation…or it hasn’t been done in a long time in terms of movies. It’s got this old school flavor. You know how in the ’80s you had those movies like ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Lethal Weapon’ or ‘Beverly Hills Cop’? They were so fun. They were light. There was a lot of comedy to the action and to the characters specifically. And at some point in the ’90s, you got like ‘Last Action Hero’ and ‘True Lies’ - ’Pearl Harbor.’ Whatever it is, they just went so over the top with the action that you couldn’t go quite…you can’t have a bigger explosion to top it off. It seems like now the action is tonally very dry. You go with the realism. Even if you look now at James Bond. The action is super straight and as realistic as action can be. The problem is that the tone shifts as well. Now, James Bond is not really fun to watch. There’s no jokes. There’s no gadgets. And I felt this movie was great because you could have the characters, the light tone, the humor that the graphic novel has, but then you can go with super, hyper-realistic action. You can go with those two. And I haven’t seen that in a while.
Tonally, I think a movie like ‘Bad Boys’ might be like this, but then the action is retarded. It’s fun, but it’s not believable. This is what I’m trying to do: a fun, believable action movie.
Q: Can you talk about your casting choices and who you’ve placed in these roles?
Sylvain White: What can I say about the cast except that I’m blown away by the fact that I was able to get my choices in a studio film? I was able to concoct a very unique, sort of young, unexpected cast. Some people when they read this script at first, they may have seen a much more clichéd, commercial casting. But I thought, ‘No. You have great commercial material. It’s fun. It’s light. Let’s cast these roles with people you haven’t seen play those roles before.’ That’s really what’s happened. I met Jeffrey, and the second I met him, I said, ‘This is the guy.’ He’s just that dude. He showed up on his motorcycle on Melrose, and he just had the right energy. Same with Idris. Same thing with Chris. Columbus…I knew he was the guy for the part because I’d worked with him before, and I felt Pooch was the glue to the group, and he had to have this bright, likable quality. He’s also got to be the reasonable guy. He’s the family guy of the group, and I thought he’d be perfect. He’s very quickly likable. You always meet Columbus, and you just want to be his friend. He’s a very cool guy, and he was perfect for that role.
And casting an actor like Jason Patric who’s know for his character work as the villain in a commercial movie, I think was just genius. He was unexpected, and you could’ve cast the usual suspects in that part. And all the usual suspects wanted to be in this movie. It’s funny, but I thought we should go fresher - we should go a little younger. We should go with somebody who was really known in the ’80s for commercial work and then went totally off and did super interesting character work. I think he could really breath some layers into Max, and that’s what he’s doing. With the cast, I think I just got lucky and fortunate that people listened to what my ideas were.
Q: Could you talk about Peter Berg’s script and how much you worked together? Did he just deliver a script that was ready to go?
Sylvain White: Well, the script is co-written by Peter Berg and Jamie Vanderbilt. Jamie Vanderbilt is the guy who wrote ‘Zodiac’ for David Fincher. He’s also writing the new ‘Spider-Man.’ So Peter Berg had writing the original draft, and at that point I wasn’t involved. Then Jamie wrote the second draft, which is the point where I got involved with it. And from that point on, we worked together on it. And Peter, of course, who’s also an executive producer on the project had his input. We’ve all worked together to make the script what it is today. It was a team effort. Also, Akiva Goldsmith who’s an executive producer. We all put our heads together and tired to make this movie, under my direction, the best movie we possibly could.
Q: When you got involved, how did you change the script? What elements were yours?
Sylvain White: Well, the main things I changed in a nutshell were that the opening used to take place in the Middle East, and I changed that to South America. The reason for that was because I felt tonally it was better suited. I didn’t want to politicize the movie. To me, this movie is pure entertainment. It’s fun. It’s smart. It’s cool. But it’s not political. For example, a Peter Berg movie like ‘The Kingdom’ is great, and it’s super political. It’s got great messages in it, but to me, this movie wasn’t that. So I said, ‘Let’s make it so they take their initial mission in Bolivia.’ It would be a private hit versus a political hit.
That was one change I made, and the other change I made was that I felt by the end – these guys are after Max the whole movie, and I felt they need to confront him in the third act. I think in the original screenplay, they never got to. And of course, you want to set that up for sequels, but if you have the main characters looking for a guy the whole movie, you’ve got to have them at least find him. I think the great, original trigger at the end of the movie is that the bad guy gets away – there I go fucking talking about it. But I still needed the face to face.
I changed a lot of little things, and I also went back to the graphic novel and some of the stuff where they had veered off…went back to the source material. The big action sequence where they hijack the armored truck with the helicopter - I went straight back to the comic book and did it exactly as it is in the comic book. Jensen’s mission - I went straight back to it. I retooled a little bit with some of the scenes in the graphic novel.
Q: Andy Diggle and Jock had both kind of said they never thought anything was going to happen since it’d been three years since the comic had been optioned and a screenplay written. Did you coming on really make things happen?
Sylvain White: Well, I got the screenplay. I read the graphics. I came up with a take. I felt the screenplay needed some improvements in going back to the source material. We started developing the screenplay over a couple of months which was October through December, and by the time it was January, we were ready to go. We were casting the film. So I would say – not to take the credit or anything - but from the point that I was hired, things really triggered. Partly that was because I got attached – that they got a director attached. But I think the improvements that they made went in the right direction, and everybody saw that the screenplay was in the right place.
Q: How much post-production work are you looking at as you’re doing so much here?
Sylvain White: Well, from the get go my agenda was to do as much of the action ‘in camera’ as possible. Again, that was to go with the sort of hyper-realistic feel I’m going for. I don’t know if you guys were here yesterday, but we did all the explosions and no CG. Everything was in camera. A lot of this stuff and the action and the stunts - we’re doing as much as possible. We’re not doing what they did in ‘G.I. Joe’ where you’ve got character bouncing off the walls. For me, when a character runs 100 yards, and he’s got gear and guns and he runs out of breath – I want to feel that. I want to see that. I want to know that it’s hard for Cougar to take a sniper shot from 200 yards away. I never wanted to cheat that.
Q: Are you still looking at ‘Ronin’?
Sylvain White: Absolutely. It’s still being developed. I just got a new draft a week ago. It’s looking really good and promising. I hope it gets to go.
Q: Is Columbus sticking around as your good luck charm?
Sylvain White: Columbus is my good luck charm. Our first movie was together for both him and I - him as a lead, me as my first feature movie. It worked out well for us. It’s working out again for us here. We have a good relationship, good chemistry. There’s a good creative juice going on between us. I love to bounce ideas of him, and he’s great.
Q: If ‘Ronin’ was your next project, does it concern you at all to go from one graphic novel project to another?
Sylvain White: Well, you always worry about being pin holed. I haven’t been yet. You always worry about that, no matter which genre you do. Luckily for me so far, every time I’ve done a movie it’s been a completely different genre. If I went to ‘Ronin,’ it would be a very different genre from this movie, even though the source material is still a graphic novel. You’re going from a gritty action film to a sci-fi…from a fun, light contemporary action film to a very dark, futuristic sci-fi film, so I’m not worried.
Q: If you were happen to do ‘Ronin’…with this, there’s a bit more liberty for you to take your vision. ‘Ronin’ has a lot of comic book people who are reverent to the material. How much would that affect the way in which you stick to shots the way Zack [Snyder] did with ’300′?
Sylvain White: The fortunate thing is that ‘Ronin’ is some Frank’s earlier work. What’s great and what for me works in the graphic novel, aesthetically-speaking, is the design of Aquarius…the design of New York. So I would pay homage to him more in the production design versus the actual frames. The frames in ‘Ronin’ are some beautiful frames, and some I would go with, but what’s beautiful to me about ‘Ronin’ is the production design and the character design and the colors that are used. I think framing - you can frame things with much more depth and beauty on film than you can in a graphic. Replicating frames…that’s a different language. You want to always stay true to the graphic novel, but you’re watching a different medium. You never want to remind the audience that they’re watching a graphic novel or [something from] a graphic novel source. You just want them to watch a great movie. And if they know it’s based on a graphic novel, awesome. And if you make the fans happy because you paid good tribute to the source material, awesome. I don’t think you make fans happy by just replicating frames. What they want to see is that you stayed true to the story, true to the characters and true to the design.
Q: Are you still trying to do ‘Castlevania’?
Sylvain White: No. ‘Castlevania’ is a project that I developed for a couple of years at Universal. We got to a really good point, then the division of Universal folded, and I jumped on this movie. Now it’s set up somewhere else, and I believe that someone else got attached. It’s one of my favorite video games, and I’m a huge video game player. I played that game for 25 years, and I loved developing it. I almost feel like I’ve already shot it because I was so into it for a while. I think it’ll be a great movie if they do it right.
Q: All the sudden, these big name people are getting attached to video game properties. Do you feel that ‘Castlevania’ could still go now?
Sylvain White: I think it’s going. I just think that my window…because they’re going now, or they’re going soon. I still have six months on this.
Q: With the economic climate and the studios making less films, have you noticed an effect? Obviously, you’re making a movie right now…
Sylvain White: So I haven’t noticed. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been fit to the right projects. But you never know. That’s something that’s true in this business – that you never know which projects will go and which won’t.
Q: Thinking of ‘Ronin,’ that’s a project that’s been in development for a long time. With something like that, I don’t know what you’re thinking in terms of budget. Is that sort of a big summer event film?
Sylvain White: Yeah. It’s a big-budget, big blockbuster take on it. I’d love to do it in 3D. I think it’d be ridiculous and amazing. That’s an additional budget issue, but it’s the kind of movie that would be great. I think it’d make a brilliant video game as well - something along the lines of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ but from a first-person perspective. I think it’s just a great property and a great concept. It’s got so many ideas in it in terms of commentary and philosophy. Frank Miller is a genius when it comes to that. It took so long because the source material is so complex. It’s very difficult, and it’s not linear, and it doesn’t really fit into a film format off the bat. It’s not a straight adaptation like ’300′ was or even ‘Watchmen.’ It’s not as simple. Zack’s going to kill me. [Laughs] But I think with ‘Ronin’ we need a little bit of streamlining, otherwise it’s too esoteric. You need a little bit of streamlining, but the story and the characters, if I get to do that movie, will all be there. I’m the guy who wants to respect the authors and the source material as a fan of graphic novels who grew up reading them whether it be in Europe or here. It’s something that needs to be done right, and it hasn’t really been done right.
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