Okay. So, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning? Why the hell should I care about the sixth entry in a series I haven’t thought about in twenty years, if ever?’ The answer is simple; the movie is damn good and incredibly ambitious. John Hyams’ second foray into the franchise after Universal Solider: Regeneration – possibly the best direct-to-video film of all time – is a mind-bending and incredibly violent epic that owes more to Apocalypse Now and Mulholland Drive than it does to the works of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. It is a film that demands to be seen by any serious fan of edgy action, especially those who haven’t seen any of the others.
Recently, I got on the phone with Hyams to talk about the Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins vehicle, which can be seen on On-Demand, iTunes and in select 3D theaters. During our extensive interview we discussed the visceral violence, early script drafts of Regeneration, his literary and film theory influences, the NC-17 cut of the film, the use of limited perspective, crazy IMDb message board theories, a potential Manchurian Candidate themed sequel, getting dropped by an agency, how A Sound of Thunder turned him into a neo-luddite and much, much, much more. Hit the jump for the full interview and the top 11 things to know about Hyams and his film.
15 Things to know about John Hyams and Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning
“[W]hen you’re shooting a doc, you’re trying to class it up because you can. You know, you’re trying to make this feel like cinematic experience. And when you’re doing fiction you’re trying to do the opposite thing you’re trying to take this very artificial experience this very artificial experience and make it feel real and visceral.”
2: He considers understanding perspective to be the key to telling a story:
“I’ve always been a big proponent of point of view in cinema. Not necessarily that the point of view has to be subjective, but that in all great films the point of view has been taken into account and established. And there’re a lot of decisions or non-decisions that have been made because of staying true to that point of view perspective. So that’s usually one of the first things that’s in my mind when approaching scripts or approaching how to shoot a scene because that’s really everything. I think that lazy or sloppy filmmaking is really one that’s not taking into account.”
3: Angel Heart, Chinatown, The Big Sleep, Into the Void, All the President’s Men and Apocalypse Now were all major influences on Day of Reckoning.
4: There were minor and/or major cuts made to almost every single action scene in the film in order to achieve an R-rating. The MPAA had issues with a few specific shots, but mainly took umbrage with the overall accumulation of violence. He describes the NC-17 cut as, “An endurance test.”
5: He would like to make more Universal Solider movies and already has an idea for another entry.
“[M]y idea of where to take the series would be more of paranoid thriller, kind of spy movie genre. Because, there is this whole, and by the conclusion of this one you realize that it’s kind of this Manchurian Candidate meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of theme that you could play on.”
“[T]he budget as I understand it [on Regeneration] was around nine [million] and we did that in Bulgaria so we got more shooting days and whatnot. This one was done in the states and we shot it in 3D and it was in the eight [million] range.
7: The original script for Regeneration included many scenes of flashbacks to the original film that Hyams cut before shooting.
“When I first received the script for Regeneration there were huge portions of the script that involved them remembering things and we were supposed to use stock footage of the first Universal Soldier. Like in one scene, they have a fight and they’re kind of remembering an old fight that they had and we’d be intercutting those two movies.”
8: When his agency saw an early copy of Regeneration they dropped him as a client because they didn’t want to be in the Direct-to-Video business.
“I had basically been using that agency because I was doing TV and then I tried to get someone in the theatrical department. And that movie hadn’t come out but I had a copy of it and I showed it to them and they were like, ‘Actually, we’re not interested in you anymore.’ It wasn’t until people saw it and started really liking it that agencies came back and started wanting to get involved with me.”
9: Day of Reckoning is either the third, fourth or sixth film in the franchise depending on if you include the pair of non-canon Direct-to-Television sequels and/or the totally retconned Universal Solider: The Return.
10: This is the series second time coming back to theaters after moving to the video market. Previously, Universal Solider: The Return went theatrical after both Universal Solider: Brothers in Arms and Universal Solider: Unfinished Business premiered on television.
11: Hyams’ father is Peter Hyams (2010: The Year We Make Contact, Timecop). His experience seeing A Sound of Thunder go horrifically wrong turned the younger Hyams away from postproduction effects.
“I have to believe, I can’t speak for my dad, but I have to believe it was one of the hardest experiences of his career. You know, it’s got to be a real sinking feeling going into something shooting all of it against green screen with all this trust that you’re relying on this whole element, this whole technology that ultimately you’re not going to be able to afford and you have to do it anyway. And I know I’ve learned so much from him. and I remember when I was doing Regeneration, I took the lessons learned on that very seriously. Again, it wasn’t a franchise, but this was one of those kinds of movies where there is foreign financing and the budgets at a certain level. And I said, ‘I’m going to rely almost solely on practical effects because I don’t have an effects house that I’m working with. I don’t have artists that I can trust that can do this for a price. So I’m going to basically do everything practically.’ So on Regeneration we had a few visual effects, maybe 10 shots maybe.”
Collider: I was talking to Dolph Lundgren the other day and you guys both started out doing other things. He had a Fulbright Scholarship to study chemical engineering at MIT, but he turned it down to be an action hero and you went to Syracuse and studied fine art, then became a painter and a documentarian. How did that work?
Hyams: I ended up doing documentaries really, because those are the movies I was able to get made at the time. So I never really had any intention of getting involved in documentaries until the opportunity came around. I always thought much more in classic fiction cinema terms and I think I tried to apply those ideas to documentaries and not vice versa. Although the result is that I learned more from making documentaries than I learned from anything else. It’s almost the best film education you can get because it’s almost the Malcolm Gladwell theory of you do something for 10,000 hours and you become a master at it. In documentaries you’re literally dealing with, in the first we made we had literally, well over 500 hours of material. it took us almost two years to edit it. and we spent a year shooting it. so if you’re going about it she shooting the events and not thinking about it and filmmaking terms then maybe you’re not going to get as much out of it. but we really wanted this thing to be a cinematic experience. so every day you’re thinking about shot selection and you’re trying out angles then in the editing room not only are you putting the scene together you’re also writing the script. So for thousands and thousands and thousands of hours piecing this thing together. I really only became an editor, or started doing my own editing because I was filming the docs and you simply can’t keep an editor on for as long as it takes so. I was editing those because that was the only way we were going to get them done. And so as a result I ended up spending thousands of hours trying things the wrong way. Seeing what one frame means what two frames me and how you can manipulate the images to create motion or momentum or whatever you’re trying to create. So yeah, by doing that it didn’t mean that suddenly I was going to come to fiction filmmaking and shoot it like a documentary. It was more that when you’re shooting a doc, you’re trying to class it up because you can. You know, you’re trying to make this feel like cinematic experience. And when you’re doing fiction you’re trying to do the opposite thing you’re trying to take this very artificial experience this very artificial experience and make it feel real and visceral.
Collider: You know I never really thought about that but the two really do have opposite goals. And speaking of opposite goals, this is your second Universal Soldier film and it’s really it’s kind of like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern version of the story. You’re really telling the story from the opposite perspective of the previous five – or three – depending on how you’re counting them. You didn’t write the last one but you started out writing this one where you come up with a really strange idea of telling it from inside Universal Soldier’s own limited perspective?
Hyams: The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comparison is kind of perfect I’ve always been a big proponent of point of view in cinema. Not necessarily that the point of view has to be subjective, but that in all great films the point of view has been taken into account and established. And there’re a lot of decisions or non-decisions that have been made because of staying true to that point of view perspective. So that’s usually one of the first things that’s in my mind when approaching scripts or approaching how to shoot a scene because that’s really everything. I think that lazy or sloppy filmmaking is really one that’s not taking into account. And so Universal Soldier, and that just happened to the story I was working on, you could kind of apply that to that type of logic to let’s say a number of different types of action films or Hollywood-style storytelling, is that the past Universal Soldier’s world was kind of tilted in this big broad point of view. It’s like all those movies you go see where they cut to a big exterior helicopter shot of the Pentagon. You know whenever you see that big establishing shot of the Pentagon you think, ‘Okay this is sort of omnipotent.’ Where we see everything, where we’re kind of with everybody. It’s to me, inevitably that’s all is less interesting. Sometimes it’s necessary but it’s always less interest. And I think the reason is because, let’s take a story like this; it’s a science-fiction concept and it’s sort of noir concept and it’s got kind horror elements and it’s amnesia story, but basically it’s a Frankenstein myth story, and if you can take this kind of story and make it personal in any way, in the sense that the motivations of the characters are very personal, to me that’s very dramatic. Whereas, if the motivation is simply, ‘Well I’m just going to sort of save the world’ or the other big motivation movies is, ‘Well I’m just doing my job.’ You know, “I’m a soldier and goddamnit if I’m not going to let my entire family die so I can save that one soul!’ I get it, there’s a sort of honorable western themes. But to me, you have to make it personal. They become more interesting.
For example, take the Bourne series. I really responded to the Bourne series, especially the last two Paul Greengrass films. But in general, Bourne is a very interesting character to me because his motivation is trying to figure out, you know, ‘Who the hell am I and why this is happening to me?’ His motivation wasn’t, ‘I’m gonna save the world!’ There is nothing wrong with saving the world, but it’s a little boring. And so again, the idea with this is we’re trying tell story were a guy is, you know, it’s a mission story. It’s about a guy who’s going to kill another guy. So that’s basically the story. And the reason he’s going to kill him is for very personal revenge reasons and in the process of doing that he has this process of self-discovery. And so to me, what was interesting about it was, you know these are all movies are told from the outside perspective, from the outside in. And you know, meanwhile we are in Moscow and the Prime Minister’s children are kidnapped by these evil terrorists. And now we’re over at the Pentagon and here with the universal soldiers and they go solve the problem. So it’s always, it’s very outside-in perspectives. And we know the whole story before the story even begins. Within 10 minutes we know everything and then the rest of movies spent solving the problem. And I thought, ‘Let’s have a movie where we start deep, deep inside. We never see the halls of the Pentagon. We don’t even know what the government is ever thinking. The government becomes sort of a shadowy figure you know, like Deep Throat in All the Presidents Men, he’s in hotel parking structure or a motel parking lot and we don’t know what his motivations are. So now you’re in a mystery and the trajectory of our story is the opposite of those in the sense that, you start out completely confused and in the wilderness and by the end you move towards clarity. And so that’s going to dramatically pull the story. You’re trying to figure it out. It becomes a detective movie structure, like Angel Heart or even Chinatown or The Big Sleep for that matter. When you see The Big Sleep, you don’t know what the hell is going on. You’re just meeting different people and getting different clues.
Collider: You know it’s funny, I literally just started reading Raymond Chandler novels maybe a couple of months ago and Scott Adkins is a lot like Philip Marlowe. Well maybe a little less clean than Marlowe. Maybe less good morals. Philip Marlowe would let people punch him but he wouldn’t punch back.
Hyams: Yes, he’s always getting punched. That really is Marlowe, he’s always getting decked and going into the wrong place in figuring out different things and every little clue, every matchbook he finds something written in, that leads into different place and often it leads him to an alleyway where there’s a bunch of guys who punch him and he blacks out. You know Marlowe’s always blacking out and then he comes to.
Collider: Yeah, there is a lot of punching in this movie. You know we’ve been talking for a couple of minutes out the story and philosophy and stuff but my god this movie is incredibly fucking violent.
Hyams: (Laughs) There’s a lot of punching! And I think that’s important because I can talk about all these things, you know. I can talk about film theory forever and it may sound pretentious or something, but really it’s just that I’m fascinated by it. I can sit and talk the craft and mechanism of it all because it’s interesting to me to try constantly try and figure it out. That being said, those ideas are behind everything that is in this movie and everything I do because I’m trying to think it through. But the experience for the person watching it is visceral which involves a lot of people punching the crap out of each other. It’s a very violent movie and I think that was intentional. Not because we were trying to make a statement about violence or whatever but because we’re really trying to grab the audience by the lapels and shake you around. That’s the point of a horror movie, isn’t it? You kind of put yourself in this traumatic experience and you try to survive. And we wanted to do that a bit to the viewer because we didn’t have the budget to blow up the world, so we tried to be visceral.
Collider: Yeah, inside the chapel there’s this long fight where Adkins is fighting Lundgren and they’re slicing each other with these giant knives. And they don’t feel pain, but because they don’t feel any pain and they’re just slicing and stabbing each other it felt more painful to me as a viewer for some reason.
Hyams: Right. You know, and I think that that was, I think it’s interesting that you bring that up. you know, this movie doesn’t explain a lot of things but hopefully a lot of things are implicit like, you know, how do you kill a universal solider? Well, you’re going to find out when you see the movie. we’re not going to explain it but you will see them kill each other when you see the movie. So really, the big question is always, well, how much pain do they feel? Are they totally impervious to pain? And my feeling was, well, if you have a character who is 100% impervious to pain, that’s almost counterproductive to a dramatic event. You gotta feel something. We thought like, ‘If you’re drilling a hole in his head, does he feel that?’ And the answer is: well, yeah. If you’re drilling a hole in his head, it hurts a little bit. I mean, he doesn’t feel it like if you were drilling a hole in my head, but it doesn’t feel great. It’s probably like getting your tooth pulled without Novocain. So, obviously we had to decide, it take a lot more to hurt these guys than it does to hurt us. So in the process of breaking down these fights they’re obviously going to be doing a lot more. They’re going to be smashing each other with baseball bats and you know, 45 pound weights and they’re going to be stabbing a guy in the back and leaving it there so they can grab it later on in the fight. So it becomes this whole exercise in body destruction and body mutilation. And that’s kind of the direction you’re going to be going in if you’re dealing with essentially a superhero movie. Let’s say, this is a super hero fight where they bleed. You know, this is like if The Hulk and Superman were fighting each other but they were actually crushing each other’s jaws, you know? Their heads are splitting open. What would that look like?
Collider: It would look really gross. Which it does.
Hyams: Yeah, it would be gross! It would be harsh! (Laughs)
Collider: I don’t know which cut I saw because they sent me a screener, but is there an NC-17 cut and an R-rated cut? Which one is coming out in theaters in 3D? Which one is going to be on the Blu-Ray?
Hyams: Yeah, there is an NC-17 cut. The one that’s On-Demand and in theaters is R. When they fight in the sporting goods store and he nails him with a bat, what did you see?
Collider: I think we see his face cave in a little bit. But the thing I remember most is the reaction shot of the girlfriend where she’s looking at the main character and thinking, ‘Oh… this guy might be less safe than anyone else around me.’
Collider: What’s in the NC-17 version there?
Hyams: In the NC-17 version, at least in that scene in particular – and that’s just one moment – you literally like half of his face fly off.
Collider: Yeah, I mostly remember the girl. But I figured you would have gotten the NC-17 for the scene where there’s the naked guy who gets shot and stabbed a bunch of times.
Hyams: Yeah, somehow the guy’s naked frontal didn’t bother them. We had to take out one… that scene in the brothel, there were a bunch of cuts to that. I would say that there were cuts made to every action scene in the movie. Some of them not so drastic, most of them not so drastic. Just little bits here and there, maybe not lingering on something for so long. what [the MPAA] had said to me was that, outside of a few very specific images we had to get rid of, it was mostly just about the accumulation of the violence.
Collider: Yeah. It’s grueling at a point. But it’s never grueling in a way that made me want to stop watching. I wanted to find out what happened next. But it was an endurance test on some level.
Hyams: Right, right. So the NC-17 version might be a slightly greater endurance test. But it plays pretty much the same. We showed the NC-17 version at Fantastic-Fest. But the Blu-Ray will be the unrated version.
Collider: I read this crazy fan theory on IMDb where someone was talking about how, in this film you introduce the idea of brain implants and artificial memories. So those two direct-to-TV movies that you ignored and the loose continuity where I can’t tell if this is the third or fourth or six movie, could those be brain implants and false memories that would tie these films together into a tighter continuity?
Hyams: I read that on one of those message boards. I liked that. It was a good comment. I think it’s a good way to start looking at these. Because let’s be honest, Regeneration didn’t even stay true to the mythology that was created in (Universal Soldier: The Return). Like, in The Return Luke Devereux had like a daughter and stuff. So we really, when we did Regeneration, all we really did was take what was set up in the first one. We ignored any real story or plot elements. I mean, there were story and plot elements… When I first received the script for Regeneration there were huge portions of the script that involved them remembering things and we were supposed to use stock footage of the first Universal Soldier. Like in one scene, they have a fight and they’re kind of remembering an old fight that they had and we’d be intercutting those two movies. And I personally wanted no part of that because the movies were aesthetically very different from one another and I just didn’t think we should be beholden to any story ideas because, as much as these movies are for people who have seen the last movies, it’s been a while and you want to bring new people in.
Collider: I mean, I had never seen any of the first ones. Regeneration was the first one I had seen. I was aware of the movies, but I think I was kind of confusing them with the Kurt Russell film, Soldier a little bit in my head. and I actually think if you saw this one first, before you saw the other ones it would be a really cool introduction because it’s from the perspective of one of the soldiers and he’s figuring things out that the audience might know if you’ve seen the other films.
Hyams: It actually would be a really interesting way to come into it because it would be kind of like The Bourne Identity. This would be like The Bourne Identity version where he’s discovering all of this stuff for the first time. But, yeah. I do like that idea that maybe you could interpret some of the other movies as memories we can’t trust.
Collider: In Regeneration Dolph as this running, I don’t want to call it a joke, but… he keeps going, “There’s this thing I wanted to tell you, what was it? What was it?” And right before he finally remembers right before he gets a pole through the head. And he told me that his character was going to tell Van Damme’s that they knew each other. Was that the last remnant of the flashback scenes?
Hyams: The whole point of it is that Dolph is a clone who somehow has memories and that was kind of the idea of Andrew Scott as a character anyway in the first Universal Soldier. He was a guy who doesn’t quite work. He retains some of his memories from his former life on earth, human self. And some of his malevolent qualities creep into him. And that was what went wrong with their experiment, that you can’t completely bottle up what makes these guys human. So, the idea here was that, again, Scott represents the defective part of the technology. If the whole idea is that you are effectively breeding and creating humans exactly the way you want it to be, and one of them doesn’t quite work right, the result of that would be he would be kind of living in this sort of existential crisis where he is a fully grown human, but he has no history and he has no memories so his brain is in this perpetual state of near recognition déjà vu. And of course we also create this situation in Regeneration here Luke Devereux comes upon Scott and we tried to create that scene as if it was sort of a déjà vu memory of the first scene in the whole franchise. So, we were intentionally creating that scenario. So the whole thing is, he is a guy who was just born, but somehow he’s having this familiarity with another individual.
Collider: Looking at the two films that you’ve made, they’re very different in tone. So, where does it go? It seems like the next one needs to be like The Manchurian Candidate. Do you have a plan for any future films in this series? Do you want to do more of them?
Hyams: I really do. It’s interesting that you say Manchurian Candidate. It’s very interesting that you say that because I have one plan that is quite similar to that in the sense that… and I haven’t really said in when I’ve been talking about this but, basically what I was gonna do, my idea of where to take the series would be more of paranoid thriller, kind of spy movie genre. Because, there is this whole, and by the conclusion of this one you realize that it’s kind of this Manchurian Candidate meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of theme that you could play on. Normally, when I finished Regeneration I didn’t have any ideas for another one, but after finishing this one there are some ideas that are really obvious places where you could go to make a pretty good movie.
Collider: I would agree with… I was turned on to Regeneration a couple of years ago by this website called outlawvern and, have you been getting any offers from studios? Because these are some of the best shot action movies I have seen in a very long time from America.
Hyams: I appreciate that, that’s great. But after the last one I got almost no offers like that. You know, I think that it’s sort of picking up a little bit more with this one because the last one was quite underground. There was like… let’s put it this way; after Regeneration, before I got that great review from Vern and people like him… my agency dropped me because of that movie.
Hyams: Because it was direct-to-video. They didn’t want direct-to-video guys.
Collider: Didn’t they know that was what it was going to be before you made it?
Hyams: They didn’t… I had basically been using that agency because I was doing TV and then I tried to get someone in the theatrical department. And that movie hadn’t come out but I had a copy of it and I showed it to them and they were like, ‘Actually, we’re not interested in you anymore.’ It wasn’t until people saw it and started really liking it that agencies came back and started wanting to get involved with me. So Hollywood in that sense, certainly with the executives, it’s really human nature I think, they’re not coming at it the same way that you guys are coming at it. In the sense that you’re looking to discover things and know that quality could come from any place. Their general way of operating is that they like something if it has been vouched for. And the number one way of being vouched for is making a lot of money.
Collider: Of course.
Hyams: And that makes sense. And the number two way is through getting a lot of press or having other important people vouch for you. So the last one generated a little bit of press, at least enough for Sony to want to make another one. But I wasn’t really getting any offers after that. But now that this one’s coming out and its’ got a theatrical release – even though it’s a limited theatrical – just having a theatrical and Magnolia’s publicity department behind it, we’re able to do more interviews and get more reviews. So, that’s certainly helps a lot. I feel like this one already… Yeah, the phone’s ringing a lot more on this one than the last one.
Collider: That’s good to hear because I want to see what you could do with, I don’t know what these movies were made for, but it couldn’t have been much. But they look like big, expensive studio films that are just more edgy in some ways.
Hyams: Yeah, cool. I appreciate that. But, Regeneration, again, you read all kinds of things but the budget as I understand it was around nine [million] and we did that in Bulgaria so we got more shooting days and whatnot. This one was done in the states and we shot it in 3D and it was in the eight [million] range. But again, you have to take that into account that this is a movie in a franchise, there are a lot of rights holders and the actors get a certain amount. So, when you’re talking about your shooting budget, the budget that is paying for the number of days and your crew and your post; it was like three-point-six.
Collider: I wanted to know… Your only acting credit is a cameo in A Sound of Thunder, a movie I saw in theaters and bought on DVD.
Hyams: Yeah, I remember that…
Collider: Well, what I wanted to know was, with Franchise Pictures, they were a company that was embezzling from the films and cheating other studios out of money. When your father (Peter Hyams) was making the film… at what point did he find out that the $80 million he was supposed to have for the film had evaporated and that the film just wasn’t going to get finished?
Hyams: I think he learned that during shooting. That was a very, what’s the word? A very volatile shoot. There were all sorts of problems with that shoot. I mean, obviously he didn’t know that going into it, but once they started going. there were all sorts of problems they were running into, not to mention they were in Prague and Prague was flooded at the time. they lost a bunch of their sets and then, well, they ended up making it through production more-or-less getting what they expected. But a movie like that depends literally, 95% on the quality of post. A movie like that is all about creature design and that whole thing was a big postproduction movie. And suddenly, I think once he was in post he realized there was just no money. I mean, they were farming out shots all over the place not getting, they didn’t have any A-people working on it. Any money to take care of it. I think it was definitely, I have to believe, I can’t speak for my dad, but I have to believe it was one of the hardest experiences of his career. You know, it’s got to be a real sinking feeling going into something shooting all of it against green screen with all this trust that you’re relying on this whole element, this whole technology that ultimately you’re not going to be able to afford and you have to do it anyway. And I know I’ve learned so much from him. and I remember when I was doing Regeneration, I took the lessons learned on that very seriously. Again, it wasn’t a franchise, but this was one of those kinds of movies where there is foreign financing and the budgets at a certain level. And I said, ‘I’m going to rely almost solely on practical effects because I don’t have an effects house that I’m working with. I don’t have artists that I can trust that can do this for a price. So I’m going to basically do everything practically.’ So on Regeneration we had a few visual effects, maybe 10 shots maybe. And people ultimately give the movie credit saying, ‘It’s refreshing to see a movie that uses practical effects.’ But the truth is, I just did it because I had complete mistrust in the fact that I was gonna get the right people to do it. But I mean, if you have the right artist you can do incredible things. Guys like Neill Blomkamp are pushing the technology in beautiful ways. But I’m in no way kind of waving the flag for practical effects but I know from experiences like what he had to suffer that unless you know what you’re getting, it can really sink a movie.