Thursday night, Collider attended the 40th annual Saturn Awards where the The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror celebrated the best genre storytelling has to offer. During the exciting and busy event, hosted by noted celebrity roaster Jeffery Ross, films as varied as Gravity, Child’s Play and Big Ass Spider all took home trophies.
While covering the red carpet, we got a chance to talk with Underworld creator and Sleepy Hollow executive-producer Len Wiseman. During our chat, Wiseman told use about his exciting new scifi action film, Black Chapter and reveals its connections to the secret real-life history of the CIA. Plus, he talks about rejuvenating established properties, the hardest part of filming Total Recall, why he loves blowing up helicopters, his teenage Die Hard knockoff and more.
Back in April, we reported that Wiseman was set to direct Black Chapter. Details on the project are scant because Wiseman and screenwriter Zak Penn are still hashing out the script for a possible shoot later this year, but we did get a little bit more than Wiseman’s original logline saying, “it’s scifi, but it’s rooted in own own history with our CIA’s MKULTRA program back in the ‘70s. So it’s dealing with astral projection and a group that is utilizing paranormal actives for military operations.”
Penn has previously mined the world of MKULTRA in the long-delayed and under-seen E. Elias Merhige thriller, Suspect Zero. But where that film was more of a meditative noir set in the baking desert sun, Wiseman’s filmography assures that this one will hit the screen, guns a blazing.
Here’s our interview with Wiseman on the red carpet followed by a full transcript.
Question: Your most recent film was Total Recall, which which had some incredibly complex sequences in it of characters floating around. And were those filmed practical, or were those film with people held up by strings?
WISEMAN: I guess the answer is both. It was practically with people with strings. There was no CG involved, it was just painfully taking Collin [Farrell] and Jessica Biel and putting them upside-down, we built the set upside-down and just try to twist perspective to make it all seem like zero gravity. And it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever shot.
I heard that you spent weeks and weeks on that sequence in the film, and it really paid off.
WISEMAN: Thanks, it was two weeks to put it all together. Just to make people who are on wires look like they’re in zero gravity is just immensely time consuming, take after take. And I don’t know if I would do it again.
Your films are very, very intensely visual. But where do you find the balance between people floating in the air and then the more human parts where things hurt or are scary?
WISEMAN: I think that it drives from an emotional connection with everybody that pulls you through all of those events, whether it’s the events or what would be more the action, or I guess the visual effects side of it. So it always starts with me from – emotionally – ‘Why do you care about the people who are going through what they’re going through?’ Because it takes a hell of a lot to put them through that. So you better care for them when they’re doing it.
Well, given that you’ve done a Bruce Willis film and then a Schwarzenegger-related film, is Sylvester Stallone next? Do you have anything with him coming up?
WISEMAN: Nothing on the horizon, no.
Obviously, you’ve worked on reinventing various franchises and reviving various characters.
What is it that you sort of find turn over a new leaf with the characters who have possibly been explored in maybe three times before, as in Bruce Willis’ case?
WISEMAN: I mean, part of it just comes from just an inherent love of what that kind of material is, you know? With Die Hard it was just something that I, you know, I grew up with those movies. I made a Die Hard movie with my friends in my backyard during high school. It was terrible.
Was it Die Hard in a tree house?
WISEMAN: It was Die Hard in my father’s workshop. And so when that opportunity came up, the possibility of doing it, it’s more the teenager in me who says that, ‘I have to, of course I’m going to.’ So that’s the fun of reinventing, or just getting involved in things that really, actually loved as a kid growing up wanting to grow up to be a director.
I kinda wanna know, actually. What did you call your Die Hard film? And always in those movies, they look like terrorists, but they’re really just thieves. What was the thing they were trying to steal?
WISEMAN: In mine, they were just trying to steal a briefcase of cocaine.* That’s it. Some flour that I got out of my mom’s cupboard.
So, it was the ‘80s then?
WISEMAN: It was the ‘80s! Yeah. Where a plot could just exist around, just a briefcase full of cocaine. Miami Vice era.
Question: What do you have coming up next?
LEN WISEMAN: Feature-wise? I’m working on a movie called Black Chapter. It’s an original science-fiction. Zak Penn and I are working on it now. And hopefully, that will be ready to go into production close to the end of this year or beginning of next.
And you did, sorry for not remembering this by heart, you did the first two Underworld films. You wrote those? How did you come up with that? Because that idea, kind of sprung off afterwards and became very popular with Twilight and all these ever things. But it felt like you kind of restarted that. You and Vampire: the Masquerade.
WISEMAN: Which is funny because I’ve read a lot of stuff since where they talk about Underworld coming after Twilight. A lot of people don’t put the numbers together correctly. But Underworld, honestly, the way it came about – the real way it came about – I took a meeting with Dimension, and they were looking to do just a werewolf movie, and I wasn’t too interested in doing just a werewolf movie. I’m not a crazy horror fan. At that time i wasn’t really looking to do something like that. But I thought to put a twist on it to put a werewolf versus vampire… ‘What’s the best opponent for a werewolf?’ Became the idea of vampires and what about putting those two together? And ultimately it got turned down. But we loved the idea and shopped it around.
So, in that context, dealing with vampires and werewolves, the coolest thing in your whole filmography and I’ve seen every one of your movies – even if I can’t remember all of them properly – is, you put a werewolf into a fucking helicopter. And you also killed a helicopter with a car. Why do you hate helicopters so much?
WISEMAN: No, that’s actually the opposite. I love helicopters. In fact, my wife and my friends, the myth of the chopper in the sky is that Len’s going to stop and look at it. I love, probably, destroying them, yes. You know, It’s the big elements, the big toys, the trucks the helicopters, and things like that. You have a few tools to play with. And I had just, in Die Hard, I I had never seen a situation like that before. Wow would somebody just very desperately take out a helicopter. It’s just, ‘We don’t have any weapons, let’s just use the car.’
And can you tell us anything more about your new project. Like, can you tell us a bit about the plot or give us a logline? Or is it all under top secret?
LEN WISEMAN: It’s a bit top secret. But basically, it’s a scifi, but it’s rooted in own own history with our CIA’s MKULTRA program back in the ‘70s. So it’s dealing with astral projection and a group that is utilizing paranormal actives for military operations.
So in addition to remote viewing and astral projection and stuff, are you guys going to get into anything involving COINTELPRO or any of the programs designed to sort of dismantle groups like the Black Panthers? Or CounterIntelligence Programs that were part of MKULTRA.
WISEMAN: It’s more going back into, I’ve always been really interested in the MKULTRA program and some of the programs and the fact that we really tried to create an actual, I guess you could call it an energy force of yourself. And you know, there were test subjects that were killed during the process. It have a huge ordeal, this huge congressional hearing that shut the whole thing down.
Secretly giving people doses of LSD.
WISEMAN: Yes. Right? LSD caused a lot of experimenting going on. And we’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, what if we’ve got…’ I always thought, ‘What if some of those experiments actually had worked?’ And what if they did? We probably wouldn’t know that they existed. We heard that they were shut down, but we probably wouldn’t be told if they succeeded.
I know you have to go so this is my last question, are we going to see any sort of real hallucinatory, sort of, Alejandro Jodorowsky, sort of visuals. Or is it more sort of grounded outside of psychedelia?
WISEMAN: It’s very grounded. I wanted to do something that dealt with more of paranormal techniques that wasn’t a horror movie. It is an action movie that deals with a special operations group. But if a Tier One team went in to take out Bin Laden today, if you had those kind of abilities, of course you would use that kind of group. And it was more going into that arena. And I wanted to make it feel more like, grounded, as if we had this ability.
*Should have called it, Die Hard With a Habit.