Back in early May, I got to visit the set of Underworld: Awakening when the production was filming in Vancouver. While on set, I got to participate in a group interview with producer Richard Wright. Here’s some of the highlights:
- Although there’s no greenlight or script for a fifth installment, Wright says they have a pretty good idea of who the characters will be and what the basic timeline would be. Underworld 5 would probably take place after the events of 4.
- The first ten minutes of Underworld: Awakening is a prologue that explains everything that’s happened before the events of the film, then it cuts to 15 years later.
- The co-directors (Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein) would trade off days being the director of the film. One of them is more the writer and one is more the editor.
- Although Len Wiseman isn’t directing this time around, he’s still heavily involved as a producer and he wrote the original story.
- Instead of the normal one day of test shooting, they shot tests for five weeks with the RED EPIC 3D cameras in order to become well-versed in the technology.
- They’re taking an understated and somewhat conservative approach to the 3D, but there will still be little moments of projectiles and things coming out at the audience.
- While Scott Speedman isn’t back for this film, his character plays a role in Awakening, and the idea is that Speedman would return for Underworld 5.
- Given the darkness of the Underworld films, the projected image will be brighter to compensate for the dimming of 3D.
Hit the jump for the full interview. He goes into a lot of detail about how they got Kate Beckinsale to be in the 4th installment, what the film is about, working with the 3D cameras, and a lot more.
Before going any further, if you missed the recently released teaser trailer for Underworld: Awakening, I’d watch that first:
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either listen to the audio (here’s part 1 and part 2), or the full transcript is below. Underworld: Awakening gets released January 20, 2012.
Richard Wright: Okay, we can start with the obvious: we’re doing Underworld 4, the newest movie in the Underworld series. The first two had Kate Beckinsale; the third one was a prequel. Prior to her involvement with the series. We’re now going back to picking up after the second one, except we are twelve to fifteen years in the future.
Interviewer: In the back of your brain are you thinking, “Oh, Kate’s back for this one, so we’re setting ourselves up for future sequels?” Are you planning ahead?
Wright: Once you’re doing #4, you can’t stop yourself from thinking there will be a #5. As of now #5 has not been greenlit, there’s no script, there’s no approved story. I think if we were to do it, we’d have a pretty good idea of who the characters will be, and what the basic timeline would be. I think it would take place after #4, but there would have to be a lot of different variables that would have to be worked out. Kate would have to agree to come back. She didn’t want to do the third one, so the fourth one was a return for her. I shouldn’t say she didn’t want to do the third one: she didn’t do the third one. So she would have to agree to do a fifth one. As with any actor, doing to the same role over and over again is not always the most attractive thing. Kate will have to sit with you…you’ll have to talk to her and get her own reaction about that. But it’s not the most immediate and attractive thing for an actor to play the same role multiple times. But this is still an iconic role, and I think that she inhabits the movie, and it’s impossible to imagine what this series of films would have been like without her.
Wright: Well, Len and Kate are married, as I’m sure you know, as so we’re not always privy to what goes on in the Wiseman/Beckinsale household, but Len basically came up with the general idea, and we got the original script for the final idea last December of 2009. And while the basic story was good, the basic idea – the idea that it’s fifteen years in the future, that the Kate Beckinsale character has been in cryogenic suspension for fifteen years, and that she wakes up in a future world where the existence of vampires and werewolves has been made known to the humans, there’s been a counterattack, there’s been a genocide, and a purge to try to remove all the vampires and the werewolves from the face of the Earth. And there has been a company that has taken the forefront of testing people – because both vampires and werewolves can appear in almost human form – a company has evolved, or come to power, so to speak, because of their role in being able to test whether people are vampires or werewolves. That company has become pretty much all powerful: a biotech company that has amassed enormous political power, and they are the company that has been holding her for nearly fifteen years. There’s a prologue that explains all of what we’ve just gone through, for the first ten minutes of the movie, then there’s a cut to black, and now we’re fifteen years later. And for us in the movie, and for the character Selene, there’s been no missing time at all. She realizes…as she breaks out of the confinement that she’s been in, she gets back out into the world and as she goes through the world, and starts picking up clues, “Waait a minute, this is not the time that I thought it was, it’s fifteen years in the future, and this one location…the last thing that she remembers is at this one location, she goes back to that location and it’s completely different now. Then she starts to put together…that somehow she’s been confined, and for a reason, she’s not sure why. So a lot of the film is actually structured as a mystery. She’s trying to piece together what happened, who did this to her, and why.
I always got the impression that the first movie was in the future: is that not the case?
Wright: Well, we’ve been very careful not to mix time cues. The first one was shot in Budapest, and the architecture in Budapest goes back, in some cases, to the Middle Ages. It’s a parallel universe, it’s not a specific time in a specific place. The things that most often signify time periods in filmmaking are cars, hairstyle, and wardrobe, and sometimes diction, the way that people talk. And we’ve been very, very careful to mix those up, constantly. And especially if you have creatures who have lived for hundreds of years, or in some cases for thousands of years, they would be all mixed up. The type of clothing that they were, the diction they use, their being, their demeanor, wouldn’t be recognizable in any given period. So, we’ve always been very, very careful to not give too much of a cue. In this particular film there are futuristic elements some of the weapons are very futuristic. Of course, the weaponry that you have to use to take down a vampire or take down a werewolf is different. You have to use UV bullets for a werewolf and silver bullets for a Lycan. But the design of the weapons is different. In fact, that’s a big, big part of the Underworld franchise, has always been weaponry design. Not just guns, but swords, and knives, and silver whips, and various other things that we’ve done.
Wright: They did a film called Storm about four years ago. They’re a pair of Swedes: one of them is more the writer, one of them is more the editor, and then they co-direct. They have a very unusual style of working, which takes some getting used to. They alternate days: one will direct one day, and then he sits back while the other one directs the other day. I’ve never heard of this before, I didn’t think it was going to work, it sure is confusing, but the way that you extract magic out of people’s minds, it’s not logical, it’s not rational. And sometimes you have to put up with stuff that just drives you completely crazy in order to get that magical essence out of them.
If you’re doing a big action set piece that takes place over multiple days, does that mean they’re switching off each day, but you’re in the middle of filming one scene?
Wright: We’ve only had a couple of times where we’ve had a scene where it really made sense for the person who directed the first part to direct the second part, and when we’ve done that the same guy has done both days. But most of the scenes we’ve done haven’t been bigger than two days. They’ve worked this way for ten years together, they’ve known each other since they were twelve, they’ve been friends their whole lives, they’ve known each other for 30-years. And they’ve been working together as a directing pair for 12-years. So they’ll tell you that themselves. To them this is normal, but even to them they’re still figuring out how to do this. I mean, that’s the whole process in filmmaking. I’ve made 50 films, and almost never have you done the same thing from one film to the next. You’re always coming to work and solving problems that you haven’t had to solve before. And as a result of that you get better at it, at in being in a situation where you don’t quite understand, where you don’t have a clear picture in the beginning of how you’re going to get to the end and you just work your way through it. And this is no exception. But working with the two directors who have a style of working together which is completely different than any other directing team that I’ve ever worked with, it is an adjustment and a constant learning process.
Wright: It’s confusing; filmmaking, in its best form, it is a benign dictatorship. The person in charge is the person in charge, and every creative decision is routed through that one person. Whether or not the director of a film is an auteur in the classic sense of understanding everything and being able to paint the entire film with his own personal paintbrush, the filmmaking system of today has evolved to treat the director as that person through whom everything has to go. And we have a much more devolved process than that. And it is confusing. I can’t tell you the number of times the prop person has come up to one of the directors and said, “Yeah, well, we’ve got this…”, and he’s, “No, no, no, I’m not the person today, you’ll have to go talk to the other guy about that.”
They’re pretty clear-cut: this is your area, this is my area. At least they understand it.
Wright: It’s not areas, it’s days. It’s literally days. I’ve worked with directing teams before, with Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor who did the Crank films, so I’ve done this before. It’s still different, because it is literally a time thing. Like, one punches in and the other punches out, and it’s weird. Over time you start to recognize that there’s differences between them, where one of them is really a little bit better at the writing part, or is the one that naturally assumes the writing part if you’re rewriting a scene, or suddenly you realize, “Oh god, this scene was written this way, but then this doesn’t work and is there anything we can do?” there’s one that really handles that. Then the other one is really more…primarily the editor. In fact, Bjorn is the editor. [He] cut a piece out of the first three weeks of shooting that was really great, I mean the guy really can do it.
Do they ever like to keep the cast and crew guessing as to which one is directing at a given time? Has it ever become like Dead Ringers?
Wright: I think that they—I don’t want to speculate as to what’s going on in their brains, but I think that they somewhat enjoy the aspect that they have an unusual working process that everyone else is not as up to speed on as they are. Who wouldn’t? I mean, it’s fun to be the guys that have done it different and actually be the ones getting away with it. But filmmaking is so complicated and so difficult that you can’t deliberately confuse people.
What is their stated reasoning behind directing that way, or working that way, trading off days?
Wright: Two heads are better than one. I think that’s their thinking. They’re very close. I don’t want to get too speculative about this but they’re Swedish, and Sweden is probably the most Socialist country in the world, and the responsibility and the value of the individual is necessarily diluted somewhat, I think, by that cultural milieu that they grew up in. They are very collaborative, actually I’d have to say they’re as collaborative or more collaborative than any other director I have ever seen. They’re not precious about, “Oh, this is our idea and we’re gonna do it our way.” They’ve actually been really good and really adaptable…this show has been a very difficult show. They’re all difficult, there’s no such thing as an easy movie, this one is still an unusually complicated [one]. They have shown themselves to be very, very adaptable. So we look at this as though it’s sort of unusual, and scratch our heads, “Uh, this is weird,” but in some ways it’s actually really been helpful and good for us that they’ve been able to be so adaptive. The other thing that having two directors does is, directing is incredibly stressful, every single thing, all day, is going through your head, and it is very, very hard to keep a clear picture of where you are in the script, and whether she should be more upset here, or less upset, and when every other day you’re taking a day off it really helps you keep a clear head all the way through. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody as a way to do every movie but there is certainly a value to it.
You’ve only had one person thus far as I can tell from the other movies, James, the effects guy, so what was the reasoning for getting new people on? Did you try getting people back?
Wright: Well, Patrick [Tatopoulos] was not available, he had to go off and do another film. Patrick has been a huge part of everything, but he’s still involved in the film, so is Len. Len wrote the original story. There have been a number of occasions over the last six or eight weeks where we’ve had to rewrite scenes, and Len’s rewritten all of them, even though he’s directing another movie. I can’t even believe…that guy must never sleep. But we’ll call him at 11 o’clock at night and say, “Oh god, we’ve got this problem, we’re shooting tomorrow, what are we going to do?” And 7 o’clock in the morning you’ll look in your email and there will be the scene. So Len is very, very much part of the process. We have a daily system called Pix, which a lot of people use now, which effectively puts your dailies onto a server and people with passwords can login and watch your dailies. And invariably the first person to comment on all the dailies we’ve shot is Len, so he’s very, very much the godfather, not just of the franchise, but of this film as well.
Wright: This film is different from the others in that it’s 3D. We’ve had a different DP on every single movie. The first film was shot on film and we did a digital DI. And the first DP was Tony Pierce-Roberts, who was a Merchant-Ivory guy who did Howard’s End and all these very sumptuous boudoir movies, and he was chosen because of that. We wanted somebody that knew how to light a period-looking film, because we set out to make a period film, even though it really wasn’t. And the second film was shot with Simon Duggan, a DP who had shot Dark City, which Patrick Tatopoulos had been the production designer on. I think Tony Pierce-Roberts did his genre film, and was ready to go back to doing the normal Academy Award-type film. The first film was also very difficult. It was all nights, six-day weeks, and we shot for twelve weeks. It was just a grind. So on the second film we went with Simon Duggan, who had worked with Alex Proyas. Then on the third film we shot in New Zealand. New Zealand is where you go when you want to shoot a Medieval movie. They do it better than anybody. The DP was actually another Australian, Ross Emery shot the third one. This film is 3D, and it’s pretty much impossible to shoot 3D on film, and you really don’t want to be learning how to shoot 3D, not just compositionally, but technically, you don’t to be learning that while you’re shooting the movie, so we wanted to hire a DP that had shot 3D before, and there’s not a long list. And Scott Kevan, who is the DP of this film, had done another film with Lakeshore, our company, previously, which is a completely different film, so we knew him and liked him, and he had just shot The Darkest Hour, a film that was shot in Russia, in 3D, so he seemed to be the best choice for this particular film. And it turned out that we were right; the film looks fantastic. We’re using cameras—there’s a company called RED that makes very high-definition, very high-resolution digital cameras, there’s this new camera called the EPIC, the RED EPIC, and the camera itself is this big, it’s tiny, when you go up onto the set you’ll see them. The camera looks gigantic, but the actual cameras themselves, there’s two, one for the left eye and one for the right eye, the actual cameras are this big, but the gaff around it makes the whole rig look huge, but the actual cameras are tiny. And The Lord of the Rings is shooting with them, and Spider-Man, the current Spider-Man is shooting with them, and this film. So we were the first three films to get these cameras which just became available, and I’m pretty sure that we will be the first in the theaters with them. But, it’s a new camera, in 3D, there’s an enormous amount of technical stuff. We shot five weeks of tests with these cameras, which normally you’d have one day of testing, we shot five weeks of testing to make sure that we knew exactly what the technical tolerances of the cameras were, how robust they would be, how they worked out in rain and in difficult condition. So the choice of DP was motivated more by practical considerations than by should we keep shooting all the films with the same DP.
I think Peter Jackson bought 50 of these cameras.
Wright: Yeah, he did.
Wright: Eight. But, Peter Jackson is also a technophile. I think just the idea of having 50, and having everybody know that he has 50, is attractive to him (laughter). And the cameras themselves are actually not that expensive, each camera is about $60,000, just for the camera itself. But you need (inaudible) for them to work in a 3D context. The rigs, there’s two main competitors that make the 3D rigs. There’s Element Technica, those are the rigs that we’re using, and there’s the 3ality rigs, which are very, very complicated and prone to—they’re delicate, there’s constant issues with the cameras. Having said that, it’s not nearly as bad as I’ve been told it would be. We actually haven’t really lost that much time to 3D. But it is a much more complicated way to shoot a movie.
When did you guys first know you were going to do 3D, and how, if at all, did the script change?
Wright: We knew from the beginning. That was one of the conditions for making the film. Sony, the studio, the main financier and the main distributor of the film, because they’re Sony an electronic manufacturer, has a vested interest in 3D, they’ve put their entire weight behind 3D, and I think pretty much everything Sony is shooting now, certainly all the tent poles, are all 3D. So it was never a question: we were going to be shooting a 3D movie. This was not the first film that we, Lakeshore, the production company, had considered doing in 3D. It was the first one that actually got greenlit. But we had thought of doing this, and we all wanted to it, it was a challenge, and we were all kind of piqued at Lakeshore anyway, so the idea that we would get to play with some new stuff was really attractive to us, so there was never a question of doing it any other way.
Is this one of these films where it’s going to be, like, gimmicky 3D, or is it going to be more like 3D’s enhancing the story, or just certain moments that are going to be, like, coming out at you?
Wright: Okay, there’s only one way I can answer that question: well, of course it’s going to be organic to the story. (laughter) James Cameron basically created an entire 3D vocabulary for Avatar, which was very successful, and which was different from a lot of the other films that had been shot in 3D previously. It’s an understated and somewhat conservative approach, I’m sure you’re all familiar with how 3D actually works, the fact that you’d have two cameras, usually one is like this, and one is like this—shooting through a half-silvered mirror, which you have to do in order to get the lenses close enough to each other to get a stereoscopic vision that actually mimics the human eye. You can’t just put two cameras side by side next to each other and get the lenses close, so that’s why you see this half-silvered mirror. But just for the sake of argument lets just assume that we’re shooting parallel, which sometimes you do. The more you converge the cameras, that is the point at which a line drawn through the very center of the lenses extending out into infinity, the point that those lines cross is called the convergence. And the convergence point, when seen on screen, appears at the distance from your eye of the screen itself. And everything behind that convergence point, everything past where the convergence point is, will appear to be behind the screen and everything before that convergence point will appear to be in front of the screen. But we realized very quickly over time, not just us, everybody realized it, that the more stuff you had in front of the convergence point coming out into the audience, the more eye strain you had, the more fatigue you had, because your eye can’t resolve and object that’s too far out in front of the convergence point and still be able to see what’s behind it. So Cameron started this whole vocabulary of putting almost everything behind the screen, so to speak. And we’re sticking closely to that, although of course there are moments, there are things that come out into the audience, there’ll be projectiles and things like that, you have to have a few of those moments. But we’re looking at 3D not as a gimmick, of distracting the audience as often as possible with hyper-dimensionality, and more as an organic part of actually telling the story. And immersing the viewer in an environment the same way that other films do, but with an additional dimension.
Wright: As a franchise evolves there are inevitably going to be new characters who come in, also we keep killing off our characters, so it’s hard to have them come back, although we have figured out how to do that on more than one occasion (laughter). But Michael Ealy, I would hope that we would see his character in subsequent films. There are other characters that you will recognize that you will see in this film that we would hope would carry forward.
There are also a lot of new characters.
Wright: There are almost no old characters at all that. I mean, there’s Kate and then there’s Michael, who plays, you know, the Scott Speedman character.
Oh, he’s back?
Wright: He’s not, and here’s the miracle about this: his character plays a role in the film, and then the idea is that he would come back in the fifth one.
Does the production, and you as the producer, worry that there’s a lot of 3D films coming out and a lot of the audiences are sort of reacting with the headaches? A lot of people are voicing opinions that they don’t like the 3D. Do you worry about that? About 3D backlash?
Wright: No, not really. We’re trying to shoot a film that you can like and that you can appreciate 3D and in 2D. We’re not changing the way that you shoot a film in order to shoot it in 3D. We’re still shooting the same film. And there are certainly techniques that you can use that keep headaches and keep the perceptive misalignments, the types of things that give people headaches, there’s ways that you can keep that to a minimum. There are certain things, though, that 3D does better than 2D, for example longer shots play better in 3D, and that quick cut-y style, that Michael Bay style, doesn’t really translate as well into 3D. But I actually look at 3D similar to color…when color came into filmmaking. At first it was flashy, and everybody had to be wearing either a RED dress or a BLUE suit, or they were standing next to a green wall or something. They were showing it off. But then over time it just became part of the basic vocabulary of filmmaking. And color filmmaking and black and white filmmaking coexisted for 30 or 40 years. Who knows whether or not 3D is going to play that exact same role, but with 3D-enabled televisions already available to consumers and 3D-equipped theaters now really having a significant footprint across North America, and really the rest of the world, I think that there is always going to be a political and economic pressure to shoot films in 3D. Whether or not it creates the splash that it has for the last two years, continuing where you see 40 or 50% of a film’s revenue coming from, theatrically anyway, coming from the 3D screenings, rather than the 2D, I can’t see how that couldn’t fall off.
Can you talk about when you get to the fourth film in a franchise, if you’re lucky enough to get to the fourth film in a franchise, how much calculation there is in terms of your decision-making, inasmuch as will this be good for the box office, are we making a film that will appeal mainly to the hardcore fans, or will it appeal to the people who haven’t seen the last two movies, maybe who only saw the first movie?
Wright: Obviously there have been a great number of franchises that have been successful in Hollywood history, and many of them didn’t involve me, so I can’t tell you how everybody looks at it, but filmmaking is an incredibly expensive art form. On a big film it’s not unusual to find a film costing over $200,000 a day. And we all know what star salaries are. And the visual fx budgets are insane, and when you shoot in 3D you multiply everything by two because you have to do a left eye and a right eye. So the economic considerations are of course paramount, especially in big-budget tent-pole filmmaking. And whenever you are making that kind of investment, you always want to make sure that you can make back as much money as possible. So there is always pressure to do exactly what you’re talking about, make a film that will appeal to the hardcore audience but also be able to welcome in potential new viewers. Especially when you’re making a movie that’s slanted towards the younger demographic, there’s new generations coming along, you want to appeal to them as well. So yes, of course that consideration does enter into it. It has to. There’s no other way to make sure that you remain solvent to the businessmen in the film business.
To that, I wanted to ask you…the New Moon subtitle gave me a little pause, in it’s slightly Twilight-esque, is this going to be an R?
Wright: There have been so many subtitles thrown out with this film that we finally figured, to hell with it, just call it New Moon for now, and we’ll figure out what it’s going to be. There’s nothing to do with the moon at all. This film is not going to be a PG-13 movie, it’s going to be an R, Underworld films have always been R. That’s what people expect. There was a time, well, there is a time, now, when people think a PG-13 action film or even a horror film will do more business, that’s not this one. There’s plenty of hardcore blood and guts in this one. No one will be disappointed. (laughs)
Has the 3D affected the visuals much? The Underworld films have always been kind of dark. The 3D, wearing sunglasses in a movie theater, so that darkens the image some more. So, is this film a little brighter than the previous Underworld films to compensate.
Wright: Not necessarily, no. In order to compensate for the amount of light reaching your eyes through the glasses the projected image is going to be a little bit brighter. So you can just account for that. The differences that you find in shooting for 3D are that you’re always trying to compose on multiple planes, something in the foreground, something in the mid-ground, something in the background, and things moving this way in the frame as well. You’ll find yourself more thinking along those lines, and deciding how to shoot each individual shot. And you’ll also find yourself wanting to make sure that there’s a deep background in every shot. Through a doorway, or choosing a location like this one, for example. This one was chosen specifically with 3D in mind, because there’s a great deal of dimensionality and distance in the frame. So those elements will become part of your decision-making process.
When the first Underworld came out, there were no vampire movies—
Wright: Well, there was Blade.
Wright: No. This film still has the same elements that the old Underworld films have had. The lead is a vampire, there are still werewolves, there are covens, even though the vampire and werewolf populations have been decimated fifteen years ago by this purge that happened, there are still remnants of that. There is still this deep connection to the past, and the weight of the past on the characters. There still is all that stuff. Having said that, though, this film is going to rely less on atmospherics and more on actual action.
Are the effects more practical than CGI?
Wright: No, we’re mixing it up. I’m not a big fan of doing too much in CG, I just never think it looks great. But there are certain things you just can’t do practically.
For more on Underworld: Awakening: