Imagine scoring your very first feature directing gig and it’s for a highly anticipated comic book adaptation starring Vin Diesel with a reported $40 million production budget that will hopefully launch a franchise. An exciting opportunity yes, but I imagine that kind of gig comes with a lot of pressure. If Dave Wilson was feeling the weight of that pressure while making Bloodshot, I certainly couldn’t tell because one of the shining qualities of the finished film is that it appears to have been directed with great confidence.
Based on the Valiant source material, Diesel leads the cast as Ray, a soldier who’s killed and then resurrected by the folks at Rising Spirit Technologies led by Dr. Harting (Guy Pearce). Ray returns stronger than ever, but he’s plagued by fragmented memories of the death of his wife. Ray winds up with a one-track mind, hellbent on seeking revenge and nothing else until he becomes suspicious of RST’s intentions and their control over his mind and memories.
With Bloodshot making its way into theaters nationwide on March 13th, I got the chance to sit down with Wilson to discuss his experience jumping into his very first feature. He spoke about his background at Blur Studios as a Cinematic Trailer Director, the importance of not being afraid to ask questions on set, what surprised him most about working with Vin Diesel, how Bloodsquirt and Bloodhound were both in his original pitch, and also the additional scene he wanted to include with Siddharth Dhananjay’s character, Eric. On top of that, Wilson also weighed in on how Star Wars: The Old Republic could be adapted having worked on a lot of material for the game himself.
Check it all out for yourself in the interview below!
DAVE WILSON: So I was with Tim and Blur for 15 years. Tim actually brought me out from South Africa and the bread and butter there, yes, was sort of cinematic trailers. The easiest way to describe it is they’re sort of long format commercials – like three minutes, five minutes. The ones I did for Elder Scrolls got up to like 10 minutes long. When you’re launching a big franchise like The Elder Scrolls that they are spending $100 million on, they need to sort of bring an audience. Especially the ones that haven’t played the originals. They would often come to us with a sort of blank slate and say, ‘Help us tell our story or introduce our characters to an audience.’ So we would work with them on that and create these, basically, five minute commercials.
Is there anything about that kind of format of storytelling that came in handy on Bloodshot?
WILSON: Oh, yes. Lots. Most of them are sort of focused around a big set piece or a battle or something like that. I did a lot of them for Star Wars, The Old Republic. I love that franchise. I wish they would make a whole series or features with it in that world. But interesting thing about that is a lot of story compacted into a very little amount of time and I would usually try and do it sort of as visually as I could. If I can tell a story without people saying things and it’s sort of universal in its appeal. This visual filmmaking style was something that was I think thrust on you.
I felt that when I came over and I had 90 minutes to tell a story I was like, ‘Oh, I can slow down and take some time.’ But t here’s a big similarity between that and the pre-production, and filmmaking and editorial; it’s all the same. In fact, we used to be a lot of key frame when I first got to Blur and now it’s all performance capture so it’s the same process. It’s honestly more daunting when you’re sitting – for actors, especially – in a white padded room in a black leotard and there’s nothing around you. You feel very vulnerable. Getting to set with actors in wardrobe and they feel very comfortable, it was a little easier, actually.
Not to derail this too much, but now I have to ask; Old Republic, if you had the opportunity to adapt it, what avenue would you pursue? A feature film? A series?
WILSON: I would do a series. I love what they did with Mandalorian. I think there’s just too many characters and too much ground to cover. And I feel, inevitably, you do someone an injustice by not covering a character well enough. I’m amazed that there’s been – this is sort of a tangent – no Vader story. There’s this version of his story between Episode 3 and 4 that I’m like, why haven’t we told that story?
My most rewarding experience from The Old Republic was Malgus, who is the Sith that sort of sacks the Jedi temple. He didn’t exist until that short and they just knew they wanted this event where the Sith come back. And I wrote that story, that event for them and that character. And now that statue sits on – I’m a giant nerd – this statue sits in my office at home and there’s books that they’ve written about him and I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’ Just to have contributed anything to that franchise is a pretty remarkable thing.
Have you played Vader Immortal yet?
WILSON: Honestly, I have not played anything for like two and a half years.
You have to try it! I think that’s gonna fill some of that Vader gap for you.
Back to Bloodshot. Feature directorial debut for you! Even with all your experience, was there any particular component of what it means to be a director that took you by surprise?
WILSON: Yes! There’s no version where I sit quietly and let my ego get in the way of me making the movie the best it can be and sort of fake my way through it. If I don’t know something, I’ll ask a question. There are many talented people around. I think the most important decision you make as a director is who you put in the room with you, whose opinions you will elicit all through production. I know what I want to visually do or from a narrative perspective, I know what I want to do; how I achieve that, you have to ask your production designer, and your DP and everyone around you. That part is fine. I think if you sort of go in with an ego that’s like, I have all the answers and you sort of sequester yourself away from opinions, I think you’re gonna have a problem. That is not my thing.
I think the most surprising thing was just how many takes you get. I’m used to a performance capture stage where you’re not worried about extras or lights, wardrobe or last looks. I’m standing one foot in front of an actor, scrutinizing the performance and we’ll go 27, 30 times because it takes nothing to reset. And then you’re on a live action stage and you’ve got extras to reset and that light’s on the way, and your DP’s rushing in and you get six or seven takes and you’re like, ‘Ugh.’ That part to me was an exercise in focusing on what really needs to – I remember worrying about f*cking shoes at some point and then realizing, ‘Wow, we never really see those things.’ I think what you learn going through the process is what really warrants your attention. That and how many takes you get was sort of mind boggling to me. You’re not going to get as many as you will on a performance capture stage.
As someone who’s not afraid to ask questions, what’s an example of a question that you might’ve been worried was a silly question to ask, but it turned out to be really important?
WILSON: Oh, that’s a great question. I don’t have an example of that, but I’ll give you an example with Guy. One day with Guy Pearce who’s one of those wonderful human beings on the planet. We were shooting a scene and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go again,’ and then I was like, ‘You know what? We’re not gonna use that one.’ And he sort of looked at me and I walked up to him and I’m like, ‘Is everything all right?’ And he gave me some advice. Then he was sort of looking at me waiting for me, I guess, maybe to get upset and I’m like, ‘Is everything okay?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, are you okay?’ I’m like, ‘I’m fine,’ and I’m like, ‘Look Guy, I love your movies. I adore everything you do in them. If you have any pearls of wisdom for me over your entire career, share them with me. I’m here to learn as much as I am to make a great movie and if any advice you have helps me make the next one better, I’m here to take it.’
But every day it was like, ‘Why is that light there? Why did we do that?’ I hate the status quo. I can’t stand the answer, ‘Because that’s how we do it.’ I don’t like that. I feel like that’s an excuse for not really knowing why we do things. And I feel like it’s not just me asking questions; people should challenge my creative ideas. ‘Well, why’s he coming in from there? Why’s he saying that?’ My job is to defend my creative agenda and if I don’t have a thoughtful response to it, then maybe it isn’t as strong as I thought it was. And I expect the same from anyone in my crew.
I’m trying to think of one where I asked a f*cking stupid question that ended up being – but nothing’s coming to mind. There are probably so many that they’ve just lumped into the whole process of it all. The irony is there were many that I asked that there was just no good answer for. Even simple things I’m like, ‘Why are we starting on this side? I don’t get it.’ And then sometimes people would give me an answer and I’d be like, ‘Oh right, that makes a lot of sense,’ and you feel a little stupid. And there were other times where I’m like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I’d ask the same question on another day and there was no answer, but you don’t find out and you can’t let the embarrassment of your sort of newness to the set get in the way of that.
Here’s a silly question for you! The flour scene. What are you actually shooting in?
WILSON: I asked that question many times and it was just some sort of compound that they came up with that was safe … ish. Everyone seems fine and it was a year ago, or two. But it wasn’t flour because flour is combustible, which not everybody knows.
I did not know that.
WILSON: It has to be sort of under pressure and we were in a tunnel, and it’s just safe; what you don’t want to be doing is firing rounds in there and all of a sudden the whole place burns down. But so we had to come up with our own compounds. I will say this – a little sort of anecdotal story – even though it’s safe, we’re all wearing masks, you don’t want to breathe in the particulate that is floating around the room. And some people are even in a plastic suit with a mask on.
I feel like you guys should be using all of those right now with the coronavirus!
WILSON: Yup. We had many then! Difficult to find them now. But Vin is coming onto set and everyone’s standing around in what looks like hazmat suits. My guy’s like, ‘Come on. It’s gonna be difficult to convince him to spend the next three or four days shooting in here without any of that.’ But he walked in, we shot one take and it’s like, I don’t know what it was, like 400 frames per second, slow-mo and the flour’s going everywhere and the crew kind of erupted and he stayed for three days to do it. He loved it, he gave it everything. It was messy and horrible in there, but I feel like those sort of unpleasant sets often bear the most sort of entertaining visuals.
Vin’s got such a big presence and I feel like it could be easy to go into working with him with certain assumptions just based on his star power. Is there anything you assumed about him and then he proved wrong?
WILSON: There are many! Look, I mean, there are things that you assume that aren’t true and then there are others that, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.’ The most amazing thing to me was he remembers everything, right? I remember, early on in pre-production, just after the green light, before pre-production had officially begun, I went down and we talked all about the character and everything, and I remember making some comment about protein because Bloodshot needs a larger – in the comics, it gets a little more graphic. He eats a cat at some point, I think, to feed the nanites. And then eight months later, we were filming and Vin made an ad lib joke about it and I was like, ‘What the f*ck is he talking about?’ And then I was like, ‘Oh!’ And then I went back and I’m like, ‘You remembered.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, of course I [did].’ That was eight months ago! Everything. Incredible memory. That was very remarkably surprising to me.
And then [the] usual sort of thing that you do anticipate is he is always wearing his producer hat. When he’s in the scene, he’s in the scene. But every day, how are we sowing seeds that will bear fruit in film nine, which is like, ‘Vin, I’m just trying to make this movie.’ [Laughs] There are those things that you expect that are gonna come from him like, he’s always looking to build but what he retains came totally out of left field.
I’m sure you’re getting asked this a lot today and I don’t want to put the sequel pressure on you even before the first movie comes out, but is that the kind of a thing you hear from execs where even though you’re focused on this one movie, they need to plant certain seeds just in case?
WILSON: I mean, yes. I think you just want to make sure you haven’t boxed yourself in. I think that’s the most important thing. Definitely from Vin and his side of it, there is a lot of making sure we have those avenues. It came up definitely with Valiant and the studio and everyone. I’m a fan of the books so my original presentation, even though it wasn’t in the script, had a whole thing on Hardcore because I love that group so much, this bunch of degenerates with super powers through technology, but I knew they weren’t going to be in the movie. I was just like, ‘Look, there’s this and this and this.’
I think you want to have the opportunity should you want to explore that. And there was some I wanted in the film and I ultimately found it was alienating to the moment to put them in there, like Bloodsquirt and Bloodhound. You would be taken out of the story I was telling. So it was a matter of just distilling it down to enough that it would just work for this film rather than [get] sort of confused about a movie that we may make five years from now.
Before we wrap, I have to ask you about the character Eric. That was one of the most pleasantly surprising supporting characters!
WILSON: Look, I mean, there are things you plan for and things that just sort of present themselves. [Laughs] Obviously, there are a lot of cliches in the first part of the movie and I needed a character for you to understand that those were made by someone who wasn’t in the military or maybe never had a real relationship, but doesn’t quite know how to sort of empathize or emotionally respond to a woman. I needed a character that could embody all of that so Eric Heisserer and I, we sort of sat down and there are more scenes that I – there was one scene where he and a female tech are arguing about the dialogue scene in the bedroom with his wife. Because I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this dialogue’s cheesy.’ I needed to validate the fact that I understood it was. But ultimately it was like you sort of pull things out. But yet, he was very much born from my need to explain to an audience, ‘I am well aware that those scenes are not real and sort of occupy a very cliched version of storytelling.’ There are scenes where he is ripping off camera work from Bad Boys, but I couldn’t – there’s never enough time.