While it’s always great to talk to actors and the director on a set visit, I always enjoy talking to producers because that’s where you can learn a lot about a production. And on my Pompeii set visit last June, producer Jeremy Bolt was more than willing to share a lot of behind-the-scenes information during a group interview in between filming. During the wide-ranging conversation, he talked about why they chose to shoot in Toronto, how the film couldn’t have been made ten years ago, how Titanic and Gladiator were huge influences on the film, why Kiefer Sutherland is perfect as the bad guy, how they’re going to use 3D, why they hired Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) to help write the screenplay’s language and dramatic structure, and a lot more. Hit the jump for the interview.
Before going any further, if you haven’t watched the Pompeii trailer, I’d watch that first:
JEREMY BOLT: I’m sure it sounds as odd to you as it did to me when we first talked about shooting Pompeii here. We originally looked at shooting it in Southern Spain, Eastern Europe. We actually looked at shooting it in a studio in Rome but the numbers just didn’t add up. The benefits of shooting in Canada – the tax credit – we’ve shot so many films here, and we have a great team of technicians and the fact that it’s so close to LA makes it very convenient for actors. And, in the summer, it’s pretty beautiful here. But it’s a challenge. Yesterday afternoon, I didn’t know whether I was shooting inside or outside. There were 5 weather reports. 3 said it was gonna be thunderstorms all day, so I rolled the dice, because we really wanna spend as much time outside as we can for this sequence. But that’s probably been the biggest challenge so far – the weather. The other reason we’re in Toronto is – Paul’s had the idea of making this film for some years – the possibility of making it on a sensible budget has only just come up, because of the benefits of CG. 10 years ago, this film would’ve almost been impossible, but because of the digital revolution with CG, you can do destruction in a way you never used to be able to. Plus, when Paul first got involved in 3D, I said to him, “the perfect genre for 3D is a disaster movie, because you have the debris coming at you.” And, there’s no greater debris disaster than a volcano, because there are so many aspects to it. So, that’s one of the other reasons we’re in Toronto, because of the closeness to Mr. X Inc, doing all our visual effects.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the project? I know at one point, Roman Polanski was gonna do one, and I don’t know if this is an iteration of that, or something different?
BOLT: No, this is completely separate. Roman Polanski was going to do one. I don’t know if anyone else was. It’s one of those obvious ideas. After Titanic, you think, what are the other great disasters in history? This is one of them. Being European, we have an awareness of all things historical, and a love of them. And, Paul also loves spectacle, and like a lot of people, we adore Gladiator. So, this was a way of combining visual effects, epic spectacle, and a period of history that is just profoundly fascinating. It’s something Paul’s wanted to do for years. We developed a fairly classical narrative of a celt who is abused by the Roman Empire, become a gladiator essentially as a slave. Then, he goes up against the Romans, and, in the disaster of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, ironically, he’s actually liberated, and is able to be with the love of his life. We learn from Titanic that, when you’re going with a huge dramatic disaster, try to keep the narrative as simple as possible, so we really focused on the love story between Kit Harrington and Emily Browning.
BOLT: Everything connects nicely. Emily’s father is the wealthiest character in Pompeii. He essentially owns the coliseum where we’re shooting today, in which Milo (Kit Harrington) will fight. He’s putting on games, especially for a Roman senator, played by Kiefer Sutherland. It all connects together, and Kiefer wants to marry Emily Browning. She doesn’t want to do that. She’s a very feisty modern woman. The other thing that connects the pieces is that the man responsible for wiping out Milo’s tribe in Brittania is in fact Kiefer Sutherland’s character, so fate has brought them all together. Over the festival of bacchanalia, which is historically accurate to when the mountain exploded – it’s kind of like Thanksgiving or Labor Day. All the Romans were there having a good time – that’s when the volcano went.
Can you talk about casting Kit in this leading role for the first time?
BOLT: Yeah. We wanted somebody fresh and exciting, and we had been extremely impressed with him in Game of Thrones. We felt he combined romantic credibility, as well as being credible with a sword. He’s young, but he’s not a boy. He’s a man. He’s a young man. We felt he’d be a romantic and believable young warrior to have at the center of the piece. He was essentially our first choice. We love Game of Thrones. We were actively looking for something to do with him, and he made total sense for us. There are not many gettable actors at that age who are really going to inspire confidence, but it was amazing. Jon Snow, from Game of Thrones, he’s actually extremely respected and famous now. So, unless you’re going for the big men, like Tom Cruise or Will Smith, it’s really hard once you drop down to reality – at least for most of us (laughs) – to find someone who’s really gonna make the story sync, like Henry Cavill just did in Man of Steel. The more we do, the more we realize that that decision is so fundamental, because if you get it wrong, you can’t recover. So, we think he’s credible, romantic, sympathetic, and a great actor. That was the other thing. We wanted good actors, so Jared Harris, Carrie-Ann Moss, Kiefer Sutherland, they’re going to give the story gravitas. We’re really hoping that the audience gets deeply engaged in the drama before the mountain goes off. That they almost forget that it’s gonna go off, and then they’re like “Oh fuck! Now they’re all gonna die!” (laughs) I think they did really well in Titanic. You knew the iceberg was coming, but you were so consumed with the story. We feel that we’ve done the same thing with Emily and Kit.
BOLT: Yeah. Totally. The audience is then wondering who’s gonna die and who’s gonna make it. The majority, of course, don’t make it out.
Didn’t Hitchcock say that was suspense? That suspense wasn’t about not knowing what was gonna happen, but about knowing what was gonna happen, just not when and where?
BOLT: It’s like the bomb on the bus. That’s right.
Whenever you have something historical, people will rake you over the coals with details and accuracy. In terms of the event and the destruction, how much is fact and how much is fiction?
BOLT: It happened in August of 79 AD. We created Milo, Emily and Kiefer’s characters. I’m sure there was a Jared Harris character. The names are all accurate to names of that period. The amount of time it took is accurate, the six stages of the eruption. There was the earthquake tremors, water going off, animals dying, tsunami, first explosion, ash, hail, and then the pyroplastic flow is one of the strong characteristics of this explosion, which is essentially boiling steam traveling at very high speed, which can incinerate you. Just when you thought you got over the worst bit, it got even worse. What we do, which is really exciting, is we have moments of calm between each section. So you might think, “they made it!” Wrong. The next stage is just gearing up. That’s the other challenge for a filmmaker. When do you begin the destruction? If you start it too soon, it will actually become repetitive, but if you leave it too late, the audience will check out. It’s about finding that moment. Actually, the first major piece of destruction happens in about 4 minutes from what we’re shooting today, which is when the big crack appears through the coliseum. Milo and the person he’s fighting fall down into the gladiator cells, the royal box collapses, and the mountain just blows its top. The debris from the mountain went 20 miles high. The top third just got blown straight off. You imagine, 2,000 years ago, believing in gods, that is terrifying.
If I’m not mistaken, you guys do a lot of foreign sales. Was there an actor or actors you discovered where you were surprised that the foreign markets really wanted them? Do you know what I mean?
BOLT: Yeah. In this film, Kit Harrington has been very well-received. Game of Thrones is just so mega. It’s all over the place. Kiefer is very much a well-known figure. But I’m gonna have to be honest: in Europe, Pompeii is a massive story. Everybody knows about it. It’s like Titanic. Everybody knows Pompeii. So, the interesting thing for us in this film is, how that will work in America, where I think it’s still well-known, but it’s not quite so well-known. That’s why Game of Thrones really helps us, because Game of Thrones is so big in America. So, to answer your question, in this film, we haven’t had that experience. In Three Musketeers, I remember thinking that Orlando Bloom was huge in China and Japan. And, also in one of the Resident Evils, it was massive in China, from Prison Break. I think in this one, they’re all at a pretty good level. Emily Browning obviously has a huge following in Australia. Kit has a big following in Britain. I think people are going to be very excited to see Kiefer Sutherland play a villain. We’ve only seen him in stuff like Jack Bauer, but he’s a damn good villain. He’s scary. He’s mean as a snake. It’s excellent. To answer your question another way, I have to put other characters into the film who work in foreign, because that’s how we finance it. So, these actors all have strong foreign value.
Speaking to that appeal, after Gladiator, there was sort of a glut of these sword movies. Do you think that enough time has passed that we’re ready for another film like that?
BOLT: I think there’s always a need for good stories. I think this period is a consistently popular period. Spartacus (the TV show), Troy, Gladiator, 300, it’s one of those periods. Internationally, ancient Rome and Greece cultures are just so fascinating. I don’t think audiences will ever tire of it, because it’s such an advanced society. It’s brilliant drama, because there’s so much injustice. There weren’t guns. The combat was different. They had to do hand-to-hand. It was very sexy, with a lot of flair. Beautiful dresses, wealth, incredible poverty, the insanity of all these gods – it’s great for filmmakers. Myths, monsters, volcanoes, etc.
BOLT: We always lean towards depth, and then choice moments will come out at you, but it will not be all the time, because we think that can actually take you out of the movie experience. In a scene, there will be foreground, midground and background, and we try to work to the field encompassed by that. And, it’s great because the architecture of this period, which often used arches, symmetry and huge villas – even the amphitheater – and Paul has such an architect’s eye. He really tracks that kind of stuff. The actual challenge with 3D is to convey intimacy needed with a love story, because, with the size of the cameras, you’ve gotta get in really close, and it takes time to get those close ups. White shots, and the white spectacles and the architects are what the movie is really designed for. Given this is a love story and a little different – Musketeers wasn’t really a love story in the traditional way. Resident Evil is not a love story. What’s been interesting for Paul is that his main story is young girl and young boy, and making that work, which he’s really enjoying actually. As his partner, it’s really exciting for me to see him do something like this. Every time we make a film, we try to do it slightly different. Even with Resident Evil, we will go to a different location. If you’re not 100% engaged and interested, then it’s not gonna translate into a successful film, and like I said, we’ve always dreamt of doing a swords and sandals film. We’re huge Spartacus fans. We’re also big Life of Brian fans, and one of the problems is, I could completely undermine what’s going on in the director’s head, simply by making one Monty Python crack. Then, we’ve just lost all credibility.
How does it feel when you step off the sets and you see all the extras.
BOLT: That feels awesome. We can’t believe we’re actually making this kind of movie! Because, you grow up on El Cid and Ben Hur and Spartacus and, you think, this is insane! And then when we saw the proclaimers with the masks – that was a small thing, but I thought, this is really a big movie, just having that attention to detail. So exciting.
You were talking about budget constrictions, or the idea of needing to keep things real with the budget. What would you have done with more money? Obviously, you’re throwing it at the realism of the volcano and tidal wave, but, where would this be expanded if you had the opportunity?
BOLT: It’s high budget. I think this is about the right amount of money, to be honest. I think there’s no waste on this film. Everything that’s being shot, every scene will be in the cut. So no, I actually think we have the right amount of money.
BOLT: We use everything. Yeah. We had an idea for another scene, and we were trying to think of where to shoot it, because we’d reused all the sets. So, you have to be careful about that, but there’s a discipline with knowing that this is a great budget. This is it. Everything has to be in. A great discipline comes with knowing that everyone’s very focused. We’ve never shot a scene thinking, I wonder if this will make it. Every scene we shoot, we know that it’s going to make it into the final cut. Now, I think that 10 years ago, this would’ve cost 50% more, just because you couldn’t really do it. You had to do it all special effects, so the shooting period would be so long. I mean we built one section, and the rest is green screen. This would have been massive, even just with the extras.
I’m just curious, is there anything different you’re doing in these scenes that we haven’t seen before?
BOLT: What are we doing different with this comparatively?
Yeah, like is there something we haven’t seen, like some architecture from this period that hasn’t been brought up in other films that’s expensive, or so on?
BOLT: We used a drone camera, heli-camera, which is US military technology. Don’t tell the US Army. We’ve got this genius cameraman, and he put this 3D camera on 4 helicopters, tiny, literally this drone camera. And you remote control it. It’s awesome. You can get like 200 feet up into the air. So, we’ve done that. Paul would be able to answer this better. I’d say that what he’s trying to do, as opposed to his previous work, is make it as real as possible. There’s not gonna be any fancy Resident Evil shots. It’s not that movie. It’s gonna be grounded and believable, because if you don’t believe that this actually happened, you’re gonna check out. So, he’s been resisting getting too tricksy and clever, even when the destruction would be totally credible. There aren’t any God-point-of-view sort of shots that are totally impossible. Hopefully, everything will visibly stack up.
BOLT: Yeah. I think those are all the chariots. It’s pretty awesome. It’s a chariot race.
I actually have one more question. Obviously, the destruction starts at some point in this movie. Is it like 30 minutes to the end, or 20? When does the destruction start?
BOLT: I’d say the last third. Anyone know the length of the movie? It’s kind of like the length of the Titanic. We kicked it in around that time, but unlike Titanic, there are a lot of premonition feats, which make you go, “oh come on! They must have realized that!” The water’s bad. Tremors are happening. Cracks are appearing in the architecture of the buildings, dead sheep, dead crows, etc.
Didn’t the bay boil?
BOLT: It didn’t boil. It receded. The water boiled where the flow hit it, but the main thing I didn’t realize was that it was a tsunami. The water went back and there was a tidal wave. So, you’re running toward the water from a volcano and then there’s a tidal wave coming at you. It was bad (laughs). It was a bad day. Plus, they’re all drunk. They’re all partying.
BOLT: Yeah, spring break. Exactly. It was insane.
I read that Julian Fellowes is a co-writer for it.
BOLT: Julian Fellowes, yes. We love him. Believe it or not, Paul and I love Downton Abbey. He’s a brilliant man, and we wanted him to come in and work on the language and the dramatic structure. Of course, all Romans spoke English, and he’s one of the great English writers (laughs).
How long did he work on the script for? Was it a few weeks or a couple of months?
BOLT: A couple of months.
From what you guys had been developing, was there a big change along the way, or was it pretty much the film that you had talked about making way back when?
BOLT: There was an illusion, definitely, so, we wanted a young male lead at the heart, so that was true. We wanted a love story. But, it definitely evolved as part of the development happened. The last writer, Michael Johnson, who wrote the first Sherlock Holmes, he was very centrally involved in the script, and he fully realized Paul’s vision.
Check out some of my other coverage from the set visit:
- 5 Major Takeaways and 65 Things to Know About Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s POMPEII From Our Set Visit
- Kit Harington Talks Bulking Up for the Role, His Love of Action, the Popularity of GAME OF THRONES, and More on the Set of POMPEII
- Kiefer Sutherland Talks Playing the Bad Guy, the Production Value, Looking Back on His Career, the Return of 24, and More on the Set of POMPEII
- Director Paul W.S. Anderson Talks Building Practical Sets, Expanding into Love Story Territory, and More on the Set of POMPEII