Director Scott Stewart Interview PRIEST

     May 7, 2011


With the action-horror film Priest opening in theaters on May 13th, Collider was invited, along with a handful of other outlets, to Sony Studios to preview a few scenes of the film and see the comparison between the 2D that it was shot in and the 3D conversion. The brief scenes gave a feel for the world that was created, the characters that inhabit it, the tone of the story, and one of the evil, snarling creatures. Getting to see the scenes first in 2D, and then again in 3D, really gave a sense of the conversion process and showed how time can really make a difference in the quality.

During the interview, director Scott Stewart talked about what he enjoys about working with Paul Bettany, how he determined the look for the Priests, deciding on the color scheme of the film, creating the look of the vampires, the process of converting to 3D, his plans for the DVD/Blu-ray, and whether he’s thought about a possible sequel for the film. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Here’s the synopsis:

Starring Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins and Stephen Moyer, Priest is set in an alternate world where vampire hordes engaged in brutal warfare with Priests and Priestesses who defeated mankind’s most terrifying enemy, only to be shunned for fear of their power. When Priest (Paul Bettany) learns of a vampire attack that resulted in the abduction of his 18-year-old niece (Lily Collins), he asks for permission to go after the hostage, only to be denied his request. He then decides to break his sacred vows, setting out to find the girl, with the help of her wasteland lawman boyfriend Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and former warrior Priestess (Maggie Q), only to be faced with a terrifying new threat.

scott-stewart-image-01Question: What do you enjoy about working with Paul Bettany?

SCOTT STEWART: He’s really such a generous soul. We are really close friends now, after having worked together for awhile, and we like to geek out on the same stuff. We’re interested in the same stuff. He’s a really great filmmaker, in addition to being a really good actor, so he just makes your job a lot easier. Legion was an ensemble movie, and I just this was an opportunity to put the whole movie on his shoulders, given that it’s called Priest. He looked like a young [Clint] Eastwood to me. He has that really chiseled, haunted look with his thousand-yard stare that he’s really good at conveying. It’s so interesting because he’s really warm and funny, and yet he comes across as really cold and timeless. He really fits well into a science fiction world, just visually. There are certain actors that you just believe in this fantastic settings. Some actors are really wonderful, but they just feel very contemporary and you want to do a romantic comedy with them. Some actors are great and they can just do everything.

Paul and I had a discussion pretty early on, before we started shooting, about being co-heads, in a way. We wanted to set a tone for the making of the film. Making films, no matter what, is really, really, really hard. It’s just a grueling grind, so we didn’t want it to be a miserable grind, any more than it needed to be. We actually wrapped a couple hours early on our last day, and everyone stayed. It was the weirdest thing in the world. Usually, people just disappear like rats on a sinking ship, but Maggie had food brought in and everybody just hung out. We had a really, really good time actually making the movie. We had a tremendous crew and everybody was really wonderful on the film.

How did Maggie Q come to this role?

STEWART: Maggie and I had already met, and I was a fan. I was really interested in having her be in the movie, and I was just hoping and praying, when she came in to read, that she would be as awesome as I was anticipating, and it far exceeded everything for us. It was really great. We did the casting thing and had a lot of young, very attractive, very well known actresses, who came in wearing these cat suits and boots. And, Maggie came in wearing ratty jeans and a faded Beastie Boys t-shirt. She walked in and was like, “I think I dressed wrong for this.” I think their initial instinct was Underworld, so they were just going for that.

Priest-movie-posterWhat can you say about the character of the Priestess?

STEWART: The Priests are supernaturally gifted soldiers, akin to the Jedi Knights. They were discovered to have supernatural gifts, they were trained to fight this war, they fought the war and won for humanity’s side, and then they got decommissioned. An analogy is the Crusaders, who went off to fight for the Church, and then the Church felt quite threatened by how powerful they were, so they started labeling them as pariahs and imprisoned them.

They have no names, and they have these brands on their foreheads. The movie is really an alternate world movie. It’s not this world’s Church and it’s not this world’s priests. Maggie’s character comes into the movie, at a time where you’re not sure if she’s friend or foe to the main character of the film, and then you realize that they’ve shared the same nightmares and that they couldn’t find work. These people who once saved everyone have no applicable skills, so now they work in waste management or shoveling coal. I just thought that was an interesting thing. The Priestess character is giving voice to the repressed emotion of the characters in the movie, and the loss that they’re feeling. That’s one of the really fun things about when the character enters the movie.

How did you determine the look of the cross that would be on the Priest’s faces?

STEWART: We played around with hundreds and hundreds of different designs and colors, and we ultimately came back to one that was really very close to the graphic novel. We did ones that were the entire face and the whole face was painted, and they looked like The Riddler or a Mexican wrestler. We were just playing around with crosses and came up with this very industrial feeling. I was interested in taking the cross and making it more of a corporate logo, so what you see a lot in the movie is a cross with a circle around it. You see that all over the cities. It was one more attempt to step us away from this world’s Christianity into something else.

So, we settled on the design and started putting it on faces. We did a black one and regular tattoo color, and we ended up going with something that felt more like a Henna tattoo because that looked more natural on film. It was really interesting because it was definitely not a one size fits all situation. There was a lot of discussion about how far down the nose it would go, and whether it would stop hard or fade. When you’re making a decision to put something like that on your beautiful stars, it’s a risky one. When you see the film, you go, “Oh, that’s what they look like,” and then you forget that they’re wearing the crosses, fairly quickly into the movie.

priest-movie-imageHow did you decide on the color scheme for the movie?

STEWART: The graphic novel is actually black and white. It’s just very stark, so it’s all about silhouettes, which is really informative ‘cause I like to think about things in terms of silhouettes. I worked with our costume designer, in terms of the silhouette for the Priests and how they look different. The Sheriff character has a more Western silhouette. The monsignors look like they’re from some kind of Orwellian realm. You see a lot of those characters hitting specific poses, along with the vampires themselves. The color palette is quite controlled, so red is really restricted in the movie, except for just in really specific places, like Lucy’s (Lily Collins) hair. She’s the damsel in distress and her hair is red. And, we used red for blood, although it’s a little less red than it initially was because of the MPAA. They have a thing with the color red.

We tried to create a very stark landscape, so the cities are blue cyan, vampire light is green, and we removed blue from the sky because blue skies feel happy. We made them all slate grey. And then, we bleached the deserts out white, so that even though they’re in the desert, it doesn’t look warm. It just really feels like it’s really cold, and we thought that was interesting. The idea of making a movie that, in many respects, has lots of hallmarks of a Western, and then color-correcting it as a science fiction film was a really interesting contrast. We removed tobacco as a color from the movie. Yellow has been removed, so that the movie is much cooler. But, it does have various different color schemes. In the prologue, we actually left more color in because it’s the story of the world before it became what it became.

The vampires in this are very different from the ones in Twilight. Are they based on what’s in the comic book?

scott-stewart-image-02STEWART: The Cory Goodman script diverged from the graphic novel, in the sense that the graphic novel takes place literally in the past, in the 1880s. It’s the Old West and they’re fighting these fallen angels. It’s 16 books long, every book would end with a cliff hanger, and there were dozens of characters. Book 16 ends with a, “And we can’t wait until Book 17 when this happens,” and it never arrived. [Min-Woo Hyung] never continued the series. He just decided to focus on other things. It would have been very difficult to do that kind of movie and set it in the Old West. So, Cory imagined a story as if it had progressed into the future, and what would happen.

The film is, in some respects, almost like a sequel to the graphic novel. Min-Woo read a translation of the script in pre-production, and actually came out from Korea and sat with us and looked at all the designs and everything. That was the first time we had a chance to say, “What happens after Book 16?” And he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I had imagined that the fallen angels in the comic book would create a blood lust among the people and they would become these zombie-vampiric characters. Interestingly enough, Cory took the story in a direction that I was planning on going to.” He then wrote what’s called Priest Purgatory, which is another extension of the series, that goes from Book 16 to where the movie goes.

So, because there are not vampires in the graphic novel, the vampires are not based on drawings that were done. I had Chet Zar come in, and he had designed for Guillermo Del Toro and a bunch of other people. He’s someone whose work I was a really big fan of. He just creates these really iconic monsters that are beautiful and soulful, and not just horror movie characters. They appeal to a broader audience. And, we sat and just talked about it for a very long time. We talked about the anatomy of them and how they would work. I’m a big believer of form following function. They live in darkness and they’re cave dwellers with a hive mentality and they have a queen, so we just worked backwards from there. He did hundreds of drawings and, eventually, we had one where we went, “Oh, cool!” It was that drawing that led us to decide to do the characters digitally, for the most part. However much you want to use practical, as much as you can, we didn’t want to get really far down the road, like a lot of movies end up doing, and not like how it looks on film, and then have to erase them and spend even more money to do them digitally. So, we said, “Let’s do tests early, and then make a commitment to doing it one way or the other.”

With the themes in both Priest and Legion, is there something about religion that you’re trying to explore, as a filmmaker? Are you concerned about comparisons with those two films?

priest_poster_set_03_paul_bettanySTEWART: I was concerned about comparisons, but they’re pretty different films. I was initially concerned when they called me about Priest, but I read the script and was a fan of it. The comparisons are understandable, but they’re literally superficial, in the sense that there is a religious element in the movies and Paul [Bettany] is a supernaturally gifted ass-kicker, kicking creatures butts. Those elements are literally the same, but the world and the mythology is really different.

Priest is really a science fiction film and a Western. It’s not a horror film, per se. It’s much more of an action movie. Thematically, we were asking literal theological questions in Legion, but I don’t see Priest that way at all. I don’t equate it to this world’s Church. It’s really an Orwellian state, and it’s much more about war powers and fascism and the enemy that we don’t understand but we keep fighting, and about soldiers. It’s an emotional story in principle, and it’s about sacrifice, on a character level.

It’s about people who go off to fight for a reason that they believe is just, and then they’re not sure. They come back broken from those experiences, and they’ve left families and have no relationships, and society has moved on from them, and they didn’t come back to a ticker-tape parade. And then, when you finally feel like you need to go and do something again and they say no, you start to ask yourself questions like, “What did I sacrifice all this for? Did I sacrifice to make the world better? Maybe the world isn’t as good as it was, even when I was fighting.” I thought those questions resonated. That’s much more what the movie is about.

Did you have a lot of problems with the MPAA, as far as making cuts to the film?

STEWART: When we were getting ready to make the film, I knew what I had designed and I knew what the script was, and we were right on the edge of PG-13 and R, and I could easily tilt it one way or the other. The studio said, “Normally, these kinds of movies are R, so push it where you want to push it, but don’t push it in a way that you’re hurting the movie by dialing things back.” We actually really had to change very little of the picture of the movie. There were just a few frames, here and there. Somehow, miraculously, when we made the blood just a little less red, it allowed us to get a PG-13. They have a really big thing about gun violence against people, and we had very little gun violence in the movie against people. There’s some stuff, but mostly it’s fantasy character violence. That’s what allowed us to do it. Senior folks at the studio were blown away that we were able to get the PG-13, considering how intense the movie is.

scott-stewart-image-03Sound is an area they seem to get fixated on. They were like, “When he stabs the guy, can you make it not sound like a stabbing sound?” I was like, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s better to see it, but not have it have a consequence?” It just doesn’t make any sense at all. I was talking to a friend who was on Sucker Punch and I was told a story about how [Zack] Snyder had a scene in the film that involved a rape of a character. The MPAA has an issue with women that I find really offensive. She was being raped and, with the nature of what happens in that film, with the character in an asylum, she actually submits to the attacker. They found that very disturbing and said, “If it’s a rape, it’s PG-13. If she submits, it’s R.” And, he cut the whole scene from the movie because he was so upset about it. So, we turned the red blood to brown or black and, suddenly, you just didn’t feel it as intensely and it was more appropriate for viewers as young as 13. But, I’m sure we’ll release an unrated version.

What sort of extras do you have planned for the DVD/Blu-ray?

STEWART: The studio definitely wants to do the unrated DVD, which we’re very excited about. We have a ton of extras. I’m a huge Blu-ray geek. I’ve learned a lot about movies and making movies from listening to great directors talking about stuff, since I was a kid watching laser discs. So, I always wanted people to feel like we were being as generous as possible with as much material as we could include. We haven’t done commentaries yet, but we’re all going to do commentaries. There are a bunch of documentaries. There’s some cool stuff that they’re doing on the Blu-ray, where they’re going to show 3D models of things that you can rotate and spin and look at. Hopefully, there will be a lot of really fun, neat things, which I’m excited about.

Does your visual effects background help with world building on a budget?

STEWART: Oh, yeah, for sure. We got a lot in for not a lot. Obviously, the movie is filled with effects that are not hard to see, but I’m also a big fan of the invisible stuff. You don’t think about the fact that there are very few mountains in the movie, but you see the desert landscapes. We had a lot of conversations about sensation of depth and shape, but the 3D is not distracting. I didn’t want dramatic scenes to be overly deep, so that you would be looking at the clock on the wall in the back, as opposed to looking at the actors’ faces. I wanted to make sure that your eyes were still really directed and weren’t wandering around on the screen.

Why did you decide to shoot in 2D and then convert to 3D?

priest_poster_set_01STEWART: I wanted to shoot film. I wanted to shoot anamorphic. For me, the touch stones for the movie were things like Bad Day at Black Rock, and the big widescreen landscape movies and Westerns. I also liked the idea of using these old lenses from the ‘70s. They have a lot of artifacts that they’ve been trying to engineer out of lenses for a lot of years, but they remind me of the movies I grew up loving. There’s a lot of glass, and the glass creates a lot of distortion. There are no straight lines. The wider the lens, the more bent the lines are. Those add a homogeneity to the visual effects that makes everything more tactile and organic, and I was interested in capturing that with my cinematographer.

Did you know that it was going to be converted to 3D?

STEWART: We talked a lot about it. I certainly designed the movie to work in 2D, but compositionally knew that it would lend itself very well to being converted to 3D. As soon as the studio saw the early cut of the movie, they went, “Oh, okay, cool. All right, go do it.” It’s a big expense and, in this case, we really wanted to take a lot of time with it, so that the experience would be good. What you’re seeing on the screen is a combination between 2D and 3D. Most of the hive guardian vampire is rendered in 3D by a visual effects company, and then the plates are converted. But, we also did things like significantly expanding the set environment that they were on. They were on a small stage, and we made it look like a big, giant cave. We just picked our battles. The city that you see is big 3D matte paintings that we rendered in stereo.

Are there plans for a sequel or a franchise?

STEWART: That’s up to the audience, and then eventually the studio.

They haven’t asked you to start on a script for the sequel?

STEWART: No, and if they did, I would say, “Please don’t jinx it. Let’s wait until late May.” We’re coming out at a very, very competitive time. We’re a week after Thor. Fast Five opened this weekend. Pirates 4 opens the following weekend. It’s a really, really competitive time. I don’t think they would have put us here, if they didn’t think we could compete, but we’re also competing at a really different level. We’re a much less expensive movie than those other movies that are in the marketplace that had probably four times the budget of us. We don’t have to perform at that scale to be wildly successful, as a film. Hopefully, that will allow us to continue to tell the story. But, I know that Cory has thought a lot about where the story would go. He and I have discussed ideas, so we’ll keep those in our back pockets and hope for the best.


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