With Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ Tomb Raider opening this weekend, I recently saw down with producer Graham King for an exclusive video interview. He talked about why he acquired the rights to the Tomb Raider movies, the challenges of telling a story that primarily takes place on an island, making a movie that works for both moviegoers and gamers alike, if it’s challenging to get someone to sign on for a multi picture deal, what they learned from test screening the movie, which action sequence was the toughest to pull off, and a lot more. In addition, he shares why his deal for Rob Liefeld’s “Extreme Universe” fell apart, how excited he is for people to see Bohemian Rhapsody, how the first time he saw Gangs of New York it was a four-hour cut, and more.
As most of you know, the action/adventure remake of Tomb Raider and the original video game stars Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. In this new version, Lara Croft is a 21-year-old bike courier in East London who refuses to follow in her father’s entrepreneurial footsteps. Once she decides to search for her father’s last-known destination though (a fabled tomb on a mythical island off the coast of Japan), she must learn to push herself beyond her limits as she journeys into the unknown. Tomb Raider also stars Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Derek Jacobi, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Check out what Graham King had to say below.
Collider: Tomb Raider is a super popular franchise. It’s a popular video game. Talk a little bit about bringing it back to movie screens and maybe what was the big challenge that needed to be overcome to finally get it back on to screens.
GRAHAM KING: Well, I think like anything you are adapting from a book or a video game it’s framed that way to have a cinematic experience for an audience. This one was particularly tough because she goes to an island where nothing really happens. You’re kind of going, well, how do you keep an audience engaged? There are a lot of scenes where it’s just her on the island. How do we keep an audience engaged through that part of the film? How do we keep them connected to this story and not have a young audience start texting or losing focus? I think Geneva found a great way to keep tension going, to keep emotion going. Then when you have someone like Alicia playing this part, who plays it so grounded, that you really are sucked into it- to where she could literally do anything and get away with it. From the moment she jumps in that river, all the way through till she sees dad, she is basically on her own on the screen. She has that first kill with a guy in the jungle, which I think is an incredibly emotional moment- her realization that she has just killed someone for the first time. That was the biggest obstacle in developing this, how do we keep that island accessible and keep an audience engaged with that.
The other thing about this is that Tomb Raider is one of the only video games that has made a successful jump to the big screen and been a franchise. Talk a little bit about the challenge of adapting a game and putting it on the screen, where you have to engage the gamers and make them happy, but you also have to engage moviegoers.
KING: That’s why it took so long (laughs), in a way. You know, you talk to people on the street and you tell them you’re making a movie out of a video game title, or of an older franchise, and they go, “Ugh, really? How are you going to do that? Is that going to be exciting? Is that going to be fresh to an audience?” I give a lot credit to MGM and Warner for backing us for this because it’s a big movie. For me, it was the storytelling. It was all about the storytelling. I think I was working with Angie when I bought the rights to Tomb Raider and I remember telling her on set, I am going to reboot Tomb Raider. She’s so proud of that franchise; she was really happy that I bought the rights. And she asked me, “Why? What do you see in it?” And I said, I see a lot of heart in this. When I got pitched in the game in 2013, the father daughter relationship didn’t feel like a genre video game movie to me. A girl goes off in search to find dad, is he dead or alive? Finds him alive, reconnects with him, and then he sacrifices himself. That right there is a premise for a good drama, let alone Lara Croft. You build from that and from those elements.
I think what we found watching the game, building the film, watching the game, going back and forth, saying that doesn’t work cinematically, or this part of the character needs to do something different to keep a movie-going audience. In my head, it was always thinking about audiences who don’t play video games. That’s the key. If we can win on that level, we can get the gamers. So, it was always about focusing on that- sitting with writers, sitting with Geneva, saying how are going to keep them engaged in certain areas emotionally? Are they going to buy into this character that doesn’t start off a superhero- starts off as a very normal, grounded girl? London, for example- I always wanted to get away from the Buckingham Palace looking, Tower of London looking- put it in the east and make it gritty, and bring a grounded-ness to it. So, young audiences will follow her at that age. They will be engaged with her because it’s normality- she’s a food delivery girl, and then she goes off on her journey. And slowly, but surely, turns into Lara Croft. It doesn’t happen immediately, and it’s a very emotional moment, as I said. I think audiences- when I have shown this to audiences, whether it has been my kid’s friends or whatever; they have been emotionally engaged in a genre picture. If we can capture that, then we can capture an audience that are not gamers.
I’m curious as a producer- nowadays everyone is looking at universes. It’s very popular. How hard is it to cast someone knowing that they’re going to have to sign a 3 or 5 picture deal because you have to ensure that you can make multiple movies and not go back for these crazy negotiations.
KING: Yeah, I think that goes in with, “Hey, do you want to play Lara Croft?” It’s an automatic, for anyone…we’re going to reboot a franchise, and hopefully it turns into its own franchise. So, we need her to commit to more than just one film. She saw that immediately and that’s what she wanted out of this. I don’t think anyone wants to reboot a franchise and just have one movie, right? So, for me the battle was: we’re going to the girl that just one the Oscar for Danish Girl and asking her to play Lara Croft. I remember saying to my team, “Let’s pitch her the story before we tell her it’s Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.” I think she’ll get in engaged in the storytelling aspect of the film. So, we went, ok let’s just get it all out there, and she immediately took to it and got engaged by that storytelling- by the emotional part, the dramatic part of the film. The set pieces are set pieces and she had a lot of fun. Boy, did she work her ass off, I mean, wow.
Every day in incredibly tough conditions- 100 degree heat in a jungle in South Africa, and this girl was showing up every day 6 AM in the gym, working out, hair and makeup, on that set shooting all day, going home, trying to get as much rest as she could, coming back the next day for 100 days. That wears on someone. For me to be there every day and see it- we’re producers, we sit there in the chair and we’re on the phone or doing our thing and she’s doing this. It was like, woah, woah woah, is there any way we can get you a rest or whatever and she never complained. She never said, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I need a couple of weeks down.” She got a lot bruises and little injuries. It was just her passion to play this, in a way that, again, we saw very early on how grounded she was playing it, and how believable she was playing it. That’s why I think people will just go, “Woah, what a performance!” You see it; it’s all on screen.
Something that I am very excited about that you’re currently working on is the Rob Liefeld’s, “Extreme Universe.” I definitely want to know how that’s progressing because he has so many characters that are ripe for the big screen or small screen.
KING: Yeah, we didn’t actually close that deal (laughs). Yes, nothing to do with Rob, who I love. There was a lot of chain of title legal issues on the universe, and my lawyers were like, “this is going to be very tough.”
I’m so disappointed.
KING: I saw something in that as well, a ways back. We didn’t continue re-engaging. There are a lot of films in the past I wanted to make where there’s all these legal and chain of title problems, where you just can’t really take it on and you’re opening yourself up to legal issues.