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Set: Death Race

Jun. 3, 2008by: Eric Walkuski

Perhaps before we even begin, I should admit that before this set visit, I had never seen the original DEATH RACE 2000, starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. I know, as a fan of cheesy, violent 70s films, I should be ashamed. However, I rented it as soon as I returned from the Montreal set of DEATH RACE and LOVED it - a comedy about running over pedestrians is my sort of thing (big surprise).

What made watching it especially fascinating was how completely different it appeared to be from director Paul Anderson's version - whereas Paul Bartel's is tongue-in-cheek camp, Anderson's is stark, gritty, and means business. Indeed, the plots don't have many similarities outside of their reliance on murderous automobiles to crank forward the narrative, as well as the life-and-death immediacy of the “contest” at hand.

THE PLOT

Bartel's movie takes place in a futuristic world-gone-haywire (the year 2000, natch), where the most popular sport is a transcontinental race in which hitting innocent civilians gets you points. Anderson's movie doesn't take us into the distant, unknowable future, but only about five years from now, while the country is in the grips of a new "great depression"; the racing field isn't the entire country, it's a prison - one of those hard-luck, survival-of-the-fittest, chains-and-flying-sparks hellholes you only really get to see in the movies. Of course, the prison is run by an evil and corrupt warden - no surprise there, right? Not if you casually expect Joan Allen to portray the vile villain. Joan Allen - Mrs. Pleasantville - yes, you read that right (and even though she had unfortunately wrapped up her role before my fellow journalists and I got to the set, I've heard from everyone involved that she's as chilling and sinister a baddie as one could hope for).

Allen's Warden Hennessy is in charge of the Death Race, which is pretty much what it sounds like - an intense, no-holds-barred race among the prisoners in which you're not killing civilians, you're killing each other - and the points you accumulate work toward getting you early parole (or so you're told...). Broadcast over the internet only once a year, it’s by far the nation’s most watched reality program – and its most popular character is “Frankenstein,” a mystery man in a steel mask who is the race’s most successful driver. When he is killed in an accident, Hennessy must find a replacement so the public in none the wiser – which is where Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) comes in.

THE CARS

If you've ever read a set visit article, you know the deal: My lucky self and a handful of other journalists from various sites got together one early morning in the lobby of our beautiful hotel in Montreal, hauled our butts into a shuttle with our studio rep and ventured off to the main set of DEATH RACE, which at the time was in its third month of shooting.

We were driven to a huge, abandoned-looking industrial site, once used to build trains - now used primarily to shoot films such as THE AVIATOR. There, we were met by production designer Paul Austerbury, who worked on the Paul Anderson-produced RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, as well as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Paul proceeded to show us the 6 ft. model of "Terminal Island," where DEATH RACE takes place. Peppered with little toy cars doubling for the film's decked-out, weapon-equipped vehicles, the model depicted the 2 mile long track circling the penitentiary, where the film's crucial race sequences are set.

Next to this gigantic model were 5 large corkboards, with dozens upon dozens of storyboards of the film's cars pinned to them. I'm not much of a "car guy" (I can't tell if a V8 Hemi engine is the shit or not - but I'm told it is), but even I got revved up looking at some of these renditions - like our hero Jensen's Ford Mustang or his adversary Machine Gun Joe's (Tyrese Gibson) Dodge Ram. You're thinking "I've SEEN a Mustang before dude!" - but I assure you, you haven't seen THIS one. I wish I had been allowed to take pictures of the whole thing - alas, it wasn't allowed.

For you car nuts out there, other notables include a 1966 "Choptop" Buick Riviera, a 1980 Porsche 911, a 1989 Jaguar XJS, a 2006 Chrysler 300C, a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, and a 1989 BMW 735i.

Being impressed by the drawings quickly took a backseat (pun intended) to actually seeing these things in person. Austerbury took us to "the machine shop" – which was enormous, think a small airplane hanger - where the film's cars and their stunt doubles are housed (after all, not all of these beauties will go un-totalled). I was able to sit inside one of these badboys, and it was tighter than a... well, I don't want to get perverse, but it was as tight a fit as you can imagine.

The whole inside of the car had been rebuilt with spare-parts and improvised tools (as the story has it, the warden makes the prisoners customize and repair their own vehicles). Some of the interiors of these cars are fitted with lipstick cameras, obviously to capture the reactions of the actors. But make no mistake - stunt drivers are doing most of the actual driving - especially when a car is sent airborne or crashes into a fiery wreck (however, the cars are never doing more than 55 m.p.h.) Later we would learn from producer Jeremy Bolt that this shop runs for 24 hours, with a special effects staff of 140 people contributing . Don’t expect to see very much CGI.

THE DREADNOUGHT

These cars, with all do respect to their makers, are ants in awe of a monster when they're faced with The Dreadnought... We were first introduced to the Dreadnought rather by accident: while making our way to the set from the model shop, we spied a gigantic truck as it went on its merry way a couple hundred feet in front of us. We were all suitably surprised, not to mention delighted (it was a "little kid" moment to be sure).

The Dreadnought is custom-made tanker, housing flame-throwers and about 7 different machine-guns (all real guns, converted to fire blanks) and approximately eight passengers, including the driver. This beast acts as DEATH RACE'S mechanical villain - a stunt produced by the warden to add a spark to the already-insane race. It rolls behind the other cars and pretty much decimates whoever isn't able to escape its sight. We were able to see it in action, however briefly, and hear the unbelievable roar of its guns blazing. Even with earplugs in, these were fairly deafening bursts.

Now would be a good time to note that periodically along the track we would see steel symbols - or buttons, as Austerbury called them. Running over these, not unlike in a video game, is crucial for enabling your weapons and shields (or even cool rear defenses like oil slicks and smoke). The driver's "navigator" is responsible for spotting these icons and utilizing them once they've activated your specialized ammunition. You don't want to run over a "death's head" symbol, however, as a nasty surprise is in store for you (the least of which is a sudden inability to use your weapons; the worst of which may be giant spikes appearing in the road).

While the Dreadnought did its thing (i.e. drove for about 15 seconds, fired its guns, then took a diva-like 20 minutes or so to prepare for its next take) we hung out in the film’s version of the machine shop, where the convicts prepare and restore their cars. Many of these badboys seemed to have been through the wringer and then some, so this pit is a necessity... In the background, we noticed tall curtains sectioning off a large area. Here is where the Dreadnought spends its downtime, tantalizingly hidden away from the prisoners.

THE CONTROL ROOM

Immediately after, we walked up to the second floor of the factory, where the warden’s “Control Room” set had been built. Obviously, this is where Joan Allen and her techies watch the progress of the race – a handful of flatscreen t.v.’s and computer panels surrounded a large window that looks out upon the main stretch of track. We were soon joined by producer Jeremy Bolt, who has worked with Paul Anderson on practically every film he has made. Bolt had prepared a slideshow of stills from the already-shot portions of DEATH RACE, where we got a look at what the finished product will resemble. Among the pictures shown:

- A very ripped and tattooed Jason Statham as “Jensen.” Bolt revealed that Jensen's personality is modeled after Charles Bronson and early Clint Eastwood, while his lean, muscular, tattooed physique inspired by Robert De Niro's buff prison bod in CAPE FEAR. Statham had put in about 5 months of training with an ex-Navy SEAL for this part. In previous films, Statham's fighting style is more in the martial arts-vein, with frequent help from wires and CGI - in DEATH RACE, there's none of that. It's down and dirty street fighting. No acrobatics, just brutality.

- Jensen squaring off against a chapter of the Arian Brotherhood in the messhall. The nasty skinheads are Jensen’s main antogonists, led by the evil Slovo Pachenko (played bya mohawked Max Ryan).

- Joan Allen as the prim and proper-looking Hennessey. The photo we were looking at was taken outside of a real prison in Montreal (Bolt mentioned that they weren’t able to film inside the prison for “health reasons”). Hennessey was inspired by a real-life Californian warden who wore Chanel, expensive jewelery, and apparently had the habit of bravely walking through the prison yard unescorted. She was never harmed by an inmate, so intimidating was her presence.

- Ian McShane as “Coach” – the wise mentor to Statham’s character. As I am a HUGE fan of McShane, it was great seeing the man continuing his never-ending resume of badassery. Alas, as was the case with Ms. Allen, McShane wasn't around on this particular day. Bummer.

- Tyrese Gibson as “Machine Gun Joe” – Jensen’s main rival. This is the character played by Stallone in the original, but don’t expect a similarly comedic, baffoonish character in the update: it’s obvious that Gibson is a serious opponent for our “hero", and we were later informed that he can be classified as "a bit of an evil bastard".

- Natalie Martinez as “Case” – Jensen’s navigator (all of the navigators are female prisoners from a nearby institution). Bolt thought she was a “real discovery,” and that DEATH RACE will catapult the Michelle Rodriguez-type into stardom. I'd venture to guess that Ms. Martinez's soft, beautiful features, and wide eyes will eventually give her even more mainstream visibility.

- The money shot: An image of Jensen in his car, wearing the steel “Frankenstein” mask. As in the original film, the lead character has his face hidden away under a mask, concealing his identity. One journalist noted a small picture of a child on Jensen’s dashboard – this is”Piper,” the daughter Jensen has taken away from him at the beginning of the film.

To reveal much more would be unfair (as well as get me in trouble, most likely).

During the presentation, Bolt was asked to address how DEATH RACE differed from the original, as well as how the remake came about:

BOLT: Roger Corman met me at the Tokyo Film Festival in about 1994, and distributed our first movie, the first film we made, and Paul liked DEATH RACE [2000], and we had lunch with Roger just after MORTAL KOMBAT was released. Paul said “I want to remake DEATH RACE.” Roger said “Great let’s do it, let’s do it next year.” This was 1994, 1995. Originally the idea was more of a tongue-in-cheek, slightly comic, over-the-top “death race” which actually was around the world, not just across America. We had a glass tube going underneath the Atlantic, with sharks and dolphins… It was much more in the spirit of Roger’s film. When that script came in – basically it would have cost $6 biilion, so the project sort’ve suffered from that for a while. Paul then decided – you know GLADIATOR had been an influence on us – “Let’s just make this much more straight.” Also to see the explosion of reality television, it’s very possible something like this could happen."

After watching Bolt's slideshow, it was time for lunch. No, I won't bore you with it (although I wish I had a transcript of some of the conversations that went on). We then met with young Natalie Martinez, who - for a tough-as-nails chick - is complete sweetheart. (This conversation will be revealed soon.) There was still one more bit of DEATH RACE to check out, and so off we went to see an enjoyably brutal stunt. Bloody fun ensued!

THE STUNT

I'll be carefull to tread lightly here, as the final portion of the visit involved what could be considered a major spoiler. Check out now if you really don't want to know ANYTHING.

The scene of the crime is a long stretch of gravely road; on one side is a waterfront, the other, a towering warehouse (looking quite dilapidated, not unlike everything else on Terminal Island). In the middle of the road is a flipped-over, completely f*cked-up car. A character stumbles out of it, and only has about a second to react to another car, which is barreling toward him at a frightening rate. The passenger door opens as it speeds by, totally laying the guy out. Another "little kid" moment, seeing that guy getting slammed by an open car door (this hypothetical little kid is highly disturbed).

It is here where we finally get to see director Paul W.S. Anderson in action. While he's accused of many things, being careless in his coverage should not be one of them. He makes the actor getting out of the wrecked car do no less than 20 takes of his reaction to the car bearing down on him. These takes are done in rapid-fire succession, while the camera rolls: The actor starts kneeling, stands, reacts - CUT! Kneel, stand, react - CUT! - and so on for many, many times. The editor will have plenty to choose from, at least in this case.

Eventually, the stunt double takes over, of course decked out - to a T - in the same attire and make-up (very gooey ;). BLAM! he's nailed, and it looks painful as hell. Luckily he gets up and is ready for another; I don't know how these guys do it. Needless to say, however, multiple takes of this moment won't be so easy to fire off...

During this downtime, we get a chance to talk with both Paul Anderson and the effortlessly charming Statham, who actually seems to enjoy chatting with us, and even opts to hang out after the official Q+A is complete, when he's more than free to chill in his trailer.

For his part, Anderson was quite kind and accommodating to the very folks he must know occasionally give him great grief online, and our brief back-and-forth with him was very pleasant and informative. (As is the case with Ms. Martinez, both of these interviews will hit in the days ahead.)

Finally, our final treat: we each got to take a picture with "The Monster" - the car Statham drives in the film. (That's a beautiful mug I've got, ain't it?)

My experience on the set of DEATH RACE was nothing less than a delight, and I don't use that word too often. It's too difficult to tell, based on what I saw, if this will be a great film, but I'm almost positive it's going to be a fun one: Jason Statham, fast cars, angry prisoners, hot babes, loathsome villains, non-stop explosions and R-rated violence by the bucket-load. Safe to say we're in for a ride...

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