I find myself standing in a large, concrete courtyard constructed in the Brutalistic style popular between the 50’s and 70’s, the grey stone pathways slicked wet with the constant demoralizing drizzle falling through the chilled air of an early May morning. A woman clad in black walks up a set of stairs, her shoulder jerking back as if pierced by an invisible bullet, and presses an elevator button only to find herself back at the bottom of the steps to continue up on her Sisyphusian journey, winding round and round some dark gothic Mobius strip.
Am I in a war-torn Eastern-European country, or maybe gawking into someone’s private hell? Sort of. I’m in Vancouver on the set of UNDERWORLD 4. The woman on the steps was Kate Beckinsale as Selene, but is now her body double. Not because Kate is a bitch. Later in the day she would prove herself to be cute as a button. But for whatever mysterious movie reasons there are, she was replaced by a body double, who wears the same tight vinyl suit but gets none of the credit.
At this point I am sure you are thinking, UNDERWORLD 4? There was a 2 and a 3? I am reasonably sure because this is actually what the customs agent said to me when he asked what my business was in West Canuckistan. I was already familiar with all three films, but I must confess I looked at a fourth a little slant-eyed myself. But I was swayed by the set visit. The movie is being shot in 3D with brand-spanking new RED EPIC cameras, and I am here to attest with all honesty that this production is taking 3D with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.
Before all that, here is the rundown: it’s fifteen years after the events of UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, and Selene (Beckinsale) finds herself awakening from cryogenic sleep, to a world where not only are the vampires and Lycans known to humanity, but were systematically hunted down and exterminated. At the forefront of this charge is the biotech company Antigen, who became a global leader through their technology that allows them to test and identify the undead who may try to pass as human. There is also a 13-year old girl named Eve, and a certain hirsute uber-villain. But that’s all I can say about that.
At Simon Fraser University, the Canadian commuter college standing in for Antigen, I had the pleasure of sitting in the “3D tent”, which is where Scott Kevan, the DP, sits and watches the footage being shot on a 3D monitor. It’s a pretty impressive set up: there are two monitors showing footage actually being shot, one principal photography and one a Lycan makeup test, and several other computers where the footage being shot goes through a preliminary color-correction. I look over and see the Selene footage from earlier in the day, except this time with the bullet actually hitting her shoulder. Ah, the magic of movies.
I have to say that the 3D really does look astonishing. The RED EPIC cameras are incredibly high resolution, and many tests were done to learn how to get everything on screen looking the best possible using them. This is not going to be the weak-ass, after-market 3D that you’re used to, nor will it be the Pixar movie that AVATAR essentially was. As producer Richard Wright told me, THE HOBBIT and the new SPIDER-MAN are both being shot with these cameras as well, but Underworld 4 will be out in theaters before both. Take that Jackson and Snyder!
Another things that heartens me about the film are the directors: long time Swedish friends Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein. Their excellent film STORM is what helped them get this gig, and their ability to make that main character likable despite his truly unlikable acts and the film’s purposeful ambiguity give me hope that they can handle UNDERWORLD 4’s dark storyline without pandering or softening the material for younger audiences. Richard Wright assured me the film would be an R, like all the rest, and Stein concurred, in terms of trying to shape the film to audience expectations: “You have no control, you don’t know anything, so just stick with what you like.” As far as shooting on the new RED cameras, Marlind had this to say: “I’d love to dance on the grave of film…as soon as digital is better. I think it may be now.”
How does having two directors on set work? Good question, and it has an interesting answer: they trade off days. They’re both always on set, but one directs one day, then trades off with the other the next day. It sounds counterintuitive, but it seems to be working. Everyone I spoke to agrees. The Strause Brothers and the Cohens are two polar examples of directing duos that work and don’t work - I’ll let you figure out which is which - but after having seen STORM, I know these crazy Swedes (and they are kind of crazy) pull it off well.
As I mentioned earlier, Kate Beckinsale is absolutely charming. She sat down to the table in full Selene costume, and talked about how her long, elegant hands (she said “big hands” so I’m editorializing a little here) are perfectly suited to firing guns. She was demure and affable, but also told us she learned “I think I shat my suit” in Swedish to say to one of the director’s wives over the phone. She also betrayed her previous days as a poet when referring to the idea of being ensconced in a Lycan suit as a “panic attack in a bottle.” Unfortunately she didn’t have much time before she was called back to the set, but she did mention maybe hanging out in Toronto for a while in the near future, and maybe taking in a sci-fi film with her husband. Wink-wink.
I ended the day in the aforementioned 3D tent, watching Michael Ealy, who plays Detective Sebastian, get out of his car, fire a huge gun a few times, then manipulate some controls outside Antigen at the security desk while speaking into a walkie-talkie. Or more to the point, I watched a double rehearse it a few times, then Ealy rehearse it a few times, then the whole thing halting as the smoke machines set off the school’s fire alarm. Then the hurry up and wait game started, which anyone who’s every been on a movie set will instantly understand. In fact, at one point a disembodied voice came over someone’s radio, saying, “Put Michael Ealy in the car. We gotta shoot this thing: there’s a hockey game on!”
For Ealy’s part, he seems pretty enamored with being in his first genre film. His take is that it would be a bummer to be a Lycan, but he really wants to get bit. “Vampires are interesting because they live forever, they’re always well-financed, they dress well…and they’re cool…you’ve never seen a broke vampire, have you?” He really wants to do another UNDERWORLD, if they make more. “I’ve just been been telling people: let me get bit. That way you can keep on going. Once you get bit there’s no stopping you, really.”
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF THIS SET VISIT!