David Twohy talks!
by Tom Leupp
Last Saturday, I skipped my usual ritual of sleeping until noon and instead headed down to the posh, uber-hip W Hotel in Westwood, California. A favorite of celebrity set, the W features a swanky lounge the kind of place I might hang out at if I earned a living wage. But since it was 11:00 am and I wasnt set to start drinking for at least another hour, I decided to ditch the lounge and check out the junket for BELOW, set to open in theaters on October 11th.
Combining elements of multiple genres, BELOW presents a terrifying look at a World War II submarine crew pushed to the brink of insanity by a series of escalating crises. Its a great film, but unless youre a regular visitor to Joblo.com or Aint It Cool News, chances are youve never even heard of it. It seems as if Dimension, the studio that produced BELOW, doesnt believe in the internet as part of its marketing strategy. Go figure.
BELOW sprang from the mind of Darren Aronofsky (the guy behind PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) and is directed by David Twohy, best known for his most recent film, the wildly successful PITCH BLACK. Once in danger of going straight to video, PITCH BLACK is now considered a sci-fi/horror classic and is widely credited with launching the career of a little guy named Vin Diesel.
Clad in a t-shirt and cargo pants and munching on handfuls of cashews, David was vibrant, engaging and remarkably candid about his experience with BELOW. He also offered some cool info on the upcoming sequel to PITCH BLACK, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK. Check out the interview
I noticed that the filmmakers took matters into their own hands and created a website for BELOW. How important do you think the internet is to a films marketing strategy?
Well look, it launched my last picture, PITCH BLACK, which was 3 weeks away from opening and possibly going straight to video, when somebody arranged for a screening with Harry Knowles, who loved it and raved about it. It was only then that the studio started to get behind it and started to promote it and decided to buy some TV spots. They jumped into it late in the day but at least they jumped into it and saved that film from oblivion.
Why do you think the Dimension took so long to get behind Below?
I think its because of K-19. I wouldve liked for it to have come out before K-19, but for whatever reason it didnt happen. And as soon as that came out and didnt perform as well as people thought it would then I think Dimension lost enthusiasm for its own submarine film.
How did you get involved with the project? Did you have a relationship with Darren Aronofsky before this project?
Not at all. I had seen PI and liked it a lot for its visual audacity. He liked PITCH BLACK - he told me he went to see it twice in the theaters. He did the first couple drafts of the script with his writing partner, Lucas Sussman. Darren was, I think, getting ready to do REQUIEM and the studio wanted to move ahead anyway on the project anyway. The Weinsteins had seen PITCH BLACK and liked it, so they invited me aboard and I took over the writing chores myself. Darren gave me his thoughts on the drafts as they came in and also gave me his thoughts on the cuts of the movie as they came in.
In terms of submarine movies, the benchmark that most people look to is DAS BOOT. Your film has a very different look to it. What was your inspiration for the look of the film?
Well, I didnt want to do anything that had come before. So youve got to say that DAS BOOT is the benchmark and recognize that its style is very much cinema verite. Now look at U-571 and its got a kind of slick, studio look to it. I didnt see K-19 so I dont know what that looks like. The idea is to, stylistically and otherwise, come up with something that is different. So, Im a big fan of the noir films of the 40s, like CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST, I WALK WITH A ZOMBIE and NIGHT OF THE DEMON and I loved the cinematography and the way they establish the mood and atmosphere of the film. And I thought since I have a story set in the 1940s anyway and since I have a very dark toned movie, that the noir cinematography was the perfect style for this film and it would help make it look different than all those other submarine movies. So it is very much submarine noir.
Can you describe at all the process of working with your cinematographer, Ian Wilson?
Ian is a great old English gent. Hes very much a student of photography as well as cinematography. He was shooting these great portraits back in the 1940s himself. And he was a guy that I could learn a lot from about photography as well as cinematography. Hes probably best known for THE CRYING GAME. He just really knew how to give me those rich blacks, which is really important for a noir film, rich blacks. He knew about shadowplay as well. How to throw the right shadows against the walls. It was important for me to find someone whod lived through the noir period as well. Ian was that. Hes probably about seventy years old today. Still very active. He had a lot of experience that I could tap into with this picture.
PITCH BLACK and BELOW share similar themes but very different landscapes. What was it like going from the vast, empty space of PITCH BLACK, to the very confined environment of a submarine?
Well, it wasnt dissimilar, because in PITCH BLACK, even though we are doing wide open spaces, its still claustrophobic because you couldnt venture out of the light. We just implied wide open spaces while we traveled in very small spaces. So, kind of the pieces are sort of kissing cousins in a way because of that claustrophobic aspect. Theres another similarity in that the same reversal of expectation in PITCH BLACK is used again in BELOW, because in the first third of PITCH BLACK, youre thinking that clearly the Vin Diesel character is the root of all their problems when in fact now theres something else on that planet that is. And we play kind of a similar game in BELOW, about who the protagonist in the movie really is.
You seem to rely a lot less on special effects in BELOW. How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
I think its actually a comparable number to PITCH BLACK. But more of these tend to be photo-real and invisible. In PITCH BLACK theyre sort of in your face, with creature effects, spaceships burrowing in, all of that stuff. Here, the same number of effects but used to a different effect. Every time you see the submarine underwater, thats a visual effects shot. There are a lot of visual effects shots in BELOW, but theyre in the service of the story, whereas in PITCH BLACK theyre kind of in service of Wow, look at that dope shit.
You worked with an ensemble cast both in PITCH BLACK and BELOW. What are the challenges of working with an ensemble?
Well, the challenges of an ensemble cast are trying to give everyone equal time and equal attention. Because if youre doing a movie with a movie star, one big movie star at the core, then you know thats where thats where most of your time is gonna go. Sorry, but its the truth. Not so in an ensemble cast. Just about the time you think - and Im talking just in general about ensemble casts - just about the time you think that youve got all the fires under control and everybodys happy, theres a brushfire that breaks out on the back forty and you realize that no, not everybodys happy, and youve got to run over there and put that fire out. So its a lot more like that, a lot more spot fires. That you put out when youre dealing with an ensemble cast.
There are a lot of talented actors in the cast, but no stars. Is that something you deliberately set out to do?
Yeah, I did. The beauty of the ensemble cast is that you can mess around with the audiences expectations. And everything doesnt have to be anchored by the big star. Everything doesnt have to be about the big star. Capital B, capital S. And thats cool because you can, sometimes, tell more interesting stories because of that. It hurts you when you come to market the film, that you dont have a big star to anchor it. But it allows you more flexibility and more freedom in terms of telling an interesting story.
You went to great efforts to create a realistic experience for the cast in terms of the setting, sound effects, etc.
Yeah. Its interesting to see actors get more comfortable in their environment. At first I was always telling them what to do in terms of their jobs and their capacity, but in the second half (of shooting) that started to reverse itself and they were telling me that No, no, the helmsman would never do that. This is where I would go in an emergency. It was fun and gratifying to see them take on the responsibilities of the actual positions aboard the boat. And I was learning a few things from them later on in the day because some of those actors had really done their research. Concurrent with that happening, it began to feel more and more like a submarine that you were trapped aboard. I didnt want to give them too many exits on the submarine and I pulled the side walls of the submarine very seldom, only when I had to get a big, wide side shot. Other than that I just kept it locked up and everyone locked inside.
How far along are you with the RIDDICK CHRONICLES?
Were in pre-production. The script is finished and Ive got my production designer on it. Right now were calling the series the CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK. Were referring to them now as C-1, C-2 and C-3. Im plotting all three films as we pre-produce this first film. The reason why its Chronicles and not Pitch Black 2 is because that would give a false impression of this next film, because not only are we changing genres the first one was a horror film and this one will be action/adventure/sci-fi but were also increasing the scope in such a way that isnt true to the original film as well.
Are you planning to shoot C-2 and C-3 simultaneously?
If the first one justifies any follow-ups at all, then yeah, were thinking of doing 2 and 3 together.
Can you give us a peek at what THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK will be about?
All I can say is that it takes that Riddick character and follows him through multiple worlds as he meets multiple adversaries. Theres a lot of theology in it. Even though Im not a religious guy, I am very interested in religion and why people turn to it. In BELOW Im interested in why people turn to supernatural explanations when there are more plausible ones. Im not a great believer in the supernatural either, but I find it fascinating when people turn to it.
You shot PITCH BLACK in Australia. Are you planning to shoot CHRONICLES there, too?
No. We would have gone back, but stage space was a little tight there. So we booked Vancouver and sucked up all of their available stage space, only to find out that Darrens new film, THE FOUNTAIN, went down. He had a lot of stage space in Australia reserved and suddenly in the last two weeks all of that stage space has become available again. I would have loved to go to Australia, but now were booked into Vancouver, so I dont think theres any chance of switching back at this point.
Have you done any casting yet, other than Vin Diesel?
What is the casting process like for such a big studio film?
A lot of people have a say in casting matters, when youre spending as much money as we are on RIDDICK. So, the studio will their favorite people, the casting director will have her favorite people. The producers and there are at least three producers I know of have their favorite people. And theyre all represented by different agencies. There are a lot of different interests being represented in the whole casting process, and ultimately you just have to remind yourself and remind the studio that youre not gonna cast anybody that you dont want, because sometimes theres a lot of pressure to cast a given person. But if theyre not right for the role, you just say, Look, Im the one whose responsibility it is to make a good film, and I cant make a good film without the right actor in the role. So dont force this guy down my throat. So you gotta give them a brushback pitch every once in a while.
Do you have any other projects in mind?
CHRONICLES is going to take me about two years, so I try not to think beyond that. But, Ill tell you, someday Id really like to fall back and do a drama without one goddamned visual effects shot in it.
Do you get frustrated working with visual effects?
No, I love it. But its so hugely time-consuming. These visual effects films are like doing two films - two normal films, in terms of the time commitment. Pitch Black probably had 225 visual effects shots in it. This film, BELOW, has around 200. THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK will have between 750 and 800 visual effects shots. So, it means a protracted post-production period just to accommodate all that stuff. Itll take six to eight months in post-production just to accommodate all of the special effects. Thats a huge amount of time.
Ill tell you, the tech aspect of directing is very seductive. As Orson Welles said, it is a very big train set that I get to play with. And every boy loves a train set. But theres a problem in that you spend too much time on the technical aspect and not enough on the human aspect. And I have fallen prey to that in the past. That said, with BELOW especially, Im getting back toward spending more time with actors, listening to their ideas and embracing some of them as well. The technical side is very compelling, but theres so much of it in post-production that I can really feed my technical soul with that.
How difficult is it to preside over the chaos that occurs in the big action sequences?
As long as you have a bullhorn and a loudspeaker, you can do it. But its actually great fun. It requires a lot of inertia just to get the machine going and moving. But once its going, its really fun. I like big mechanics. If you havent done it before, youre kind of scared of it. But once youve done it, big mechanics are great to play with. Its just like a big fuckin train set.
I also got a chance to talk with Bruce Greenwood, who plays the tough but tormented Lieutenant Brice. Last seen in role of John F. Kennedy in THIRTEEN DAYS, Greenwood is no stranger to playing leaders thrust into difficult situations. Speaking of difficult situations, Greenwood can also be seen playing Madonnas husband in the upcoming film SWEPT AWAY.
Describe your experience on the set. Was it a practical set?
It was massively practical. And horrendously heavy. It was around 120 feet long, built in 25 foot sections. And they could link sections together so you could run through them with a steadycam or whatever. I was built on a big gimbal that would tilt and shake and shudder - just monstrous hydraulics beneath it.
Was it claustrophobic?
Yeah, basically youd get there early in the morning and theyd batten down the hatches. David really wanted us to have that feeling that you surrounded by pressure. It was tight.
Did they send you to training?
Yeah, we did some training. But mostly it consisted of going to a couple of lectures where a guy whod spent a lot of time in a submarine told us what it was like during the 50s and 60s on a submarine. Its really close, tight, stinky and oppressive emotionally as well as physically.
Did the tight workspace make you closer with the cast?
It accentuates whats good and it accentuates whats not good. Its just like any relationship, the more contained the environment, the more the good stuff appears and the more the bad stuff will reveal itself.
Your character has an interesting arc in this. Brice starts out heroic but starts to walk the line of sanity as his guilt grows.
Its really tricky to get a really clean bead on how close to the line to play it. Especially when youre shooting out of sequence, its tricky to whether to turn the heat up higher or tone it down.
Do you relate with the Brice character?
Yeah. I think we all do. I think thats a fear that we all have, that if were tested, maybe we wont make the right choice.
Having done a lot of research can you imagine how explosive it would be to bring a woman on a submarine?
Oh yeah, and not least of which because of the classic seamans superstition of women bringing bad luck. Thats what instantly polarizes the crew. You realize that some of these men are really into superstition and some are not. And thats what really defines the polarity that goes on throughout the movie. My character initially refuses to believe in anything otherworldly, but as he unravels, the more vulnerable he becomes and that fence gets taken down.
What do you think is the attraction of submarine movies?
I think, for starters, you cant escape. Any kind of environment where you have characters with conflicting agendas and they cant escape from one another, you know its going to unravel. So, with the contained environment theres the promise of friction. Thats where the drama comes from.
opens in limited theaters on Friday, October 11
and goes wide on October 18, 2002