Set Visit: Immortals!
It’s summer and warm and bright in Montreal as I visit the set of IMMORTALS - although it doesn’t much matter what the conditions outside are. This is a movie that will be filmed entirely on a soundstage, inside a massive studio known as Cite du Cinema. I don’t know all that much about IMMORTALS, although for a while it has been known as that “other” movie about titans warring against men; a few months prior, Warner Bros. released their epic CLASH OF THE TITANS, which was a plentiful money-maker despite the complaints about its shoddy post-conversion 3D and sub-par storytelling.
Not unlike TITANS and 300 – both of which I’ll talk about in a little bit – IMMORTALS brings us the story of a driven man up against a seemingly unstoppable army. Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant son who is unwittingly half-god, must lead a ragtag bunch against a horde of Titans lead by the wicked King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). Among those joining Theseus in his battle are a visionary priestess (Freida Pinto) and a slave (Stephen Dorff). They seem outmatched, but they may have help coming from a higher power…
Comparisons to 300 are sure to be plentiful, and understandably. The green-screen sets, the swords, the splashes of blood… it all easily brings to mind the 2007 surprise hit. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the two films share producers: Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton. After the Zack Snyder movie’s worldwide success, many similar projects were laid at the producers’ feet. Two young Greek-American scribes, Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, pitched this – the story of Theseus, son of Poseidon and ruler of Athens - to Nunnari, who took to it swiftly. From there, Nunnari and Canton brought the project to director Tarsem, best known as the man behind the camera for the surreal thriller THE CELL as well as the truly inspired fantasy/drama THE FALL, whom the producers had wanted to work with for a long time. The whole team went to Relativity Media, the production company-turned-distributor behind this year’s SEASON OF THE WITCH and LIMITLESS, with the idea, and now we’re here, in business with the IMMORTALS.
Canton is determined to not let IMMORTALS get lumped in with other movies that could be seen as playing in the same ballpark. “We have set out in the last two years to set the bar even higher and to make an original piece of filmmaking - not from a graphic novel, not from any source material - and to create something at a time when we think audiences are demanding originality and great filmmaking.”
Referencing that “other” fantasy adventure, Nunnari says that its success bodes well for their film, which he calls “the REAL clash of the titans” . Canton concurs, and points toward the 3D aspect of both films, as he’s confidant that IMMORTALS certainly has a leg up in that area. “We’re shooting 3D for a portion of the movie. We’re shooting all the visions in 3D, we’re shooting some other scenes in 3D. There are things we’re going to conform, because you can’t shoot everything in 3D, but the things we’re going to conform, we have more time to do it…”
Canton goes on to note that Warner Bros. rushed their 3D conversion to meet a release date; IMMORTALS has had 3D in mind since the very beginning, and a stereographer is on set at all times supervising the process. Indeed, instead of some modern movies that seem to have 3D slapped on them for no other reason than to simply appear “current” (not to mention to boost those ticket prices), IMMORTALS is ideal for the format, with its lush, eye-popping – and eye-gouging – imagery. A Caravaggio painting come to life, spilling limbs into your lap.
Stephen Dorff is a little blunter when it comes to describing the difference between IMMORTALS and CLASH - in terms of 3D and in terms of overall quality: "I think the whole movie’s going to look a hell of a lot better. Clash looked really bad and wasn’t very good, but that’s just my opinion. I thought the movie looked cheap and thought the monsters – if you have to show a huge monster with 50 teeth in the trailer that means you don’t have much of a movie..."
Dorff wasn't through. "I think what’s great about this film is there are no monsters whether it’s the titans or the minotaur or any of these people, they’re all grounded, they’re all people with legs, with feet, they all move fast so it’s their movements, it’s their supernatural abilities that will make them jump off the screen or be able to jump off walls and I think that’s what kept the movie real for me. There’s never any blobs or big creatures and the titans aren’t big monsters like in Clash."
Leading the way is director Tarsem, a man known for his wild, mesmerizing visual style. (He was a music video director for a long time before jumping into the movies with THE CELL). Familiar with his eerie and elegant work, as well as his Indian heritage, I must admit I was expecting a quiet, introspective individual. That’s not what I get: Tarsem is like a whirlwind. He speaks faster than Joe Pesci in LETHAL WEAPON and curses like Pesci in GOODFELLAS. To engage him in a question is to receive a ten minute answer. Tarsem has a lot to say, and and he’s certainly not afraid to say it.
"Coming to set everyday with Tarsem directing you was like having a workout everyday because he’s so charged up, he’s always running back and forth and just looking at him actually keeps your spirits really high and keeps you going throughout the day," Freida Pinto says about her director. "Another thing I would say is that he’s really very encouraging. He never comes up to you and says, ‘That was a bad take. That was just absolute rubbish.’ He never never really doesn’t that to you. He’d just come up to you and say, ‘That was good, but we could try again.’ And then you know that he’s kind of pushing you to get what he really wants. So in that sense, yeah, it’s amazing just working with him."
Tarsem has assembled an impressive technical team to help bring his surreal vision to life: Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, whom Tarsem has worked with before, on THE CELL and THE FALL, is on hand to dress both gods and men; director of photography Brendan Galvin is also familiar to Tarsem, having worked as cinematographer on numerous commercials of his; Tom Foden, who helped create some of THE CELL's unforgettable sets, has also been brought into the fold by Tarsem as IMMORTALS' production designer. It's apparent that collaborating with people he's accustomed to is important to Tarsem; it can't help but make easier the task of generating a rich, meticulous world from scratch.
Myself and a slew of international web journalists get a chance to see Tarsem in action – inside a giant green cube on one of the studio’s soundstages. In person, it’s not much to see, but I imagine the 300 sets weren’t either. Inside the cube with Tarsem is actor Luke Evans, who is certainly getting used to this “god” thing: He’s portraying Zeus in IMMORTALS and played Apollo in CLASH OF THE TITANS. Here, he looks like an ordinary soldier, in helmet and armor, carrying a shield and a hammer. He’s looking up at a group of people that we can’t see (perhaps because they’re not really there) and yells, “Leave here! This is no longer your fight.” Tarsem has him repeat this again and again; the director comes off as being very precise, very much in control.
Around this massive green cube sit tents, each housing different screens and technical equipment. There are so many tents with so many people in them, I’m feeling a bit like I’m walking past resting soldiers on the eve of a battle. (Cheesy analogy, I know, but when in Rome… or Greece.) And the wires. I can’t tell you how many wires snake along the floor. It’s not unlike an angry king has dispensed his wrath upon you and thrown you into a pit thick with coiled serpents... Okay, I’m getting carried away.
Evans is the only actor I get to see "in action", but he's not the only one hanging around today. At various intervals, I get an opportunity to chat with most of the ensemble. (Although no Micky Rourke; he had already wrapped.) Henry Cavill (who plays Theseus here but will soon be better known as "Superman"), Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, Kellan Lutz (let's hear swoons from the TWILIGHT fans out there) and Isabel Lucas are all in the house, all eager to talk about what they're clearly expecting to be a movie experience like none other.
For words from them, you'll have to stay tuned for Part 2 of my IMMORTALS set visit report, when I talk with some of these key castmembers, as well as dig into the wild mind of Tarsem.