Set Visit: The Expendables 3 - Part One - Walking in the footsteps of The Expendables
When you get a set visit invite for THE EXPENDABLES 3 in Bulgaria there’s only one thing to do: You pack your shit and head to Bulgaria. Granted, I had to look on a map just to be sure where the hell Bulgaria was, but that’s okay. I’m fine with that. The prospect of seeing my childhood action movie heroes in the living flesh was far too cool to get concerned about a little international travel to a country I had little knowledge of. Okay, zero knowledge of.
It may seem a little silly, getting excited about a set visit, and maybe that’s true in some instances, but when you have a gathering like this in a not-too-common locale, it’s hard to not get a bit giddy. Sylvester Stallone has created a new brand out of his initial action movie homage experiment with the first THE EXPENDABLES, which he also wrote and directed. It was chock full of the tropes, style, and characters that have populated the majority of his films throughout his long career and old school fans latched on.
Combining old and new action stars like Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and the living legends of the genre, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Chuck Norris, THE EXPENDABLES franchise has become an all-star event more so than just another sequel and with the additions of Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, and a slew of new blood, including Kellan Lutz, Rhonda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, and even an appearance from Kelsey Grammer, THE EXPENDABLES 3 is lining up to be the biggest event of the series.
I’ll save you the history lesson on Bulgaria. It’s a humble European nation surrounded by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. Having travelled to the less-than-hospitable regions of Afghanistan and Iraq in my prior life, I found the area to be pretty lively, with friendly people, terrible drivers, and some interesting food choices. And, pretty much everyone smokes. Everywhere.
After a sleepless night in the hotel and a lengthy drive to the set we arrived unscathed and ready to bare witness to some Expendables-level coolness. I was in good company with some friendly peeps from competing sites and our PR handlers who were super cool throughout, which always makes things like this a hell of a lot smoother. We exited the van upon entering the set, which is on a massive studio owned by producer Avi Lerner, who founded Nu Image and Millenium Films. The lot is impressive, complete with a recreation of 20th Century New York City and is filled with props, especially a lot of leftover ones from Renny Harlin’s HERCULES: THE LEGEND BEGINS, which had just finished shooting there.
We exited the van and saw a congregation of production crewmembers moving around and some folks in black-clad military gear. I stood, staring for a moment, just soaking it in, fully prepared to be starstruck, and realized that I was, in fact, staring at Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jason Statham, and Antonio Banderas, all just milling about and waiting for the next scene to start. Banderas, for his part, was wearing reading glasses, parked in his chair and soaking in a book, while the others just stood by casually. Not polishing skulls, being fed grapes by bikini-clad models, or firing off weapons into the air. No, these action stars were not their character personas, but just some talented guys waiting for the next take.
When faced with the prospect of being on set with these guys it can be daunting. It can be downright shit-your-pants daunting. What I found right off the bat was that everyone on set had a sense of intimidation with these guys and it was readily apparent that Stallone was the ringleader of said intimidation, which came out of respect, not fear. A seasoned action star, littered with the success and failure of a long list of films that have spanned more than four decades, Stallone has more than earned the admiration and respect of his peers, especially those just breaking into the high-octane genre of action films.
Ushered into the press tent, we saw a monitor set up with some chairs surrounding it. We all settled in and hovered around it. We were told that we’d be able to watch the current scene being filmed, which was taking place in a run-down casino. The set itself looking like a building that had just been blown to shit. Smoke and debris filled the scene and when action was called, a group of men in a tight formation, exhibiting some familiar real-world tactics, entered the hallway and approached a door at the far end to clear it. Stallone, Statham, Couture, Banderas, Lundgren, and Snipes made up the configuration and they moved in smooth harmony, each decked out in the traditional Expendables black garb with signature touches (Lundgren sleeveless, Statham with beret, Banderas with a beanie cap).
It may not have been a riotous, explosive scene, but it was, in fact, our tight-knit group of heroes moving in action harmony and it was a splendid start to a set visit that would later have us watching some amazing pre-vis action scenes, a shitload of unedited footage, and even let us “play” with some guns before finally sitting down to chat with some genre Gods (and a few new ones). We sat back and watched the scene play out a number of times with the excitement of meeting these heroes building every second. I checked my bag real quick to make sure I had a change of underwear and some altoids, hoping I wouldn’t need either…
We were then led on the tour through the facility. It was a sunny day with a slight chill in the air and we began walking away from the stage and onto the lot, which to me felt like a kind of bombed out World War 2 stage on a Call of Duty game. The brick buildings with assorted Euro architecture definitely lent the feeling of a dangerous location that would befit the men (and women) of THE EXPENDABLES.
Our first stop was an old-style recreated New York city block, which was the same one used in THE EXPENDABLES 2, where the crew bedded down for the night and were attacked the next morning by goons with tanks, only to be rescued by the Lone Wolf himself, Chuck Norris. If you’ve never been on a studio lot before it can be a dizzying experience. Everything looks and feels like a real-world city, yet there’s something off; no people, no busyness, no sound, no signs, etc. It’s like visiting the apocalypse in many ways. When you walk into any of the storefronts or buildings you find what looks like what you’d encounter when visiting a house in it’s early stages of being built. I was like Rowdy Piper with the alien-revealing sunglasses, although I had no bubblegum or shotgun. Just a mullet.
From there we detoured to the editing and VFX facilities, which were located within the brick-laden buildings that reminded me of Call of Duty. Once inside, I got the feelings of my real-world time in Iraq. The inside reminded me of the various Iraqi Police stations and more well-to-do structures in that region; slightly dirty and put together with brick, mortar, and concrete. So much different than the fluorescent-lit, carpeted suites of the bigger studios, it had a charm to it, even if it stirred up a little PTSD. Venturing down the hallways there were posters plastered everywhere, from THE EXPENDABLES to B-movie straight-to-video monster flicks of all variety.
Our guide through the hallways explained that the VFX for Millenium Films' productions were done in-house by various teams of artists, the majority of which were recruited locally and given free internships to develop their skills. A pretty good deal, really, especially for people that want to get involved in the process, but don’t have the money for big league universities or specialty schools. We visited a few editing and VFX rooms where everyone was hard at work on some project or another and were finally led to an edit bay where a ton of raw footage from THE EXPENDABLES 3 awaited us.
We sat and watched on the monitors as they displayed a host of shots and sequences from the film, which had begun production in August 2013. We were told that both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford had completed their scenes for the film with both actors shooting for one week a piece. Schwarzenegger had filmed for four hours on the first film, four days on the second, and now a full week for the third.
There was little context for the footage we saw, but I’ll run through a recap explanation just to give an idea, including some of what was explained to us while viewing it:
- The film opens in Mogadishu (with the Black Sea doubling for the location).
- The Expendables are inserted via a connex onto a dock in Mogadishu (Black Sea location).
- The group is decked out in khaki-colored fatigues for the Mogadishu sequence, which is a nice change of pace from their usual black-clad outfits.
- Wesley Snipes with lots of hair, wearing tattered clothes and standing on top of a connex on wires (all on stage). He was running atop the connex and you definitely got the vibe that he was escaping from something, the connex being lifted into the air via helicopter with him hanging on.
- A series of explosions on the dock, which cut to Terry Crews’ character being injured. He is seen lying on the ground with a serious chest wound and it gave the impression that he was gravely injured.
- And sure enough he is, as we see Crews in the hospital, looking to be in critical condition.
- Stallone meeting with a sharply dressed Harrison Ford in front of a government style building. We couldn’t hear any dialogue, but the exchange looked very much like Ford was in control of the conversation with Stallone not liking anything he was hearing.
- Another green screen shot shows Ford in an OD green flight suit, piloting a helicopter, so he’ll definitely be getting at least a little action in this one.
With that, here’s some more details we got while watching the footage:
- Ford is playing a high-level intel officer who is actually the one who is revealed to be the agent who supervised Bruce Willis’ character in previous films. He was referred to as a “super spook.”
- Jet Li does appear in the film, but only shot for a few days.
- A lot of the locations in the film are ex-military locations.
- Snipes character will be a “knife guy” and have a rivalry in that respect to Statham’s character throughout the film.
- Stallone was very particular about the blood and wounds, making sure the effects looked as realistic as possible.
- There were about 1,700 VFX shots in THE EXPENDABLES 2. There will be about 2,000 or more in THE EXPENDABLES 3.
- Stallone dislocated his shoulder during filming, but continued to insist on doing as much of his own stunts as possible.
Next up was a visit to the stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry. He was housed in a makeshift gym that consisted of mats, rubber guns, and the potential for any of us to get our asses beaten by someone with the kind of martial arts training that could leave you hospitalized...or worse. We entered cautiously...