With the two successful films, Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, a franchise was created. Now they're going back to how the whole war between the vampires and the Lycans all started with the prequel Underworld: The Rise of The Lycans, which will hit theaters nationwide on January 23. I had the opportunity to head to picturesque Venice, California to preview the film at Luma Pictures, where myself and selected press members also got to chat with first-time director Patrick Tatopoulos - who is no stranger to the franchise, having created the Lycan effects for the first two films - and VFX supervisor James McQuaide. Before we got into all that, though, we were lucky enough to see two thrilling sequences from the film, which I'll describe below.
The first sequence we were shown features Michael Sheen as Lucian, the very first Lycan, and his new love Sonja, played by the lovely Rhona Mitra, a vampire who is forbidden to be with Lucian but goes against her father Viktor's (Bill Nighy) will and flees with Lucian and his trusted friend Raze, played by the hulking, deep-voiced Kevin Grevioux, who has appeared in all three films and co-wrote the original Underworld film with director Len Wiseman and co-writer Danny McBride (not the funnyman Danny McBride, FYI). This scene features Lucian, Sonja and Raze slaying an army of werewolves - in gruesomely awesome fashion, might I add - when, confronted with constant werewolves, Lucian removes his shackle that prevents him from turning into a werewolf and transforms - in a rather incredible fashion, I must say - into a hulking werewolf, which obviously confuses the hell out of the werewolves that were about to attack them.
The second sequence we were shown is the start of a huge battle sequence, most likely at the end of the film. We see Bill Nighy's Viktor perched atop his huge castle who then readies the fort for battle when an army of Lycans are storming their way. It's a really slick sequence, and we see a number of awesome transformations as they storm this fortress. We also see a number of sweet kills, some with these ginormous crossbows that the vampires employ... and some by the Lycans when they finally scale the walls, enter the compound and start tearing some vampires to shreds... literally. While the color matching was still not that accurate, according to Tatopoulos and McQuaide, it still looked pretty damn awesome to me and, if these two scenes are indicative of the action we'll see when this hits theaters in a few weeks, I'm pretty damn pumped to see the rest then.
After that sneak peek of awesome footage, we all turned our recorders on and fired some questions at director Patrick Tatopoulos and visual effects supervisor James McQuaide, and here's what they both had to say about a number of aspects on this new film.
Director Patrick Tatopoulos and VFX Supervisor James McQuaide
This is your directorial debut and you're being bestowed with an origin/prequel story, but you're also granted this big epic The Lord of the Rings-like battle that's referred to in the first Underworld. How did you convince them to let you direct this one?
Patrick Tatopoulos: It was actually offered to me, at some point. They came to me and said, 'Hey you'd be a logical choice. You've been working on the first two movies, we've known each other for awhile.' It just came to me. When I read the script and I realized it was going to be about werewolves than anything else, I got excited about it. This is kind of all my stuff. It's so interesting when you say The Lord of the Rings, because I don't see it like that. I think it's more like Gangs of New York with werewolves. It's smaller, with clans fighting each other. The scale feels really big at the end. It's like 300 werewolves versus 300 vampires. So I didn't want the scale to feel ridiculous, just to be able to do it properly. The key for me was to do a movie that was a little more different than the two first ones. I don't know what I could do to do another one like the first two ones. I was excited because it was a chance to retain the style but to do something fresh and new. That's what was exciting to me.
The first two movies pride themselves on balancing practical and CGI, but mostly practical. What kind of fraction is it with this one? Is it the same kind of thing?
Patrick Tatopoulos: You know, on the first two movies, the werewolves, you always see two or three of them at a time. It was more about the vampires and the wolves in human form so you don't see many big epic moments. I was forced to go more CGI because there was no way I could bring in 300 people in suits running. By essence, I knew I would be doing more CGI stuff from the beginning. Obviously, every time we could, practical would come into play, because a lot of stuff what you're seeing, when they're getting into the castle, is a much more controlled environment where I could use practical. Interestingly enough, I only had one mechanical werewolf head to play with. When you have 300 in the courtyard, it's difficult to do with one. I had three other werewolves with no mechanical head. If we shot quickly, we could get away with it. What they helped me for, and what they helped visual effects for, is they became lighting reference. We always had werewolves somewhere, to give us a chance to replace them or recreate them with CGI and add other ones along.
James McQuaide: Somebody asked a question last night and I had to look up how many CG werewolves we had in 2, compared to 3. There were 29 CG werewolf shots in 2, and there are 80 in this movie, so that tells you, beyond just the army of werewolves at the end, throughout the picture there are quite a few just single, double werewolf shots. When we made the first one, CG creatures, not many companies were doing that kind of work. Now it's commonplace.
How about the decision from Lakeshore and you guys to do a prequel instead of just doing a continuation?
James McQuaide: I think a lot of it is what Len (Wiseman) brought to the table. I mean, Len is sort of the godfather of all these movies and this is what he thought this movie should go in this direction. So we took his lead and, obviously, Screen Gems agreed with his take and we are where we are.
Patrick Tatoupolos: When he made the first Underworld, you know, like everybody else, you have to create a backstory before you make your first movie and that story was part of the first original movie. Len always liked it. He said it was the story he always wanted to do, so it was easy for him to think about this. Now, whatever happens next, I have no idea. We could be going back to the future, but he felt this was the right time to do it.
James McQuaide: An interesting thing about this movie is, after seeing this movie, because of the way that it's structured and it's so much about the backstory, you almost want to go back and watch one and two. All that backstory that's implied because of your memories and the dialogue from the first two you can actually see. So, with that in your back pocket, you can actually go watch one and two and they will all make sense. In that sense, it almost builds excitement for the first two, if that that makes any sense.
This is the first film to be shot in HD, so can you talk a little about that and if it was easier on the set?
Patrick Tatopoulos: Actually, it's interesting because, as you know, this is my first movie, so, for me, the experience on set shooting with digital or film is something I hadn't had to deal with. So, when I was approached to shoot digital, I had no either good or bad feeling about it, I just wanted to make sure it was something that my DP was comfortable with. He told me it was no problem and we can do some great stuff. Then it was a bit of what camera would we use, and we went with the Genesis. Quickly after that, I had watched Apocalypto, and I thought Apocalypto was amazing. It didn't feel like digital. It felt like film. Then we quickly tested the camera. Looking back at the whole experience, again, first time, when I got into the editing room, I had realized that if I had shot 4K or even film, I would have more control. I like to crop within my shots and 2K on Genesis, you can crop very little. It gives you less control in post. During the shoot, the advantage is I could see my movie, the way it looks, on the set. Again, that was a bit of a trick because I could already tell what the final movie would be, and that was a very good thing. I really enjoyed it. I'd like to use it again, digital, after using in that way. I would like to work in 4K, because I think it is going to be a better tool.
James McQuaide: I did a picture called The Cave with (cinematographer) Ross (Emery) and about a third of that movie was underwater. All the underwater stuff was Genesis. Actually, if we would've stayed on our original schedule, it would've came out before Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and we would've been the first Genesis show to come out. Ross is very experienced with Genesis. The thing that I was concerned about was Genesis typically doesn't give you good black's on film. We played around a lot with it to get the black's right. The black's are quite good, which you normally don't get in Genesis.
Patrick Tatopoulos: For me, you work with the DP and give him a chance to work with the tools that he plays best with. When I knew he was comfortable with it, and he showed me tests, it looked really great, and I thought, that's it. Clearly, to me, the next one should be digital. I would use digital in a second.
Can you talk about working with Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy and the cast like that?
Patrick Tatopoulos: Although I had met them briefly on the other films, I had never worked with them on this level. Bill Nighy, for example, I sat down with him and he said, 'I have a tendency to go overboard sometimes, so when that happens, just smack me on the head or something.' When you have someone at that level talking to you like that, it really puts you at ease. Michael, the thing about Michael, he's done The Queen, he's done Frost/Nixon. I didn't think he'd be that excited about this. He got so involved in the movie it was a totally different thing. With him, I felt hard to let him go. He became the character. I let him breathe and he felt comfortable. I knew at one point, we'd make this movie the way I thought it should be done, and we had a great time together. He was extremely passionate. Rhona came on board, that was the studio's choice. I thought Rhona was a great choice because, in the first Underworld, Bill said to (Kate Beckinsale's) Selene, 'You remind me so much of my own daughter." So, Rhona was a perfect cast for that. She's very different from Kate, because she's much more of the warrior. Kate is very sophisticated. Rhona had that warrior, more primeval, that fit the movie because this movie is more brutal and it's more about the werewolves, about that kind of energy and she fit in very well. Rhona was very conscious of the fact that she was going to be the next one and, for the audience, even though she was not replacing her, she was the new Kate. I quickly took her somewhere and told her, 'Look, this is very simple. The character Selene was created from your character, so don't try to match her.' That made her feel good. I had to tell her every day, but she came on to set knowing that, 'Yeah, I am the original character that Selene was created from.' It was, to me, being my first movie, it just moved really smoothly. I made sure I had time with each of them, except for Bill. Bill is just an amazing person. You know, nobody is going to tell him how to play Viktor, but he would want you to do that. The first scene we shot together he was going all over the place. He looked at me and I said, 'That was great, but sometimes it's a bit too much.'
Did the change in weaponry affect how the action was orchestrated, since there are no longer guns?
Patrick Tatopoulos: That's an interesting point, actually, because I was very attentive to that. We see crossbows and things like that that are a bit like machine guns. There's a big sequence in there where the Lycans escape and they're getting shot at with the crossbows. Between that and the music, it's modern in a sense. You've seen the crossbows, they're huge.
This is your first film, so what ended up being your most surprising challenge?
Patrick Tatopoulos: The actual pre-production is the place where I felt most at ease, because that's what we do as a designer. The shoot felt comfortable because I had the right people around me and I had a great time with the actors. The thing that was the most surprising was when I saw the first cut and I freaked out. I was kind of comfortable and suddenly I looked at the movie, and it was unbearable. I called Len, I called Roland Emmerich and some other people I worked with and they said, 'That's normal, man' but I knew it was not normal. That was the biggest learning curve for me, don't panic, this is going to be horrible, but this is going to be where the real work starts. Once I got through that phase, I knew it was getting there. The first movie, it's very scary, because, at that point, you think this is the worst piece of shit you've ever seen.
James McQuaide: To be frank, it wasn't that good.
Patrick Tatopoulos: Len told me the same thing happened on his Live Free or Die Hard, the first time he saw it.
Do you see yourself coming back for another Underworld?
Patrick Tatopoulos: I've done three of them in different capacities but I think I'd like to move on. No disrespect. I think there are still many stories that could be told, it's a cool franchise, but I'd like to do something new.
Something outside the genre?
Patrick Tatopoulos: I need to do something with creatures and stuff. But there's a project in the works that I'm keen on doing. When I did this movie I felt I was not controlling the look because there are two films out there and there is a style, although I was part of it and I designed the creatures on the set. But I feel I need to create a world from scratch, something new.
Underworld: The Rise of The Lycans hits theaters nationwide on January 23.