We travel to London to speak with Ewan McGregor, Nicholas Hoult, director Bryan Singer, and more on the set of Jack the Giant Slayer
There's just something very special about arriving on a location and seeing a massive castle set right before your very eyes. Actors are riding into a courtyard on horseback, in full medieval armor, that unmistakable sound of horses galloping on soft earth permeating the atmosphere around us. These are the first images and sounds I took in on the set of Jack the Giant Slayer back in August, 2011. I had traveled from the urban jungle of Los Angeles across the pond to Longcross Studios in Surrey, U.K., just an hour or so outside of London, but it felt like much more than an hour outside of London. It felt like centuries outside of the city, and it would get even better once we went inside this enormous castle set.
The scenes we first saw being shot takes place towards the end of the movie, when the warriors of Albian are gathering in Cloister Castle to prepare for their epic battle with the giants. This isn't an everyday occurrence for these fine citizens. The giants were thought to be creatures of myth for years, when, one day, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) unwittingly unlocks the gateway between the land of giants and our world. Naturally, a battle ensues, with the 25-foot-tall giants, who want to reclaim the land they lost centuries ago. During a break in the production, Nicholas Hoult spoke about how his character isn't quite your typical hero, with several obstacles he has yet to overcome.
"He's a dreamer. He's a young farmer. He hasn't had an easy upbringing and then he's kind of catapulted onto this epic mission and falls in love with a princess. He's an average hero - well, average guy who becomes a hero. He's a good guy, which is nice, playing a good guy for once, but he's fairly laid back. He has to overcome quite a few of his fears of heights and thunder and all these sorts of things along the way. But, yeah, he's just an average guy."
Since Jack isn't our typical hero, the princess he falls for (and tries to save from the giants), Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), is not your garden-variety symbol of royalty. The actress explained how Isabelle isn't a conventional princess, how she was born into this life she didn't exactly want.
"She's definitely not typical. That's kind of what I love about her. She has this side to her, which is really fiery. She didn't want to be a princess. She was just born into this life. As amazing as it is, it's not necessarily what she wants. She feels a bit trapped, I think. Her relationship with her father, after her mother died, is coming under a lot of pressure, because he's the king and he doesn't understand her. She just wants to be a normal girl. She wants to fall in love for love, not for the kingdom. She's got that temper, that spark about her, which is different from other fairy tales, I think."
After watching several takes of the riders coming into the castle, we were taken inside this enormous exterior set, which may have been the most immense set I've ever been on in my five years of visiting movie sets. We walked past these big vats of molten lava, that the archers use for flaming arrows. We also saw another set extension past the castle set, that shows us some of the giant's homeland. Naturally, everything was bigger, including a huge net that Jack gets captured in.
We also got to see a more humorous scene with Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson that pokes a bit of fun at the dynamic between the humans and the giants. Both Jack and Isabelle are seen coming out of two fake kings robes inside the castle. While it may just be a simple shot, it's fun to see little bits of humor sprinkled throughout such an epic adventure.
Our assembled press corps also got to speak with is Ewan McGregor, who plays Elmont, the leader of the elite soldiers known as the Guardians. Dressed in an elaborate costume with spiky hair (I'm not sure what they used for hair gel in these days...) and an intricately maintained mustache, Ewan McGregor seemed to exude the pomp and circumstance that comes with such a regal character. Given Jack's peasant nature, Elmont doesn't quite know what to make of young Jack when they first meet. The actor described Elmont's first encounter with Jack, during a scene where the townsfolk are enjoying a pantomime based on the giant's legend.
"He's a bit dubious about Jack to begin with, I think. My character's main job is to look after the princess, during peacetime, that's my main lookout. It strikes me, and I've never discussed it with anyone, but the Guardians are the kind of royal soldiers, the top knights. But during the peacetime at the beginning of the film they're in charge of the security and safety of the royal family. So, myself and Eddie Marsan's character, it seems that we are in charge of looking after Isabelle, the princess. She's a very reluctant princess and she's always trying to slip off into the kingdom and have a life. She wants her freedom, in a way. She's a bit of a reluctant princess, so she's quite difficult to look after. And so my first encounter with Jack is when she's given us the slip. We find her at the beginning of the film, there's a pantomime going on about this fable of the giants who live in the sky. It was really nicely put together by Warwick (Davis) who has an agency of small and very big people, so he used all his actors and he directed this pantomime that we shot in this lovely, old circus tent. We find Isabelle there, she's watching the show. At that point, when we come into the tent, everyone bows down because we represent the king, except for Jack, who doesn't bow down because he's taken by surprise. So my first introduction to him is that he's somebody who's not very respectful to us and I'm a bit dubious about what he's after with the princess as well. But as the story unfolds and, once the beanstalk has appeared and the princess has disappeared, he comes along with us, with the Guardians, the kind of search party for her. Slowly, he keeps proving himself over and over."
Ah yes, the beanstalk. Part of me was hoping to see a massive, 100-foot tall beanstalk on the set, but, alas, it was not there. Nicholas Hoult described shooting the sequence where Jack's uncle's house shot up into the sky after the beanstalk sprouted.
"That sequence is really cool. They built Jack's uncle's house in the studios and then had it on a rig where the whole house would shake and the floorboards would explode. There was like a ram in the floor. I would be running to try to get to Ellie and it hit me in the stomach, lift me up and then I get thrown out through the roof. It was a lot of fun to do all that and there's a bit of dialogue in that scene as well. So that was that sequence and then the princess is trapped inside the house with the beanstalk growing and lifting up into the sky, so Jack's trying to get in to save her and help her. I'm giving away quite a lot of the story."
"I kind of become, not part of them, but on the mission with them and obviously this is an exciting thing for Jack because they're the lead soldiers that he looks up to and wanted to be at a young age. It's a lot of fun doing those things with those guys. Eddie's like one of the funniest people, and Ewan as well. They're very relaxed on set and easy to get along with. We have fun. There's some funny scenes. Yeah, so it's lots of fun those days, we're all climbing the beanstalk."
Ewan McGregor also shared an intriguing scene where a giant attempts to cook Elmont into a form of pastry.
"There's another moment where a giant rolls me in pastry to put me in the oven. The actual rolling in pastry was a technical challenge for the special effects team. They made a body mold of me and then made the back mold that I could lie in and then the front mold clamped over me, Velcroed over me, so I was held in place on an arm. Then, that was lowered onto the pastry. As the giant rolls me over like this, the rig rolled over and then the pastry wrapped around me."
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire visit was getting to spend a considerable amount of time with director Bryan Singer, who I've been a fan of since his critically-acclaimed 1995 drama The Usual Suspects. First off, there are several set visits I've been on where we don't even get to see or talk with the director at all. Not only did we get to speak with the filmmaker at length, but he showed us a lot of very cool bits of footage, including a few items that will likely make its way onto the Blu-ray and DVD special features.
While the director was rather eager to show us footage, the method in which this footage materialized was, initially, somewhat bizarre. He would just start talking to no one in particular ("Can I have the pre-vis? Back it up to right there. Play the sound.") and, seconds later, his wish would be presented on the monitors in front of his. It took me a minute (probably more) to realize that he had a PA speaker nearby, and everything he was saying was going to someone else, who would play the footage he requested on our monitors. After showing us some pre-vis (a.k.a. pre-visualization) footage of a giant, the filmmaker explained how he is using Simul-Cam technology on the set.
"We pre-cap, or performance capture all the giant's action earlier and then we have all that information of what the actors did and put it in the computer and then we actually project the actor's performances on the set, which is called Simul-Cam. James Cameron used a little in Avatar in some of the scenes that involve humans and those other characters together. We use a lot more of it because we more humans interacting."
Eleanor Tomlinson also spoke about how using the Simul-Cam technology, which allows the actors to see the CGI giants they are acting against on the set, is a a very helpful tool.
"It's hard work. It's really hard work, but it's really interesting. We have this camera, I think it's called a Simul-Cam, and when you play it back, you can see the giant in the scene you just shot. It's incredible. You're reacting to a tennis ball that's way up there, then when you watch it, it's this huge giant's face on it. Wow. That's cool. I just can't wait to see it when it's all edited together and the special effects are all crystal clear. It's going to be, hopefully, amazing."
Bryan Singer explained how Simul-Cam helps him frame these huge CGI shots the right way, by seeing these virtual creations through his monitors on the set, instead of months later in post-production.
"I think it's helpful. In the old days they were just putting the camera there and having actors act to tennis balls and hope that they're framing up. What's helpful is I know what to do with the camera because I see the giant in the camera, I'm operating it live on the set. The actor's can't, they see tennis balls, but I can through the lens, I know to tilt up like that if I want to capture that. When I'm shooting it, I'm seeing a giant chasing them, yeah I pan up to the giant, I know my plates will be usable, because then I have the giant."
"First 3D, first fairy tale, first movie with fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, first movie that takes place in a time before there was electricity, first movie with horses, third movie with cats. They're very difficult to direct. They look everywhere but where you want them to look."
Bryan Singer shared the difficulties of shooting his first 3D movie, how he has to control the camera motion, and much more.
"In 3D, it changes the way you shoot, in a way, I mean if, especially when you're shooting live action 3D elements. I mean for James Cameron, he's in the virtual world with a movie like Avatar, so you have a lot you can, you can adjust those things. But when you're dealing with shooting a lot of live action, in 3D, you're committed to your, your interaxial. How much 3D you're giving the audience and also, if the camera's moving around too much it strobes. If you get people too much into the side of the frame here, they look like a blob that's sort of there and it's kind of aggravating. It's compositional. I can't just pop two cameras in. I have to be more committed to the shots."
Despite the changes that need to be made behind the camera when shooting for 3D, Ewan McGregor didn't have any problems with the 3D setup.
"I don't think it's as slow as people think. This film has been very slow, but I couldn't blame the 3D for it. Early on maybe there was more problems with it. Though sometimes there are problems because each camera is, in fact, two cameras and sometimes the 3D, like one eye will go out. I don't pretend to understand it all completely, but each camera represents our eyes so it's a slightly different angle on the scene. They have to play with the perspective of that, so there's the focus but also the convergence, I think it's called. Occasionally, one of the eyes will go out, but really not that much. I haven't found it to be that slow. In actual fact, that seems to be the nature of it. Again, I've never discussed this with anyone, but it seems to me that we do less coverage on a scene. The 3D has more of a sense of everybody in the scene, so if there's a shot with 4 or 5 people in it, you're already sort of in your own shot because of the 3D feel. It seems to me that we've had less close-ups and less coverage. So if this 3D is slower, which I don't think it is really, then we save time with the lack of coverage."
As for the giants themselves, Bryan Singer revealed that, like his hero and princess, these monstrous beasts will have qualities you have never seen before in these creatures.
"Usually giants are very lumbering. These are very agile, very fast moving, almost athletic. Some are different sizes and shapes but definitely the agility and the movement was something that's different."
You may have noticed on the film's IMDB page that Bill Nighy is credited as General Fallon, while John Kassir plays Fallon. Both are one in the same, of sorts, with each actor playing one head of a two-headed giant. The director shared Bill Nighy's bizarre approach to finding Fallon's voice... which caused him to lose his own voice.
"Bill Nighy, I worked with in Valkyrie and he's phenomenal, one of the sweetest most hard working, talented, brilliant actors, he did this voice, the voice he creates for this Fallon character, he literally went in his car for the read through, shut the doors and windows, laid on the floor and screamed for 20 minutes, blew his voice, and came in and that's how he does the voice, that's what he did every day to."
Towards the end of our interview session, the director started showing us a barrage of hilarious footage that will be perfect material for the Blu-ray and DVD release. First he showed us his "cameo," a large, grandiose panning shot... that keeps going until we see the director in the frame, shooting his own material with an iPhone. We also saw a perfect gag reel moment featuring Eleanor Tomlinson. The actress was rehearsing in an area where there are several stationary suits of armor. One day, they decided to put one of the prop guys inside an armor suit, as he walked out in this medieval Iron Man attire to scare the young actress. We also saw footage of Nicholas Hoult's foot getting stomped on by a horse. I felt bad for laughing. Kind of.
When asked what his ultimate motivation was to make this movie, beyond the spectacle and the grandeur of 3D, Bryan Singer revealed he simply wanted to see a fairy tale on the biggest possible scale.
"I wanted to see a fairy tale, this is all before the Alice in Wonderland or any of that, I wanted to see a fairy tale brought to life on a full grand scale. What if a beanstalk grew miles high in the sky, what if giants were real, and what if there was, I wanted to see that a fairy tale done on a large, large budget film. Like as a big fantasy film, this was a way to take a simple, the simplest fairy tale, and embellish it and kind of make an original fairy tale but one that echoes one that I was read to when I was a kid so I thought that was really, so that was the first thing, secondly, I wanted to explore this new space of fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, lens capture, it's part of the business that interests-part of the craft that interests me that I want to explore, and it's about storytelling that interests me, the story's always interesting, that's a story you told your children, where did it come from, what if it came from some real thing that happened, and what if that story came from another story, in the movie you'll see it. There's a tale about the giants, which is just legend, myth, and then suddenly the reality hits them and then you see how that tale gets told."
That wraps up my incredible day at Longcross Studios in Surrey, U.K. for Jack the Giant Slayer, which hits theaters nationwide March 1. It was one of the few times when visiting a set that I truly felt whisked away to another time and place, a land where humans battled 25-foot giants and climbed beanstalks. I can't wait to visit this magical place again, armed only with my 3D glasses and fond memories for that day.