Babies being run down for points? A mass nun pile-up that showered the screen with red goo? Sylvester Stallone before Rocky and a quite game David Carradine still riding a fame wave from his forty-five episode stint on Kung Fu? That's Death Race 2000, Roger Corman's scandalous 1975 cult classic that pitted a group of prisoners against the cruel world, unleashing them on the populace with supped up racecars in a game of murder sport. It was a cheap, offensive, gruesome little thrill ride that earned both Corman and itself quite the notorious reputation. Now, thirty-three years later, director Paul W.S. Anderson is attempting to walk in the shoes of his predecessor by mounting a full-fledged Death Race 2000 rebirth. Just don't call it a comeback.
Over the course of the last couple of years, "remake" has become a dirty little word that is half-mumbled, chewed on, and spit out by those attempting to do just that. Remake a classic. Today's struggling auteur would rather use the word "Reimagining" to describe the task at hand. With the Internet being used as a daily berating tool, it's difficult for most directors to stage a proper remake without a tidal wave of hate whipping their ghost-white skin into a cake of mush. When taking on a project like Death Race 2000, the word "remake" is possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome. Once originally titled Death Race 3000, Anderson has since cast off the futuristic year marking for simply Death Race in a move to distance itself from Roger Corman's previous efforts. But that was the first of many changes the young director made in crafting this August thriller.
In September of 2007, we traveled up to Toronto for a glimpse at this new Death Race in action. The first thing both director Paul W.S. Anderson and his producers told us was, "This is not a remake!" They were quite adamant about the fact. Yet, they only needed to explain the new story to prove that they'd knocked down the first film's construct and premise. They've created a wholly new entity with this Jason Statham starring vehicle. The concept and core plot is completely different than the original. And it is only a remake in that it shares certain themes and a lead character named Frankenstein. Where the original unleashed a group of murderous individuals on a knowing public, this new project is completely contained within the walls of the Terminal Island Prison. There is no point system in place for running down innocent jaywalkers. Instead, inmates are forced into a life or death car race against other inmates on a self-contained track hidden behind penitentiary walls. These Death Races, as they are referred to, play out to an international audience tired of American Idol reruns. It is a future generation of reality starved entertainment junkies that make this a ratings hit and an advertising bonanza.
The majority of the film takes place within the confined hub known as Terminal Island. Producers have rented out a giant abandoned post industrial building on the outskirts of Toronto for use in the production. Once used for the manufacturing and deportation of cast iron trains, the facility has been turned into an enormous racetrack that houses numerous piles of steam-punk refuge and miles of trail planks that abruptly stop and led to nowhere. It gives off the proper feeling of gritty, greasy post-depression era nostalgia that the project is aiming for. It's a future not so far off on the horizon, and it feels like a solid little home to what could be quite an exciting ultramodern chase picture. It is an engineering wasteland that fits the narrative very well.
Upon our arrival at the set, we were met by production designer Paul D. Austerberry who took us into one of the derelict train design offices that had since been retrofitted for his task at hand. Inside, black and white storyboards crowded every square inch of the room. It was the entire movie laid out before our eyes in cartoon figurines. A comic book panel of excitement that held the promise of action, agitation, and death by racing. In the middle of the floor sat a giant, white cardboard reconstruct of the entire prison and it's racetrack. Hot Wheels versions of the film's cars were strategically placed throughout the miniature compound for ample playtime and proper on-screen placement of the prospering events. As evident by the drawings on the walls that surrounded us, there will be four major Death Races throughout the running duration of the film. Each one holds the promise of crunching metal and breathtaking, edge of your seat excitement. As the races progress throughout the story arc, they become meaner, meatier, more action packed and gruesome. Just as the title of its legendary cult status promises. As Austerberry explains it, "The film is quite realistic and full of 70s style action."
Most of the stunts are being done on set. The special effects are limited in their usage of CGI, with a majority of the thrills coming courtesy of the heralded practical effect. Ninety-five percent of the chase and race scenes are being shot in-camera with rig removal. The racetrack is two miles long, and can only be described as "A blur of moving armory." As the production team is renting out the entire facility now known as Terminal Island, they have complete run of the place. Basically, they own the site. And they can do what ever they wish, which includes smashing real cars into each other at speeds of up to seventy miles an hour.
And if you were wondering, yes, Roger Corman has given his full blessing to this particular regurgitation of his previous work. Call it High Art.
Tacked to a spinning display board in Austerberry's production office was a complete rundown of every single car being utilized in the film. These are not the cartoony hotrods we know and love from the original. There are no giant Bowie Knifes or faked out monster teeth inset into the grill of these supped-up speed mobiles of death. They are all reasonably accessible cars that have been slightly modified for this particular game. The hero car, which belongs to Statham's Frankenstein, is a 2005 Ford Mustang GT. Machine-Gun Joe, played by Tyrese Gibson, drives a 2004 Dodge Ram 1500. The evil Slovo Pachenko, played by Max Ryan, drives a "chopped" 1966 Rivera. Other cars include a 1987 Porche 91-K19, a 1991 Jaguar XJS, a 2006 Chrysler 300L, and a 1978 Trans Am. After running down the list, Austerberry expressed how lucky we were. As this particular day was a "race day". Which meant we'd get to see some of these cars in action. As well as a secret vehicle that has been referred to as the film's piece de resistance (more on that later).
With that, we were walked out onto the racetrack. The place reeked of rust and dirt. The cloudy sky refused to spit rain, so a moving vehicle with an attached sprinkler system had to provide wet patches on the pavement for continuity issues. There were segmented pieces of plastic littered about, and various tunnels of massive length peppered the racetrack. Set into the ground throughout the course was a number of large circular icons that looked like nothing more than menacing manhole covers. These are actually "Death Heads". When a car drives over one, he and his crew are awarded certain powers to help defend and defeat. It is all set up like a live action video game. And the narrative will play to that. While this particular Death Race is not reliant on a point system, certain actions need to take place to insure any certain driver a win.
Before checking out some of the racecars in action, we walked through a mud drenched docking bay where a damned Jaguar had been t-boned and flipped into a hole. The walkway was littered with the outer shells of busted up cars. A delinquent semi sat sinking in an immense puddle. On the other side of this long building, we were greeting by director Paul W.S. Anderson himself. The man behind such films as Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator really needs no introduction. Here is what he has to say about his upcoming reimagined thriller Death Race:
DIRECTOR PAUL W.S. ANDERSON
How did you first get involved in this production?
Paul W.S. Anderson: I became involved in it when I saw Death Race 2000 on video when I was younger. In England, it was considered a "video nasty." It was one of those videos that your parents didn't want you to watch. So, of course we all watched it religiously many times. I just remember it being an insanely cool movie. You look back at it now, it's definitely very campy. But when I was a kid, I thought it was the best movie ever made. The gratuitous violence and everything? I thought it was awesome. It left a big impression on me. I loved the movies that it influenced. George Miller admits that Mad Max and The Road Warrior were very heavily influenced by Death Race 2000, and I'm obviously very heavily influenced by The Road Warrior. I'd always liked the movie. After I directed Mortal Kombat, it was number one in America on its opening weekend. On that Monday, I had lunch with Roger Corman. He said, 'It's great, kid. You've got a number one movie. What do you want to do next?' And I said, 'Well, Roger, what I really want to do is get the rights to one of yours." And he said, 'That's great, kid. We'll make it your next movie.' So cut to literally twelve years later, and we're finally shooting it. Which is about how long it takes to develop a movie in Hollywood. I thought it would be so simple. I thought, "Great. I'll make it my next movie." But it didn't quite work out that way.
What about all of the changes? This is very different from the original film.
Paul W.S. Anderson: It's a reimagining of the original Death Race. It's not a straight up remake. It keeps a lot of the original concepts in tact. We still have the masked racer called Frankenstein, who appears to be indestructible, but is not who he appears to be underneath the mask. It's still got Machine Gun Joe. It's still a "death race", only it's a race to the death where the drivers are allowed to kill one another and are encouraged to do so. And just like the original movie had a political message in the 1970s, this also has a message. It's not a massively overt politically message, but it's about reality television and the Internet run rampant.
Do you still have the angry news reporters in this new version?
Paul W.S. Anderson: Nope. This is much more visceral. We're going to line you up. Jason's going to get in that Mustang with those mini-guns. It's a lot more contained than the original. That makes it a lot more intense. It's not a trans-America road race. It's contained. It's held within this giant track. It's definitely more contained than the original, but then again, it's so much bigger than the original. Let's just say, we've spent a lot more money on this one.
The original film had a hit-and-run point system. You've done away with that concept here, correct?
Paul W.S. Anderson: That was a very tough decisions. I did a couple of drafts that still had the points system in tact. In a way, I saw this as a prequel to the original movie. The original was set in the year 2000, but clearly it's set further in the future than that. By the time we got to the year 2000, it wasn't anything like what we see in that version of the film. I see this as the genesis of the original Death Race. The trans-America race is probably a progression of 10 years from Joan Allen's version of the Death Race. This is the genesis of the race that will eventually be the race that was portrayed in Roger Corman's movie.
How challenging is it to create a car chase that is fresh? Something that audiences haven't seen before?
Paul W.S. Anderson: It's really difficult. I haven't directed a movie since Alien vs. Predator, which was four years ago. The reason is that I've been working exclusively on this film as a director. Partly because the pressure to come up with something original with cars is immense. Also, we made the decision very early on to make a movie that was entirely practical. I didn't want any CG cars. I didn't want any CG environments. I wanted to go back to the old school way of making car chases. Which is, you build the cars, they go really fast, you get the best stuntmen in the world at the wheel, you mash them together, and when they hit concrete blocks, they really hit concrete blocks and they spin through the air. That's a much more difficult way to make a movie. I think it's a much more satisfying way, because it's much more visceral. What I'm trying to do is give the audience the kind of visceral thrill I had when I came out of The Road Warrior, because it was all real. When you saw the car mashed underneath that big truck, it was really getting mashed. For me, that's much more satisfying than seeing two CG objects hit and crunch together. It's a more difficult and time-consuming way to make a movie. It requires a lot more planning. Just to give you an idea? This location here? I came here over a year ago. So, the stunts and gags that you see in the movie have been over a year in the making.
We were told that you didn't want to have any cameos from the previous film in this particular outing. Why is that?
Paul W.S. Anderson: Because we wanted to suggest that this is the genesis of that original race. It stays true to the spirit of that particular race. There is a kind of reward system in place here. The original movie had the system where the deaths equaled points. This movie does have a reward system with the swords, the shields, the death heads you've seen embedded along the track. The first person to get to the sword gets all their offensive weaponry in the car activated. Defensive comes with a shield. Death's head equals a nasty surprise. So, the origin of that kind of reward system that will eventually be develop into what Roger Corman had in his movie is in place here.
Is there a lot of blood and gore in the film?
Paul W.S. Anderson: It's a pretty bloody movie. People get pretty mangled in the film. Yeah, it's an R-rated, gruesome movie. It's not Hellraiser in the sense of buckets of blood. But it's a very violent film. And with the real cars crashing comes the real reality of that. When Max Ryan had to crawl out of his car after it crashed, he wasn't just dusting himself off. He comes out a bloodied, mangled mess. That extends into the fight scenes we have as well. When I first met with Jason, I said, "We're not making Transporter. You won't be doing any martial arts in this movie. It's all realistic street fighting. I don't want to see any martial arts poses. I don't want to see any of that." This is a very raw, rugged film in terms of the fight scenes. And we choreographed one fight scene that we shot for three days. It is inside a container that's been turned into an auto shop, and it's pretty bloody. Jason jams a guy's head into a vice. And it's pretty gruesome. But it's realistic. There's no slow-motion. It's all done in real time. It's very fast and very vicious. The car racing is like that as well. There's no slow motion to it. It's all shot in real time. The idea is to kind of leave you very breathless when you see it.
Why the decision to cast Joan Allen in the movie?
Paul W.S. Anderson: She was my first choice to play the warden of the prison. She's called Hennessy. She is the instigator and the inventor of Death Race. She's very much the backbone of the movie, and she was my first choice for the role. I sent her the script, and she really liked it. I flew to New York to meet with her. We had a cup of tea and that was it. After we had the cup of tea she said, I love it. I love your vision for it. I really want to do it.'" And I obviously really wanted her in it. I think she's a terrific actress. She's got three Oscar nominations, although this, I feel will actually win her the Oscar. What's great about her is, with her performances, she's very glacial and cold and controlled through the whole movie. Until the end, where she gets to fucking swear like a trooper, which is fantastic. It was kind of a treat having all of this filthy language come out of Joan Allen's mouth. I'd just watched her in The Upside of Anger. This is the downside of anger, I think.
The film seems structured like a video game. Why did you decide on that narrative construct?
Paul W.S. Anderson: The idea was indeed influenced by video games. But I think video games have been influenced by Corman's original movie. The whole point system, for example, is a very video-game oriented ideal. I guess it is a bit video-gamey, but I grew up on video games. It's not surprising that's had a big influence on me. Oliver Stone had Vietnam, I had PlayStation.
Did Roger Have any say in this new outing?
Paul W.S. Anderson: No, Roger's been very hands off. We sent him the script, and he's always liked the drafts that we send him. But he hasn't been actively involved in the development of the film.
What has been the biggest challenge of shooting the car race scenes for this film?
Paul W.S. Anderson: It's difficult and it's dangerous. And it really is. You drive the cars at 60, 70 miles an hour and you crash them into one another. It's unpredictable. We've ruined dozens and dozens of cars. Written them off. It's even more difficult because they're covered in heavy armor plating. We've created real tanks, and when you drive tanks into one another at 70 miles an hour, it's even more dangerous than driving normal cars into one another. You mix that with real machine gun fire and it's not a race movie anymore. It's become a war movie, That's what I would say.
Stay tuned for more from the Toronto based set of Death Race over the course of the next few days. The film opens this summer on August 22nd, 2008. Be there, or get run down!