Jason Statham has become the go-to action man of choice over the last couple of years. He has kicked started two major action franchises with The Transporter series and his two Crank films. He has also lent his deadly hand to such recent cinematic pop fare as Guy Ritchie's Snatch, F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job, and this year's critical darling The Bank Job. On August 22nd, Statham is returning to the big screen in a remake of the 1975 Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000. In the film, which drops the year 2000 from its title, Jason plays Frankenstein, a man that is framed for the murder of his own wife and sent to jail. Only mere weeks away from being released, he is forced to participate in a brutal, deadly car race against his fellow inmates known simply as the Death Race. In a means to clear his name, Frankenstein uses this as his opportunity to get even with Slovo Pachenko, the man that set him up, as well as plan his escape route.
We recently headed to the Toronto based set for a behind the scenes look at director Paul W.S. Anderson's reimagining of the original cult classic Death Race. While there, we got a chance to speak with Anderson about his work on the film, as well as take a look at some of the Death Race cars in action. To read our first set report, which includes an interview with Paul, (click here!)During the second half of our three-part set visit, we got a chance to watch some death racing as well as speak with Jason Statham. As it was Statham's day off, he had not yet arrived at our particular location. While awaiting his arrival, we were hurried into a alcove full of recycled steel and scrap metal railings. A stretch of Dolly track led from the alcove back out onto the racetrack. Seated around a table in a dark corner of the room were a bunch of extras dressed like prison convicts. Tattooed, ripped, and sporting dreads, they could have easily been the real thing. A German woman handed out sandwiches to each of us. Seconds later, cellophane off the ham and cheese, a P.A. came running through the barracks. He waved everybody that was standing outside on the racetrack into the compound. "Guys, off the road! Everybody inside, please!"
Gunfire tore through the open-air cubbyhole. The P.A. yelled a little too late, "Protect your ears!" At that exact moment, a tire on one of the equipment carts popped, causing a loud, unexpected explosion. One of the extras, a Rastafarian with a large scar covering the majority of his face, fell out of the back of his chair. His ham and cheese sandwich rolled into the dirt. Everyone else hurried to regain their composure.Soon, it was pictures up. The camera car was about to speed by our opening. Machine-Gun Joe's 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 sped by on the small stretch of racetrack in front of us. Machine gun fire filled the air. The car was being chased by an unseen foe: The Dreadnaught. A nasty piece of machinery, this Semi Truck decked out in gun turrets and bulletproof armor was quite the sight to behold. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it, as its one of the film's centerpiece scares. Some of the surrounding crew crept out from behind the barn door to get a better look as it took off after the Dodge Ram. This caused the P.A. to get a tiny little tummy ache. His face wrought with irritation, he spread his arms wide, pushing us all back into the alcove, "Everybody back inside! I don't want to have to keep asking you!"
Milliseconds after the Dreadnaught sped past, three more racecars went by in a blur of retrofitted sheet metal. Why so many dangerous vehicles on the road? The answer was quite obvious and very simple, "You have to kill a few drivers to pump up the ratings!" And that's the driving force behind the Death Race. Audiences are hungry for road kill, and the ratings prove that fact. As we were told by director Paul Anderson, "The warden is making money off of this. And it is all going directly into her pocket."
The Dodge Ram, the Dreadnaught, and the other three racecars were backed into position, and this short-segmented scene was run through a second time. And then a third. After about the sixth time we had to cover our ears due to the machine gun fire, this moment, which will probably last all of two seconds on screen, had becoming quite tedious. Once you've seen a car chased by the Dreadnaught, you've sort of seen it all. You're good to go. Sure, it will look great on screen when it is edited together with the rest of the chase. But it's the detailed execution that starts to dry the eyes and tire the feet. As explained to us, one single race can take up to four or five weeks of shooting. For half the day, it would just be the same two vehicles running the same six yards of concrete. Exciting inside a movie theater, but without a car crash or close call to liven things up on the field, this Death Race soon turned into a "yawn race". It took twenty minutes for each new shot to be reset. On this day, the camera crew was using three separate cameras. The day before, they were using nine.After about an hour of watching them shoot, we were walked into a garage area where various mechanics were working on a number of different cars from the film. This is where they are all fabricated and fixed up. For each make and model, there are various different versions that are capable of performing different tasks. Some of the cars have no breaks. Some are fitted with extra machine guns. Some have been munched and are barely recognizable. A cop car sits on a gurney. It has been gutted and fitted with collapsible doors. Looking inside Frankenstein's Mustang, there are three big lights on the dashboard. They are power indicators that light up when the car goes over one of the "Death Head" icons.
From here, we were led into a watchtower that overlooks the entire Damnation Alley racetrack. After chatting with one of the producers, we were introduced to the star of the film himself, Jason Statham. It is very quickly reveled that Statham hasn't really come in on his day off just to chat with us. Visiting the set is what he often does on his free time. He loves being here, watching the cars in action. And there's not much else to do in Toronto. This is our conversation:
Jason Statham: You guys came on a good day. You'll get to see a stunt or two.
So, there aren't any Mini Coopers in this one, huh?
Jason Statham: These cars are way better than the Mini Cooper. Those little cars don't move too fast. These cars here today have more of an engine. There's more inside of them that you can play with.
What's it like getting behind the wheel of a Death Race car?
Jason Statham: It's the best. There's nitrous oxide, so you have an extra two hundred and fifty-horse power. We've got napalm, smoke, ejector seats and a very crappy stereo that only CDs. I guess we're not really concerned about that. It's great to be able to drive something this potent. I've never seen anything like it. We have GE mini-guns that fire out four thousand rounds per minute. It can tear a car into smithereens within a couple of minutes. Simply amazing. Go on YouTube and watch what one of those guns does. It will blow your mind. These are the most tear-about cars you could possibly imagine.
Were you a fan of the old film? Or at least aware of it?
Jason Statham: Yeah, but Paul didn't want me paying too much attention to that. This is an homage to that film, but it's not a carbon copy in any stretch of the imagination. This is something completely different.
Can you give us a little bit of background on your character?
Jason Statham: I can't tell you too much. That would spoil it. I will say, something happens and he gets sent to prison. It has to do with the murder of his wife. His young daughter gets taken into foster care. He is in prison trying to clear his name. No one inside is interested in listening to that story. The only way he can find an exit out of that hellhole is to win five Death Races in a row. So he takes on the persona of Frankenstein, which is a creation of the evil Hennessy. She has brought everyone's attention to the Death Race through the masses of the Internet. My character has to take the place of Frankenstein because the real Frankenstein is dead.
Did they make you drive the Mustang with your mask on?
Jason Statham: No, that would have been a bit of a burden. The windows are bulletproof, as well as smoked and mirrored. We can't really see what's happening inside, so when we get inside I can take off that damned mask.
What's it like having to go up against Joan Allen as the villain?
Jason Statham: Oh, let me tell you! She is a cold chilling villain. Believe me. She is so amazing. You don't get an Oscar for being average. She is as good as they come. To act opposite her is a major step forward for my career and me. Unbelievable? Yes! She does a job and a half.
What has it been like working opposite Ian McShane?
Jason Statham: Again, Golden Globe winner Mr. McShane. A fellow countrymen. Working with him raises the bar considerably. He gives you all of the drama, which adds much more weight to it. We're all very happy about that.
What is your on-screen relationship with Tyrese, who plays Machine-Gun Joe, like?
Jason Statham: We don't have much of a relationship. It's a very competitive environment in this prison. Machine-Gun Joe is on his way to winning his freedom too. So there ain't no handshakes. There ain't no pats on the back. You'll see. He's a bit of an evil bastard.
But you do sort of have a relationship with your navigator in the film, right?
Jason Statham: You'll have to wait and see. They bring all of the women in from the female prison. Those are our navigators. It's either to pump up the ratings or its because they do a good job at navigating this bad track that we are forced to drive around. I come from the UK, so I'm very familiar with rally driving. It's a 50-50 sort of job with the navigator. It's very shorthand. The corners come up so quick, and they give a number for the acuteness of the corner. It's all very fast-talking. It's a communication that has to be very strong. So yeah. It's not like a Formula One track, where the navigation comes from within the pits, and you kind of get familiar with pre-laps. This is a bit more reckless kind of track that we are subjected to. In dealing with that, we do form a "bond".
What sort of fighting style are you utilizing in this film. Paul W.S. Anderson told us that it would be different than what we've seen you do in The Transporter.
Jason Statham: Yeah, no one wants to repeat themselves. This character is a different kind of person. He's a bit of a bad boy turned good from his misspent youth. But he got his act together and found himself a lovely lady. I don't think he had much skills as far as fighting technique goes. So we could stick any sort of move on him. He's a bit more of a brute. He's a street fighting sort of guy. And we're picking out weapons for him to use instead of having him do that roundhouse kick.
How has it been working with Mr. Anderson?
Jason Statham: I've never worked with somebody so ahead of the game. He's so detail oriented. He's already pre-shot the entire movie in his head. He's a bundle of good energy. Every change that he has is a positive one. I have massive respect for him, and you'll see that with the finished product. I think he's going to do an amazing job with this. I'm really very pleased by it all.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of our Death Race set visit, which will be coming your way very soon. In it, we talk with actors Max Ryan and Natalie Martinez. Death Race speeds into theaters this summer. Look for it to tear your ass up on August 22nd, 2008.