On April 8th, director James Wong is bringing the hugely popular Dragon Ball cartoon to life with his live action adaptation Dragonball Evolution. Originally based on the Dragon Ball Z television series, this new incarnation follows the plight of popular anime character Goku (Justin Chatwin) as he ventures from childhood into adult hood. At his dying grandfather's request, the young fighter must find the great Master Roshi and help him collect all seven mystical Dragon Balls before they fall into the evil hands of Lord Piccolo. If they fail in their task, Piccolo will succeed in taking over the world!
Last year, we were invited to visit the vast, practical Dragonball Evolution sets being built in Durango, Mexico. There, we would talk with most of the actors from the film including Chow Yun-Fat who stars as Master Roshi. Also along for the ride were Emmy Rossum as the highly intelligent weapons expert Bulma, Korean recording artist Joon Park as the shy yet deadly Yamcha, and the great James Marsters, who truly embodies the evilness that is Lord Piccolo. We were allowed to hop from one studio location to the next, each door transporting us directly into some fantastical new world straight out of the original manga upon which Dragonball Evolution is based. Various different scenes were being shot simultaneously inside an abandoned jeans factory. And we were there to watch as some of the action went down.
Upon entering the enormous warehouse, we were given a tour of the film's more iconic vehicles. Bulma's speedster is portrayed by a 2008 Can-Am Spyder roadster. This black and purple, three-wheeled motorcycle is powered by a 990cc V Twin engine designed and manufactured by BRP-Rotax. And it will surely appeal to Bulma's core fan base. A scientist as well as a weapons expert, our blue-haired beauty has created a special capsule that stores her speedster in a tiny pill shaped tube until she needs it most. Offering up specs on the bike was Bulma herself, actress Emmy Rossum. Dressed in a leather jacket and fighting gloves, she is the true embodiment of this badass scientist. While flirting with the handlebars of her rather unique high-speed bike, she offered some insight into her character, "She is so rad! I don't really say that word. But Bulma is rad. I got to learn how to shoot lots of different guns because of her. I trained with the Marines. I learned how to shoot handguns, rifles, shotguns, slugs. I've turned a nice shade of black and blue on this set. I got to ride this motorcycle. These are all things I've never done before. I have normally been corseted or singing when it comes to acting in a film. This is really fun for me. It's nice to play a kick-ass character that is really strong and smart. And she's vain."
Rossum actually helped the production designers perfect Bulma's look for the big screen. While this is based on an animated program, everyone involved wanted to bring a sense of realism to the project. Emmy's appearance is tame compared to Bulma's hand-drawn image in the original mangas, "My look has been toned down. I wanted it to be much bigger going in. But the powers that be wanted it to be realistic. We tried different wigs, different hair colors, different styles of clothing. I must have tried thirty different hairstyles. What I am wearing now is just a couple of extensions, and some dyed-blue bits. I wanted the bright blue, short bob. That is so signature of who she is. But I think they wanted it to be realistic. We are bringing these characters into a more realistic world. If the fans want the anime, they can watch the anime series. Or read the Manga comics. There are more than five hundred episodes of the series. And zillions of pages you can read if you want those characters to be exact. If you are such a purist, we can never do the things you want. We can only do our best!"
Before heading back to set, Emmy was kind enough to walk our small group away from the parked vehicles. On the way out we passed Yamcha's truck; a thick monster wielded together from various pieces of discarded metal. It's exterior resembles an iron beast. Its innards have been decked out in modern day gadgets and bright blinking lights. It's a handmade contraption that fits Yamcha's makeshift lifestyle. Once a thief, this roguish brute is now allied with Goku and considered a good guy. On screen, he is played by popular Korean recording artist Joon Park. He is an Asian superstar best known in the states for his villainous role as a Yakuza driver in last summer's Speed Racer. He is an imposing man with a bass-heavy voice that sounds almost identical to Sylvester Stallone's. When asked, he does do a pretty mean imitation. High-fiving his co-star, he swapped places with Rossum, excited to talk about his character, "I want you to know that I am familiar with both the manga and the anime. When I got the script, I understand that this guy was a scoundrel. That he is very tough. When you get to know the guy, he is basically scarred. He might seem to have a tough exterior, but looks are deceiving. He was scarred somewhere down the line. Whether it was from a business deal, from life in general, or from heartache. He puts armor around himself. He'll pull one over on you, because he doesn't care about you. Or anything else, for that matter. As long as he gets a leg up. He is like Han Solo. He is different from the other characters in this film. Every other character has some sort of specialty. Bulma is a weapons specialist. She is a scientist. She is smart. Goku, Roshi, and Chi Chi are all martial artists. Yamcha is a normal guy. He does have a reputation. But he is not as tough inside as he is on the outside."
Driving the truck excited Joon, until he found out just how far he'd be allowed to drive it, "This thing doesn't go very fast. The tires are huge. If you are going to have such big tires, you have to beef up the transmission. You have to keep it in a lower gear. When you are driving it, it is so slow. Before we shot, I practiced driving the truck for four straight days. I was doing all of this awesome stuff. We get to the first day of shooting with the truck. I run out of the temple, hop in, and go about four feet. They yell, 'Cut!' That's it. We are done. I asked, 'Do I get to drive it anymore?' They tell me, "No." The stunt guy is going to do the rest of the driving. I didn't understand why I did all of that training. But it is an awesome vehicle. It has awesome gadgets inside. It looks like crud. It has to look like it was made from scrape metal. But it is all tricked out. I think fans will really like it."
Park is possibly the biggest Dragon Ball enthusiast on set, "I asked the producers if I could be an extra if I didn't get the part. I told them that I would shovel manure. I truly wanted to see how they were going to make this come to life. When I was growing up, my friends would come back from Japan with all of these cool Dragon Ball toys and videos. This was like taking a trip back to memory lane. Pokemon and Dragon Ball are iconic. It would be the same as if I were playing Bugs Bunny. When I got the role, I decided I didn't want to become the character one hundred percent. I wanted the character to become me. That way, it didn't feel so weird. And cheesy. Yamcha is a pretty quirky guy. He is sarcastic. When it comes to being next to a girl in the comic, he is very shy. His nose bleeds. We don't go to those extremes. But when he is next to Bulma, we still see that in him. He is attracted to Bulma, because he doesn't have that much confidence in himself. He sees that she is very strong. When it comes down to the end of the world, he sees that he needs to straighten up and get going. He just doesn't know how. So he looks to her. You will see that in the movie. It was important for me to convey that. It might make me sound like a geek, but I buy a lot of vintage Japanese robots. For me, this was a big deal on all counts."
Dragon Ball is especially important to the fans. They are the ones that will be most interested in seeing this property achieve glory on the big screen. Wong, of course, took that into consideration when crafting the look of the film, "There is an incredible amount of story that can't be put into just one movie. The biggest change we had to make was with Goku. We wanted to age-up the character. In the mangas, he is twelve and fourteen. It's not until the end that he becomes a teenager. We wanted to start with him on his eighteenth birthday. That changes a lot of things. The most important thing to capture in the movie is the tone. Its important to capture the fun that Dragonball offers. We had to take out the parts we couldn't do. The mangas are just so fantastic. There are so many places we could go. We had to figure out this journey for Goku. How he comes to realize his destiny."
More than anything, it was important for Wong to take a realistic approach to this world and its iconic characters. He had to ease the more fantastical elements in with great finesse, "In the manga, you are thrust into this magical world that is overrun with pterodactyls and dinosaurs, and a bunch of other crazy things. Those are in the book right from the get-go. Our approach was to make that world more relatable to those audience members who aren't familiar with Dragon Ball. We slowly turned it into a more fantastical type of world as the story progresses. As Goku goes on his adventure, the things that he visits, and the creatures that he runs into become much more bizarre and crazy. My hope is that people will want to go back and check out the comics after seeing the movie. Then they will be even more excited about it. Hopefully, they will get caught up in it like I did with the mangas."
Wong excused himself, heading to the volcano. Chow Yun-Fat wrapped himself in a robe and crawled out of the back of the Airstream trailer. He walked over to our group, ecstatic to see us. This was his last day of shooting, and soon his days of traipsing around the Durango Walmart with Emmy Rossum would be over. He smiled, shaking each of our hands, "I am Master Roshi! Have you ever seen the cartoon? I've seen some of it. I think Master Roshi is a very funny guy. He is full of humor, and he has super powers! He has to carry on for his good friend Gohan and take care of Goku. I like that Master and student relationship. It is not like the traditional Chinese kind of Master and student relationship, though. They are more like friends. I've never, ever done this kind of character. It's brand new. There's comedy, drama, action, and a lot of CGI. It is very interesting."
Fat was too busy filming his John Woo trilogy to truly discover the joy that is Dragon Ball when it first came out. He has since taken a liking to this particular world of fantasy. He doesn't do too much hand-to-hand combat in the film. His powers are more effects driven. And his on-screen persona has been toned down from the books. He's still the lovable pervert that everyone remembers, but the approach is different, "Our sense of humor is coming from the cartoon version of the character. Western audiences don't except over the top humor in a film like this. If Master Roshi acted like his character from the manga, the movie would be rated R. He can't be that crazy. He isn't so much a pervert, but you can sense that playfulness in him. The guy is three hundred years old. He is still a dirty old man. But we've toned him down. We've made him different."
More than anything, Fat loves the comedic aspects that the character allows him to portray, "I enjoy the comedy the most. I especially like Roshi's opening scene. You have to make it both funny and serious to catch the eye of the younger generation. Sometimes it is hard, because I don't have an English sense of humor. I don't understand the slang. Most of my humor comes from physical comedy. I am using my dirty hands a lot." Chow was soon asked to step back into the Airstream trailer. He continued on with his joy ride in front of the green screen as we made our way towards the great volcano.
Near the base of this towering Styrofoam Mountain, we ran into the film's weapon expert Colin Thurston. He was carrying all of the Dragon Balls from the film in a metal briefcase, which he was more than happy to open for us. There were several different ball types, each one had its own special purpose. Colin exclaimed, "This is what the film is all about! When we first started this movie, everyone wanted the Dragon Balls to do what they would do in the movie. We had a lot of conversations about how they should look. How the stars where going to be inside of them. Whether they would glow or not. If we made them exactly like they are supposed to be in the movie, I would be working for NASA right now. Or the U.S. government. Because this was extremely difficult."
After being shown to us in all of their magnificent glory, Thurston made sure all of the Balls were accounted for and locked them back up in their case, "We can't have any of these disappearing off the set!" He seemed especially mindful of the glass ones, "Right now, the actors only get to handle the ones made out of resin. On our first day, during our first sequence, I gave one of the glass ones to Justin. And he dropped it on the floor and shattered it. I thought, 'That's me. Fixing balls throughout the whole production.' Luckily, we haven't had any more incidences like that."
As the sun began to set, we entered the mouth of the volcano and walked down inside the enormous set. The rocky walls had been ripped open, exposing red magma underneath. Sitting in a thrown chair, enjoying an apple, was James Marsters in full make-up. He was in character, ready to battle Goku to the death. Rubbing his fists in anticipation, he agreed to chat with us about the film and the evil villian he plays: "I get to make trouble for Goku. When I first got cast, I didn't think I was right for Piccolo. Hats off to James Wong. Now, I don't think there is another person in the world that could play this guy except me."
Dragonball Evolution Set Visit #8James is the perfect embodiment of foulness. He explains, "The make-up process lasts for four hours. The first test we did took sixteen hours. But we have perfected it. This has been wonderful. I really wanted the character to be decrypted, old, and hungry. He has been imprisoned for two thousand years without any mirrors. He busts free and looks in the mirror for the first time. He was a beautiful guy before he went to prison. Now he is old and ugly. He hates the sheriff that put him away. He hates the sheriff's family. So he kills the entire town that the Sheriff was trying to protect. That town just happens to be the entire planet earth. I needed to look in the mirror and see that anger. I needed a make-up job that my girlfriend would not want to kiss. That is what I got. And that's incredibly frustrating. The make-up is working a little too well."
Even with the costume and the make-up, James still has to be fairly active. Piccolo is a martial arts master, after all. It is a difficult process, "I had to put away all of the food and start working out like a maniac. I haven't looked back. I think I will have to work out for another sixteen or seventeen years if I want to get out of this in one piece. The shoot is a little bit hard. This is Dragon Ball. You can't soft sell that. The costume actually stretches. It is very well designed. It allows me to do all of my fight moves. Except for very high blocks. There was a problem with the pants. I couldn't get the sidekick up high enough. They fixed that. Everything else is really good. The make-up is a thin make-up. You feel like you have your head in a pillow all day long."
Piccolo offered Marsters a new kind of villian to play, "The guy is asexual. He has no sense of humor. I don't think I want him to have a sense of humor. I don't see that in him. And I have seen nearly every episode. At least ninety-eight percent of the episodes. I have been a fan of this series for a long time. My son loves Dragon Ball. And he will kill me if I get this wrong." Well, it certainly looks like James is on the right path to bringing this truly iconic bad guy to the big screen.
After our chat, we were allowed to stand by and watch as Goku and Piccolo engaged in some mean fisticuffs. The action came fast and furious, and their climatic battle will surely please fans of both the comic and the cartoon series when Dragonball Evolution makes its theatrical debut on Wednesday, April 8th, 2009. Stay tuned as we will have video interviews with the entire cast coming up in the very near future!