(June 25th, 2002)


At the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention over the weekend, I got to revisit with Reign of Fire director Rob Bowman (who we first met at the Saturn Awards) and talk to both him and the star of the film, Christian Bale. Christian Bale is an actor-actor, so it was nifty as hell that he wanted to hang out with the fans and Rob, of course, has been part of the genre forever – best known for helming numerous X-Files episodes and then the feature film.

I’ll get to them in a second, but first, the assembled convention goers and I got a gander at a lot more of the movie as they showed the trailers, a clip of dragon-fighting, and then an amazing ten-minute documentary on the making of the movie, particularly the CGI work on the dragons.

It looks unbelievable. I sh*t you not.

The dragons are huge and everywhere. You can tell that, unlike Dungeons & Dragons, they are pouring on the dragons here as they are a constant presence. They are put through their paces so we can see them do pretty much everything. The documentary, with interviews from Bowman and the effects team, showed all the influences on the dragon as well – king cobras, komodo dragons, panthers – every kind of real-life animal that went into the design. These dragons on the attack looked fantastic and exactly what I wanted to see with this pic.

But anyway, I think I’ve said enough for the past almost-year about this movie for you folks to know I really want to see this thing more than anything else this summer. So, let’s move on, shall we, and chat with the star of the movie – Christian Bale – who plays Quinn and director Rob Bowman.

At the Saturns, Rob was telling me that there are two kinds of people in the world of Reign of Fire – the people who want to hide until the dragons die out and those who want to fight. What side of the equation do you fall on?

My character is kind of like the one who opened the whole Pandora’s Box and got the whole thing started and saw his mother killed in front of his eyes because of it and he has established a community in the midst of nothing, with no food, hardly any resources, having to struggle like crazy. This has become his life’s work and he’s really done a great job. We meet these people and there’s obviously a crisis situation in that they are going hungry. People are getting frustrated and here’s Quinn in the midst of all who reluctantly has to take control of everything. So then, when Van Zan turns up, it obliterates everything that Quinn was working for. He’s the opposite. He is threatening Quinn’s entire life, essentially, so the two of them do not get along in the slightest. I think it gives a nice perspective to the whole movie. In the whole opening of it, you get a sense of the claustrophobia of these people who are living in hiding who are aware that every time they go outside, there is the possibility of death every second.

And Quinn has adopted this philosophy first because he watched his mother die?

Christian: Because he’s been there, because he’s seen it. He’s seen the world blow itself apart. He’s seen millions die and his wisdom says to him, it’s been tried. It can’t be done. Leave them, outlast them – they will eventually starve to death because they will have eradicated every food source from the earth. So, he’s just saying, “Stay still and we can outlast them,” because he’s been up close and he knows there’s no way that we’re going to actually be able to kill them. What I liked about it is that I always like doing things that are very different from anything I’ve done before. I want to continue doing that. When Rob first sent me the script, I read it and I thought, man, this could really be something great. And it could also be something really bloody awful. There has to be that concern. So, when I first met with Rob, I said to him, “So, what are your concerns about it all?” And, he wanted to make something gritty, dirty, have the characters be real – and also, I think one of the main things is that with something of this size and where there’s going to be so many special effects required, I do often find watching movies that people go overboard often with the special effects and you lose your perspective completely – and you lose interest as well because it almost becomes like watching a videogame. And it is the human characters that have to ground it, keep some sort of reality, and also that is going to help the audience to genuinely believe in the dragons. Rob was really adamant about that being essential for the movie. So, with everything that he said – that was the dragon movie that I wanted to make and seemed like the only decent, plausible way of doing it.

How do you create a world like this where humans live under this constant threat?

Rob: It’s not that difficult. I grew up in L.A. I went through the earthquakes. My grandfather was in the war. I learned a lot about World War II. Studied a lot of World War II footage. It’s mostly the idea is of putting people in crisis and then through stuff that I thought would be realistic, where would you live? In a cave? Maybe, but we’d need a big cave. So, we chose a medieval Norman castle because if it stood for eight hundred years, maybe it would stand for another eight hundred. How do we outfit it so that it’s somewhat civilized? With heating and plumbing and places to eat, sleep, to procure food – it’s very practical the way we approached it. But the idea of a jalopy Norman castle was an interesting idea to me – what does that look like? And it’s a castle with radio towers on top and windmills that create energy and plumbing and fifty caliber guns on the walls. It just seemed like an interesting mix and I don’t think I’d seen it before. The rest of the world is basically a charcoal briquette, so we tried to keep color out of landscapes and make it feel like we’re basically nomads or vagabonds or gypsies and living in the wild, wild west. There is no law. It is a land full of pirates and marauders and people that you don’t trust, which is why when Van Zan first shows up at the castle, Quinn says, “I don’t care who you tell me you are – I’ve heard this story so many times before.” As he was making the point, Van Zan is basically a face on half the reason that they got to this position which was, “so many of you gung ho leathernecks went out and used all your artillery and blew up about half as much stuff as the dragons did! And now you’re coming here telling me that that’s a good idea to try it again? I don’t need you. I survived the war. Explain to me why starting another war, why basically going in and making a ruckus is going to solve the problem. It didn’t work the first time and you don’t have that much artillery.” So, just setting aside a list of rules and then sticking to them and then in terms of acting, writing and set design, and action sequence concepts, I was always trying to think, what can I come up with that would be basically people unarmed running around being chased by a dragon. How many do I have to kill so the dragons feel lethal enough and how many do I have survive so I can these scarred souls through the story? You watch them being boiled down to their bones until eventually they say, “I’ve had it.” It’s just lots of thinking really.

Will you talk about the location shooting and this castle that was built up for this movie?

Christian: It was vast. It was fantastic. Wolf Kroeger was the production designer on it (S.J.R. Note: Kroeger also did the fantastic production design of Enemy at the Gates and was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on Last of the Mohicans) and I don’t know how many acres it was…

Rob: Seven.

Christian: …but it looked actually so much bigger than that! The impression on the set was that it was humongous. It was a really nice blending obviously with the medieval castle and the stereotypes of the knight going out to kill the dragon and all that and blend that with the technology they were able to get together and all the piping and antennas all over it. It is really true that when you get a good set like that, when you get everything together – you get all the clothing and all the people together – it makes it so much easier to do your job properly and get a sense of the tone of the whole piece. It was so important because that castle does set the whole tone for the rest of the movie. We shot it in Ireland, just outside of Dublin. The whole thing was built from the ground up, but it’s always such a shame because you do these movies and they build these fantastic sets – but then you go back there and there’s nothing. There’s gravel.

Rob: It was ironic, because we thought, “We’ll go to Ireland because they have all these castles!” (Christian laughs) It was a bit like if you come to Los Angeles and we’re going to do a movie on a freeway, but we’re building our own freeway. “Let’s shoot in Los Angeles, okay?” “Okay.” “Do they have freeways?” “Oh, yeah, but none of them are right. We need just this one.”

As the CGI wasn’t completed until recently, what kind of dragon designs did they have for you on the set to look at and get a feel for the dragons from?

Christian: There were artist renderings of the dragons, which we looked at. Fantastic drawings – what’s the guy’s name? Meeker?

Rob: Mike Meeker and Matt Codd.

Christian: Brilliant drawings which I pasted up along around my changing room to get an idea because it’s important that we all know what we’re looking at. From an actor’s point-of-view, to imagine that truthfully. Actually, they only thing I’ve got to say from seeing the movie at the end and it’s a great compliment to the guys was that the only difference in the dragon is that it is actually bigger than I was picturing it at the time and more gruesome, but that’s a great surprise to find rather than the other way around.

As you’re needed on stage, I’ll make this the last one. We’ve talked a lot about the dragons, but this is also a “fire” movie. How much of the fire is real, how much is CG, and what was it like tackling a movie that does have live flame throughout the picture?

Christian: Oh, man, most of it is real. Isn’t it?

Rob: Yeah.

Christian: There’s a couple of times when we’re running through it and they’d put on – I don’t remember, it was some kind of gel – flame-retardant stuff that they’d put on our faces because we have explosions going off and you’re really feeling the heat going through there. It was also, in a very sick way, to go on the set because you had all the actors standing there without any sort of mask on and then you look at the crew and every morning they would have these gleaming white face masks that would cover their nose and mouth – and within two hours, they were jet black. So, as the actors we were kind of looking at them like, “You bastards. What’s happening to us?” (laughs) And the set, every day, stank of diesel.

Rob: Yeah, there is some digital fire, but we had giant, two hundred foot-long dragon breath. There was a lot of fire. (to Christian) I think the thing you’re talking about is in the castle where you come back and you’re running up the stairs chasing the little girl – once you hit the green button on the fire, that’s it. You’re no longer in control. The fire then has its own attitude and it’s chasing oxygen in this contouring wave. There’s this one scene where he’s running up these stairs and it’s rehearsed and he understands and yada, yada, yada and there’s this propane can, which is basically a fire “burp.” It doesn’t continue to be fueled. It sends out this bubble of gas that is then ignited and that gas goes away and once it burns up, it’s gone. But, he’s running up the stairs, charging to save a little girl and they hit a cannon. It comes up and he sees as the wave comes up (mimes starting the scene and sending Christian up the stairs with the fire) – “now go” – and then it comes back off the wall and (mimes Christian ducking out of the way), “Fucking Hell!” – and then keep on acting! So, but I don’t think anybody on the movie got burned, so kudos to the special effects department!

And that’s Reign of Fire director Rob Bowman and star Christian Bale talking to me in the green room at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction convention yesterday.

By Smilin’ Jack Ruby.