Cinescape (July 14th, 2002)

BALE PLAYS WITH FIRE

Best known for his role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and the man who was dubbed one of the “Most Creative People in Entertainment” by Entertainment Weekly, Christian Bale returns to the big screen this week in the sci-fi adventure Reign of Fire.

However, when the film’s director (Rob Bowman) first approached the star about participating in his new genre project, Bale wasn’t too thrilled about jumping into the character of Quinn, the fire chief who, as a boy, was responsible for waking the dragons from their hibernation. On the contrary, he was hesitant and openly discussed his uncertainties.

“First, I had a lot of reservations about making a movie like this,” says Bale. “Initially, I was very surprised that they were interested in me for it. And that came to be an attraction for me because I hope that I can always do something that isn’t predictable. There’s a great deal of risk involved in making a movie of this scale. It really needs a very strong-minded director helming it. [With] anything this size, there’s a lot of people very worried about how it’s going to turn out. And I really wanted to know that there was going to be one person who genuinely was directing this movie and it was going to be his movie at the end of the day and not anybody else’s.”

Next, the actor’s worries turned toward his non-existent costars.

“Second, you’re dealing with a leap of faith, especially so when you’re not going to meet the star,” continues Bale. “I mean, the dragon is the star of this movie, and I had no idea on Earth what it was going to look like or how they were going to present it. And I wanted to know that what Rob told me was going be exactly how it was – that suddenly in editing, the dragon was going to have a hat on its head, or have big eyelashes, or whatever. These things can happen and I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t that kind of a project. I asked Rob what he thought was problematic or what his concerns were and [they were] exactly what my concerns were. So, I did a complete 180 in the meeting with him. I went in there thinking, ‘Probably not’ and left there thinking, ‘Man, this could be really quite exciting and really something different for me to do.’ And Rob stayed true to his word throughout, which is really no small feat when you are dealing with something of this scale.”

As Bale touched upon, the biggest challenge in the production was trying to imagine a main character that wasn’t ever onset. But the actor welcomed the challenge and found ways to envision the reality of his interactions with the dragons.

“Well, it’s as silly as you can imagine it to be,” says Bale. “But, any movie is incredibly silly. The most earnest character driven movie is incredibly silly if you are looking at it with clear eyes. I think it’s always a good idea to have that in mind and not be taking yourself too seriously. It was obviously a new feeling, having to stare at mid-air. I got an awful lot of the artists’ renderings of the dragons, so I knew exactly what it was going to be looking like. Also, we didn’t use blue screen at all; it was all done on location. And that enabled the performance to have a kind of momentum to it and a reality to it instead of the hygiene of a very cold atmosphere of a studio with a blue screen. But, that being said, I’ve done many movies where there are no special effects whatsoever where I am doing a scene, apparently talking to somebody and I am looking at a brick wall because that actor was not able to fit behind the camera and the lighting needed to be there and the room was too small, etc. So, it’s not something that is completely alien to me.”

Once editing was complete and Bale was afforded the opportunity to see for himself exactly what the dragons looked like, he’s was surprised to discover that they resembled the image in his head (which, in turn, was influenced by artist renditions).

“The dragons are very true to what I was imagining, because I’ve seen the artistic renderings,” says Bale. “But the fascinating thing is always the editing, because I’ve seen a slightly different route towards telling the story that we’ve made and then there’s always changes being made in the editing. I always like to see things a number of times before I can sit back and enjoy it. But I felt that there wasn’t a single thing really that I was disappointed with.”

Another aspect of REIGN OF FIRE that Bale isn’t disappointed with is the attention to human characters, instead of straight action.

“[I feel] that so many action movies, special effects movies seem to have no interest whatsoever in telling a story and having the perspective of the human characters in it,” says Bale. “It seems to get lost very often in a lot of movies. It was actually more exciting being given the opportunity to do it because I believe that action movies of every type can be done well, and here was my opportunity to try and put that to the test.”

Welsh-born actor Christian Bale quite literally lights up the screen in the post-apocalyptic-world-infested-with-dragons-who-like-to-consume-humans feature REIGN OF FIRE. Today, Bale continues his discussion of the film, focusing on how he managed to go toe-to-toe with Matthew McConaughey, who took his role as the dragon slayer Van Zan very seriously.

“Matthew was punching people non-stop in Dublin at the boxing gym,” explains Bale. “He was sparring constantly. I actually arrived in Ireland having dieted quite considerably because I thought Quinn should probably be pretty gaunt and skinny. Then I saw Matthew and I realized that I actually had to be competition for him. I had to be somebody that people had to believe could go toe-to-toe with him and not just psychologically, so I kind of did a crazy couple of weeks of desperate working out to try and at least look like I could stand a few minutes in the ring with Matthew.”

Bale enjoyed the fact that McConaughey was able to stay in character for the duration of the shoot and has a great deal of respect for actors who have the ability to fully immerse themselves in the psychological realms of their characters.

“I really enjoy when people do that,” says Bale. “I like seeing that amount of immersion. Matthew is a real character. I really liked working with him. I like him a great deal. Obviously, Van Zan is an insane character and a warrior and Matthew really kind of took that on throughout. In my mind, I think that being an actor gives you an opportunity to behave like that with the excuse that it’s your job. So I take advantage of that fully and I like it when other people do as well.”

Bale, however, only opts to immerse himself in a character when he feels it is necessary or beneficial for the performance. And when he does take this approach, he has no strict method of helping him achieve this.

“I tend to find that I do whatever I feel is necessary,” says Bale. “There will be some parts where, I don’t have any sort of technique or style that I always adhere to, but there are some times when I feel that it is necessary to stay in character a bit and there are other times when I feel that it is the last thing on Earth that is necessary. I try to do it day-to-day.”

While Bale’s character, Quinn, by no means has the same tough guy demeanor as McConaughey’s Van Zan, Bale did feel he was on the same physical level with his adversary-turned-ally. That is, until he saw himself on-screen.

“Well, I kind of thought I was [competitive with Matthew],” says Bale. “When we were doing the fight sequence, I was like, ‘Yeah that was a good fight between the two of us.’ Then I would watch it and be like, ‘What was I thinking? I just get creamed!’ I thought that I was being competitive, but I am just not, he walks all over me.”

And one instance of Matthew’s “walking all over” Christian actually happened in real life and managed to make its way into the film.

“He head-butted me and that’s what you see in the movie,” says Bale. “It’s a genuine head-butt, and then I stood up and genuinely punched him because he had just genuinely head-butted me. But I think that he got the better shot in.”

Aside from the nasty head-butt, there were other day-to-day hazards that Bale was forced to contend with, like trying to avoid the massive amounts of fire used onset.

“There were a couple of times when we got pretty close to it,” says Bale. “Obviously though, they had all kinds of fire retardants that they would douse us with. But then, you know, its fire and they can control it to a point. At the end of the day, its still fire and there’s one scene that I think is in the movie when I kind of went running up and there was a ball of flame that went rebounding off a wall and came right back over me again. You know, you feel heat for an instant, but there’s flame retardant stuff that stops you from being scorched.”

Overall, Bale is happy with his work in the film, as well as the picture’s overall look.

“There were a number of scenes that did end up on the cutting room floor, which always happens,” says Bale. “But there’s nothing that I watched and thought, ‘That’s a loss that that one was gone.’”

Since his acting debut as Jim in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of te Sun, Bale has certainly had his shares of ups and downs, but he continues to push himself as an actor in a very competitive profession – one that he has both loved and hated.

“I have hated it and liked it, and wanted to quit and wanted nothing to do with it and everything in-between in those times,” says Bale. “I haven’t ever sought out anything controversial. I’ve never liked that it seems to be a pattern that many people will take some risks at the beginning of their career and then later on, everything is played very safe. Everything becomes very predictable, but I don’t ever want to be turning something down because I am afraid to do it because of some idea of image or whatever. That was never what I set out to do. In fact, [I want to do] the opposite. I always want to confuse people in terms of any kind of image. I want to be unpredictable in what kind of movie I want to make.”

By Jennifer H. Tomooka.