FilmStew (July 12th, 2002)

FIRE TALKERS

In this interview, actors Christian Bale Bale and Izabella Scorupco, along with film maker Rob Bowman, talk about making their sci-fi/fantasy movie Reign of Fire and the incredible acting prowess of co-star Matthew McConaughey.

Actor Christian Bale (of American Psycho fame) seems an unlikely choice for a movie about dragons. Swedish hottie Izabella Scorupco looks like she’d be more comfortable in a Gucci gown then manning a helicopter. But in Reign of Fire, these two performers, along with Matthew McConaughey, take on the enormous fire-breathing reptiles that now rule the earth. Reign is a film that explores the earth in all its post apocalyptic splendor, where humans and dragons combat each other for territorial gain, as well as their lives.

The film’s story is set in present day London and at its center is Quinn. As a 12-year-old boy Quinn watched his mother die after accidentally waking a fire-breathing dragon from its centuries long sleep. Twenty years later, dragons have taken over the earth and Quinn has become a fire chief, in charge of protecting a small community from the man-eating beasts. When a wild American named Van Zan (played by McConaughey) shows up claiming he can kill the dragons, Quinn is quite skeptical. That is until Van Zan begins proving himself quite adeptly.

At the ripe old age of 28, actor Christian Bale has accumulated quite a variegated resume – doing the token Brit period piece fare (Portrait of a Lady) a few independents, like The Velvet Goldmine and Metroland to a rather riskier foray into the mind of a serial killer (American Psycho). As Quinn, the reluctant leader of a small faction of rebels fighting dragons for their daily bread, Bale takes on a very different type of persona.

“Christian had never done a movie like this before, and I knew he’d be a fresh face,” explains Rob Bowman, Reign of Fire’s director. “I had to fly to Berlin, where he was shooting Equilibrium. I asked him ‘What do you think of the script’ and he just looked at me with this blank face and then said ‘Uh, I got a lot of problems with this’, to which I responded, ‘I’m with you man, but this is what I’m going to do.'”

Bale just nods and smiles when the subject is brought up with him. “I had a lot of reservations about making a movie like this”, he says in his lyrical Welsh accent. “There’s a great deal of risk… it really needs a strong-minded director. I needed to know this was going to be Rob’s film”.

From all accounts, in the early stages of the film the problem was the script -there were holes that needed repairing.

“He (Christian) liked the central idea of the story”, Bowman testifies, “and I made him a promise that I would fix it and since then he’s thanked me several times for keeping my word to him.”

Then of course, there was the challenge of actually shooting the dragons – the true stars of the film who weren’t on the set at all – only the ideas of them in the minds of the actors, perpetuated by Bowman. “Any movie is a leap of faith, especially when you’re not going to meet the star of it – the dragon was the star, remember, and I had no idea how they were going to present it” Bale says. “Rob walked me through the look and feel of the dragons, even before they had been done up with special effects. So I just had a mental image and a few artist renderings to go off of. In the end though, the dragons came out exactly as I had imagined.”

Izabella Scorupco, previously seen in Vertical Limit and the Bond film, GoldenEye, is quick to agree with Bale over the difficulty of acting against an invisible fire breathing dragon. “Rob showed us how the dragon would be thinking and moving,” she says. “As actors we pretty much have a huge fantasy mind, so what was hard was knowing where you were in the script in relation to these creature. . . it was our job (as actors) to make the audience believe that we were really scared to death, that we were actually seeing this enormous, man eating reptile.”

Excessively fetching and undeniably pretty, the Polish-born, Swedish raised Scorupco has primarily been known for her rough and tumble action roles; playing strong women as opposed to damsels in distress. When asked if this was part of the grand scheme for her acting career, she gave a somewhat unlikely response: “I would really love to be a weak woman, because it’s more about acting than action. I feel it would be a big challenge for me as an actress,” confesses Scorupco. “Here, in movies like Reign of Fire I already knew what I was doing inherently.”

As Scorupco points out, even in playing a Bond girl her character was never passive. “At first I was so excited that I’d been cast, because I thought I was going to wear all these great shoes,” she laughs.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t mind being a sexy object because I’ve never been the sexy girl. In Goldeneye, I was the nerdy Bond girl. All the other women had these great outfits, and I only had one!”

The one person holding Reign of Fire together, if only in his mind was its director, Bowman. Certainly, he is no stranger to fictitious beasts. He spent many years on the X-Files series, as well as taking the helm of the X-Files movie. Apparently dragons have always been high on his list of monsters to capture on the big screen. “I have these figurines around my house, and when I used to watch Dragon slayer I knew I wanted to do something like this,” he admits. “When it came to coming up with the look and feel of the dragons, I made up the conceptual designs. Then we brought in a paleontologist who takes your idea, and makes it more realistic.”

Mentioning the fictitious fire breathers, Scorupco chimes in, “There were times when I saw these beings as more than just dragons – I saw them as biological weapons. Rob has an amazing imagination, and that came through perfectly in their depictions.”

Yet there is more to the dragons in Reign of Fire than just mere drawings. “I wanted to design a supreme predator and more agile than a jet,” reports Bowman. “But a jet has a stiff spine. I wanted them to be more supple, like a snake. I spent a lot of time pouring over National Geographic images, trying to put together the perfect combination of my dragon. Like a leopard approaching it’s prey – it’s eyes have laser beam focus. I wanted the dragons to be just as agile and interesting on the ground as they were in the air. But we didn’t have these models built for the actors to see – all they had were the animatics and illustrations to get an idea. I told them the intentions and capabilities of this animal – if you’re outside, you’re fair game. It’s the analogy of the eagle and the field mouse.”

Ultimately, the audience will really be the true judge as to whether the dragons are frightful, as Bowman concedes. “I knew that it (the notion of a dragon movie) was such an absurd idea, that if I wasn’t extraordinarily strict, it would be a joke and the movie would fall apart,” he shrugs helplessly.

“This movie was never about stars. It was about getting the budget on screen. They (the studios) give you all this money – you wanna spend it on actors? Go ahead, that’s how much you have to spend to paint fingernails. But in Reign of Fire, I needed ALL my dragons, all my sets, and everybody – my production designer, my cinematographer – top notch.”

In viewing the film, it is easy to see no expense was spared. The look of post-apocalyptic London and its environs is incredibly mesmerizing, due in part to Bowman’s choice of production designer. “Wolf Kroeger had recently made Enemy at the Gates and that’s exactly the kind of set I wanted. Quite honestly, because he made Das Boot he kinda already had the job,” the director allows. “That was one of the movies that made me want to be a director. He’s a genius at making sets that convey the textures of a story.”

While Bowman might freely state that Reign of Fire wasn’t about paying top dollar for actors, he certainly had some key players in mind when he started casting the film. Bale was chosen because he would be a fresh face in the midst of an action film, but Matthew McConaughey was a different story. As Van Zan he is a cigar chomping, machismo pumped dragon slayer, who won’t let anyone – or anything – stand in his way. “He kicked down my door for this role,” Bowman reveals. “This was a new type of performance for him and he wanted to explore his acting skills.”

In hindsight, Scorupco feels Bowman may have cast the two most appropriate actors for the job. “Being with Christian – and Matthew in particular was an adrenaline rush. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the most physical actors in the business,” she declares. “Matthew was already Van Zan when I met him, so I don’t know another Matthew, or, the real Matthew. He’s extremely driven, and so prepared.”

Van Zan’s role in Reign of Fire is primarily that of a dragonslayer and when he meets Quinn (Bale) for the first time early in the film, the air is filled with tension and male bravado as to who will now lead the troops into battle.

“Matthew from the onset felt that he was chosen – that somehow, like Patton – that no bullet had his name on it, and no dragon had his number”, concludes Bowman. “He was chosen to kill dragons, and that’s exactly what he was going to do. He went into town and got these great tattoos all over his body. He wanted some sort of moniker on himself that said ‘I am the dragonslayer’. He took the role very, very seriously.”

Seeing Bale and McConaughey go head to head on screen is like watching a battle of the “hot bods” – both looked as if they spent a lot of time in the gym, prepping for their roles. Bale counters such an idea – at least for himself. “Van Zan is an insane character and warrior, and Matthew totally took that on. He obviously was punching people nonstop inDublin,” the actor says referring to the movie’s Irish location. “He was sparring constantly. I arrived in Ireland after dieting considerably, thinking my character should be pretty gaunt. Then I see Matthew and knew he had to be competition for Quinn, and not just psychologically.” He giggles a wee bit and looks over at his wife, who happens to be sitting nearby as he conducts promotional interviews in support of the film. “So I kind of did a crazy couple of weeks of pumping up and getting in shape. It was insane”.

Even before the movie hits theaters there is already talk of a sequel. “That’s not my intention”, says Bowman, shaking his head at the thought of directing another film with fire breathing dragons. “I chose this version of Reign of Fire to be the one and only; to have as much soul, humanity, realism and originality as possible. I always felt that if the movie looked like I had to slick it up, and do overly fancy camera moves, the audience would be like ‘The filmmakers didn’t believe the dragon either. They had to put sugar on it.’ That wasn’t my goal. It’s a survival movie – and the dragons here are trying to survive, just like the humans. That’s the suspense of the whole story”

By Susan Michals.