ROB BOWMAN FIRES UP CHRISTIAN BALE AND IZABELLA SCORUPCO TO REIGN OVER DIGITAL DRAGONS
Rob Bowman, best known for directing the X-Files feature film and several episodes of the long-running series, takes on an invasion of a different sort in his upcoming SF movie Reign of Fire: dragons. Bowman directs Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Izabella Scorupco in a tale about a future Earth besieged by legions of the fire-breathing beasts.
It’s the second movie for 20-year TV veteran Bowman, who directed episodes of several SF series before becoming one of the principals behind the nine years of The X-Files. He imprints his own filmic style on Fire and its dragons, bringing a new way of looking at the mythic creatures. The film shot for about 20 weeks on location in Ireland.
For Bale, the big-budget movie marks a change. Welsh-born Bale, who first came to attention as the young star of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, is perhaps best known for his role as the yuppie serial killer in American Psycho. In Fire, Bale plays his first action-hero role, Quinn, the English leader of a band of survivors trying to eke out an existence in a dragon-haunted world. He teams up with Van Zan, McConaughey’s character, a swaggering American dragon expert.
Scorupco’s part in Fire is only the latest in a series of action-girl roles. The Polish-born resident of Sweden first gained international fame as a Bond girl in Goldeneye and solidified her action credentials in Vertical Limit. In Fire, Scorupco pilots a helicopter, comes face to face with giant reptiles and holds her own with the boys.
Bowman, Bale and Scorupco took a moment to speak with Science Fiction Weekly about Reign of Fire, which opened July 12.
Rob Bowman, can you tell us about the casting of this film, which is a little unusual?
Bowman: I think Christian came first. … And it took a little doing to get him to say yes, too. I wanted somebody who hadn’t made a splash in this arena before, [not] somebody who already had been associated with another summer movie or another franchise of this kind. And I was also was on a mission to make summer movies more interesting for me to go see. … I look after the audience when I make a movie, and I want to make sure that the summer movies are getting better. … Sometimes the story suffers … over action and effects.
And I think the way you tell better stories is you write better scripts, and then you have better actors, and then you do a better job of telling the story when you’re photographing a movie. And to me, that evolution is fueled with stronger actors, more skilled actors, I think. Actors that you don’t know if they’re going to survive at the end of the movie. And actors who can … play a character in the movie. It’s not about a star. It is a character-driven movie, and the story is the star. So that informed who I was going to go after.
Now Matthew is obviously a star. But he looks so different, you don’t recognize him. So he comes on as Van Zan. Christian was initially reluctant, because he thought the original script, which I agree with … [was] just was a bit exaggerated, I thought. But the central idea was strong. And I convinced him that I was going to tone it down and be very, very strict about the reality of the movie, that the characters would be three-dimensional. The movie would be about the characters living in a world overrun by dragons. Not a lot about dragons. And I shot the movie from the actors’ point of view. There’s not a lot of helicopter-swooping shots … because I don’t care about the dragons. I care about the people. The dragons are what makes life hard for the humans.
The criteria for [Scorupco’s] character was that she had to be able to stand with the boys. And I didn’t want to have a babe in there who looked like I plugged her into the movie because she was cute. I wanted someone who was handy. And I thought she was very handy, very capable in James Bond and equally so in Vertical Limit. And I thought she had a good frame, a good soldier’s frame. And so basically what I did was throw as much dirt on her as I possibly could. I gave her big bags under her eyes and knocked her down, so that she didn’t look like the babe in the movie. She is, but I … made sure that her clothes weren’t too tailored. I didn’t make her butt look good or anything. … She’s in the uniform. And … she had to have a soul, because she’s a person who basically ordered these guys out of the helicopter, and she’s likely not to see them again. And that’s her duty. But it doesn’t mean that she has no heart. And it’s heartbreaking.
Can you talk about the conceptualization of dragons in this film?
Bowman: The last good dragon movie was Dragonslayer. … I sat down with an illustrator and made drawings that represented what I wanted to see. And then we went through about nine months of design, because I realized it wasn’t just making an illustration, give it to a computer artist and then you have a dragon. You have to build it. You have to build the feet. How long is the tibia? How long is the fibula? How wide are the hips? What’s its gait? What’s the length of the neck? What’s the head position? What’s the jaw? Every single inch of this dragon is designed. But there’s a great deal of naturalism in it. … We watched a lot of National Geographic. We watched a lot of snakes. We watched leopards crawling in the grass. … If you put in your movie a creature [for which] there’s no built-in or innate reaction to its attitude or behaviors, the audience has too far to go to worry about it. As opposed to if it sounds like a cobra, and the scales are kind of like an alligator, and the crawl is kind of like a leopard, the audience has innate reactions to those things. Because … they’ve either been to the zoo, they’ve been to Africa or they’ve seen National Geographic. And they know that that looks sort of organic.
I made the dragons as small as I possibly could, so that it could still be intimidating. I did not ever want to make Godzilla, because they made it, good or bad. … Big just seemed old-fashioned to me. But at some point, they start to become too small. And what I found was that, based on the way I wanted them to fly, which was gliding, that they had to have huge wingspans, 300 feet for the big one at the end, which I thought was huge. Well, if I make them any smaller, they’ll fall out of the sky. You’ve got to flap a lot, like an albatross. Or like in Dragonheart: It’s a big, giant torso and small wings, so he’s got to flap all the time, almost like a hummingbird. So I went with more of a serpent torso or fuselage or whatever you want to call it, with a very supple spine, so he could fly very agilely.
Coloration, we went through every imaginable blend of colors, and came up with black. Black’s the only one that left an impression on you. And I was trying not to go with black, but every other variation I saw just didn’t have any impact. They have yellow stripes down their bellies, but that’s mostly because cobras do. Or the lighter belly, like an alligator has. And you know what, one drop of purple, and he becomes Barney. Not a lot of purple. Just a little bit. …
And then the walk, I made the walk, it was actually a dubbing battle that I had. To me, my dragons don’t tear the rice paper [when they walk]. They’re very, very gentle when they walk and quiet and stealth. So they don’t go, “Boom boom!” They go [mimes crawling]. So we’re dubbing the other day, and the producers say, “Can we put, like, big boom boom boom?” … I said, “They don’t do that. I mean, look, the foot is only a foot off the ground. And he puts his foot down, and he pulls and pulls.” And they’re, “Please, please?” So I pumped it up a little bit. But if you really look at the animation, they walk very carefully. …
And then you think about how real is the world going to be? How realistic are we going to make the sets? Well, hard core. Like World War II London. The dragon has to fit into that. He can’t be too perfect, too shiny, too sharp, too clean, or he won’t fit into that set. … He’s made this world. He’s got to look like he caused it, integrate right into it. So everything was dusty and dirty and lots of holes in the wings, to make it look like he’d been through a few battles. It’s all about putting it all in the same world and making you believe that everything’s consistent.
How did you come up with the look of this post-apocalyptic world?
Bowman: Basically, it is because the dragons basically do what they do to cause ash. … Just imagine Mount St. Helens. That’s all it is. And if I could have afforded it, the sky would have always been black or gray, and it would have always been snowing ash. Always. It was just too expensive, plus I was shooting in a lot of national parks [in Ireland], and you can’t be dropping ash on national monuments. … Once it rains, it’s in the soil.
How difficult was it to protect the story from being overrun by the effects?
Bowman: It never became a threat, because I wouldn’t let it happen. I would never let that happen. I was too aware of it. Dragons serve my story. A lot of things could have happened. The set design could have gone awry. The lighting could have gone awry. The acting could have gotten melodramatic. The emphasis of the story might have been shifted from the story of these people to the story of the dragons. It’s not the story of the dragons. It’s the story of these people surviving in these terrible circumstances, and the dragons caused it. And I know that we only have a certain amount of time to tell a story, and if I want to make the characters more complex, then that takes away from something else. So I said, the dragons are cunning, they’re smart, they anticipate, they strike when they think you’re the weakest, and that’s it. Their singular intention is to kill and eat. … And I wanted the movie to be so centered around the characters that I made sure that I shot the dragons from the characters’ point of view. I was careful to make sure that the geographical distance between the dragons and humans was what raised and lowered the tension meter. Dragons far away, doesn’t see you, you got a chance. Dragon sees you and is coming in at 150 mph, your chances are getting slimmer. Dragons on top of you, you’re dead.
Have they talked about a sequel?
Bowman: If it makes enough money, they will. I’ve asked. I said, “Do you think you’ll do a sequel?” And they said, “We’ll see.”
Christian Bale, this is an unusual film for you to make.
Bale: I was kind of surprised that they were interested in me for it. Just because it’s not like any kind of movie that I’ve done before. And so that surprised me. And I’ve liked the idea of making all different kinds of movies, all sort of genres of movies. And I’ve always kind of hoped that every genre of movie can be made really well, if it’s done with the right people. And I’ve certainly enjoyed going along to huge movies like this, with so much action, etc., before. But I have often found that special effects often seem to get completely in the way of any kind of storytelling and any kind of character. And when I met with Rob about it, he had all of the same concerns that I did about what could go wrong. Because there are so many things that can go really badly wrong with the bigger budget that you’re getting on a movie, and especially with a movie about dragons.
I kind of wanted to know that it was a very strong-minded person who was going to be directing it, because otherwise I was sort of fearful that I would be making one movie, and then in CGI, they would put in, like, friendly dragons or something, or dragons with hats on, or dragons that talked, or something like that. And I would have no control over that whatsoever. But would just be mortified that I was in such a movie. So when I met with Rob, his concerns were exactly the same, and we sort of made a pact: … “Let’s do this as long as we can ensure that we get to make the movie that he wants to make.”
This was a very physical role for you.
Bale: What I found that I actually enjoyed, that I didn’t realize I would, was actually the action elements of it all. … There were some injuries. Matthew head-butted me in a phenomenal fashion one time on set. On film. It is actually in the movie. And I came up with a huge kind of welt on my forehead from it. And everybody around said it sort of sounded like some watermelon cracking. Because we had all these walls around the location, so it echoed around it.
But I was happy to be head-butted for it. Because … it was a fight sequence, … and we said to each other beforehand, “Let’s try to make it as dirty as possible.” Because fight sequences are so often so clean in movies, and everybody is getting in clear punches and etc. And my character’s not going to be a fighter, and his character is. And so right before the take, we said to each other, “Let’s really go for it.” And hopefully we’ll only have to do it four or five times, instead of 20 or 30 times. And so we really went for it. And we rolled down hills, and we were smacking our heads on boulders and things like that as we went. And then I stood up, and, you know, in the moment, Matthew just head-butted me. But it was great, because we only had to do it once. Thankfully, the camera was 50-50 on us, so they caught the impact exactly, and that was it. We were done.
Quinn’s not exactly a superhero in this movie.
Bale: Part of what I hoped would happen, and did, was that, you know, this is a movie where nobody does anything that is impossible for humans to do. … If anything, with Quinn, the concern, looking at the script, was just that Van Zan’s character was so much more sort of rock ‘n’ roll and like a rock star compared to Quinn, that really my challenge was, all right, how am I going to make Quinn kind of step up to the plate and be a genuine … competition to Van Zan, to such an insane character as Van Zan? … We always tried to keep every scene within the realms of reality. … [Quinn] feels responsibility somewhat for everything that has happened since. And in doing that, and in not giving the character sort of superhero status, that would help the audience to be able to believe in the dragons and the dragon threat, which otherwise obviously is not going to be any kind of threat at all, as we all know dragons don’t exist. So we had that challenge, of how do you draw the audience in, to make them believe in it? And I think the way to do that was for all of the characters to be as real and gritty as possible.
Did you have to work out very much for this role?
Bale: I tend to be kind of obsessive about that. It’s either all or nothing. … I actually turned up in Ireland, and I had been kind of dieting, because I sort of thought we should all be painfully skinny. But then, I got there, and had a few weeks of rehearsals … and kind of realized that Van Zan was going to be a pretty big guy. And I had to look at least a little bit like I could compete with him somewhat. So I kind of went into manic training for the couple of weeks of rehearsals, because I got there kind of like that [sucks in cheeks], and I looked at Matthew and went, “Oh my god, this just isn’t going to work. Nobody’s going to believe that I could really have a decent fight with him at all.” So I worked out like crazy for a couple of weeks beforehand.
Can you talk about working with the special effects?
Bale: The most surprising thing for me was that we didn’t use much blue screen at all. I’ve spoken with some actor friends of mine who’d made movies using a lot of blue screen, and they’d all told me that it was very, very dull. And it was a 20-week schedule that we had on Reign of Fire, so I was kind of thinking, it’s really going to be a chore. And I think, really, thankfully the technology that they were using, I suppose, is more advanced, and we didn’t need any of that at all. So we could just be outside, wherever we were, just filming, leaving space for the dragon, but not needing any blue screen or anything at all. So I think that really helped with kind of the momentum of each scene. And I also find it seems to work so much better when you can be outside and get a little dirty with the location, instead of this sort of hygienic surroundings of blue screen on studio and everything.
You were working on huge practical sets?
Bale: Yeah, they were vast. Wolf Kroeger was the production designer, and it actually was about seven acres that he built of castle and castle wall, but it seemed so much bigger than that when we were there. But the rest of it … you’re obviously having to look at nothing. But … it’s kind of unfortunate, but in pretty much every movie I’ve done, even if there aren’t any special effects, there’s some point when you may be filming in a small room or something, and the [director of photography] hasn’t left enough room to get another actor in behind the camera. So to an audience, you’re talking with somebody else. But when you’re doing it, you’re talking to a brick wall. So that sort of gave me training for looking at thin air. And I had all sorts of the artist’s renderings of the dragons in my changing room, etc. And … I guess denial is a big part of acting, really. So, with practice, you just get used to it.
Are you signed for a sequel?
Bale: It’s kind of been joked about. I bought a house after doing Reign of Fire, and they went, “Oh, great. We’ve got him for the sequel. He’s got a mortgage now.” But other than that, nobody’s mentioned anything.
Izabella Scorupco, why did you sign on this movie?
Scorupco: I’ve never really, honestly … been into science-fiction movies. … I’ve never seen one Star Trek in my whole life. It’s not really my world. I don’t have that kind of fantasy [life] where I can sit there and watch people doing something that I could never believe in or would happen. But when I read the script, and especially knowing Rob Bowman and seeing The X-Files, I just felt that if ever I do a fantasy movie, or if there is every going to be a movie shot about dragons that is going to make the dragons be creepy, alien creatures, [this is it]. …
To see the anatomy of the dragon, to see the way it moved, to understand the attack, to understand the chemical process … it made it much more believable for us as well to act with it. … I never … really thought of it as a dragon. I … wanted to put myself in a situation where you feel like, this is the last second of my life, and we’re attacked. Not necessarily by an animal. This could be biological weapons or planes or you name it. And to really make the audience understand that we are scared. That we are really frightened to death. … As soon as we would go towards the cartoonish direction, that would [be it].
You did a lot of your own stunts?
Scorupco: I just think it sounds so silly to talk, “Yeah, well, I did my own stunts.” But it was just a part of surviving. I … can’t imagine it can get worse than this, … being in a movie with Christian and Matthew, the most physical, athletic guys you can imagine in Hollywood, and this is like for real. These guys, they climb and they do pushups and it’s not anything phony whatsoever, like they’re pretending. If the director would say, “OK, are you going to climb up there?” 20 meters or whatever, … they just do it in a second. And there you are, you’re like a third party, and they never ask you. … And you felt like, “OK, if I’m not going to do it, I’m going to destroy the scene.” … But I felt like I was scared to death.
In Vertical Limit, it was more about, “Are you OK, Bella?” … Here it was like, “OK, we do it now. One, two, three.” Oh my god. It was a totally different story. … Two guys that are as physically strong as they are, they just get further and further. Because one is going to say, “Yeah, I can climb this high.” The other one is going to go, “Yeah, but I can do that one.” … Not competitive in terms of trying to show off. But they’re boys. … That’s how guys are. It’s just nature. But I’m definitely not a part of it. But I had to [keep up]. … I could hear my beard growing during that time. … I didn’t want to be treated differently. … You had to spit around as much as they did.
Did you ever feel like, oh my God, what have I got myself into?
Scorupco: Pretty much. Pretty often. Yeah, I have to say. … I definitely felt that it was extremely scary sometimes to have to keep up with the guys, because they never really cared. I mean, they never cared. It was crazy. They would like jump down from roofs, and if you wouldn’t, they’d be like, “What’s going on, what’s happening? Why?” I mean, I guess because I come across as [tough and] … because I so wanted them to do their thing and wanted to be a part of [it], … then you can’t really, you can’t afford to say, “I need help.” Or “please.” Because you just don’t want to mess up. You don’t want to be the one, you know, destroying [it] for everyone else.
By Patrick Lee.