Thursday, October 10, 2013

Perversions of Science: An Interview With Filmmaker John Hyams Part 1

The action genre is currently in a state of emergency.  Major studios now treat action as merely an ingredient in a “four-quadrant filmmaking” recipe.  It’s become a small part of a larger whole, no longer worthy of its own filmic category.  Gone are the simple plots and relatable protagonists of “golden era” classics like ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’.  Likewise for set pieces that make any sort of visual sense.  In recent years, the DTV format has become the last bastion of traditional action cinema.  It’s also become a proving ground for untested talent.

Filmmaker John Hyams has chosen to ply his trade in the DTV arena.  He offers a more classical approach, one grounded in the values of 70’s cinema.  He’s revived the ‘Universal Soldier’ brand, turning in its two best entries to date: ‘Universal Soldier: Regeneration’ and ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.’  The latter turned a good many heads upon release.  I proudly count myself among its admirers.  Mr. Hyams recently shared the details of his creative process with me.  His insights revealed him to be a true renaissance man. 

Scott Wilson: How did you get your start in filmmaking?  What drew you to this particular genre?

John Hyams: My dad, Peter Hyams, is a film director.  My older brother and I grew up around film sets.  We worked on them as well.  When we were young, we’d make super 8 movies.  My older brother was the one with the camera, so he was always the director.  If you have an older brother who plays guitar, you have to play something else.  So, since I wasn’t the director, I decided to act in those early movies.  As the years went on, I took an interest in things like special effects and makeup effects.  That was due to my fine arts background.   

Eventually, I went to school to study fine arts.  For a while, I worked professionally as painter and sculptor.  When I was just a few years out of school, I worked in New York City as a painter.  I was living with a lot of really talented schoolmates at the time.  I had become friends with them over the years.  As a result of that living situation, I found myself getting drawn back to film.  I had a desire to work in the collaborative arts.  It started out as a side project.  We’d get together and make low budget movies.  The more we worked together, the more I wanted to make movies.  I made a documentary called The Smashing Machine, which we sold to HBO.    When you make documentaries, you log lots of hours behind the camera and in the editing room.  You really start to become well-versed in your craft.  That’s what really got me involved in filmmaking as an artform.

Dolph Lundgren (Middle) in a scene from Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

I went from documentaries to television, where I worked as a producer and director.  I reached a point where I wanted to make feature films, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make that transition.  At the time, I was working with producer Moshe Diamant.  I was writing and doing storyboards for him.  Moshe’s done a lot of movies with Jean Claude Van Damme over the years.  He’s also done a couple with my dad.  He’d acquired a property which eventually became Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  They had a script, but neither Jean Claude Van Damme nor Dolph Lundgren had signed on yet.  Moshe needed their participation to get the movie made.  The project went through several directors, all of whom tried to secure the participation of the desired leads.  

Eventually, Moshe came to me with the project.  He was already familiar with my storyboarding and documentary work, so he knew that I understood how to construct an action sequence.  If I could secure the desired leads, and get them to agree to my script changes, the job was more or less mine.  So that’s what I did.  It was trial by fire.  The process took a few months.  I was flying to different parts of the world and meeting with these guys.  I came up with concepts that would appeal to everyone involved.  I wasn’t familiar with the Universal Soldier series, but I was familiar with the action genre.  I also happen to be a big fan of it.  I didn’t want to base Universal Soldier: Regeneration on any of the previous Universal Soldier movies.  I wanted to apply my personal tastes to the mythology of those previous entries.  That’s how that film came about.

Scott Wilson: There’s a school of thought that says DTV action films are now better than theatrically released action films.  Do you believe that to be the case?  If so, why?    

Blood and Bone is one of many DTV action films that have taken the world by storm over the past five years.

John Hyams:  I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case.  It’s certainly not an absolute.  I think in the DTV world, there’s an opportunity to come across hidden gems.  Some of the ones you find might not have any cracks, at all.  It’s much more wide open, where you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get.  Some of it is very low quality.  Even if something happens to be quality, it might not meet the particular standards for a theatrical release.  That could be due to many things. 

It was decided that Regeneration would be a DTV release before we even started shooting.  It was guaranteed to be a direct-to-video movie.  The studio didn’t consider the stars to be worth the investment that a theatrical release entails.  They (The Stars) couldn’t pull in enough money for an acceptable opening weekend gross in North America.  However, they still had international value.  The studio saw the DTV option as the better investment.  Not having stars that can “open” a movie can be a reason to go the DTV route. 

Furthermore, it could also be the nature of the material.  Again, you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get when it comes to DTV.  You might find a few unique and/or special films that are different from the typical theatrical release.  However, I think there are great theatrical releases as well.  In regards to genre, studios want their movies to fit a certain mold.  When studios make action movies, they want them to fit certain categories.   That can negatively impact quality control.  In my opinion, the Bourne series is the best action movie series of the last decade.  It brought something original to the table by resurrecting a more naturalistic approach to action.   That was the approach used in The French Connection and Bullitt.  The great action movies of the 70’s were rooted in reality.  They weren’t “comic book” films.  They brought real tension to the table. 

Then there are movies like No Country for Old Men.  They are great suspense movies that contain action, but they aren’t action films.   They really straddle two different genres.  I think you have all kinds of smart offerings.  You have The Raid, which a lot of people are talking about.  It was a very unique take on the genre.  Looper was one of the best movies I saw last year.  It was a sci-fi/action movie, but it wasn’t done in the style of the typical Hollywood “tentpole” film.  Personally, I’d like to see more movies like that.

Scott Wilson: Many of today’s action movies feature protagonists who are in search of their true identity.  They’re usually suffering from some kind of amnesia or they’ve had their memory forcibly erased.  They’re basically on a journey to find themselves.  For the last decade that’s pretty much been the case.  A lot of superhero movies also deal with the concept of identity.  Who am I, what should I be?  Why is that such a popular theme these days?

The Bourne films are among the many inspirations behind John Hyams take on the Universal Soldier franchise.

John Hyams:  I think that’s a really good question.  It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about myself.  Certainly, Day of Reckoning falls into that category.  I think it’s a reflection of the times, but it’s also the influence of earlier, similar films.  For example, look at the Bond series, or a lot of superhero franchises.  The story is always about the main character saving the world.  Someone is going to destroy the world, and this character has to save the world.  That’s certainly a noble thought, but it’s also a little easy from a dramatic standpoint.  Ultimately, it’s not as complex as something more character based.  That was the first thing that occurred to us while we worked on the story for Day of Reckoning. 

In Universal Soldier: Regeneration, terrorists take over a nuclear power plant and kidnap children.  They’re going to blow up the power plant.  Everyone is operating according to a ticking clock.  All of that is introduced in the first ten minutes.  Now, it’s up to the protagonist to stop all of it.  I wanted to avoid that storyline with Day of Reckoning, because we’ve already seen that.  I wanted to say something about the character.  I wanted the story to be more grounded and relatable.   It’s about more than saving the world.  It’s also about the protagonist saving his own ass, or those of his immediate loved ones, or avenging the deaths of his immediate loved ones.  He’s also taking vengeance on his creators.  All of that gives you a very tight, personal story that plays out on a large dramatic canvas.  It probably reflects a number of ideas.  It reflects an inherent distrust of the government and the system.  Therefore, your heroes aren’t necessarily working for the man.  The scenario makes the hero more of a lone wolf.  It’s almost more western themed.  The hero is protecting those very close to him/her.  He’s acting out of a certain self- interest, or a more local interest.  When the plot is an extension of character, it becomes more than just some contrived conventions. It’s becomes more than just explosions and action.  In the Bourne films, or Day of Reckoning, the protagonist is moving towards self-discovery.  By the end there’s a catharsis, and that catharsis isn’t just the hero killing the bad guy.  It’s probably a reaction to older, similar movies. 

Scott Wilson: For much of its running time, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning feels like a horror film, or a very intense suspense thriller.  Were you actively going for a horror movie vibe?

Jean Claude Van Damme (Left) and Scott Adkins (Right) in a mildly nightmarish image from Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

John Hyams: I think it was born out of our approach to the mythology.  The first Universal Soldier movie was very much of its time.  It’s an early 90’s follow-up to movies like The Terminator and Robocop.  It was a sci-fi movie, rooted in biomechanical concepts.  At its core, it’s a fun movie.  It was almost a very dark comedy like Robocop was.  It wasn’t taking itself or its subject matter too seriously.  When I came aboard the franchise, my approach was to do the opposite.  I took the mythology very seriously.  I treated it as though it had a basis in truth. 

Here’s what we faced with the plot of Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  It revolved around a terrorist/separatist group that takes over a nuclear power plant.  They threaten to blow it up if their demands aren’t met.  They also kidnap the prime minister’s kids.  The Universal Soldiers are called in to save the day.  When I read the script, I thought that what the terrorists attempted to do paled in comparison to the crimes committed by the government.  The terrorists threatened to commit mass murder.  They also kidnap the prime ministers kids and threaten to kill them.  The government created its own race of super soldiers.

To me, that (The government’s crimes) overwhelmed everything else in the story.  At its heart, Universal Soldier is rooted in horror.  It’s rooted in the Frankenstein myth, playing God.  When we created the story for Day of Reckoning, we decided to tell it from the perspective of the monsters.  We came to realize that the story is rooted in a lot of horror ideas.  It isn’t about big scale battles and military operations.  It’s really about these particular characters dealing with some horrifying truths.  Our ideas were rooted in both horror realm and an established mythology.  We tried to honor that mythology.  

Scott Adkins (Left) takes on Dolph Lundgren (Right) in a bloody moment from Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

Scott Wilson: Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren had diminished roles this time out.  Why is that?  Did the producers see Scott Adkins as a more bankable star to modern audiences?  Was it a question of bankability?

John Hyams: No, it’s not a question of bankability.  The truth is that Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are still more bankable than Scott Adkins. Scott doesn’t have the name that they have.  The decision to make him the focus was born out of the story.  I wanted to answer the questions that we posed at the end of Regeneration.   At the very end of Regeneration, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) escapes.  He’s no longer under government supervision.  I thought, let’s make Day of Reckoning about the search for Luc Deveraux.  Let’s bring in a new protagonist.  The idea of bringing a new protagonist to the table was more interesting than rehashing a story that had been told multiple times before.  

We needed a new protagonist, and Scott Adkins is more than worthy of that mantle.  We wanted to make a movie about his character seeking out Jean Claude’s character, with a mission to kill him.  It seemed like a very interesting storyline.  The producers agreed.  So did Jean Claude and Dolph.  Since everybody agreed, that’s the way we went.  It wasn’t a financial decision.  If that were the case, it’ would have been easier to sell it with Jean Claude as the star.  I wanted to do something different.

Scott Wilson: The fight choreography was done by Larnell Stovall.  From what I can tell, he’s one of the very best in the business. In fact, the fight scenes in your film are above and beyond anything I’ve seen in mainstream Hollywood action films over the last few years.  Why isn’t someone like Larnell Stovall getting more work on the big Hollywood blockbusters?

Fight choreographer Larnell Stovall

John Hyams: Well, I think they will.  Larnell has been climbing the ladder.  He’s is one of those names right at the top.  But it isn’t a question of talent.  That’s not what keeps you from getting to that next level.  You have to have a name.  It’s having a name.  Hollywood is a club.  There are only so many positions available.  To get in, you need to have taken part in successful projects.  You need the recommendations of successful people.  Larnell is paying his dues and working his way up.  He’s the top choreographer in the business. Pretty soon, he’ll be working on the biggest movies.  He’s still a very young guy.  He’s certainly caught the attention of a lot of people over the years.  He’s a tireless worker.  He’s always finding new venues to display his talents, whether it’s the Mortal Kombat web series or Undisputed 3.  Undisputed 3 was a DTV movie, but it certainly got a lot of people’s attention.  Now it’s Day of Reckoning.  Without a doubt, Larnell is one of the most talented guys in the business.  It’s just a matter of time before he’s working on big studio pictures.  

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