Friday, October 11, 2013

Perversions of Science: An Interview With Filmmaker John Hyams Part 2

In part 2 of my interview with filmmaker John Hyams (Click here to read part 1), we discuss the current state action cinema, and the many influences behind 'Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.'
Scott Adkins (Left) and John Hyams (Right) on the set of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

Scott Wilson:
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning was done on a controlled budget: 11.5 million dollars according to Wikipedia.  Not the most reliable source in the world, but it’s the best I could do.

John Hyams: Yeah, well it was more like 8 million.

Scott Wilson: That’s even lower than the reported budget.  Yet, it’s not only the best film in this particular franchise, but one of the better action pictures released last year.  Do you think you could have made an even better film if the budget had been in the hundreds of millions? 

John Hyams: Sure.  Money doesn’t always guarantee quality.  Still, if you have more money and you use it responsibly, you can work on a bigger canvas.   I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to work on a bigger canvas if it came along.  I’m sure Larnell and everyone else involved would agree with me.  When you have more money, what you really have is more names.  More money buys you more toys, rigs, and visual FX.  For me, it’s really about the shooting schedule.  We shot this movie in 29 days.  Big movies usually take 60 to 100 days to shoot.  I don’t think you need 100 million dollars, though.  Both Looper and District 9 cost around 30 million dollars.  That’s very efficient.  You can do a Hell of a lot in that range. 

I think one of the problems with the business is that those movies (Movies like District 9 and Looper) are getting engorged.  Studios are either making 200 million dollar movies or five million dollar movies.  The most creative movies exist between those two extremes, and they’re getting lost in the mix.  When you work within that range (District 9 and Looper), there are still restrictions involved.  You can’t have everything with 30-50 million, but you have enough to execute some pretty spectacular stuff.  Day of Reckoning was designed around its budget.  That’s usually my approach.  I think movies really have to be reversed engineered, where you have a controlled budget you and tailor the script accordingly.  

Scott Adkins (Left) with Jean Claude Van Damme (Right) during the climax of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

Day of Reckoning is kind of a horror/thriller.  It’s a hallucinatory experience that crosses different genres, from action to film noir and all these different things.  We had budget of 8 million dollars.  That was our “below the line” budget, meaning that after the producers and actors got paid, our actual shooting budget was 3.5 million.  We shot in 3D.  When you’re dealing with 3D rigs and 3D technology on a 3.5 million dollar budget, you have to scale everything down a bit.  We decided to focus on tension and horror.  We couldn’t do G.I. Joe style action, so we intensified things for impact.  All of our creative decisions were really born out of the budgetary limitations.  That changes the scope of what you can do.  Having more money also changes the scope of what you can do.  I’d certainly welcome that challenge.

Scott Wilson:  Modern action directors have forgotten the basic fundamentals of the form.  I’m talking specifically about guys like Michael Bay and his ilk.  They’ve brought about an aesthetic now known as “chaos cinema.”  Why is it that so many of the modern directors who work with large budgets seem to have forgotten the fundamentals? 

John Hyams: I think it really depends on the aesthetics of the individual.  Michael Bay comes from commercial filmmaking and commercial music videos.  Commercials are essentially condensed.  They exist in a condensed time frame.  In other words, they don’t really exist in real time.  They often deal in montage, because they’re trying to make a point in 30-60 seconds.  That sensibility informs Michael Bay’s editorial style, which isn’t constrained by the rules of screen direction.  It uses lots of quick cuts to keep things visceral.  Everything keeps moving.  That’s Michael Bay’s style, and it appeals to audiences in a big way.  I don’t think that he has any desire to abandon that style.  It’s ultimately born out of his background in commercials.  Whether it’s writing, theater, or independent cinema, your background informs your directorial style.  Paul Greengrass used to make documentaries for the BBC.   I think that’s where his style really comes from.  I think directors who specialize in “chaos cinema” have a background in commercials.  My roots are not in commercials, so I have a different aesthetic approach.  It deals more with geography and screen direction and wire lenses, so it has more of a real time feel. 

Scott Wilson: Throughout Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, I could spot many references to other works, from Frankenstein to the The Manchurian Candidate to Apocalypse Now to Dante’s Inferno.  Tell me a bit about those influences.     

John Hyams: I’m not always aware of these references while I’m making the film.  When I look at the film after its completed, I can spot them.  Personally, I see a lot of David Cronenberg in it (Day of Reckoning).  He’s always been someone who straddles different genres.  His movies can be horror movies, thrillers, or dramas.  He’s worked in multiple genres at once.  We were aware of the Apocalypse Now reference while we were making the film.  It was born out of the narrative.  For one, you have a story about a guy who needs to find another guy and kill him.  It’s the journey of an assassin.  

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) in a haunting image from Apocalypse Now.

A lot of ideas came straight out of Heart of Darkness (The novel which provided the basis for Apocalypse Now), where a character is going on a journey of self-discovery.  He’s going to find a man.  In the process, he’s descending.  In the case of our story, the main character is descending underground into the heart of darkness.  He’s discovering the violence that exists within him.  Right from the beginning, the story takes the audience inside of our character, metaphorically speaking.  It starts from the outside.  By the end of it, we move in.  The whole thing is a descent. 

We also tip our hat to other things.  Our protagonist has created his own underground militia.  He also has a shaved head.  There’s also the journey up the river.  We realized that our creative decisions led us down a certain path.  As far as the Universal Soldier films go, Day of Reckoning strays pretty far off of the reservation.  We embraced the references to Apocalypse Now.  At this point, the film itself (Apocalypse Now) is almost a literary reference.    It’s a very iconic reference.  A Kurtz-like figure is almost a part of pop culture iconography. 

There are many other cinematic influences as well.  Filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, for instance.  Again, a lot of them are just movies that I’ve seen.  Whether I’m copying them intentionally or not, they’re all brilliant films by brilliant filmmakers.  They’re all stories and ideas that create a certain kind of mood and setting.  Certain people have mentioned mention David Lynch.  He’s always had an influence on me as a filmmaker.  The things he did in regards to sound design, creating a feeling or tone.  His movies often take place in very mundane settings, but they emanate a sense of dread.  That was something we wanted to inject into this movie (Day of Reckoning).

Scott Wilson: The film contains a cameo by Roy Jones Jr.  His ring persona has always been that of a showman.  He’s known for having a really big ego.  How did you get him to play that particular character, especially considering (Spoiler Alert!) the fate that befalls character?

Roy Jones Jr. (Left) with Jean Claude Van Damme (Middle) on the set of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

John Hyams: It’s funny that you’d say that, because I’m a boxing fan.  I’m also a Roy Jones Junior fan, but I didn’t know anything about him personally.  Our production supervisor, Deidre LaCasse, lives down in Florida.  She was friendly with Roy.  When we were casting that role, we looked at in many different ways.  I initially thought about going with a stunt guy, because it’s a very physical role.  It’s not going to be easy for whoever does it.  It wasn’t important to the story, so it probably wouldn’t work for an actor with a big ego.    When she (Deidre) brought up Roy’s name, I thought “Oh Boy, I don’t know.  I don’t think he’s going to want to do this.”  Secondly, I didn’t think we could afford him.  He might have an entourage.  You never know, especially with pro athletes.  I didn’t know if he could learn the choreography. 

She told me to call him, so I had a brief phone conversation with him.  He seemed nice enough, but I still wasn’t sure about him.  On the day of shooting, I made sure we had someone else waiting in the wings in case Roy decided to pull a no-show.  Well, the reality is this:  Roy does not have an entourage. He drove down to Baton Rouge, LA by himself.  He showed up and immediately got to work, learning all of the choreography.  He worked really hard.  He realized that you can’t be too picky when you’re just starting out.  He also realizes that it’s a world away from the boxing ring.  He’s already done The Matrix: Reloaded.  He’s really cool.  He never left the set between takes.  He just hung out. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to eat lunch.  We discussed boxing.  He’s just a really good guy and pleasure to work with.  We got really lucky.              

Scott Wilson: There’s an online critic by the name of Outlaw Vern.  He wrote a piece for the Village Voice where he named you and Isaac Florentine as two of the best action directors working today.  Now, considering the source, I see that as a tremendous compliment.  Does it gratify you when people react to your work in that way?

This image should be instantly familiar to anyone who knows of the great Outlaw Vern.

John Hyams: It’s very gratifying.  Outlaw Vern in particular has had a really positive effect on my career.   He was one of the first guys to get behind Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  When it was pretty undiscovered, he wrote a really amazing review for it that was posted on Ain’t It Cool News. People don’t realize how important that is for a DTV movie.  When a site like Ain’t It Cool News runs a review like that, the people at Sony take notice.   That was career defining moment for me.  If I go on to have a successful career in this business, I’ll owe a huge debt to people like Vern.  They’ve written about me and my work on various websites and publications.  These kinds of films don’t have big advertising budgets.  They live and die by the reactions they elicit from critics and fans.  That’s who’s keeping me afloat at this moment.  It’s because of those people why I continue to have a career. 

Scott Wilson: Do you have any upcoming projects you want to mention?

John Hyams: Nothing that I can officially announce right now.  I’m still in the thick of development, meaning I’ve got a few irons in the fire.  We’re trying to see which one will take hold.  It’s a really difficult process right now.  I’m trying to make sure that my next project is a step in a positive direction.  I may have to turn down movies in the same budgetary range, because I’m trying to get to the next level.  It’s a more competitive environment.  It’s difficult trying to convince people to give up more money.   We’re in the process of developing a new Universal Soldier idea, something on a much different scale.  We’ll see if we get the kind of money we need to execute this vision.  I think it’ll take everything to a whole different level.  We will see. 


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