Werewolves and vampires and more werewolves – oh my! The bloodiest tale of Romeo and Juliet since, well, Tromeo and Juliet returns to theaters with a prequel this month. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans goes back in time to show the origin of the feud between the Lycans and the Death Dealers. This might be Patrick Tatopoulos’s directorial debut, but he is no stranger to the Underworld. As production designer on Underworld: Evolution and creature designer for all three films, Tatopoulos is a natural choice. Yesterday, at a Los Angles press event for the film, he took us down Under, and talked about making the transition. The film’s visual effects supervisor and executive producer James McQuaide was also on hand, and kind enough to jump in and share his thoughts…
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is your directorial debut. After working on the first two films, were you “in line” to direct?
Tatopoulos: It was offered to me. They said that they thought I had an eye to do what was needed. When I read the script and realized it was about werewolves more than anything, I got very excited. That is totally my thing.
Some people have said the scope and scale is like Lord of the Rings, but I prefer to think of it more like Gangs of New York. It’s smaller – it is clans fighting against each other. The scale feels big at the end, but it is like 300 werewolves fighting 300 vampires. I didn’t want the scale to feel ridiculous. But the whole goal for me was to be able to do a film that felt a little different from the first two. It was interesting to me because I had the chance to change the style.
How did it come about that you guys made a prequel, rather than continuing on from the second film?
McQuaide: I think a lot of it was what Len brought to the table. Len is sort of the godfather of all these movies, and he thought all these movies should go in this direction. We just took his lead.
Tatopoulos: When he did the first one, like all movies, you have to create a back story. That story was part of the first film. Len always said that was the story he wanted to do. So it was easy for him to move into an origin story. It felt like the right time to do it.
McQuaide: Some people have commented that, after seeing Rise of the Lycans, you want to go back and watch 1 and 2. All that back story that is implied in the first two you can now see. So with that [origin] in your back pocket, you can go forward and really see the first two make complete sense. It almost builds excitement for the first two.
Can you talk about working with Michael Sheen [Lucian] and Bill Nighy [Viktor] and the rest of your stellar cast?
Tatopoulos: It was a bit intimidating, even though I had met them briefly on the other Underworlds. Bill Nighy, the first time I sat down with him, said, “Patrick, you know I have a tendency to go a little overboard sometimes. Just slap me on the back of the head [and I’ll bring it back].” So when someone at his level talks to you like that, it puts you at ease. Every time we shot a scene together, the first take he would go all over the place, but I knew I could go to him and ask that the next take be a little closer to script. Michael was doing movies like The Queen and Frost/Nixon – big, serious, kick-ass movies. But he got so involved in this movie! I let him go a little bit, let him become the character, but did not lose track of what I wanted with the character. He was extremely passionate about this movie. Rhona Mitra [Sonja] was the studio’s choice. I thought she was a great choice – she reminded me so much of my daughter. She is very different from Kate Beckinsale [Selene from the first two movies]. Rhona is more of a warrior, primeval, rough, while Kate is very sophisticated. This movie is more brutal, more about the werewolves, and Rhona fit that. She had that energy. She was a little apprehensive because, for audiences, she would kind of be the new Kate. I told her that the character of Selene was created from Sonja, so don’t try to match it. You are the origin of everything.
What are we getting that is “new?” Are there new werewolf designs?
Tatopoulos: I think the world itself is new. There are no new characters. You are seeing masses of werewolves, which you haven’t seen before. The fact that they full-on run – you saw a bit of that in Underworld 2, but much more in this one. The whole thing, ultimately is Spartacus meets Romeo and Juliet. I know you guys are really into special effects, but to me, one of the biggest parts of the movie is also what is happening on a character level. The scale and the budget are all the same as the last one.
I always admired that Len did such a great job on the first movie, with so little money. I thought that was an important thing for me, as a visual director, to bring more to the movie than you would think the budget would allow.
What ended up being the most surprising challenge on this film?
Tatopoulos: The pre-production was the place where I felt the most at-ease. As a designer, the bulk of your work is during pre-production. The shoot felt pretty comfortable because I had the right team of people around me, and I had a great vibe with the actors. But the first time I saw the first cut of the film, I fucking freaked out. I was comfortable the whole way, then suddenly I look at the movie and think, “This is unbearable.” I called all the guys I work with, and they all told me that was normal. The first script wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, but after that, it was really just a matter of getting it done on time. The first movie is very scary because at that point, you think it is the worst piece of shit you’ve ever seen.
McQuaide: To be frank, that first cut really wasn’t that good. But we did what we needed to make it good.
Tatopoulos: But Len told me the same thing about Die Hard.
What can we expect to see on DVD? Did you have to cut a lot of footage?
Tatopoulos: No because it’s not a big-budget film, so I had to shoot carefully. All the sequences we shot were planned. Pretty much, the story as it is in the script is what is on screen.
For the DVD, every director comes from a different place. I come from design, so on the DVD we were really trying to show the process of design, starting from the early stages. Every day on set, I would have a sketch pad and doodle what frame I wanted. Sometimes you can say, “Give me a lens 12” or whatever. But the sketches became the best tool for me. I wasn’t sitting up on a director’s chair; I was on a regular chair, at a little table, drawing. I think the DVD, will be an interesting way for people to see another way in which movies are conceived.
McQuaide: Typically, when you present visual effects to a director and they say they don’t like it, they don’t have an answer. But Patrick could actually draw what he wanted. So every day he would give us his drawings, and we could just replicate them in CG. It was a very efficient way of working.
Was there much pre-visualization?
McQuaide: There was a bit of pre-viz, and a bit of storyboarding, but I think it is fair to say a lot of the movie was invented in post. There were plates shot and the concepts were certainly there while shooting. I think the scope – budgetarily and scheduling – was much larger than anyone anticipated. So when we got to post, one of the things we did was take plates and basically made up a lot of sequences so everyone could understand how big the movie was.
Tatopoulos: There is something else about it being big. We shot in New Zealand, and I had a team of people who did Xena: Warrior Princess. So those guys knew how to work quickly, cheaply, efficiently. And then they went on to do Lord of the Rings and knew how to create incredible scenes. We had Dan Hannah building the sets. Huge sets – not tall, because we couldn’t find a space high enough; which made it difficult for the effects guys – but big, big sets. Really high-end sets that should be in 100-million-dollar movies.
Story-wise, we saw a lot of this back story stuff in the first film – it was kind of a Cliffs Notes version of this story. So what more does this story have to offer?
Tatopoulos: You are seeing the struggle of a man, the original Lycan [Lucian] who has been used to create a race of Lycans. So this is the turmoil of someone who is responsible for creating that race. And he happens to fall in love with a vampire. We know the end, but it is how we get there that I think is interesting.
Michael Sheen was in the first Underworld but not the second. Did it take him a little while to find his character again?
Tatopoulos: In the first film, his character is that of a man 300, 400 years old, living and battling in a modern time. We see Lucian as a kid in this film, so his character in the third film is very different than it was in the first. It takes him that story to become the character he becomes. You see him become that guy, the guy in charge. He had to deepen his character. Viktor is probably the most consistent character. But again, you are not just seeing a vampire, but a father.
Did you draw upon any past werewolf movies for the look of these werewolves?
Tatopoulos: When Len Wiseman talked to me about the Lycans on the first Underworld, we shortened the muzzle to make it less like a werewolf and more like a new race. That worked for us. But my original design for the Lycan was a werewolf. As the story evolved, so did the Lycans. They are creatures that can turn from beast to human and back again at will – day or night. They have total control. Werewolves can only turn back to human when they are dead. You see that in this film. The only way to stop Lycans from changing is to pierce their skin – that is how they are enslaved.
McQuaide: One of the things we tried to avoid in the second one was clothing. But in this film, there was no way around it, so we simply went for it. For example, in this scene where a Lycan is running, the pants just kind of kick off. We spent quite a bit of time trying to make it look cool and not Hulk-like.
Do you see yourself coming back to do another Underworld film? Do you have any aspirations to direct more features?
Tatopoulos: I’ve done three of them already, in different capacities, so I think I am ready to move on. No disrespect, it is a cool franchise, but I think I need to move on to something else. I need to do something with creatures and shit. When I did this movie, I felt like I wasn’t really controlling the look of it because there are already two movies out there with this style. Although I was part of making that style, I want to be able to create a world from scratch.