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Mr. Beaks Interviews Jan De Bont!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I really wanted to do this interview this week. Yes, De Bont directed SPEED 2... but he’s also an innovative cinematographer, a good action director, and one of those filmmakers who has had experience doing everything. My schedule got all f’ed up at the last minute, though, and so I had to hand it off to Mr. Beaks, who responded by doing his usual bang-up job.

Heck, despite my disappointment with the original TOMB RAIDER, I’m curious to see if De Bont managed to give the franchise the sense of cinematic life that Simon West is incapable of. We’ll see soon, I suppose, and until then, here’s Beaks and the interview:

Though his last two films have been enormous letdowns, I’m not ready to give up on Jan De Bont just yet. And, really, looking over the man’s history as a cinematographer on two of the best action films ever made (DIE HARD and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER), and his brilliant collaborations with fellow countryman, Paul Verhoeven (my favorites being TURKISH DELIGHT and THE 4TH MAN), along with his masterful directorial debut, SPEED, it’ll take a few more bombs before I stop giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Though I have yet to see TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, the trailer promises wall-to-wall action, a number of pretty remarkable stunts, and, of course, Angelina Jolie, who, despite her many off-screen troubles, is still a stunner in the various form fitting outfits into which she’s been poured. This is De Bont’s first full-fledged action flick since SPEED 2, which was dead in its inception (cruise ships look like they’re lumbering no matter how fast they’re going), and it looks like he might be back at the top of his game. I wish I could tell you one way or the other, but, in lieu of my own opinion, I’ll let the maestro make the case himself. He also chimes in on the film vs. digital debate, and you might be surprised to see what side the former cinematographer takes.

As always, I’m in the smaller font, while De Bont is in the larger type.

You’ve returned from a three-year respite to tackle what, at least on paper, looks like the biggest physical production of your career…

I think it was, actually. Thinking back on it, it was a gigantic logistical nightmare in a way. In the old movies, they took you to exotic places. Like in the early James Bond pictures, they took you to the most amazing locations. More and more, all those movies are made in the studio. You have a small second unit going to some places, and everything else is done on the bluescreen. But we actually took a whole crew to Greece, to China, to Kenya, Tanzania, Wales.. and that created an amazing amount of opportunities, meaning that the visual feast that the audience is going to see is quite unique again. It’s something I think we haven’t seen in quite a long time. It’s like when you go to locations that really haven’t been filmed before. Like nobody has been on the top of that volcano in Tanzania that we went to with the cast and crew. We were the first people that went there, period.

That volcano… I read that it was pretty active. It erupted less than twenty years ago, maybe?

Oh, no. It is still *constantly* erupting. I mean, it erupted the night before we got there. We had volcanologists with us because it’s a *very* active volcano. It’s not the type of volcano you see in Hawaii where you have red lava; with this one, we had white lava. White and grey. But it’s the same temperature, you know. (Laughs.) And it has sort of this landscape at the top; it’s like ten thousand feet high. It’s called Mountain of God, Mt. Lengai in Tanzania, and it’s in this area called the Cradle of Life, which is also the name of the movie, where people have found some of the oldest skeletons known to mankind, like five to six million years old, and they believe that man was born there. Not only that, but billions of animals migrate every year to that area in the springtime, have their young, and move on again. And we went there to this volcano, which… had its own climate at the very top, and we had major trouble with helicopters landing. One time a helicopter got stuck and crashed a little bit. It was a microclimate, and it changed minute-to-minute. We also never knew if we were going to be able to get the whole crew off... in fact, one time some crew members had to stay over night. We had a group of Masai Warriors, who were part of the extras, and they stayed behind as well because nobody could be brought off. And that night, not only did this volcano, of course, erupt again, but it was freezing, freezing cold. And though we had a few tents there, there were no heaters, and the Masai had to actually teach the crew how to make fire to stay warm. It was kind of a unique experience. Although, the crew was upset, they also said they had yet to experience that in their lifetime. So how often does that happen?

I take it then, while we’re talking scale, and still having to tell this story – and there’s got to be some intimacy – are you a student of David Lean?

Very, very much so. I think, though we had those big sets and big locations, what I was really trying to do, and what got me involved, is that I knew for this franchise to work, you have to, most of all, create a character that you’re really interested in, that really can hold your attention for several hours, and that really has so much impact, and has such a strength that can lead you through the story. And then, of course, you have to have a story that is *not* like one of those flimsy stories that you have quite often in action movies, but that really can hold your attention… and development of character, and where the antagonist plays a real part, and it’s not one of those over-the-top characters, but still something that you can relate to. Because we spent more attention to that than anything else, I think that we kind of made for an action movie that is… the best maybe that I can describe it is that it’s like a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK type, but in a very contemporary way.

The first film, while an enormous hit financially, received a pretty harsh critical drubbing. Did you feel going into this that you really needed to upgrade the quality with this second film?

That was my only concern. The last thing you need as a director is to get a clubbing from anybody. (Laughs.) But how often do you run into a character like Laura Croft that is so exciting, and so contemporary, that has an incredible attitude, that is very smart and very anti-authoritarian? I think that none of these things were used properly. What I changed in this movie… in the first one she mostly reacts to things. In this one, she stays proactive. She really initiates things. She instigates things. It comes from her mind. She has to make moral decisions, and decisions that are relating to relationships, to her old boyfriend (played by Gerard Butler). And all of this stuff is much more interesting. I think her character, and Angelina for that matter, is more adult. She’s not this girlish woman anymore; she’s a really smart, contemporary woman who can make her own choices, and doesn’t need a man necessarily to be happy and move on in life.

I guess that’s kind of in your wheelhouse, what with Bullock in SPEED, and Helen Hunt in TWISTER…

I really like that. I think I’ve worked on so many male-oriented movies, but… there are more possibilities with a female lead. I think actresses in general are a little more gutsy than actors, especially in regards to emotion and vulnerability. Male actors generally tend to be very careful with how they are seen in society, and how they are judged (as an actor). They are not as willing to give all of those things up, and they try to stay away from that a little bit. Actresses tend to be a lot more gutsy and more daring in taking risks with their acting, and I think that is unique; especially with Angelina Jolie, who is as edgy as there is already, and is gutsy in many, many ways. You have to hold her back a bit. But that, to me, opened up a lot of possibilities.

I’d actually like to talk about Angelina. She does seem to have that intense dedication to this project and to this character in particular, to the extent where she wants to do as many of her stunts as possible. And I hear that you had them dangling, what was that, headfirst, 150 feet off of –

Yeah. That’s right. I have to say that this is like one of the more amazing things I have encountered in my life that you find an actress who actually does not only want to give a great performance, but is also totally dedicated to really physically throwing herself into the part. She does not want to be second, meaning that if she does an action scene, she wants to be really good at it. And she wants to be seen as, like, “Oh man, she really knows what she’s doing!” So she practices like crazy. She rehearses, and she really wants to be the best. She’s very driven; not only driven in a creative way, but she’s also driven in a physical way. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer… she will do anything she has to do to get to that point. And that’s fucking tough. It’s hard enough to work twelve hours a day, plus makeup, and then go practice and do other things for the next couple of weeks. And that’s why some of those things, like with this rifle sequence in this movie, are fantastic. It takes many, many weeks to learn that type of choreography, and you have to be really good at it. And, like you said, the other thing… jumping on a wire, upside-down, falling down a cliff… coming to a stop two feet above the ground, hoping that it works every time for three days. Fuck! That’s kinda gutsy.

I’ve gotta think the insurance people at the studio—

They were a little worried, but it was a very hard-to-reach location, so sometimes they couldn’t find us. (Laughs.)

It’s always nice to work under that kind of cover.

Exactly. Well, you try to go to a place that nobody wants to come to; that’s too miserable, there’s no hotels there… that’s always a good place to hide away from those people.

The good thing is that, wanting to do that and being able to do that in a physical way, but still being able to act at the same time. I mean, Gerard Butler has to do the same thing. He was dizzy every time he fell, and I think anybody else would feel that way, too. Because, when you do that, you have to – now, think about this for a second – you have to be clipped into the wire, and, then, go upside-down, which takes a while… then, they hoist you up… then the cameras get ready… then they start to roll… and, then, you yell action… then they fall down, and in three seconds you’re all the way to the bottom… then it takes a while for the actor to be unhooked. So, you’re definitely hanging upside-down for quite a few minutes, and your blood is going to your head. I don’t know how you could do that for three days. I’m very amazed by it. I know I could never have done it.

I wouldn’t even want to try. Now, obviously, as a longtime director of photography, I’m wondering what your relationship is like with your DP’s.

I don’t know. The best thing is to ask these people themselves, but I think it’s very good. As a DP, I know quite often what is needed, and how much time is required. I’m much more able to support him. And I think TOMB RAIDER, for David (Tattersall), was a pretty gutsy move because I like to use… pretty much a roving type of camera, it always moves. And that’s very different for him, and he was very excited to do that. If you do a James Bond movie, that’s very slick. This is kind of anti-slick, in a way. It has an incredible directness to it. It’s very rough. It’s like the camera just happened to be there; although, of course, everything is extremely well-choreographed, and even the chaos is choreographed to a degree, like the mistakes, the lens flares… it’s all done purposefully. But it creates a feeling of an incredible reality. I think that we had a really great time.

Additionally, we also digitally scanned the movie, and, at the end, created the whole movie in a digital way. I think this is the second really big movie that has done this. With digital scanning and digital grading, you can do enormous amounts of changes. I did that myself because David was away working in New Zealand on the next STAR WARS. You can influence quite a bit in post now, and not just color. You can re-light scenes, too. You can color parts of scenes. You can keep one person dark, and the other brightened up. You can change as many things as you want. You can make a day scene into a beautiful day-for-night scene, and no one would know the difference.

I guess that begs the question: are you ready to make the switch film to digital?

You know what? I can’t wait.


I really can’t wait. Because film is… we’ve been using film for how many years? Not that it’s bad. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a big collector of photography, and I know a lot about it, and I love it very much, but, at the same time, it’s very old fashioned. You’re dependent on chemicals that change from day-to-day, from hour-to-hour. I mean, I just arrived in New York last night… earlier in the morning I was in London, trying to get the very first print out of the lab – it had been getting graded for quite a few weeks – took it with me on the plane, carried it myself, hand-held, to show to the press, and you don’t know exactly if that print will be the same color as a print that might be made the next day because chemicals change. And, in a digital world, those changes are something of the past. I think it would be beneficial to all filmmakers. I mean, people are afraid of it, and things like that, and say it looks wrong. It does not! You can make it look like anything you want it to be. You just have to… pay attention.

So you think that argument for the expressiveness of film, and that kind of intangible thing (that digital doesn’t have)… it really is just something of ignorance?

I think a little bit, yes. I think to a degree it is. I know I’m quite technical, and I know quite a lot about it. The thing is, in a digital world, we can do much more. We have so many more possibilities. And I think… for most filmmakers, film is like a safety net. They know what they have, and they’re a little afraid of what the other world will be, or could be. And some people like to stick with that. They know what it is, and they don’t like change. I mean, I understand that, too. But I like the enormous amount of new possibilities that it opens.

How do you think the state of the action film has changed since SPEED?

Every year, new movies come out, and you think, “Oh, my god. This is it! Nobody can improve on that!” And you think that for about five minutes maybe, and maybe studios think that a lot longer. But I believe it all depends on… how many chase scenes have we seen in the last… let’s say fifty years? Millions of them, and they’re all different. And this is because of their content, not so much because they use cars, and they use drivers, and they use camera angles… it’s all about what story (the filmmaker) is trying to tell. I mean, I think we will always be able to come up with new things. As long as the story changes, and as long as we make those stories interesting, and we get involved in it in an emotional way, we will always be able to make it exciting. Visually, there are always new ways to come up with and make it different. I’m very convinced of that. I don’t think, like, for instance, everyone said this is the end of all car chase sequences, the one that we saw in MATRIX RELOADED. Well, no, it’s not. I think it was great, but it’s like many other things will come that will be different. Now, if you would look at it in a technical way, you would think that they achieved a lot of CGI f/x… all of that stuff is all true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with other things or better ideas. Of course, you will.

Having been anointed a master craftsman in this genre, do you feel a need to be at the fore?

Well, I think you always want to be there. I don’t know if it’s a need; I think it’s more of an obsession than a need. (Laughs.) I think you really are driven to be that way. I think it’s automatically… it’s your own intuition. Like the sky flying sequence in TOMB RAIDER 2 in Hong Kong, where these two guys jumped from a building – this is the third highest building in the world – and they are *flying* in these special suits over Hong Kong for a couple of miles… and then we landed them onto a moving freighter. Normally that would be all visual effects, special effects, bluescreen… we shot it all for real. It is the most spectacular scene, and I didn’t even use many cuts. I used… very long-lasting shots, and it made it so much more spectacular. The only funny thing is that, we as audiences, we think that because everything is possible that everything is now special effects. And us filmmakers, we have a little bit of a problem area that when they see the sequence, which is all real and quite unbelievable, they think this, of course, is a visual effect, and that those people were never flying. So we’re kind of working to fight what audiences think that this might be. We created this world of CGI, and it was kind of detrimental to the degree that audiences automatically think that this is a visual effects stunt, and it’s not. I think what I’d like to do next is a movie that uses very few visual f/x, and is much more reality-based, where every stunt is practical in ways that are really thrilling. I think that is possible. It’s something I would like to look forward to, to do a movie like that.

But you’d still like to stay on the same scale?

Yeah, I think the scale… yes, I like those big movies. I like to make them. It doesn’t mean I don’t like to watch any other movies – I like lots of movies – but making them… I think it’s an obsession. You have to be kind of obsessed to want to make the type of movies that give you so much stress, and so much trouble with the studio, and every day there are tremendous amounts of problems… and why the hell do you want to do it? Well, you keep making it, because maybe you’re a… stress junkie. Maybe stress is what creates a new level of creativity. I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely obsession.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Thanks, man. As always, excellent work.

"Moriarty" out.

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