Mr. Beaks And Director Scott Stewart Talk LEGION, PRIEST And The Hording Of Anamorphic Lenses!
Published at: Jan. 21, 2010, 8:02 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Scott Stewart's LEGION is an apocalyptic siege tale in which the battle to save the world is waged in and around a roadside diner somewhere in the Mojave Desert - just as the Book of Revelations predicted. Sticking up for humankind against the wrath of God is one renegade, machine gun-toting archangel played by Paul Bettany; going against humankind is pretty much everything the big guy in the sky can muster. Place your bets.
Though the stakes are rather high, Stewart's picture is more of a modest, intimate-in-scope homage to low-budget wonders like THE TERMINATOR or John Carpenter's original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. And just as those movies begat much bigger things for their directors, Stewart's filmmaking debut is essentially the first-step up the ladder to more ambitious projects - one of which, the "retro-futuristic" man-versus-vampire yarn PRIEST (also starring Bettany), wrapped principal photography last November, and is scheduled to hit theaters this August 20th.
I was on the set of PRIEST a few months ago, and the difference in scale between that film and LEGION is vast. That Sony greenlit PRIEST so soon after LEGION was finished speaks favorably to the studio's belief in Stewart's potential (obviously, most directors' fates hinge on their last picture's box office success). That said, Stewart isn't some fresh-out-of-film-school upstart; he's been a very respected name in Hollywood for the last decade thanks to his work with the now-shuttered visual f/x outfit The Orphanage (which Stewart co-founded). Given his familiarity with the gargantuan and oft-unwieldy nature of big studio filmmaking, this makes him a much safer bet than some on-the-make indie phenom whose last film cost less than seven figures.
I've spoken with Stewart twice now, and while I have no idea yet as to whether or not he's the goods, I do know that he's a big-time film geek. This, admittedly, does not mean he'll be the next Cameron or Carpenter, but it sure makes it easy to root for him as he navigates the ever-trecherous studio system.
In the below interview, we talk about making the shift from f/x guru to filmmaker, the "analog" nature of LEGION, and John Ford's influence on PRIEST. Enjoy!
Mr. Beaks: You're done with PRIEST now.
Stewart: We wrapped PRIEST right before Thanksgiving. We're working on the director's cut right now; the visual f/x facilities are gearing up. It's a very different movie from LEGION. Whereas LEGION has a lot of fun and tries to not take itself too seriously, PRIEST is a more somber movie. It's much more like THE SEARCHERS.
Beaks: It's also a much larger undertaking.
Stewart: It's considerably bigger. And it looks that way, too. I'm color correcting right now with my cinematographer Don Burgess in the new Sony Colorworks, the 4K DI [Digital Intermediate] suite that they have here. I shot the movie in true anamorphic with old C-series lenses from the '70s, and I'm like, "Wow. This looks so great." I'm so happy. It looks like the movies I grew up loving.
Beaks: Since we're talking anamorphic lenses, I'll go ahead and bring this up: you told us at the PRIEST set visit that you wanted to shoot LEGION true anamorphic, but couldn't. Why was that?
Stewart: There were no lenses available. Panavision was all out. They were mostly all with Mr. Bay, who was shooting TRANSFORMERS 2 - and he breaks a lot of them. At the time, they had stopped making the lenses, but I think they're making some new ones now because we had a couple of newly-created lenses on PRIEST that were really amazing, in addition to the old C Series ones that they shot CLOSE ENCOUNTERS with. But I wasn't able to have them [on LEGION], so we shot Super 35. But it's released anamorphic. There are a lot of advantages, in post, to shooting Super 35; you have a lot more image, top and bottom, to play with. But on PRIEST I said, "Screw that. It worked for so many of my heroes to not have that advantage. So what you see is what you get."
Beaks: This forces you to take greater care with your compositions.
Stewart: Yeah, and that's a big part of it for me anyway. Widescreen composition was really important to me and my cinematographer John Lindley. Giving the film an analog feel was also important. There are a lot of digital f/x in it, but wherever we could we tried to shoot things practically and augment where we needed to. Wings, on the other hand, are extremely difficult. (Laughs) I was with Paul the other night at The Tonight Show, and Tarantino was on. He came up after the show and said, "Hey, man! The angel fight looks rad! None of that computer graphics bullshit." And I said, "Actually, the wings are digital." And he was like, "Aw, really?" And I was like, "Well, we didn't want it to look like a Nora Ephron movie." It's really hard to make real wings look dynamic, so that was a concession we had to make. But Paul and Kevin are really fighting. Every aspect of the fight is real. We just had to add the wings.
Beaks: Did you work with Quentin on GRINDHOUSE?
Stewart: I did not work directly with Quentin, by the folks at my company, The Orphanage, did. We did the Yellow Bastard sequence in SIN CITY, and we also worked on GRINDHOUSE. We melted his penis. I told someone the other day that I talked to Quentin, and they said, "Did you tell him we melted his penis?" And I was like, "No. I forgot to mention that." I'm sure he would've appreciated it.
Beaks: Coming out of the visual f/x world, it seems antithetical that you would be trying to do things more "analog".
Stewart: I think that my favorite f/x are the invisible one. It's a real catch-22. I did come out of visual f/x, but before that I was a screenwriting major at NYU. Writing was my first passion in my life. Well, computers and writing - and that's sort of what led me to become a visual f/x artist. I have an unusual background in that respect. I've worked on the pre- and the post-side. It's sort of antithetical, but I also don't want to abuse the tools. Some of it is budgetary: if you have all the money in the world, you get to do what Cameron did and have almost nothing be real; you get to work it all out in a digital sphere. Did you get to visit his performance capture stages?
Beaks: No, I did not.
Stewart: It looks like NASA. You have this main floor, and then bleachers going all the way up, and they're all full of people animating or pre-vising. They're doing video game quality versions of mech suits walking around, so that when Cameron stands on the floor with people in their performance capture suits, he's holding up his monitor - which is essentially his camera - and moves around; he's seeing a pretty tricked-out version of the world with animated things in it through his monitor. If you have $350 million, you get to do that.
But we were a pretty low-budget movie by studio standards. We're a pretty modest movie - especially when it comes to below-the-line spending on visual f/x. So we tried to do as much as we could practically. We built an animatronic head for the ice cream man, but when I saw Doug Jones do it for real, I said, "That is so much cooler." So, in reality, I just used Doug's face and stretched it digitally. That, in a weird way, has a more analog feel because it looks like it's really him. With Gladys [Jeanette Miller] climbing up the wall, almost all of that is a stunt person. We did it all in one shot with the stunt person running up the wall, but it looked too possible; she looked like an incredibly great athlete. And if you do it like that, suddenly your film becomes a Zucker spoof. So in order to create that EXORCIST feel, you've got to make somebody do something that just looks wrong and impossible; that's why we resorted to a digital version of her. But then we also had an eighty-six-year-old lady on an upside-down version of the set so we could make it look like she is really walking on the ceiling.
I think the background of a visual f/x artist is that you always change the gag. That's why TERMINATOR 2 looks so good: sometimes it's real and sometimes it's CG. It's just great to mix it up.
Beaks: You're keeping the viewer off balance.
Stewart: That's right. Sometimes there's a digital version of Gabriel on a car, and sometimes it's a stunt guy with wings, and sometimes it's Kevin Durand up against a night sky. You're always mixing it up.
Beaks: Right. And that's when you sometimes get someone complaining about a fake-looking CG shot which is actually practical.
Stewart: Visual f/x artists who become directors, generally speaking, get a pretty bad rap. And judging from the movies, sometimes deservedly so. But for me, because I also wrote the movie, I plan everything in advance technically and creatively, and then it's all about the cast. On the day, it's about being real close to the actors and sitting by the camera, and not disappearing into the monitors with your headphones on and directing the movie from a distance. It's about mixing it up as much as possible.
Beaks: How much of LEGION was a learning experience - particularly in working with actors?
Stewart: Oh, I think every day. I think you have to assume that even James Cameron felt every day was a learning experience on AVATAR; being the brilliant, genius, precocious fellow that he is, he still has to invent and learn things. But [LEGION] being my first film... yeah, the learning curve was steep. I learned a lot, and the same was true on PRIEST. I guess that's why I love doing it: you learn every moment of every day - and, hopefully, you're learning to do it better. (Laughs)
I had a very big ensemble cast [on LEGION]. I had actors with a variety of different skills and experiences, but it was really great; everyone was there and committed. I didn't experience that nightmare scenario you often hear about movie stars, and I think the reason I didn't was because I had laid out a really clear plan to everyone about where we wanted to go. And then I gave them the freedom to be able to craft their characters once I'd cast them in the movie. I made everyone feel really included, and made them feel listened to. Paul Thomas Anderson says you cast the best people you can, and then show up on the day and be their biggest fan.
Beaks: Knowing that some might need hand-holding, while others might be like, "Just leave me alone. I'll take care of it."
Stewart: Yeah. Some people need a lot of talking to because they want it, and others are like, "Don't talk to me about anything. Just let me do my thing." It was great. You just have to dial it into taste.
Beaks: Just to give people a sense of what we saw during our PRIEST set visit, because we're still embargoed... your influences stretch from Leone to BLADE RUNNER.
Stewart: And John Ford. It's major John Ford.
Beaks: But it's also kind of a vampire film. Conceptually, where did all of this come from?
Stewart: It's really a war movie. It takes place in a western setting, and it's a retro-futuristic world, but it's a war movie. Actually, it's kind of an after-the-war movie. There will be a 2-D-animated prologue to the film, and I will announce shortly who's doing that; it's very exciting... the idea of R-rated 2-D animation to show us the war between man and vampire throughout history, and how that leads us up to the beginning of our movie. I'm really excited about that. It's really exciting to show people animation like that that, which they don't normally get to see in a big movie.
It's mashing up a bunch of stuff, but when you start to look at John Ford's THE SEARCHERS, and you start to say, "Okay, what if vampires were the Comanche?" They're the others; they're the ones that we war against. And I took a very contemporary sensibility to that: it's not so clear who the enemy is. I play around with that, and with the idea of a war that goes on forever, and then you come back from the war. You thought you were going to come back a hero, but society has moved on from you and cast you off. You've become something that people are afraid of, people they won't sit next to on the bus. Those are the Priests. And suddenly it becomes more like FIRST BLOOD. That's just really interesting stuff to me.
I don't know that I had anything interesting to say about the vampire genre, but when I read [PRIEST] and the vampires became that for us - they're feral, they're not human, they don't speak English, they have their own culture - then all that stuff starts to become interesting.
Sounds cool. In the meantime, Scott Stewart's LEGION opens Friday, January 22nd.