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WonderCon Exclusive Interview: Scott Stewart Talks Priest

On building his post-apocalyptic man vs. vampire future

Coming in somewhat under the radar, Priest managed to earn itself a good deal of buzz at this past weekend’s WonderCon in San Francisco, winning audiences over with a short sizzle reel and may be the best argument yet for post-converted 3D.

Based on the 16-volume Manga series by Hyung Min-woo, Priest combines elements of horror, science fiction, western, noir and martial arts genres to tell the tale of a post-apocalyptic future torn apart by the war between man and vampire. Paul Bettany is Priest, a religious warrior living in the last human city on Earth who disobeys the rules of his order to go searching for his kidnapped niece (Lily Collins) with her boyfriend (Cam Gigandet).

Director Scott Stewart, who launched his cinematic career as a visual effects artist, made his big-screen debut last year with Legion. Stewart took the time to speak exclusively with ShockTillYouDrop about bringing the world of Priest to life.

Shock: How would you describe the source material to someone who was unfamiliar with it?

Scott Stewart: There’s a Korean manga by Hyung Min-woo called “Priest” that’s a 16 book manga with a cliffhanger. He just kept writing it and then suddenly stopped. He just never finished it. But Cory Goodman wrote a screenplay that was inspired by it.

Shock: You’re sort of treating it like it’s not an adaptation but a sequel, in a way?

Stewart: Yeah, in way. That’s kind of a good way to put it. We took a lot of the manga. It was kind of a touchdown for us, what Min-woo had done and then he came out and spent time with us while we were in preproduction. We went through the script and I showed him all the production design and the costumes and everything. We took a lot of inspiration from his artwork because he’s so good at what he does. It was kind of a treasure trove of great imagery to be influenced by. We loved his work and we hoped that he would be happy with what we were doing. He really was. So much so that he said, “Even though I never finished the story, I always imagined it going in this direction.” This really tracks with what I was thinking and he was inspired to start writing it again. He’s written a new series that essentially takes ‘Priest’ of the past to ‘Priest’ of the future, which is what our movie is.

Shock: Sort of like sequel tag-teaming?

Stewart: Yeah, it was really cool. It was really great to have him go back to Korea and, a few weeks later, for this document to show up that said, “The story continues”. It was just fantastic.

Shock: This is a film that, for its scale, has a fairly modest budget. When you first approached it, was there a key element of sets or costumes or effects?

Stewart: You just try to put as much good stuff in front of your camera as you can. Then it’s all just about telling the story, so you can build out the entire world but, if you’re not going to photograph the entire world, you’re wasting money that you can put other places. So you just have to plan it really, really well. You say, “I’m going to try to make this look as rich and as textured and as comprehensive as it can possibly be. Because this is a scene and this is a scene and this is a scene and that’s what we’re going to show. We’re going to put every single thing we can into what we’re going to see. Then we’re going to try and reference things that are happening in the world and give it a sense that, off in the distance, there’s still more detail there to be seen.” We knew we had these really cool motorcycles to design and TyRuben Ellingson did those. He’s a really good friend that I knew from back in the ILM days. He did designs, most recently, for “Battle: LA” and did the aliens. He designed vehicles and weapons in “Avatar” and he designed Hellboy’s gun for Guillermo del Toro. He’s a really, really brilliant designer. He’s also doing work for me on the next movie, “Mortal Instruments”. He’s like an engineer brain. We talked a lot about what the world might be like if vehicles didn’t have regular combustion engines or if they were powered by the sun or different kinds of things. So he comes up with designs that feel like they would work. In fact, while they were traditional motorcycles in terms of how they were powered in reality on the set, the “Priest” motorcycles were really cool and looked like you were just sitting on top of a giant turbine rocket engine. You ride in a Superman position and just blast really fast in a straight line. But they definitely go fast. The same thing with the wardrobe design; We took a lot of inspiration from the graphic novel and those kinds of silhouettes. We were trying to take those sort of familiar silhouettes and move them into a new context. A friend of mine recently described the movie after seeing it as, “Familiar ingredients in a whole new recipe.” It was really less about an homage to thing than about influences this time around. I purposefully left my “Mad Max” and “Road Warrior” on the shelf. I did not take those down and look at them because they were just so influencial. When you have a post-apocalyptic landscape and vehicles racing through it, you kind of immediately go there. When you have a dense science fiction city, everyone immediately goes to “Blade Runner”. We live in the shadow of “Blade Runner”, so you can’t really deny it when, particuarly, we were really influenced by Soviet socialist cities and facist design. Propaganda and the industrial revolution. That all got mashed together with some futuristic concepts. We called it retro-futurism. That was kind of the guiding concept. Even though we’ve got display screens in the movie and we’ve got automated confessional booths and giant, electronic billboards, we asked, “Okay, but how would those things have looked in the ’70′s?” So it was fixed width screens and 40 character width, monochromatic and non-antialiased text. It looks like computer graphics from the ’70′s integrated into this things that look rusty and old.

Shock: It was shot with lenses from the ’70′s, too, right?

Stewart: Yeah, we used these anamorphic lenses which are rare now. You have to try and assemble a set of them. Then we had some new ones built for us. Don Burgess was my cameraman on the movie. Don shot “Forrest Gump” and “Spider-Man” and he was really excited to have a chance to go back and shoot anamorphic. The movies that I grew up loving, “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars” and “Alien” and some of the 70′s westerns were shot with those lenses. They have flares and all sorts of nasty things that they’ve been trying to remove from lenses for years because they make visual effects harder. But they look great. They look beautiful. I love the flares and I love how distorted the image gets. How the lenses breath when you rack-focus. How shallow the depth of field is behind people’s faces. That feels like a big movie to me. That’s what I wanted to see when I went to see a movie in the summer. It’s also a landscape movie, “Priest”, so it’s really appropriate for the widescreen format.

Shock: One of the impressive things about the footage is that features some stylisation but doesn’t look overdone. When you have a larger-than-life world, is that a risk that you have to consciously watch out for?

Stewart: Yeah, I think so. When I work more as a director, I get more and more attuned to it. It’s something that you grow with and just get a sense of. There’s some stuff that you clearly want to pay homage because the filmmakers you grew up with were also paying homage to things. Sometimes you go, “It’s just too much.” You don’t want to take somebody out of the experience of the movie by making such a knowing homage to something. So we didn’t want to use movies as reference points. We wanted to include architecture and design and, like I said, propaganda and photography from different parts of the world. Some of the slums of Hong Kong that were a big influence on the Forbidden City. There’s a housing project in Hong Kong which isn’t around anymore but, when you see the photographs of this place, it’s like a shantytown that’s built up above the roofs and stuff. It was impossible to imagine how people live like that. It was like “Brazil” come to life. All the piping and electrical work was on the outside. In the hallways and in the apartments. Nothing was in the walls and it was all visible. You have to life with that, with everything dripping. Wires were exposed everywhere. It was just a total disregard for human existence in those places and we wanted that to be how our city feels. So that’s where we took the reference from as opposed to, say, taking it directly from “Brazil”.

Shock: One of the other tricky balances is that you have an action film that’s very serious but, from the footage we saw, there’s also a sort of smirk. That’s really evident with the use of “Your Own Personal Jesus” in the background. Is that sense of humor something that carries over into the film?

Stewart: Well, we don’t play any songs like “Your Own Personal Jesus” over the course of the movie. Chris Young did the score. But, yeah, there definitely is a smirk. There’s a sense of, “Well, we could do this the easy way or the hard way and audiences prefer the hard way.” We have those kinds of moments but, in the context of the world, it sort of takes itself seriously. But hopefully it doesn’t take itself too serious. It’s not a costume drama. The movie is meant to be fun. You can even see it in the way that we did the action. There’s a moment where Maggie Q’s character rope-darts a Vampire familiar character out of the air from a motorcycle that always gets a great reaction from an audience. When we first showed it to our producers — one of whom was the spiritual Godfather of the movie, Sam Raimi — and he was sitting in the audience. When that moment happened, he stood up and went, “Awesome!”. It was so deeply exciting and pleasurable to see him react that way to something in the movie.

Priest hits theaters on May 13th. Check back soon for our interview with the film’s leading man, Paul Bettany.

Source: Silas Lesnick