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Underworld Awakening: The Set Visit

Selene is back in action, we visit her in Vancouver!

A gorgeous statuesque woman wakes up stark naked on the floor of a laboratory after being in a cryogenic sleep.

She has no idea where she is, what has happened or how long she’s been asleep, but there is a large corporation that has done something wrong and it’s up to her to put things right in the world. Never fear, Screen Gems isn’t rebooting the Resident Evil movies just yet, but in fact, this is how they’ll be returning to Underworld next January when Underworld Awakening brings Kate Beckinsale back as Selene, a vampire who fights the enemy Lycans (i.e. werewolves) in the place known as Underworld.

After three movies, including a prequel, it’s hard to think there would be anywhere to go for the Underworld franchise and its endless battle between vampires and Lycans, except maybe into the future. (And possibly space, but they’re probably saving that for the sixth or seventh movie.)

This past May, ShockTIllYouDrop.com and a group of like-minded genre journalists were given an early look at how “Awakening” would differ from the previous three movies as we were driven out to Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University where the production had taken over the campus’ entire futuristic courtyard for a pivotal location in the movie.

This wasn’t the first time we’d been to Vancouver to visit a Underworld sequel, as we were on the set of Underworld: Evolution as well, but back then, it was a bit more obvious why they might make a sequel due to the success of the first movie. Now, it’s been a number of years since the Beckinsale-less prequel came out, and most fans assumed the actress — who just happens to be married to Underworld mastermind Len Wiseman — was done putting on tight-fitting latex catsuits for the foreseeable future. One of the things we would quickly learn while visiting the set was why the filmmakers decided to revisit Underworld and why some of these new ideas convinced Beckinsale to return.

Joining the franchise are Swedish directors MÃ¥ns MÃ¥rlind and Björn Stein who helmed the cult thriller Storm, which also featured a bad-ass heroine, and the yet-to-be-released Shelter starring Julianne Moore. They’re interesting guys and they have an equally interesting way of working, which is unlike any other directing teams we’ve ever spoken to, something we’d be hearing a lot about over the course of our day on set.

In the following report, we talk about a couple big scenes and revelations in the new movie involving some of the things Selene has to face in the upcoming movie, so those who plan on seeing the movie anyway, may not want to read this. For those readers, we’re giving you a hale and hearty…

SPOILER WARNING!

Introductions All Around

On arrival, we were brought into the large partially-covered courtyard, which was being used to create the main lobby of the Antigen Corporation where Kate Beckinsale’s Selene wakes up from her cryogenic sleep.

At the far end of the courtyard were steps leading up to a reflective pool but they had filled in the space between two pillars with a concrete façade and two elevator banks. All the way down at the bottom of the stairs and towards the front of the courtyard, they had constructed a makeshift security desk with monitors and a futuristic clock above it.

Later on, we would go to the bottom of the stairs and see the entire effect of how they turned the courtyard into an enormous lobby of this building, but it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to be an outdoor space or they were just taking advantage of the vastness of the courtyard to create a REALLY BIG lobby. Because it was raining, the entire courtyard had the kind of slick wet look that so many directors try to recreate while filming outdoors, but it was interesting to think of an indoor space having that sort of scale and scope. (One good reference might be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the giant lobby entrance to the Ministry in that, because they were going for a similar scale.)

Lakeshore Entertainment producer Richard Wright was the first member of the filmmaking team to greet us and give us a quick synopsis of the plot.

“We got the original script for the final idea last December of 2009, and the basic idea is that it’s fifteen years in the future. [Selene] has been in cryogenic suspension for fifteen years, and she wakes up in a future world where the existence of vampires and werewolves has been made known to the humans. There’s been a counter-attack, there’s been a genocide, and a purge to try to remove all the vampires and the werewolves from the face of the Earth. There’s a company that has come to power (Antigen) that has taken the forefront of testing people – because both vampires and werewolves can appear in almost human form — and that company has become pretty much all-powerful: a biotech company that has amassed enormous political power, and they are the company that has been holding [Selene] for nearly fifteen years. There’s a prologue that explains all of what we’ve just gone through for the first ten minutes of the movie, then there’s a cut to black, and now we’re fifteen years later.”

Selene doesn’t realize at first that she’s woken up fifteen years later than last she remembered but she starts putting together clues about what happened to her as she makes plans to fight back against Antigen. She also meets a young teen girl named Eve, played by India Eisley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who has a deep personal connection to Selene, which we’ll learn more about later.

Even though Len Wiseman wasn’t on set the day we were there — he was already in Toronto preparing for Total Recall – his involvement in the fourth film is still pervasive. “Len wrote the original story, and there have been a number of occasions over the last six or eight weeks where we’ve had to rewrite scenes, and Len’s rewritten all of them, even though he’s directing another movie,” Wright told us. “That guy must never sleep, but we’ll call him at 11 o’clock at night and say, ‘Oh God, we’ve got this problem, we’re shooting tomorrow…what are we going to do?’ And 7 o’clock in the morning you’ll look in your email and there will be the scene. So Len is very, very much part of the process. We have a daily system called Pix, which a lot of people use now, which effectively puts your dailies onto a server and people with passwords can log in and watch your dailies, and invariably the first person to comment on all the dailies we’ve shot is Len, so he’s very, very much the Godfather, not just of the franchise, but of this film as well.”

Latex! 3D Cameras! Action!

Of course, you normally go to visit a set so you can watch them filming and we were lucky enough that day to see Beckinsale working that day. Unfortunately, Screen Gems doesn’t love us enough to invite us on the day when she was shooting that opening sequence which involves nudity, so instead, we watched part of the film’s climactic end-piece when Selene returns to get revenge for Antigen’s actions, which includes a vampire genocide. We were told that this action setpiece literally takes place over the last 45 minutes of the movie, which gives us some idea of how they won’t be skimping on the action this time around.

After watching a number of eerily identical stand-ins wearing Selene’s skin-tight latex catsuit as the crew set up their lighting, Beckinsale herself showed up on set, and began shooting a scene that essentially involved her walking up the stairs to the elevator bank before someone yells “Bang!” and she stumbles slightly. The camera follows her up the stairs and as she reaches the elevators, two or three Antigen security guards at the bottom of the stairs chase after her shooting their guns and setting off the squibs on the elevator doors, as Selene gets in. While these guards looked human, we were told that they have been mutated by the Antigen Corp. to take on any remaining vampires or Lycans, and they actually would be going through their own transformations.

During a break in shooting, we were shown a 3D sizzle reel of some of the footage they had already shot over the past few weeks, which mostly showed Selene in different locations including what looked like typical city alleyways, as she took on a number of SWAT-like soldiers with futuristic guns and flame throwers. We also saw a scene shot within a medieval vampire coven that was buried deep underground, a scene that involved Beckinsale interacting with Eisley.

After watching a bit more filming, Beckinsale herself joined us for a chat. Since she plays such an important role in the success of the Underworld movies so far, and we know that Underworld fans love her as much as we do, we’re going to share that entire interview with you, something you can read by clicking on the link below:

Interview with Kate Beckinsale

The New Guys

During their lunch hour, we had a chance to sit down with the dual directors, who we found to be very funny and charming in a quirky way, which we attribute to their Scandinavian origins.

“For us, [this movie is about] just trying to keep it in the zone of the previous films and yet we bring out own personalities to it,” Björn said. “It’s also 3D, so it will feel different no matter what we do, but we’re not going 180 in the total other direction in terms of the moods of the film.”

“We are fans of these films before we even knew we were going to direct it,” his partner agreed, “so we respect the films and we respect the people that love these films, so it’s not about, ‘Hey, she’s gonna wear pink the whole movie, F*ck you!” We spent weeks talking about her new coat, and we spent weeks talking about the guns. Those things are important, you know? The details are really, really important…and that’s for the fans.”

MÃ¥ns told us about his history with Björn and how it led to their directing relationship. “We’ve known each other since we were eight or nine and I think we did out first movie together when we were fifteen. It was called ‘Wednesday the 11th,’ and it was not a classic. We started working professionally together ten years ago because we got the same script on the same day. Before that, we always worked like next to each other…I’m helping him reading his stuff and he’s helping me. Then, we saw it like, ‘This is a sign, you know? We should do this together.’”

“The thing was that we knew that other directors are focused: One guy would focus on camera. The other guy focused on performances,” he went on about how they came up with their unique working style as co-directors. “We realized that we both like the same thing. So, we said, ‘How are we going to do this?’ And we said, ‘Let’s do it every second day.’ That means actually that when we prep, we’re next to each other all the time, and we do all the storyboards and we do all the meetings and decide the vision of the film together. Then, when we shoot, we do every second day and when Björn directs, I’m just his ‘Best Buddy’ which means that I’m helping him and sometimes I can tell him, ‘You’ve got it…move on’ or ‘Maybe you should punch in here and get a closer thing.’ I’m prepared to talk to producers or the production designer, while he’s taking care of the fire of the day, and the next day, we change. Then I’m directing and he’s my ‘Best Buddy.’ What’s cool especially on a huge movie like this, we don’t get as tired because when you don’t direct, you can sit back a little bit more, you can have a coffee and you’re not stressed the whole time. It’s funny because when we speak to fellow directors, when they hear about this, they go, ‘Goddamn…that sounds great!’ But you need to have someone who you’ve known since you were kids because it’s about taste and trust. To have somebody there who doesn’t have a secret agenda or another agenda is extremely helpful. It’s very hard to make a movie, so it’s really good to be two.”

“I’ve never heard of this before, I didn’t think it was going to work and it sure is confusing,” Wright admitted earlier. “I’ve worked with directing teams before, with Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor who did the Crank films. It’s still different, because it is literally a time thing. Like one punches in and the other punches out, and it’s weird, and over time you start to recognize that there’s differences between them. But the way that you extract magic out of people’s minds, it’s not logical, it’s not rational, and sometimes you have to put up with stuff that just drives you completely crazy in order to get that magical essence out of them.”

“They’ve worked this way for ten years together,” he continues, “they’ve been friends their whole lives, and they’ve been working together as a directing pair for 12-years. So they’ll tell you that themselves. To this is normal, but even to them they’re still figuring out how to do this. We’ve only had a couple of times where we’ve had a scene where it really made sense for the person who directed the first part to direct the second part, and when we’ve done that the same guy has done both days, but most of the scenes we’ve done haven’t been bigger than two days.”

“There’s one big downside…money,” MÃ¥rlind joked. “We share everything, but we’re from Sweden which is almost a Socialistic country, so…”

“We were struggling with finding the look of the film,” Stein admitted. “If you think of the first film, the first film is shot in Eastern Europe and has that Gothic feel and an old look to it, and this one is more in man’s world, so were saying, ‘How does man’s world look?’ We came up with this idea that there’s an architectural design called brutalism, which is what we’re sitting in right now. You see all these concrete slabs and very hard angles and everything, and it’s actually something that exists a lot in Eastern Europe as well, so if you see that Gothic thing, you’ll also see that thing which is totally like this. Kind of very [Stanley] Kubruckian and when we realized it, we actually came up with the idea and then just took a look around and just said, ‘F*ck, there’s a lot of brutalistic architecture in Vancouver,’ so it wasn’t that that brought us to Vancouver. We just happened to find something that exists quite a lot over here in Vancouver.” (Ironically, the film’s production designer is Claude Paré, who recently performed a similar task on 20th Century Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, finding buildings in Vancouver that had the right architecture to create a distinct look for the film.)

MÃ¥rlind continued with his partner’s thought. “We were also thinking that the Gothic vibe is very important for Underworld but since it’s only 12 years from now in Underworld – Underworld is another universe, it’s not like the present. Chicago doesn’t exist in Underworld – we realized and we said we want Neo-Goth, we want some new kind of Goth, and the brutalism, the new cathedrals, the heavy, heavy concrete and stuff like that. There’s a rawness in it that we saw. ‘Oh, this is goth, but it’s a different goth.’ It’s almost like if the first one was Sisters of Mercy, this is more Nine Inch Nails.”

“Beneath the dam is one of the coolest places in Vancouver, very brutalistic, there’s this vampire coven from the 11th Century and there’s this scene where Kate and India speak and it’s very touching,” he reflected. “I saw there was candles burning and I was like, ‘This can’t be f*cking more Gothic!’ We had these two beautiful women, they’re both vampires and there’s candles burning so we do deliver a lot of Gothic things that are pure Gothic.”

“We just do what we think looks good,” his counterpart chimed in when it was suggested that sort of Gothic vampire might be getting passé. “It’s like trying to follow a trend. Maybe people are super-tired of vampires when this one comes out, we can’t really think about that. We can only do what we think is good.”

Mårlind also spoke to us about the relationship between Selene and Eve, which brought us back to one of the key differences for the new movie, which Beckinsale had cited as her main reason of returning to the role, so before the guys went back to work, Björn talked about that.

“It’s about discovering being a parent and I just did that three years ago myself. It is the most emotional thing I’ve ever experienced and therefore it’ll be for her as well. It’s also being thrown into a situation where she was not expecting it, so that makes for her bad-ass attitude that she has had. It doesn’t really work well because this f*cks her up emotionally so bad. She loses someone…gets someone…all within a couple of hours, so it all f*cks with her brain and the rock-solid chick we’ve seen before might not be so rock-solid anymore. That’s the difference, and that’s the way we haven’t seen her before, more fragile. With motherhood, you become more fragile, but you also become more defensive.”

“Like a tigress,” Marlin added. “She’s more brutal in this one than you’ve ever seen.”

Michael Euly’s Underworld Detective

Joining the franchise is Michael Euly (Miracle at St. Anna) as a human detective named Sebastian. Euly is somewhat of a genre film virgin, although having appeared on the short-lived television show “Flash Forward,” at least he has some experience with time travel and in some ways, his character offers a human vantage point into this future incarnation of Underworld.

“I come into the project just like any other cop would,” he told us. “There’s an investigation of a body, and once I’m looking at this body, I’m recognizing what really happened here. There’s other cops circling around and my partner is starting to throw out the suggestion that this has Lycan written all over it and what have you. I tend to brush that off and because of my own interaction with vampires and Lycans, I end up spawning my own investigation, and that’s how I get involved with Kate’s character.”

“To my knowledge, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve done so far, there’s not a lot that’s different really, in terms of this world,” he said when asked how the movie differs from previous movies in the series. “It is a little bit different, but I’m about as normal as it comes, I guess, which is kinda boring. When people found out that I got this movie, the first thing they [said is], ‘Are you gonna be a Lycan?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ And then they’re like, ‘Well, you’re gonna be a vampire?’ And it’s like, ‘No’ ‘Well, what are you?’ You couldn’t be human for some reason, and I think I am that guy. So hopefully I can get bit or something.” (We don’t know if his character will survive “Awakening” or not but Euly was hoping that his character would get bit so if he did return, he’d be able to get into some of the make-up and FX that others got to experience.)

After we spoke with Euly, we had a chance to see his character in action, arriving at Antigen in his own style. When we walked back outside, we saw a grey sedan sitting rather conspicuously in the courtyard, but it was only when we watched playback that we saw that Euly had driven that sedan onto the courtyard and skidded it to a stop so that the back end swung around nearly 180 degrees. We couldn’t believe that was happening while we were inside and that we missed seeing it live! Euly then confidently gets out of the car holding a grenade launcher and starts shooting a number of smoke grenades into the main lobby area as he walks up to the security desk to make it easier for Selene to get inside. Sometime during the day, they had set up smoke machines all over the courtyard, which were creating so much smoke, you could barely see the courtyard behind it all, and they even ended up setting up the university’s fire alarms. When we went back into the 3D tent, we could see how this location was being used to the utmost to take advantage of the depth of 3D with shots that took in the entire expansive location so you could see the security desk in the foreground and the stairs and elevator banks way in the background.

Humans, Bah. Let’s Hear about the Lycans Already!

The Lycans have played a really big part in past “Underworld” set visits, because let’s face it, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing werewolves up close. Although they weren’t shooting anything involving Lycans that particular day, that didn’t mean their presence wasn’t felt, and we did talk a lot about them with cast and crew. We learned fairly early on that the film’s climax would culminate with Selene fighting something referred to as the “Uber-Lycan,” a 12-foot tall monster that could only be created via CG. There would also be Lycans who had been hiding in the tunnels of Underworld for years that were rail-thin due to starvation.

Brian Steele, the core Lycan performer in the other movies wasn’t able to do this show, but instead Rich Citroen, a “stunt werewolf” from the first two movies, had moved into the costume of the hero Lycan for the movie. Otherwise, the creature performers who had played a primary part in playing the Lycans in previous movies were being modified for the new movie in order to improve on some of the problems with past incarnations.

There’s no better person to talk to about that aspect of the new movie than Lakeshore Entertainment’s in-house FX guy James McQuaide, who has been the FX supervisor on the entire series. He was able to tell us a bit about how the Lycans have evolved for “Awakening” compared to the earlier films.

“The party line on these movies has always been to do as much practically as you can,” he told us. “Len [Wiseman] started that on ‘Underworld,’ and Len comes out of the art department, so he’s used to dealing with practical FX, so that philosophy sort of carried over through all the movies even though on (the first ‘Underworld’), we didn’t have much choice. Visual FX were not something that were happening quite a lot in 2003 when we made that movie. Since then, obviously, visual effects have gotten progressively better, so the opportunity to do more in CG is there, but for the most part philosophically you sort of stick to the old company line about ‘Let’s try to figure out how we can to these suits practically, and enhance them in CG if we need to,’ so that’s kind of what we’re gonna try to do here. Obviously, best intentions don’t always pay off. We have a very short schedule production-wise, so things don’t necessarily work first take. If we don’t have time to do a second take, we’re gonna have to go back in there and either completely re-create it in CG or fix up something that didn’t quite work practically.”

The other half of the Lycan equation is Todd Masters, the film’s make-up FX specialist, who deals with the practical aspect of creating the Lycans, and he was another member of the crew who hadn’t worked on the past movies. Masters has workshops both in Los Angeles and Vancouver, and they’re also responsible for all the great make-up FX on HBO’s True Blood just to get some reference.

“When it first started, it was a little bit intimidating because the three previous movies, the work was exemplary of the type of stuff that was coming out, and it pretty much had set the bar for werewolf effects,” he told us. “Coming into this, it was helpful to have a good friendship with Patrick Tatopoulos, who had done the previous three, as well as Steve Wang, who he has worked with quite a bit. Those guys were busy on other projects, but they were gracious enough to hand in whatever information they had and really allow us to work with them, because it really is their design and they developed it three times over and perfected it. Each time you make a monster, you learn something new, so those guys had the benefit of going through the process of making a werewolf exactly like this each time, so it was great to be able to call them up and go, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ By doing that, we were able to benefit from their education of Lycans over the ages and we were able to make a better suit. It was an interesting challenge because we were trying to maintain the design style but not necessarily repeating exactly what they were doing.”

“The Lycans in the past, the suits have looked fantastic on close-up, they’re completely photo-real, but when the performers started to move we had issues because they have to be 7 feet tall, which means you have to put them on some sort of extension,” McQuaide said, expanding upon how the Lycan suits have been modified. “As soon as you have performers on extensions, they lose the ability to move quickly and to move organically. In this case, we built the suits to the thigh, and put them on these stilts that painters use to reach the ceiling, hoping that that would give them more flexibility to move and to a certain degree it does, but not really to walk. They can move faster, they can react more quickly, so a lot of the close-up stuff will be practical and looks quite great, but the ability to actually walk and to run is still going to be the domain of CG. In terms of Lycans. I think we learned our lesson on the past pictures. We’ve tried things in the past where the guys were on extensions, on wires, trying to find a way to support them so they can try to run, and we haven’t even tried that in this case, we’re just really trying to use the suits for what they do best and rely on CG to do whatever else the directors want to do.”

That CG will really come into play in order to create the film’s main creature, the “Ãœber-Lycan,” which goes beyond what they would be able to do practically. “It’s a 12-foot creature, so you’re sort of getting into that ‘Hulk’ world, where, as we’ve seen before, things can go awry,” he told us. “It’s not big enough to be King Kong or truly something fantastical, it’s just a little bit bigger than what we’d normally see in your daily life, so that’s sort of a grey area. I’m anxious to see what we can pull off. What that creature’s gonna look like and how it’s gonna interact with Kate. It’s the villain of sorts in the picture, so it has to be menacing. Just as a reference, we did a big styrofoam head to scale, and it’s enormous. The head is like five feet across or something, and you start imagining a creature that size fighting Kate. No matter how bad-ass Kate is, you have to figure out how to make it believable that she can take on something like that and not simply get squashed.”

“The Tunnel Lycans aren’t possible, because they’re supposed to be quite thin,” he added. “We were stuck, because no matter who we hired to play the Tunnel Lycan, we’d be stuck with a human waist, and that just wasn’t gonna work for the design that Patrick Tatopoulos came up with, so that’s gonna be full CG.”

Hearing so much about these Lycans, but not getting to see anything was somewhat disappointing, but towards the end of the day, we did watch them doing 3D make-up tests for a character referred to as “Lycan Jake” to see how he might look when shot with the high-definition Red Epic digital cameras. We learned much later (actually through IMDB) that this character would be played by acclaimed Irish actor Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) though we didn’t get the impression that was actually him in the make-up that day nor were we able to learn what his relationship would be to Selene or the story, so that’s something you’ll have to learn about when you see the movie.

Either way, fans needn’t worry that “Awakening” is meant to be any sort of absolute end to the franchise. As Wright told us, “Once you’re doing number four you can’t stop yourself from thinking there will be a number five. As of now number 5 has not been greenlit, there’s no script, there’s no approved story. I think if we were to do it, we’d have a pretty good idea of who the characters will be, and what the basic timeline would be. I think it would take place after number four but there would have to be a lot of different variables that would have to be worked out. Kate would have to agree to come backAs with any actor, doing to the same role over and over again is not always the most immediate and attractive thing, but this is still an iconic role, and I think that she inhabits the movie, and it’s impossible to imagine what this series of films would have been like without her.”

Underworld Awakening opens nationwide on January 12, 2012. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the brand-new teaser trailer here.

If you want to hear more about the set visit, Edward Douglas also joined Collider’s Steve Weintraub for a fast-paced and somewhat rambling video discussion about what we saw on set, which you can watch below:

Video Blog: UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING Set Visit from ColliderVideos on Vimeo.

Source: Edward Douglas