“You know how long I’ve been talking about this. You know how many press junkets I’ve been at talking about ‘Riddick,’ and we’re actually on set here shooting a ‘Riddick’ that’s better than all expectations, better than anything we anticipated, and we’re here nine years later and it’s surreal.” Vin Diesel.
The “Fast and Furious” star has made his name playing tough hombres, but none more bad ass than Riddick, his nearly invincible Furyan character who originated in David Twohy’s 2000 low-budget sci-fi thriller Pitch Black. Diesel saw so much potential in the character that he and Twohy exponentially expanded the universe and mythology for 2004′s The Chronicles of Riddick, which proved to be a bust at the box office.
However, through slow and steady maneuvering, Diesel, a long-time “Dungeons & Dragons” player, has managed to game Hollywood by throwing his clout once again behind the character for a third movie, which we toured the set of in March of 2012 as it lensed in Montreal, Quebec.
PHOTO GALLERY: View new photos from the September 6 release!
It all happened at Icestorm Studios, where 300 and other genre movies were shot. When we arrive there is a huge silver throne with Necromonger figures sculpted into it in baroque fashion. We’re taken to a huge soundstage with green screen stretching across 30-feet in the air, and massive lights beam onto a carved foam rock formation which resembles either hostile alien terrain or the most fun McDonald’s playground ever.
Upon exploring the set further, we come across a campsite with meat hanging off the bone. On a doorway written in blood it reads, “Leave one ship and go or die here.”
This enigmatic scene helped set the stage, but to explain what exactly happens in this new installment we turned to the man himself, Vin Diesel, who after a full day of shooting appeared energized and giddy at the prospect of fulfilling his dream.
“What does happen to Riddick?” explained Diesel. “You’re thinking you’re going to be in the Underverse leading a huge army and very quickly a couple minutes into the picture you realize you’re fighting for your life, you’re left for dead on a planet again. It’s a very creative construct that David Twohy and I worked on which is playing on the idea of having so much power, that fat feeling you get from having too much power and the need to return to the animal side.”
Helping to fill out the blanks a bit more is Twohy, who once again guides the character in the director’s chair.
“At its core it’s a survival story about one man surviving a planet,” Twohy said, “and his only way to get off that planet is to call in the mercenaries to get a ride off that planet. It is a ‘Jeremiah Johnson’-like survival story, but with Riddick at the heart of it. That said, we don’t turn our backs on the mythology that we planted in the last movie, and we actually are bringing Karl Urban back for a few days of filming next week to try to advance it and lay the groundwork for movie four.”
That’s right, there’s another movie after this one. Back in the early 2000s, Diesel made it a point to tell the media that Pitch Black was like “The Hobbit,” and then he had a trilogy of “Chronicles” movies planned. Despite the economic realities of the first “Chronicles” failing at the box office, Twohy said their plans have expanded for TWO more films after this one is released and conquers the universe.
Diesel had to make more than a few sacrifices to get the new “Riddick” made, including leveraging the success of recent “Fast Five,” working on a lower budget, and cutting his salary.
“On this picture I’m basically working for scale,” said Diesel, “and I’ve never worked for scale in my life. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of all these cool sets and all this great film that I don’t even think about the fact that it’s scale.”
Twohy added, “Between the new economics of the film business and where we had landed financially with the last movie, about how it did relative to its budget, we realized the new reality for us was that we could spend somewhere between 30 and 40 million dollars to make this movie and that’s kind of the ballpark we’re in, roughly 40 million dollars.”
“I always had a pretty firm belief we’d be back here,” Twohy continued, “The only time I had shaken confidence was probably three months ago when we started here in Montreal, ran out of pre-production money and the guy who ran the other studio that we were going to film at in Montreal locked the door on us, locked us out and we went down. We got a little press for going down, negative press for going down, but it truly was just lawyers not getting their paperwork signed, and when the paperwork signed the bank loan cleared and the money started flowing again and here we are making a movie.”
Despite those early setbacks, Diesel and Twohy were able to get something even the enormous budget of 2004′s “Chronicles” couldn’t buy them: an R rating.
Said Diesel, excitedly, “There’s something appropriate and liberating and honest and free about going into a picture like this and being able to make it a rated-R picture and not have to comply with an understandable studio mandate of PG filmmaking for the blockbusters in Hollywood.”
“This one’s more like ‘Pitch Black’ because its clearly R-rated, as ‘Pitch Black’ was,” explained Twohy. “We’re not pulling any punches this time. You’re sort of forced to when you’re doing a studio movie for 100-million dollars or more, you have to pull your punches because there are too many people, too much input, too many people trying to turn it into something else, too many people who don’t want to take chances. So all that softens your blows and we don’t want to soften our blows anymore.
“It is difficult because we only have 47 days to shoot the movie and we’ll probably take 49 or something like that, but that’s still tight, maybe the new realities of moviemaking. I shot ‘Pitch Black’ in 60 or 65 days. I shot ‘Chronicles’ in 85 days. So here we are, a shorter time period than any of it, and yet I still have to stay open to new possibilities that arrive on the set, on the day, or in the moment.”
Adding credence to that promise of more gore this time around is our trip to the creature department, where we’re shown a foam rubber Jackyl, striped with tiny sprigs coming from its back. It’s the size of a small pony. It will be used during any interaction with the actors, the rest of the time as a CGI creation. It has eight cables for control, and there are some baby Jackyls too.
The Mud Demon is a little “Alien”-esque, with huge protruding jaw and all, and both a hard and soft set of teeth. One of them has its head hacked off. Vin already fought that one. Bipedal, with a long scorpion claw tail, it looks like a really demonic mermaid that lives in the mud.
Storyboards mounted on the wall feature Riddick riding a floating motorcycle and battling the Mud Demons by hand. The boards are rendered in an anime style not unlike the animated movie The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury. Beside one of the boards reads the following evocative description:
“Annoyed, Riddick reaches down and jams his fingers into the Mud Demon’s eye sockets. It squirms and thrashes. Riddick just flings it away.”
Another creature which Riddick subsists on during his stay on this planet is the Viper Fish, very deadly eel-like things which he peels with his hands before eating them. They were hanging at his campsite lair earlier. Riddick’s costume in this movie is sewn together from the skin of these Viper Fish, a nice added touch of survival.
“I know it sounds corny but I feel like I learn about myself when I play this character,” admitted Diesel. “Going to that dark isolated place produces some kind of vision about myself. He mirrors my own quest for identity, my eternal quest as a child. David Twohy asked me what I thought a Furyan was and depending on what day you asked me I would give a different answer.”
“Riddick is sort of an elemental figure,” adds Twohy, “and so the question is how much do you want to evolve an elemental figure. You do want to make discoveries about him and that’s what we are slowly doing, as he sort of discovers who he is himself and what it means to be a Furyan.”
We move on to the main soundstage at Icestorm, where the smell of mud and water hangs in the air mustily. They release a gush of rain over a shantytown doorway. On the monitors the scene plays out in tilted Dutch angle on Vin as lightening strikes. He puts on his trademark goggles and struts into the storm. The shadow of Riddick is on the sidewalk as he whistles creepily.
Turns out this shantytown is actually a rundown merc waystation, and parked next to it is one of the coolest things one could ever lay eyes on: a full-scale spaceship, the vehicle of Matthew Nable’s character Boss Johns. We’re able to climb aboard via the deployed ramp, and see how detailed the interior is, with several hover bikes stored and all the details you would expect, including cockpit, front-mounted guns, etc.
One of the most important merc characters that comes out of that ship looking for Riddick is Dahl, played by Katee Sackhoff, best known for playing Captain Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace in another sci-fi franchise, TV’s “Battlestar Galactica.”
“My character’s this sniper,” said Sackhoff in between takes. “So you see me most of the time with this sniper rifle that’s just a head shorter than I am pretty much, and then my handgun. In this one I was given an LOD, which is an electrical current gun. I was like, ‘come on, it’s kind of girly, why do I have to fire that thing?’ So I was trying to make it cooler. The director goes, ‘well there’s a three second load-up while you stand there.’ And I was like, ‘what if I shoot my handgun at the same time while it’s gearing up?’ I’m standing there with this massive thing and firing at the same time, then sweeping with this big LOD, so I found a way to make it as masculine as possible.”
We catch a glimpse of this in the monitor, a firefight they shot earlier in the day, which features all the mercs from both teams defending the waystation from some sort of menace. The amount of firepower (and testosterone) deployed in the scene is staggering, and should make fans very pleased, especially Sackhoff.
“I’m kind of used to being around guys on set,” she said, “and I grew up with a brother who treated me like I was a boy. So it kind of makes it easy for me. But this is definitely the biggest cast of men I’ve been in, literally and figuratively. They’re huge. This is the first time in my life that I’ve never worried that my ass is gonna look big. Physically they’re a lot bigger than me. So I’m constantly trying to make sure that I’m carrying myself in a masculine way.”
As fans of “Battlestar” no doubt want to know, there are some similarities to her previous character, but Dahl is also a very different animal.
“There’s a lot of big differences between Starbuck and Dahl,” she explained. “Starbuck is extremely juvenile, very immature, and she kind of grew up in that show. Dahl is very mature, very much a woman. My backstory, David Twohy and I pretty much made it up, but she was thrust into a situation where she grew up really fast. And she’s kind of been taking care of herself for a while. She’s by far the toughest, most deadly character I’ve ever played. There’s not a moment where this woman would shed a tear, and not because she doesn’t feel like it but because there’s nothing that would make her cry.”
While the film has a very strong female protagonist, it will also apparently have its fair share of sexy ones too.
Confirmed Twohy, “I just saw some of the Necromonger babes in costume in there and they look fantastic in and out of their clothing- and they WILL be out of their clothing as well.”
The highlight of the visit for us came when we toured the costume department and noted that Riddick’s head gear when he starts off the film as the Necromonger leader includes a very familiar bone headdress worn by Linus Roach in “Chronicles,” who fans may remember turned out to be a Furyan as well. When we brought up the connection to Diesel, he was thrilled we picked up on it.
“That’s cool,” Diesel exclaimed. “You see this guy? That’s why I make these movies, and that’s why we do those things, because somebody’s paying attention. That worldbuilder, that D&D player that’s really meticulous, that believes the audience does care and can draw the similarity between Riddick’s headdress and the headdress worn by Linus Roach who reveals in one moment that he is a Furyan that went the wrong path. It’s very subtle, but just the fact that you mention it means that it was worth the weeklong dialogue about the construction of one little piece of a whole Necronic Lord Marshall armor. It’s a testament to I wish the wardrobe department and other producers were here to hear that question to verify, you know?”
From one geek to another, we feel ya, Vin, we feel ya.
Riddick hits theaters on September 6. Stay tuned for the second part of the set visit on Thursday.