On the edge of Sofia, Bulgaria lies Nu Boyana Studios, a place that may not sound familiar to you, but has been a staple of production for a number of films in recent years, including Olympus Has Fallen, 300: Rise of an Empire, Conan the Barbarian 3D and Kon-Tiki. Even though I’ve known it for some time, it doesn’t fully hit me until I’m exiting the production van and I see the cast – I’m here to meet The Expendables.
About 30 yards away from me I can see Jason Statham chatting with someone amid a crowd of other actors clad in kevlar and bandanas. Make-up and hair people scuttle about, making sure that everyone’s scar and dust-clad faces are camera ready as the day’s work is about to begin. It’s at that moment that the man himself, the legend, the creator of this stellar franchise, Sylvester Stallone, walks out of a trailer and into the crowd. Though he had recently hit his 67th birthday, Stallone is still in better shape than you can ever hope to be.
“This is horrible, it’s the worst thing ever,” he would later tell us, quite facetiously. “Running around with guns and bombs and dressing up with black clothes, hanging out, having fun, pretending to be a soldier, who would want to do that?”
This tongue-in-cheek comment draws substantial laughter from the rest of the cast, Statham having the most boisterous and infectious of the laughs.
“It’s great, we’re having a great old time,” Stallone added, and it shows. Even though the cast will spend the entire day running in smokey rooms, firing guns, and dodging pretend bullets, the camaraderie that they all share can be felt, and if only a fraction of that is captured on screen by director Patrick Hughes, it’ll be a treat for the viewer.
We spend some time in the morning watching the day’s shoot as it unfolds. The scene we’re watching has The “Old” Expendables, as the cast often refers to themselves, going on a mission to rescue “The New Expendables,” a crew of mostly younger cast members that includes Kellan Lutz of the “Twilight” films, former WBC Welterweight Champion Victor Ortiz, UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Rhonda Rousey, The Dark Knight Rises actor Glenn Powell, and Antonio Banderas of Zorro and Desperado fame.
Many of the same faces from the previous “Expendables” movies make up the core crew, but there are a few new ones in the wings including Wesley Snipes, who plays a character called “Doc.” Snipes seems especially eager to be present.
“To be a part of the franchise,” Snipes replied when asked why he signed on. “Sly and I did a film a long time ago called ‘Demolition Man’ and that was my first foray into the role of big action movies and in some sense he was my mentor on that. Getting the call to come and join this wonderful cast and work with old friends again, it was a no-brainer.”
When questioned about how he prepared for his role in the film, Snipes replied: “I watched ‘Expendables’ 1 and 2,” which once again creates a tornado of laughter from the group.
Things won’t be entirely easy for Snipes’ character after he gets brought into the fold either. We’re told that he and Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas will have a bit of a rivalry, stemming from the fact that both of them are “knife guys.” The crew won’t be wasting any time introducing Snipes into the film as he will actually join the team in the opening moments, when they bust him out of a rather unconventional prison – a moving train.
“We have the opening scene which is the extraction of Wesley from the most heavily fortified, armor plated train, via helicopter, and it’s real,” Stallone said. “So you’re going to see something that’s not CGI, so it’s pretty extraordinary.”
Even though the film will have its fair share of visual effects (more on that later), director Patrick Hughes says they made it a point to film as much of their action sequences in camera with little reliance on post-production work for many of their bigger pieces.
“I came here like four months before we started shooting and just scouted for locations and found some really amazing places, to bring that aesthetic quality to the film and also it brings that scale that you never get in the CG world,” Hughes told us. “Also there’s some really amazing, incredible action beats so it’s like if you’ve got a helicopter attacking a train then cool, lets get a helicopter attacking a train for real. So that’s where it starts to go to that crazy level, but I think it pays off in the end result, because you’re going to end up with some amazing visuals and some pretty powerful action scenes.”
We venture inside one of the many buildings at Nu Boyana to visit the people of Worldwide FX, the in-house special effects company at the studio. Lining the walls of their offices are a slew of Sci-Fi original movies which the company cut its teeth on when starting out, such as Mansquito, Alien Lockdown, and Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep. In the 12 years since they’ve gone on to provide the effects for Hollywood films such as 88 Minutes, Rambo, Righteous Kill, The Mechanic, Drive Angry, The Paperboy, Olympus Has Fallen, and both of the previous “Expendables” movies.
Even though Stallone and Hughes have assured us that they’re doing a lot of practical stunt work on the film, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any visual effects they’ll have to finalize in post. At the time, we were given an estimate that The Expendables 3 would have about 1200 visual effects shots after the dust settles. This is actually a bit of a downgrade from The Expendables 2, which we were told had between 1400 and 1700 VFX shots, depending on who you ask. At the time of our visit, six weeks into the shoot, the crew was already hard at work on over 200 of the shots we would see in the finished film.
We were then escorted to another part of the studio where we were to be given our first lessons in stunt training from the film’s fight choreographer and stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry (no relation). A fast-talking and highly-energetic man, Perry has a very impressive career as a stunt worker. His skills having been applied to the likes of Mortal Kombat, Serenity, Beowulf, Iron Man, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Haywire, Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness, Machete Kills and Ender’s Game, as well as the upcoming reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The room is padded with mats around the center, with just a handful of tables and chairs scattered around the edges. J.J. starts off our lesson by showing us an array of dummy weapons that we can use for practice. I chose the assault rifle that had a pistol attached to the front as it seemed like the most over-the-top and badass of the weapons, perfect for an Expendable. He took us through a few drills, showing us the proper ways to hold the rifles, walk with them, and maneuvers to use when in a pinch to suddenly turn around. “It evolves every year, it’s changing,” Perry said about the various combat techniques in the film. “So what we’re trying to do them is give (the actors) the newest, especially on reloading, going from rifle to pistol, going from pistol to knife, to hands, to feet, all the way down. So we’re trying to make it as new and fresh as we can and still look interesting for the movie.”
Perry then opened up his laptop and showed us a handful of sequences he and his stunt team has pre-vized for the film. Each of the fights we were shown were geared toward a specific member of the cast and their strengths, Rhonda Rousey’s sequence was particularly brutal while Antonio Banderas’ was more comedic, albeit still badass.
“Part of the process is definitely getting the actors in,” Perry said. “Finding out their skill sets, and with someone like Rhonda Rousey, who is the best woman fighter on the planet, she came in here and just put on a seminar. I had to tell her to ease up, because she was throwing the guys so hard and she wasn’t even trying. It was ridiculous.”
The various pre-viz sequences put together by the stunt team may appear crude to the casual viewer. They’re filled solely with stunt men and women surrounded by tumbling mats and cardboard boxes, shot using handheld digital cameras, and sometimes very basic visual effects, but these are valuable tools to the cast and filmmakers, especially on a picture the size of The Expendables 3.
“I want them to take it and make it theirs,” Perry said about the actor’s making changes to the pre-viz sequences. “I’m looking for that. We’re constantly looking for that because that’s their character…We’re going to lay out a frame work and create a scenario, but he’s going to come in and put his flavor on it and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The filmmakers are going for some extreme moments in the sequel too. Perry told us about a sequence with stars Jason Statham and Antonio Banderas where the pair dispatch 14 goons, all in one take.
“We did a oner, a long piece with Jason and Antonio Banderas coming out of The Block (a location in the film) on their way out and we had eighteen stunt guys, four repelling in, and another fourteen popping up. So we had Banderas spraying seven and Jason spraying seven, we did it all in one shot. It took us three takes to get it, but we were well rehearsed. That was a big deal.”
The film also sees the stunt team using a variety of pyrotechnics as well. J.J. mentioned a sequence with Statham that required not only a series of explosions but several rigs for the characters getting blown away.
“He does a sequence where he gets to a certain point but he takes out guys with hand grenades, like we’re blowing guys back on wires with pyro, there’s a lot of elements going on there. So you have pyro happening, big explosions with guys on wires on pneumatic ratchet systems, Jason throwing and shooting at the same….So we have a lot of big stuff in this one, not just with punching and kicking but with a lot of variable elements, gun fire, pyrotechnics , etc.”
Of all the members of the cast, J.J. spoke the most highly of Statham, with whom he has worked multiple times in addition to being his kick boxing partner when the pair are in Los Angeles. Even when unprompted by a question, Perry couldn’t help but be complimentary on Statham’s work ethic and abilities.
“Jason does all his own stuff man, he is a freak. I’ve done four films with him and I’ve got to tell you he is a choreography freak. He’s an Olympic level diver, a tremendous athlete….Jason has a great style of fighting because he fights like a man. It’s not Kung-Fu. It’s like ‘I’m a man’ fighting. You pick someone up, you throw them on their head and beat the piss out of them.”
Even that doesn’t top what Perry had to say about the total experience of working on The Expendables 3, for which he had prepared the perfect metaphor.
“This is the biggest action movie I’ve ever done, and I’ve done about 115 action films. So as far as workload this is like if you took ‘Expendables’ one and ‘Expendables’ two and put it in a blender and poured a bottle of hot sauce on it. As far as action goes, that’s what we’re doing right now, and we’re in it right now, and I’m loving every minute of it.”