The last time ComingSoon.net was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was for the Broken Lizard's Beerfest
comedy, which was being filmed at the local botanical gardens. This time, we were brought down there to visit the green screen sets of Frank Miller's movie based on Will Eisner's The Spirit
(you can read about that on Superhero Hype!
), but Lionsgate gave us an added surprise when we learned that we'd also be spending some time on the set of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's new movie, a sci-fi action flick starring Gerard Butler that was once known as "Game" but will be called something else when it comes out late next year. (Or at least that's the plan.)
The dynamic duo of Neveldine-Taylor handed Lionsgate a nice surprise hit last year when their action film Crank
starring Jason Statham broke out over Labor Day weekend, creating a niche base of action fans who can't wait to see what they do next. That aside, the real reason we were so thrilled about the set visit was because Mark and Brian are both very cool guys who have spent the last two San Diego Comic-Cons seemingly attending every party and hanging out with the online crew, somehow remembering many of us by name. (And believe me, it was pretty cool to have Mark see me from the director's chair and sign a greeting to show that he remembered me.)
We knew that the scene we were going to watch was part of an outdoor night shoot on location but as we drove past the site, from the road, all we could see was this enormous amount of bright light coming from a huge odd-shaped structure. This being New Mexico, it might not have surprised us if we had been driving past a just-landed UFO. As we approached, it looked every more bizarre, as it was a huge open construct with a metal roof, like the world's largest covered shed but there were no walls, and the entire inner area was filled with sand dunes. In fact, this was Albuquerque's one and only ABA BMX dirt racetrack, Duke City BMX
, where the Olympic BMX team held their tryouts every year. But before you get all worried that Neveldine-Taylor didn't learn a lesson from the unintentionally funny scene in McG's Charlie Angels: Full Throttle
, the track wasn't being used for what it was intended, because the sand hills and the deep pits were strewn with broken-down burnt-out cars, some still on fire, and all around this enormous brightly-lit space were giant white movie screens, which would be explained to us later. After the van drove around a bit trying to figure the best place to approach—an omen for an accident that would occur later during our visit—we approached this amazing scene completely unsure of what to expect. Up close it was even more impressive as we saw a couple crew members filling the pit liberally with smoke to turn it more into some sort of post-apocalyptic setting, and it took a few minutes for us to overcome the immediate sensory overload of being transported from the American SouthWest to something out of "Escape From New York."
The hosts for our visit was unit publicist Michael Umble, the film's executive producer David Rubin and Robert Burke, Lakeshore Entertainment's VP of Worldwide Marketing, who greeted our van and explained how they were only on Day 9 of a 53-day-shoot that would go through the New Year with the movie being shot 100% in New Mexico, first on location and then in Albuquerque's ABQ Studios. Michael and Robert gave us a run-down of the film's general premise, a concept that seemed simple at first, but it took the group of journalists a significant stream of questions before everyone understood what they were talking about. Essentially, the movie is set seven years into the future where a popular first-person shooter game called Slayers (possibly "Slayerz") is viewed on a worldwide scale. By then, video games have become so sophisticated that they're tied into the real world and the avatars being played in the video game are actually real-life death row prisoners who have been implanted with microchips in their brains by a corporation that allows players to control these convicts in deadly battle games where they fight each other to the last survivor. It's almost like "Second Life" meets "Doom" but with real people interacting, and then killing each other, completely beyond their own control.
The star of this deadly video reality game is Gerard Butler's John Tillman, an battle avatar known as Kable, who is being controlled by a teen named Simon, a legend in the gaming world played by Logan Lerman, who last played Christian Bale's son in the Western 3:10 to Yuma
. So far, the duo have survived and won 27 games, more than any other player or avatar, and while winning has allowed them to get lots of upgrades, it's hinted that if one survives 30 such battle episodes, they get their sentence reduced. In the movie, Kable/Butler plays four key battle games of which the one we were watching was #2, but it was hinted that maybe his character wasn't fairly prosecuted and is on death row for something he didn't do—like that never happens, right?—but has found himself caught up in this game beyond his control. One of the producers mentioned that Gerard would have an American accent in the movie but that he wouldn't have that much dialogue, because so much of the movie involves the fighting and action scenes.
After the premise was explained in detail, we were introduced to James McQuaide, Lakeshore's in-house Special FX coordinator, and he told us about the special Red cameras that Mark and Brian and the crew were using on this film, being only the second production after Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara movie to use the hand-held cameras that can record 4 minutes of 4K digital directly to flash cards so that the dailies can be put into someone's pocket and taken to the FX house in L.A. They cost $17,000, each which is a fraction of the cost of a normal hi-def digital camera. He mentioned that just about every shot so far would require some sort of special FX or CG work, even if it's just to insert the "fly cams" that buzz around the battle environments to capture the action for the game player. He also told us that the large screens surrounding the make-shift arena would be showing all sorts of animated advertisements, just like there would be at a modern-day sports game or as seen in "Blade Runner," although they explained that the battles are taking place in real world environments and not arenas, which would be clearer once the city is added into the background in post.
We watched them do a take where there were maybe a dozen prisoner players running around holding guns, two or three guys zooming around them on motorcycles and then half a dozen more guys running around with cameras to capture the action from different angles. In the foreground, we got a glimpse of Gerard Butler himself, wearing a full military regalia with a cropped haircut and neatly-trimmed beard before he runs down one of the dirt embankments firing his gun, then suddenly, BOOM! A giant explosion rocks the scene, making everyone jump a few feet as cork bits from one of the cars blew everywhere. Yes, folks, we have pyro. Actually, most of the scenes we'd watch involved some sort of car on fire or loud explosion, and it was amusing to hear the series of yells from the crew before each take of "Fire in the hole!" There was even more amusement during one take when flying rubber body parts flew into the air during one such explosion. (Any worries about Neveldine-Taylor making an "E"-rated video game movie should be quickly dispelled.)
We watched a few more scenes, amused by the extras dressed as "Genericons" watching from the bleachers, unsure whether they were actually in the scenes or just killing time while watching the mayhem on set. These are also real prisoners but ones that are not being controlled by players. After a few takes, Mark, Brian, Butler and dozens of others gather around the monitors to watch some of the scenes that had been shot, and we were able to see what was going on in the deep pit into which Butler had run.
David Rubin told us a bit about some of the other characters in the movie like Gerard's wife Angie, played by Amber Valetta, whose picture could be seen on one of the computer monitors wearing a fetching blue wig. Alison Lohman plays the leader of a resistance group called HUMANZ, which is trying to put a stop to the games because they're cruel (and deadly) to the prisoners being forced to play them. He announced that rapper Ludacris has come aboard to be a part of this group, as well. John Leguizamo plays one of Kable's fellow prisoners who is also trying to figure out what is going on and why they can't control their own bodies.
Apparently, they'd already shot one of the movie's later battles sequences in downtown Albuquerque over the weekend with Mark filming the action while wearing their rollerblades, much like he did in Crank
, and in another scene, Mark was hung from a rig that had him suspended 40-feet above the action running forward and dropping down into the middle of it. They also had created something called Container City that would be destroyed in one of the major battles, which would involve stuntwoman Zoe Bell. Rubin lives in Albuquerque and he was the one who spotted the BMX complex while location scouting and Neveldine-Taylor were so excited by the prospects of shooting in that locale that they created a battle specifically for the location, hence
In between set-ups, Gerard Butler came over briefly to say "Hi" and quickly told us to "put the pens away" as soon as it looked like the journalists were going into "interview mode" but he talked briefly about this new experience and how exhausting it was, especially with New Mexico's high altitude, but he also made sure to thank the online community for making 300
such a huge success, which was kind of him. "You made 300. It was the internet sites that did it," he admitted, "so I hope you can do the same with this… even if it's not as good." And then he laughed at his own joke as he was pulled away to get back to work. (It was fun to see Butler again in the same day as Miller since the last time we saw them together was when 300
was previewed at Comic-Con in July '06.)
After a few scenes were shot, we were escorted into the large pit nearest to us and watched as Brian and Mark set up a dolly shot with Lerman sitting down on the rig following closely behind Butler, something they were doing to really get the players into the game as the camera would go in from behind the player to the avatar/prisoner he's playing. Brian came over to quickly explain what was going on, "This is a 3-D shot, where we bring the game directly into the battlefield. When you see it on the screen, it will seem like he is controlling it at home. When the character runs, Logan moves with him. It will make sense when you see it."
As they got ready to shoot, we were scooted by the handlers out of the pit as two BMX bikes would be racing through the area where we were standing, and as the A.D. announced that the scene would include another explosion, they decided it would be wiser if we were moved even further away from the filming area. They began to run a similar scene with everyone running around the dunes with guns and the explosion went off like clockwork before the assistant director's voice came over the P.A. calling them to cut because "a van had driven through the shot." You guessed it, our driver had returned to pick us up and picked the wrong entrance and had shown up in the background of the battle sequence. But that seemed like a good cue for us to leave anyway.
Neveldine-Taylor's sci-fi action flick, once called "Game" and now referred to as Untitled Gerald Butler Sci-Fi Action Thriller
(or something to that effect) is expected to be ready for release sometime late next year.