Death Race : The Set Visit!


When I last visited Montreal, I was on the set for the Renny Harlin teen horror film The Covenant. Regardless of how you felt about that film, it is hard to argue with the mystique this city provided. When one thinks of Montreal, gothic churches on the stone paved streets quickly come to mind. However, many, like myself, did not know about the incredible industrial sections the city has to offer. The industrial scenery makes for an incredible backdrop and the inspiration for Universal Pictures and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race (View new photos), opening in theaters on August 22. Last October, Universal Pictures invited to Montreal to have a look around the set, interview the cast and crew and witness some extremely intense vehicular mayhem.

For those who are unaware, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race is not a remake, but a reinventing or homage of the 1975 David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone cult classic Death Race 2000. Set at some ambiguous future in an industrial America, Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) gets framed and convicted for a horrific murder. As a result, Ames is sent to a deadly prison known as Terminal Island. However, this prison is not only home for the world’s deadliest criminals, but also the most popular and most brutal sport in the world. Inmates face off in a 9-vehicle, 3-day car race around the island with the chance of their freedom on the line.

The Death Race set visit begins when I am greeted by the head of production design Paul D. Austerberry. Paul has previously worked on 30 Days of Night, Assault on Precinct 13 and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. This particular set is located at an old train and locomotive assembly factory that has been closed for about 15 years. As you can imagine, the set is full of run-down industrial buildings that are surrounded by dirt roads. According to Austerberry, this look is the end result of massive amounts of gutting of the buildings and roads. Buildings lacked the power needed to meet the required needs of a movie set. As I look off into the horizon, I see the beautiful city of Montreal filled with churches and gothic structures; a sharp contrast to what I am experiencing on this racetrack set. Metal scraps surround broken roads that give a gritty and isolated feel for a racetrack made up of glass and metal, mixed with dirt. This creates a cold Death Race track that I am currently experiencing.

My group is then taken to one of the many decrepit buildings where we find a room full of storyboards, concept art for all the racecars and other vehicles and a 64-foot long model of the death racetrack. The model is made of white foam and paper and sports nine miniature cars and vehicles. The writers and stuntmen used this two-mile circuit scaled track during pre-production to see where and how all the action sequences in the film would take place. The racetrack incorporates three different shooting locations in Montreal. The first is the former train building company that I am currently at. The second is a long stretch down by the Montreal piers and the third is the outside grounds of the St. Vincent Paul turn of the century prison in St. Paul.

During the concept phase of the film, the new Death Race had a Formula 1 racing feel to it. Once the story began to evolve, expand and come together, Paul and company decided to veer away from the Formula 1 racing structure and go with a more industrial wasteland style. If there is one thing known from the original film, it is the points system. For those who do not know, the original Death Race 2000 told the story of no holds barred drivers in a race across the United States. But winning was not everything. Racers were encouraged and rewarded for hitting pedestrians who stood in their way. Many of the driver’s fans would give their life in a self-sacrificing gesture to help their heroes. The over the top extreme violence and commentary from the announcing crew was so morbidly extreme, it was actually taken to be funny. This was not something that the new crew was looking for. For this reimagining, Anderson did away with the points system to make the story more about “survival” and to give the film a more serious tone. Anderson’s decision to do away with the points was a tough decision but a needed one. Paul saw his film almost as a prequel if anything; almost the genesis of the Death Race. It is the hope of Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt to give the audience something original. Death Race will show old school style car chases that the audience will hopefully find more satisfying. The pressure to come up with something original is a tough deal.

When the set visit continues, I am taken through a few factories that act as one of the many stretches of the racetrack. I pass over puddles of water mixed with oil, gas and engine parts. I pass by the remains of a race car that was burned beyond recognition. As I continue to make my way to the next set, I catch sight of what was making the booming gunfire. Making my way out of the factory and into the open area outside, I observe the part of the long stretch that I will visit. Suddenly, out of no where, comes a car and a jeep speeding along followed by a converted fuel tanker. I set my eyes on the background where I observe a control room that jets out from a building. I recognize the scene I am watching is from the storyboards I saw earlier. In order to up the ante so to speak, Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen) creates a massive truck known as the “Dreadnought” to give the drivers more headache. The scene is Ames and Machine Gun Joe doing the best they can to get out of the way of the bullets the Dreadnought is firing. The Dreadnought is described by many on the set as a “land battleship, and t”hat description is accurate. The Dreadnought is a fuel tanker converted into a war machine. This “bad boy” comes with a 76mm tank turret, a flame thrower, mini guns capable of firing off 4,000 rounds per minute, a m134 mini gun and m3’s on the hood. Eight men plus the driver man the vehicle.

Approaching the set, instructions are given to stand off to the side so that the second unit can film. Suddenly, an unplanned tire on a camera cart explodes and I thought I would be ready for the massive amount of noise from the gun fire of the Dreadnought. “Cover your ears I thought.” How silly? (Note to readers. If you are ever in a situation where a machine gun expert covers their ears and tells you do the same. Do it. The sounds coming from the guns and canons were beyond loud. The sheer power coming from the Dreadnought’s guns is beyond words.)

I think it is fair to say that one can expect certain things from a Jason Statham film. Fights, pretty women and action comprise the formula. Surely, it is not “Hamlet” but it is very entertaining and satisfying. As mentioned earlier, Statham plays the role of Jensen Ames, a steel worker who is framed for the murder of his wife. When Jensen’s child is put into a foster care program, it is Jensen’s main goal to get out of jail as quickly as possible to reunite with his child. As a result, Jensen makes a deal with the Terminal Island prison warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). Hennessey needs a replacement driver to assume the role of the race’s most popular driver, the mysteriously masked Frankenstein. Statham wears a mask in order to conceal his true identity to everyone. Producer Jeremy Bolt promises the mask will not be “too sci-fi, not too homemade; a bit Aztec, something never seen before.” With one more death race win, “Frankenstein” will earn his freedom from the prison. Now, while the masked Frankenstein driver is a fan favorite, he is not so beloved by his fellow drivers. As a result, Statham will be involved in a number of fights. The fights will prove to be something different for Statham and his fans. There will be no martial arts but rather a more brutal and organic fighting style that W.S. Anderson promises to be “down and dirty with no wire work involved.”

Continuing the set visit, I am taken to Hennessey’s control tower. The room is crammed with flat panel TV’s that will be filled in during post-production. In the final version of the film, the TVs will show the various cameras on the track. The tower overlooks a stretch of the track and the crew pits. From this room, Hennessey is able to keep track of how many viewers are logged on and watching. The control panel has seats for 4 or 5 of Hennessey’s workers, with each seat having detailed folders of all the drivers. At this point, Death Race producer Jeremy Bolt joins us. Bolt shows off a bunch of stills from the film. The stills mainly focus on Jason Statham’s character. From a steel mill, to inside the racecar, to being hosed down inside the prison, it is quite clear that Statham has hit the gym for this role. In order to make Statham’s physical look represent a history of the character, Statham went through 5 months of intense training with an ex navy seal. Based on the production stills shown by Bolt, Statham is clearly ripped from head to toe. According to Bolt, the inspiration for Jensen Ames was Robert De Niro’s Max Cady from Cape Fear. Statham’s body is covered with tattoos that give his character a history of being in lockup. All of the tattoos in the film have been researched to give the characters a genuine sense of realism.

At this point of the set visit, I am taken to the workshop that holds the entire line of stunt cars used in filming. I realized Death Race is not shy with its unique vehicles. Even though the cars’ inner and outer bodies had undergone drastic changes, you will still be able to recognize them. The cars in the film will not be digitalized like in “Tokyo Drift.” Anderson was looking for a 1970s style where all the cars and shots are real. The only special effects will be the removal of the riggs.

The main car will be driven by Jason Statham’s character Frankenstein. For the Frankenstein car, Paul W.S. Anderson wanted to have an everyday man’s “All American” look and feel. For Statham’s car, the production crew worked with the Ford Racing division. The car needed to have enough power to withstand the vehicular manslaughter of the movie. Known as the Monster, the black with red trim 2005 Ford Mustang GT is a pretty cool ride. Stripped of its dashboard, seats, and wheels, replaced with a nitro oxide system, napalm, ejector seats and mini guns. The Monster is everything that a post-apocalyptic racecar should be. The Monster is powered by a supercharged 4.6L V8 engine with a Ford Racing Exhaust System. Additionally, the Monster has had some modifications to the exterior of the car. Steel metal scraps have been made into a plate that has been put on the back to provide rear armor protection. Also, the car sports some heavy machine guns located to the side of the hood.

The next car worthy of note is the 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 that will be driven by the character known as Machine Gun Joe, played by Tyrese Gibson. For the role, producer Jeremy Bolt looked for an actor who essentially was believable. The audience must believe that Machine Gun Joe is a character who as been in prison and more importantly, racing in the Death Race for a while. As a result, Tyrese is no longer “pretty, but more of a man.” Tyrese’s character scars his face with razor blade every time he kills someone.

When you first start racing, it is a very orthodox style: car vs. car, skill vs. skill. As the race progresses, Hennessey ups the ante so to speak by activating metal plates found all over the race track. The job of the navigator is to keep track of which metal plates are lit up and relay that message to the car pit. The Death Race is not solely racing and shooting. There is a bit of strategy involved. All around the track are iron plates that the drivers can run over. Once a driver runs over a particular metal plate, that plate is shut down. So what you basically have is a race within a race for drivers to get to the desired plates that would be most advantageous. To activate the cars’ guns, you will need to drive over the sword plate. If you want to activate your defensive weapons, you will need to drive over the shield plate. Added to the mix is the death head skull plate. Racers will attempt to push other drivers into these in order to cause additional havoc.

One of the main ways for a Death Race driver to be successful is by having a proper navigator. Brought in from a local women’s prison, it is the navigator’s job to help the driver anyway she can. From firing guns, controlling defensive mechanisms and keeping watch over which metal plates are lit up and relay that message to the car pit, the job of the navigator is very extensive. The navigator keeps track of all the little tricks the track has to offer and fixes all the things that need fixing while the driver concentrates on the track. Hennessey is revenue driven. In the Internet world, the number of hits is equivalent to a TV rating. Part of the way Hennessey generates hits is through the eye candy that is the navigator. Well, for everyone except Machine Gun Joe. (Joe seems to have a hard time keeping his navigators from race to race.) This should be an easy feat as newcomer Natalie Martinez plays Ames’ navigator named Case. The Cuban-American actress born and raised in Miami is also the spokesmodel for JLO by Jennifer Lopez. In watching her act and in the interviews, one can easily see the similarities to Michelle Rodriguez. Street smart mixed with beauty makes for a deadly combination. More importantly, she comes off as believable.

Death Race is not without its veteran stars. The always elegant and amazing Joan Allen will be exploring a dark side to her abilities. Regrettably, Joan Allen was finished with her shoot by the time the set visit came about. That is not to say there were not many stories about her time on the set. If there had to be one common story told, it would be about Joan Allen’s character, the warden Hennessey. The phrase “complete b*tch” was a phrase that Anderson, Statham, and Austerberry seem comfortable using when describing Allen’s character. Allen’s portrayal of Hennessey promises to be an “extremely different character” anyone is used to seeing the always proper Allen portraying. Hennessey promises to be extremely cruel and a very powerful female villain that was inspired by a real female prison warden from California.

Ian McShane is the other well-established actor in the film. McShane plays the institutionalized inmate named Coach, a member of Ames’ pit crew. Like Allen, McShane had completed his filming prior to our set visit. However, many spoke extremely high of the man. Bolt spoke about McShane’s ability to portray his character’s history through his eyes and mannerisms. Statham talked at great length about the stories and experience McShane brought to the set each day. “Working with McShane raises the bar of the drama. No hand shakes and pats on the back,” jokes Statham.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s vision of the Death Race universe looks to be a unique one. The “R” rating will hopefully allow the movie to not hold back on the gore and action promised. A bit “Mario Kart” and a bit “Running Man” hopefully translates to a fun and exiting C-armageddon experience that Speed Racer seems to have missed out on with its audience.

While visiting the set, talked to Paul W.S. Anderson, Jason Statham, Natalie Martinez and Max Ryan about the film. You can read the interviews by clicking the links below!

Producer/director Paul W.S. Anderson

Jason Statham – Jensen Ames/Frankenstein

Natalie Martinez – Case

Max Ryan – Slovo Pachenko/Angel Wings