Underworld: The Art Of Writing And Making Films Creative Innovation
The tradition of vampires and werewolves in Hollywood goes back to the beginning of film, but Underworld takes the myths deeper. Unbeknownst to the humanity around them, Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) have been engaged in a centuries-long battle for dominance in hidden sectors of the city. “This isn’t drawn off a comic book or a novel,” explains screenwriter Danny McBride. “This is from genre guys sitting together in a living room, wanting to create a universe, base it on science and bring vampires and werewolves into a new light.”
The genesis for Underworld began during a conversation about werewolf movies between director Len Wiseman and his friend Kevin Grevioux, who is a co-writer and plays the role of Raze in the film. “If it’s the new werewolf film of the millennium, I want to see something different,” says Wiseman.
Grevioux suggested creating a type of Romeo/Juliet story and instead of Montagues and Capulets, it would be werewolves and vampires. Further, his background in genetic engineering proved vital to the filmmakers’ new take on these age-old legends. “We wanted to use science as a base rather than mysticism, so I created a virus which was the reason that vampires and werewolves became what they had finally become.”
Wiseman adds that they eschewed the classic mystical associations of vampires with garlic and crosses. “I think if you take it down to a genetic state then you can really explain things,” he says. “If it’s about a genetic anomaly that creates these species or you’re just dealing with a blood type that through the years has somehow been able to develop these species, then you can find ways to kill it. You can explore why silver affects this type of blood. Our vampires and werewolves are a little more grounded.”
The filmmakers next enlisted screenwriter Danny McBride, who shares their love for the genre, to flesh out their ideas. “Danny really facilitated the process and got our ideas straight,” says Grevioux.
From the outset, they were determined to have a gritty female central character whose arc would involve internal conflict. “To Danny and I it was refreshing to see a female in this role rather than a male,” says Wiseman.
The project came to Lakeshore and was put together very quickly. As producer Gary Lucchesi points out, “Most of the time it takes two to three years to put a movie together, and this movie we put together in two to three months.”
Wiseman’s ability to articulate exactly how he wanted to make this film impressed everyone at Lakeshore Entertainment. As Lucchesi explains, “Len is a very eloquent guy. He comes from the world of production design, which I found rather interesting. He had apprenticed with Roland Emmerich and had worked at ILM. He was very committed to the atmosphere of the movie and felt that in a movie like Underworld, atmosphere was going to be a top priority in achieving what he wanted on screen. Producer Richard Wright adds, “Len is a very focused and hardworking guy. He has a bright new sensibility as a director.”
With Lakeshore’s history of working with first time feature directors, the support network was already in place for Underworld. As producer Tom Rosenberg points out, “One of the things we at Lakeshore are most proud of is that we’ve given a number of first time feature directors a chance. We had a very successful relationship with Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) and have gone on to make three films with him; we have also recently worked with Paul McGuigan on Obsessed, so Len was a perfect fit.” The next step was to find a cast that could give life to the characters the filmmakers created.
Kate Beckinsale had carved out a name in theatre and film but had not yet entered the genre. “Kate didn’t want to take a look at this script based simply on the fact that it was a werewolf movie and she told us that she wasn’t interested,” Wiseman says. “But her agent sent her the script anyway with all my drawings.”
“Len had done these really fantastic drawings of Selene and the werewolves,” Beckinsale remembers. “They were so cool and interesting and not old-fashioned gothic. They were really fresh and I thought ‘Wow! That’s interesting’ and I read the script. It’s not like a comic book where she does somersaults and isn’t a real character. She’s flesh and blood.”
The next critical cast-member was Michael Corvin. Wiseman had seen Scott Speedman on the TV series Felicity and though he didn’t put that together with this film, it was the actor’s attitude toward the material that convinced the director. Working on Underworld was a great new experience for Speedman – not only a first with Wiseman but also the genre. As Michael transforms from human to werewolf, Speedman underwent arduous hours of prosthetic makeup application. “It took five hours to put it on and one night it took seven people an hour and a half to get it off,” he recalls. “They were all preparing me to be bored and antsy, but it was actually a really interesting process to sit there and watch five people do this amazing work on your body.”
Speedman wasn’t the only actor to undergo hours of makeup. British veteran actor Bill Nighy, who plays Vampire overlord Viktor, had a similar experience being transformed from a mummified state to fleshed out ‘human’ Vampire. “I had no idea what ‘prosthetic’ meant until I got here and it means pain, a lot of it,” he comments wryly. “But you can’t hate them because they’re really groovy guys; they’re very nice and tremendously gifted at their jobs.”
For the filmmakers Nighy was an ideal match for Viktor because of his ability to project a presence and sense of control. “Bill Nighy came in and I didn’t know anything about him,” Wiseman remembers. “He sat down and read and it was the only experience I’ve had where I was taping somebody and got lost behind the camera. He became the Viktor that you think about when you write. That was incredibly exciting.” Comments Lucchesi, “Bill Nighy was a sensational find. He really gave gravitas to the whole movie.”
the action of underworld
Getting in shape for the physical roles of Vampires and Lycans demanded that Beckinsale and Speedman undergo weeks of intensive training in Los Angeles prior to rehearsal. Beckinsale trained with top stunt coordinators Brad Martin and Scott McElroy, whom she credits with helping her overcome her fear. Speedman on the other hand was in his element with the extensive stunt work in Underworld. “He had never done gymnastics or fighting before but picked it all up amazingly quickly,” says Martin. “By the end of our training we had him doing backflips, in and out of wires.”
Producer Wright adds that despite extraordinary physical demands on the actors, they executed their work with grace and professionalism. “Scott Speedman is a very hardworking and very long suffering actor,” he says. “The guy has the constitution of a stallion and the patience of a saint. And as for Bill Nighy – I doubt he has ever been standing in 50Â° water while swinging a sword and getting bullets shot at him, after having sat through hours and hours of makeupâ€¦..and yet he still delivered a terrific performance.”
To attain the look that would reflect the intense visualisations the filmmakers had for Underworld, Wiseman enlisted Academy Award nominated cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts (Howards End).
The quest for a unique world took the filmmakers to Eastern Europe, through which they travelled prior to deciding on Budapest. “Once I got to Budapest I knew that this was where the film needed to take place,” remembers Wiseman. “It had the buildings we were looking for and all the interiors that you could never build on this kind of budget. And, it just had that feeling.” He adds, “I had a vision of what this movie was going to be in my head and as much as I tried to explain to everybody, it was only when we got to Budapest that they said ‘Oh, now I know the kind of movie you are trying to make.'”
“It had a dark brooding sensibility that was perfect for us,” Wright adds. “Budapest is a city dripping in history and the ancestral home of both vampires and werewolves as Transylvania used to be part of Hungary. There’s a certain mythical connection between Budapest and the type of film that this is. It was just too hard to resist.”
the creatures of underworld
From the beginning the filmmakers wanted to differentiate the Vampires and Lycans of Underworld from the glut of digitally-created creatures in movies. “Len and I put together a reel early on to take into Lakeshore, where we showed some of Ridley Scott’s Alien and Jim Cameron’s Aliens,” screenwriter McBride remembers. “And then we put that against a lot of movies that use strictly CGI(computer-generated images). What we were trying to say is, CGI is great for certain things. But, a lot of times, especially for creatures with hair, it tends not to work very well. Going back to our core audience, the hardcore genre people that have grown up watching monster movies, we knew that we needed to have something that was tangible, something that you felt like you could reach out and touch — guys in incredible suits, with animatronic faces in conjunction with the wires, in order for it to be something special. We have the new and old and the best of both.”
Patrick Tatopoulos has created some of the most memorable and intricate creature makeups and prosthetics in recent memory. Best known for his creation of Godzilla, Tatopoulos and his design team had previously worked with Wiseman when the director worked in the art department of that film as well as StarGate and Independence Day. Thus, he was a natural for Underworld. McBride points out “Len loves the passion Patrick has and the first time I met him, I immediately liked him.”
Tatopoulos and his team created a large number of life-sized werewolf maquettes (reference sculptures) down to expertly carved pores, hair follicles and detail. The prosthetic suits were then constructed utilizing special stilts created by prosthetic limb manufacturers. “To watch one of the werewolves walk in the room with the animatronic lips, tongues and eyes was pretty astounding,” McBride remembers. “Patrick and Guy Himber, his right-hand man, were on the set making every detail, all of Bill Nighy’s makeup, all elements perfect. “Those guys really put a lot of time in.”
Tatopoulos designed Lycans that would have 25 axes of rotation to give them lifelike movement and the look of an entire new breed of werewolf. “When he started the first drawings of the werewolves, they were scary but they were cool and hip,” McBride continues. “They were exactly what we wanted.
director/ co-writer len wiseman
Making his directorial debut, Wiseman’s experience in the film industry was initially gained through his work in the Art Department for blockbuster hits Godzilla, Men In Black and Independence Day.
With Wiseman’s natural visual flair and eye for design, he was soon behind the lens directing commercials for PlayStation, Time Warner, Oracle, Intel and Activision, quickly leading to a career in music videos. A host of award nominations followed, including Best Art Direction at the 2002 MTV Awards for Quarashi’s “Stick ‘Em Up” and Best Director at the 2002 MVPA Awards for the Rufus Wainwright video “Across the Universe.” In addition, Wiseman has directed groundbreaking music videos for Megadeath, En Vogue, Static X, Paul Oakenfold and Brooke Allison.
Wiseman and writer Danny McBride met through their agent Nick Reed at ICM. The two hit it off upon discovering they had a common love and knowledge of genre films. They have collaborated on numerous projects since, including Underworld.
With his distinctive style and growing reputation, Wiseman came to the attention of Skip Williamson, President of Lakeshore Records. Seeing Wiseman at work on the set of the Rufus Wainwright video, Williamson made the push for Lakeshore to take a look at Underworld.
The screenplay for Underworld was so well received that Wiseman and McBride took another idea to the studios with Antoine Fuqua attached to produce. A bidding war quickly ensued, which Disney won. The project is tentatively called Black Chapter.
screenwriter danny mcbride
As the quintessential Navy Brat, Danny McBride spent his formative years living a nomadic lifestyle, moving from one tropical locale to another. He spent the majority of his childhood doing two things: scuba diving and watching movies. He couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be a George Lucas or a Jacques Cousteau.
In his teens, McBride caught the music bug and began to play extensively around Southern California in a myriad of bands, including Sabotage, American Steel, Copper Head and Dirty Blonde. After relocating to Hollywood, he met Scott McElroy, a talented stuntman, who quickly introduced him to the world of action. Together they formed The Scuba Dudes Action Team and soon began to coordinate a string of low budget features.
In 2000, McBride met director Len Wiseman – and under the urging and guidance of their agent, Nick Reed at ICM – forged a strong partnership. They have collaborated on numerous projects since, including Underworld.
Next in line for McBride and Wiseman will be the supernatural thriller Black Chapter, for Disney, with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) attached to produce.