VANCOUVER, B.C. - The "Underworld" films are all about darkness and rain. Films dealing with werewolves and vampires don't really translate well to a brightly-lit open field. The upcoming "Underworld: Awakening" will be no different. It was appropriate, then, that the day New Line hosted a Vancouver set visit for journalists was dreary, overcast, wet, rainy, cold and unnaturally dark. Before we saw any cameras, crew members or performers, it already felt like we were in an "Underworld" film.
"Awakening," the latest chapter in the long-running vampires-versus-werewolves saga has two very big things going for it: The return of Kate Beckinsale to her iconic role as the leather/rubber-clad vampire warrior Selene, and an avid interest in pioneering 3D technology, namely the use of the brand new RED Epic cameras. Both of these selling points were prominent factors throughout the early May visit, which took place at the architectually stunning Simon Fraser University, up on a hill in a densely wooded part of the city.
We were shuttled back-and-forth between the warm, cozy confines of the indoor interview room and the chilly exteriors where they day's scenes were being filmed.
The cold and rainy shoot suits to the film's dark and gritty tone, but wasn't all that fun to experience first-hand. A number of interviews were done huddled in an echo-filled stairwell, or behind a wall, while the wind blocked out most usable audio.
Before "Twilight," "True Blood" and other recent similar projects, the "Underworld" film series helped kick off the most recent pop culture obsession with vamps, werewolves and their ilk, and the franchise seems to be making a conscious effort to separate itself from family-friendly, PG-13 fare.
The first film arrived in 2003, "Underworld: Evolution" followed in 2006. The third film, 2009's "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" was a prequel, and featured only the voice of Beckinsale in the narration.
Producer Richard Wright gave a succinct run-down of the film's basic plot. "We’re now going back to picking up after the second one, except we are twelve to fifteen years in the future." Selene awakens from a coma (um...naked) to a world where Vampires and werewolves are no longer hiding in the shadows -- they've been mostly eradicated by humans. An evil corporation called Antigen has been experimenting with the creatures' DNA, and may also be tampering with the lives of Selene, her presumed-dead lover Michael (Scott Speedman, who appears in the first two films) and a young girl named Eve (India Eisley) who is in fact Selene's hitherto-unknown teen daughter.
Original "Underworld" writer-director Len Wiseman ("Live Free or Die Hard") is still on the series, acting as producer on the latest film, and, according to the producer and directors, still pitching in on writing duties even though he's in the middle of prepping his next big film, the "Total Recall" remake (also co-starring Beckinsale, his wife).
Taking over directing duties on "Awakening" are Swedish co-directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, whose previously films are the Swedish thriller "Storm" and the still-unreleased "Shelter" with Julianne Moore. Clearly lifelong friends, the two are a friendly, engaging and down-to-Earth pair who curse a lot, and seemingly finish each other's sentences. They are just as apt at discussing art and architecture as as they are horror movies.
The ravishing Beckinsale initially wasn't planning on returning, but was enticed by the new ideas driving the film's plot. "I really wasn’t intending to do another," she explained. "I just kind of always heard that it was a trilogy and that was that. I think, you know, I didn’t like the idea of kind of rehashing the same old thing too much. And Len’s a really great husband and has learned to just sort of ignore his wife going 'no,' you know, and just kind of quietly write a script for a couple of years. It (the script) really opened up the world a lot and you know had it come into the real world and also the whole presence of the daughter was such a different take, you know, that I was 'oh okay. That’s interesting.'"
Read HitFix's complete interview with Beckinsale here.
Executive producer/VFX supervisor James McQuaide agreed. "It's great to have Kate back," he said. "'Underworld 3' was fantastic, but Kate really in many ways defines this franchise. To have her back with us is quite brilliant -- I think the fans will appreciate that."
Although the finished product is sure to be filled with action and suspense, the scenes we saw being filmed weren't all that thrilling. One had Beckinsale's body double walking up a staircase (where, at the top, Selene will narrowly escape some relentless Antigen agents). The other scene being filmed that day featured more pyrotechnics, but will still decidedly low-key. The film's detective Sebastian character (Michael Ealy) walks from his Volvo to a guard desk, while shooting a futuristic gun into the air. There was enough smoke to set off a nearby fire alarm, temporarily halting the shoot. Over the walkie talkies, you could hear a grip jokingly (sort of) say "Let's go! There's a hockey game on!" This was Vancouver after all, and the Canucks were in the play-offs.
The 3D playback we were privy to was more eye-catching. With truly astonishing clarity, we saw Beckinsale take a bullet (it doesn't even faze Selene), Ealy's car come in for a crash-landing park job and, best of all, a 3D lycan makeup test. The university, an example of the mid-century brutalist style of architecture, is an imposing, block-like structure that looks like a combination school, prison and hospital. Brutalism offers cold concrete surfaces, hard angles and dramatic juxtapositions. Its aesthetics will work wonderfully with the material, and the buildings should really "pop" in 3D.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" is also being shot in 3D using the RED Epic camera, but "Underworld" will beat it to theaters by at least one season. The small, light-weight cameras offer mobility and flexibility. As a nerd stamp of approval, rumor has it Peter Jackson owes fifty of them.
"Awakening" co-director Stein is also a RED enthusiast. "We were actually flabbergasted yesterday when we saw our stuff on the big screen because you’ve all seen 3D movies and you say on here’s the foreground and here’s the middle ground," he said. "And sometimes people look like cutout cardboard figures. It was nothing like that. So yeah, it’s a great fucking camera."
With the added challenge of crystal-clear 3D, McQuaide and his team found themselves with a little more work than usual, with few previous film shoots to look back on as an instruction manual. "Basically, no one knows what there doing, when it comes to 3D," said McQuaide. Everything we're using on this picture, no one has ever used before," he said "With the cameras, the 3D rigs, it's being carefully architected to work well. And it's worked extremely well. No one's ever done a picture that combines creatures with practically captured footage. "Avatar" was, let's be honest, a big Pixar movie in many ways -- a mostly CG picture. Our picture is mostly practical but then we have these creatures running around in the 3D world, and I can't think of another movie that's done that to date. We had all these guys, like (James) Cameron and everyone else, who made 3D in the last 18 months, we're benefiting from their knowledge, and hopefully we'll be able to take it to another level."
The 3D may be new for the series, but it's still the "Underworld" franchise that fans have grown to love. "Lycans are back," McQuaide assured. "We have something called tunnel lycans, which are very much like lycans, but haven't had a meal in a decade, so they're quite scrawny. And then we have this uber-lycan. Which is a little bit scary. It's a 12 ft. creature, so you're sort of getting into that "Hulk" world, where things can go awry. It's not big enough to be King Kong or truly something fantastical, it's just a little bit bigger than what we'd normally see in your daily life. I'm anxious to see what we can pull off. "
The "uber-lycan" came up several time throughout the day. A mostly CG creation, it promises to be something fairly different for the series, which has primarily relied on practical effects. Selene's ultimate showdown will be with the baddie, who, some of the interviews hinted, may have a personal connection to her.
If the film's a success, will there be even more "Underworld" flicks? Beckinsale was cagey in her answer. "I think they’ve left it relatively open-ended. But I’m evidently not to be trusted on the question of are there going to be any more. So don’t ask me..."
Wright was more direct with his response, however. "Once you’re doing #4, you can’t stop yourself from thinking there will be a #5," he confessed. "As of now #5 has not been greenlit, there’s no script, there’s no approved story. I think if we were to do it, we’d have a pretty good idea of who the characters will be, and what the basic timeline would be. I think it would take place after #4, but there would have to be a lot of different variables that would have to be worked out. Kate would have to agree to come back."
For now, fans only have to wait a few months to see the return of Beckinsale to the world of "Underworld," and the crew promises that the stakes are much higher this time. "You have the great action, you have this great villain, a great monster, but there a lot of family relationships going on here," said McQuaide. "It's not just a cold action picture. There's a lot of drama going on that I think is gonna really resonate."
"Underworld: Awakening" opens nationwide in 2D and 3D January 20, 2012.
Watch the teaser here: