The entire notion of the "set visit" has changed since I've started doing this, and that's never been clearer to me than it was in March, when I joined a handful of other writers on the set of the upcoming action movie "Faster," starring Dwayne Johnson, Maggie Grace, Billy Bob Thorton, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
When I started writing for Ain't It Cool back in 1996 and 1997, there was no such thing as a formal set visit. When I started actually writing about my time spent on various film sets, they weren't visits organized with the studio, but with the filmmakers, and they weren't big group activities with formal itineraries. The best set visit pieces I've ever done are the ones where I spent enough time on a film for the filmmakers to forget I was there, where I got to become a fly on the wall and actually watch the process at work. When I write one of these pieces, what I really hope to do is be your eyes and ears and allow you to experience what it's like when you're trying to pull off the logistical, monetary, technical, and artistic challenge that is filmmaking.
Instead, set visits these days have become stage managed to such an extent that what your'e getting as a reader is a junket experience, a completely manufactured theme park version of what really happens when you're making a movie. It's the same as if you visited the MGM/Disney Tour in Florida or the Universal tour, and you drove by a soundstage and you caught a glimpse of something and a few of the stars came out and waved at you and did a little rehearsed patter. You can't really say you saw them making the film, but that's what they want you to think.
This preamble is all a long way of saying that I've reached the point where I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing on these set visits anymore. I'm always curious about the process, and I'm always happy to talk to filmmakers about their work. But more and more, what we're getting is the performance art version of the EPK that you'll eventually skip over on the DVD menu when the film finally hits home video.
"Faster" shot in Los Angeles, which meant I was able to drive myself to the set, something that is uncommon, to say the least. The CBS Radford studios in Studio City have been around forever, and they've been used for everything from "Seinfeld" to "Gilligan's Island." I've been on that lot so many times that I didn't have to ask for directions to find the stage when I parked. I made my way over quickly, arriving pretty much exactly at the time we were told to be there.
I think we were in and out within three hours. In that time, we watched Dwayne Johnson march down a hallway and fire a couple of blanks. We stood outside a soundstage and talked to the one co-star of four who you haven't heard of. And then we watched a quick sizzle reel, talked to Dwayne Johnson for a moment, and were sent on our way. It was handled well, it was all very professional, and in terms of me telling you anything substantive about the movie "Faster," it was pretty much no different than me watching a teaser trailer and telling you about it.
And since the "Faster" trailer's already online, and since they're already putting out behind-the-scenes featurettes that show more than we saw in our time on-set, I feel sort of like a third nipple. As I said, we walked onto one of the stages, and the scene we watched them shoot had Dwayne Johnson, still known to many as The Rock even after how many films he's made.
In the scene, he walked down a hallway, and he fired a couple of rounds at Oliver Jackson-Cohen. In the scene, they are playing the characters of Driver (Johnson) and Killer (Jackson-Cohen). Those are the actual character names, with Billy Bob Thornton also onboard as Cop and Maggie Grace as, presumably, Hot Girl. We were given a few spare details about the story and why the two of them were shooting at each other, and all of it boiled down to "it's a revenge story."
We watched this same basic set-up a few times, and then they brought screenwriters Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton over to talk to us. It's apparent these guys are writing in archetype once you hear the character names, and I certainly hope they've built a satisfying action ride out of the basic ingredients they've assembled. On-set, though, the pitch they gave us had me gritting my teeth, if only because of how many times I've heard people swear, "We really wanted to make a film just like in the '70s," only to make films that are nothing like the great movies of the '70s. And while I hope for something that is rough and gritty based on the sizzle reel we eventually saw, I can't imagine that this action thriller that looks to me in every bit of footage so far to be a very contemporary film in terms of style is going to truly be a '70s film, where action was more existential than impact-oriented.
In the few minutes we had with the writers, they must have mentioned that this is a '70s movie about 15 times, and it just seemed to be the hard-sell. Too hard a sell. It's the same feeling I had on the "Terminator: Salvation" set visit when McG basically hammered us with the message that he was making a "real" movie in the "Terminator" franchise. Obviously, there are certain talking points that we're then meant to take and build our coverage around… only when you say that you're making a '70's movie, that means something very specific to me. It means you're taking real risks, that your movie can be entertainment, but it's also going to dig deeper and be something honest, and it's going to do it with the basics of good filmmaking, and not with tricks or gimmicks or CGI. It's a good goal to have, but it's one of those things that many people have gotten very, very wrong.
Outside the stage, we were put together with Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who is indeed a very handsome young man and appropriately movie-star looking in his hand-made suit, but hardly one of the names you'd hope for on a set with a cast like this. And considering how little we were told about the film and how little anyone there knew about Jackson-Cohen, it made it hard to know how to ask anything but the most rudimentary questions of the guy.
His character, Killer, is hired to be in the middle of this situation, which consists of Driver, a guy who just got out of prison after a decade, hunting down each of the men who were responsible for the death of his brother during a bank robbery gone bad. Cop, Thornton's character, is (brace yourself) only a few days away from retirement when he stumbles onto Driver's trail, and Killer is a problem that only complicates the pursuit for Cop and for Driver alike.
Maggie Grace is Jackson-Cohen's wife in the film, and the two of them are basically their own little subplot in the film, a couple that does harm together for pleasure and profit. She's his manager, and he's a bi-polar hit man. Jackson-Cohen talked briefly about driving training (they gave him a day behind the wheel of a silver Ferrari) and weapons training (lots and lots of guns on a range in Santa Clarita), and the one honest moment we got out of anyone all day was when he talked about being the third part of a triangle that involves two actors who are infinitely better known than he is. "It's incredibly nerve-wracking when you've got to hold your end up. It's three stories and they all run consecutively, and you don't want your story to suck. Hopefully it's going well."
Eventually it deteriorated into audition stories, which couldn't be more boring. They are all the same: I read for a role, and either I got it (hence me telling it) or I didn't, and if I didn't, then why would I be on-set? But when you don't know anything about someone, that's pretty much all you've got. He seems like a lovely kid, but when he's the person you spend the most time with during the day, it seems to me to be sort of a disappointment.
It's strange… I've talked to people who say there's no such thing as a bad set visit report, and to some extent, they're right, but until recently, I felt like they had real value. I felt like we were reporting the flavor and the energy of a particular production. I don't think "Faster" is going to be a bad film, but I'm certainly not convinced yet that it's a good film, either. The reason this report feels so irritated or dissatisfied is because of how antiseptic it was.
Sure enough, they brought out Dwayne Johnson as the big finish, and I've talked to this guy enough times now to realize that there's nothing bad you can say about him. He is the consummate professional. He's got this ridiculous charisma that fills a room when he walks in, and he's equally good at putting both men and women at ease. He's funny, he's gigantic like a cartoon character, and he is unfailingly polite to everyone he comes in contact with. It's sort of amazing to watch him deal with people, and certainly when it's a situation like this, he can turn it on.
We talked to him first about returning to action, and he was concise and clear in his answers, offering up the most information we heard all day. His character is shot in the back of the head during the robbery and his brother is killed. He wasn't supposed to survive, but he did, and for the full ten years he was in prison, he's been planning his revenge. The scene we saw them shooting… or to be more accurate, the single shot we saw them shooting… was Dwayne's character hunting down the second of the four men he tracks and kills in the film. One's a telemarketer, one's a pedophile, one's a bouncer at a strip club, and one's an Evangelist.
And he drives a Chevelle.
And that's pretty much it. That's what I learned during my time on the set. Do I hope George Tillman Jr. has made a good film? Certainly. I like the trailer for the movie, which already shows more than we saw in our sizzle reel, and I like the cast. But honestly, I went to Studio City, I spent my four hours there, and I feel like I know pretty much exactly what the general public knows. Set visits like this no longer give a glimpse into the process. Not really. No matter how the film is, I find myself disappointed that instead of things getting better in the decade-plus I've been doing it, things have gotten so controlled and fake that I feel like my experience and my insight means nothing, because I'm not being given a chance to write something honest for you, my readership. Sure, the control is great for the studios, and certainly, we need to have some sort of relationship with these companies if we expect any access at all to the process, but I don't write these pieces for them. I write them for you. And in this case, I feel like I was handcuffed, and like I let you down.
I feel like this...
Only with much better shoulders. Ahem.
"Faster" opens in theaters everywhere November 24th.