"Katovision," a villain with a mid-life crisis, and missiles in the newsroom.
Yep, this is what a Michel Gondry comic book movie looks like.
The day a group of us were invited to visit the Culver City sets of "The Green Hornet" began in the newsroom of The Daily Sentinel, the newspaper owned by Brett Reid, Seth Rogen's character in the film, and ended with groups of us being driven around Culver City in the Black Beauty, the decked out car that is one of the signatures of the character. In-between, we saw just enough to convince me that whatever "The Green Hornet" ends up being, it will be sincerely intentioned, and the people behind it seem dedicated to making something that both sincerely honors the genre and mercilessly deconstructs it.
When we first arrived on the Culver lot where they were shooting the film, the small group of us in attendance were taken into the newsroom set first, where they had just finished shooting a major action sequence that involved the Black Beauty actually firing missiles from one end of the newsroom to the other. This is on the heels of a larger car chase sequence that features the Black Beauty driving into an elevator, then getting cut in half as the elevator goes up, a gag that they staged as a practical effect on another set. It's an outrageous sequence as designed, and the aftermath was crazy. They really did blow the set up, and as we walked through it, producer Neal Moritz as our tour guide, we had to step over bullet casings and burnt newspapers, making our way past tubes and cables hanging from the ceiling like someone had disembowled the building.
It was sort of amazing to actually be on a set for "The Green Hornet," considering how long we've been following the various false starts on the film. They've been trying to make this movie for years, with various configurations of writer, director, and star. It was an act of faith on the part of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, his writing/producing partner, to finally get this thing in front of a camera, and it was because the got Neal Moritz and Michel Gondry onboard to produce and direct that we all found ourselves walking from the newsroom to the workshop where Kato (Jay Chou) puts together the various gadgets that he and Brett use as they fight crime together. The workshop was on the same soundstage as a giant printing press, and Moritz showed us around both, allowing us to check out the details of the printing press or the workshop. The production design on the film is by Owen Paterson, whose work you'd recognize from "Speed Racer," the "Matrix" trilogy, "V For Vendetta," or "The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert," and there's a real wit to the work he does. Considering the film's being shot by John Schwartzman, the guy who practically defined '90s action movies with his work on "The Rock," there's no doubt that "The Green Hornet" will look great. It's obvious as we move from one set to the next, looking at the office Brett Reid uses or the guest house where he lives, that they've spent to make this a big comic book movie that can stand toe-to-toe with anything in the genre.
So what makes it different? Why are they making this movie in particular?
The truth basically boils down to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, lifelong comic book geeks, looking around as the genre blew up around them, and realizing they wanted to play, too. The thing that makes "The Green Hornet" appealing is that so few modern audiences have any attachment to the property. Originally created in 1936, the character has gone through many incarnations over the years. Probably the biggest mark it left on pop culture was when it reached TV in the 1960s with Bruce Lee playing Kato. Even there, more people know the Bruce Lee played the role than have actually seen him as Kato, and that leaves it wide open for a new interpretation. Thankfully, the sidekick thing has always been a part of the character, and that's exactly what interested Rogen and Goldberg in the first place.
After all, they've got a creative partnership, and it would be easy for someone to look at them and say that Rogen is the movie star, the name people know, so that makes Evan the sidekick... right? Only when you talk to the two of them, it's obvious that they both bring the same amount of opinion and writing talent and wit to the table, and so when they set out to create their take on the character, they decided to specifically address that dynamic, making Kato the guy who knows everything, the guy who can fight and who builds the gear and who saves Brett's ass, sending up the notion of the sidekick altogether.
And when you talk of Kato, you must also talk of Katovision, which is where Michel Gondry really starts to pay off as a choice for director for this film. When Gondry first started flirting with Hollywood, he was offered a much earlier incarnation of "The Green Hornet." God only knows what that version would have been like, since Gondry would have been a first-time filmmaker with no clout at all. Which is not to say that I think he's throwing his weight around and demanding that everything is done his way on "The Green Hornet," because that's not the sense I got at all. Instead, it felt to me like Gondry was excited to try his hand at something genuinely new for him, and he brought his distinctly left-of-center approach to visual ideas to the idea of shooting action in a film.
He spent some time explaining Katovision to us, but until we see it finished (I'm guessing Comic-Con will be the moment where we finally see how it plays), it's all just a fascinating hypothetical. The entire idea behind it is that Kato moves faster than most people would ever be able to follow in a fight, and a fight is all about the transfer of energy. So Gondry designed a way to try to show that by using different frame rights for the different people in a fight. Kato moves in high speed while everyone around him is in slow motion until he hits someone, at which point Kato goes into slow-motion and the person he hit accelerates suddenly. It's something that uses actual in-camera elements, but combined in a way that would be impossible if everything was shot at the same time. Even after having him describe it to me a few times, I could only imagine it, and the sizzle-reel that they showed us that afternoon (which was fairly different than the teaser trailer which Sony eventually released for the film) still only hinted at some of Gondry's craziest tricks. We saw enough, though, to suggest that this isn't just business-as-usual in terms of shooting action. You may love what Gondry does, or you may hate it, but I doubt it'll look like every other superhero movie. Too much thought has gone into how to make this something unique, and I like that it came out of character ideas rather than just "let's make it cool."
Speaking of action, we watched them shoot a fight scene in Brett's guest house, part of a sequence in which the simmering tension between Brett and Kato finally spills over, and based on the intensity of what they shot while we were there, Kato doesn't hold back as he throws Brett around. There's been a lot of second-guessing the casting of Rogen in the lead, but it really felt to me like they built this character out of the perception people have of Seth and then use the film to gradually reveal more and more new facets of what he can do onscreen. I like the fight stuff I've seen with him, just like I enjoyed the action scenes in "Pineapple Express." I miss the days when action films starred people who look like people as opposed to gym-perfect steroid cases. I don't need to see a dude with a perfect eight-pack in an action scene, or a guy built like Schwarzenegger. The best action films need to make you feel like you're caught up in the middle of the chaos, and Seth makes a great audience surrogate. When he finally dives in and gets his hands dirty, it feels like he's a real guy making that choice, and it doesn't seem easy and automatic.
We spent some time talking with Christoph Waltz, and this was before he got his Oscar nomination for "Inglorious Basterds," but it was already starting to feel inevitable. He plays Benjamin Chudnofsky, the film's main villain, and the most notable thing about the character is just how little they were willing to tell us about what he's playing or what his plan is in the film. The most they would tell us is that he is "a villain in the midst of a mid-life crisis," which is an intriguing way to set up your bad guy. Evidently, Nicolas Cage came very close to playing the character but kept pushing Gondry and Goldberg and Rogen to make the character Jamaican. They tried, and eventually all involved realized it wasn't going to work. As a result, when Waltz came in, he was able to work closely with Rogen and Goldberg so they could build some real subtext into the character for him. Both ends of the collaboration seemed happy as we spoke. Rogen and Goldberg felt like Waltz brought some great, unexpected ideas to the table, and Waltz really loved the freedom they gave him to help define what could have easily turned into a stock "bad guy."
As the day wrapped up, we took those drives around Culver City in the Black Beauty, one of several camera cars for the film, complete with giant machine guns mounted on the front. As you'd expect, driving one of those in regular traffic gets a lot of looks, and my favorite moment was waiting at a stop light next to a police car, the drivers of which seemed totally unphased by us, the car, or anything else. That seemed like one of those perfect LA moments, a collision of the real and surreal, the absurd and the mundane. "The Green Hornet" feels like a film that wants to play with different tones, different ideas, different styles, all in one coherent whole.
On January 14, 2011, we'll find out if they pulled it off or not.
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