Ewan McGregor as Elmont in "Jack the Giant Slayer"
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
The retelling of a classic fairytale – one as famous and re-trod as Jack and the Beanstalk – is that it can get an update or a flourish with each redux. Or in the case of “Jack the Giant Slayer,” a stylistic twist. Ewan McGregor is a representative sample of the notion, in part, because: just look at that hair-do.
It’s not that the physical evolution of the star from “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge” and “The Impossible” into Top Dog in the King’s guard in the “Giant” movie is all that revolutionary. McGregor’s character Elmont’s cowlick is a mile-high and his battle armor is form-fitting and slick, a dandy by all standards. Even as slipped from the idyllic set of “Jack the Giant Slayer” to discuss his role with a group of us journalists, he strode into the room with a swagger.
From where did a fashionable, horse-riding pretty boy military presence grow from the original “Beanstalk” story? The answer is from director Bryan Singer’s want for style, as evident from his “X-Men” movies, and his esteemed filmmaking army spinning humor out of this yarn (because what’s a dimple-chinned macho man without his funny faults?).
McGregor, lead Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Ian McShane and other able-bodied vets round out this reimagining, with the “imagining” playing a central role to their performances: as CGI creations with the help of motion-capture, the unseen, malevolent forces, were built-out in post-production, thus the actors worked their wares without them in place.
Below, McGregor talks about that process, and what it takes to become a pastry, and exactly what he thinks of pre-vis (hint: not a fan).
What first attracted you to the role?
Ewan McGregor: I liked the script. I was sent the script and I was probably a little dubious about it, to be honest. I didn’t know quite what I thought about trying to retell a classic fairytale. I kind of approached the script feeling a bit like, “Well, I’m not going to like this.” But I did! I really liked the script. I liked the humor in the script. The characters in it were strong. In a film that’s this technologically based, I think that’s really important that you have clear and well-identifiable characters. I felt that that was the case.
And then it reminded me a bit of that film "How to Train Your Dragon." I love the feeling of that film and the humor in it. This felt somewhat similar to that. I’m not sure that it’s become that, I’m not sure how much of that humor we’ve captured or not, because it’s impossible on a film that takes this long to shoot…we’ve been shooting for five months, really.
It’s like a jigsaw film. There’s the work that we do and then there’s many, many other elements, where in other films, you shoot the scenes and that’s what ends up being the film. Of course that can change with editing and music, but on a film like this, there are so many other elements, like the giants and the motion capture capturing the giant’s movements, turning the giants into real giants…our interaction is all the unknown, really. They’ve certainly got enough footage to cut it any which way. But until I see it, I don’t know how much of that humor’s survived.
What’s your character like? Is he the comic relief of the crew? What does he do?
I don’t think he’s the comic relief. I liked him because he’s very gung-ho. He’s always the one that’s saying, “Come on, let’s go!” But very often not succeeding very well in what he’s trying to do and then Jack steps in and saves the day. I like that, kind of comic element of him, if you like.
At the same time, he is the leader of the Guardians. He’s in charge of them, and that was fun to play. I haven’t done that before, playing the top military guy. I have done a military film before, but it was fun to be in charge.
What’s his relationship with Jack? Does he welcome him with open arms?
No, he’s a bit dubious about Jack to begin with, I think. My character’s main job is to look after the princess, during peacetime, that’s my main lookout. It strikes me, and I’ve never discussed it with anyone, but the Guardians are the kind of royal soldiers, the top knights. But during the peacetime at the beginning of the film they’re in charge of the security and safety of the royal family, so myself and Eddie Marsan’s character, it seems that we are in charge of looking after Isabelle [Eleanor Tomlinson], the princess. She’s a very reluctant princess and she’s always trying to slip off into the kingdom and have a life and not feel like she’s…she wants her freedom, in a way. She’s a bit of a reluctant princess. So she’s quite difficult to look after.
And so my first encounter with Jack is when she’s given us the slip. We find her at this…at the beginning of the film, there’s a pantomime going on about this fable of the giants who live in the sky. And it was really nicely put together by Warwick (Davis) who has an agency of small and very big people, so he used all his actors and he directed this pantomime that we shot in this lovely, old circus tent. So we find Isabelle there, she’s watching the show. At that point, when we come into the tent, everyone bows down because we represent the king, except for Jack, who doesn’t bow down because he’s taken by surprise.
So my first introduction to him is that he’s somebody who’s not very respectful to us and I’m a bit dubious about what he’s after with the princess, as well. But as the story unfolds and as Jack…once the beanstalk has appeared and the princess has disappeared, he comes along with us, with the Guardians, the kind of search party for her. Slowly, he keeps proving himself over and over.
What specific things did you have to do to train for this film?
Mainly we did horse riding. Stanley Tucci and myself have a fight in the film, so we would ride for an hour or two and then we’d work on the fight. For three weeks, that was our rehearsal block. We never got allowed to ride a horse in the film; we just got to sit on them. So it was just kind of a waste of everybody’s time.
Do you sing in this?
Do you want to?
Yeah! I think it would be a big improvement. I could sing now, but it doesn’t feel quite right in here. But it would be nice to have a little song somewhere along the line, maybe climbing the beanstalk. He’s the kinda guy who might break into song at any moment, Elmont. You should suggest it to the director if you speak to him. When we come back for the re-shoots in October, I’ll do it then.
Talk a little bit about working with the 3D cameras and, as an actor, what is that like? I know it slows things down a little.
I don’t think it’s as slow as people think. This film has been very slow, but I couldn’t blame the 3D for it. Early on maybe there was more problems with it. Though sometimes there are problems because each camera is, in fact, two cameras and sometimes the 3D, like one eye will go out. I don’t pretend to understand it all completely, but each camera represents our eyes so it’s a slightly different angle on the scene. They have to play with the perspective of that, so there’s the focus but also the convergence, I think it’s called. Occasionally, one of the eyes will go out, but really not that much. I haven’t found it to be that slow. In actual fact, that seems to be the nature of it.
Again, I’ve never discussed this with anyone, but it seems to me that we do less coverage on a scene. The 3D has more of a sense of everybody in the scene, so if there’s a shot with 4 or 5 people in it, you’re already sort of in your own shot because of the 3D feel. It seems to me that we’ve had less close-ups and less coverage. So if this 3D is slower, which I don’t think it is really, then we save time with the lack of coverage.
How is it working with the CGI, with the giants that aren’t actually there?
I’ve done a lot of it in the past, so it’s not something that is new to me, really. It’s a skill like any other. You know what the scene is about and you know where your character is and what he’s thinking and feeling, so it’s not really a problem. I think when you get into those scenes, from what I’ve seen of the little bit that’s been put together, what they’re grabbing from our takes is just a little tiny snatch here and the giant there. It’s an editing job, really. There haven’t been any moments that have been really difficult.
There are only a very few moments when we actually are physically interacting with each other. There are a couple of moments when I’m picked up and I’m carried upside down by the giant and then laid down on the floor. So the picking up and the laying down we did with the harness and cables. There’s another moment where a giant rolls me in pastry to put me in the oven. The actual rolling in pastry was a technical challenge for the special effects team. They made a body mold of me and then made the back mold that I could lie in and then the front mold clamped over me, Velcroed over me, so I was held in place on an arm. Then, that was lowered onto the pastry. As the giant rolls me over like this, the rig rolled over and then the pastry wrapped around me. So that was more for the special effects people who did a really good job.
In this film, we have the technical ability to match the motion capture stuff that they’ve done of the giants before. They can overlay them onto the same frame that they’re seeing live from the camera. They can actually frame up on the giant. So if there’s a shot of the giant over my shoulder, they can literally put the camera looking over my shoulder and they can see where the best place is because they can see where the giant’s going to be. That’s quite new, I think.
There’s a lot of pre-vis in this movie, if not the whole movie’s been pre-vis. Can you talk about, as an actor, doing your own performance while still having to hit the pre-vis or working with those two kinds of environments?
Yeah. It’s very rare that we have to match to the pre-vis, but it does happen now and again. It usually just ends with me getting really pissed off and telling him to f*ck off. For instance, there was a moment when I had to stab a giant in the leg and I was stabbing the giant in the leg in the way that I wanted to stab the giant in the leg. Then I was directed to do it with two hands because the guy in the pre-vis does it with two hands. And I said, “Well, you should have paid the guy in the pre-vis to play Elmont and not me, then.” Because a guy in L.A., I guess, an animator…it should just be a kind of template for what’s to happen.
But it’s very rare you get directed to match the very wobbly animation from the pre-vis. I can give them that performance if they want. But I don’t think they’d be happy.
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