In the second part of our visit to the set of Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry 3D in Shreveport, Louisiana, B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen talks with “living Barbie doll” Amber Heard, a Satanic Billy Burke (180 degrees out from his character in Twilight), director Patrick Lussier (dishing on the film’s gore quotient), and lead actor Nicolas Cage, who gives a little more insight on the supernatural origins of his vengeful character. Read on for all the sacrilegious fun.
“Yeah, well I read the script and they said that…when I read it my eye was going to be shot out and I remember on a movie called ‘Season of the Witch’ I wanted them to shoot my eye out with an arrow. And the producers didn’t go for that, so when it was handed to me in this movie that they were going to shoot my eye out with a gun I thought, ‘yeah I’m going to make that movie.” — Actor Nicolas Cage
Truth be told, I felt like I’d just wandered onto the set of a Whitesnake video as we were chatting it up with the actress, who played up her considerable sex appeal in fully transparent, over-the-top fashion as she batted her eyes at the assembled (all-male) group of journalists and tossed her hair around like she was at a photo shoot for Maxim magazine. All that was missing, really, was a giant wind machine and some sexy lingerie and she’d be all set. Her charms were lost on me for obvious reasons, but by the end of the short interview I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen at least one of my fellow reporters drooling slightly at the sight of her flowing blonde locks, flawless features, and coy, Crest-white smile.
“I play Piper. She’s this bad-mouthed, chain-smoking kind of vigilante of the movie“, said the actress, dressed in a black jacket, boots and tight-fitting jeans. “She’s a diner waitress. She’s got a lot of spirit and a lot of spunk. A lot of balls, I guess you could say. Milton sees her – the guy who’s played by Nic Cage – and they become fast friends and form a bond and partake on this kind of supernatural evil-fighting journey together and kind of become teammates.“
Needless to say, the ass-kicking Piper – who Cage’s character first encounters as she’s teaching her chauvinist boss at the diner a very painful lesson – isn’t your typical passive female action-movie character, meaning Heard got to engage in all manner of physical mayhem during the shoot.
“I have a lot of fight scenes“, she said. “I have a lot of stunts in this movie. They’ve been letting me do a lot of them. Surprisingly, they’ve let me do quite a bit of stuff on this. I fall from the trailer onto the hood of the Charger. We have a lot of gunfights and things fall on me. I’m doing a lot of physicality.”
Like Cage and Fichtner’s characters, there’s a seemingly mysterious element to Piper in that we aren’t exactly sure what her true agenda is until later in the film. “I think the motivation becomes clear in the movie, but I don’t want to give it away“, teased Heard. “Because, after a few minutes of getting to know these characters in the film and them getting to know one another and knowing Milton’s back-story – which, you know, is the most important element of the film – after all that comes into play, then you know why Piper does what she does.”
Slinking up next was Billy Burke, dressed in a burgundy open-collared shirt, the aforementioned black leather pants, and long manicured nails the actor grew out specifically to play his evil character. For those of you who only know him as the square dad from Twilight, Burke’s oily, clean-shaven, glammed up appearance here was, shall we say, 180 degrees out from the role that has made him famous with an army of screaming tween girls.
“That’s what we were mildly going for“, said the too-cool-for-school Burke, intermittently drawing on a cigarette held between his long fingers and speaking in an oily voice that gave one the impression he’d gone all Method for the cult-leader character. “A little cross between Jim Jones, Jim Morrison, and maybe a little bit of Tony Robbins…He’s got a vision. He’s got a vision and he feels right. And there’s nothing – as one of the lines in the movie says – there’s nothing more dangerous than a righteous man with an idea.”
The actor gave us a little more insight into the background between him and Nic Cage’s characters, which began when Cage’s daughter joined Jonah’s cult. “She was sort of my muse, my focus“, said Burke about the relationship. “And I took her in, and once I realized what I could get from her and what she could do for me, I started to use her for…basically started to focus on her for what I could really do, and that is produce a baby from her and use that baby to, well, in his mind, bring on a new world order.”
In case you were wondering, by using the baby he really means sacrificing, a disturbing notion which gave the actor – who listened to some of the old Jonestown tapes to prepare for the role – pause before taking on the part. Ultimately, it was the over-the-top nature of the project that sold him on playing the character. “I thought about it for a second“, he said. “ I’ve got a daughter who is almost two years old right now who is about the age of the baby in the movie that we’re about to do nefarious things to. I did think about it for a second, but then I thought, you know, it’s just a movie. And within this movie, you need to…with all the things that are going so over the top and the places that we go to in this movie, you need somebody who is going to go that extra mile in badness. And once I figured out what we were doing and how I could do that, I said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’”
Since it’s often hard to get directors during a set visit, particularly if it’s a hectic day of action-heavy shooting, we were lucky when Patrick Lussier – a longtime editor for Wes Craven who became a name horror director himself following the success of his My Bloody Valentine last year – stopped by our picnic bench for a quick chat. Unsurprisingly, the conversation quickly veered to the subject of 3-D filmmaking.
“You definitely use it as a tool to tell the story“, Lussier said of the format, which he has clearly put a lot of thought into in the scheme of this project (as opposed to a post-conversion film where 3-D is merely an afterthought to milk a few extra bucks). “You look for things when you set up your shots that are depth related…just shooting through the windshield of a car and there’s a point where Nic’s character has to kick out a windshield and everything like that so you see him whipping down the highway. You see the big long hood of the Charger. You see him inside [the car], the wind blowing him, the back and the depth behind him, all the cars spiraling out of control behind.“
Luckily for the director, shooting in 3-D – which he claims isn’t much slower than shooting with regular cameras – has become an easier process since Valentine, particularly due to sensors on the newer-model cameras that allow him to shoot in with a lot less light. “The thing that slowed us down on ‘Valentine’ all the time was the amount of lights we had to use. It wasn’t the 3-D, it was the fact that we had to use massive lights everywhere we went. And of course we were doing it underground in a real mine…we don’t have any of those issues here.“
Those who enjoyed My Bloody Valentine‘s penchant for heaps of gratuitous gore can expect more of the same here; although on the question of the MPAA Lussier didn’t seem all that concerned. Not surprising, considering the amount of the time he’s spent in the editing bay with Craven, who isn’t exactly known for shying away from showing bloody entrails and gaping wounds. Not to mention that the MPAA is notoriously more concerned with sex than it is with depictions of bloody mayhem.
“Having walked down the road with the MPAA many times…we have protected ourselves in certain ways“, said the director. “There are things [in 'Drive Angry'] that are extreme. A lot of them are extreme in tone. A lot of it is, when dealing with the MPAA, is about presentation. Certainly with ‘Valentine’ that was a very tricky and intriguing process to land where we landed, and what their main objectives were in that film were quite intriguing which are all related to [the sexual content]. You know, I think we said that the only gore trim we made in that film was 9 frames with the pick ax coming through Kevin Tighe’s head. Other than that, we cut 2 minutes of the sexy. And we also showed them the version that was 2 minutes longer than we wanted“.
“['Drive Angry' is] a very different kind of story so it’s not about ripping people’s jaws off and things like that. It’s not a horror movie. You know, it’s much more of an action thriller. So by virtue of that there are extreme violence things. A lot of them though [are] gun violence and things like that. There’s a lot more of that kind of thing than some of the mayhem we got up to in ‘Valentine’.”
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t moments in the film that push the envelope; Lussier recounted for us a conversation he had with his wife regarding the script, and her rather horrified reaction to the scene [one involving Billy Burke's character that takes place earlier in the film] he was describing. “[She was] just like, ‘oh my god, how did you shoot that?’…it was sort of mortifying to realize ‘oh my God, this is what we’re actually doing.’ But it gives justification for Nic’s character’s journey.“
As for Nicolas Cage, Lussier couldn’t have found a more enthusiastic actor to dramatize the journey of his tortured hero – maybe more bad than good, but the best the audience is likely to get in the fucked-up world the character inhabits. “He’s the only actor we talked to to play Milton. We went and met with him and within 23 minutes he was just like, ‘I have to play this part. I am this guy. I’ve never played anything like this…I’ve never played anything as hard as this, as edgy as this, as relentless as this and I want to play this part.’ And so we were all sold together and that’s what he brings. He brings an undeniable passion and enthusiasm for not just the film but for the era of the films it plays homage to. For the sort of the idea of a very hard guy doing a very noble thing even though he’s basically a bad guy, which he loved. He loved that sort of that duality. And that’s in a lot of the characters [in the film]. There’s a sort of dual nature to the characters.“
Speaking of Cage, he was, perhaps appropriately, our final interview of the night. After some waiting – including one false alarm in which he was called back to set just as his car pulled up to our roosting area at the picnic bench – he finally had the chance to sit down and talk, in his own esoteric way, about his role in the film. Dressed in the “redneck action hero” attire of his character and sporting long blonde hair (Cage originally wanted to shave his head and cover it in a wraparound tattoo before that idea was vetoed) that didn’t appear to have been washed for the past several days, Cage was friendly, thoughtful, and prone to speaking indirectly, almost poetically, about the process of making the movie. If you weren’t already aware of the actor’s rather unusual public persona, this quote, his answer to a query about jumping onto the project immediately after reading the script, should give you a better idea:
“Yeah, well I read the script and they said that…when I read it my eye was going to be shot out and I remember on a movie called ‘Season of the Witch’ I wanted them to shoot my eye out with an arrow. And the producers didn’t go for that, so when it was handed to me in this movie that they were going to shoot my eye out with a gun I thought, ‘yeah I’m going to make that movie.’”
By the way, he said that with a completely straight face.
Cage also more than hinted at Milton’s Hellish origins during our talk (which we weren’t supposed to know about at the time), during which I could just feel the on-set publicist breaking out into a cold sweat.
“He’s not really a…it’s more like a force from another dimension“, he told us as he sat at the head of the picnic table with the stillness of a yogi master. “It’s almost like karma on some level…almost more than human, like a ghost on a vengeance tear. Like karma. I see him as a protector of children. When something horrific is about to happen to children, he is awakened from the abyss and I like characters that have supernatural aspects to them because I feel like you can do more with them. There’s an infinite number of possibilities when you’re dealing with the infinite.“
And, later: “You know, Milton to me…I’ll talk very little about it because I want you to have your own relationship with it… but I think it’s almost like he doesn’t really fit into the physics of normal human emotion. I would think a little more like ‘High Plains Drifter’ [the Clint Eastwood movie from 1973] that way where you’re not exactly sure where he’s at. It’s not just straight-up anger so much. He’s coming from another dimension that’s not of this earth.”
I didn’t expect Cage – a “serious” actor, if you will – to be as enthusiastic as he was about 3-D, something I imagine many top-level thesps see as more of a nuisance than a creative opportunity. But he was. And while I’m not a fan of the format personally, it was still refreshing to hear him speak about 3-D so deferentially instead of turning up his nose at it.
“There’s so many different sides to this one because it is a car movie but it also has the action of an old Charles Bronson movie and then you add the supernatural component to it and on top of that you have 3-D, so it’s not like anything else that I’ve done before or really seen before“, he said. “I’m very excited about what can emerge from this. I’m trying to mess with the format – meaning like what can I do with 3-D as a film actor? How can I move differently, or I was talking about sticking my tongue out and seeing it go into the fourth row of the audience and if there’s anything I can do to play with the format.”
The actor, who we only got for about five minutes before he was rushed back to the set, was also able to perform most, if not all, of his own driving stunts in the film. “I worked with [second-unit director] Johnny Martin before on ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’, so he knew what I was capable of doing and he was very comfortable with me driving in the cars, so it was just a natural flow that happened and it didn’t take a lot of thought or a lot of rehearsing.”
Just as quickly as he came he was gone, and after a final trip to the auditorium to gather up our things we were on a shuttle headed back to the hotel. I’d like to say I went out to soak in some local color after a long evening on set, but not only was it already 2 or 3 in the morning by that point, I was also in Shreveport – great for a 45-year-old alcoholic with a gambling problem, not so much for me. Nitey nite.