Back in March of 2012 I visited the Montreal set of Riddick, the third film in the Pitch Black franchise, for a few days. I wound up with so much material there was no way I could fit it all into one article, so I’m breaking it up into several pieces. In this first look at Riddick, I chose to focus on the overall tone of the film, how it got here and some key information from director David Twohy and star Vin Diesel. I also touch on some other major players like Katee Sackhoff, Mathew Nable and Jordi Molla. We also found out that there are TWO additional sequels planned for the film.
In theaters September 6, “Diesel reprises his role as the antihero Riddick, a dangerous, escaped convict wanted by every bounty hunter in the known galaxy. The infamous Riddick has been left for dead on a sun-scorched planet that appears to be lifeless. Soon, however, he finds himself fighting for survival against alien predators more lethal than any human he’s encountered. The only way off is for Riddick to activate an emergency beacon and alert mercenaries who rapidly descend to the planet in search of their bounty. The first ship to arrive carries a new breed of merc, more lethal and violent, while the second is captained by a man whose pursuit of Riddick is more personal. With time running out and a storm on the horizon that no one could survive, his hunters won’t leave the planet without Riddick’s head as their trophy.”
It’s a little after 4 in the morning when someone asks Vin Diesel what it means for him to finally be in a soundstage in Montreal shooting Riddick, the third film in an unlikely franchise that began 13 years ago with Pitch Black. “It’s a very good question,” he smiles. “What the f*ck does it mean to you?”
It’s easy to take that quote out of context. Diesel isn’t being aggressive or mean here, he’s just in awe of the situation and wants to make sure that the journalist understands exactly what kind of road it’s been. And this is certainly a better way of doing that than diving into the standard rigamarole we so often get on film sets. Engaging us and asking us to illustrate its significance is a surefire way to illustrate that these circumstances are indeed significant. After the cult success of Pitch Black and the expensive (and financially underperforming) space opera of The Chronicles Of Riddick, a third film has long been a question mark. Diesel has championed it all along of course, but the road has been long and bumpy.
A journalist answers, “I never thought I would be on the set of this movie.”
Diesel zeroes in on him in affirmation. Bingo. “Tell everyone how you feel.. It’s more surreal to me to be here after 9-years. You know how long I’ve been talking about this, you know how many press junkets I’ve been at talking about ‘Riddick,’ and we’re actually on set here shooting a ‘Riddick’ that’s better than all expectations, better than anything we anticipated, and we’re here 9-years later and its surreal. When we first sent this script to Universal as ‘Chronicles of Riddick’ it was already a pipe dream to even return to this cult film classic called ‘Pitch Black.’ It was already bizarre to be at a studio. When we first did ‘Pitch Black’ we had no studio, the studio folded. We were at Polygram and then at USA and they folded, and at the last minute Universal came in and said, ‘we’ll release your picture.’ It was kind of a Hail Mary, it predated ‘The Fast and the Furious,” but led into that relationship, and we’re here now because of the ‘Fast and Furious’ relationship. That’s the good stuff. You’re sitting on this set because I did a cameo in ‘Tokyo Drift.’ We leveraged this cameo in ‘Tokyo Drift’ so hard to reboot a franchise that was literally dying. When ‘Fast and Furious’ got to that third film it was basically a scrap of metal that nobody wanted, studio didn’t even want it. ‘What can you do with it?’ I’d go this whole other way, go back to a story-driven saga that rewards its audience for being loyal to a franchise, as opposed to doing a franchise in a reactionary way.”
It’s interesting when you think about it, because the Fast And Furious films have indeed shifted their focus from cars to characters and a heavier leaning towards continuity. Diesel clearly knows what fans want to see, primarily because he’s so true to what he wants to see himself. It’s one of the reasons his films are so successful and it’s one of the reasons he’s been able to leverage those successes into a Facebook page with over 43 million “likes”, possibly the widest direct celebrity-to-audience conduit ever.
The soundstage is certainly evidence that this thing is real enough. Even though the budget and scope on this film are smaller than Chronicles (for a good reason that we’ll get into later), it’s not like they’re phoning it in. We see two separate stages, the first one of which doubles for the Mars-ish planet Riddick finds himself exiled on. It’s incredibly detailed and well crafted, we even get to see a concave rock formation that Riddick (it seems) uses for shelter. There are rudimentary tools, a leather blanket, the hides and skeletons of eel-like creatures that Riddick has been surviving on. We speak to production designer Joseph C. Nemec, who fills us in on the environment. “ We are on a planet. We don’t say exactly what it is. Our skies will have broken skies, broken sun, broken moon and there will be a lot of atmosphere. Most of our lighting is warmer so we tried to stay with warmer colors to try and get away from some of the ‘Chronicles’ look and to have a different look that was in Pitch Black as well.”
The second stage is just as vast and features a massive gun-ship that the mercs have flown down to the planet. Also present is an outpost type station the mercs have been holed up in and, I’m not going to lie, there are signs of a struggle there. It looks like they might have tried to contain the wrong badass. The soil around the outpost has turned to mud, the result of some heavy rain machine use. Even though the trailers for the film appear to be CG heavy, I can assure you there’s plenty of the real thing to back it up.
Subsequently, a trip to the film’s practical FX department yields a bountiful look at a plethora of alien creatures. From the aforementioned eel/serpent creatures to mud worms and demons and, most impressively, a pack of alien hyena-type dogs. They’re striped like tigers, have long tails and huge ears. The exaggerated features might sound silly, but these things are fearsome. I’m allowed to touch the fur of one of the larger models and its coarse, rough yet silky hair implies a high level of craftsmanship.
All this is a long way of saying that the movie feels huge to me. I don’t see any corners being cut, it reads as the set of a “big movie.” One where no expense was spared. Except… they’ve still been smart about keeping costs down. For one, while this planet is ornately realized, they are pretty much keeping the location to this planet alone. Not only does this keep costs down, it also provides a stronger aesthetic link to the first film in the series.
There’s another important function to this. The rating. Diesel and his director David Twohy have been adamant about rewarding their fans with an uncompromised vision, and the “R” rating that comes part and parcel with that territory. Diesel explains, “We’re shooting a rated-R ‘Riddick’, when do you see a rated-R movie? I’m 13-years-old watching ‘Alien’ and there was a market and a purpose for these rated-R movies. Nowadays they don’t really exist anymore. The head of the studio was just here yesterday, and the fact that they were supportive enough to do rated-R…”
So it was something they had to push for? “Oh my God, of course. You can count on your hands a bunch of rated-R movies that are getting a lot of play. They’re so far and few between. In fact, we were victims of that in going the studio route with ‘Chronicles of Riddick.’ Budget went up, and we went into that film we were going in rated-R, and the first thing taken out was rated-R. You want to spend that kind of money, you want to expand the mythology like that, you have to reconfigure the way you’re going to produce this movie and make it PG. Some people argue, “Hey, there’s the ‘Dark Knights’ that are PG-13 but pushing the R envelope,” but it does mean something. It means something in your approach to making a movie. There’s something appropriate and liberating and honest and free about going into a picture like this and being able to make it a rated-R picture…”
Director David Twohy elaborates, “‘Chronicles’ was a PG13 movie wherein we spent a lot of money and it was made as a studio movie with a lot of studio input. It pleased some fans, but not all fans certainly. It was a very different movie than ‘Pitch Black.’ We recognize that and that was the aspiration at the time… We realized there was probably the new reality for us was that we could spend somewhere between 30 and 40 million dollars to make this movie and that’s kind of the ballpark we’re in, roughly 40 million dollars.”
And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. If you’re a bigger fan of Pitch Black than you are The Chronicles Of Riddick, you’re in luck. Because this new film is much closer to the original entry. Per Twohy, “[It’s] more like ‘Pitch Black’ because it’s clearly R rated as ‘Pitch Black’ was and yeah, we’re not pulling any punches this time. You’re sort of forced to when you’re doing a studio movie for 100 million dollars or more you have to pull your punches because there are too many people, too much input, too many people trying to turn it into something else, too many people who don’t want to take chances. So all that softens your blows and we don’t want to soften our blows anymore.”
But what is that in service of? What kind of story are they trying to protect? “Well at its core this next movie is a survival story about one man surviving a planet and his only way to get off that planet is to call in the mercenaries to get a ride off that planet. So the short version of that is that it is a Jeremiah Johnson like survival story, but with Riddick at the heart of it.”
Now that they’re firing on all cylinders, Twohy isn’t eager to let another 8 years pass by without revisiting the universe he and Diesel have created. In fact they’re hoping to shoot TWO more films after Riddick hits. And they already have the direction planned out. “We talked about making the next movie, blowing the next movie out a bit and really going for it and making it the battle of Underverse and just really fucking going crazy with it. It would demand more. This movie would have to be successful. It would demand a greater budget, but that’s a distinct possibility for movie number four.”
Diesel adds, “you have to go to the Underverse, you want to go to the Underverse and you’ll have to go through the Underverse to get to Furya. So, those are the two stories that are mapped out. The Underverse is a much more costly venture and, trying to do a rated R movie, we went this direction which is cool and even more interesting because it’s so unexpected. But yes, you will be at the Underverse and you will be at Furya sooner or later.”
But back to the present for a moment. After all, this movie isn’t even out yet and we haven’t gotten to our rich cast of supporting players. Riddick isn’t alone on this desolate planet. Not for long at least. A team of deadly mercs led by Boss Johns (played by Matthew Nable) are on the hunt for him as well. A separate ship containing Santana (played by Jordi Molla) and his team, has arrived separately and wants Riddick for different reasons. Nable explains the objective and nature of his team. “Boss Johns has a fairly decisive sort of motive for appearing and going after Riddick. And we’re not necessarily there to collect bounty, we’re on there to do his… find out some information about my son, which was Little Johns, who was killed in the first ‘Pitch Black.’ I don’t know what happened to him, so I’ve been sitting on this for 10 years and so my motive is very, very different… He’s not a villain. I think that Jordi Molla’s character Santana, which he was just amazing at – he takes the side of the villain.”
When Molla arrives, having just finished his last day on set, he elaborates on the nature of Santana’s evil. “My character comes from a dark place. I can picture him coming from a dark place without any kind of roots. He doesn’t want to feel anything at all.” What does he want? “Riddick’s head in a box.”
Of course, there’s a lot of fan interest around Boss John’s second in command, Dahl, as played by Katee Sackhoff. She shows up, fresh from set, soaking wet and freezing but game to talk. It turns out that her “anything goes” attitude is what landed her the part. She was in bed one night at 10:30 PM when the casting director called and asked her to come up to Vin’s house right away. “ I walked in and Vin was awesome. It was such a cool moment, he was actually practicing his stick fighting. I was like, “this is amazing.” And he was like, “Want a beer? Want a beer?” And so I had a beer and we just talked about the character. And DT [David Twohy] asked me all these questions about what I thought. I never auditioned.”
When asked if Dahl resembles Starbuck from “Battlestar Galactica” she’s quick to point out the differences. “Starbuck is extremely juvenile and she was very immature and she kind of grew up in that show. Dahl is very mature, very much a woman. My backstory, DT and I pretty much made it up but she was thrust into a situation where she grew up really fast. And she’s kind of been taking care of herself for a while. And she’s extremely confident. And Starbuck was confident to make her insecurities, there’s not an insecure bone in Dahl. She’s by far the toughest, most deadly character I’ve ever played…. ”
That’s it for now but be sure to stay tuned for PART TWO of our set visit!! I’ll outline an action scene AND we’ll get to know our mercs better (including Bokeem Woodbine, Nolan Funk, Conrad Pla and David Bautista). In the coming days we’ll also be publishing our FULL interviews with Diesel, Twohy, and Sackhoff. If you’re a fan of Riddick, we’ve got a lot more in store for you!