We’ve met before, you know. On the set of Stargate, when you were guest-starring.
Wow, that goes back!
You were waiting to shoot Richard Dean Anderson and I was waiting to interview him after you’d shot him.
Right. It was about five years ago, I think.
So how do you get from guest-starring as a Russian general on Stargate to directing Wolverine?
[Puts on Russian accent] I very like this Sergeant Vaselov. He was good guy. They were very upset they saw this man who they thought was Russian but I was not but then they said, ‘Fine, you can do it anyway’. [Talks in own voice] Okay, so how… that’s a great question, I don’t really know! I started life as an actor and I wanted to be a director but coming from South Africa it was like, ‘well, how on Earth do you do such a thing?’ There were very few films being made in my country, and it was very tough to get any kind of money to make a film in my country, so I ventured out into the big wide world, got my nose bloodied a bit and had to make a living. I went to Hollywood to study. I managed to find a wonderful representative, and he sent me out on a few auditions to pay the bills. I was lucky enough to get a role on Stargate and a few other roles here and there which helped fund me while I kept writing and trying to get films made. And finally I got films made. Tsotsi did better than any of us dared to dream, and so I was able to segue into being a director, which is where I wanted to be.
Wolverine is such a huge departure from serious films like Tsotsi and Rendition, being a comic book movie. Were you a fan of the genre?
I wasn’t! I’d seen all the X-Men movies, but I wasn’t a fan of comic books, I didn’t know about the comic books. I did love Asterix and Obelix when I was growing up! But Wolverine was not a comic book I was familiar with, growing up in South Africa. So when Hugh phoned and said he’d like me to think about possibly directing Wolverine and could we meet, I thought someone was puling my leg! But I went along, curious, somewhat flattered and a little intimidated, and I asked him why he thought I was the right guy for the job, seeing as I didn’t know the comic books. And he said he’d loved Tsotsi, and what he loved about it was that the character was emotionally conflicted and yet endearing. And he thought that was Wolverine. So it was Hugh who saw that possibility, not me. I went home and read the comics and the first thing that strikes you is that famous line, “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.” What I love about that line is that on the one hand it’s a cool line, but if you look at it in another way, it’s a person who doesn’t necessarily like their own nature. “What I do best isn’t very nice.” And that’s what I think is so great about this character – he’s so like so many of us. Sometimes we like ourselves; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we wanna lash out – he does so with claws. So he is profoundly human. Yes, he’s mythic, but at the end of the day the movies and the comics are profoundly human. What’s great about this character is that he isn’t the good-guy superhero fighting the forces of evil. He’s so much more complicated than that, and therefore so much more human.
The film is mainly about the relationship between Wolverine and his brother, and that grounds it. Liev was a great choice for the role of Sabretooth, I thought…
Well, that makes me very happy because in the original script he wasn’t Wolverine’s half-brother, and as a geek you’ll know that there are some fans who say he isn’t his half-brother, but some will say “No, no! You know the story where Dog and he… and Dog is actually Sabretooth…” Well, as I was reading and trying to get a grip on this thing, I gravitated to that interpretation, because it’s better dramatically. If Sabretooth and Wolverine are half-brothers, that provides emotional fuel to this story. And so then we were faced with who on Earth is going to play this half-brother? You’ve got Hugh Jackman, who is one of the most physically impressive guys; now you’ve got to have an actor who has both tremendous physical presence to be his antagonist and one who has real dramatic power. I think it was fantastic to get Liev.
How was it directing all the action?
It was a lot of pressure. Part of the pressure is that there’s a lot of stuff that’s technical and time-consuming because you have to do all the green screen stuff and get all these silver balls in that reflect the light so the guys can do their stuff in the computers later on, so it’s very disruptive to the dramatic process. Which is why I have a new-found great respect for this genre, because when I’m making Tsotsi I’m 100% focused on the dramatic arc of that character. Here, 50% of my attention is on technical stuff, and 50% is on the character. But what I still find exciting in cinema is the big close-up, no special effects, looking into the actor’s eyes… I like to get my actors’ eyelines really tight to the lens, so if I’m doing the shot of Liev and this is my camera, I’ll get a huge close-up of him rather than having the camera far back. So the audience can really get inside the actor’s head. And those moments when there’s a flicker in the actor’s eye are more powerful for me than any special effect. The challenge was saying, I’ve got an opportunity to do two things; give the audience great spectacle, exciting action, big visuals, and at the same time I’m gonna give them an intimate, intense, character-driven story.
It’s more than just blowing shit up!
Blowing shit up is easy! Getting a great moment out of an actor just emotionally, and not having it be inappropriate in a movie like this… and the other challenge is trying to find that balance between real emotion and tongue in cheek humour. If you go too far you end up with slapstick. It was a very challenging movie and a huge learning curve! A baptism by fire.
Would you do it again?
I think I would, because I love the character. I hope fans enjoy it.
Were the FX a challenge?
There was a time when audiences would go to a movie just to look at special effects, because they were new and exciting. Now we’re so used to effects that we expect them to be good. We’ve all seen the behind-the-scenes DVDs. Everybody’s a frigging expert, right? So you can’t get away with impressing them just with effects. You’ve still gotta impress them, but in a way visual effects have almost become what sound was when it first came out. Back then you’d be so amazed to watch the screen and hear what they were saying that for a brief period even if the story was crap, you’d be fascinated. Very quickly you got used to that. Now what you want is a good story.
That’s what Marvel comics have been doing for so many years; the fact they’ve ended up on the big screen means you’re producing another myth for another generation, almost.
I realise looking at those comics, written by different writers, illustrated by different illustrators over time, that there isn’t any completely definitive version of Wolverine; there’s just various interpretations. I had to think carefully about that. There are various interpretations of the same characters. As a filmmaker, this is my version. I don’t want anyone to feel, and this is important… I can’t recreate the comic stories; they are themselves. They exist and they are special in and of themselves. This is moving, it’s a motion picture, set in the real world, and I think that’s what was Bryan Singer’s great breakthrough – he set them in the real world.
How did you feel about the movie being leaked onto the net?
You make this movie to be seen in a certain space. You want people to enjoy it. And the notion that people are watching something that hasn’t got all the effects; the music is temporary, on a small screen with shitty speakers… guys, you’re hurting yourself! I made this movie so you could have fun! This is fun? This is YouTube! This is not fun! I made it so you could get your popcorn and sit in the big screen and go “Woooow!” It’s so disappointing for the fan!
In a way it’s flattering because they couldn’t wait…
Well, yes. But you can only watch a movie for the first time once, and then you’ve sort of spoiled it for yourself. And from our point of view it’s strange. It’s like any of us having to hand in a project at school – you want it to be ready before you get graded on it, you know what I mean? If you’re gonna grade me, could you just at least let me finish it first, before you start saying what you think? But as you say, I suppose there’s some sort of flattery in it that people wanted to see the movie so badly that they went to the trouble of downloading it and watching the incomplete version.
Was it tough following on from directors like Bryan Singer?
Bryan did a phenomenal job with those movies. I remember watching the opening of X-Men and going, “Wait a minute. You’re making a comic book movie and you’re opening with the Holocaust?” That’s ballsy! You could really offend! But of course he succeeded brilliantly because there are themes and ideas in the movie that are timeless.
What was Hugh like to work with? He was enormous . I’ve never seen a film that was as much of an ode to a man’s biceps...
I made a movie for girls! [Laughs] My wife tells me I make movies for women. I made a gangster movie about a gangster called Tsotsi and I put a little baby in it! It’s great, I like that!
Well, comic book movies shouldn’t just be for boys!
No, they shouldn’t! Anyway, to answer your question about Hugh – he’s down to earth, he’s extremely hard working, and for a director like me, making my first big Hollywood movie, you hear stories about some actors being impossible to work with, who make life hell... this was absolutely not the case. Both as a producer and a star, I had a guy who was dedicated, hardworking and patient. He’s unbelievably patient; he understands completely that now it’s time to work on a special effects moment, but when you need him to deliver emotionally [he’s there].
What was your favourite moment making Wolverine?
When the word goes out that Hugh Jackman may be running naked across a field, it’s surprising how many of the women in the office felt they needed to be on the set that day. All these production issues came up and they had to pop out to make sure all the logistics were being handled properly…
Sorry, what was being handled properly?
The logistics. [Laughs]
He ran very fast, though.
We had a longer version of him running in the cut. And the point is, you can freeze-frame these things as much as you like. I also loved doing the stuff at the end of the movie, after the tower collapses, there are some beautiful big visuals that are created in CGI… I’m not expressing this well. Let’s stick with all the women coming to see Hugh Jackman in the nude.
And it’s all a far cry from playing a Russian general on Stargate.
[Puts on Russian accent] Yes. I miss Colonel Vaselov. I liked talking to you very much.
X-Men: Origins:Wolverine is available now from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, as both a DVD version and a “Triple-Play” edition including the Blu-ray, the DVD and a digital copy.