HOLLYWOOD — It's been 12 years since the last Die Hard film, but now Bruce Willis and alter ego John McClane are back in the aptly titled Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth outing of the hugely successful franchise. And the latest installment finds McClane once again battling the bad guys — this time, terrorists who've made the big mistake of kidnapping his daughter.
To ensure that the much-imitated franchise kept its teeth sharp and polished, Willis handpicked director Len Wiseman, who had plenty of experience dealing with teeth and cutting edge visual effects in his Underworld vampire films. Here, in an exclusive interview, Wiseman talks about making the new Die Hard and his love of post and visual effects, while VFX supervisor Matt Hendershot, from lead effects house The Orphanage, talks about creating the visual effects.
POST: It must be flattering to have Bruce Willis ask for your services. Why did he say he wanted you?
LEN WISEMAN: "He said he was looking for a fresh look at the franchise and he was a fan of the Underworld movies and liked the vision and direction of them. Ultimately, he wanted someone who respected the franchise and was a fan, as I am, and could bring it into the present."
POST: How do you think the Underworld series prepared you for this?
WISEMAN: "It really helped me with all the visual effects. The second Underworld dealt a lot with miniatures and I learned so much about that and what works and what doesn't in CGI. This was a much bigger production than Underworld, though, which is good and bad. You have the budget, resources and equipment to pull it off the way it needs to be done — but then you also have more studio input and pressure."
POST: What were the biggest challenges of making the film?
WISEMAN: "That it's part of this huge franchise and a sequel to someone else's original creation, which I'm not used to. You're dealing with the anticipation and fan base and what the film should and shouldn't be, and a lot of preconceived opinions, so there was a lot of pressure to deliver. And then I had such a short post schedule. This was the biggest film I've ever done, and I've done some big films like Independence Day, Godzilla and Men in Black working in the art department, and it was one of the shortest posts I've ever heard of — just 14 weeks! The average for a film this big is 25 weeks. My director's cut was just five weeks — half of what you usually get — so it was pretty crazy."
POST: There are some amazing visual effects shots in the big jet chase sequence. How did you go about dealing with them?
WISEMAN: "When I began this I had these crazy ideas of doing the big end Harrier jet sequence as practical as possible, using a full-scale jet mounted on a flatbed truck on a gimbal and fly it around the freeway. Since it hovers six-feet off the ground for a large part of the chase, that seemed a good solution, and then we'd digitally erase the flatbed and so on in post. I did some of that in Underworld 2 and it worked great, but the same approach on this just became a nightmare. So then we went with a half-scale model of the jet and CG, and the freeway collapse was also all CGI, done by The Orphanage [see sidebar]."
POST: Do you like working with VFX?
WISEMAN: "I do. I'm a weird director in that I've done films with a lot of visual effects, and this has the most so far, but I still like to do a shot practically. It's not that I don't like CGI. It can work really well. It just makes me more nervous because you give up control. I can make any kind of adjustment to a practical shot and change lighting and so on and see right away if it works, but with CGI, you don't find out until months later whether it looks real or not."
POST: Can you talk about working with The Orphanage's VFX supervisor, Matt Hendershot.
WISEMAN: "My visual effects supervisor Pat McClung was my go-to guy for organizing all that, and we'd be on the phone a lot and watch all the different variations they'd send down to LA, since it went through the process of wireframe and motion and animation and texture and lighting and so on. Pat's got a very picky eye, so he'd deal with them a lot before bringing stuff to me for my notes."
POST: Where did you do post?
WISEMAN: "On the Fox lot, in room 666!"
POST: Do you like the post process?
WISEMAN: "I love it, and as someone said, you really do make a film three times — in the script phase, the shoot, and then in post, and that's so true. Whatever hell you went through in the shoot, whatever compromises you had to make, we now have the chance to totally remake the film in post."
POST: You used your Underworld: Evolution editor Nicolas de Toth, who cut T3, The Sum of All Fears and Stargate, among many films. How did that work?
WISEMAN: "We cut on Avid [Meridiens using Unity] and he'd be on the set, especially when we were shooting on the lot, and the schedule was so short that he'd have to cut around the clock while we shot around the clock. I'd have liked more time but we'd worked together before, which was a big help. One trick is we'd just text. It's so hard to get on the phone on a set, but you can text when you're available."
POST: Did you do a DI?
WISEMAN: "Yes, at Company 3 [with Siggy Ferstl]. I always do a DI. I came up through music videos and commercials and always went through the color timing process. Both Underworld films were done that way. I'd be completely floored to do it the other way! I wouldn't know what the hell I was doing.
"The idea of taking my film and putting it through a vat of dyes and colors, and not being able to go in and adjust each frame — I'd lose my mind! So it's both a process I'm used to, and then so helpful on this because I'd never shot a film in daytime before, and it's hard to create a look in daylight that has a mood, style and energy you like. So the DI is a huge help in that. And for me it's also the final stage of visual effects, since so many come in and the companies do their best pass at a color grade that matches yours, but it'll never be spot on. You always want to adjust, and the DI allows me to have the last shot at tweaking the visual effects, giving them a bit more contrast and so on. You can even do Power Windows [via da Vinci] and do little things, like add discoloration in one part of the visual effects to make it pop out. It's almost like having a Flame or Inferno."
POST: How important is music and audio for you?
WISEMAN: "Huge, half the experience. It amazes me how you watch a cut with no music or sound design and you want to kill yourself. It has no pace, you've done a horrible job and then they add sound, and it's like night and day. Sometimes a scene will just not work, even though you tweak and tweak, and then it hits you — it needs sound. And Nick [de Toth] always goes the extra mile in adding music and sound design so by the time I watch his cut even, it's bearable."
POST: Did you make the film you first envisioned?
WISEMAN: "I did. I'm a new guy to the whole big studio process, but I'm very happy with the film and especially all the action stuff and the look. There's a lot of me in it."