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Issue: August 1, 2008

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: PAUL W.S. ANDERSON - 'DEATH RACE'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — With his gift for eye-catching visuals and intense pacing, British writer/director/producer Paul W.S. Anderson has carved out a successful Hollywood career thanks to such hits as his Resident Evil franchise, AVP: Alien vs. Predator and Mortal Kombat.

Anderson's latest film is Death Race, a remake of the 1975 futuristic thriller, starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane, and co-produced by Tom Cruise. Here, in an exclusive interview, Anderson, who was still deep in the final stages of post when Post interviewed him, talks about making the film, working with longtime editor Niven Howie, dealing with all the stunts and CGI, and his love of post.

POST: Wasn't there talk of you doing this film back in 2000?

PAUL W.S. ANDERSON: "It started long before that. I've been wanting to redo it for 14 years. I saw it on video back in the UK, and Death Race 2000 had this mystique about it, and it left a very strong impression on me. I also loved all the movies it influenced. George Miller openly admitted that Mad Max and Road Warrior were heavily influenced by it.

"And then Roger Corman, who produced the original film, released my first film, Shopping, in the US, and I told him I wanted to remake Death Race. He said, 'Great, let's do it next.' But then it took 14 years."

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?

ANDERSON: "I wanted to make a thrilling, adrenalized film that didn't just rely on CGI. They were shooting Speed Racer at the same time, and I saw this as the anti-Speed Racer in that I didn't want CG cars and chunks of debris in CG environments. I wanted to go back to the old-school, Road Warrior-style of filmmaking, which had this great visceral impact. Audiences will buy CG and go with it, but it also puts a bit of a distance between the audience and the film when what you want is bone-crunching reality."

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making the film?
ANDERSON: "Mounting all the spectacular stunts and crashes. When you sit down with your production team, the first thing they say is, 'We can do this as a miniature' or, 'We'll do it all CG.' And I said, 'No. It has to be real.' Of course, there's still a lot of CG stuff in it. The difference between us and something like Speed Racer was that while they shot and then spent a year creating the film in a computer, we spent over a year before shooting, creating all the complex crashes and planning out how to do them with real cars and trucks, real armor plating and guns — but without killing anyone."

POST: Do you like the post process?
ANDERSON: "I do. It's a process I've come to really love and appreciate the importance of post with each film I make. When I was a kid, I'd read all these books about Hitchcock and John Ford, all the classic filmmakers who basically felt that the shoot was the 'real movie.' Post was seen as a not particularly important piece of the process. But the more I do, the more I realize just how creative and important post is for a director."

POST: Where did you do the post?
ANDERSON: "We shot the film in Montreal and took over a huge abandoned train factory, which we turned into our main location. It was also our production base and we set up our editing rooms there too.

"After shooting, we moved to LA and for the director's cut set up an editing suite in my guest house with three Avids. Jim Jensen was our post supervisor, and the original plan was to then finish post in Toronto, because of all the tax breaks. We did the mix for the director's cut in Toronto, but we ended up finishing the rest of the post in LA, because I'd just become a father.

"So we're doing the DI at Efilm, which worked out great as we'd planned to do it at Efilm in Toronto, so we just moved it down here. Then we'll do the mix on the lot at Universal with the same team that did Resident Evil: Extinction. After staying at the guest house a bit longer, now we're in the final phases of post, so we've moved onto the lot so we can be close to the mix. And the composer's studio is also very close to the Universal lot, so it's all worked out well."

POST: The film was edited by Niven Howie, your regular editor. So was he on the set?
ANDERSON: "He was there for the whole shoot and literally right in the middle of it. Sometimes we'd actually have to shut down the editing room because it was just too dangerous with all the huge explosions right outside. And it's actually in quite a bit of the film, although you don't know it's a cutting room [laughs].

"We shot over a million and a quarter feet of film, and it's all practical, so it's a very disciplined job for an editor. When you shoot practical, you use a lot of cameras as you're not creating it in CG in post, and some of the stunts were one-offs, so we'd surround the action with cameras. So then Niven has to comb through all the footage to find the really awesome bits, which sucks up so much time. That's why I asked the studio for two extra weeks to work on my cut, on top of the usual 10 weeks you get.

"The studio wasn't that happy about it, although they were happy when they saw it. But I must say, the changes we made in the extra last two weeks, above and beyond the standard 10 weeks, made the film 100 percent better, although it was just 20 percent more post time. Up until that point you're just roughing it all together, especially when you're dealing with so much action footage. So getting enough time for post is so crucial."

POST: A lot of big action films now seem to use multiple editors to cope.
ANDERSON: "Exactly, but for me, I hate working like that. The relationship between a director and his editor is very important, and it's also extremely important for the editor to be completely immersed in the footage and know all the footage — and that again takes a lot of time."

POST:  How many VFX shots are there, and how did you go about dealing with them?
ANDERSON: "We had about 700, which is a lot. We were very religious about 'no CG cars, environments,' so most of them were wire removal, camera removal and so on. When you shoot an action scene with nine, 10 cameras, you're bound to shoot some of the cameras, so we had a lot of clean-up of car rigs and so on.

"All the effects work was done by Mr. X Inc. in Toronto. My production company, Impact Pictures, has a long history with them. They did the last two Resident Evil films for us and we have a great relationship with them and Dennis Berardi, who runs it and who was our VFX supervisor. They're really good at doing all the invisible visual effects, like clean-ups, that no one ever notices."

POST: What was the hardest VFX shot to do?
ANDERSON: "The film is set on this island, Terminal Island, where there's a prison and a race track, and the constituent elements all existed at different locations, such as the bridge out to the island and the shoreline. But the island itself didn't exist, so the whole thing was done CG.

"We have some wide helicopter shots of the island, showing its relationship to the shoreline, and those are all entirely digital and entirely photoreal, and they look awesome. That's the one part of the film I was really worried about, as we were shooting an entirely practical movie with some huge vistas — runs that were a mile and a half long of real locations. So you get used to that, and then suddenly you have to cut to wide helicopter shots that are all CG. So I knew these shots would be very tricky to pull off, and Dennis and I worked on them even before we started shooting, and to achieve photoreal, broad daylight helicopter shots [is] pretty impressive."

POST: How important is music and audio for you?
ANDERSON: "Hugely, and if you make action and horror films, which I've done almost exclusively, you soon realize how vital sound is. It's a cliché, but it's true. Make a scary movie and turn the sound off, it's just not scary anymore. Make an action film, turn the sound off, and you're just watching a lot of fast cuts. So the sound is what makes it an immersive experience, and that's why I'm so happy to get the mixing crew I wanted for this.

"It's a real gift, mixing these big action films, and they have the ability to give a director what he wants. Usually at a mix, they say, 'What do you want? You've got a choice — either music or sound effects,' and you can't possibly have dialogue. Or if you do, the rest has to come down. But these really experienced guys can give you everything, somehow, and [sound editor] Coll Anderson and [ADR mixer] Chris Fina have been talking for weeks to Sound Dogs, the Toronto company doing all the sound design, and the composer."

POST: How important is the DI for you?
ANDERSON: "It's really helped liberate the post process and made it far more creative, but you still have to shoot the film you want. This has a very desaturated look, and that's partly the work of the DI, but it's also a look that was set early on by the production design, locations and costume design.

"We shot in these crumbling, industrial works, so we had this great rusty environment and a very muted color palette. So the only bright colors are the flare of guns and splash of blood, and that was a very deliberate look that we established during principal photography and then enhanced in the DI.  You always have to remind yourself that, ultimately, what's really engaging about any film is the core stuff: the story, the characters and the visceral reaction people have to the horror or action. It's not about, 'Is that shade of blue deep enough?'"

POST: What's next?
ANDERSON: "A remake of the British gangster film The Long Good Friday, set in the present-day in Miami. And I'm also producing an action-horror film, Castlevania, which I'm also writing, for Universal."