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April 2014
Issue: July 1, 2008

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: LOUIS LETERRIER - 'THE INCREDIBLE HULK'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — When Ang Lee’s moody 2003 The Hulk failed to ignite the box office, it looked like premature death for the not-so-jolly green giant. But you can’t keep a superhero down for long, and now the Hulk is back on summer screens in The Incredible Hulk, an action-packed epic that hopes to reboot the franchise and do for the Hulk what Iron Man did for its hero.

In the new film, directed by Frenchman Louis Leterrier (The Transporter 1 & 2), scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) desperately hunts for a cure to the gamma radiation that poisoned his cells and unleashes the unbridled force of rage within him: the Hulk. Here, in an exclusive interview, Leterrier talks about making the film, his worries about handling all the CG, and his love of post.

POST: Sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off, and the first Hulk film under-performed. So how nervous were you going into this?

LOUIS LETERRIER: “Super-nervous! When I met with Marvel I thought they had the wrong guy. I thought it was for the sequel to Ang Lee’s film, but it’s more re-booting the series... and still it was very scary. My story’s so different from Ang’s movie I didn’t think I was right for it, but once they discussed it as a reboot it started me thinking. I went home to France and began sending Marvel some storyboards and plotlines, and going, ‘here’s my vision,’ and that’s how I got the job.”

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

LETERRIER: “A very exciting, fast-paced superhero film, and I had a very specific look in mind, starting with Bruce Banner. I wanted a scrawny, intellectual lab-rat look — though I didn’t know I would cast Edward — and when he turns into the Hulk, I wanted this uber-human look, like a tank, with zero fat.”

POST:
What were the biggest challenges of making the film?

LETERRIER:
“For a start, the whole four-month shoot was on location. We were based in Toronto, and then we went to Brazil, shot plates in New York since it’s too hard to shoot there now, then Vancouver, almost to the North Pole. I wanted the real locations. That’s what I love about the Bond films — you get the real, exotic locations. I thought it’d be fun to have a monster/superhero movie set in these places, since you never see that. It’s always LA or New York.”

POST: Do you like the post process?

LETERRIER: “I love it, and I’m starting to really understand what George Lucas said about how you make a film three times:  once in writing, then in shooting, and again in post. And in post you can improve everything. Thanks to digital effects you can make it really exciting, and every day you find something new. It’s all in the details with visual effects films, and I loved it although I’d never done a lot of CGI before.”

POST: The film was edited by John Wright, Rick Shaine and Vincent Tabaillon. How did it work?

LETERRIER: “John started cutting the film, Rick picked it up, and then I brought in Vincent who finished it and did all the action scenes. He’s really my main guy. We cut it all on Avid and they just passed off their work to each other.
“This is a big movie and John built the skeleton, then Rick focused on all the visual effects editing and plates, which John isn’t used to. I really love him, and he’s cut all these beautiful dramas for Mel Gibson, which are character-oriented. Then to unify it all, Vincent and I final’ed it together.

“Working with three editors is interesting, as each brings something new to it, fresh ideas, and they challenge each other. John and Rick came to Toronto but they never came on set. I wanted to do that and have a trailer on set with an Avid and a MacBook since it would have been easier for me, but they weren’t ready. Next time.” [See our Hulk editing story on page 20.]

POST: Where did you do the visual effects?

LETERRIER: “Mainly back in LA, but we were like a traveling circus; we took some of the post team to Toronto with us, and we worked with Soho Visual Effects up there. Now with CineSync it’s so easy, and I can use my laptop for a CineSync session with anyone around the world, and that’s pretty much what I did with my graphic tablet. You can see the movie and draw on it and then move it back and forth. So we took a light version of effects supervisors with us to Toronto and Brazil and so on. The main visual effects house in LA was Rhythm & Hues, and the secondary houses were Soho, Image Engine in Vancouver and Hydraulx in Santa Monica.”

POST: The visual effects shots are very impressive. How many total are there and how did you go about dealing with them?

LETERRIER: “We had 666 shots, which was a very scary number to see on a board! That then grew to about 750. I’m very involved in all that. My visual effects supervisor was Kurt Williams, who did The Golden Compass and Narnia, and he has a great crew. When I met him I said, ‘I’m not only looking for a technical wizard but a storyteller, someone I can trust with telling the story with two shots, who can focus on expressions and so on.’ And Kurt wants to direct, so he understands all that.

“To be honest, I was so afraid of all the CGI at first that I treated the CG Hulk the way Ridley Scott treated the alien — not showing it until you really had to. We have the battle in the beginning in a factory, which is very Ghost in the Darkness — you don’t see anything, you just hear the noises as I was so afraid that we would just have to focus on the final act, and that we wouldn’t have the time and money to do all the other stuff.

“I just wanted to show shadows and hear cracking bones, but we soon realized we could make it look very different and interesting. But I was really cautious about it — not that I didn’t trust the CGI, but I was so unused to that tool, and I knew that every CG shot was from $50,000 to $100,000, so it’s not limitless! You have to be careful.”

POST: How important is music and audio?

LETERRIER: “It’s huge for me. Music and sound effects help the emotion so much, and can make or break a scene. Sometimes when you think a cut doesn’t work, you can make it really good through sound and music. And music was very important to this film. Marvel had worked a lot with Danny Elfman, but I wanted to use Craig Armstrong, and I’ve worked with Massive Attack before. It took a little time convincing Marvel, but once we got him it was great. The stuff they came to us with was so beautifully harmonic and so different from the scores you usually get on superhero movies.

“We recorded the music in Seattle, and we did the sound design at Danetracks, who did Speed Racer and The Matrix films. Michael Babcock was the sound designer. We did the mix on Stage 3 at Universal with Andy Koyama and Chris Carpenter, the re-recording mixers, and they did an amazing job.”

POST: Don’t you always like to do a DI?

LETERRIER: “I do. We did the DI at Efilm. I’ve never done a film without a DI. I think the first Transporter was just the third film ever to do a DI. So I’ve only ever known DIs, and I’m very comfortable with the process. But this film was a little different since I chose to shoot it with anamorphic lenses to give it that classic look with beautiful flares and so on. So you get this washed up look that you don’t want to mess up in the DI. So the DI we did had a very natural look. We just stretched the picture a little bit to enhance all the highlights and to tie all the visual effects to the regular photography.

“I wanted that great Chinatown look, and I told Peter Menzies, the DP, who’s shot great action films like Die Hard With a Vengeance and Lara Croft; Tomb Raider, ‘I want all the lens flares and I want to integrate the monsters so you can’t tell them apart from the rest of the action,’ which made Rhythm & Hues’s job very tough as they had to work with the curvature of the anamorphic lens. It’s sort of out of focus to the side, which made their life a nightmare, but it just ties everything together, and it looks so beautiful.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you first envisioned it when you were sending all those storyboards and ideas to Marvel?

LETERRIER: “Definitely, although you envision a film like this so much bigger than any wallet can allow! [Laughs.] You always have that image of the Hulk destroying New York City and buildings crashing down all around, and rain in every shot, so it’s really moody and beautiful. I wanted to do the biggest movie ever made, but a $150 million budget will only get you half of that, and the reality is you have to make lots of compromises, and sometimes those compromises are a director’s best friend, as you can focus on plotlines and characters more than just the visuals.”

POST: What’s next? Another Transporter?

LETERRIER: “They just shot the third one while I was doing this, and I don’t think I’ll do another. I only really did the second one for Jason Statham, who I love. They were in trouble and couldn’t find the right director. To be honest, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me because of some of the producers. I only really did the first one because the original director never showed up! I’m not really a big action guy, either, so it’s time to move on.”

POST: Would you do another Hulk?

LETERRIER: “Definitely. Although I was new to a lot of this, I’d love to do another big film full of visual effects because I got such a big kick out of it. Post was absolutely amazing. For the first time in my life I wasn’t going into the editing room and thinking, ‘We have to fix all the stuff that doesn’t work.’ Here it was, ‘We shot amazing stuff, now let’s make it exciting and magical,’ and I can’t wait to do it again.”