Memories of the Underworld
There's a disruption in the Underworld clubhouse. Len Wiseman, who kicked the series off in 2003 and carried it through with Underworld: Evolution three years later has stepped down from the director's chair. Svelte Death Dealer Selene and the beauty that brings her to life, Kate Beckinsale, isn't returning, nor is Scott Speedman's Michael. Instead, the torch representing director and leading lady is being carried on by two new faces for Screen Gems' Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.
Behind the camera, Patrick Tatopoulos carved himself a slice of the Hollywood pie by becoming one of the industry's leading FX artists. His time making monsters for films such as Pitch Black and Godzilla later spilled over into production design. For the Underworld saga he is the creature designer, serving both sides of the franchise's quarreling races: the vampires and the Lycans. Now, Tatopoulos is making his directorial debut with Rise of the Lycans, an opportunity that was a long time coming following false starts on Midnight Meat Train, which he was in line to helm, and Phoenix Pictures' Dracula tale The Last Voyage of the Demeter.
"I became a part of the Lakeshore family and they've seen me function through the last few years and felt it was time for me to do it," Tatopoulos explains to ShockTillYouDrop.com at the San Diego Comic-Con. "Creating the werewolves, the creatures and the sets for Underworld, I think for them it only seemed logical that I direct the next chapter. What appealed to me was that this time we're talking about the story of the Lycans, not the vampires anymore. I'm happy to carry on the legacy of what Len created. It gave me a chance to do a new take on the series while still retaining the style. Seeing the movie with a different eye got excited me the most."
With Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen and Kevin Grevioux reprising their roles as Viktor, Lucian and Raze, respectively, this third installment - a prequel - explores the igniting friction between the vampires and Lycans (werewolves to you). Lucian, enslaved by Nighy's vampire leader, leads an uprising against the Death Dealers which triggers an all-out war.
"When Len wrote the first movie, he created a trilogy in his mind already," says Tatopoulos. "And one of the stories he wanted to tell was the story of Lucian. It's an earlier time in the story so it's more primeval. In a sense it allowed me to be a bit bolder and a bit more hardcore about the material. I really tried to keep the tone of Underworld in there, so at the end of the day, hopefully there will be a balance for people."
In addition to familiar characters, Tatopoulos chuckles when he says his film stays visually true to Underworld's signature blue color palette. ("You know you're in an Underworld film when you get that.") Fans can also expect the same level of action, sans the firepower this time. "When we started to create the weaponry for the medieval time I wanted it to be more modern in some ways," the director reveals. "Which is interesting because it is a period piece and we tried to be accurate within that time, however, the vampires are eternal, they're from every time, so you have that leeway when creating stuff like cross-bows...we have some bad-ass cross-bows." He takes this one step further to say a modern touch will bleed through even into the film's soundtrack, too. "It's not so much orchestra, it feels like a modern movie that's set up in a period piece."
Still wading through post-production, Tatopoulos relates his first directing experience as fulfilling. Wiseman, he says, became more of a friend on set than a producer looming over his shoulder. And working with actors, although a new venture for him, was rather painless thanks to the troupe he had to work with. "My position was bring them in and let them breathe, let them do their thing, then as I see what they're doing, I try to guide them into my vision, my world. It worked out really well. Michael became very passionate about the project. Bill - what do you do with him? He knows the character more than you'll ever know. He's an incredible gentleman. He would pull me aside and say, Patrick, tell me if I'm going overboard. He would put you at ease. I was very lucky."
In front the camera, actress Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) is a straight-up newcomer to the franchise yet she shares Tatopoulos' enthusiasm for the threequel nonetheless. Here she plays Viktor's daughter Sonja (a role previously filled, albeit briefly, by actress Jazmín Damak in the first Underworld) and Lucian's undercover lover. It's their forbidden relationship, wrought with Shakespearean overtones, that further stirs up the vampire/Lycan drama.
"This goes back to the 12th century and it becomes theatrical and big," Mitra notes. "I think it's brilliant and hilarious. I grew up with two brothers and one of them is a comic book junkie. He's an investment banker but he's got a whole room dedicated to comic books. I'm not as well-versed as him, but I have a genuine love for that world. I think it's fantastical, any excuse to get dressed up. All of it makes sense to me. Vampires, werewolves. I have a four-year-old nephew who thinks it's amazing. More impetus for me to do this."
There was a small physical price to pay for playing dress-up this time, however. "I had a lot of training from my previous work and when I came to this, I hadn't done much with swords. I did a little bit before. But it was a case of Here's your horse. [Sonja's] a horse woman and a swords woman and I couldn't do both pretty aptly. There's chain mail and corsets, you throw those into the mix, it limits maneuverability. So it becomes less about can you sword fight and can you ride a horse? It's about: Can you do both?."
"Bill [Nighy] and I were just talking about what gets us through it and you get so involved in telling the story, everything else disappears except for when you're on about take fifteen and it's the end of the day," she continues. "Your leather chaps are starting to feel about 500 tons and you don't know if you can do it anymore because you can't move."
Mitra had no trepidations about entering into a third chapter of a franchise. With Nighy and Sheen involved, she felt the project had a certain level of gravity to it. "You don't even question it. You just believe them. You just believe Bill is a vampire. He's my dad, but he's a vampire and there are moments I was genuinely shaken up." In addition to a fierce sword fight she shares with Nighy, Mitra admits she does a fair share of "chopping up" Lycans in the prequel. "Big pussycats" is how she describes them. "Those are beautiful costumes and the men wearing them...talk about suffering for your art a little bit," she empathizes. "We were in New Zealand, so I know it was quite hot for them. There were beautiful locations down there. A nice respite."
Knowing full well the fate of her character (you only need to see the first entry to get the details), we still ask if there's a possibility Sonja will return in future Underworld installments. She laughs with, "Because we're in vampire world, possibly. The way this film ends? Doubtful."
Fair enough. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans opens in theaters on January 23, 2009.
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