Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, filmmaker David Twohy has left a strong impression on sci-fi movie fans everywhere. He got his start as a screenwriter on such movies as “Warlock,” “The Fugitive” and “Waterworld,” and he eventually proved himself as a director with the underrated “The Arrival” which starred Charlie Sheen as an astronomer who discovers evidence of intelligent alien life and then gets caught up in a vast conspiracy. The movie was not a box office success as it came out in the wake of the blockbuster “Independence Day,” but it has since gained a cult following thanks to its inventive ways of looking at the alien invasion genre.
But the movie Twohy is best known for is “Pitch Black” which had him joining forces with “Fast & Furious” star Vin Diesel who played the dangerous criminal Riddick. Its budget was only $23 million, but Twohy and Diesel created a movie that was intensely exciting and which made the most of its modest budget. So strong was the cult following to “Pitch Black” that they later made “The Chronicles of Riddick” which had a budget of over $100 million. While the sequel was not a commercial success, fans were still craving another Riddick movie and kept pushing at Twohy and Diesel to bring back the character.
Now the fans will see their wish come true when “Riddick,” the third movie in the series, opens in theaters on September 3, 2013. After dealing with a big budget and a Hollywood studio, Twohy and Diesel ended up raising the money independently to make this particular sequel a reality and to maintain full creative control over it. It follows Riddick as he is left for dead on a desolate planet and ends up being sought out by bounty hunters who are prepared to bring his head back in a box. But soon they are stalked by vicious alien predators, and they are forced to join forces in order to survive the long dark night.
I was lucky enough to attend the “Riddick” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California where Twohy talked about the challenges of making this particular movie as well as what it was like working with Diesel who recently received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
How did the final film compare to what you originally envisioned, and were there any big challenges you faced in terms of the look of the film?
David Twohy: Did the finished product end up like we had imagined it? Yeah it does because really, as a responsible filmmaker, I have to imagine the whole movie. After I script the movie I have to storyboard it out, I have to budget it, and I have to understand if I can afford all those visual effects or not. So more than anybody, it looks like the movie I had imagined, sometimes better, sometimes not quite as good depending on how we execute the visual effects. But yeah, I’m not surprised by it because it’s what I do and it’s what I set out to make. Sometimes Vin, who is not privy to everything that’s in my head and all the work that I’ve done with the concept artist (and he likes it that way), is surprised, but I don’t have the luxury of being surprised. I can’t be surprised by anything in the filmmaking process if I’m doing my job right. So it’s very much the movie we set out to make, and we set out to make something that would fit into the budget that we had ($38 million).
I think you all know that this was an independent movie this time out instead of a studio movie. So knowing that we would have limited resources, Vin and I sat down in his kitchen and we came up with a story that would fit that budget. It couldn’t be as grand as the last movie and it had to be more contained, and it feels more like “Pitch Black” to some people. It probably is more like that at least in its tone and scope (we limited it to one world), but it’s very much the movie we set out to make and there were not that many surprises for me along the way.
It was interesting to see that Dahl (played by Katee Sackhoff) was not a love interest in this movie. Usually the girl ends up being the love interest of someone, but instead she was this independent woman who can hold her own. Can you talk about casting Katee and why you chose to make her this independent woman who can take care of yourself?
David Twohy: I remember Ridley Scott telling me this story about the original “Alien;” Ripley was scripted to be a man, and he decided to make her a female thinking that these parts should be gender-neutral. I’ve always remembered that, and the women in my movies do stand up on their own two feet and they aren’t pieces to anybody and I like that.
In terms of Katee, she was the first person to read for the role of about a hundred actresses, and that I remembered her throughout the whole process speaks highly of her. So finally I said, “Who was that girl who came in the first day, she had blonde hair and she kind of killed it? Who is she?” They said, “Oh that’s Katee Sackhoff from ‘Battlestar Galactica.’” Well I didn’t really follow “Battlestar Galactica” so I didn’t even know her from that, so I’m not casting or for that. I just thought she was the best available actress so we cast her like that, and I’m so glad we did because she was a joy to have on the set. And clearly like the character, she holds her own amongst the men and swears worse than any of them. Her off-screen lines are just as good.
What made you bring this franchise back to R-rated territory after the PG-13 “Chronicles of Riddick,” and is there going to be another Riddick anime, game or ride?
David Twohy: (laughs) A Riddick ride? Well actually we are doing some D-Box seats in theaters, the motion platform seats. I just experienced them for the first time and it’s the closest thing to a Riddick ride as you’ll get. It’s watching the movie but it’s motion-based.
I don’t know what that in between thing will be, but we embrace them and I would like to do more. We published the motion graphic novel as well which helped with the back story of how Riddick went from King of the Necromongers to a man alone on a planet. We embrace those things and it would be great to get another game off the ground, but those things are very hard to launch. They are costly and they need a lot of lead time, so it’s hard to sync those games to the release of a movie. But we would like to do another one and we are talking about it.
The R-rated movie was important to us because, as a filmmaker, I have the flexibility I need to do what I want. With PG-13 I feel like I’m pulling my punches either in the script or working with my actors on the set and coming up with stupid analogues for the word “f--k.” I’m getting tired of that. It gets to the point where people aren’t talking like people talk anymore. Just because I don’t want to pull my punches anymore, I felt this was important to me. It also plants a flag in the ground for our fans as well and lets them know we are true to the character and the nature of the series. The reason for PG-13 last time is obvious. It was because we were a big studio movie funded by a big studio, and to minimize their risk they wanted to branch out to what they think is the widest possible audience and they think that’s PG-13. There is actually a sound reason for that, but Vin and I feel more comfortable back in the R-rated universe.
In “Riddick” you deal with the Necromongers briefly and just move on from there. Do you plan on going back to that story thread if this movie is successful enough to merit a sequel?
David Twohy: Yes. If it is successful and if we have a flexibility to go wherever want for the next movie, and Vin and I are talking about two more movies and probably just that (it would be good to do a closed ended franchise rather than a franchise that just keeps spitting them out just to spit them out), we would like to get back to the Necromongers. I am currently cutting the director’s cut DVD right now which includes more of an epilogue which has Riddick returning to the Necromonger empire and actually setting things right there in terms of the guy who abandoned him on this planet and left him for dead, and his search for Vaako (played by Karl Urban) who he thinks has the answer to where his home world lies. The next few weeks will be telling for us, and we want to pay off the fans who have stuck with us all this time. They have never stopped talking about this movie to us, and it was them who made us open our eyes and say it will be honestly irresponsible to leave it like it was and not make another movie.
How did you and Vin get back to the savagery of the “Pitch Black” with this one and made it look like “Conan the Barbarian” as opposed to “Conan the Destroyer?”
David Twohy: That was important too, and it was also part of the character who thinks at the story’s outset that maybe he feels that he is gotten a little slow, a little soft, who has dulled his own edge as King of the Necromongers and wonders what happened to him. Did he commit the greatest crime of all? Did he get civilized? So the exploration of him trying to get back to basics to find his edge again, to get back to the lean thing he was, it’s a good evolution for Riddick and it’s also sort of a parallel to what the franchise has undergone.
What do you like most about collaborating with Vin Diesel?
David Twohy: That he doesn’t shut up (laughs). He’s a guy who aims high and pushes me to aim high. He’s a guy who dreams and thinks that anything is possible, and me I’m more of a practical guy. I try to be a responsible filmmaker, living with the constraints of what I’m given to make a movie with, but Vin doesn’t think like that. Vin thinks like anything is possible and he thinks big. Sometimes that’s almost a folly but other times it can be inspiring and it can open up my ideas to other ways of doing things. What’s great about it is that he’s a guy who has all the confidence in the world and always has ever since I cast him as just a guy, an actor, in “Pitch Black.” But he had an unshakable confidence in himself even back then, and he just seems to see the future or will it into being (laughs) so that he can say “hey I was right all along!” He’s great like that and he’s inspiring like that. Just about the time you think that Vin Diesel is a guy with big muscles and a big head and you’re kind of willing to dismiss him as that, you realize that this is a guy with a big heart too. He dreams no small dreams, and that’s good and that rubs off on everybody else he works with.
Can you talk about crafting Riddick’s voiceover in the movie?
David Twohy: Here’s how I craft it, I sit in front of my computer screen and I write it. Then I’ll rewrite it, I’ll tweak it, I’ll rewrite it and then I’ll show it to Vin and he’ll say I’m digging this or I’m digging that. When he gets in front of a microphone, he’ll say 90% of it, but every once in a while he’ll just stick in a line. I later find out it’s because it’s too similar to something else he said in another movie. We just work it out and then I’ll spitball three alternatives and when something pops up that he likes we’ll just lay it down. We’ve built a good level of trust with each other lately.
As opposed to the voiceover in “Blade Runner” where it was just filling in stuff that you needed to know about the world and it wasn’t character-based, the one in “Riddick” is character-based and it comes with Riddick’s voice and how he sees the world. It takes a while to get it right.
Riddick’s relationship with the puppy is one of the best things about this movie…
David Twohy: By the way, every woman who has interviewed me today talked about the damn puppy (laughs). I cut a trailer of this movie that was all about Riddick and his relationship with the dogs and I gave it to Universal and said, “Hey maybe we want to broaden our audience a little bit and make sure we get the women in here, you know?” Then they go, “It’s a little soft for a Riddick movie Dave.” God I wish the marketing people were listening to this! I’ve been trying to tell Universal, I’ve been trying…
Since the puppy was created with CGI effects and has a lot of interactive scenes with the actors, what did they have to work with on the set?
David Twohy: All the actors have plenty of reference whether its concept art which they can paper their trailers with or I’ll show them on the morning of the shoot. The puppy has stand ins. For the puppy, I got a 12 pound silicone puppy that looks like the real puppy. It’s furred, it’s got glass eyes and everybody wants to hold it, and it just feels right. The puppy made it into the movie in a couple shots.
Plus Vin has big dogs too, so more often than not he’s telling me how to greet the dog and how to pet it (I’m a cat guy, Vin’s a dog guy). So he says, “No you don’t pet it like a cat. If you want to say hello to your big dog, you slap it on the shoulder.” So that’s what we do in the movie.
What were the differences, both positive and negative, that you found making this movie independently versus working on a studio movie?
David Twohy: Mostly positive. We shot it in 48 days which was pretty streamline. During postproduction I showed it to an audience of 50 or 60 people and didn’t score it, didn’t test it. I just wanted to know what confused them so I could go back and clear up the confusions. I showed one or two cuts to Vin and then I locked the picture. That is as atypical as it gets in the professional filmmaking world because a lot those movies you saw this summer were focus grouped, tested, scored, recut, reshot, recut, tested, scored, and after a while there is a factory made feel to those movies. So hopefully something this simple, streamline and filmmaking pure results in something that’s at least different and maybe better just in the handcrafted sense of it.
So would you say you had more fun with less money in some ways?
David Twohy: Yeah we did, and I’m sure most independent filmmakers will tell you that. The downside is that we staggered to the starting line. We were up, we were down, we were up, and we were down. It all comes down to, is the paperwork closed? Is the bond closed? You have to close the bond to get the bank loan. It’s a lot of stuff I don’t know much about, and I wish it didn’t affect my life but it does. We started and we were shut down, kicked out of our studios, the doors locked. We had to come back three months later and pay our bills and start over. So those are the vicissitudes of independent filmmaking.