This weekend, writer and first time director Scott Stewart will debut his action-thriller Legion to the masses. It’s a tale about the second coming of the apocalypse at the hand of a legion of angels. God sends his most trusted soldier Michael to unleash Hell on earth to punish mankind for their disobedience. Instead of carrying out his wishes, the Archangel has a change of heart and decides to protect the people instead.
Paul Bettany makes his action hero debut as Michael, the only hope earth has after God sends in reinforcements led by his right hand angel, Gabriel. Between the actor and the director there was plenty to talk about regarding not only Legion, but their upcoming graphic novel adaptation, Priest. We found out how Stewart went from being a visual effects geek to sitting in the director’s chair, and we also discussed the possibility of a Legion sequel…
Legion is an action film with a modest budget, and the first you’ve directed besides the short What We Talk About When We Talk About Love from 10 years ago. How did this project become your directorial debut?
Scott Stewart: Originally, I was hired to rewrite a script written by Peter Schink. I thought it was intriguing, but I was kind of interested in re-approaching it, so I started over. There are a lot of elements that I kept, but I kind of rounded the story and re-conceived the mythology of it. I took a more Old Testament view of God and re-casted it as a horror movie meets a Western, angry father, parent-child dynamic set in a family diner with monsters.
You have a rich history in visual effects. You’ve worked on some huge films like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Iron Man. How did that background help your directing process for Legion?
SS: That helped me sort of demystify the post-production process. You learn a lot in post-production about how malleable imagery can be. That aspect of it, for when you are trying to make a schedule, trying to get a day, you can look at it and know that you have the elements for it and move on. I think a big part of it is being a visual effects artist, especially at that level. There is a really regimented process that you end up going through to create dinosaurs or that kind of thing in a movie. That trained me well because it is all about preparation and visualization and that’s just kind of in my DNA. So when we are doing a fight scene, I don’t like to just kind of “wing it.” No pun intended. I like fights where it feels violent, real, and visceral, but you can kind of see what all the moves are.
Was there anything you weren’t sure would work before production began?
SS: Um, the wings. We just didn’t know at the time when I was writing it. We didn’t know what the budget was going to be. What would we get to play with? Fortunately, when it became a movie that Screen Gems was doing and we got this incredible cast to come onboard, we got a little more money to play with. Not a lot. This is a fairly low budget film by studio standards, which is exciting for us because it is getting good attention and it started with very modest aspirations. It has exceeded all of them for us, in terms of the reach of the film. The more the studio saw the movie, the more they wanted to give us to make the movie better.
Paul, you’re mostly known for your role in the Da Vinci Code, how was it for you to transform into this revered physical and spiritual creature? How did you prepare?
Paul Bettany: Well, I’m an angel. I mean, I try to work out the things I can’t do. I can’t actually interview an angel. First of all, I can narrow the things down that are my responsibility to bring to the screen. I went to museums and I looked at painting and statues of angels. They are kind of ripped, and often have swords and spears. Literally, I went, “Okay, physically, what I have do is get in shape.” I just tried to play a solider. I think it is important because you are playing something sort of abstract. It felt like a waste of my energy to try to play something that is an enigma.
This the most action you have ever done in a film. What type of training did you go through for all of those fight scenes?
PB: You know, you’ve got a job and you are going to have to get fit for it. They make it very easy for you. You have a trainer, they pay your trainer and your job becomes going to a gym for two hours a day, and then getting paid a lot of money. Anybody could do it! I’ll eat cake afterwards. That’s what I did. I’m quite quick on my feet. I used to fight Judo as a kid. I actually love doing it. If I’m going to do an action movie, I want to do the action. If I’m not doing the action, what exactly am I doing? I had a great stunt double who wanted me to do as much as I could. There were certain things, insurance wise, they wouldn’t let me do like coming through a window.
How was it working with Scott knowing this was his first feature length film? How was it on set?
PB: It was lovely getting to work with a first time director with all that ambition and fervor, but with real practical knowledge of film and time on film sets. He had an overwhelming desire to make an analog movie, and as much as he can, get it in camera. For instance, the old woman running up the wall was a stunt woman. She was clearly augmented in post-production, but it was a stunt woman running up a wall on a wire. There are lots of examples of how successful that was. The wings were one of them. It just wasn’t going to work.
Are there any plans for a Legion sequel?
SS: Yes, it is open ended. We tried to create a sense of resolution at the end and there is this moment of safety for the characters. Gabriel is kind of angry now. He kind of feels betrayed. He has his own loyal minions, so that starts to tell another version of Paradise Lost.
The two of you are working on another project together, the film Priest. Paul will once again play a lone hero on a mission, how will Priest be different from Legion?
SS: Well it’s really different.
PB: Yeah, it’s really different. We went into it with the same spirit, but with three times the budget, which changes everything. It is a very different story. For me, it is a hugely different character in that Michael is all about forgiveness and faith, and Priest is about revenge. He wants blood.
SS: One thing is that they are tonally very different. Priest is kind of a somber, science fiction, Western. It takes place in an alternate universe and there are retro-futuristic motorcycles instead of horses and big industrial cities. There is a whole mythology, like the history of the human-vampire wars and all this other kind of stuff. As a soldier, you make a sacrifice. You go off, you fight the war. You win the war. You come home thinking you are going to get the Ticker Tape Parade down Broadway and instead they decommissioned you and you work in a factory. Nobody will sit next to you on the bus because they are afraid of you. What happens a generation after that?
How closely related is your adaptation of Priest to the actual graphic novel?
SS: It is different in some respects. Min Woo, creator of the graphic novel, came out and visited us in the summer and I was really nervous. He was really, really pleased with what he saw. He had sixty books, but it was kind of a soap opera with no ending. It never continued, so you don’t know where the story goes. Now, there are new stories that will be coming and you will see how that story dovetails with ours. Ivan Issacs’ character in the “Priest” comic book is the first prototype priest and the characters in our movie are what came much later.
Paul, you have another film coming out called Creation, was it strange to play two very different characters in such a short period of time?
PB: Um, no because I’m incredibly shallow [laughs]. I went from this [Legion] to Charles Darwin and ate sandwiches. I gained forty pounds. It is actually the way I like to do things. It’s fun. It can be edifying to put yourself into somebody else’s situation. It is just fun to play wildly different people and wildly different genres. Although, I was thinking when I went from this to Darwin; Charles Darwin’s ideas would have been more broadly accepted had he had an AK-47.
Legion hits theaters on January 22, 2010.