Having started in visual effects, Scott Stewart has now directed two films, and two films with Paul Bettany. Both are effects heavy – which play to his background – and now he’s got a bigger summer movie with Priest. Stewart proved to be a good talker, and was enthusiastic about the film, and the 3-D version of the film. Check it out…
What can you say about the priest characters?
Scott Stewart: The Priests are supernaturally gifted soldiers. They were discovered to have supernatural gifts, trained to fight, and they fought the war and won for humanity’s side, and then got decommissioned. An analogy is the Crusaders, who went off to fight for the Church, and then the Church felt quite threatened by how powerful they were so they started labeling them pariahs and imprisoned them. They have no names, and they have these brands on their foreheads. It’s not this world’s Church or priests. These people who once saved everyone have no applicable skills, so now they work in waste management or shoveling coal.
How did Maggie Q come to the film?
SS: Maggie and I had already met, and I was a fan. We did casting and had a lot of young, very attractive, very well-known actresses, who came in wearing these cat suits and boots. Maggie came in wearing ratty jeans and a faded Beastie Boys t-shirt. She walked in “I think I dressed wrong for this.” I think their initial instinct was Underworld, so they were just going for that.
What do you enjoy about working with Paul Bettany?
SS: We’re really close friends – we like to geek out on the same stuff. He’s a great filmmaker, in addition to being a really good actor, so he makes your job easier. Legion was an ensemble movie, and was an opportunity to put the movie on his shoulders, given that it’s called Priest. He looked like a young Eastwood to me. He has that chiseled, haunted look with his thousand-yard stare. It’s interesting because he’s really warm and funny, and yet he comes across as cold and timeless. He fits well into a science fiction world visually. There are certain actors that you just believe in fantastic settings. Some actors are wonderful, but they feel contemporary – you want to do a romantic comedy with them. Paul and I had a discussion pretty early on about being co-heads in a way. We wanted to set a tone. Making films is hard. It’s grueling, so we didn’t want it to be a miserable grind. We wrapped a couple hours early on our last day, and everyone stayed. It was the weirdest thing in the world. Usually, people just disappear like rats on a sinking ship, but Maggie had food brought in and everybody just hung out.
The Look/ 3-D
How did you decide on the color scheme for the movie?
SS: The graphic novel is black and white. It’s stark – it’s all about silhouettes, which is informative because I like to think about things in that way. I worked with our costume designer, in terms of the silhouette for the Priests and how they look different. The Sheriff character has a more Western feel. The monsignors look like they’re from some kind of Orwellian realm. You see a lot of those characters hitting specific poses, along with the vampires themselves. The color palette is controlled, so red is restricted in the movie – except for just in really specific places, Lucy (played by Lily Collins) is the damsel in distress and her hair is red. We used red for blood, although it’s a little less red than it initially was because of the MPAA. They have a thing with the color red. We tried to create a very stark landscape, so the cities are blue/cyan, vampire light is green, and we removed blue from the sky because blue skies feel happy. We made them slate grey. We bleached the deserts out white, so even though they’re in the desert, it doesn’t look warm. Yellow has been removed, so that the movie is much cooler. Making a movie that has the hallmarks of a Western and then color-correcting it as a science fiction film was an interesting contrast. In the prologue, we actually left more color in because it’s the story of the world before it became what it became.
Did you always plan on having an animated opening?
SS: I had been thinking about that. Initially it was a scroll, and I thought no one reads the scroll. I animated a boardamatic of the opening sequence. It was in many ways different, but the ideas were the same. It was considered too expensive, but I knew if I held on, we might get something. I’ve been friends with Genndy Tartakovsky, and you don’t see a lot of adult – PG-13 or R rated animated sequences in adult movies, so I came to the studios, and said that we could do it animated for a fraction of the price, and they said okay. And once they saw it, they were in.
Does your visual effects background help with world building on a budget?
SS: Oh yeah. We got a lot in for not a lot. The movie is filled with effects that are not hard to see, but I’m also a big fan of the invisible stuff.
Why did you decide to shoot in 2D and then convert to 3D?
SS: I wanted to shoot film. I wanted to shoot anamorphic. For me, the touchstones for the movie were films like Bad Day at Black Rock – the big widescreen landscape movies and westerns. I liked the idea of using lenses from the ‘70s. They have a lot of artifacts that they’ve been trying to engineer out of lenses for a while, but they remind me of the movies I grew up loving. There’s a lot of glass, and the glass creates distortion. There are no straight lines. And it add a homogeneity to the visual effects that makes everything more tactile and organic, and I was interested in capturing that with my cinematographer.
Did you know that it was going to be converted to 3D?
SS: We talked a lot about it. I certainly designed the movie to work in 2D, but compositionally knew that it would lend itself very well to being converted to 3D. As soon as the studio saw the early cut of the movie, they went, “Oh, okay, cool. All right, go do it.” It’s a big expense and, in this case, we really wanted to take a lot of time with it, so that the experience would be good. What you’re seeing on the screen is a combination between 2D and 3D. Most of the hive guardian vampire is rendered in 3D by a visual effects company, and then the plates are converted. But, we also did things like significantly expanding the set environment that they were on. They were on a small stage, and we made it look like a big, giant cave. We picked our battles.
The vampires in this are very different from the ones in Twilight. Are they based on what’s in the comic book?
SS: The Cory Goodman script diverged from the graphic novel, which takes place in the 1880s. It’s the Old West and they’re fighting these fallen angels. Book 16 ends with a, “And we can’t wait until Book 17 when this happens,” but it never arrived. It would have been very difficult to do that movie and set it in the Old West. So, Cory imagined if it had progressed into the future, and what would happen. The film is almost a sequel to the graphic novel. Author Min-Woo Hyung read a translation of the script in pre-production, and came out from Korea and sat with us. That was the first time we had a chance to say, “What happens after Book 16?” And he said, “Well, I had imagined that the fallen angels in the comic book would create a blood lust among the people and they would become these zombie-vampiric characters. Cory took the story in a direction that I was planning on going to.” Because there are no vampires in the graphic novel, the vampires are not based on drawings that were done. I had Chet Zar come in, and he had designed for Guillermo Del Toro and a bunch of other people. He’s someone whose work I was a really big fan of. He just creates these really iconic monsters that are soulful -not just horror movie characters. We talked about the anatomy of them and how they would work. I’m a big believer of form following function. They live in darkness and they’re cave dwellers with a hive mentality and they have a queen – we worked backwards from there. He did hundreds of drawings and, eventually, we had one where we went, “Oh, cool!” It was that drawing that led us to do the characters mostly digitally. However much you want to use practical, we didn’t want to get really far down the road and not like how it looks on film. We said, “Let’s do tests early, and then make a commitment to doing it one way or the other.” I was also looking at a lot of holocaust imagery.
With the themes in both Priest and Legion, is there something about religion that you’re trying to explore, as a filmmaker? Are you concerned about comparisons with those two films?
SS: I was initially concerned when they called me about Priest, but I read the script and was a fan. The comparisons are understandable, but they’re superficial- there is a religious element in the movies and Paul Bettany is a supernaturally gifted ass-kicker. Those elements are the same, but the world and mythology is different. Priest is a science fiction western. It’s not a horror film. We were asking theological questions in Legion, but I don’t see Priest that way. I don’t equate it to this world’s Church – it’s much more about war powers and fascism and the enemy that we don’t understand but we keep fighting, and about soldiers. It’s an emotional story about sacrifice. They come back broken, and they’ve left families and society has moved on – they didn’t come back to a ticker-tape parade. They start to question “What did I sacrifice all this for? Did I sacrifice to make the world better? Maybe the world isn’t as good as it was, even when I was fighting.” I thought that resonated.
Did you have a lot of problems with the MPAA, as far as making cuts to the film?
SS: We were right on the edge of PG-13 and R. The studio said “Normally, these movies are R, so don’t hurt the movie by dialing things back.” There were just a few frames. When we made the blood a little less red, it got us a PG-13. They have a thing about gun violence – we had very little gun violence. It’s fantasy character violence. Senior folks at the studio were blown away we got the PG-13. Sound is an area they seem to get fixated on. “When he stabs the guy, can you make it not sound like a stabbing sound?” I said, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s better to see it, but not have it have a consequence?” It just doesn’t make any sense. We turned the blood to brown or black and you don’t feel it as intensely. But I’m sure we’ll release an unrated version. I had a friend on Sucker Punch and I was told how Zack Snyder had a scene in the film that involved rape. The MPAA has an issue with women that I find really offensive. She was being raped and with the character in an asylum, she submits to the attacker. They found that disturbing, “If it’s a rape, it’s PG-13. If she submits, it’s R.” He cut the whole scene from the movie because he was so upset about it.
Is there going to be an unrated DVD, and what sort of extras do you have planned for the DVD/Blu-ray?
SS: The studio definitely wants the unrated DVD. We have a ton of extras. I’m a huge Blu-ray geek. I’ve learned a lot about movies and making movies from listening to great directors since I was a kid watching laser discs. We’re all going to do commentaries, and there are a bunch of documentaries.
Are there plans for a sequel or a franchise? Have they asked you to start on a script for the sequel?
SS: No, and if they did I’d say, “Please don’t jinx it. Let’s wait until late May.” We’re coming out at a competitive time. We’re a week after Thor. Pirates 4 opens the following weekend. I don’t think they would have put us here if they didn’t think we could compete, but we’re also at a different level. We’re less expensive than those other movies – they probably had four times the budget of us. We don’t have to perform at that scale to be successful. Hopefully that will allow us to continue to tell the story. I know that Cory has thought a lot about where the story would go. He and I have discussed ideas, so we’ll keep those in our back pockets and hope for the best.
Priest opens Friday May 13. Check it out.