Angelina Jolie Interview
"WANTED" From comic book to screen
“Cool as hell,” “unique,” “experimental,” “ironic” and “creative genius” are just some of the words used to describe Russian-born director Timur Bekmambetov, who hails from the city of Guryev in Kazakhstan. Bekmambetov’s vision has landed him his first English-language film, in collaboration with astute producers and an award-winning cast and crew, all under the aegis of a large American movie studio.
Just how did that happen? Perhaps a little background...
The year 2004 saw the release of Bekmambetov’s film Nochnoy Dozor (or Night Watch). The film was budgeted at $1.8 million but grossed more than $16 million in Russia alone, making it more of a hit in his own country than The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring. The sequel to Night Watch (the first instalment of the trilogy), Day Watch, was released in Russia in early 2006. Again, the film was considered low budget (costing just $4.2 million) and became a juggernaut - grossing nearly $40 million in Bekmambetov’s home country.
About the same time, executives at Marc Platt Productions had come across Mark Millar and JG Jones’ first issue of their comic book series “Wanted” and immediately thought the dark and inventive tale had huge cinematic potential... but the subject matter (a covert band of super villains who has split up the world into factions) needed an offbeat spin. They sought an exciting, creative new filmmaker who thought beyond limits and, after seeing Night Watch, they knew they’d found their man. If Bekmambetov could create such a visually stunning movie on such a low budget, producers reasoned, there would be no holding back the auteur’s energetic point of view and dark sensibility when given a large-scale budget and the vast resources available to a studio-made film.
Producer Marc Platt comments, “The cinematic experience of Timur’s work and the visual language employed by him are so unique, eye-popping and extraordinary, I knew his was a voice that had to be heard. I had never experienced visual images in that way. I thought by matching him and his ability to create a completely new world with this material, we could create something exciting, experimental and yet accessible for audiences all over the world.”
Bekmambetov’s producing partner, Jim Lemley, adds, “We spent two years getting from the first draft of the script to the shoot. It was important for us to push through a comfort level of what had been seen on film before and come up with ideas - no matter how outlandish they seemed on paper - that could visually blow the audience away.”
Regarding his trust in the director’s unique vision, Lemley concludes, “You could put three people in a room, give them the same camera and ask them to take the same shot. Timur’s image would be amazing.”
Of his thoughts on visual imagery, Bekmambetov remarks, “It is like 100 ideas are going on inside my brain, all fighting to come out. What happens is this makes a new style, maybe something that no one has seen before. I want to put the audience in the action - in the middle - so that they go on a journey with the character, not just sit and watch.”
The director’s mantra seems to be a fantastic realism on each of his projects. He believes there should be a realistic base to every action, every emotion, no matter how outlandish the circumstances. As a director, his attention to detail gives him something on which to focus - a solid way into each scene.
“Making my first film in English is not so different from my other movies,” claims the director. “I just try to communicate with the audience, fall in love with them in a way and make a good movie for them - be a good storyteller for them.”
The director’s approach to filmmaking and skewed tone hardly changed with his move to an American-studio and English-language production. Platt adds, “Bekmambetov brings a very strong sardonic sense to his work, which was very present in all of his previous films. Not in a silly, broad way, but in a dark, comedic way that constantly undercuts the earnestness of the proceedings. It is the irony that he brings to the project, both narratively and visually, that gives Wanted a very unique tone.”
That black humour is also present in the project’s source material, Millar and Jones’ graphic novel of the same name (originally published as a six-issue limited series). More than just acquiring the property that was one of the best-selling independent comic books of the last decade, the filmmakers were also keen on obtaining the blessing of the original creators.
At the time Millar had sold the movie rights to Universal, he and Jones were only up to the second issue. So, while Millar was finishing the series, the studio had almost finished the first draft of the screenplay.
With two parties writing independently, both projects took on separate lives. Millar comments, “I was relaxed about this, because the comic book and movie were two distinct entities. Regardless of what they changed, my book would be untouched. But I was pleased to see them going back again and again to the source material, and once they had my entire book in a complete form, subsequent drafts by other screenwriters incorporated pretty much all of the main material. They dropped the super villain back-story I had in the original book, but everything else works very well.”
Before advancing on separate paths, both the graphic novel and graphically violent screen version of Wanted started in the same place (the first one-third of the screenplay mirrors the first two chapters of the series... but then diverges). The comic writer feels that although the stories take place in very different places, the tone, the characters and basic narrative remain the same in both versions.
Millar observes, “The first 40 minutes of the film are pretty much identical, scene for scene, to the book, and I was pleased with that. This wasn’t the case with the first draft, but once Timur was attached, he really just embraced many of the darker aspects of the material. I thought they might drop some of the slightly more edgy material, but captions, voiceovers, dialogue and entire sequences were lifted straight from the book. I was so pleased to see that. One of my favourite scenes that was transplanted was the opening scene where, suddenly, this guy sees a dot on his head, takes out his guns, jumps out the window and starts chasing after these assassins. It’s beautiful that the way it’s actually shot is almost panel for panel like the comic book.”
Not only was the writer impressed by the filmmakers’ attention to detail, but by how the screenwriters and Bekmambetov expanded upon key scenes from the first two chapters in his series. Says Millar, “There were a few scenes where I only had a couple of panels to play with, because you don’t really have a lot of room in a comic book. Timur and the guys fleshed them out and made them into cool scenes with gigantic chase sequences.” As a nod to die-hard “Wanted” comic aficionados, Millar acknowledges, “There’s all these little ‘Easter eggs’ that fans of the book will be able to pick up on. The second chapter, for example, is called ‘Fuck you,’ and Timur had a little laugh with this by incorporating the words on a computer keyboard flying toward us when the main scene was brought to life in the movie.”
Producer Platt adds, “Mark really embraced Timur. The comic is fantastic and gutsy and it has a real edge to it, and that’s what we wanted to build into our script. We didn’t want to make something run-of-the-mill... We wanted to roll the dice and try for something special. Where the script follows the comic book, we didn’t change a word of it. But, of course, the movie is its own thing. Millar backs it, and that’s important to us as filmmakers.”
Not only was it important for the director to honour the inventiveness of the source material, he intended to respect Wesley’s search for reality in a world of deceit. “This is really a story about truth,” sums Bekmambetov. “Wesley is trying to escape from a world where people lie and find people who tell the truth. Along the way, he finds you can’t do anything about fate, but you can destiny. You choose and you steer your destiny. Something everybody is trying to do.”
Wanted cast pledges the fraternity
Wanted is very much Wesley’s story, and at its outset, he is about as far from a comic book “hero” as you can get. He’s miserable, a doormat for the world - punching the clock until his pitiable day comes to its end... hardly the stuff of a towering, square-jawed, steroid-sized, classic leading man. And yet, the character undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, from pathetic to powerful, embracing his legacy and allowing his inner strength to push aside the weakling.
Bekmambetov explains, “We watch Wesley grow up - he finds his abilities and his intelligence. He starts out as a weak boy who everybody thinks is a loser. That is because he does not believe, and he does not know what is in his genes. Because he is different. He is unique. Once he finds that, he grows. He becomes a man, a killer. And then he starts to see that there are lies in his world. So he has to choose - to go back to believing what is told to him, that’s a fake truth. Or go his own path and find a real truth.”
It took young Scottish actor James McAvoy a while to sink his teeth into the idea of playing Wesley: “I’m not used to seeing someone like myself in these roles. As a movie lover, I do complain frequently that I’m fed up with seeing 6’5” alpha males in these roles. I’m glad they cast someone like me, not in terms of what I can bring to the role as an actor, but more because I’m not an obvious choice.”
Bekmambetov says, “I knew James was a different kind of actor for Wesley, but I wanted a real actor. We needed someone people will identify with.
Somebody who kind of looks like an everybody. Wes changes a lot, on the inside, on the outside. And James can do that - we believe his changes. I wanted somebody to bring humour to the story, because I think it’s impossible to create a believable fantasy world without humour. He is sceptical and ironic - and when he believes, the audience believes.”
Platt comments, “It was essential that we found an actor who was accessible to an audience.” The filmmakers wanted someone “who could exist in a world that was heightened, but who could communicate with enough emotional truth that his reality became our reality. James is very smart about his character, even down to his movements and his action. He wants to know everything about what his character is doing and why he’s doing it, otherwise it’s just not believable for him. Watching the character’s transformation has been a palpable, visceral experience as interpreted through James’ great creative mind and ability.”
Bekmambetov remembers, “Early, we were trying to find some ways to make the change in Wesley, like hair or costume. Then, we had a test in London before shooting. And suddenly, without costume or make-up or anything, James did it himself. Right in front of us. First, he was this silly boy and then, a totally different character, almost like a superman. It was unbelievable. Then we understood that we didn’t have to do anything, that James could do it himself.”
The Scot was drawn not only to the character of Wes and his arc, but also to the world that the Russian director was creating: “I like action movies that don’t take themselves too seriously - I like them when they have fun,” McAvoy provides. “Sometimes, I was quite shocked at what Bekmambetov asked me to do, but generally, it was for the best and elevated the material. He really does think differently than most directors. I think he’s a mad, evil genius and his work is incredibly cool and strange. Even on big, emotional, sincere things, he undercuts it with a very strange angle... which I respond to very well.”
Author Millar found the character of Wes particularly interesting as he transits from geek world to underworld: “The idea of a young, geeky office worker going through this transformation to become the ultimate super-powered killer was really more interesting to me than the big, super villain stuff. I’ve always been interested in secret societies... there’s a romantic notion about a secret society. I like the idea of a super cabal of bad guys who are running the show, and the Fraternity was my version of that. Seeing Morgan Freeman bring this idea to life as the head of the organization was really quite thrilling.”
Like any strong organization, the Fraternity finds unity in and lives by its mission: to preserve balance in the world by eliminating those who are predicted by the Loom of Fate to disturb this balance and to cause harm.
And “Loom of Fate” is not just a metaphor... the Fraternity is, indeed, an ancient fraternity of weavers, whose headquarters contains the enormous Loom that weaves the destiny of those targeted into the fabric it produces - the tapestry’s flaws are translated into a decipherable, binary code. Literally, when someone’s number is up, a member of the Fraternity is dispatched to carry out the subject’s execution. They consider themselves operatives of fate, instruments of destiny.
Per Bekmambetov, “In many world mythologies - in Greece, in Iran, in China, in France, in Russia - weaving has a mystical context. So weaving and deciphering the future are the same business in our movie. It’s a balance between good and evil... or between chaos and an organized world.”
Much as the Fraternity recruits Wesley, filmmakers were choosy when it came time to pick the versatile and talented actors who would comprise the covert society’s membership. The widely ranging characters are an unlikely bunch, each of whom has a specific talent and a unique personality... and yet each also happens to be a lethal assassin.
The head of the Fraternity is the same man who reads the will of the Loom: Sloan. Having already played God twice, it wasn’t a stretch to see Oscar winner Morgan Freeman as the master architect of an ancient society.
Freeman says, “I’ve been in many, many films, and so I’m always looking to find something different to try. As an actor, you don’t want to do the same thing ad nauseam. When I read Wanted, I thought the concept was compelling, and Timur’s a very interesting filmmaker. Combine that with the rest of the cast - and the fact that I haven’t done too many action movies - and I was eager to participate.”
Producer Platt comments, “Morgan, as both a human being and as an actor, possesses such integrity, such a strength of character that I’d believe anything he would tell me. He’s someone you would want to be your father, which in our story is very important for Wesley. There is a strength and force that emanates from Morgan without him even trying. We needed someone who could also articulate the mythology of the Fraternity in such a way that the audience would follow and accept it.”
“As a person, Morgan Freeman is very level-headed and very noble,” says Bekmambetov. “We must believe what he says. He is a businessman, and the head of the Fraternity. He is able to engage Wesley, and so us. That was most important for Sloan.”
“Something that really impressed me,” says Freeman, “is the depth and detail that Timur has provided. There is a whole history of the Fraternity, an actual handbook with their philosophies, their codes, their legacy as weavers, weaponry, abilities, hierarchy - hardly any of which the audience will be privy to, but as actors, and for the crew, it’s a great tool for us to use when we’re building our characters and creating this world. Something like that is a luxury that doesn’t come along all that often when you accept a film role. He just has such a creative mind.”
In the Fraternity, the woman who sits at Sloan’s right-hand is named Fox. There are few actresses who have the strength and skill to believably portray one of the world’s best killers while, at the same time, possessing the talent to inject that assassin with emotional strength, a no-nonsense attitude and an all-encompassing commitment to the Fraternity, its Code and its way of life (which actually revolves around taking life). As far as the filmmakers were concerned, there was only one actress in mind: Angelina Jolie.
Platt reflects, “Fox is an incredibly powerful, strong-minded, singularly willed person who has overcome obstacles in her life to become this great assassin. She becomes Wes’ mentor who watches him, trains him and helps him through the difficulties of accepting and understanding what’s happening to him and the gruelling physical nature of what he has to overcome. Angelina was the dream choice for this role.”
Per producer Lemley: “Fox is stoic. She’s a soldier in search of a cause, and with the Fraternity, she’s found it. The Fraternity has shaped her life and character, and Fox has become a fully formed assassin who takes her job very seriously. And she kicks ass, too.”
Angelina Jolie takes her job of inhabiting her character on screen seriously: “Fox is a believer in the Code,” Jolie offers. “I like the fact that she’s quite flat, in a way; she just believes in getting on with it and doesn’t really show any emotion. However, let’s not get too serious about this film - it’s supposed to be a fun movie, but the idea of assassinating one person to save thousands is very interesting.”
For an actress who throws herself into her work, one of the things that appealed to Jolie was that she had input on her character’s look. She adds, “Fox has binary codes on her arm, which is part of a reading of the fabric from the Loom of Fate. She has ‘know your rights’ in different languages and ‘toil and tears,’ which is from a Churchill speech. It’s things like that that the audience won’t notice or pick up, but giving Fox all these tattoos is symbolic of somebody who lives by a certain code of honour.”
The director says, “We were very lucky - and very happy - to get Angelina. She is just so solid, and such a nonconformist. She’s also a perfectionist, so in everything she does she wants to be the best. She is deep and talented, grounded and specific. She knows, every second, what she wants to do in the scene. Her viewpoint is very strong, and so you have to understand it. We worked with her on her dialogue, and she really helped to make it stronger. When we first met, we talked about her character. From then on, she was always trying to keep everything in line with what we discussed. A very focused actor.”
While on paper, the subject of Wanted sounds dark and dire, Bekmambetov injected his wry and decidedly off-kilter sense of humour into the narrative. Jolie comments, “I like that this film doesn’t take itself too seriously... It’s a little more nutty and has a sense of humour about itself. It doesn’t pretend to be too cool and there is something textured, European and a little funky about it. Timur is a very focused, deep-thinking guy, and it’s cool to see him in the middle of a big Hollywood movie, bringing something to it that is unusual.”
Bekmambetov is quick to point out, “My humour is not dark. It is life that is dark - the humour is just in a dark context. When things are dark, people turn to humour to survive. To keep your mind. In the middle of all this violence, humour helps the characters - and the audience get through.”
A true survivor (and one of the more unusual, ex-officio members of the Fraternity) is Pekwarsky - an expert who fashions ammunition discharged by the fighters’ magnificent array of custom firearms. And such a gun would require more than just over-the-counter bullets. Pekwarsky’s bullets are themselves tiny works of art, emblazoned with intricate designs and ominous messages (like “Goodbye”). These works of art are lethal, called upon to enter a target from a curved trajectory or to stop an adversary’s bullet by ricocheting off and deflecting the oncoming slug.
Esteemed British actor Terence Stamp plays Pekwarsky, and this isn’t Stamp’s first time to work in a motion-picture adaptation of a comic book. He etched a menacing and memorable performance as General Zod in 1978’s Superman and the 1980 sequel. And his earlier film Modesty Blaise was based on a comic strip of the time. So while source material may play into an actor’s choice of project, sometimes word of mouth can also play a part.
Stamp recounts, “I was having dinner with Morgan Freeman, and he said he was working with this great Russian director. And I don’t know if they were considering me at the time or if Morgan said something, but after I got the script and read it, I just really wanted to be a part of it. And he was right about Timur; he’s a really inventive director. He gives us some leeway to work on character. But on the point of direction, he’s very mindful of structure, of emotions, so you can’t get away with just doing anything.”
Pekwarsky isn’t the only member of the Fraternity who is more than meets the eye. The icy Cross’ original role within the organization was to carry out the kill orders given by the Loom of Fate and interpreted by Sloan. But after his betrayal of the Fraternity and attack on Fox and Wesley just seconds after the two have met, Cross proves himself a worthy target of the same company he used to keep. After Wesley’s induction into the Fraternity, his assignment is to dispatch Cross.
Thomas Kretschmann fit perfectly into the role of Cross, even signing on to the project before reading the script. The actor muses, “Cross is touted as the greatest assassin alive. Being German, I’m usually thought of as the bad guy, right? Well, that’s the nature of the beast. My character has to appear as cool, precise and confident, so there’s no drama involved in what I’m doing - in an acting sense. We’re taught to keep acting simple, and I always try to explain anything I can with as few words as possible. In this film, I barely talk at all. It can’t get more simple than that.”
Grammy Award-winning and platinum-selling musical artist Common has made recent inroads into films, with roles in two 2007 actioners that had plenty of firepower (American Gangster and Smokin’ Aces); this perhaps made him a logical choice for the role of The Gunsmith. But like Kretschmann, he was entirely ready to come aboard. Common offers, “For me, coming from a musical background and being cast in a film with James and Morgan and Angelina was unbelievable. When I heard their names, I knew I had to be part of it. Being among these people, these great actors, just being able to watch and learn... it is an invaluable experience.”
In talking about his character, Common offers, “The Gunsmith is a master at weaponry, guns in particular. He knows everything there is to know about guns - how to create them, assembly, new shooting techniques. Despite that, he has a good heart and is incredibly serene and focused.
Weaving the design: a brave new world
In both the comic book and the screenplay of Wanted, the characters move about in a world that, at first glance, resembles ours - but on closer look, that world is tweaked, askew, just this side of real. The characters in it don’t just move, they inhabit it in a powerful, superhuman way.
To help realize this vision, filmmakers turned to a double Oscar-winning production designer, who is quite familiar with creating an on screen version of heightened, “just this side of real” reality: John Myhre.
Myhre offers, “I was seduced by Bekmambetov in about 15 seconds - he’s just one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. It’s so fulfilling to talk to another filmmaker and have them so enthusiastic and so full of good ideas... he’d have 3,000 ideas for everything, and they’d all be great.”
Shooting in Prague
Although the film takes place in Chicago, Prague was chosen as the site of Wanted’s principal photography. Multiple reasons played into the choice. Because of the amount of filming taking place in Chicago at the time production was slated, space was tight. To make up for that shortfall, an inordinate amount of construction would have been necessary to build interiors, and this simply did not make financial sense.
Platt comments, “Although it’s been somewhat of a challenge to shoot a film like Wanted in Prague - to re-create bits of Chicago - it was the best place to film. Shooting space was plentiful, and its proximity to Moscow - where our effects were being done - was a bonus. We simultaneously shot in Prague and completed effects in Moscow. We’d shoot and cut, and then dispatch it to Russia for effects.”
Bekmambetov had worked in Prague for two years before returning to shoot Wanted, so he was exceedingly familiar with the choices of locations available - another benefit. The look of the Chicago interiors/exteriors was to be post-industrial, a mixture of steel beams, rivets, girders and basic solid architecture and brickwork, all of which needed to be combined by Myhre and his team of talented artisans into a homogenous whole. Per locations supervisor MICHAEL SHARP: “We needed a space with a minimum of three stories to house the Loom, but we also needed to shoot as many of the interiors as possible in that one space. We ended up in an old sugar factory that was built in 1914 and closed as a plant in 1956. It had quite a neutral architecture to suit the different stages that the film goes through, but we also had the great depth and adequate space to use it as five different locations, including the magnificent Loom of Fate set. Every piece of floor in the factory was shored up and strengthened underneath, so that we could still play with two-and-a-half tons of equipment and toys to suit the sequences - without having to change the look from the top.”
Reproducing bits of Chicago in a Belle Époque sugar factory provided Myhre with a few challenges: “We did a little shifting and pulled some of the story inside, so we could be smart and economical when it came time to shoot in Chicago. Bekmambetov wanted the film to have a very American feel about it, while also embracing some European sensibilities, which shooting in Prague provided. We were able to synthesize a bit of a hybrid and take the best of all worlds, again, mixing the old with the new, a theme that runs throughout the whole of the movie.”
As Bekmambetov wished to shoot and create effects in short order, it was even more important for the art and visual effects department to stay in sync with constant communication. Visual effects producer JON FARHAT explains, “We really tapped into the talents and resources of John Myhre and we tried to let his designs drive the look for our visual effects, drive the modelling and the creation of our Fraternity, the monastery and the look of all of the interiors.”
The Loom of Fate
As mentioned, one of the most prominent sets in Wanted is the centrepiece Loom of Fate. At its heart, the Loom is a very simple structure, but the threads that it weaves determine the fate and destiny of the citizens of the world.
Bekmambetov and the screenwriters fashioned a mythology as background to the group of assassins and how they function - tapping into global mythologies that contain symbolism and imagery of weaving. In the world of Wanted, centuries before we meet Wes and the Fraternity, weavers of fabric started to decipher a code within their work, messages that spoke to the state of the world. A flaw in the fabric signalled a flaw in the world. Eventually, these flaws became the dictates to the earliest member of the Fraternity. Fate designates that someone must be killed in order for the world to carry on in a balanced way - an assassin is chosen to carry out the order of the Loom, theoretically correcting the path of the world and restoring its balance.
Fabric is woven with perpendicular threads, the weft (vertical) and the warp (horizontal, woven back and forth on a shuttle). The flaws on the Loom’s weave result from a skipped thread - these mistakes are counted and form a binary pattern, which is converted into text, and that text spells out a death order.
Production designer Myhre admits, “I always love learning something new, and the whole world of textile factories and looms was completely new to me. The way that thread is manipulated to create infinite numbers of fabrics is astounding.”
The Loom of Fate plays such a pivotal role in the movie that Myhre co-opted the theme of “weaving,” subtly incorporating it into the overall design: “The idea is that everything is woven together from the very beginning. Wesley’s office is one of those horrible places comprised of lots of little cubicles with woven fabric on the walls. Outside the Fraternity the telephone lines are crisscrossed, like tumbles of spiderwebs. It’s all the way through the film, just in a very unobtrusive way.”
Platt comments, “In the Old Testament, there is a whole system of numerology where words are prescribed numbers and those numbers represent a code. In many ways, the mythology created for this film is no different.”
Production took inspiration from the more than 100 different textile factories within a two-hour ride from the centre of Prague. Field trips were taken to view the looms and study how fabric is manufactured. Looks from different plants were combined and reproduced, and the Loom of Fate is a final amalgam of several of these plants’ looms.
The physical Loom itself was assembled together from rentals and newly constructed pieces, and the combination of black metal, worn wood and spare brass fittings ends up resembling a machine from the turn of the 20th century (appropriate, as the Fraternity’s current headquarters is said to have been built in Chicago at that time). In keeping with the film’s subtle and overall mix of old and new, the art department also added some offbeat, modern touches, such as magnifying glasses around the edges of the Loom to refract light to the tables underneath.
More looms, but on a lesser scale, were incorporated into the design of the Fraternity’s shop floor (in addition to being the group’s headquarters, it is also a producing textile mill). Myhre comments, “The shop floor looms are partially threaded from the ceiling overhead, and they form these huge fantastic shapes - when you put a couple of them together, you start getting a very Gothic-looking arch. It gives the feel of an old church or a castle, and this castle feel is evident in the Chicago Fraternity. The building is fronted by two enormous wooden gates; to enter, you have to drive over a bridge over a small moat.”
Jumping and derailing trains
As Bekmambetov is a believer in augmenting the action with visual effects - not wholly creating action with CG - the special effects team under supervisor DOMINIC TUOHY was interpolated into the Prague/Moscow system of production. Tuohy comments, “Timur looks at and approaches things in a very different way, which is great for a movie like Wanted. I have no idea how he comes up with the things he does, but I hope that we translated them from his vision to the audience.”
Nowhere was this synergistic production effort more needed than in the film’s awesome train sequences. Myhre recalls, “When we initially read the script, there was a parkouring sequence [manoeuvring through city architecture like an obstacle course], but we thought we could ratchet up the action somehow. When we visited Chicago, Bekmambetov looked up at the elevated trains and came up with the idea of trying to do something special on top of the train.”
So, several tops of full-sized “L” trains were constructed on a green-screen stage with the actors doing their own stunts on what, in effect, are ‘real’ trains. Tuohy adds, “This sequence plays a big part in the end of the film, so it was important to link everything together while trying to exploit the practical and physical effects as much as possible.”
To add to the scenes’ pace and heighten the impression of movement, Tuohy designed (in conjunction with the art department and director) the set piece of a bridge that actually travelled over the top of the train set pieces, while the train itself remains stationary. “We moved the bridge with computerized winches, so that we knew exactly where it was and at what speed it was travelling,” supervisor Tuohy says. “By doing that, we gave confidence to the artists doing their own stunts - three meters up in the air - by ensuring that each take would be the same, repetitive move.”
Bekmambetov simplifies, “The train was too big to move, so we moved the bridge instead!”
In addition to the “L” train sequences, the script calls for a breathless chase through a Pendolino (a high-speed train that tilts on the track as it takes bends and turns - much as a motorcycle leans into turns). The sequence reaches its climax with a train car plummeting to the bottom of a deep gorge.
To facilitate this, the Pendolino car was constructed on a gimbal equipped with hydraulics that could not only rotate the set 360°, but also tilt the train to a 32° angle... and all of that could be done within a matter of seconds. During filming, the train car was spun almost as quickly as it would have if plummeting down a gorge. Again, Tuohy: “In the sequence, the train derails itself and, from that point on, we used our train carriage that tilts and rolls to simulate a crash. We actually saw all of the stunt crew inside, rolling around inside this train, as well as our actors, who did every scene themselves. It was rough for the actors and crew, but it makes the scene far more interesting when you actually have real people trapped behind chairs or getting flung around. Our actors said they felt like they were in a tumble dryer, poor guys.”
Costumes and make-up
BAFTA Award-winning FRANCES HANNON was brought onboard to design the hair and make-up for the film. The passage of time and the transformation taking place in Wes needed to be realized on screen - the office drone grows into the sharpened assassin. Hannon explains, “The main challenge I faced was how to take the character of Wesley from A to Z while keeping the changes subtle and believable. He not only changes how he looks, but how he is inside, and we wanted to show that visually, too.”
That transformation didn’t come without its share of bruises... literally. During Wes’ training period, he is subjected to several beatings - something Hannon knows how to show on screen, having worked on several thrillers and action films (including The Da Vinci Code and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: the Cradle of Life). But, as always, these choices were run past someone else first. She clarifies, “I had to discuss things with the director, like where on the face a hit will be, what type of hit it is and how long he wants it to last. I can’t put a big, fat, black eye on an actor if we need to lose it the next day, so I’d maybe put on a small cut that could feasibly heal. Bekmambetov knew exactly what he wanted to see, where he wanted it and when he wanted it, although we often developed ideas on the move.”
Costume designer Varya Avdyushko has previously worked with Bekmambetov on Night Watch and Day Watch and is used to his ever-flowing ideas. She says, “Bekmambetov generates a lot of ideas, sometimes up until two hours or even less before we’re due to shoot a scene. However, because I have worked with him before, I am very used to this way of working. The fountain of ideas he has is very unique.”
Upon receiving the script, Avdyushko broke it down to understand the characters - she created behaviours and habits for them, a detail that she hopes is reflected on screen. Per Avdyushko: “We tried to find a little quirk for every character, particularly the Fraternity. For example, The Butcher, who is a brutal bandit, wears bright yellow sneakers. He wraps them in cellophane to prevent blood from spilling on them. The Gunsmith would never require excess; he’s very neat and precise. He only carries what he needs. The Exterminator deals with rats a lot, so on his belt we have jars and various tools he could use to carry his rats with him.”
The costume designer also experienced a close collaboration with production designer Myhre: “He showed me the colours, textures and symbols he wanted to use in his sets, and we incorporated these into our costumes.”
That creative theme of old and new carried throughout the film is also reflected in the clothes the characters wear. Avdyushko offers, “We used elements in the costumes from places like Mexico and modern-day America, but for small details such as buttons, we utilized antiques. They’re an important part of the character, of who they are and how they live their lives.”
A killer workout
In describing how the members of the Fraternity live their lives, you cannot overemphasize the importance of physical acumen. Their bodies are very much a part of their arsenal. Although the Fraternity of assassins are not superhuman, they do possess certain powers specific to their characters, which even the most regular gym-goer would be hard-pressed to mimic.
That necessitated quite a bit of physical training for the most active among the Fraternity, namely McAvoy and Jolie. McAvoy, in particular, had to do a convincing job of turning his body from that of a couch potato into a sleek, sinewy killer in record time.
Personal fitness trainer GLENN CHAPMAN, hired to ready the normally thin actor for his role as Wesley, explains: “The biggest challenge training McAvoy was the weight gain. I think he weighed around 62kg [137lbs] when we started training in London two months before the shoot, and we got him to 74kg [164lbs] at his heaviest point in Prague. The time we had to train was limited, and he needed bulk, so we did a combination of different types of training - sometimes weights, interval training and training at different speeds.”
Even after signing on, McAvoy was fairly unaware of the physical work ahead of him, and he confesses: “I’d rather eat dog poo than go to the gym. The training was a big change for me - sometimes my trainer pushed me so hard that I was on my knees wanting to be physically sick. He made me eat really, really horrible food at bad times of the day, but it seemed to do the trick. It gave Wes the body he needed.”
There was a dramatic change to McAvoy’s body shape in a short period of time. Although his training program was rigorous and intense, it was never the goal to give Wesley an overly bulky physique. McAvoy says, “We needed to keep Wesley as a character the audience could believe went from a convincing geek with small muscles, through this transformation, to someone who is bulkier... but not so big that you couldn’t hide it.”
McAvoy’s personal training underwent a necessary period of adjustment after he arrived for the shoot in Prague, as the sessions had to adapt around the shooting schedule. Fight training and kickboxing took away from his daily workouts, as he had to concentrate on learning the actual fight scenes for the film. McAvoy observes, “Size doesn’t necessarily equal power a lot of the time. That really helped me in this movie. It doesn’t really matter whether you look big or not; it’s whether you can make that jump or lift yourself with the force and power of your thigh. As soon as we started doing the action sequences and I didn’t have time to do my personal training at the end of the day, I could feel my muscles starting to disappear. My costumes felt a bit bigger on me than they did at the beginning of the shoot.”
For McAvoy, who is in almost every scene of the film, Wanted turned out to be the most physically demanding movie on which he had ever worked. Despite that, he still insisted on doing his own stunts. The stunt co-ordinators found the actor willing to give into the physical work the job required, with McAvoy often stepping in for his stunt double. He reasoned that the audience expects it.
Of his many manoeuvres, there was one that particularly pleased McAvoy: “My favourite stunt was jumping over the “L” train, which I did completely by myself. I had a stunt double, of course, who did the more dangerous things and makes me look incredibly good... but jumping over the bridge was all me and it was incredibly cool to do.”
His tutor would join him in much of the film’s action. “There’s one scene where my character, Fox, gets to beat up Wesley,” says Angelina Jolie. “All of the stunt team kept telling me that James has the qualities of a stuntman when it comes to taking a punch and throwing himself onto the floor - and they were right. He’s really great to work with. It’s always fun to do a scene where you get to jump around and punch people, but you don’t want to hit too hard, especially if you’re wearing brass knuckles. It can be funny or strange or even dangerous, but it really comes down to working with someone as good as McAvoy.”
Unfortunately for Wesley, it’s not only Fox who gets to subject him to a beating... so do fellow Fraternity brothers The Repairman (played by British actor MARC WARREN) and The Butcher (actor DATO BAKHTADZE).
Bakhtadze went through two weeks of harsh, strict stunt training for his knife fight with McAvoy. Bakhtadze says, “I arrived in Prague about two weeks before I was due to shoot, and that wasn’t a great deal of time for the fight co-ordinator to turn me into a killing machine! The stunt team helped me understand how to fight, not just with the weapon, but with emotion. It’s not all about the knife swing or knife swirl; it’s about what makes you want to do that move in the first place.”
Producer Marc Platt adds, “Our actors, all of them, loved doing stunts, particularly McAvoy and Jolie. There was a lot of training for this film, especially with McAvoy, whose character has to literally transform. You’ll be able to tell how much his training paid off in terms of making it a real and exciting experience for the audience.”
Many of the stunts were shot at 150 frames per second, in quite super-slow motion. That meant that there was little for the cast members (stunt crew and others) to hide from the cameras. If a punch landed the wrong way or a fall looked awkward, it would have to be captured intact by Bekmambetov and DP Amundsen. Therefore, rehearsals would need to happen again and again... until each nuance was perfected.
One of Wanted’s signature sequences is a chase in which Fox scoops up Wesley in a red Viper and hurtles across the city to escape Cross’s pursuit via van. At the wheel of the Viper was Jolie as Fox. Stunt co-ordinator MIC RODGERS explains what was necessary to get the correct shots for his director (while Jolie hung on at 30 mph): “We rigged the viper for Angelina to hang off the side of it. She was in a harness, but we still spotted her. The camera was on the back of the Viper, where our camera platform is, and we chased it with the camera bike. Angelina as Fox did a head-on, near miss with an oncoming car, which throws her off to the driver’s side of the Viper. Then she shot the crap out of Cross’ truck.”
For some actors, however, it wasn’t so much the physicality of their roles that became a part of their characters, but their weapons. Supervising armourer RICHARD HOOPER had the task of introducing his guns to their new owners. He says, “We did some extensive training with the actors so they were all familiar with the weapons they used in the film. They were trained in two ways: the usual way in which anyone would use a weapon and in a specialist ‘Fraternity’ way that has evolved over the centuries, which enables the shooter to curve bullets around people and buildings so that they don’t kill anyone by mistake. Each member of the Fraternity has a unique way of firing specific to that character. All of the actors paid good attention to the instruction and safe use of the firearms.”
Thomas Kretschmann says, “The gun training was very tough for me. I was hired quite late in the game, so I was quite nervous about the fact that I didn’t have much time to train. I had no earthly idea how I was supposed to turn myself into the world’s greatest assassin in just one week. I felt like I needed at least six months to prepare. I want it to look good, and I’ll still be nervous about it at the time the movie opens.”
McAvoy was one of the first actors that Hooper had to train: “When we first meet Wesley, he knows nothing about guns, so we had to show a slightly clumsy, awkward and inexperienced character. In various stages of the training room, he starts to get better and better and eventually becomes the No. 1 top assassin.”
Portraying The Gunsmith, Common studied the arsenal of weaponry as part of his preparation. He explains, “I went through a process of learning different things about guns that I wasn’t familiar with. People always think of guns as something evil, but obviously, it’s what a person does with a gun that makes it either bad or good. The Gunsmith uses the gun as an art form and tool to perform the will of the Loom.”
The weaponry employed in Wanted is a combination of the very modern and very ancient - once again, echoing the overall design concept and grounding the story in a solid history. With it, the Fraternity carries centuries of customs, traditions, codes... and arms. There are approximately 200 various types of weaponry used in Wanted. As an ancient organization, the Fraternity has collected weapons throughout time, adopting a practice of adapting and modifying them, rather than replacing them. The process for developing these specialized props was a matter of design, redesign and then continuing with the evolution until they were finalized.
Hooper remarks, “Bekmambetov has a slightly curious view of this group of characters, and he likes to think outside the box. It was quite apparent from an early stage that he had a different take on what these guys could do, and he wanted the guns and knives to reflect that.”
Myhre adds, “Modern guns aren’t at all interesting to me, but Bekmambetov, with his fantastic way of thinking, started considering flintlocks [older gunlocks in which a flint strikes against steel to produce sparks that will ignite the priming on the piece], so we came up with the whole design concept of turning a flintlock into a semiautomatic weapon. We created a visual style and used it to adapt a lot of older weaponry - sort of like illuminating a manuscript. It was such an unusual style that we used it on the contemporary guns as well by carving into their barrels.”
Once the art department started developing these beautiful engravings on the guns, the suggestion was floated to continue the design of the firearm as a tattoo on a hand - so when a Fraternity member picks up his or her weapon, the engraving effectively continues as a tattoo. Hair and make-up designer Hannon says, “It was supposed to be a trademark of all of the Fraternity members, but at the end of the day, it was decided it would be best to keep this beautiful effect for one person... and that person was Fox.”
The paramount concern of any armourer is the safety of the actors and the crew. Not only do the performers have to learn how to use the guns and how to make their use look authentic - but also, they must be operated in a manner that ensures the safety of everyone involved. So it wasn’t just the principal actors who received firearm training, but also the crowd extras. Hooper comments, “We went to great lengths to make sure that every extra was trained for each sequence, each take, each piece of action. They were rehearsed and rehearsed so that everyone knew exactly what it was they had to do.”
So is there any possibility in modernizing ancient weapons or the physics of bending bullets around corners? Hooper laughs, “Oh, we’re just having fun. It’s pure fantasy, I’m afraid, but a bloody good one.”
Lots of shooting: Bekmambetov lenses Wanted
Another major factor in deciding to shoot in Prague was the availability of a panoply of architectural styles (from Beaux Arts to Communist Industrial) that could be utilized as locations. Such an array of structures could potentially offer up production-differing styles for each phase of the film (changing as Wes advances from the “real” world to the Fraternity world).
In addition to the dormant sugar factory, Prague provided such shooting sites as: the famous Strahov Stadium, the largest stadium in the world with seating for 220,000 spectators; Křivoklát Castle, 40km west of the city, begun in the 13th century and reborn several times (now standing thanks to a 19th-century restoration); and other, less distinctive locales (e.g., a disused practice train track, an old wine factory).
One of the most spectacular sequences - the train crash and subsequent tumble of cars into a gorge - was actually filmed in Romania. Locations supervisor Sharp comments, “I’ve researched gorges from Norway to Chile to see which would suit the film best, given the colour and the scale. The colour and the texture of the rock in the gorge and in the tunnel had to be stone specific to Europe. We needed to distinguish where we were to give us a sense of Wesley’s journey, to prove he’s moved on and to make all the other pieces fit.”
In order to anchor the story in Chicago, production moved from Prague (once principal photography had wrapped) to the Windy City, where exterior and action shots were filmed. Lensing with the main unit lasted two weeks, when the majority of the car chase sequences - Wes and Fox in a lightning-fast, red Viper versus police and other cars - were shot (and where production made use of the famous double-decker highway Wacker Drive, shooting on the ground level, or Lower Wacker). Images of Jolie, McAvoy and Kretschmann filming these car scenes were a regular feature on the local nightly news and splashed daily across the Internet.
Regardless of location, however, the view of the Wanted world is the same - usually through the eyes of Wesley. And that meant visually representing his thoughts, his feelings... and one particular problem.
In his former life, Wesley suffers, as many do, from anxiety and insecurity. This manifests itself to such an extreme that his heart races and he undergoes actual physical and physiological changes - he assumes all of this is due to a severe anxiety attack.
But after being reeled into the Fraternity by Fox, Wesley learns that this condition is actually genetic, passed on to him by his father... and it’s not a curse - it’s actually a gift. With his heart wildly beating, his system is flooded with a gargantuan amount of adrenalin, and as his inner world races, the outer world slows to a crawl.
Welcome to Assassin Mode.
This is a trait shared by all in the Fraternity. It enables them to see things more clearly than a normal person. With the world at a snail’s pace, the assassin has more time in which to think, decide and act. While in the mode, the fighter can discern what is happening at any given moment with a jewel cutter’s precision - thus making life-altering decisions with ease and clarity.
The Assassin Mode was a complex notion to try to achieve visually, and Bekmambetov wanted it to work within the Wanted bounds he had established: that every effect needed to have an emotional basis. Ergo, if Wesley was to be in Assassin Mode, the director wanted the audience to be in Assassin Mode as well, not merely looking at it as an observer. And although all Fraternity members have the ability to go into the mode, the audience would only see it from Wes’ point of view.
McAvoy explains, “Within the mythology of the film, the senses of the assassins in the Fraternity become heightened as their hearts pump in excess of 400 beats-per-minute. They’re not supermen and they don’t have superpowers, but they see things faster and clearer - but making a decision that quickly, compared to everyone else around them, might be seen as something superhuman.”
Bekmambetov likes to push his boundaries - so how about defying the laws of physics? Why not? So he and DP Mitchell Amundsen fashioned a shot specific to the Fraternity that enabled them to bend bullets (again, to be augmented with visual effects). McAvoy explains the concept behind the technique: “The Fraternity members can bend bullets because they have non-rifled chambers and barrels in their guns - non-rifled means there’s no interior grooving which causes the bullet to spiral as its fired. So, in our theory, that means that if I swing my wrist like I’m taking a tennis shot, the bullet arrives at your target but in a curved trajectory - not a straight shot. You can bend around objects. Instead of moving to get a target in sight, you just move your arm.”
McAvoy and Bekmambetov spent a lot of time developing the actual on screen physical technique that would “bend bullets.” Their goal was to create an action that looked “cool, but functional... seamless, rather than apparent.” Several crewmembers (from both Team Amundsen and Team Farhat) were also involved in quite a bit of research to create a move that - in both camera effects and visual effects - would look completely possible and completely within the grasp of reality. (Of course, don’t ask a science professor or physics expert about the plausibility of this...)
Jolie comments, “I’m probably the only person that found the bending of bullets the most difficult thing to do in the movie. It’s a little odd to try and talk about it seriously, but when Morgan Freeman’s character is explaining how it works, and because it’s Morgan saying it, you actually start to believe it.”
Ultimately (and fully) dispelling the myth, McAvoy adds, “Oh, come on... It’s all made up, I’m afraid. Kids, don’t try this at home!”
Effects that bend bullets and slow time
Director Bekmambetov finds the idea of “fix it in post” a horrific concept - to him, visual effects are intended to take the shot further than captured in-camera, not to wholly create something that didn’t start on the set.
Bekmambetov explains, “For me, it is the emotion that is important, not really the effect. It may be a little old school, but this is how I get what I need from my actors and crew. I don’t use effects to make up for what is not there. If it’s in the character, in his or her emotions, it will be on the screen.”
Long-time collaborator/editor and second unit director of Wanted, DMITRI KISELEV, has worked with Bekmambetov in Russia for the last 10 years and is only just now starting to understand his friend’s vision. Kiselev describes, “Timur breaks so many rules, but he is always looking for something natural, something real in a shot before he even contemplates using CG to complete it. He will create his visual effects around an existing shot.”
Producer Lemley picks up: “When we were drafting the screenplay and developing the sequences, Bekmambetov would go away to his ‘science lab’ and come back with pre-visual sequences that illustrated exactly how he would shoot and what the focal point of each scene would be. That focus was always specific to the emotions we wanted the characters to convey and the impact those feelings would bring to the visual effects that completed the scene.”
Visual effects producer Farhat adds, “He uses his pre-vis as a tool - he uses it to educate and discuss with those who are trying to capture the action, but he doesn’t cripple people’s visions with it.
“There is no bad idea with Bekmambetov,” Farhat continues. “He knows there is more than one way to do something and he’s very open to ideas, but as experienced as he is, he understands that ideas always need to be fresh.”
The director has his own visual effects house in Moscow, Bazelevs (a production and postproduction/effects facility), which served as a “clearing house” for the effects created for Wanted. While not all of the effects were completed under its roof, Bazelevs maintained an overall watch on all out-of-house work.
Farhat says, “One of the biggest challenges making a film where you’re using multiple facilities is keeping the continuity, the look and the style consistent all across the board. Bazelevs works not only all over Russia, but the world. The visual effects were split up among various facilities - some worked on modelling, others created texturing, others animating and so forth. So Bazelevs created this digital pipeline, a digital asset management system, where they could actually follow the progression of any shot and compare it to the progression of any other shot in a sequence or anywhere else in the movie. The separate houses really acted as one house - a virtual company.”
One effect that stayed under the Bazelevs roof, however, was the creation of computer-generated stunt doubles. Even with Bekmambetov’s insistence on shooting as much of the story as can be captured in the real world, there were certain things (the height of assassin mode and high-risk action sequences such as running on the roofs of moving trains) that could not be filmed - even with the help of the best stunt performers and the most advanced wire works. To complete those scenes, digital stunt doubles were created through cyber-scanning.
Think of cyber-scanning as an enormous 3-D copy machine, which rotates around the actor (for around 15 seconds) and creates a 3-D model of that person. The model is transferred to the computer in a CG mould, which then has to be “rigged” (inserting skeletal and muscular systems and texturing the exterior) and fitted with wardrobe (which has also been scanned). That rig then has to be “taught” to replicate the way the actor - and the actual stunt double - move. The result is a digital double that doesn’t balk at engaging in the most life-threatening stunts imaginable.
In addition to high-end film cameras, Bekmambetov adapted a still technique for use in several sequences, particularly the “L” train chase. The director and cinematographer Amundsen employed a series of six synched 35mm cameras mounted on a special plate that could rotate 180°. The cameras’ lenses angled to capture the horizontal top of the train as it drives through Chicago and overlapped frames to produce a contiguous all-around view. When seamed all together and matched with green-screen shots of the actors, the result is a scene with a cylindrical or spherical texture and a complete 180° view of the non-stop action atop the speeding “L.”
Farhat concludes, “This technique really freed us up a lot. We’ve all seen tiled stills, where you take a series of stills and you match them end-to-end spherically, basically freezing the action and rotating the point-of-view. But in this case, we’re doing it with moving footage. I’d say it was one of the toughest sequences in the show, because we’re basically taking real actors and putting them in a world that doesn’t really exist.”
It might be said that creating a believable world that doesn’t really exist is the specialty of Timur Bekmambetov - although he would be quick to point out that that world might bear a slight resemblance to our own, but just tweaked, skewed and heightened.
Producer Marc Platt offers, “Hopefully, audiences will enjoy the film and be marvellously entertained, but also see something original. They should have a reason to go out to the movies on a Friday night - to experience a thrill ride with great characters all under the very sure and deft hand of a truly visionary filmmaker. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Angelina Jolie comments, “I think what’s really cool is that with James as an action hero - he’s not an obvious action movie star - but with him, it will be nice for people in the audience to actually relate to him... like, ‘If that was me and I was working in my little cubicle and my life sucked, but I had skills and I didn’t know what I was worth... could I do that?’ James surprised me a lot. This movie will be more about Wesley’s story, as opposed to him being some ideal action hero. But James represents the everyman, and that is very, very cool to see.”
But how does the hero everyman feel? James McAvoy muses, “I don’t see myself doing another action movie for awhile. The 14-year-old boy in me was very excited about doing Wanted and I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to play Wesley but, to be bloody honest, I didn’t even have this much pain when I was 14. Maybe that’s why a 14-year-old boy would be keen to do this kind of thing, you know? I really have enjoyed it, though. It was just amazing.”
Timur Bekmambetov closes, “Wanted tells the story of an ordinary man who discovers this very different world... and all along this world was right next to him. Like in your neighbourhood, but only two blocks away, and you never walked that way in all of your life. And one day, you walk differently and you find it. He just didn’t know it was there. And now that he’s there, what will he do?”