Interview: 'Riddick' Writer/Director David Twohy on Budgets & Sci-Fi
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2013
Rule the Dark. One of my all-time personal favorite sci-fi movies is Pitch Black, our first introduction to the character Richard B. Riddick, as played by Vin Diesel. I love everything about it and consider it one of few nearly perfect action sci-fi films. It was made independently back in 2001 for only $22 million. Jump ahead 12 years to 2013 and the next sequel titled Riddick is about to hit theaters, taking us on another adventure with the Furyan badass with eyes that see in the dark. I chatted with writer & director David Twohy, the filmmaker behind Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick and Riddick, about making the movies and using CGI.
Actor Vin Diesel is a fully credited producer on Riddick, along with Ted Field and Samantha Vincent. The latest Riddick (watch the final trailer) is designed much closer to Pitch Black in its story, set entirely on one planet that Riddick is stuck on. It's another badass sci-fi action movie that builds as it continues on, ending with some satisfying action set pieces. My focus in the interview with David Twohy was discussing budgets, production, the balance of CGI and sets, and pulling off this kind of visually unique sci-fi genre movie on an independent scale. Without further ado, here's our chat about making Riddick (conducted over the phone).
I'm a big sci-fi guy. And I also want to say I'm a huge Pitch Black fan. It's been a defining sci-fi movie for me for as long as it's been out.
David Twohy: Well how cool is that? I get it on both ends, by the way. I get those people who say, "Ah, man, Pitch Black is awesome." Then I get the others who say, "Ah, Pitch Black is just this little movie…" But, Chronicles, I like the bigger, brawnier Chronicles [of Riddick]. But I get it from both ends. It seems to be kind of polarizing.
Are you happy and excited to be back in the Riddick world again?
David: Of course we are. Yeah, there's no doubt about it.
Was it harder to make Pitch Black back in 2001 or was it harder to make Riddick in 2012? Which was the bigger challenge?
David: Yea… I haven't been asked that before, and that's always good. I'll tell you what. Pitch Black was harder to actually shoot. And then, Riddick was harder to get launched.
David: Harder for the original Pitch Black because we were shooting in the Australian outback. I didn't have any weather cover. We got rained on days when I'm trying to do this hot, arid world. Every night it rains. And we're out on what they called the Moon Plains in the Australian outback. We just couldn't move, and the trucks were stalling out. And I was slipping behind on production. Two weeks into the shoot, I was one week behind on my shoots. So it was a much tougher shoot. And I'm a newer director, too. So I couldn't move as fast as I currently can move.
Now, fast forward to Riddick, getting it off the ground was even harder than Pitch Black. I don't know if you are aware of this, but we started pre-production up in Montreal in the fall of, I want to say, 2011. Then we got shut down just because this is an independent movie. Vin's company is producing it. The lawyers have to get all the paperwork signed so that you can close the bonds; so you can close the bank loan. For some reason, somebody didn't file some paperwork somewhere. That didn't happen. And suddenly we couldn't pay our bills because we didn't have the bank loan. We got shut out of the studios. The doors were locked and our laptops were on the wrong side of the door. Everybody was "just let me have my laptop back!"
And so we basically got booted out of Montreal for two to three months, only to get our paperwork together, come back into town and start it at a new facility in Montreal in the spring of 2012, I guess. So that was how we did it. Once we got shooting it went fast because Vin and I have that good shorthand now. We know what we're thinking. And we just go about our business. We shot it fast. Shot it in 48 days, which is faster than any of the other two. It took 65 [days] to shoot Pitch Black, 85 to shoot Chronicles. So 48 is a speedy shoot.
How much of it is in studio/on set this time compared to Pitch Black? It seems like, at least from what I saw, a lot of it was on a set but I'm not exactly sure. I couldn't tell half the time.
David: Pitch Black was probably shot 35% outside and 65% on stage. Chronicles was a 100% stage show and this one was 100% stage shot. Now, originally, that wasn't the plan. Originally it was going to be in the Pitch Black mold. I was going to shoot some of it outside, 25% of it outside, then do the rest on stage. Suddenly, ohh Canadian Winter. Snow everywhere. So we just had to fall back on stage and make it work somehow.
I remember hearing about there being two scripts developed originally, was that actually the case? What were the differences?
David: No. There was only one script.
Oh, well I guess I was confused. I heard there was an R-rated version and a PG-13 version. Is that something that you shot differently?
David: No. Even if we're uncertain what the rating will be, and we were sure at the time we'd be R, even if we're uncertain then I'm just shooting balls to the walls anyway and figuring all that stuff out in the editing room. So there'd be no difference in terms of how I would shoot the movie.
What are the biggest struggles with a budget on this kind of movie? Is it more about how much you need to dedicate to the CG side or is it more about the practical side?
David: It's really more about… Well, let's see. Our budget in this case, it's closer to Pitch Black than not. Pitch Black was $22 million. Chronicles was probably $105. And this is a lot closer to Pitch Black than Chronicles. So your money is spread pretty thin. Because I had to suddenly take it all on stage at the last minute that probably means I've got another 100-125 visual effects shots I didn't count on or didn't budget for, meaning I've got to fill in more green screens with extensions.
So that kind of chews up your budget. And then after all that's said and done, you wind up with 850 visual effects shots. And those guys just want to get paid, so that's where the money goes. Actually, you see online people saying, "Ah, there's just too much CG in the movie for me." Well, CG is what allows you to knock down a studio wall and put a landscape in there that stretches for miles and miles, or to bring a big huge storm down upon you at just the right time. It's all those things. And it's 3D character animation, of which we have a lot.
So you use it as a tool. And, actually, CG will save you money at times. It's like - build a spaceship and then try to land it on stage like Ridley [Scott] did in Blade Runner, or… Do we just create that in the computer and work on it ’till it looks right?
Yeah - that's why I ask, because it's about the balance of knowing when to use CGI in the right ways and when to balance it with practical/real as much as possible.
David: Yeah. Those are the things you learn after doing six or seven movies like I have now.
I like the main creatures that everyone is up against in this. How did the design process go? Were they designed in tandem with the script because you had to know how they're going to interact? Or was that something that came about while you're preparing to shoot?
David: This was a little odd because the hero baddie creature, we call them Mud Demons in our production circles. Nobody calls them that in the movie. Those were actually designed by Patrick Tatopoulos, who was my creature designer on Pitch Black and who is now a production designer of note. And Patrick actually designed that for me last movie, Chronicles, and we never got around to using it. But I still liked the design. I said, well, I'm going to start to build. I'm going to start working with some properties and I'm going to start to write the scenes based on this one image that Patrick did for me. So that came oddly pre-designed, that creature.
And then when it came to jackals, Patrick gave us some early sketches, and those were refined by other artists, because a pet jackal in the story that he finds is a puppy. At first he was using it as a tool to help inoculate himself against these Mud Demons. But then the puppy grows on him and grows literally and figuratively on him. And it becomes his companion on this world. So, at that point it went through a series of design evolutions, including with the creature house up in Montreal who did the CG work. But yeah, you are still building some fabricated pieces, not animatronics, that try to emulate life by blinking. But if Riddick has to, in a close-up, touch the animal's hide and run his fingers through it, then certainly that will be a build piece you can physically touch. But anytime it's the full grown jackal, or you need a face along with Riddick running and jumping, forget it. It's CG now.
With the main creatures, I noticed that their movement and their stinger tail was important in regards to the physical movements and interaction with the cast. It was an interesting balance of the character in terms of how it can attack.
David: Those are the properties we gave it. We talked about it. We made sure Vin understands it and then we sort of choreograph it together in our heads. And then we refine the choreography in post-production.
In reality, there's a big sequence in the movie where Riddick and Boss Johns are blasting and hacking there way through a hoard of these monsters. In reality, what I did was I got some stands, C-stands, or little tripods, actually, and then I just started… on the whole set I just mounted zucchini on them, like big zucchini. They were oversized zucchini, almost like big eggplants. And I just mounted these zucchinis all over these stands. And I just said: "Okay - there's number one, there's number two, there's number three, there's number four. Go at it boys." And it was the funniest thing to see Vin hack his way through a field full of zucchini.
You need to put that on the DVD, the raw footage version of that scene.
David: You know, we should, we should. It's pretty humorous.
With Vin Diesel as a producer and the embodiment of the character of Riddick, is it a challenge for you to still direct him and get the performance that you, as the director and storyteller, want to get?
David: The lesson on this movie… The answer is no, because by the time you get on the set he wants to be a good actor. He wants to get the best out of the scene, of course. Like all actors do. No. He still wants to be directed, even though he's a producer of the movie.
How much say does he really have in that process? Does he come back and look at the monitors and say, "I'd rather do this?" Or that still 100% you?
David: He doesn't look at the monitor too much. He will during the stunt sequences to see how he looked and how he arched his back and to make sure he got the right pose that he was thinking about in his head. But in terms of the performances, no. He's not back there a lot. That's what I'm there for and that's what he gives to me.
Of course. I'm just making sure, because you never know on these kinds of movies with someone that gets too much control over it and, essentially, they are directing their own self in a way. Not that I saw that happen in Riddick, but I wanted to ask you about it.
David: No, it doesn't… I know that happens in some cases, and I can name the actors right now, but I won't. But no, Vin trusts me by now. And we are co-conspirators on this project. So there's a level of trust. When I tell him I've got it he's comfortable with that.
Speaking of Vin, I have to ask about the contact lenses for the eyes this time. How often were contacts used? There were so many shots, and close-ups of the eyes, that I kept thinking "is this CGI? or are these contacts?" Is it something you guys have perfected at this point?
David: In Pitch Black we used contacts for certain medium shots. Long shots it didn't matter. Medium shots we got away with some contact lenses. But in all the close-ups it had to be CG. Sometimes we struggled with them. But you don't need contact lenses anymore. They were supposed to be early on tracking markers for his eyes. So you don't them anymore, but Vin insisted on having them anyway because it's kind of a rite of passage with him to put them in. He would put them in on special days, like maybe the first time that Karl Urban showed up on the set. In special moments, he'll actually go to the length of putting in the mirrored contact lenses, knowing that we're going to paint over them, knowing that we're just going to CG right over them. But he wants to do it for him and the actor he's playing against.
That's interesting. There was a shot, near the end, that was a straight up close-up of his eyes and I could still sense all of his emotions and his thoughts and yet I couldn't figure out if his eyes were CG or contact lenses or what.
David: Yeah, all the eye shots, we call them eye-sight shots, and they are all… none of them are contacts for this movie and they are all CG.
Now that you've returned to this world again, and hopefully it does well, do you want to stay in sci-fi and explore more of the Riddick mythology in the future?
David: I think we do… I don't want to make back-to-back Riddick movies, but neither does Vin. Nor do I want to wait eight or nine years between Riddick movies [laughs] because I don't want Vin to be playing this when he's my age. So I'll probably do one other movie first and then come back and we'll pick it up and do another. I imagine there's probably two more movies in the franchise.
As a big Riddick fan since the early days, that's what I want to see, exploring more worlds. I love that this one is set entirely on a different planet and we can spend the entire time there without worrying about anything else.
David: Yeah, yeah. That's cool.
Well, thank you for your time. I appreciate it. And good luck with your opening.
David: Alright, Alex. Go spread the word for us.
David Twohy's Riddick hits theaters everywhere this weekend - starting September 6th. The sci-fi sequel is rated R for strong violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Catch it in theaters then Sound Off.