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Interview by Scott Essman
The director of The Chronicles of Riddick, David Twohy, became noted for directing sci-fi, fantasy and horror films such as Grand Tour: Disaster in Time, The Arrival, Pitch Black, and Below and writing such films as The Fugitive and Waterworld. In this exclusive interview, he discusses the many challenges and intricacies of directing a sequel, in this case, Riddick, the follow-up to the popular Pitch Black. Riddick arrives as a Universal Studios Home Entertainment DVD release on November 16, 2004.
Q: What led you to cast Vin in the first Pitch Black? What did you see in him?
A: It went kind of like this: somebody handed me his photograph. And he looked kind of exotic. I didn’t know what race he was. That’s cool for Riddick, mysterious. He had the big guns going. He looked prison-buffed at the time. And so I remember looking at his 8 X 10 and I said “He’s got a great look. Let’s read this guy.” And he came in and read, and he was a little reluctant to read when he read. And I was not terribly impressed with his read. I was about to let it go. But Ted Field, one of our exec producers said, “You know, you should see his films, films that he wrote, directed and acted in while he was in New York.” And that’s where he was much more at ease, and much more natural and much more fluid. And I started to think “Well, this guy maybe has something after all.” And I asked Vin in to read another time after that, maybe twice more after that. I had him read with some of the actresses who were up for Fry, the Radha Mitchell role. And I began to see a marked improvement the more comfortable he was in the room, the more comfortable he was in the role. His gift is not in doing auditions, in doing cold reads with new material that’s just been put in his hands. His gift is in thinking about it, in living with it, in being-getting free of the lines. And so I came very close to just cutting him loose early one and saying “This ain’t gonna happen.” But somebody urged me to stick with it, work with him, and then I saw sort of Riddick emerging, and that was that.
Q: Interesting. When it came time to do the sequel, how involved was he? I saw his name as a producer. How integral was he in getting the film made and in deciding what direction it was going to go?
A: Well, very integral, because as often-as much as not, he’s the guy who came to me and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s do this.” The time may be right. Pitch Black was doing very well in DVD. He’d had success of Fast and Furious and XXX under his belt, so his star was on the rise, and he knew that he could help move the process along. So together we urged the studio to do it. So he was instrumental in launching the project. And then while I’m clearly the writer of the piece, I think Vin is entitled to co-author of the Riddick character at this point. In the first movie, I’m just asking him to step into a role, and we do the normal things, and we have the normal discussions that a director and an actor have on a set. In this one, since he’s helping me launch the film, he becomes co-author on the Riddick role, and that, obviously the pivotal role in the movie. About where he can go, what the possibilities are. So we have longer and deeper conversations-we had longer and deeper conversations in Riddick as opposed to Pitch Black.
Q: Do you think he’ll forever be identified with this character? Do you think it’s made that big of an impression on the fans?
A: He thinks so. I know that when he goes down the street, as often as not, they’ll stop and call out “Riddick!”
Q: Do you feel like you’ve created a character that lives beyond just the limits of the screen?
A: Yeah. In some ways I do, and I think Vin feels the same way too.
Q: Now that Vin Diesel’s a big star, was it tougher to work with him in terms of personality, and schedule?
A: Yeah, in some ways yes, some ways no. In some ways he is a much bigger star now, and there’s more people around him, there’s more people whispering in his ear. But that said, you know, once we were filming, and doing the work, it was just like it was five years earlier, which was like director, actor, working it, going deeper, doing the deep tissue work on the character to make it as good as we could. So, in that way, he was just like he used to be.
Q: What is Riddick’s full name?
A: It’s Richard B. Riddick.
Q: What’s the B for?
A: We don’t know yet. We have not defined what the B stands for. But maybe we’ll have a contest and figure it out.
Q: Do you have a sense of who your Riddick fans are and what they are and why they are?
A: I think I do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was wrong. Because just about the time that I try to define them and try to put my finger on it, somebody else will come by, you know? A middle-aged woman who I wouldn’t expect to be a Riddick fan at all. And she’ll say, “I love the film. I love the theology in it” for instance, or something else like that. So just about the time I’m ready to define those guys, they define definition on me. So I would be cautious about trying to fit them in a hole. I don’t like to be pegged, and probably neither do they.
Q: How do you envision the cinematic future of the Riddick character?
A: Well, we do know where the characters are going from here. There was some talk of a trilogy early on, and that may have got out of hand. Because it’s not like we were ready to shoot three movies back to back. We never imagined we were Lord of the Rings like that. But if we go ahead with further adventures, we know where we’re going. That’s what we’re saying. And the actors on the set knew where they were going from here.
Q: First Pitch Black and this film defined certain worlds. What, beyond these worlds, could you do with the character, do you think?
A: Well, if we are fortunate enough to proceed from here, then I think logically we pursue-we do a lot of talk about the underverse in this movie, right? And this is for good reason. That would be a major venue in the next movie, should we get to do another movie, right And I’m quick to point out that the whole point of it was that this-the underverse is this collision of heaven and hell, this necromonger afterlife. If you can believe what they say-anybody who has adopted the faith will rise again in the underverse. So those are the things that we’re exploring for the next movie, if we get the chance for it.
Q: Have you started writing anything yet?
A: The way I work is that I never set a start date for a writing project-if I’m writing for myself anyway-I just start making notes. Just thoughts. Interesting bits of dialogue. Cool scenes that I could do. And I just do a large note file. And then when dialogue starts emerging from that, sections of dialogue, do I move it over into a screen writing format and start. So I try to fool myself, because starting a new project, starting a new screenplay is such a daunting task that you have to sometimes fool yourself into starting it. So I do have that large note file about where we go next should we need to go there. But it really hasn’t been formally written yet.
Q: What is the challenge in following a low budget hit like Pitch Black with a big budget sequel?
A: Well, there’s just more of everything. There are more visual effects shots. We had 200 visual effects shots in Pitch Black. There’s 800 or 850 now. There’s not just one crew that does everything, my personal crew. There’s a second unit crew that shoots a lot of the action. They were with me for 70 days. There’s a third unit crew, which is like the visual effects crew. They’re shooting a lot of green screen, so it’s more management, and making sure that those guys know what you want. So on any given day, I’ll have a monitor from the second unit on the set and I’ll have a monitor from the visual effects unit piped into my monitors on the first unit set, so I can watch what everyone else is doing and get them on the walkie-talkie if they’re not lining up a shot right. So it’s just more of everything. It’s just managing that was a new challenge on Riddick.
Q: How is Riddick different from other sci-fi films, especially Pitch Black?
A: Well, at the heart of it, Pitch Black is an unexpectedly good character film. You have characters that actually arc. And they change over the course of a science fiction film. And science fiction always doesn’t knock that up. They tend to deal more in icons, right? So if we are really invested in our characters, we should be able to follow them wherever they go. And that’s this movie. Now if you aren’t pitting Riddick against monsters, you’ve got to pit him against some other form of overpowering force and that’s where the necromongers came in. It’s one man against this vast legion whose credo is “Submit or die”, you know? “Join us or die.” And so yeah, we knew very early on that we were going to be doing something very different, that some of the Pitch Black fans would go along for the ride, but we, creatively, both Vin Diesel and I felt we wanted to expand and try different things.
Q: Why did you choose to follow up a successful horror film with a sequel that is more of an action blockbuster than a horror flick?
A: Because we’re more interested in character than creatures. I think both Vin and I felt that we were too limited by the horror genre, and we wanted to bust out with the Riddick character and follow him rather than the creatures. You know, if we wanted to do the expected thing, we could have gone back to the same planet and played it all over again with more monsters. That’s probably what the expectation was. So we knew that was the expectation, and we decided to run in the other direction, and that said, call the Riddick character to wherever he goes.
Q: Is science fiction your favorite genre?
A: No, it’s not. It just happens to be the genre in which I started to taste some success, and so now everybody comes to me with more science fiction. I like it, but not to the exclusion of everything else out there that I want to do. I keep doing it because they keep approaching me to do it. You know, once you become good at something, they like to keep you in that slot. But I like all genres. Remember that I wrote the straight action with Fugitive, and I liked that. So there are many other things I want to do.
Q: Such as?
A: Generally you want to do whatever you’re not currently filming, you know. So if I’m filming a science fiction thing, and I’m tearing my hair out over the visual effects and how they aren’t coming together right or something. And there’s something that’s like a little character drama, you know? Set on a beach somewhere. Two, three people. That appeals to you. So whatever you aren’t doing is what you want to do as a director!
Q: How do you qualify your fascination with the anti-hero?
A: Well, they’re just more interesting, aren’t they, than heroes? They’re deeper. They’re more complex. They have secrets. They have a darkness inside. So there’s just a lot more to explore inside an anti-hero. And I think it’s more life-like. How many true heroes do you know in life? But I know a lot of people who have heroic tendencies, but they’re tempered and mixed up with all these other darker things happening inside of them. So it’s more real, and more interesting, and strangely enough, there aren’t that many good anti-heroes. Riddick is one of them – falls in that pantheon of semi-heroes, anti-heroes.
Q: Do you feel any responsibility to the genre when you’re working in it?
A: Maybe it’s a responsibility to my own intelligence, but I do resist efforts to dumb down movies. And in doing Riddick and doing it for a PG-13 audience, there was some of that. Let’s make it palatable to everyone. And doing that to everyone can result in an inherent dumbing down. You can leave no potential viewer unturned in that quest. So aside from the concessions that a PG-13 film forces you to do, that we sort of now address in the unrated version, no, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job to make smart films. And I have to remind people that “Look, just because you’re doing a genre film doesn’t mean it can’t be smart. Just because you’re doing a genre film doesn’t mean that you can’t have characters that evolve.” Is science fiction likes to present us with iconic figures and just leave it there. But with Pitch Black, those characters are evolving. You see Riddick growing in Pitch Black. So those are the good things that you introduce to science fiction films.
Q: What is next for David Twohy as a director?
A: I just finished writing a Jumanji-like fantasy. Has a fictional kid at the lead, very contemporary kid, modern-day times, who runs smack into some classic mythological gods and mayhem ensues. So it’s kind of like Jumanji and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s like a fun fantasy with visual effects, so that’s what I’ll be doing next.
DT photos by Gilbert Frazee
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