A Talk with Sylvain White
By Jack Giroux
DVD Talk: Big congrats on the film, Mr. White. I saw it last night and really enjoyed it.
Sylvain White: Oh, cool. Thank you, I appreciate it.
DVD Talk: I expected it to be fun, but I actually ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. I've been used to dumb fun for a while and I'd say this is more than that.
Sylvain White: Nice, man. I really appreciate that (laughs). I was trying really hard to elevate it. That's cool, I'm glad you liked it. I'm really excited. I got the premiere tonight and it's the first time I'm going to see it with a really packed theater. I'm really excited about it.
DVD Talk: I had a packed screening and every action and comedy beat seemed to hit the mark.
Sylvain White: That's cool. Yeah, that's kind of what got me going on this project from the beginning. I loved the combination of the action and the comedy.
DVD Talk: You get that tone perfectly too.
Sylvain White: Thank you, it wasn't always easy to find the right level. I was still working on the tone deeply even in editing. Just to find the right balance with all the characters, the right amount of jokes, and how to weave in the action.
DVD Talk: That's actually a question I have, how do you balance that tonally? It's a tricky having a scene with people getting killed and yet still having jokes actually work.
Sylvain White: Yeah, also the agenda was to make it a PG-13 movie and I still wanted you to feel the action.
DVD Talk: It doesn't feel watered down.
Sylvain White: That's right. That's something comic book fans always ask, "why is it PG-13?" I actually really didn't have to hold back that much. The rules are pretty loose unless you're splattering blood across the lens you don't really need it. I felt that's been kind of gimmicky lately so I didn't want to go there. You know, there's no rule really. That was the thing I liked the most in the comic book: the tone. That sort of balance. I just tried to replicate it in the movie as much as possible and trying to find that right balance. How I did it, it's a whole bag of tricks.
DVD Talk: It's pretty funny though how you can show someone getting thrown into a jet engine and yet still be able to get a PG-13.
Sylvain White: (laughs) That's right, but you don't see blood. If you watch The Lord of the Rings people get decapitated onscreen, but because the blood is black and not actually human it's PG-13 (laughs). It's pretty interesting. In this movie, I was concerned initially about it. We had a really big ex-navy seal expert and I asked him about the blood squibs, but he said when you're in the field you don't even notice the blood. They take the hit and fall down. It's really dry and sad. He said I was doing myself a service by not doing all the blood, because it's much more realistic and the movie would feel more realistic as a result. I just went for that. I ended up not having to sensor myself on anything.
DVD Talk: I'd like to jump into how things seemed to change for you after Stomp the Yard, you really started to get offered all these big genre projects. Obviously with The Losers, Ronin, and also Castlevania.
Sylvain White: Those were the projects that I wanted to do. After Stomp the Yard it was the first time in my career, I'm still young and new, but it was where I got to choose what I wanted. Even Stomp the Yard was where the studio came to me and it was going to be my first film. I took the opportunity to do it, but it wasn't like I was dying to make a dance movie. I found a way of making it what it should be. After Stomp, the funny thing about Stomp was after that I got offered every dance movie in town (laughs). Everything you can think of. Whatever you can think of with The Footloose remake to whatever (laughs). I had to really put the word out there with my agents that I didn't want to do anymore dance movies. These are the movies I'm interested in. I am a fanboy. I totally grew up playing video games, reading comic books, and a video game fanatic is probably the best way to describe myself. That's the kind of movies that I like and that's what I went after.
DVD Talk: With the comic, from what I've read it's a pretty clear commentary on what was going on post-911. Did you not want to go that route since that theme is a bit outdated and overused now?
Sylvain White: Correct. I also felt that the movie needed to be just pure fun. I didn't want to politicize it. In fact, the opening mission they do in the movie is from the second volume which took place in Afghanistan. I changed it to Bolivia. That was a change I made particularly because people are not going to see this movie wanting to be reminded of the war. They just wanna go and have fun. They wanna watch these fun characters. That was very intentional.
DVD Talk: For the action, you do a good job of still keeping it routed in reality. Big stuff happens, but it's mostly restrained.
Sylvain White: Yeah, that was something I really went for. I felt that was apart of the unique feel of the movie. A lot of action films out there have great action that's realistic and also cool. My favorite series is probably the Bourne series. That's a series I love. The thing that movie and even some of the Bond films are that they take themselves very seriously and are dark. In this case, it was trying to pair that with the comedy. With the action, we wanted it to be somewhat realistic. I really tried to follow the guidance of some of my military experts and the way I was shooting it I applied some of the techniques I use when I'm playing video games (laughs). Like the first person shooters.
DVD Talk: It doesn't feel like you're watching a video game though.
Sylvain White: Yeah, that was something I was trying to do. I wanted to give it that aesthetic as a motif, but I didn't want to do what they did in Doom and stuff. That stuff that's a little too retarded and on-the-nose. I wanted to have a feel for it, but I didn't want it to come off as a video game shot. I just wanted it to feel immersive like a video game does. With the action, it was about making it realistic or as realistic as much as this world would allow it. It was fun because basically the limits the movie applies to in the comic book world is relatively loose. You can still go and have fun with the action, but still feel realistic. At the same time, if this action took place in a Bourne movie it wouldn't work. Since we're in this comic book world it's actually functioning. Again, I have a guy flying off a motorcycle and going into a jet engine but I just thought of it as an accident (laughs). You can get around things like that depending from what angle you're coming from.
DVD Talk: The one aspect I actually found really surprising during the action scenes was just how competent they were as a team. You see these films like G.I. Joe where they say they're the best of the best. But when you see them actually in action, they're terrible. Were you surprised when you got the script that they actually came off as a believable team?
Sylvain White: Yeah, I liked that about them. From the beginning where you actually see them as soldiers they're super competent. They're a tight unit and they are the best at what they do. They're only sent out on special missions. They're completely competent. At the same time, they have fun while they're navigating through the action. I think it all starts with Columbus Short's lines in the beginning about having to take down all those guys. They've been through that before. I think that tone and humor just works with the action. I'll give credit to the source for that. You'll see as you go through the graphic novels that it's really there. I'll also give credit to the screenplay writer James Vanderbilt. He was really able to translate the tone into the script. I was able to make it breathe in the movie, but it was right on the page.
DVD Talk: Now, I'm sure you've heard how great Jason Patric is in the film but I loved how he seemed to be parodying the conventional idea of a super villain.
Sylvain White: Oh, absolutely. I tried to do this as subtlety as I could, but I think the whole movie is basically winking at itself. It's a Joel Silver production, but it's kind of winking at all those eighties movies. It's following the same time, but it's also very self-aware. I mean, the bomb is in the shape of an egg and it's called a snuke. It's almost a little ridiculous, but that's what it's about. That's the comment of the movie. It's not just making fun of it, but it's making you laugh with it. Tonally, that was very difficult to accomplish. I wanted to not hit people over-the-head with it.
DVD Talk: When you knew how hilarious Jason Patric was going to be, was that when you decided not to just show Max in shadows?
Sylvain White: Oh, yeah. That was something we knew we couldn't... Actually, in the comic he does come out of the shadows. In the first volume you don't seem him. You do see him at one point. This was really a goal for the whole movie, but I really wanted to cast against type. I didn't want to cast this movie commercially. The script itself already felt really commercial to me and I thought we didn't have to cast the usual suspects. The most commercial actor I cast is probably Chris Evans just because he did The Fantastic Four. I cast him completely against the type. He plays the dork. The fanboy with a gun. It was the same with Jason Patric. I wanted to cast some guy who's never played a villain in a commercial movie before. I needed a really good and strong character actor. He came up on the top of the list. I saw this independent movie he did with Maria Bello called Downloading Nancy which was really amazing actor work. He's really a genius. He could've done a bunch of commercial bubble gum movies and made a lot of money, but he's a very serious actor and he takes his craft very seriously. I was fortunate that he wanted to do this movie. I felt, just like you pointed out, that he could be this smart eccentric villain while also aware of the genre. Poking fun. He's a very cynical guy and has a great sense of sarcasm. He saw that and he just got it.
DVD Talk: I know you said you didn't have any problems with the MPAA, but will we still see an Unrated cut on DVD?
Sylvain White: Not really. I didn't really censor myself with the action and the violence. It was more tonally what I was going for. The cool thing that'll be on the DVD is more of a hidden scene...
DVD Talk: I know that one scene was cut out. Was there more?
Sylvain White: There's just one scene.
DVD Talk: Can you say what it is?
Sylvain White: I cant (laughs). Unless you already know what it is... I'll say this, it was a scene that was taken straight out of the first comic book and it actually reveals that one of the characters is still alive. I'll just say that. Anybody who's read the comic book will know. We'll have that scene on the DVD, we'll have a really cool gag reel, an explanation on how we approached the action, and it'll have the usual making of stuff. Every scene that was in the screenplay that I shot is in the movie.
DVD Talk: I'd imagine since you weren't on too big of a budget you'd have to shoot this conservatively with only getting what you really need.
Sylvain White: Yeah, that's right. We shot the movie in like 50 days which is ridiculous for an action film. We were really on a tight schedule. We had to go lean and I needed to know exactly what was going to be needed in the movie. I couldn't shoot a bunch of extra stuff. I cant say what the budget was on this movie, but it wasn't like Watchmen or Avatar. It was a low budget action film that ended up looking like a big budget film. It's a good thing.
DVD Talk: Now, how did you approach being faithful to the comic? A film like Watchmen really just plays for the fanboys with its faithfulness. How did you approach being faithful while also making it your own? From what I've read, you've really stayed true to that cynical tone.
Sylvain White: Well, I identified what I liked about the comic book the most. I certainly wasn't interested in replicating frames, but I wanted to use the format to create something fresh and new. There's definitely things from the comic like the brilliant use of primary and secondary colors. Every so often when you turn a page you'll get these really big wide page shots.
DVD Talk: You actually play with colors really well in the film.
DVD Talk: Yeah, that's really what I'm doing. I'm just narrowing the color pallet of the comic book which is very graphic and sometimes on page it only has three colors. I tried to mirror that, but at the same time, I didn't want people to watch it feeling as if they're just watching a comic book frame. I think at the end of the movie people feel as if they watched a comic book, but it wasn't intrusive to their viewing. It's more of something that you leave with. All those things were something that I thought really carefully about when it came to doing an adaptation and being a fanboy myself. I hate it when there's bad adaptations of comic books and even worse video games. It's really frustrating. I thought if I was going to do it I was really going to try to do it right.
DVD Talk: I think that's the key of doing an adaptation right. I'm a big fan of Watchmen, but what Zack Snyder did really only played towards fanboys.
Sylvain White: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. I mean, I loved that comic book. As a movie, I loved it because of that, but narratively it was a little hard to follow. That was weird since I was so familiar with the story and the comic book. You don't know if it's going to function as a movie. That's why I was really trying to capture the essence of what I liked about the comic book and made the comic book unique. I wanted to replicate and illustrate that in the movie, but not necessarily go frame for frame. There's one scene where I almost go frame for frame because it was done so well in the original graphic. It's the scene where the character Jensen shoots with his fingers. It's such a classic scene from the comic book and I tried to stay close to how that was boarded. Everything else, I mostly just looked at the colors.
DVD Talk: Have you actually seen the Director's Cut of Watchmen?
Sylvain White: No, but I heard it's much better.
DVD Talk: It flows a lot better. It's great.
Sylvain White: It's much longer, right? I've heard it's very good though. I'm eager to check it out.
DVD Talk: It is longer and it doesn't have that episodic feel to it. It's a big improvemant.
Sylvain White: Yeah, that's good to know. I love the way Zack shoots. His imagery is quite striking and beautiful. I'm always looking forward to his movies.
DVD Talk: Speaking of imagery, I thought the opening and closing credits were really well done. Can you talk about crafting those?
Sylvain White: Well, it was actually relatively simple. We just went back to the original art of the comic book and all of that art is original art. I didn't want it to be new art, I wanted it to be from the graphic novel. We just assembled it together and made it work. Jock, the artist, was an active participant in the design of those as well as the characters cards we did. The main title card is an image from graphic novel. I really wanted him to be apart of it. He's such an amazing designer and artist. Why not just use the real artist? (laughs) It was fun to do that and I was glad that the studio approved and went for that.
DVD Talk: You needed to convince them on something like that? It's done so well I'd imagine they'd just go for it immediately.
Sylvain White: Yeah, you don't always know if they're going to get it. When you first see the finished product I can see how you'd understand it's cool, but when you try to pitch it as an idea people could have the cheesy version in their mind. With a freeze frame and comic book frame, they could easily imagine it being like the end of a CHiPS episode. It could've been an immediate no. It's a little bit of give and take, but here the studio in general was very supportive of my vision and the casting choices. This sort of being my first big mainstream action film I was sort of surprised. I was wondering if they were really going to listen and they totally did. Warner Brothers, Joel Silver, and Akiva Goldsman were very supportive and gave me the opportunity to cast the movie the way I wanted. They made the calls to make sure I got the actors I wanted. I was surprised about the process. You never know. It was my first time working with them and it was a really good experience.
DVD Talk: I really think you get what makes for a faithful adaptation and how to approach a comic book property. From a studio standpoint though, are they more interested in being very faithful for the diehard fans? Or bringing someone in to making it their own thing?
Sylvain White: Well, I think it depends on the property. I know on this particular project I came in kind of guns blazing with a clear idea of what I wanted. I thought maybe they were interviewing people with more credits and experience than me, but I don't know. I just went in there pitching not what I think they wanted, but just really what I wanted. I told myself I had nothing to lose. I went in there and they completely bought into my ideas. In fact, I cant really say there was much of a process there.
DVD Talk: I was curious about that because I remember when Watchmen came out and didn't do that great, there were rumors that Warner Brothers was going to reconsider how they handle comic book properties.
Sylvain White: I didn't know about that specifically, but maybe that was just an experience they had. I mean, they also did The Dark Knight which over performed. The Dark Knight and Batman Begins performed really well... I think it depends. I don't think there's any real stigma yet about those movies. Unfortunately, there's a real stigma about video game adaptations. A few have been bad and that's unfortunate. I hate that stigma, because being a gamer myself I know there's such great properties and also original ideas in video games. It's just the way the dice rolls and just with how the chips have fallen there hasn't been that many great game adaptations, but that doesn't mean there cant be.
DVD Talk: Well, you had Castlevania right?
Sylvain White: Yeah, I was so disappointed when that fell apart. I was literally a month away from pre-production when the WGA strike hit. That was really unfortunate and I think that... I've been an avid fan of those games since the eighties and I think the mythology those games have is so cool and original. It would set itself apart from its story alone.
DVD Talk: Was it the strike that killed it? Could that come back?
Sylvain White: Well, the problem was that the strike hit at that time when the division at Universal that the movie was under Rogue Pictures folded. What happened was that they sold the rights to... I cant remember how all of those things happened, but the rights basically got turned over to someone else. I know they're still out there and interested in doing a movie out of it. There's a huge fan base for it, so why not? I would certainly love to do it if it came back around.
DVD Talk: You're obviously attached to a few projects and is it one of those things where you wanna tie yourself to a few things just in case one of them doesn't happen?
Sylvain White: You don't want to attach yourself to too many projects, but I try to find things that I like out there on the marketplace. I would never attach myself to more than four or five projects. You cant develop that many. Well, at least I cant (laughs). If you look up Spielberg he's got like 40 projects. As a young director, I attach myself to about four or five projects. Yes, you do have to take that into account because you never really know what movies are going to actually happen. I learned that on Castlevania where I thought that was a "go" movie and then suddenly, because of outside of circumstances, the movie didn't happen. It's good to have a few projects in development, because you never know what's going to happen.
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