Walls splinter from the rapid drumming of machinegun fire, white hot explosions wash away weathered terrain, and Paul W.S. Anderson, using his camera in place of a conducting baton, orchestrates the strange, cacophonous symphony with the zeal of a great composer. Anderson, known for his high-volume action sequences, has directed such films as Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator, and this year’s Death Race with Jason Statham. The English born director is, without much question, one of the more articulate and well spoken gentleman to have someone impaled onscreen by a large drill in sometime. In Anderson’s newest film, Death Race, which comes out on DVD and BluRay this Tuesday, the English director shifts into fifth gear and rarely – if ever – pumps the breaks during his entire high-octane opus of man and machine.
Robert Patrick: How did you first become interested in the idea of updating Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000?
Anderson: I loved the movie when I first saw it. There were a couple of things that I became obsessed with after seeing it. Then, when I became a filmmaker, I thought I could do an interesting take on this film. Maybe not a remake, because my movie is very different from Roger’s in subject matter, but a kind of re-imagining of it. I became fascinated with the idea that these cars were built to kill as much as they were built to race. These cars were racing machines, but they were weapons of war, too. And in Roger’s movie, even though the drivers hate each other, the cars never tried to run each other off the road. The cars had machine guns mounted on them, but because they were made out of wood, never fired. So for cost reasons, that aspect of the film was never really realized; nor did it really need to be because Roger’s movie was more of a satirical comedy. But I became fascinated with what would happen if I built these cars for real. I wanted real armored plates and real machine guns so that these cars could go to war. Making a reality out of what could have been was the fascination for me. The other thing was the Death Race itself. In Roger’s movie we’re told that it’s the biggest race in North America. But I wanted to know what the genesis of the sport was; how it really began. That’s where I came up with making a prequel to Roger’s movie. I wanted to show how the race started.
How important was the opening race scene to setting the tone of the film?
It was very important. There were lots of questions about weather we should cut it and start the story with Jason [Statham]’s character discovering the race through his eyes. But I always felt that the beginning of the movie should be a statement of intent. I wanted it to completely grab the audience from the start and kind of immerse them in something. When I was younger, I was heavily influenced by The Road warrior. I remember seeing that in the theatre and being so taken by the film. I felt so pumped up with adrenaline when I left the theatre; it was a real emotional experience for me. I wanted to recreate that experience for a modern day audience. And I felt that the first race was a mission statement telling what the film is about. Also, it was thematically important because it showed that Frankenstein was kind of unstoppable: no matter what you did to him, he always came back for more.
Out of so many seemingly difficult shots, which one, for you, was the most rewarding to complete?
At various points every head of department came up to me and said, “This idea of crushing a seventy-five foot armored truck at sixty-five miles-per-hour, and then having it fly through the air is impossible.” Everyone tried to convince me that we should do it as a miniature. And I insisted that, if possible, we should do it for real. And that’s what we ended up doing. Because it was so expensive to build that thing, we only had enough money for one crash. You can do as much planning as possible, but you really never know what you’re going to get. So it was definitely a kind of heart-in-the-mouth moment when we shot that scene. And then we only shot it one time; that’s what you see in the film. For me, I’m very proud of it. That was a huge technical achievement to crash that thing and have it fly through the air and not hurt anybody. To shoot that for real, and then go back and add all of the digital effects, was also a great thing. All of the guys who were riding on top of the truck would fly like rag dolls. Obviously, they’re not real people or else they’d be dead, but you’d never think they weren’t real when watching it.
The “Death Heads” in the movie were fantastic. Knowing that the race track would be a central character in the movie, what was your first goal in creating the perfect set design for the drivers?
The first thing we had to do was find the locations. It’s not only shooting the scenes themselves that you had to worry about, but you had to have enough room to get the cars up to speed, too. We looked all over America, Canada, and Eastern Europe. We needed an industrial looking location. The best one we found, by far, was in Montreal. The most important part was finding the right environment, and then building upon the location. I think, compared to the rest of my movies, this one had very little construction. Mainly everything was shot on principle location. For example, with Joan Allen’s control room, we put in all of the desks and everything. But, you know, the crumbling ceiling and the crumbling brickwork was all real. And it’s what gives the movie its de-saturated feel. We were very led by these real industrial locations. It gave the movie, I thought, a unique and realistic detail.
Jason Statham has a lot of physically demanding scenes in this film. Being full aware of his powerhouse presence in action roles, was it an easy decision to cast him?
Yeah, absolutely. The movie, in many ways, is a throwback to a 1970s film. I always saw this film as being a movie where Charles Bronson or Steve McQueen would’ve been cast as the leads if this were made in the 1970s. There was a line in the script where it referred to Jason’s character as “McQueen cool and Bronson hard”. I think [Jason] is one of the few actors in Hollywood right now that embodies the 1970s tough guy. Back in the 1970s it wasn’t pretty boy actors pretending to be tough guys; there were just tough guys who happened to be Hollywood actors. So to work with him was a no-brainer, really.
All of the vehicles in your movie had their own unique accessories. Which car, out of all of them in the film, was your favorite creation?
I love the Mustang because it’s such a classic American car. And it was just so damn cool and fun to drive. But, then again, I also liked Tyrese’s truck because it was such a beast. I mean, that really was an armored vehicle. We had five versions of Tyrese’s truck, and at the end of the shoot, the only cars left were all five of his vehicles. The only time we had to take that truck to the shop was when we first built it; because the truck was so heavy, the axel broke. We had to go back and redesign the whole thing.
There is a lot of creative action in Death Race. Out of all the screenings of the film that you’ve been to, what scene gets the biggest reaction?
The movie always plays great with the crowd. The very first scene, where the original Frankenstein gets a rocket in his gas tank and the car blows up and flips over, was the best. After the car rolls over and we cut to black for a moment, a guy stood up in the audience and yelled “I LOVE THIS MOVIE!” at the top of his lungs. The whole audience, after seeing this, started rocking the theatre with their cheering. That, you know, was a great moment. And then, without fail, there is a great scene with Joan Allen where she is really pissed. With every other sequence, we had to spend millions of dollars to get an elaborate reaction. But anytime you get a three-time Oscar nominated film actress to yell “cocksucker”, everyone cheers.
I heard Jason Statham was trained by an ex-Navy seal for your film?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, he was the same guy who trained all of the actors for the movie 300. What he said to me, at one point, was that Jason had more muscles than many of the actors in 300 – even after layers of digital animation had been applied to them. Jason had, by the time we were working on the film, something like six percent body fat. The guy worked so hard; I mean, he was up at four o’clock in the morning working out. And then, when he was done, he would put in a full day of work.
What do you think about author Stephen King naming Death Race in his top ten movies of 2008?
I was so pleased because I am a huge Stephen King fan. There’s a man who works in the genre that I love. He understands the kind of things that I like. I’m obviously very happy that he enjoys my work. Getting kudos from Stephen King means more to me than getting them from critics.
Tell me a little bit about working with Ian McShane.
He is such an icon in Britain. When I was growing up, even before he was known in America, he was huge in the U.K. So to work with him was a really big treat. And certainly as far as my mother was concerned, he was the only star in Death Race. I mean, she had no idea who Jason Statham or Tyrese Gibson were. But Ian McShane? He was the man. He’s just a great guy.
How fun was it for you to write and then film these action scenes?
It was great, great fun. I mean, I would do this for free. I just love it so much. The cars, the machineguns, the action. It was just a dream come true for a lot of guys. Most of the guys on the set had done action films before, but none like this one.