Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Even an old action flick veteran like Brendan Fraser (well, he's not really old, but he will be 40 this year) is thoroughly fascinated by the digital technology that has birthed a 21st century version of 3-D filmmaking. Of course, it's no wonder Fraser's enamored of this new technology, since he is the star of "Journey to The Center of The Earth"—the first full-length, live-action feature shot in digital 3D.
That's not to say that the Indianapolis-born actor needs the new variation on the medium to prove he is a hit-maker.
After all, Fraser quarterbacked the first "Mummy" film into a mega-hit that has now become a tentpole franchise with another sequel, "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," coming out later this summer. But even before he had those hits, he had been a comedic star, shepherding along such kid-friendly films as "Encino Man," "Airheads" and "George of The Jungle" into hits. Of course, he has an Oscar-friendly, indie film side, having starred in such critically acclaimed films as "Gods and Monsters" and "The Quiet American" as well.
The saga of making a modern digital 3-D version of Jules Verne's 1864 sci-fi classic "Journey to The Center of The Earth" really began with HDTV camera technology developed by director/producer James Cameron for his own productions. Obviously, it has roots in all the 3-D concepts before it, when shooting a 3-D film was expensive and dependent on special projectors to show the films.
That's why, in recent years, 3-D films have been mostly non-feature length docs shown in IMAX theaters. Once digital technology made it possible to manipulate the final results in computers without needing film, having enough theaters using digital projectors became the primary constraint in releasing digital 3-D movies—until now.
Indie filmmaker Paul Chart ("American Perfekt"), signed to write and direct the film, penned the original script. After the producers decided to shoot in 3-D, Chart left, afraid that it would become something more for a theme park rather than the epic action-adventure he envisioned. Special effects expert Eric Brevig (a visual effects Oscar nominee for "Hook" and "Pearl Harbor") was brought in to direct his first feature, and the script was heavily retooled to emphasize the new format.
Fraser became so passionate about this movie that he offered script revisions and a commitment that led him to become an executive producer on the film as well as its lead—the seismic scientist and maverick adventurer Trevor Anderson. He amply explained all this in a
very recent roundtable session.
Q: With such action film experience, what do you do to prepare for a movie like this 3-D production?
BF: Let me start from the beginning. I got the script. It was based on Verne's classic tale, "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Verne was arguably science fiction's creator. We've seen the film before; it's slightly, as the British say, "daft" [laughs]. I say that with affection. I didn't arch my eyebrow at it, I didn't turn my nose up to it, because I don't know an actor who doesn't like to work.
But the cover letter to the script said that this [version] was going to be shot in 3-D and I was like "What, huh?" I thought 3-D was when you wore red and blue glasses and watched the movie and it made you a little bit queasy after a while and you went home and said, "Why did I spend my money for that? Anyway, let's get back to paying taxes and stuff."
I wasn't sure what the technology held, [but] I was hooked [on the idea of it]. But I hadn't read the book as a teenager in school like I was supposed to [laughs]. So I went to a bookstore got the last copy of an anthology of Verne and thumbed through it as fast as I could. [But there were a few problems with the script I read so] I realized that the answer was right there in the book, like they say, in the world of the film.
Q: So what did you think was the problem?
BF: All you needed to do was flip-flop the relationships [from how they were described in the original book]. The professor has a nephew; he's his research partner. They have this theory, he's slightly mad but they must go and find out [if it is true]. Actual classic mythology has aid that Mt. Sneffels [a volcano with a glacier covering its summit in western Iceland] is a portal to the center of the earth.
Changing the gender of the guide [was also necessary]. I think, depending on who it was published by [in Verne's original "Journey..."], he was like either Hans or Hortz, or something like that. So we had the character become Hannah [Anita Briem]. In this version, you have this misfit trio of oddball characters who aren't going to get along that well. Textbook screenplay writing has it that you bring those people together to see them win and succeed by the end of the story. That's what we had to go for.
I pitched my idea to Eric [Brevig]. I showed up to the meeting with my copy of the book, and the screenplay, and said, "Look, I just read this and the screenplay." I also collect cameras, because I'm a wannabe nerd, and I had with me my stereopticon [a the mid 19th century
projector with two lenses that created the effect of 3-D for stillimages] just to prove that I knew about 3-D too [laughs].
I gave him my ideas that were basically to change the relationships around a little bit. It's all writing. All the set pieces [in the original "Journey..."] were great. I don't know about that, but those can stay in place, those are the big ticket items. But in the end, between you, me, and the tape recorders, we wound up writing it ourselves. Eric later told me he could have kissed me on the lips for it, because it solved all the problems of the challenges they would have been up against with how to get this thing green-lit and going.
I brought everything I had to a studio and talked to Cary [Granat, producer and co-founder of Walden Media], and said "Look, you've got to make me a producer. I put my neck out [laughs] and he said, "Okay I will do it." And I'm like, "Alright what do I do?" They were like, "Well, take it seriously."
A lot of those producer credits go out there to actors and they're kind of vanity titles. It's what you make of it, and in this, I was able to bring the considerable knowledge that I have learned in [the last few years]… At ShoWest [the theatrical exhibitor's trade show] they gave me a film achievement award even though it took me 20 years to get it [laughs].
Q: How has your journey—so to speak—been to this point?
BF: Interesting. I think in many ways I'm just reaching my stride. I feel like I have a lot left to do. I'm excited to see what the future holds, because clearly this movie is the first of its kind in history. Arguably, this movie can be an innovation in cinema technology that is on par with when the moving image was fused with an audio track. People said it will never take, no one will go. Oh well, sorry, it kind of did. And then color film came to the screen, they were like, "Why do you want to see it in color [laughs]." Then television was invented and again they went "We listen to radios."
Then they invented TV dinners and people didn't go to the cinemas anymore. Then someone got an idea and it was like, "I know, 3-D." We've had this bizarre stereoscopic image gimmick around for over a 100 years; then let's put that back in the screen and people will come back to the theaters and we won't go out of business. They did that and people came back; it was a little hokey. But in the end, they learned to just make better movies and people will come.
Oh, there was a gag I hope you got, maybe you didn't, in the movie, for those in the 3-D know. When Trevor opens the box he pulls out this wooden thing and says, "I have no idea what this is" and throws it over his shoulder. It's the stereopticon; it's what people used to put an image in front of and they go like, "Oh cool, the Grand Canyon. Oooh, naughty pictures from France."
I just want you to know that all of these advances have come to a point now, that I've learned so much with visual imagery and working with CGI, it went from 0 to 10 during my career. The 1992 film "Encino Man" [laughs]—go ahead, let it out, just get it out now [laughs]—I assure you, did not have one processed shot in it at all. It was a camera, tripod, a script, and three actors, well, two really, and Pauly Shore [laughs], and me with a squirrel attached to my head. That was it. That was a teen film.
Films like that aren't made for teens any longer. We've advanced so much, technologically speaking. I mention this is because if you think of the number of ways we can receive our media and the platforms on which they are delivered, they are displayed in auditoriums, on canyon walls, and even on your iPod.
What's missing is the magic that happens with the communal experience of being on a stage and telling a story and having people captivated at what you're doing, and they are doing it together. When you go to a movie, there's a barrier, something distancing between you and that experience. The experience of this technology, and this film, being the first of its kind, is important because the star of the film is the experience itself.
So you like the movie, or say you don't like the movie, fair enough... apples and oranges. You kind of can't say you didn't have a good time seeing what I saw. If you do, maybe you have one eye [laughs].
The three dimensions are something that has a "boo" scare to it. Something comes out at you. Thankfully, it's used judicially. The audience feels like we are all in this together, and the better you can have depth of field that just goes on and on and on, depending on how much the studio ponied up for some talented CGI artist to create a background that is just crisp.
Q: So what was your favorite scene?
One of my favorite sequences in the film is the raft sequence, with the storm fish and animals and the creatures are leaping from the water and we are battling them valiantly. During that scene I felt like I could see the curvature of the inner earth of the ocean. There's something poetic about that. I've never seen that before.
Q: What about the people who can't see it in 3-D if they only have 1-D projectors available?
BF: Get on an airplane go to the United States, England, is what I would say. You really want to see the experience of it in 3D. I haven't seen the film as a "Flatee," let's call it [laughs]. [Now I've] coined that phrase first [laughs].
Hopefully the film still works on a standard projection; at the end of the day that's what it's all about. You want people to walk away feeling they had fun, "I just killed two hours, yeah." It's an important industry question that was asked. I don't know if I have the answer.
Between the studios, the theater owners, they are all watching this film to see how it does, because it comes down to conversation; [that is if people talk about it]. The delivery system is reels, technology we've had for a hundred years. Anybody working in the popcorn counter can walk in, flip a switch, and make it go.
Truth is, it's pretty much the same thing with digital—you just press a button. But getting the theater owners to convert from analog to digital is something I want you to ask Eric Brevig about. He could give you a better answer then I can. But the answer is to be decided, to be determined. I had a meeting with Reel D this morning and there are 1,400 theaters in the United States alone.
We made this movie two years ago. It would have been ready last year, but the number of theaters was only half of what we have now. Why come out at a time when there aren't enough screens for people to see the film as it's conceived and shot and created and delivered to them in a way that it really wasn't meant to be? It's like I said before, it's about being there to enjoy it.
Q; What was it like acting in a completely CGI action film?
BF: The quick answer to that is: bruises and ice packs [laughs]. Crapped into a little metal thing on hydraulics attached to something called a gimbal that smashed me around [laughs].
Q: You worked on a few films in Montréal. That was where this was shot?
BF: Well, yeah, I worked there twice. "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was shot at Mel's Studios, a great facility with great crews, motivated and friendly; it's a nice environment. And I shot another movie there called *cough cough* "Mummy 3" [laughs].
Q: Will you take your kids to watch this movie?
BF: They may be a little too young…. One of my favorite things to do is to go see the families and their kids, and see little kids reach out and try to catch a blue bird and then see their dad go "Ahhh!" [laughs] when the dinosaur leaps out at them. See the little kid go, "Yeah!" [laughs]. They love it, you know.
Q: How much of a dream is it to be in a "GI Joe" film?
BF: [A dream] come true. I am a GI Joe.
Q: Who do you play?
BF: I can't say, but it's not Gung Ho… don't believe everything you read on the internet.