Exclusive: Timur Bekmambetov on Wanted!

Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov became a cult favorite of genre fans when his action-horror films Night Watch and Day Watch were released here in the United States after becoming blockbusters in his native country. Their unique look at an ancient battle between good and evil embellished with some of the most visually-stunning action scenes put on screen left a lasting impression on those who saw the movies, and many wanted to know when Bekmambetov might make an American film in Hollywood, although he did have some past experience working for Roger Corman.

Now he’s back with Wanted, an equally jarring and violent action movie based on the graphic novel of the same name by Mark (“Civil War”) Millar and J.G. (“Final Crisis”) Jones. It’s likely to increase Timur’s fanbase a thousandfold as James McAvoy (Atonement) plays Wesley Gibson, a put-upon office worker whose girlfriend is cheating on him and whom finds freedom when he encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie), a sexy woman who claims that Wesley is the son of the world’s greatest assassin with a legacy to join a secret fraternity of killers with a very specific mission to fulfill.

Superhero Hype! had a chance to talk to Bekmambetov last week, and besides talking about different aspects of his movies, including the special Russian edition of Wanted being made specifically for his hometown fans, Bekmambetov also came clean about the famous YouTube office meltdown clip which clever viewers realized was somehow linked to Bekmambetov’s new movie.

Superhero Hype!: I think most of the people who’ve seen “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” are really blown away by your visuals and action scenes and many had hoped you’d direct an American movie (although you’ve done some before). How did Universal and the producers end up coming to you to direct “Wanted”? Were they just impressed by your other movies as most people were?

Timur Bekmambetov: Yes, the movie was screened for the Los Angeles Film Festival and Universal studio people saw it and they called me right the next morning.

SHH!: Was that before “Day Watch” or after you finished it?

Bekmambetov: It was when “Night Watch” was screened here, but before “Day Watch” was released.

SHH!: The movie diverges from the comic book at a certain point but did you want to go and look at the comic for visual ideas or did you just want to go by the script with what to do?

Bekmambetov: No, no, when it came at first, I read the script. It was produced before I was a part of the process and then I found the comic book and that was very exciting and I figured out what to do.

SHH!: The comic book is very different though. Did you not want to confuse matters by incorporating that into the movie?

Bekmambetov: No, it was different but it wasn’t so different. The comic book was like a bible for me, and every time when I had a problem trying to understand what to do for the movie, I read the comic book again and there were all the answers. It was important for me to protect and to develop the ironic tone of the comic book and to save the unique character of Wesley was important. The mythology was changed because the story with supervillains was good but there are too many iconic characters and I don’t know who had the rights for that.

SHH!: Yeah, there are a lot of comic references that not everyone would get, but I was impressed with the way you captured the tone of Mark Millar’s writing, which is so unique even in the world of comic books.

Bekmambetov: Yes, yes, and it relates to a much broader audience, because the audience of comic books is very narrow, and is not as big as a summer movie.

SHH!: At one point, this wasn’t going to be a summer movie and Universal switched it from a March release after they saw what you had done? Did that help give you more time to do things you wanted to do?

Bekmambetov: Yes, first of all I was happy because it gave me time and second, it gave me a broader audience for the movie. More people can see this movie now.

SHH!: Why do you think that is? Don’t you think it could have found just as big an audience in March?

Bekmambetov: No, I think summer is the best time for this movie. I mean, it’s risky, it’s what I like. It’s crazy to release this movie in June/July because it’s very unusual. I think people spending time with children in theaters sometimes need the freedom to go and see something spicy, something more attractive for them.

SHH!: Obviously, when you went into this, it was always going to be R-rated so there was never any worries about toning things down?

Bekmambetov: No, no, never, never. It was planned from the beginning, like a big entertaining adult movie.

SHH!: When you get a script like this, being such a visual director, do you immediately start working on storyboards and figuring out how you’re going to make certain scenes happen?

Bekmambetov: Yeah, yeah. I storyboarded everything and I even pre-vised… it was a very unique process what we had. We made a pre-visualization, like animatics, of different action scenes, and then the writers incorporated these scenes into the script. It was like backwards but I think it’s a really good process and I think I will use it next time, too, because nobody can imagine these things. I think it helped to make the action so unique, because you cannot write it… if you write it, you’ll look like an idiot. If you try to write these action scenes on script, it’ll look too crazy. It was the only way to engage the studio and everybody, to make it was to create the animatics.

SHH!: I think the writers mentioned this when I spoke to them last year, so is that the first thing you did when you got the job?

Bekmambetov: Yes, yes, to try to create something which is different from describing them on paper.

SHH!: It worked out well, and I remember that this movie “Shoot ‘Em Up,” the filmmaker did it all via animation completely before they even greenlit it.

Bekmambetov: Yes, we used the pre-visualization as a writing tool, a tool to develop the story, not to trap production process, but to develop the story and develop the script.

SHH!: Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, they’re obvious choices because they’ve done roles like these before…

Bekmambetov: No, I’m not sure that Angelina’s played this kind of role. She played in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” but it’s very different… it’s much lighter and just an action movie.

SHH!: James though, he came onto this project back before he’d really been in much of anything and nothing like this movie, so what made you think he could pull off some of those extravagant action scenes?

Bekmambetov: It was very important to have an actor who would be very strange for this role, and then you have a whole two hour movie to explore his character. It was important to have an actor who will be unpredictable for this role, but then the thing was that he was very serious about it, and he was trained and changed the shape of his body and became a superman. There’s a whole story about it. If you would invite some good action actor, you would lose the chance to surprise audiences and it’ll be too predictable. It was a risk that we had to take.

SHH!: I’m not sure what you did with your previous movies but do you generally have your actors do as much of the action as possible?

Bekmambetov: Yes, Konstantine Khabensky in “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” he did a lot himself and James McAvoy, from the beginning, it was his decision to prepare himself to do everything himself. He had a great stunt double, but it was difficult to stop him. He was trying to do everything himself.

SHH!: Is that hard, when you’re doing a movie like this… first of all, you’re shooting in America on the streets of Chicago, with these actors doing these crazy things? How hard was it getting some of these things past the studio? I would have figured they’d be freaking out completely by the thought of it.

Bekmambetov: You know what? I think it’s a stereotype about freaking out studio people. Can you imagine? This movie tells us they’re very brave, very creative and very… just kind of crazy people (chuckles)… and I was surprised, the same way as millions of people who will watch this movie, how different the studio business can be.

SHH!: I agree. I saw this movie and I was blown away by how much could get past the studio process. I don’t want to spoil things but there are so many things in the movie that any other studio would probably nix and say “Oh, you can’t do that” and you did it. So that’s pretty amazing.

Bekmambetov: Yeah, I think everybody will be surprised and maybe the next year will be more fun on the screens.

SHH!: Well, it’s true that most of the really fun action movies are the ones that don’t follow the normal studio formula. I want to talk about some of the big set pieces like the train derailment. I seems like you’re not that big a fan of CG…

Bekmambetov: Oh, no. I’m a big fan of CG. I have my own CG studio.

SHH!: Oh, okay. I know so many action directors try to do things on-set as much as possible.

Bekmambetov: Oh, no, I’m not so snobby. (chuckles)

SHH!: I assume you had a bigger budget than your Russian movies, so did you find that you still had limitations from what you wanted to do or did having more money make a big difference in making the movie you wanted to make?

Bekmambetov: Oh, no. For sure, it was great support to have this money to make the movie, to increase the quality of the CG effects and everything. The same thing what I made in Russia a few years ago, it was like a heroic achievement, but now, I had the best people in the world support me, and I had enough resources and a lot more than half of the movie’s CG shots were made in Russia, the same way as we made “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” using the Russian CG community, but we had great CG supervisors, we had great partners here, like the Framestore Company in England and Hydraulics and Hammerhead in Los Angeles. It was a big international team and a lot of people.

SHH!: In regards to the car chase scenes, I know a lot of the movie you shot in Chicago and I was wondering how hard it was to shoot that stuff in the streets.

Bekmambetov: It was the only way to shoot these car chases. Chicago is a very unique city in the United States. It was fun and important for the tone of the movie and the movie becomes real with these scenes, and I hope it’s a unique car chase. I’m really happy with how we did it.

SHH!: I’ve seen it three or four times now and it always stands up. It’s one of the more memorable car chases.

Bekmambetov: The same thing happened with the other action scenes. It has a sense of humor, it has an ironic tone. It’s fun, but at the same time, there’s character in it.

SHH!: I can’t wait to see the DVD extras on how some of those scenes came together. A couple months back, you mentioned that this was your “Dusk Watch.” Have you changed your mind about that and want to go back and finish the series?

Bekmambetov: I don’t know, I don’t know… it’ll depend what will happen with… I never read a script for “Dusk Watch” and we’ll see what will happen. I’m kind of done with this kind of movies…

SHH!: You mean action movies?

Bekmambetov: Not action movie, but kind of conspiracy theory/action/existential tragedies.

SHH!: You once mentioned that “Dusk Watch” was going to be an American-produced film.

Bekmambetov: Yes, American movie with Konstantin Khabensky as part of the movie. That’s exactly what we have now.

SHH!: But they already have American screenwriters working on a script?

Bekmambetov: I never heard about it.

SHH!: I wasn’t sure because I’d read things elsewhere about it happening, and I was surprised because I thought “Day Watch” ended in a good place.

Bekmambetov: Yes, yes. Me either. (sic) I don’t know what to do or what I can add. I mean, yeah, I think “Wanted” is a good step for me.

POTENTIAL SPOILER COMING…

SHH!: There’s also been talk about them doing a sequel to “Wanted” and I don’t want to spoil things but it seems like that might be difficult, because… well, there aren’t too many people left.

Bekmambetov: No, it’s not unusual. A lot of things can be done, for example we have a recovery room in the movie. (chuckles) Remember, how it can heal in hours not days… yeah, we can heal anybody. (laughs)

…SPOILER OVER

SHH!: I also liked seeing Konstantin as the Repairman. Did you modify the role to him?

Bekmambetov: Yes, yes, of course I was trying to find a role for him from the beginning, because I think he’s a very unique actor and an interesting character and what he did here was very remarkable, and also, there’s a huge Russian audience behind him and that’s good to have.

SHH!: How do you think “Wanted” will play in Russia compared to your previous films?

Bekmambetov: I think it will be huge in Russia. People will like it, because we made a special Russian edition of the movie. The studio supported me to make it, because I think it’s a good case and also one of the unique achievements of this project. There are a lot of foreign directors in Hollywood, and they have to make their own national versions because it’s the way how the Hollywood movies can be culturally adapted and it’s fun maybe even for American people to see the Russian version of the movie, too, because the Russian version of the movie has a different soundtrack, and Danny Elfman, he wrote a song for the movie and because I found that he speaks Russian, he sang the Russian version of the song. Also, there’s a lot of CG shots made uniquely for the Russia and the adaptation of the movie, the translation, was made by Sergei Lukyanenko, who wrote “Night Watch” and “Day Watch.” In this case, it’s quite a unique original movie and James McAvoy—remember the last scene in the movie?—in the Russian version, he made a separate take and said his line in Russian.

SHH!: I know the Russian movie market has been expanding but now that you’re working in Hollywood, do you still see yourself going back there specifically for that market?

Bekmambetov: I will do both. I think it’s still fun to do Russian movies. I feel I have to do here more movies, but for me, it’s fun to go back and do something cool in Russia. I released a movie in Russia this winter, right before “Wanted,” I directed and produced a movie called “Irony of Fate.” It’s a romantic Christmas comedy and nobody expected it from me in Russia, this movie, because everybody knows me as a vampire/scary action director and I made a romantic comedy and it had a $55 million box office in Russia.

SHH!: I think I heard about this movie, so is it the same thing where they’ll try to import it into the U.S.?

Bekmambetov: No, no, it’s very Russian. It’s a sequel of this famous Russian romantic Christmas comedy from the ’70s. It’s impossible to understand here.

SHH!: I understand that you’re also producing an animated movie with Tim Burton. Is that using your CG team in Russia?

Bekmambetov: No, it can be used but they were busy on “Wanted” but we are just co-producing creatively with Tim Burton and Jim Lumley for Focus, and it’ll be released soon or next year, and I think it’ll be very surprising for the audience because it’s the first dark romantic 3D animation…

SHH!: Is it a family-type movie or more of one for grown-ups?

Bekmambetov: No, no… it’s from 12 (year olds), it’s for family. It’s just a little bit smarter than other cartoons, smarter and more dramatic.

SHH!: Before we finish up, I want to ask about this famous “office meltdown” video that popped up on YouTube. Was that something you decided to do on your own or was that something you worked with Universal to create as a gag?

Bekmambetov: Yeah, it’s part of the Russian promo campaign I made especially for “Wanted.” No, Universal wasn’t involved. We made it as part of the Russian promo campaign and we shot this piece as a… it was made-up and we put it on the internet as a new type of promotion, much more effective than billboards and trailers, because 5 million people downloaded it in the United States, but we didn’t plan that. We made it especially for Russia, and in Russia, the two biggest channels, like Russian CNN and NBC, they didn’t understand it was made-up and put it on the news.

SHH!: I think most people didn’t realize it was done for the movie and thought it was some really funny YouTube video.

Bekmambetov: Yeah, because I think this is the future of filmmaking, the internet, because it’s an interesting angle, because people are sharing the things. You cannot sell them or control them. You have to do something interesting and then they will distribute it themselves.

SHH!: I can definitely see a new wave of filmmakers coming from YouTube so it’s ironic that here, you’re an established filmmaker doing something that ends up only on YouTube.

Bekmambetov: Yes, and also it was very good for me because I understood how touchable (relatable) was the subject of the movie. It’s not because it was so popular, so many downloads and people sharing, it’s not just because we made it, it’s because the subject of the movie is so touchable. It’s so important for the audience, people sitting in the cubicles for 8 hours a day all their life. They really want to break this cage and now with this movie, it’s a way to break the cage inside you.

SHH!: You sound like you have some experience working a 9-to-5 office job. Did you ever have to work in a cubicle?

Bekmambetov: Everybody… you and me, we’re working in offices, it’s our life. Also, it’s my friends, it’s my family, it’s people who are behind and around me, I really care about them. I think it’s the most touchable subject, and it’ll be more and more… it’s dangerous for society. People need this.

SHH!: I agree. I’m sure that’s part of why “The Office” continues to be so popular. Anyway, it’s great talking to you, Timur, and best of luck with the movie!

Wanted opens everywhere on Friday, June 27. Look for video interviews with the cast and more fun stuff next week!

Source: Edward Douglas