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On October 31, 2012, I sat in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia reading an e-mail from the publicist hosting the online press for the set visit to The Wolverine. The last line of the e-mail said everything a Marvel fan could want to hear:
"Be prepared to see ninjas."
That sentence ran through my mind as we traveled to the set in an unusual manner – by boat. The outdoor set of a Japanese village was built outside of Sydney in Homebush in the parking lot of Olympic Park. The fastest way to get there during rush hour was by boat, so that was the preferred means of transport for the crew. We zipped past iconic views of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge before arriving at the set.
We were met with an impressive sight – a small Japanese village covered in ice and snow in the middle of springtime in Australia. From the small streets to the small cars to the authentic signage, everything about the set looked genuinely Japanese. Walking around the set, we discovered that the snow was actually made of fine paper while the small flakes drifting from the sky were a mixture of burned paper ash and foam. The end result was an amazingly real winter setting.
While touring the set, we were able to meet John Bowring, the head of armory for The Wolverine. Even if you don't know who Bowring is, you know his work from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The Matrix and The Thin Red Line. But he may be best known as the man that gave Crocodile Dundee his knife. Yes, THAT knife. Bowring showed us an arsenal of ninja bows, arrows, swords, spears, and more. He revealed that he had at least one weapon recycled from a previous film - a bolo used by the ninjas was originally a weapon used by Trinity in The Matrix in a scene that was eventually cut from the film.
As we continued touring the Ice Village set, we ran into David Leitch, the Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator on the film. Leitch has an impressive filmography as a second unit director, stuntman, and stunt coordinator on films like 300, Fight Club, Daredevil, The Matrix Revolutions, The Bourne Ultimatum, TRON: Legacy and more. He also previously worked with Hugh Jackman on Van Helsing and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Leitch showed us footage from action scenes they had been shooting the previous nights. We saw ninjas on the roofs of the set, ninjas on motorcycles, and in one amazing sequence, a ninja flipping a motorcycle and hitting Wolverine in the face with the rear tire. Leitch told us about how the stunts in The Wolverine are way more grounded than in the previous films.
"There's obviously going to be heightened reality and there's going to be big set pieces, but the way we did the action is way more grounded and way more practical stunts and way more human talent." Leitch continued, "In this sequence with these performers we have great Parkour artists and great free runners, acrobats, great motorcycle riders and we're just shooting real stunts."
The footage continued and we saw Wolverine hit with one poison tipped arrow after another, eventually becoming the iconic pincushion we saw in Frank Miller's comic artwork. Leitch explained that this was, of course, by design.
"We went back to this particular comic for the iconic images, so you're gonna see a lot of those spiced throughout. Tonight you might even catch a few of the images from the Frank Miller stuff, and we're all fans of that. So we want to make sure they were true to that." Of Logan's defeat at the hand of…well, The Hand, Leitch said, "We were shooting it last night and there's some great graphic shots of that. This porcupine shot of him covered in arrows and he's stabbed with samurai swords and any sort of ninja implement you can imagine."
The tour continued and we spoke with Kyle Gardiner, the Australian Stunt Coordinator. He happened to be dressed as one of the many ninjas seen lurking around the set. Gardiner has worked on The Hunger Games, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Expendables 2, Ghost Rider, and more. We asked Kyle if it's a challenge to come up with new ways for Wolverine to fight considering this is his fifth film. Kyle said, "It's kind of nice 'cause it's its own story. It's nice it sort of came with its own action as well. There's a few things we came up with. We wanted to see something different. We've got a young trials bike rider by the name of Jack Field who does some things that are one offs that there's not many people in the world can do. But we managed to incorporate them into the choreography. I think it will be the first time you see some of the things we'll see. It's something a bit different." But who will Wolverine be fighting in the film. Will it include mutants?
"He fights obviously the ninjas. But we also have Hiroyuki Sanada, a famous Japanese action actor. They have quite a few battles which is nice to see. So he fights in human form as well as….let me just say, I guess, non-human. That's probably the safest way to say it. So it's a good element…Yakuza gangs, there's a lot of that. So it's just a nice general crossover. It's not all mutant-mutant. It's a lot of human-mutant interaction. It's something different."
While talking about a movie full of ninjas, you have to bring up the old Saturday Night Live skit "Ninja Pep Talk" where they asked the critical question – why don't they all attack at once? Gardiner answered the age-old question, "The funny thing is we do have that. So they do all attack at once which is, I think it probably helps (Wolverine) in the end." Kyle also confirmed that these Hand ninjas won't be disappearing in a puff of smoke like those in the comics.
As we continued visiting the set through the night, we talked with producer Hutch Parker. Hutch was formerly President of Production at 20th Century Fox during the earlier X-Men films. Now he's out of the studio and on the set with the production side of things and very involved on The Wolverine. We asked Hutch what the key was to making a successful Wolverine movie, to which he responded, "I think at the core of his character is this sort of struggle between his immense humanity and this rage. This kind of unresolvable rage. I think a key piece to me was delving deeper into what is the complexion of that? Not just treating it as an on-off button, but actually try to detail in a way and give it specificity and a life. Reason. Context. Which is part of what makes Jim (Mangold) such a superb filmmaker for it, because he's such an incredibly gifted character-based director and I think his sensibility is all over this. And now that we're most of the way through filming, that is such a godsend for the fulfillment of this piece."
Parker assured us that we'll get to see the Wolverine that we want in terms of action. "It's definitely Wolverine unleashed. It's rawer, much more visceral. In pushing him down further, it means you can expect and will be, I hope, satisfied by how much more of the berserker you see. He's fighting more desperately in this, and I think the challenges he faces, both internal and external, are deeper challenges. And as a result, it provokes a kind of more rageful and berserker Wolverine."
As one of the men formerly in charge at Fox, we had to ask him if it would ever be possible to have a crossover between the X-Men and the Avengers. Hutch said, "I'd like to think so. You know, candidly, it's people whose pay grades are high, and I'm removed from, that will make that decision. But you'd hate to think that that couldn't happen. Greater problems have been solved."
The conversation then drifted to comic writer Mark Millar's new role at 20th Century Fox. "His role really is to, as you know, help to make sure they are taking full advantage of what is a very, very important asset and to see opportunities where others might not. And clearly he will be invaluable to them in that regard although I think when I speak to them now and look at the way they're approaching their franchises and specifically films they've targeted in the X-Men universe, I think they're on a great track. I think bringing Bryan (Singer) back is incredibly exciting. I think Josh (Trank) as a way to reboot and sort of reimagine Fantastic Four is wonderfully creative and inventive. I guess the bottom line for me goes back to stories and storytellers. So as long as they are continuing to commit to top grade storytellers, be that new voices or established, I think the world of this universe is in good hands and they do seem to be making a really concerted effort to do that which is fantastic."
As the night wore on, we returned to the Ice Village set where David Leitch had resumed filming the big battle scene with the ninjas. There we finally saw what we had come to see – Hugh Jackman in action as Wolverine. Seeing him with the iconic claws and hair while surrounded by bloodthirsty ninjas was quite a sight. As my fellow press realized, this was Jackman's sixth time to play Wolverine in a feature film (counting cameos). That's a superhero record when you consider that Christopher Reeve played Superman four times, Robert Downey Jr. played Iron Man five times (don't forget "The Incredible Hulk"), and Samuel L. Jackson played Nick Fury five times (and about to tie for six with Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
In the scene we watched being filmed, Logan hangs onto the top of a snowplow being driven by Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima. As the snowplow races down the street, a dozen angry ninjas chase it while another dozen descend from the village roofs overhead. The snowplow then spins out of control as Wolverine hangs on for dear life. As exciting as it is to be a fly on the wall while watching filming, it is also an undeniably slow and repetitive process. We watched Hugh Jackman hang onto the roof as it spun around again. And again. And again. That being said, the other press and I were happy true believers watching it be filmed.
As filming went into the wee hours of the morning, Jackman noticed the other press and I still standing there. From the top of the snow plow and still trussed up to safety wires, Jackman yelled to us, "You pulled an all-nighter! We need to put you in a ninja suit up on a roof." And while that sounded like a wishful dream, the night before Jackman actually HAD put a Marvel representative in a ninja suit and had him fight in some of the background scenes. The guy from Marvel was understandably very enthusiastic about playing a ninja as anybody would. Jackman looked at me, standing 6 ft 5 inches among the crowd, and said, "You'd be the tallest ninja." I would have been okay with that!
After they finally got the take they wanted on top of the snowplow, the crew began resetting for another shot. As the other online press and I continued to stand on the sidelines, the crew parted and Hugh Jackman started walking up to us. He walked up to me while holding the Wolverine claws and I quietly geeked out. He showed us how they fit on his hands and talked about the design. He held them out to me and said, "Take a look." I looked at them and said, "Yeah, very cool." He said, "No, go ahead and take them." Utterly floored, I took Wolverine's claws from Hugh Jackman. It was like taking Excalibur from King Arthur. I said, "Wow!" He said, "Put them on!" With my mind already blown, I started to put them on my left hand. The three claws are held together by a couple of small metal rods, then in the palm is a plastic base molded to the shape of Jackman's palm. As I put them on my hand, my wedding ring hung up between the claws (a commentary on Wolverine's own personal life?). After getting them on my hand properly, Hugh then started talking about the subtle changes to the claws over the various films. The shape, length, etc. were all different for each movie. He then said, "Let's take a picture!" Taking photos on set is a huge no-no, so for Jackman to offer it was a big deal. As we posed, he noticed that I was a few inches taller than him. He said now Logan would finally look like he was short! He told me to make a Wolverine rage face, but all I could do was helplessly grin like an idiot. I then took the claws off and he took photos with the other online press on our tour.
As we concluded our visit and departed the set, we were wide awake despite being simultaneously jet lagged and having pulled an all nighter. But one thing was very clear – Hugh Jackman and the cast and crew of The Wolverine seem to be on track to make the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for.
The Wolverine opens in 3D and 2D theaters on July 26.
Head to PAGE 2 for an interview with Hugh Jackman.