As hard as it may be to believe, there were superheroes even before there were comic books and one of the heroes of the pulp magazines that preceded comics was Solomon Kane, Robert E. Howard’s 17th Century Puritan who fought evil from Europe to the wilds of Africa in the pages of Weird Tales.
It took a long time until Kane would appear in comics when Marvel published his adventures during the ’70s and ’80s and then in 2006, Dark Horse tried to revive the character for a number of series. Around that same time, Michael J. Bassett and the producers of Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill teamed up to make a movie based on one of Kane’s early adventures. Playing the role of Kane was James Purefoy, the classically-trained British theater actor who has since appeared in adventure films like Ironclad and John Carter, another ’20s literary figure that took a long time to come to the screen.
In this incarnation, we see Kane as a former pirate who faces evil incarnate during an adventure that kills all his men, and one year later, he’s trying to get redemption by laying low and traveling with a Puritan family in the British countryside. When the family is slaughtered by a group of Raiders and their daughter Meredith taken hostage, Kane takes up his swords to save her and take down the masked Overlord who has been terrorizing the country.
Back in July at Comic-Con International in San Diego, SuperHeroHype sat down with Bassett (on the right) and Purefoy and experienced quite a bit of déjà vu, since we actually had spoken to both of them about the movie three years prior when the movie first debuted in a Hall H presentation. This year they were just there to show the movie, which is finally going to be seen theatrically on these shores starting Friday.
SuperHeroHype: I’m guessing you must have spoken to other people this weekend who also spoke to you here three years ago.
Michael J. Bassett: It’s fine. You can develop relationships with people in these three years bursts.
SHH: It’s funny because I remember seeing the movie at Toronto and I had the interview from Comic-Con a few months earlier and thought, “Oh, I’ll just hold it for release…”
James Purefoy: (laughs) Waiting and waiting…
Bassett: Really. It’s very frustrating but deeply satisfying that they’ve finally seen the light.
SHH: Have you had a chance to rewatch the movie since you made it?
Bassett: We screened it the other night. I snuck back in and watched from the sides and I found myself getting involved in my own movie again which is really nice and having the sort of perspective from a few years away from it. Because it’s done its journey around the rest of the world and I know how people respond to it now – the good and the bad and the things we didn’t get quite right and the things we really smashed out of the park. I’m having a slightly more mature way of watching it then I maybe did when we first delivered it to the world. It’s taken its time to get here but I think we’ve found a good distribution company who kind of understands how to find that particular audience. These heroic fantasy movies, they’re a tough sell, and the failure of “Conan” and that kind of hope that we could return to heroic fantasy movies. Hm… it wasn’t there. “Game of Thrones” I think is opening a lot of doors.
SHH: That’s true. How about yourself, James? Have you watched it back recently to see your performance from three years ago? I have to say Solomon Kane is a great character…
Purefoy: Fantastic character. It’s a really rich and interesting character that I long to revisit. I haven’t actually watched it. I watched the last ten minutes, and yes, obviously there are things you want to go, “Ugh.. I wish I hadn’t done that…” I’m not good at watching myself. I get very hyper-critical, and I start wanting to leave the room because I can’t bear watching it anymore, but that’s just me and my own insecurities and paranoia. It’s actually nothing to do with the material.
Bassett: He doesn’t need to be insecure because his performance in the middle of the movie is absolutely fantastic.
SHH: Watching it again more recently, I completely forgot that you have Max von Sydow, you have the late Pete Postlethwaite… there’s really an amazing cast in the movie.
Bassett: It’s a quality movie. It’s very well put together. The art direction is fantastic, the talent behind the camera is really good and I started watching it again and a pristine 35mm print was really gratifying. The weird thing is that normally America leads the world when movies get released but it’s kind of just coming a little bit later now.
SHH: That’s changing now because I think the studios are realizing how many more people there are in the rest of the world who want to see movies than here.
Bassett: There seems to be a nervousness in America about picking things up. They want to see how it’s going to do elsewhere before they actually put their money where their mouth is.
SHH: Let’s go back to Robert E. Howard’s material and when you were first writing this–I don’t know if you remember that long ago–what were some of the inspirations from the book that you wanted to bring to the movie?
Bassett: Obviously, I grew up on ’80s fantasy movies, reading the stories of Michael Moorcock and those guys, the pulp fantasy adventures. Robert E. Howard I read. When I heard they were doing a movie of it, I wanted to meet the producers and say, “Look, I can do this. I understand what the character is. I want to make a serious-minded fantasy adventure,” and they were very much in agreement in that. What we sort of decided amongst us that it’s probably not a good idea to go straight into the short stories themselves, because Kane is a tough character. He’s difficult to understand. He does need a little bit of explanation, and given an ample opportunity to go on a full journey as well rather than saying, “This character is fully formed, this is what you’re playing…let’s find out who he is.” So the idea, once I went through the short stories again and I looked for little hints of ideas and clues that Howard had dropped in about who this man might have been. Oddly enough, his own short stories conflict with each other a little bit, but I took this notion that he’d been a bad man, a privateer, in some way, and thought, “Okay, we can start with this man who ultimately loathes himself, has a dark secret—we can reveal that—and by the end of the story, he becomes the Kane we know and love from the short stories.”
Purefoy: Certainly as an actor that’s what you really look for, somebody who has got a journey, that you start as one man and ends up as somebody else by the end of the movie and that’s really satisfying to play.
SHH: Did you want to try to read some of the books as well?
Purefoy: Yeah, I read everything that Robert E. Howard had written. We were steeped in the mythology of Howard by the time we started.
Bassett: The other thing is that people call Kane a comic book character and he’s not at all. He’s a literary figure. You can call him what you like but he wasn’t a graphic novel and lots of people even here.
Purefoy: A lot of journalists who talk to us immediately ask about what it takes from this graphic novel and it’s like, “No, it wasn’t a graphic novel.”
Bassett: In a weird way that sort of informs the kind of movie it is because it’s a classic movie. It’s not a comic book movie.
Purefoy: It’s shot classically in a way that will not age. I think there are a lot of movies nowadays that you’ll watch—“Underworld,” let’s say—and you all know exactly when that was made.
Bassett: I think “300” is going to betray itself in a few year’s time.
Purefoy: Whereas this is a very classically shot film in my mind, and it has a very classic structure to it and the camera work is very classical in a way and it won’t age that much.
SHH: I was curious about the look of Solomon Kane – maybe you both could talk about that. They’ve had a comic book since then but in this movie, you have him in a couple different looks, which is interesting.
Bassett: Well, we’ve got a bunch. Obviously, the classic thing is the slouched hat, which is described in the books. His buccaneer pirate captain look at the beginning, I actually adore that, because John Bloomsfield is our costume designer, who did Milius’ “Conan” and dressed Max von Sydow in that movie, so we went to the very best in this kind of designs. But ultimately, you’re trying to get the character to end up looking like the audience expects him to look, for those familiar with the Kane look. The one thing we obviously banged into was “Van Helsing” a little bit because Van Helsing took the Solomon Kane look and applied that, but Kane owns that look so you couldn’t sidestep it. The journey is there both visually.
Purefoy: It’s such an irritant, isn’t it? When people go, “Oh, he just looks like Van Helsing.” And you’re like, “Hang on, no. This is how he looks in the books written in the 1920s.” We can’t change the look of the guy just because of this other movie.
Bassett: Of course, he’s a hugely influential character and partly, in a weird way, John Carter of Mars suffers the same thing. It’s influenced so much that it doesn’t seem original when you actually do the original.
Purefoy: Which is the terrible tragedy for those films.
SHH: It is a similar thing because it’s taken just as long to even get a Solomon Kane movie made. What about his physicality? Some of the stuff you do in this movie… and you went from this to “Ironclad” and then “John Carter” where you used some of that but a lot of the physicality came from this movie.
Purefoy: Yeah I had done a lot of swordfighting before I came to this anyway. I think they might have needed somebody who wasn’t a stranger to those weapons anyway. I’d done so much theater and so much Royal Shakespeare Company stuff, nearly every single Royal Shakespeare play has a sword fight in it somewhere. I’d done all those fights—”Hamlet,” “Lear,”—I’d done the Edgar/Edmund, I’d done the Richmond/Richard, I’d done them all. I’d done all those fights already every night on stage, but this had its own massive challenges, because often you’re fighting multiple people. The bridge fight at the beginning of the movie is a very long complex fight. I think he fights 17 or 18 guys, so they’re all trying to remember three or four moves, which means you’re trying to remember 50 or 60 moves in a single take.
SHH: So you ended up doing a lot of your own sword fighting?
Purefoy: I think I did all of my own.
Bassett: Or easily 95%.
Purefoy: I think there might be the odd raiding shot in the way distance but that’s pretty much it.
Bassett: You’ll notice that the camera is very close to him most of the time when he’s doing the fighting because he knows how to do it, and you want to be inside the action.
Purefoy: And also, you know, these fights, they were shot in not-very-short takes. They were shot in total every single time, so they were often shot in long, long takes right from the beginning of the fight all the way through, which is kind of unusual I now realize, having done a number of these movies. I now realize that it’s very strict conditions that you ought to do them under which is that you do the whole lot.
SHH: I watch a lot of martial arts movies and there’s a lot of cutting in there and that’s with guys who spend their lives training in the martial arts.
Purefoy: Yeah, yeah, they’re doing like ten second takes. We were able to play all of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” over the top as we were doing those fights, especially that big first fight.
Bassett: That’s right.
SHH: Did you literally play Motorhead while on set?
Bassett: We did. We had “The Ace of Spades” going full volume in the studio. The only thing is that the days we were doing that everybody would get so excited. It really changed the energy in the room like you wouldn’t believe and in the middle of the sword fights, it’s palpable from the takes where Motorhead isn’t going at full volume to when it is. The ones with the music driving it…
Purefoy: …were very, very revved up.
SHH: That’s amazing. You went for a very classic score instead of doing something more contemporary like having rock or metal music.
Bassett: No, because I think it would betray the very classic nature of the material and that measured classical approach to how we’re going to put the film together. In temp scores we probably tried to see if we could make it more current or modern for the kids but that’s not what this movie is. This movie is a proper piece of classical storytelling.
Purefoy: It’s horrible when they do that. They did that with the trailer for “Ironclad,” they put a whole load of guitars on it. It was disgusting.
SHH: That does date a movie when you put a specific song over it…
Purefoy: Because it immediately makes it naff.
SHH: But Motorhead never gets old or dies. So obviously you’re doing “Silent Hill” next so is that all done?
Bassett: Yeah, it’s done and ready for release. It comes out Halloween. So “Kane” comes out four weeks before “Silent Hill” comes out.
Purefoy: Well, good. Maybe that will jolt it to a place where we can start making #2.
Bassett: Yeah, but that was a 3D experience which is a very different kind of filmmaking.
Purefoy: Did you shoot it in 3D with 3D cameras?
Bassett: Yes, absolutely.
Bassett: It was a learning curve and it’s a giant pain in the ass.
Purefoy: Is it?
Bassett: Because they’re big unwieldy slow things and changing lenses takes 15 minutes, but it’s better than post-coverting 3D which is horrendous.
SHH: “Solomon Kane” has already been out everywhere else but once it comes out here and if people really like it, would you be up for sitting down to write another movie?
Bassett: I already have. All the story is planned out, because the idea was always that this was going to be the beginning of his journey. It hasn’t yet finished its journey around the world–its World Tour if you like–but when the US is done, North America, all those territories, we’re both anxious to sit down with the producers and say, “This is where we want to go with it…” Whether it’s a TV series, which would work really nicely or a movie, which would also be great, we’re going to go after it.
Purefoy: 3D TV.
Bassett: There you go, that would be something.
Purefoy: What I like about the whole idea of 3D TV or just 3D is that it works in a way as more of a reflection of its pulp origin and I think that would work well.
Bassett: Yeah, so it’s coming out of your way. I can’t imagine doing 3D camera work in the African jungles though, and I don’t want to stand in a blue room.
SHH: Are you developing another movie right now as well?
Bassett: I’m always developing movies because you can’t stop writing story ideas down. They always come to you so there’s always bits and pieces out there, but nothing to be revealed.
SHH: And you have a new television show?
Purefoy: Yes, “The Following.” It’s Kevin Bacon, he plays an FBI agent, at the beginning of the show, he gets called up because of a serial killer that he put in prison ten years previously has escaped and it turns out that this serial killer has used social networking and the internet to create a cult of serial killers, which is a very scary idea. I’m the serial killer. It is a very cool show and quite alarmingly, we were just doing a signing over there in the convention center and a guy came up and put the poster in front of me and said, “I saw the pilot.” “Oh, good, great.” And he went, “I’d kill for you.”
Bassett: (laughter) You know you’re reaching the right audience when you get that.
Solomon Kane is currently playing on VOD and will open theatrically on Friday, September 28.