Notes from the Underworld. Directing 'Rise of the Lycans'

Patrick Tatopoulos may not be a household name but chances are if you’ve been to the movies in the last 15 years, you’ve been amazed by his work. Tatopoulos has been the creative mastermind behind such creature designs for Independence Day, Underworld, Silent Hill, I Am Legend, and Pitch Black to name a few. In addition, he’s worn a production designer’s hat on numerous projects including Dark City, I, Robot, Underworld: Evolution, and Live Free or Die Hard. Now, he’s harnessed all those creative juices for his directorial debut in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, a third installment that takes the popular franchise back in time to explore the history of the Lycans and vampires as well as the striking but lethal Death Dealer, Sonja.

Newsarama recently sat down with the rookie director…

Newsarama: So Patrick, why go the prequel route with Underworld 3 instead of continuing the adventures of Selene and Michael?

Patrick Tatopoulos: To tell you the truth, this was a dangerous idea. People have grown so fond of Selene so thinking of an Underworld without Kate Beckinsale was a switch. Moviegoers also think even though we don’t have Kate, we are trying to do a third one and going back in time. To have Kate on board of this movie, you’d have to move to the future and see what the deal is with her. What original director Len Wiseman and the guys at Lakeshore wished was to go back and tell the story of this guy Lucian and his true origin. They felt there was an interesting movie there which is more about vampires overtaking the Lycan race, using them as slaves, and the revolt of them led by Lucian with the support of the werewolves in the forest.

Among this big revolution, which feels like a Spartacus concept where the leader of the slaves are dragging this army together against the tyranny of the vampires, there is a very strong Romeo and Juliet set up story. The lead female vampire, Sonja, who is the daughter of Viktor, is in love with the leader of the Lycans. They both grew up in the castle and got to know each other. When I got the script, I didn’t want to repeat the other installments and be the third wheel. I knew seeing this movie through the eyes of the Lycans gave a slightly different tone. That was enough to get me excited and I’ve always loved werewolves.

NRAMA: So the vampires are essentially the villains in this film?

PT: I think the bad people in the first one were still the vampires. Viktor came out as the evil character. It almost felt the Lycans were part of the mix, but weren’t the bad ones. And now going back in time to understand why this war started, the vampire’s are definitely bad. Viktor is the most evil being and you see it through the eyes of the slaves. Hopefully, you root for the Lycans and want to follow their mission.

NRAMA: There seems to be more than once species or class of werewolf now so what separates them?

PT: There was a historical background created by the first Underworld. Maybe the Lycans you’ve seen at this time are drastically different because there’s a sense of evolution. At the root of everything, there was one man, William, who got attacked by wolves and became the very first werewolf. He lived in the forest and turned people into werewolves. All there were was vampires and werewolves, but no Lycans. Then one day, a human child was born of a werewolf and that child became the very first Lycan. This is a human being who can turn into a creature at night and is between man and werewolf. It can function without moonlight and also turn back and forth when it wants. In Underworld, the werewolves live in the forest and never go back to human shape until they’ve killed. The Lycan is more human and can transform at will.

NRAMA: It also sounds like they are all more vicious and bloody thirsty in this era.

PT: I definitely made them more savage. They are pretty nasty in I and II, but they are more brutal here. As you watch the movie, it feels more brutal. It doesn’t mean it’s gorier since the idea is not to have more blood than ever. It’s more about the violence, speed, and energy of the werewolves.

In I and II, you only saw glimpses of them. They would appear from the corner, snatch you, and disappear. Here, you have large moments where the werewolves are attacking so you get to really see them which is also dangerous sometimes. When you create a creature, it can be easier to hide it but in this case, we worked really hard with the practical and CG effects to show you these creatures doing things and not just green screen them. My biggest job since I got back from shooting is being behind the CG guys all the way to make sure I’m getting what I like. They are going to be faster and more violent for sure.

NRAMA: How much did you rely on practical effects as opposed to computer animation to bring the werewolves to life?

PT: In nature, when those creatures move really fast, the challenge starts when you put a man in a suit because you are not going to get him to run at the same speed. What I really wanted to create in this movie is a werewolf who could run on two legs and when they need to be faster, they run on four. That you can’t do too much with a real human being. What I ended up doing is using the man in a suit for a lot of the close-up attack fight sequences but whenever you see the werewolf running on all fours, obviously I had to go with CG.

NRAMA: Was it difficult finding a leading actress that could fill-in for Beckinsale?

PT: It’s not like Rhona Mitra is replacing Kate because Sonja is the character. In this movie, Sonja was seen as a blond and I always pictured a blond actress for her to drastically step away from the look of Kate. I felt we didn’t want to compete with that. When Rhona came along and was perfect, there was a little bit of a similar flavor between them. It worked out in a good way because story wise in Underworld I and II, Viktor kept saying to Selene that she reminds him so much of his own daughter. However, Rhona had to feel free to create her own character and not mimic what was there before. Sonja is a warrior of a different time and rougher in some ways. In my mind, she comes through as tougher and more hardcore since it’s a darker time.

NRAMA: Underworld was filmed in Budapest, its sequel in Vancouver, so what did New Zealand offer for this one?

PT: It was interesting because they came to me and offered either New Zealand or Romania. I’ve been to Romania and I’m a big fan of the way it looks. When I first heard New Zealand, I thought it would be too pretty. With all the grass everywhere, it looks like a golf course. It’s actually too beautiful. I wanted something that was rougher, tougher, bad, and disturbingly beautiful, but not pretty.

I was actually fighting for Romania. Everybody told me this would be a huge hit in New Zealand, that they have great crews, and I had friends who moved there when Lord of the Rings started. I finally went and scouted there and when you start seeing beyond the typical things you’d expect from these green lands, I discovered amazing places.

It always starts with what better deal we can get, which is logical business because the better the deal, the more money you get to spend on your movie. I got there, loved it, and what became really evident to me is you have incredible artists in Romania, but you very often need to bring your painter, designer, and key people there. Going to New Zealand, you find everybody there because the people learned the industry through TV series like Xena. Those people learned to work fast, efficiently, and with little money. Then those same people went on to do Lord of the Rings . I just found incredible crews, fabulous people, they have a great mentality, and their work is incredible. The stuff I got for the money we spent is unheard of.

NRAMA: Do you have any stand out moments that you are particularly proud of?

PT: The most challenging was the one we call the carriage attack. In the early stages of the movie, a carriage is arriving with nobles and Sonja comes to see if everything is in order when they get attacked. This scene was very complex for me. My favorite scene is a quick moment where the character Tannis is looking for a key and Viktor comes up behind him. There’s a bit of an homage to Nosferatu there. The way I shot it was very exciting and came across very magical for me.

NRAMA: Of course sequels are a popular concept in Hollywood. Care to weigh in on the possibility of a fourth Underworld?

PT: First of all, let’s see how this one does. We definitely opened up a new chapter. At the end of his movie, you want to know what the next step is. There is the possibility of going to another time period or maybe Len wants to tackle a new one where Kate is back in the future which is probably something people are looking for.

Personally, I would not do a second one. It’s been a great honor and I feel extremely privileged that people gave me that movie because for a first timer, it’s a big deal. However, I feel today I need a brand new project where I can build from scratch. I’m still a designer at heart. Even though I love these movies, I don’t see myself doing something about two people in New York. I need to create a world from scratch which is what I’m looking for.

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2009 - The Year of the Comic book Movie (Again?)

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