Denzel & Drama on the Windswept Set of 'The Book of Eli'

Denzel & Drama on Windswept Set of ELI

It’s year two into our nation’s biggest economic downturn since that Great Depression, is it any wonder bleak is the new black in Hollywood? In particular post-apocalyptic films are the trend du jour, which isn’t exactly novel. Future disasters have long inspired the cinematic landscape, even before our crummy economic tumble, but now filmmakers have found the genre is even riper with juicy metaphors as they chart new cataclysmic collapses for humanity. Last year alone saw “Terminator Salvation,” “9,” “Zombieland,” “2012” and “The Road,” and now 2010 welcomes another with the Hughes brother’s “The Book of Eli.”

The films stars Denzel Washington as Eli, a wandering loner of our post-apocalyptic nation some 30 years into the future. He sports a badass beard and some wicked mano-a-mano survivalist skills, which he calls on to protect “The Book of Eli,” a religious tome his possession whose words could hold the key to humanity’s salvation. Yes, some bound pulp is at the heart of this film, a fact that is actually rather retro-quaint for this genre and more than a little intriguing.

About nine months ago on the dusty expanse of the Albuquerque, New Mexico flatlands, “The Book of Eli” cast and crew set up shop around a dilapidated two-story farmhouse to film a key sequence in the film’s third act. Standing out in the open desert a few miles away from any civilization was almost Biblical in nature as 50 mph winds, choking sand storms, and some righteous fire and brimstone via a mighty Gatling gun set one hellish scene.

Co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes paced the set separately blocking a pivotal showdown between good and evil; a brutal, all-out attack on Eli who’s hiding inside the home of eccentric survivor couple George (Michael Gambon) and Martha (Frances de la Tour). Carnegie (Gary Oldman), Eli’s foe in the standoff, is the villain of the piece; a despotic mayor-type who wants Eli’s book for himself. He thinks he asked Eli nicely for it about two acts before this scene (which got him nowhere), so now his patience is worn out. Surrounding the house with a rag-tag entourage of henchmen in armor-reinforced vehicles, including a patched up Brinks truck, Carnegie demands Eli give up the book, and Solara (Mila Kunis), his runaway, errant step-daughter too.

As the crew set up squibs and flying debris bits within the house constructed for the film, co-director Allen Hughes supervised, anticipating the chaos to come. “This is an intimate, drawing room drama. Masterpiece Theater is what it is,” he cracked with a laugh.

Meanwhile his brother Albert, who is known as the tech brain of the team, talked to his camera team as they prepped the complicated shot that will follow a missile into the abode. Moments later, he shared that the current tide of cinematic post-apocalyptic fare didn’t impact their decision to undertake the film. “The funny thing talking about genres, and whether a genre has been done, well cop movies are made every f***ing day. Those are hard to make different, but post-apocalyptic movies are a little easier.” He added that the script’s unique religious Western spin felt fresh to them. “I thought it was interesting, the spiritual and religious angle...”

Yet it took awhile to get to that place as “Eli’s” initial script was years in development, even shelved a few times before Denzel got onboard to help rewrite it with the brothers and then Alcon committed to financing.

A Good "Book"?

“My son (John David) is an associate producer on this film and he really was the one who stayed on me about the story," explained Washington. "He was really attracted to the spiritual aspect of it. He convinced me to do “Training Day,” so I kinda listen to him,” the actor grinned. “Maybe it’s the classic format. There is a classic battle of good and evil, God and the devil, if you will. I found that interesting. I read some of “The Road” and it’s similar but that’s more of a father/son relationship.”

Even with Denzel onboard, Albert said there were still studio reservations. “The thing the studio had been scared of was [making sure] that it’s not a Western. It is set in the West but it’s not from that time period. But at the same time my brother and I have always been influenced by Sergio Leone. We originally wanted to shoot this in Almeria, Spain where they shot those Spaghetti Westerns. So we tip our hat a lot to those Westerns but we did the same with “Dead Presidents”.”

By sentence end, the winds began to get more aggressive, with nothing around for miles to buffer the lone structure and scrambling crew from the sand and dirt that swirled about.

As Washington prepped to enter the house he smiled, “Well I definitely know what a tumble weed is now and I know what a wind storm is. [New Mexico] was the right place for this film,” he gestured to the wind. “It’s been somewhat tough with the weather and the wind and the sand, but it’s all a part of it and it helps my character.”

It seemed to help Oldman too, as the kinetic energy from the environment fired him up to rehearse the scene. Dressed in a dusty cloak with a bloodied knee from a previous altercation, Carnegie stood in front of the house screaming a last chance ultimatum to Eli and the others inside.

Method Man

As he observed the actor’s performance out of sight line, Albert mused, “[Gary] has played a lot of villains but it seems he’s made a conscious effort not to do it in the last ten years. The new generation remembers him from “Harry Potter” and not the bad guys. What he brings different to this is everything he does – he’s a chameleon. He comes with an accent that’s based on somewhere…and he’s surprising every day. It’s fun to see him play. I’m sure he’s not like the way he used to be, which was Method, and he’d show up as that guy. As he’s gotten older, he’s seasoned. He gets into character but he’s not so serious. And he actually has a wicked sense of humor.”

A few minutes later Oldman concurred with his director’s assessment. “As you get older, you have a different set of principles and responsibilities. When you are 21 years old, you are going to go off and live in a jungle and a tent. I don’t want to do that! I’m 50…one. I don’t want to do that anymore,” he laughed.

But even with the elements becoming increasingly wild, Oldman said he was quite content playing out in the desert. “I can’t remember the last time I have enjoyed myself this much on a movie,” he offered without a hint of insincerity. “I’ve just had a ball. It’s quite topical and timely. Great characters, a great story and a great premise; its two men with their own particular obsessions which is great stuff.”

One of his obsessions is getting his wife’s daughter Solara back under his thumb. Played by Mila Kunis, she’s left her step-dad’s oppression to take up with Eli on the road and that’s not cottoned well with Carnegie. So much so, he’s even ready to open fire on the house she’s also hiding inside.

Oldman shrugged and offered, “She’s his step-daughter by law. But he’ll get another daughter,” he laughed. “The thing he wants, he wants. The girl he can take or leave.”

Damsel in Distress

As her hair whipped in the wind, Kunis took a moment to expound on her character’s predicament. “If anything, she truly believes in [Eli]. He’s more of a father figure to her and opens her eyes to a whole new world. She starts off really naïve and really very young. By mid-film she has no choice but to toughen up. When all the s**t hits the fan, she has to defend herself.”

Playing action heroine is relatively new territory for the actress, and she admitted to a learning curve she’s still trying to master. “I’m much more used to doing comedies and shooting in Hawaii,” she smiled. “This is a big step. I have never really done action sequences where things are blowing up. It’s different, I’ll tell ya that. I shot some guns in “Max Payne.” But look at what I am running in this movie?” she sputtered looking at her very non-practical heels. “In rocks, in gravel, in sand, I’m in heels. But there’s nothing glamorous about this whole movie. You just walk outside for two seconds and you get pummeled with dirt and crap. The squibbing, the feathers, the wood – it’s crazy!”

As if to corroborate Kunis, the scene at hand was ready to film and insanity reigned. As soon as Carnegie backed away from the house, one of his henchmen swung out of the back of the armored car on a mounted Gatling gun and unloaded a storm of bullets on the structure as violent as the gale force winds that regaled the set. Gunpowder filled the air after the directors called “Cut,” leaving everyone breathless.

It’s a set-up that only a superhero would seem able to survive, which begs the question – just who or what is Eli? Albert only teased, “There are superhero movies that are mythic where you can stretch reality, and there’s a certain bit of stretching going on here even though it’s based on reality. But by the end there are certain things you find out about why he was able to do that, or if you believe his way, you believe or disbelieve what he can do.” For now, we’ll just have to have a little faith in Eli.

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