Terminal Island: The very near future.
The world's hunger for extreme sports and reality competitions has grown into reality TV bloodlust. Now, the most extreme racing competition has emerged and its contestants are murderous prisoners. Tricked-out cars, caged thugs and smoking-hot navigators combine to create a juggernaut series with bigger ratings than the Super Bowl. The rules of the Death Race are simple: Win five events, and you're set free. Lose and you're road kill splashed across the Internet.
International action star JASON STATHAM (the Transporter series, The Bank Job) leads the action-thriller's cast as three-time speedway champion Jensen Ames, an ex-con framed for a gruesome murder. Forced to don the mask of the mythical driver Frankenstein, a Death Race crowd favorite who seems impossible to kill, Ames is given an easy choice by Terminal Island's ruthless Warden Hennessey (JOAN ALLEN of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum): Suit up and drive or never see his little girl again.
Revving Up for Death Race
It is not surprising that British filmmaking partners Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt were fans of executive producer Roger Corman's Death Race 2000. Considering the duo first gained notoriety for Shopping--a dark tale about joyriding youth set in the near future--it seems only natural the world created by producer Corman and director Paul Bartel in 1975 would inspire their choices.
Recalls Anderson of his memories of the original: "I was a big fan of the Corman movie. I saw it on video when I was still living in England as a teenager. It was the movie your parents didn't want you to see, because it was just packed with senseless violence and unmotivated nudity. So, of course, I just loved it."
At a screening for Shopping at the 7th Annual Tokyo International Film Festival, producer Bolt and Anderson first met Corman and discussed the idea of reworking Death Race 2000 for a new audience. At the time, Anderson and Bolt were about to make Event Horizon for Paramount, the studio where they first met Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise. The production partners had just launched C/W Productions and expressed interest in developing the project.
Bolt recounts: "I met with Paula at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and she thought it was a fantastic idea. They came aboard, optioned the material under their deal with Paramount and started to develop it. At that point, the idea was a movie similar in spirit to Roger's film. In other words, it was slightly satirical."
More than a decade would pass before the project would finally gel. Taking their cue from society's current obsession with reality television, Anderson and the producers decided to set the film in a dystopian near future. There, they would incorporate the most extreme of reality TV and turn the drivers into prisoners fighting a gladiatorial battle.
Anderson, who by this time had written and directed successful actioners such as Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, took over writing duties, and the project found a home at Universal. Of the Earth he imagined, he explains, "It's a slightly rougher world than we live in now, but still very much recognizable. The explosion in crime rates and the fact that reality television is big have led to the Death Race. It's the ultimate in reality television: nine racers who race to the death on this sealed course. They're the gladiators of our time, and the racetrack is their coliseum."
While this action-thriller is quite different from Corman's classic, one thing would not change. The fans are just as zealous in their passion for favorite drivers to massacre competitors. The more blood shed, the happier these Romans.
Filming wrapped, a weary Death Race cast and crew reflect on their experiences and hopes for the action-thriller. "It's a very adult form of entertainment and certainly plugs itself into what my taste is all about," Statham says. "You got hot chicks, boys being boys; what more do you need?"
We conclude our notes with a parting comment from the filmmaker, who was so inspired by the cult film as a boy. Anderson sums: "In Death Race, I want to stay true to the slightly irreverent tone of Death Race 2000 without becoming intentionally campy. I want to tell a more serious story and have it be a darker movie, still with comedy in it. I made a very different film but one that still has a little social commentary in it. Just like the original Death Race did."
Locking Up Cons: Casting the Film
When casting Death Race, the filmmakers looked for performers who embodied the gritty realism of the world Anderson imagined. After meeting him, the director felt British actor Jason Statham was his Jensen Ames. "The idea was to fashion a very blue-collar hero," offers Anderson. "That's why I thought Jason was a perfect choice to play Jensen, a man who's got a hard-luck story."
Through Ames, Anderson sets up the future. In the violent, impoverished world, there is little hope, but Ames has found a reason to live. "He's working in a crumbling, rust-belt town as a steel worker. The steelworks is closing down, and he's just lost his job," says Anderson. "This is a tough guy who's been to prison before and would've gone back if it weren't for the fact that he's found this woman who loves him. They've had a child together, and she's his second chance at life."
It didn't hurt the lifetime athlete's chance at landing the part that in his long résumé of action films--from The Transporter series to Crank and The Bank Job--he has done a good deal of his own stunt work. Apart from the attraction of such a role and fast cars, Statham was also impressed by how intricate Anderson's vision of the near future was. "Paul was a wealth of information about this story," recalls Statham. "It was so detailed: pictures of the cars, the emotion of the character; he knew every beat of the story. I thought the script was emotional, fun, dark, violent and sexy."
Statham, a self-professed "massive car geek," especially liked the sketches of the cars Anderson showed him, particularly those of the Mustang that he'd be driving as Hennessey's "Frankenstein." "We've seen cars with nitrous oxide systems before, but I've never seen anything like what Paul does in this movie," Statham says.
For the warden who forces Ames to become her star driver and the coach who trains him, the producers didn't want stock character actors. They looked to dramatic performers such as Joan Allen and Ian McShane to add credibility. "You're not used to seeing Joan Allen in a movie like this," laughs Bolt. "It was awesome to hear her swearing like a trooper, because I associated her with roles like a female president or a headmistress."
Tony Award-winning and three-time Academy Award® nominee Allen was asked to play Warden Claire Hennessey, a well-tailored jailer who has all the power on Terminal Island. "It was a very cool script, and I was really taken with the characters," Allen recalls. "I thought the cars were amazing and the concept was exciting. It reminded me of Road Warrior and Blade Runner in look and feel. After I met Paul and saw how he was conceiving it, I just thought, 'Wow, this could be really incredibly cool.'"
The actor looked forward to taking on a character like no one she'd played before: an extremely pious sociopath. "Hennessey is an interesting study of somebody who gets wrapped up in the media and numbers and forgets human lives are at stake," Allen continues. "My character only sees Death Race as an incredibly popular show that people really want to watch. She takes pride in that and gets kickbacks from it."
For the role of Frankenstein's Coach, the filmmakers turned to Ian McShane, most recently seen on Broadway in Daniel Sullivan's revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. The actor was interested in being a part of a film he describes as "like NASCAR to the death, inside prison. Everybody tunes in to watch convicts kill themselves in their cars and blast the crap out of each other around this racetrack." For his part, McShane believes, "Coach is one of the good guys--an honest man who's been in prison for so long that he's adapted and made it his home. As the chief mechanic, he knows all the cars, but he mainly works on Frankenstein's Mustang."
Multiplatinum-selling musician and actor Tyrese Gibson knew playing a ruthless murderer would be a challenge. "Machine Gun Joe is evil," says Gibson. "He's an inmate, a leader and a killer. This role was so dark. It was really hard for me to come on set and be dark and then, between takes, get back to being my normal self: fun, laughing, cracking jokes."
NATALIE MARTINEZ stars as the sexy and tough Case, who is shipped in from the women's jail--as are almost all navigators. Her job, as we are led to believe, is to help Frankenstein to victory in the Death Race. But Case has got a couple of sneaky moves of her own. "She's in jail, and the warden's waving freedom around," explains Martinez. "Case is very easily manipulated to do anything anybody wants." Martinez, however, did not have to be coerced to hang tough. During production, the performer literally threw herself into her role, even hanging out of the window of the moving Monster during gunfire takes.
Cast as Frankenstein and Coach's pit crew were JACOB VARGAS as wiseguy Gunner and FRED KOEHLER as the brilliant-but-shy Lists. Frankenstein's competition is a rogues' gallery of hardened men. They include mob man Yao Kang, aka 14K (ROBIN SHOU); The Grimm Reaper, aka Grimm (ROBERT LASARDO), a clinical psychopath who worships the warden; and Travis Colt (JUSTIN MADER), a former NASCAR driver who killed several innocent people when wasted. Ames also has to contend with one of Hennessey's favorite drivers, psycho neo-Nazi gang leader Slovo "Angel Wings" Pachenko (MAX RYAN), as well as the warden's henchman, Ulrich (JASON CLARKE).
Cast and crew locked, it was time to create a holding facility that would serve as the last stop for those who've had a life of crime…and a racetrack from which most would never leave.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
From humble Newcastle beginnings, British-born director, producer and writer PAUL W.S. ANDERSON (Directed by/Screen Story and Screenplay by/Produced by) teamed up with producer and fellow Brit, Jeremy Bolt, early in his career to found Impact Pictures. The first film of the pair's ongoing collaboration, under the auspices of Impact Pictures, was the low-budget success Shopping (Channel Four Films, 1994), which Anderson wrote and directed. Starring Sadie Frost and Jude Law (with an appearance by legendary singer Marianne Faithfull), this dark film about joyriding and ram-raiding British youth (banned in some U.K. theaters) established Anderson's love of cars, dystopian futures and high-impact action.
Shopping paved the way to Hollywood for Anderson, and 1995's Mortal Kombat became Anderson's first American No. 1 box-office smash. It was also the first successful movie adaptation of a video game, a fact that soon established Anderson's reputation as the man who could take the game out of the box and make it explode on the screen. Sidestepping offers to direct a sequel to Mortal Kombat, Anderson chose instead to turn his attention to sci-fi. His next directorial projects included Soldier and Event Horizon. Blade Runner screenwriter David Peoples wrote Soldier, a "sidequel" to Blade Runner, which starred Kurt Russell, Connie Nielsen and Jason Isaacs. Now a cult classic, Event Horizon's stars include Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Jason Isaacs and Joely Richardson.
Anderson returned to adapting video games for the big screen with the survival horror Resident Evil (2002), starring Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez, which he wrote, directed and produced. A resounding commercial success, the movie spawned a successful franchise that includes No. 1 hits Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). Anderson wrote and produced the sequels with Jeremy Bolt.
Anderson consolidated his box-office muscle when he wrote and directed the highly anticipated AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), starring Lance Henriksen, which opened at No. 1 and went on to be the highest-grossing film in both the Alien and Predator series.
Anderson is currently preparing a remake of the gangster classic The Long Good Friday, which he will write, produce and direct, as well as the sci-fi horror Pandorum, starring Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster, which he will produce, and the video game adaptation and action-horror Castlevania, which he will write and produce for Rogue Pictures/Universal Pictures. Anderson's producing partner, Jeremy Bolt, will produce all three.
Crashes and Fights: Filming the Stunts
Cast and crew of Death Race would not leave the production without their fair share of bumps and bruises. The cars, however, would barely exit the track on all four wheels after the punishment they received at the hands of the stunt team and second unit.
Bolt discusses how three units were used to film Death Race: "We had a splinter unit, first unit and second unit. The second unit, running parallel to the first unit, was directed by SPIRO RAZATOS. He executed the action very specifically, carrying out Paul's storyboards. Paul directed all the drama and actors, and we had a splinter unit hovering in all the inserts--feet on accelerators, rev counters, steering wheels…all of those small pieces that really make up a movie."
Lensing the Races
With multiple autos racing at top speed, there were many challenges during filming. Some spectacular stunts could only be done once, so Anderson's team shot as much footage as possible. Up to eight cameras shot from multiple points of view--both in the air and on the ground. Cameras were rigged in crash boxes to protect them from impact, fire, heat and debris, and mounted on the cars so they'd be in the middle of the action. Often, the second unit was just outside the windows of cars zooming by.
For the writer/director, shooting Death Race offered a nod to another era of filmmaking. "In the 1970s and '80s, there was a limit to how close you could get the camera to some of these crashes," Anderson says, "a limit to how much you could move the camera. We've built a load of unique rigs that have never been seen before in movies--built specifically for this film. We were able to get the camera so close to these real crashes, these real explosions--cars on fire, cars spinning 20 feet in the air--all done practically and all done safely."
In order to implement his vision of a deadly place and time, Anderson worked with a seasoned film and stunt crew. Second-unit stunt coordinator ANDY GILL notes: "Luckily, everything we could do in the physical world, Paul wanted to do. For a lot of big wrecks, we had some effects wirework that helped with the stunt work, but we tried to keep it as real as we could. We stayed away from the special and visual effects for flipping cars through the air…unless it was physically impossible."
To keep stunts organized, Gill created diagrams of all the races, which he color coded to indicate details such as which cars would explode and how many bullet holes they had in them each lap. Matchbox cars were used to block out the action in miniature.
When the team needed to make actual cars blow up, it built some that didn't need human drivers. "We got with special effects to build these rigs: remote-control cars," explains Gill. "When we needed to shoot at high speed and have a very violent wreck with the cars ripping themselves apart… we didn't put stunt people in."
The other Gill on the set, Andy's brother Jack, was the lead stunt driver. He drove the 600-horsepower, "new muscle car" Mustang and worked with the other stunt drivers (and actors when at the wheel) to secure all moves were done safely. It was mandatory, as, for instance, the Ram had very limited visibility and the size of the window in the chop top is approximately 3 inches tall.
Jack Gill says they employed all kinds of special driving tricks and stunts to make the races look spectacular. "The reverse-drive rig is something we've been using for about five years. It's an ingenious little thing where you hook up a steering wheel and a set of pedals and a brake in the back of the car so that another driver can sit in back and look out the back window." The reverse-drive rig allowed the stunt crew to create spectacular driving action as, essentially, two guys drove for one stunt.
To keep the story in sync, it was crucial to get shots of the actors in the cars driving. Statham did a lot of his own wheelwork, but often he and the actors needed help. Jack Gill had the perfect solution: the pod car. He describes the invention as "convenient when you want to get actors' reactions--ones you can't get on green screen--in real traffic and in actual cars banging together. The pod sits on top of the race car and is attached to the car with a steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedal. I drove up there while the actors sat inside with cameras pointing at them."
This many fast, exploding cars posed plenty of danger, and, because of the amount of fire and explosions, the stunt team wore three-layer fire suits at all times. Empty shell casings from the firepower also offered hazards such as punctured tires.
To keep things moving, a mobile pit stop was set up off camera, and a crew of mechanics worked throughout the night to prepare the cars for the next day. "Every day we'd start off in the morning by getting all the cars prepped," explains Louis. "Going through each car, making sure they're all safe. Then, at the end of the day, we actually brought the cars back to a night crew. Those guys worked all night long to repair all the damage we inflicted."
Creating the Fights
While exploding cars were left to the stuntmen, actors did a good amount of their own driving and fighting. The fight scenes needed to be as violent and real as car scenes, and Anderson called for a level of subtlety and basic physicality from the actors. "I'm used to doing very stylistic fight scenes," explains Statham. "I didn't think that was suitable for the Jensen Ames character. He's a race driver, not a martial-arts expert, and he's not someone with Special Forces tactical training."
Though the actors' environment was broken-down, the roles in Death Race required them to bulk up to portray the hardened men of Terminal Island. To physically realize the character of Jensen Ames, Statham trained for months with LOGAN HOOD, an ex-Navy SEAL. Hood, one of the key trainers on 300, knew a thing or two about getting men into fighting condition.
The first time we see the level of Ames' skills (and the months of Statham's training) is in the penitentiary's mess hall. To inform his role, Statham visited Corcoran State Prison in California--the current residence of Charles Manson--during preproduction. As Statham discovered during his trip: "You walk into the mess hall and see this sign: 'No Warning Shots.' There are guards with guns walking around. If any skullduggery takes place, they are the first people to quell that kind of nonsense."
Fight coordinator PHIL CULOTTA, Statham's stunt double on Transporter 2, filled in the moves to create that explosive fight--a process that took about two weeks before the final version of the scene was locked. Culotta says that he relied on the basics to make it look like a dogfight. "To keep it down and dirty, we tried to make each hit be a 'done hit.' You get hit in the face at full steam by Jason Statham--just a gigantic rip--then, you're done. We end up trying to grab everything, including the kitchen sink, and just hit people."
The fight in the auto shop--where Ames is jumped by the neo-Nazis, slammed in the head with a pipe and choked with a chain--also required that Culotta choreograph substance and raw style. "For the prison auto-shop fight scene, we wanted to make it realistic and incorporate some of the things that you would use in the auto shops," Statham explains. "Some props we got our fingers on were great: fire extinguishers, big pipe wrenches…there's even chains you were getting choked with."
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