For the fourth installment of their mega-hit Underworld franchise, producers Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Richard Wright, and franchise creator Len Wiseman have taken the extraordinary risk of reinventing and reinvigorating an already hugely successful, internationally acclaimed property. The filmmakers have transported their Vampire and Lycan characters into a contemporary, human-dominated world in which they are hunted to near extinction, adding the excitement of cutting edge 3D technology into the mix.
With other commitments pending, including helming the upcoming remake of Total Recall, franchise creator Len Wiseman chose not to direct the film, but was on hand as a producer and provided the inspiration for the extraordinary storyline. "Len imagined a scenario where Selene and Michael have created a child," says Gary Lucchesi, president of Lakeshore Entertainment. "That was the starting point for this movie. It would have been impossible to make such a good movie without Len's contribution. He was involved in everything from production design to writing the script and casting the film."
Kate Beckinsale, who starred in the first two installments of the Underworld saga, once again returns as the Vampire Death Dealer Selene, who escapes a lengthy imprisonment to discover that humans have almost successfully eradicated both the Vampire and Lycan clans.
"This is a continuation of the story that ended in Underworld Evolution," says David Coatsworth, executive producer of the film. "Putting Selene into the context of a modern world and having her interact with humans is one of the two big new elements. The second is the discovery that she's the mother of a teenage daughter. It brings a whole new twist to the evolution of Selene and sets up the possibility of continuing on into the future."
Set 15 years after the conclusion of Underworld Evolution, Underworld Awakening adds new characters and new rules to the story. "I think the hardcore fans are going to find a more action-packed and, to a certain degree, more violent Underworld than they've seen before," says Lucchesi. "Selene's rougher in this movie than she's ever been. She's capable of greater violence. It's a very strong dramatic story and extremely well-acted. We've set a high bar with the earlier films and I think the audience will find this really intriguing."
The updates take the story out of its mythological past and place it squarely in the world of the science-fiction action thriller. "It doesn't take place in our past or present or future," says Richard Wright of Lakeshore. "It takes place in its own version of all three of those temporal periods."
With series stalwart Wiseman unavailable to direct, the filmmakers launched an extensive search for someone to take the helm of the new production. "We considered a number of young filmmakers who had demonstrated an interest in the Underworld franchise," says Lucchesi. "That group included a team of Swedish directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein . They had co-directed a really interesting film called Storm, which seemed to us to have been heavily influenced by Underworld."
"We could see from watching their earlier movie that they understood how the heroine was set up, the way that the film was shot, the camera movements, the color palette, everything," says Wright. "Then they gave us a very detailed presentation book that showed us what they thought the movie should look like. It was obvious these guys were going to bring a lot to the party."
Mårlind and Stein, who have previously directed separately as well as together, have known each other since they were children. They have developed an uncanny connection that allows them to work most effectively in tandem, with each directing on alternate days. "We flip a coin the day before the shoot, says Stein. "Usually Måns wins, which is not necessarily a win. If you win the coin toss, you have to direct the first day, and first day is always chaos.
"When Måns is directing, I'm 'best buddy,'" he continues. "I'm always next to him, supporting him. He runs the show and makes all the decisions about the actors, the camera--everything. I'm there to handle questions about anything that's not immediately urgent, whether it's casting, production design, visual effects or anything else."
Directing on alternate days gives the pair what they feel is an enormous advantage. "We each have time to recharge and prepare for the upcoming day," says Mårlind. "When you don't have to put out fires all day long, you can be clear headed and think more about the big picture."
As unorthodox as their method sounds, the film's actors and producers solidly endorse the result. "I don't know how I'm going to go back to having one director," says Beckinsale. "By trading off, they are able to stay incredibly excited to have their turn. They never get burned out. I'm married to a director, so I realize that it's such a miserably nonstop job. There are always 50 people asking you questions. With a partner to answer those questions, the one who's directing can stay focused on the actors and the shot at hand."
The directors were well aware of all the work that been done to create the series through the previous three installment and had the utmost respect for the franchise. "The films are based in a strong, interesting and well-developed mythology, which is why we've always been fans," says Mårlind. "Here we are dealing with universal themes like love, survival and death. We take that part of it seriously, but there is so much cool stuff going on that it never becomes pretentious. The series is distinguished by a good mix of performances and visual style, which is something we like. We don't see ourselves as just visual directors or just acting directors. We love both."
The pair's primary concern, says Stein, was being able to bring new, compelling elements to the screen while preserving the best of the past. "We jumped into it because it was such a good script," says Stein. "The concept of the film itself actually deviates slightly from the earlier movies, so we are walking a fine line. Underworld Awakening is not today, it's not set in our world. That has been challenging because we've had to create a new world, while keeping the Underworld stamp on it and staying true to the franchise.
"We talked a lot with Len Wiseman and he was very helpful in setting up guidelines for what's cool and what's not cool in terms of the Underworld mythos," he continues. "All these new situations are presented in a totally different environment, and we had to make a lot of decisions on the fly as well, which was fun."
The timeless archetypes of werewolves and Vampires remain. "The Vampire is the sexy, dark side of all of us," says Mårlind. "But we also have the werewolf side which is the destructive force."
The biggest difference is in the balance of power, according to Stein. "The Vampires are underdogs for the first time, so they become a minority that you root for," says the director. "They can kill a man easily, but they can't kill mankind. I think what's exciting for fans is that we are taking another step deeper into the mythology that will expand the universe."
There are several new characters who will help to do just that, including an underground coven of defeated Vampires and Selene's daughter, Eve (played by 17-year-old India Eisley), whose combined Vampire-Lycan bloodline make her an unknown quantity with powers still to be discovered. "Eve's not a Vampire or a Lycan," Eisley says. "She's the first Lycan-Vampire hybrid and the last descendant of Alexander Corvinus, which makes her unwelcome among either the Lycans or the Vampires."
Another new development in the Underworld myth is a divide in the evolution of the Lycan race that threatens to upend the balance between the age-old enemies. "There are now three different types," says Lucchesi. "A devolved, barely surviving type of Lycan has been driven underground. They're suffering from malnutrition. They're vicious, almost zombie-like Lycans. We also have the regular Lycans that we've seen in the earlier movies."
But the most significant development is the uber-Lycan. "This is an all new creature," explains the producer. "The uber-Lycan is massive. It stands twelve feet tall and weighs 1,200 pounds. It has a bigger torso and longer arms and slightly shorter hind legs, more like a gorilla than the previous Lycans. There's only one of them so far and it always seems to be angry. It's throwing cars, it's smashing holes in walls, and it's not especially fond of Selene."
Mårlind calls the new creature, "the ultimate Lycan. He is the result of mankind's experiments. We learn that he can survive an attack with silver, which is the Achilles' heel for werewolves, so he's pretty unstoppable."
"There's a certain poetry to the Underworld characters," Burnett adds. "The actors are for the most part extremely skilled with language. We wanted to give them and their characters a high degree of eloquence."
With the Underworld Awakening, the filmmakers set out to create an all new story that would appeal to both long-time franchise fans and attract the attention of those who have not yet experienced the Underworld saga. "I think that when people who have enjoyed the earlier films come to a new one, there are certain things they expect to see, certain conventions to be adhered to," says Coatsworth. "But I think they also want something new. That presents a two-fold challenge. We had to be loyal to the rules of the game and also provide a new dimension to the story."
Coatsworth believes the film succeeds on both levels and will be able to stand on its own as an exciting and entertaining film. "You don't have to have seen any of the other Underworlds to appreciate it. I think a new group of people who enjoy action films and 3D will be a big part of our audience."
By giving Selene and Michael a daughter, the filmmakers hope to extend the life of the franchise well into the future. "Since both Selene and Eve are immortal, who knows what will happen." says Wright. "They may be together for a thousand years."
DISCOVERING THE NEXT GENERATION
Fans of the first two Underworld films are sure to be thrilled by the return of actress Kate Beckinsale in the role of the fearsome Vampire huntress Selene. "We really wanted to work with Kate again," says Lucchesi. "Sometimes the stars just align themselves perfectly and this is one of those times."
Beckinsale admits she thought twice about slipping back into the familiar skintight black latex suit before accepting the part again. "But it was a life-changing role for me, so I feel very affectionate towards it. It's exciting to be able to follow a character over such a long period of time. It's rare to get that chance."
Tom Rosenberg, Lakeshore Entertainment chairman and CEO, says he's thrilled to have Beckinsale in the film. "She is Selene, and Selene is the heart and soul of Underworld. Right from that first scene in the first film, she embodied the perfect tone."
On set, it was clear she had lost none of the edge that made Selene an iconic figure in Underworld lore. "Kate can switch into Selene like that," says Mårlind, snapping his fingers. "She can be having a laugh, but when action's called, she has those guns up and she looks like she's going to kill you. She has a highway into Selene that is fantastic. As a director, it's marvelous to have someone who is so close to their character."
Revisiting the character and mythology that helped launch her career as a bona fide movie star was great fun for the actress. "It was exciting to do this together with the people who created the original film in a new environment with a different set of problems for Selene," she says. "We all wanted a really fresh take and I think we've achieved that."
The most unsettling change for Selene is finding that she has a daughter. "Suddenly being presented with a child who's almost fully grown is a shock, especially when the girl's father is gone," says Beckinsale. "It's quite a lot to handle. I wouldn't say Selene is suddenly soft and maternal, but she's protective in a new and different sort of way."
After a centuries-long lifetime of being answerable to no one, Selene is only slowly able to embrace her daughter, says co-writer J. Michael Straczynski. "It brings out another side of her," he notes. "In the previous movies, she was primarily focused on battling the bad guys. She was fighting against them, not fighting for someone, as she is now."
The child opens up the character of Selene to a host of new possibilities and allows the character some emotional moments unlike anything in the previous films. "For the first time, there is a certain amount of vulnerability in Selene," says Wright. "She has an interplay with Eve that is very un-Selene like. Selene is very cold and nothing gets under her skin. She loves no one, she's a killing machine--and then she has a daughter."
Eve's presence adds a new dimension to an already unique storyline, observes Beckinsale. "There aren't very many female-led franchises, that work without being deliberately titillating or objectifying the lead character. I think that's one of the great things about Selene becoming a mother, with all the attendant conflicts."