Vin Diesel arrived for the group interview full of good cheer at the end of a marathon day of shooting, an unmistakable charisma oozing out of every muscly pore. The thing that had brought us all together on this Montreal soundstage, of course, was “Riddick,” the unlikely third installment in the cult sci-fi franchise that began with the stunningly-realized horror/sci-fi movie “Pitch Black” and, four years later, with the bigger-budgeted sequel “The Chronicles of Riddick.”
After enjoying breakthrough success with films including “The Fast and the Furious” and “XxX” in the early 2000s, Diesel’s burgeoning career as an action star began to wane midway through the decade with a string of commercial flops including “A Man Apart,” “Babylon A.D.” and, ironically enough, “The Chronicles of Riddick,” which he also produced. Nevertheless, the down period proved to be short-lived, as Diesel’s career kicked back into high gear (no pun intended) after his decision to hop back on the “Fast & Furious” train – first with the commercially-successful fourth entry in 2009 and now with the mega-blockbuster follow-ups colloquially referred to as “Fast Five” and “Fast Six.”
So where had this new wave of success landed the newly re-minted A-lister? At the time of this interview, working for scale on a Montreal soundstage. In the case of “Riddick,” though, it’s not about the money for the “Dungeons & Dragons” aficionado so much as world-building – “real world-building,” as he himself made sure to point out – and his passion for the franchise project, like his charisma, came through effortlessly in the room. In short, the guy gives good interview. Given that, I’ve decided to post the transcript of the interview in full, both for the mega-fans in the audience and for those who might be interested in getting an inside look at the under-the-radar Hollywood barter system that allowed “Riddick” to be made in the first place.
(Note: After reading, be sure to check out the 20 key things we learned on our visit to the set.)
For awhile you’ve talked about Riddick. What does it mean for you to finally be filming this thing?
DIESEL: Since we’ve got time, since it’s a long workday, and since we’ve been doing all the water scenes, it’s a hectic schedule and we’re very ambitious here, and it’s a very good question… what the fuck does it mean to you?
Being completely honest, I’m a huge fan of the franchise, and I was disappointed that the second film didn’t do the kind of worldwide box-office to generate a big-budget follow-up. So as a fan I’m incredibly excited to see where the character goes and how you guys are making it.
DIESEL: But isn’t it surreal for you a bit?
I never thought I would be on the set of this movie.
DIESEL: Tell everyone how you feel. I share his sentiment, and the reason why I’m throwing the question back at you is because in many ways you’re answering, organically, how I feel. It’s more surreal to me to be here after 9-years. You know how long I’ve been talking about this, you know how many press junkets I’ve been at talking about “Riddick,” and we’re actually on set here shooting a “Riddick” that’s better than all expectations, better than anything we anticipated, and we’re here 9-years later and it’s surreal.
When we first sent this script to Universal as “Chronicles of Riddick” it was already a pipe dream to even return to this cult film classic called “Pitch Black”. It was already bizarre to be at a studio. When we first did “Pitch Black” we had no studio, the studio folded. We were at Polygram and then at USA and they folded, and at the last minute Universal came in and said, “We’ll release your picture.” It was kind of a Hail Mary, it predated “The Fast and the Furious,” but led into that relationship, and we’re here now because of the “Fast and Furious” relationship.
That’s the good stuff. You’re sitting on this set because I did a cameo in “Tokyo Drift.” We leveraged this cameo in “Tokyo Drift” so hard to reboot a franchise that was literally dying. When “Fast and Furious” got to that third film it was basically a scrap of metal that nobody wanted, studio didn’t even want it. “What can you do with it?” I’d go this whole other way, go back to a story-driven saga that rewards its audience for being loyal to a franchise, as opposed to doing a franchise in a reactionary way.
It’s interesting how “Fast and Furious” was born out of Universal taking over this cult film called “Pitch Black” back in 1998 and now we’re here shooting “The Chronicles of Riddick” after everyone thought it would be impossible. We’re shooting a rated-R “Riddick”, when do you see a rated-R movie? I’m 13-years-old watching “Alien” and there was a market and a purpose for these rated-R movies. Nowadays they don’t really exist anymore. The head of the studio was just here yesterday, and the fact that they were supportive enough to do rated-R…
Did you have to push for that? Did they want that?
DIESEL: Oh my God, of course they wouldn’t, nobody’s doing them. You can’t count on your hands a bunch of rated-R movies that are getting a lot of play. They’re so far and few between. In fact, we were victims of that in going the studio route with “Chronicles of Riddick”. Budget went up, and we went into that film we were going in rated-R, and the first thing taken out was rated-R. You want to spend that kind of money, you want to expand the mythology like that, you have to reconfigure the way you’re going to produce this movie and make it PG.
Some people argue, “Hey, there’s the ‘Dark Knights’ that are PG but pushing the R envelope,” but it does mean something. It means something in your approach to making a movie. There’s something appropriate and liberating and honest and free about going into a picture like this and being able to make it a rated-R picture and not have to comply with an understandable studio mandate of PG filmmaking for the blockbusters in Hollywood.
In the first movie Riddick goes from bad guy to good guy, and in the second he goes from good guy human to more than human with powers. What’s the evolution in this movie, how does he evolve?
DIESEL: What does happen to Riddick? Well I don’t want to give too much away because you’re tapping into the juicy stuff, but the fun part of this Chronicles is the freedom that we maintained to dance between the mythology and a cult classic, high tech and low tech, sci-fi and fantasy. If you follow the mythology, you would assume you would have to be in the Underverse in this movie, you’re expecting to go to the Underverse.
What’s fun about the design of this film is that’s kind of thrown out the window after a series of events. You’re thinking you’re going to be in the Underverse leading a huge army and very quickly a couple minutes into the picture is you realize you’re fighting for your life, you’re left for dead on a planet again. It’s a very creative construct that David Twohy and I worked on which is playing on the idea of having so much power, that fat feeling you get from having too much power and the need to return to the animal side. We used taglines like “Jeremiah Riddick” because we scale it back so much and distill it. It’s something we take pride in, because you have films in the Chronicles that are isolated and contained like “Pitch Black”. This might even be more contained because it’s a guy struggling to survive after being betrayed by the power he was just given.
You’re a big “Dungeons and Dragons” fan…
…and you love worldbuilding…
DIESEL: I do. Real worldbuilding, by the way. You hear a lot of directors talk about how they “build worlds” but this is the real deal and you can tell.
Can you talk about some of the things that drove you, things that you were willing to sacrifice to make this project happen, do or die? It’s really rare to see someone revive a dormant franchise.
DIESEL: Exactly. I’ve been lobbying and leveraging for it for 9-years, and even after leveraging everything in order to make it rated-R… Unfortunately I should probably care more about making money than I do – and don’t tell the people who pay me cause they pay me a lot of money, that I would do all this shit for free – but I did “Saving Private Ryan” for $100,000 dollars. When I did that I was on the beach doing our Normandy scenes. We were shooting in a place called Wexford, Ireland, and I was paid $100,000 dollars and I wasn’t insured as an actor, meaning I had never made $7000 dollars in my life in a year, and as an actor you have to make $7,000 dollars to be eligible for health benefits.
Because I had never made more than that and had been an actor all my life, 20-years at that point, I was insured as a writer because Ted Fields, who happens to be one of the critical elements in “Chronicles of Riddick” because he was the guy fighting for me in “Pitch Black” because he saw my film in Sundance, “Strays,” and hired me before Steven Spielberg to write about the bouncer world I had lived in. While I was doing that Steven Spielberg picture I wasn’t insured as an actor but as a writer, and I’m telling you that because on this picture I’m basically working for scale, and I’ve never worked for scale in my life. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of all these cool sets and all this great film that I don’t even think about the fact that it’s scale.
You also have “Fast 6” coming up.
DIESEL: Yes, we also have “Fast 6” coming up but you know Vin, if the script’s not right he does these weird things.
One for them, one for you.
DIESEL: But not at the cost of integrity. I really mean that and it’s a tough load to carry. When they say, “Do ‘2 Fast 2 Furious,’ here’s more money than you’ve ever seen before,” and I say “no, instead I’ll do a $50,000 dollar WGA draft of ‘Chronicles of Riddick.'” It was so much money the studio says, “You’ll be independently wealthy, you’ll never have to worry about money again.” My father is an altruistic, idealistic artist that was eligible to live in artist’s subsidized housing in New York. If you made more than $15,000 dollars you were kicked out. When I told him I’d turned down “2 Fast 2 Furious” and $20-million dollars even he said, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” I thought he’d give me a pat on the back, but that was in service of protecting an integrity, and that’s the real deal.
It seemed to come around okay, they kept making those movies?
DIESEL: It did come around, it came around the right way because they were very clever about their approach. It’s a tricky load to carry because it’s harder to say with social media, “I’m not gonna do the film because the script’s not right.” I don’t know why or how that happened but in the last few years you’re hearing less than that. I think they think you’re capable of fixing them, or they don’t give a shit, they just want you to do that film. When I did that cameo in “Tokyo Drift” I realized they didn’t give a shit what the movie was like, they wanted to see their character. It was a weird realization that I was being the arbiter of a character the audience felt they owned. I was being the judge of material in my own artistic way for a character they didn’t read as my character. Does that make sense?
Sometimes the studio makes a movie and releases it and the public feels like…
DIESEL: … they feel like Dom is their character. It’s almost as though people were thinking, “Who are you to decide whether this script is good enough to hang with Dom, chill with Dom, embrace our Dom, or take a ride with Dom?”
I noticed in your Necro costume you have the bone helmet just like the other Furyan in “Chronicles”.
DIESEL: That’s cool. You see this guy? That’s why I make these movies, and that’s why we do those things, because somebody’s paying attention. That’s my motto about Hollywood and films, continuing these franchises. There’s two lines of thought in Hollywood, one is the audience doesn’t give a fuck – excuse me, it’s late, I’m in Riddick mode, you’re lucky I’m not killing you guys – sometimes Hollywood makes these movies, you can apply it to sequels, and the hotshot producer though is, “the audience doesn”t care,” and thus the people making those movies in a reactionary way don’t mind running the risk of patronizing its audience.
Then there’s that worldbuilder, that D&D player that’s really meticulous that believes the audience does care and can draw the similarity between Riddick’s headdress and the headdress worn by Linus Roach who reveals in one moment that he is a Furyan that went the wrong path. It’s very subtle, but just the fact that you mention it means that it was worth the weeklong dialogue about the construction of one little piece of a whole Necronic Lord Marshall armor. It’s a testament to… I wish the wardrobe department and other producers were here to hear that question to verify, you know.
Can you talk about how crazy the stunts and fight sequences are in this movie and how you amped them up from the last one?
DIESEL: They are crazy. I don”t know if I”m exactly thinking…I guess I should always be thinking how to make it better; I”m looking for a truth in the choreography and I”m looking for integrity in the action. I don”t know if, necessarily, I”m so concerned about going bigger or better or one-upping so much. Another good point about Hollywood today is that there”s that approach that people think that you have to go bigger and better. I”m going through that right now with Universal about something else, but the thought that you have to go bigger and better is the approach.
There are some people, like myself, who feel like an honest continuation of a story is the most important thing and the most rewarding thing. In a day and age where film has become this episodic medium in spite of itself…we grew up with “Goodfellas” and ten years later we get “The Sopranos.” When “Goodfellas” came out, the great actors of that time were saying, “Isn”t ‘Goodfellas’ amazing?” I”m at a lunch with Tom Hanks and he”s telling me, “You”ve got to see this show ‘Sopranos.’ It”s amazing!” It”s really subtle, but it”s speaking to today”s film-going audience that is much more receptive to an episodic storytelling style.
I still like when Riddick kicks some ass though.
DIESEL: You sure do. [laughs] And so do I. If you asked anybody else, they”d tell you it”s like nothing you”ve ever seen. I guess, for me, I try not to get too distracted by just the gratification of it being bigger and better, but trying to find the subtleties and the nuances that explain this evolving character.
David [Twohy] mentioned that there was a lot more pressure when you”re doing the second “Chronicles of Riddick” because there are so many people that have opinions because there”s so much money involved. Is there something nice and more enjoyable about making it at a stripped-down level like this, more like “Pitch Black” than a big, blown-up studio, $100 million thing?
DIESEL: Well, the head of the studio was here yesterday and looking at some dailies and just went, “Damn, Vin. This is the future of making movies.” I still don”t know what she was talking about, but I imagine she”s on to something. There is a freedom…when you go in and you say, “We”re going to make it like this. We”re going scale. We”re going rough, rugged and raw. It”s rated R. We”re going bare bones, in some ways.” The freedom of that is that you don”t have to make a movie by committee in the way that studios make movies.
It”s not a good or a bad thing. Sometimes I actually miss that. Sometimes I embrace…I think David”s more renegade like that and wants to be his own person; that”s more of a director”s thing and a director”s fantasy. A lot of times, I would be the first to, say, feel the absence of a studio. I went and got a deal, a bungalow, over at Universal because I actually like that partnership, I like having people double-checking everything and putting up a fight for their own cause or their own reason. I appreciate that. But, you”re 100% right. There is definitely something attractive and definitely something fun about making a movie without parents anywhere around.
Can we go back to something you were talking about before about integrity? Could you see yourself ever doing one of these movies without David? Or are the two of you joined at the hip as far as this franchise is concerned?
DIESELl: I put nine years on saying that I”d wait for David. Anything I say could be bullshit, but nothing speaks volumes like the fact that I waited nine years and bet on that horse.
Can you talk about your working relationship with David? What”s your dynamic? Obviously, you being a producer, too and two strong personalities working together…
DIESEL: Sure, sure. When we were doing “Chronicles of Riddick,” there were other directors being presented that the studio wanted to go with. The thing about “Chronicles of Riddick” is, you need to have a director who has a certain amount of ego about the property. If you ever fell prey to a studio”s idea of interchanging a director for something like that, for that property, you could get a director to come in that could be cool at setups and be cool at giving you flash and be cool at delivering a polished movie that”s in focus, but you would lose so much by not having somebody in that chair with a huge ego about the property and a huge investment in the property and claim about the property, that it was always me backing the David Twohy of it all.
What it provides for an experience like this is incredible shorthand because you know you took the nine year journey with somebody. That”s an incredible place to be, because you come to work and every idea and every thought you have and every consideration you have, the person believes in their heart that you only want them to succeed and you only want them to do the best work they ever did, and that”s about to be what happens.
When you see this movie, you”re going to see a David Twohy that you have never seen before. You”re going to see a movie that”s going to blow people away. It”s just going to be a guy graduating, and graduating and knocking it out of the park. That”s exactly what I was telling the studio yesterday. I mean, award-winning. If he”s not acknowledged on some kind of award level, I don”t care if it”s a Fangoria award, he is going to be acclaimed off this film.
What kind of pressure do you feel when you walk out on the set as the star of this film? All eyes are on you; you”re Riddick. What kind of pressure do you feel and how do you handle it?
DIESEL: The pressure is abated when I walk out to the set because I”m already able to walk out to the set. The pressure started way before…the pressure was before I even got out here. The pressure was, I”d already leveraged so much to do this movie that…the pressure was indescribable. The second I walk onto the set and I know that there”s a camera and I know that there”s a David Twohy behind that camera, there is zero pressure. There is just me jumping into a pool called Riddick. It”s the most free I am. It”s like channeling something. It”s like taking a drug called Riddick and living in that space.
To answer your question, it”s the one time that I feel the least pressure. But my process plays to that. My process of Riddick is kind of a bizarre process, meaning I”ll go from April of last year or May of last year to October of last year or September of last year, I”ll take three or four months and just go off into the woods. People are like, “How are you…what process are you doing for Riddick?” But it”ll be a kind of meditated process that will allow for me to walk on set and be able to pull that character instantaneously. It”s a bizarre process but it”s part of that Riddick process. It usually demands a very isolated time, a very reclusive period before coming here.
When I finally come on the set, I”m releasing that and I”m almost breathing in a way, if that makes any sense. It”s like I”ve been suffocating for four months before doing the film. Does that make sense?
Yeah. We”ve talked a lot about world building. One of the things that really impressed me with “Chronicles of Riddick” is the way you”ve actually brought in games and the games and the animated movie and all of that stuff and they”ve actually been good! A lot of times when we have these tie-ins to movies, they”re not that great. The games are great, the animated movie”s great. Do you have any plans to do something similar?
DIESEL: Oh my God, yes.
Rebooting “Chronicles of Riddick” and everything?
Why does it matter and why is it so important and why do you take so much stake in it?
DIESEL: First of all, I”m a gamer and I”m part of a gaming generation that started with TV Pong. So, when I was seven years old, I would go to Radio Shack on Avenue of the Americas, second grade, and I played something called TV Pong. It was just the beginning of the gaming generation. “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay,” the way that materialized was a need to expand the world and not having any more resources available to do so. So what the video game allowed us to do was to create, at the very least, interstitials and animatics, that might have cost $10 to $20 million if you would have shot it in the live-action format, that we didn”t have available to us but still needed, for those who wanted to delve deeper and deeper into the universe, still needed to exist.
So it was a clever way to expand the universe while you had the anime being built in Japan and while you had the novels being written, it was an opportunity to shed backstory, to start to set up some of the mythology for “Chronicles of Riddick” in a medium that cost a fraction, ten-percent of what it would have cost in a live-action format that we didn”t have available for us in the first place.
So are we going to see more of that, too?
DIESEL: You will have more of that. That”s the fun of it, yeah.
Do you still board game?
DIESEL: I haven”t board gamed in a while and I have people that are asking me to board game. I have a buddy who just wrote a beautiful Gary Gygax script. Gary Gygax”s wife wants me to play him. [laughs] Yeah, I don”t get it either. I was like, “Me? I”m Vin Diesel? How do you want me to play it?” I guess that”s cool. I guess some people think of me as a…dweeb, or something? It”s beautiful.
I haven”t boarded as much as I want to, although friends of mine, like Michelle Rodriguez, she”ll say she thinks I DM Hollywood, because I”m able to do these things that are just preposterous like shoot “Riddick.” You have to understand, when we made “Chronicles of Riddick,” this is how confident we were…I don”t know if you”ve ever heard this story, but when David and I delivered the script to the studio, we delivered three leather binders: one said “Core One,” the second said, “Core Two,” and the third said, “Core Three.”
Now, all but the first one basically had Xerox paper stuffed in it, right? With like a little treatment on each one. It was a locked leather binder and we only gave the studio keys to the first binder. [laughs] It was a statement saying, “This is a trilogy. Think of ‘Pitch Black’ as ‘The Hobbit’ to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ This is a trilogy.” And people in Canada to this day knew that we were making a trilogy. So it”s kind of surreal that we”re here continuing this franchise, but it was always the intention to create a mythology like this.
David said you guys have already talked about two more movies and if this one is successful, maybe The Battle of the Underverse?
DIESEL: You”ve got to go to the Underverse; that”s something I talked about at the beginning of our meeting today. It”s expected, it”s something I firmly believe, even if Blizzard went off and created The Wrath of Lich King with whatever idea they had of the Underverse… [laughs] You guys don”t get that. [laughs] Anyway, yes, you have to go to the Underverse, you want to go to the Underverse and you”ll have to go through the Underverse to get to Furya. So, those are the two stories that are mapped out.
The Underverse is a much more costly venture and trying to do a rated R movie, we went this direction which is cool and even more interesting because it”s so unexpected. But yes, you will be at the Underverse and you will be at Furya sooner or later. Michelle says I DM Hollywood because of things like “Chronicles of Riddick.” Right after “Chronicles of Riddick,” I tried to ask the studio who said, “Yeah, we”re not going to make another ‘Chronicles of Riddick.’” And I said, “You know, if I paid you $10 million, if I put my house up, if I put all my houses up and took some loans, would you give me that property back?” and they said, “No.” And it wasn”t until that “Tokyo Drift” cameo came around that everything changed.
It”s all…leverage. But, the loudest three promises that I made, because it”s all about promises for me for some dumbass reason, the loudest three promises that I made in this millennium are: “Chronicles of Riddick” will continue, at the cost of not doing any of those sci-fi films that have been offered, holding true to that; the second is, Letty will return, period, against all odds, because that”s what was designed from the very beginning. Maybe I stick to the things that were designed from the beginning, maybe that”s weird, but if that”s what we talk about, about how this story and mythology is going to lay out, it”s hard for me to abandon shit and just go, “Okay, let”s create something new.” That”s just disconnected and patronizes our audience.
And the third promise?
DIESEL: What do you think the third promise is?
Haven”t a clue.
DIESEL: Anybody have a clue? T.J. what”s the third promise?
I would hope it”d be Hannibal.
DIESEL: The Punic Wars. Yes, he is right. Haven”t you heard me talk about Hannibal?
I”ve heard you talk about it.
DIESEL: Haven”t you heard me talk about it and talk about it and talk about it and talk about it? Usually people throw things at me, like, “You asshole! You”ve been talking about Hannibal for ten years!” You”ve heard me talk about it and talk about it and the fun of it is, just in the same way that I”ve been talking about “Riddick” and talking about “Riddick,” I was given the action…what was the award? The action hero award for the new ShoWest thing in Vegas?
DIESEL: CinemaCon! You know the deal. And so I got this great award there and right before I went out on stage, they asked me to go up to this press conference. There were people in the audience saying, “You”ve been talking about ‘Riddick’ for a long time! Now what is – ” and they were beating me up about this ‘Riddick’ thing. “I remember in 2006, you started saying that you”re going to have another ‘Riddick’ come out and – ” I”m being charged for withholding ‘Riddick’! I get that with Hannibal.
I might have been in that room with the “Riddick.”
DIESEL: Okay, okay. It”s liberating now. It”s a great feeling to be able to say, “It”s taken a long, long journey; nine years since we did the last one. But we”re here. And we”re doing it. And we”re doing it with integrity and we”re doing it for real. I can”t wait to see this movie. It”s always a good sign when you cannot wait to see the movie. And that”s what this is: this is one of those, “I can”t wait,” I don”t even care about sharing the movie, I just want to see the movie [laughs], I want the ticket. And Hannibal”s that third one. Hannibal”s the dream that”s been there for a long time. When I brought Facebook to Tunisia…[laughs] I can”t, it”s too late, I”m going to talk too much.
“Riddick” hits theaters on September 6.