The spring release date may be similar and to video game obsessed American school children ancient Sparta and mythological Greece may be indistinguishable, but it would be a mistake to confuse Louis Leterrier’s updating of “Clash of the Titans” with “300.”
It’s mid-August and a group of journalists have just taken the short drive from the heart of London to Longcross Studios, but more practically we’ve taken a drive back in time.
I’m not going to be corny and say that visiting the former tank factory in Surrey county was like hopping in Delorean and journeying to an age where the Gods came came down from Olympus and impregnated semi-willing human women and then used their half-God children as pawns in an epic struggle. I understand that Edith Hamilton wasn’t writing about actual history, when she chronicled her stories of minotaurs and winged horses and at least one spectacularly ugly woman with snakes for hair.
No, visiting the Longcross facilities housing the “Clash of the Titans” production was more like going back a decade or two in film history, when directors would work with teams of artisans to build mammoth sets, sculpt fiendish creatures and dress and arm battalions of soldiers, when filmmaking wasn’t as easy as positioning your actors in front of a Kermit-colored backdrop and assuming that geniuses with computers will fill in the rest.
On set visits, you never know when you’re going to encounter a few flimsy tear-away walls and hastily tossed together rooms that bear little resemblance to natural environments and watch a couple actors read two or three lines of dialogue that will inevitably be cut from the finished film. That happens frequently. But sometimes, you find yourself huddled in the corner of a built-to-scale ancient city — Argos, in particular — carefully positioned behind a pillar that gives no indication of hollowness when you rap on it tentatively, ducking out of the way because any minute a mythological creature of some sort is going to come soaring out of the sky, causing the citizens to scatter in clouds of kicked up straw and dust, screaming all the way.
“Guys!” Leterrier shouts into a megaphone, doubtlessly aware that the set is too cavernous for all of the extras to hear him. “Finally, we shoot!”
[More on the visit to the set of “Clash of the Titans,” opening on April 2, after the break…]
The thing that comes ripping through the air isn’t Pegasus. It’s a camera zipping down from a position high above the city. It’s balanced on cables suspended from four cranes, each positioned outside a different corner of the set and each rising to a height of 56 meters, the British workman tells us. It’s presumably going to be a POV shot when all is finished and the results are either going to be nauseating or stunning or both, as the camera heads fluidly from the air, down to the city square, where it meets a palanquin (a traveling sedan/tent) perched atop a gimbal. Just as the camera will eventually be a feathered horse, the gimbal will someday be a scorpioch (a giant scorpion) and neither beast is the one that’s causing the townspeople to flee on this summer afternoon.
The Kraken is coming.
The Kraken is not on the call sheet, though. While “Clash of the Titans” is using multiple Longcross stages (as well as the water tank at Pinewood Studios and locations including Tenerife and Ethopia), this isn’t 1981 or 1965. Some business is still being conducted on a hard drive somewhere.
“The movies I prefer, the movies like ‘Star Wars,’ for example or ‘Lord Of The Rings,’ they work because it’s a a mix of everything,” Leterrier says, sneaking in a few words with reporters between set-ups. “Where if you just have your talking scenes on real sets and as soon as you have any visual effects, it’s in the computer, then there’s no interaction and it feels like you’re watching two movies.”
For many viewers, the 1981 “Clash of the Titans” is a classic, whether it was watched at the time with an appreciation of its earnestness and Ray Harryhausen-driven awesomeness, or whether you watch it now with an eye toward the camp value Harry Hamlin’s beefcake Perseus and Laurence Olivier’s uber-stentorian Zeus.
This is not that “Clash of the Titans,” though it’s still Perseus’ (Sam Worthington) story and you still get Medusa and the Kraken and, in fact, many of the key creatures and set-pieces from the original.
But, again, just as this isn’t “300,” it also isn’t “Clash of the Titans” (1981).
“I rewrote the story,” Leterrier says. “Travis Beacham and Lawrence Kasdan took a crack at it, and then after, [Matt] Manfredi and [Phil] Hay, we each just said, ‘These are the pieces I want to tell. This is the story I want to tell.’ Like for example, re-watching again now and after my experience I didn’t think that this Perseus, this character, could go on a journey just because he falls in love with a princess. It really is a dangerous story, and also it’s a bit darker, it’s a bit funner. There’s more adventure. Really, we stretched it, that’s really what we tried to do and I think that’s what it is. I have so much respect for Ray Harryhausen and for the Desmond Davis film. I just couldn’t do the same thing. It’s just this is a really cool title, so I was like ‘Yeah, I want to keep the title’ but we could have called it something else.”
One word I haven’t used here is “monsters” and there’s a reason for that.
“It’s good you’re saying ‘creature’ and not ‘monster,'” Leterrier tells us on set. “Good, good, I hate that. [W]e’ll use CG but we have amazing artists bringing them to life and, and, and the creatures are not just here to start an action sequence. No, they’re here throughout the movie. You have creatures throughout the movie being mingled with the real characters. … [T]his is part of the world we’re creating where it’s mythology. Its not history, its not fantasy, it’s an in-between. That’s what I liked when I went to school. I loved when we were studying mythology because that was the only history where there were creatures and they were talking about that kind of interesting stuff. So now they’re really part of the story so far, and the future will tell if they’ve come to life and they are heartfelt.”
In addition to the scorpiochs, the Medusa, the Stygian witches, Charon and his boat to Hades, the Kraken and various harpies, the movie’s non-human cast includes Sheik Solomon, a Djinn with wooden features, and more than a few various underworldly and otherworldly denizens who will be constructed with a combination of computers, miniatures, makeup effects and animatronics. As we’re on set toward the end of production, much of what will be featured in the film either doesn’t exist yet or has been deconstructed or packed away.
What we see in different workshops is impressive enough.
There’s the ferry that will carry our hero Perseus (Sam Worthington) down the River Styx, piloted by Charon, who has been envisioned as an ancient soul so long attached to his work that he has literally become a piece of the prow of his ship, with a face of foam latex covering metal joins that will make him plenty expressive when operated by a puppeteer. The ferry is larger than any representation I’ve ever seen, more of a Ship of the Damned than a small craft. The boat’s hold, site of a key scene between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton), is waist-deep in coins, some shiny and golden and new, but others beaten and weathered and crushed. Charon collects his toll, but he may not have use for the money.
We also saw more of the coins in the prop warehouse, also featuring more than a few gristly remnants of the film’s darker creatures, including skulls aplenty and a crushed rib cage. Set off to the side of the warehouse is the caged in room separating the more expensive hero props, costlier items like Andromeda’s shackles, Danae’s coffin in six different incarnations — hero, minature, break-away, sinking, floating and something that didn’t make it into my notes — and Poseidon’s trident, which is pointy enough to impale a journalist, but hefty enough that only a God (or Danny Huston) could actually carry it. The locked away hero props are anything made special and unique for the movie, anything intended for only a single character.
For the film’s hundreds of soldiers, there’s a different grade of weapon and a different room of props. That room contains mountains of armor and swords ranging from metallic and sturdy to rubber and easily wielded. There’s a certain amusement in seeing many of the boxes marked with the words “Troy,” Roughly 10 percent of the warrior props came from that Brad Pitt epic and most of the rest were constructed to match.
As supervising armorer Nick Komornicki tells us, “You don’t reinvent the wheel.”
Then again, over in the makeup office, they’re coming close to reinventing the wheel, as prosthetic artist Robert Trenton leads us by tables of two-toed foam feet and mannequin heads supporting the grotesque work that will go into transforming Jason Flemying into the creature known as Calibos. There are racks of hangers supporting unoccupied body suits with sagging prosthetic breasts. There are bloated torsos and dentures and and eye-less faces. The room smells of rubber and latex and silicon and one can only imagine the hours of work that it took to apply these apparatuses to the film’s various supporting players.
[Before transitioning back to the scene being filmed outside, I must quickly reference one last prop we saw in our explorations, a creature even Leterrier might call a monster. By that, I mean Bubo.
Even the most passionate defenders of the original movie are split on Bubo, a mechanical owl made in the likeness of Athena’s beloved owl and sent to assist Perseus. The Bubo we meet outside of the costume warehouse is, therefore, a likeness of a likeness. They attempted to get the original Bubo for the movie, but he’s in a museum in Berlin. But this Bubo does just fine. His wings flap. His beak moves. He rolls his eyes.
Since Bubo is on the set, that means he’s in the movie, right? Who knows? He isn’t a featured player, that’s for sure. And nobody we talked to seemed to be a big fan.
“Bubo? I hate that thing,” Worthington told us when we mentioned we’d seen the owl.
Still, Bubo may have a cameo in “Clash of the Titans,” but I can neither confirm nor deny.]
But back to Argos, where none of the extras are buried in latex and none appear to be carrying swords or spears.
“It’s really great because you get to know each one of them,” Leterrier says. “It’s really funny, like some of them have been in several of our scenes playing zealots, playing other people, and we see them and you get to know them. They’re really an amazing group of extras. I’m not saying this because they listen to me, but its true. They’re really amazing. They’re doing a great job. You should see them, once we start rolling, they throw themselves on the ground take after take after take and it’s fantastic. They really listen to me very carefully; they talk to each other. It’s funny, sometimes I walk through and they’re like, ‘No, it’s the Kraken coming. You have to understand, it’s a Kraken, it’s huge!’ And they direct each other. It’s fantastic.”
In fact, between shots, they pull iPods out of their togas, dig up books from underneath their wagons and go behind walls to retrieve cups of coffee. When the camera isn’t rolling, it’s almost like an anachronistic comedy of out-of-place peasants, but when the excitable Leterrier senses the wires are properly realigned and the lighting is right (there’s no ceiling and it keeps sporadically drizzling and then clearing up), the illusion returns to perfection. Citizens run pell-mell through the streets, desperately climb down from balconies and zig-zag through the mixture of pumped-in smoke and incense burning in different vessels.
It’s organized chaos and Leterrier, wearing a plaid top and long army fatigue shorts, looks like a kid playing Greek Hero with an expensive toy set. For the people in the scene, this is life-and-death, but for the director, this looks like fun.
“It’s not serious,” Leterrier says of the tone of the movie. “It’s just an adventure movie. It really is an adventure movie. It’s not an action movie, its not a sci-fi movie, it really is an adventure movie. Take some of Kasden’s amazing action-adventure movies. If you take “Raiders,” you’ve got ghosts flying at the end and you don’t question it. You’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s happened,” and that’s what I want to do. It’s a world that’s sort of part of… at one point in history there were different gods than the gods that we have today so there were different gods and there were a different set of rules and they were doing different things and the creatures came out of this thing and the gods have flaws and the creatures have flaws and it’s all about shades of gray also. Nothing is black, nothing is white, either the humans or the gods. But anyway, I’m explaining it this way but in my mind, my secret wish would be like one day in a classroom somewhere in New Jersey somebody says, ‘Kids, we’re going to study Greek mythology today and to introduce you to that, here’s ‘Clash of the Titans.””
Leterrier practically bounces around at the prospect. “That would be so exciting. Yay! That’s the best thing is like really, you get excited about something. Imagine a world.”
“Clash of the Titans” opens on April 2 and it will be available in 3-D.