Notes from a ‘Bullet to the Head’ set visit in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – Sylvester Stallone can’t talk.
That’s not exactly right. Actually, Sylvester Stallone is an exceptionally good talker and prolific writer. 
However, the “Bullet to the Head” star is unable to talk to the group of journalists gathered in the August 2011 heat in the Crescent City to visit the set of his new Walter Hill thriller. 
Stallone is busy trying to avoid an explosion, which puts the need or desire to speak with a motley assortment of bloggers in perspective. Dodging this explosion requires quick reactions, strong swimming and powerful lungs.
It also requires a killer imagination, because we’re sitting inside Harry’s Dive Shop next to what is, for all intents and purposes, an indoor swimming pool. On one side of the pool, a stage has been set up to simulate the deck of a cabin on the bayou. Because it’s roughly 100 degrees outside and the pool area is largely unventilated, the swamp-like humidity has been perfectly simulated. Instead of the murky smell of flora and fauna, of unchecked nature, there’s the lung-blanching smell of chlorine, which is almost the polar opposite of unchecked nature, if you think about it. Instead of water moccasins and possums, wildlife is represented by a mural of characters artlessly reproduced from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Some days, this pool features kids learning to swim. But today, it’s life-and-death for Sylvester Stallone.
What we’re seeing shot will be matched with footage shot on location. Stallone’s character survives an attempt on his life by diving into the deep end of the pool… errr… the swamp. Members of the crew are treading water in SCUBA suits and Stallone’s main task is to swim underwater in the direction of a camera. He repeats this action several times and playfully splashes a dry colleague standing on the side of the pool.
Co-star Sung Kang contextualizes the scene: “It”s his secret getaway house where he keeps all his guns and stuff,” Kang says of Stallone’s character. “It gets blown up. So, he”s right on the water, so we end up swimming away. And once we get to shore, he actually has a remote control that blows up all the bad guys. So, this is post-blowing up and swimming to shore.”
It’s unlikely that Sebastian the Crab and the rest of the under-the-sea company will be appearing in “Bullet to the Head,” but I look forward to watching the movie and pretending that instead of a fireball, Sylvester Stallone is trying to avoid Ursula. 
In lieu of a conversation with Stallone, we pester his various co-stars for details on what it’s like to work with the “Rocky,” “Rambo” and “Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot!” legend.
We start with Jason Momoa, who plays Stallone’s primary adversary in the film. 
“We have, I think, three encounters and he always gets the upper hand on me,” Momoa teases. “I’ll like bring a knife to a gunfight. Obviously he shoots me in the chest and it just pisses me off, so I steal his daughter and kill his partners. There’s the one where I kill his partner and then we fight in this bathroom and he ends up shooting me in the chest. And then I kidnap his daughter and that’s the next time we me is at this power plant in the end. So he’s kinda the guy that always… I kinda kill everyone except for Stallone and I really like the fact that he’s been living. So that’s why I do the axe. I pull out the axe. I don’t want’ to shoot him. I actually just want to cut him open.”
Yes, there’s a fight that features an axe. One issue we raise with Momoa is that the “Game of Thrones” veteran and Stallone aren’t especially close in either age or physical stature. So how does that impact that action scenes?
“That’s what’s kinda cool about it… I know that Sly’s in greater shape than I am. We’re 30 years different, maybe 33 years in age, and probably a good nine inches in height and it looks great,” Momoa promises. “I saw cuts of it. Obviously I’m the one that’s gonna be waving the axe a lot more and taking the attacks, but there are some great spots where he wanted to do this homage to ‘Rocky’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, got this idea, you know. I’ll lock you up and I’ll throw a couple in the ribs’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s be great! Man, it’ll be awesome.’ And he’s telling stories about him and Dolph and there are production still of him just sinking it into his ribs and I’m like, ‘Well, I can put a pad in here’ and he’s like, ‘No, no. I’ll pull the punch. I’ll pull.’ I’m like, ‘Alright. OK.’ I’ve got this f***er on tape, too. He comes in and he lights me up three times. It’s like BOOM, two, three. And it’s just that pace. One. Two. Three. And the third one, I was like, ‘Awww. I felt it.’ I’m like, ‘That ain’t s***. That ain’t s***. 65, man, that ain’t s***.’ And he does it again and he’s like, ‘Alright, alright.’ He comes in and he goes, ONE. He takes a beat. I’m like, ‘Aw, f***er.’ And he just goes [he’s pantomiming the whole thing.] He  rocks me and then he switches to his right hand. And then he he nails me in the right. I was like, ‘Awww.’ It was great. He’s having fun. I’m having fun. S***. The other day was like, ‘I’m fighting with Rocky. It’s the coolest thing in the world.'”
[More on the next page…]

We don’t get to see anybody fighting with Rocky. [We do, however, get to see Momoa’s character shoot up a room of gangsters, as was discussed in my feature on “Bullet to the Head” director Walter Hill.]
Instead, hours after the swimming scene, we watch Sylvester Stallone drive away. It’s unclear what he’s driving away from or what he’s driving to, but the driving is being done in a sleek black Ferrari. 
It’s a single pick-up shot on a New Orleans street a few blocks from the French Quarter. The crew is scurrying back and forth setting up riggings and keeping the small crowd under control, but because of the brevity of the sequence, the production hasn’t even blocked off the street. 
Stallone, looking dapper, walks out of a club or a hotel or a bar. He sits behind the wheel of his car and answers his phone. He looks concerned. Perhaps it’s Ariel calling to tell him that Ursula blew up his getaway house. He drives away. Once. The scene is over and the crew reacts quickly to break down the set. 
The journalists return to Bourbon Street, where drunken throngs cheer for a dancing police horse.
Sarah Shahi plays Stallone’s daughter in the movie. 
“It’s funny. When I first met him, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been for anything,” the “Life” and “L Word” star says. “I tried to play cool. We met up at the Peninsula. I got there first and I got a paper. I was enthralled in the Wednesday morning edition of the LA Times. Not even caring about what I was reading, but trying to make it look like I was busy doing something so I don’t have too much attention on him. Then I see him come in from the corner of my eye. I still don’t look up and I still don’t look up. I wait till he’s just here and I go, ‘Oh, hi! How are you?’ I was trying to be nonchalant and my heart was racing. From the moment we met, it was kind of instant in terms of our chemistry and, physically, we look like we could be related.”
How does one endeavor to portray Sylvester Stallon’s daughter?
“I try to do this thing when I was with him. I try to imitate some of his mannerisms,” Shahi laughs. “I would imitate the way he sits and he like to talk with his hands. I would start using my hands. Just things that would basically get me the job. Other than my read. That is lesson 101 in how to be Sylvester Stallone’s daughter. Use your hands, puff up your chest a little bit, and sit with your legs slightly apart. And constantly practice your golf swing!”
Now you too can play Sylvester Stallone’s daughter at home.
One part of a soundstage is dedicated to the tattoo parlor operated by Shahi’s character in the film. There are inked up mannequin torsos and sketches on the wall. Shahi’s character is apparently covered with tattoos in the movie, but since she isn’t shooting and hasn’t undergone her three hours of makeup, we can’t see any of her tribal art. 
“If they didn’t wear off so easily, I’d have them on me right now,” Shahi says apologetically. “I love going out with my tattoos. I get hit on by girls, boys. It doesn’t matter what walk of life. I don’t know what it does. Maybe it just shows I’m tough or something to be able to handle all that ink on a little girl. I don’t know. I’ve had guys come up to me and go, ‘What color did you use to fill in your spots? I’ve been trying to fill mine in with something.’ I go, ‘They’re not real’ and they always think I’m f***ing with them. They’re like, ‘I’m not hitting on you. I’m just asking what color you used.’ I’m like, ‘I’m telling you. They’re not real.’ They’re like, ‘F***ing bitch.’ I’m like, ‘No, man. I’m serious! They’re not real!’ Once you say you’re doing a movie and playing Sly’s daughter, it’s [fine].”
Shahi, who says her character has an assortment of tats, including a cupcake on her rear, says that she’s gotten the chance to learn the basics of the trade.
“I practiced on a grapefruit,” she says. “That’s apparently what you start out on. Then you move up to a pig. A dead one. I had a great big pig that I was practicing on. The boys were impressed.”
Momoa agrees.
“[E]veryone wants to get tattooed by her,” he says. “She did a really good job. She did a pig’s hind end. She did a really good job.”
You may recognize Kang from a little smash called “Fast Five,” a movie he admits he wasn’t necessarily convinced would break out, at least not after watching himself in a rough cut.
“Every time I see myself onscreen in a film, I go ‘OH! So bad! Why did you do that? So horrible!’ And so, I didn”t know.  And when I followed Neal Moritz and some of the Universal executives on opening night, the numbers kept going and going. And then we got to ‘Jurassic Park’ numbers, and if we break ‘Jurassic Park’ numbers, it”s going to be the number one opening film for Universal. And it annihilated that! Hopefully, ‘Fast Six’ will have that, hopefully ‘Headshot’ [the shooting title for “Bullet”] will have that Part 2, 3, you know…”
He reminds himself, “Oh, it”s ‘Bullet to the Head.’ but we”ll have ‘Bullet to the Ass’ and ‘Bullet to the Groin,’ you know!”
“Bullet to the Head” opens on February 1. We’ll let you know on the sequels.