‘Riddick’: 20 things we learned on the set of the Vin Diesel threequel

Last March, I traveled to frigid Montreal to visit the set of Universal’s “Riddick,” the long-awaited third installment in the cult franchise that begin with 2000’s “Pitch Black” and continued with the bigger-budget 2004 sequel “The Chronicles of Riddick.” While there I was given the opportunity to tour the sets and speak with cast and crew about what we can expect in the new film, which sees Vin Diesel’s interstellar antihero fighting for his life against vicious alien predators and expert bounty hunters after being left for dead on a harsh alien planet. Below are 20 key things I learned during my visit.

1) The movie will be rated “R”

While “Chronicles” was rated PG-13, both Diesel and director David Twohy maintained that the new film will harken back to “Pitch Black’s” harder-edged tone.

“We’re shooting a rated-R ‘Riddick,’ when do you see a rated-R movie?” said Diesel. “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,” he continued. “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.”

2) The movie is more “Pitch Black” than “Chronicles of Riddick”

For those whose taste runs to the nastier, more stripped-down aesthetic of the first film, you’ll be happy to know that “Riddick” continues in that tradition.

“This particular one is such a composite of the two films, a little more on the ‘Pitch Black’ side than the second one,” said cast member Raoul Trujillo, who plays the role of Lockspur, a bounty hunter. “I think what”s probably going to be the strongest element for the fans especially is the fact that again, it”s really character-driven.”

Concurred director Twohy: “[It’s] more like Pitch Black because it”s clearly R-rated as ‘Pitch Black’ was and yeah, we’re not pulling any punches this time.  You’re sort of forced to when you’re doing a studio movie for 100 million dollars or more you have to pull your punches because there is too many people, too much input, too many people trying to turn it into something else, too many people who don’t want to take chances.  So all that softens your blows and we don’t want to soften our blows anymore.”

3) There are two groups of bounty hunters after Riddick

As if Riddick didn’t have enough problems with the planet’s vicious alien predators, he also must fend off attacks by not one but two groups of bounty hunters. The competition between these two groups was highlighted by cast member Matt Nable, who plays Boss Johns, the leader of one of the mercenary units.

“When we arrive on the planet, you know, there”s a bounty out on Riddick and Jordi Molla”s [Santana] crew [is] a sort of a rag tag group of mercenaries,” said Nable. “My character Boss Johns has a fairly decisive sort of motive for appearing and going after Riddick. And certainly the crew I”m with are a much more professional type of unit, an elite group of mercenaries compared with the other guys.”

“We’re pirates, sort of,” said cast member Conrad Pia, whose character Vargas is a part of the “rag tag” group. “So we’re much more thrown together…”

“Kind of rogue mercenaries rather than militant mercenaries,” chimed in Dave Bautista, whose character Diaz is a part of the same group. “We just want to get paid. [Laughs] That’s our thing – we just want the money.”

4) The film appears to have something of a “Predator” vibe

In my notes during a tour of the “Riddick’s base camp” set, I wrote that it looked almost like the headquarters for a group of Predators, with rib meat hanging from hooks and a totem pole-type structure that appeared to be made out of bone. This impression was partially borne out by Bautista and Conrad Pia, who play the roles of bounty hunters Diaz and Vargas.

“I definitely do see the similarities [between ‘Predator’ and this movie],” said Bautista. “The biggest difference would be a lot of those guys seemed like they were very similar in their background and their physicality, but we are all so very different from each other.”

Chimed in Pia: “If I remember ‘Predator’ correctly, a lot of the characters were very typical alpha males trying to lead the pack. In this case, we have the two groups. Each group has very distinct characters on them. We have certain rivalries within the group, and then we have also the big dynamic against the other group.”

Ok, so maybe not exactly like “Predator” – but perhaps not too terribly far off either.

5) The movie is first and foremost for hardcore fans of the series

With a budget far lower than that of the second film (a reported $38 million vs. more than $100 million), Twohy seemed much less concerned about pleasing the biggest audience possible than with satisfying the series’ core group of fans.

“No, we’re not too concerned about [making it accessible to an audience who doesn’t know the first two movies],” said Twohy. “We’re concerned with just paying off the loyal fans and we think that if somebody doesn’t understand something in this movie the solution is go back and look at the other two movies and get up to speed.”

Nevertheles, the director made clear that watching the first two movies is not a prerequisite for enjoying this latest installment:

“Certainly it does play in a gratifying way as a standalone movie, but there are threads that we continue to sew into the fabric of this movie as well that we started sewing in previous movies and will continue to sew in future movies.  So it is kind of a standalone movie, but if you came to it fresh you would probably be perplexed by a couple of the beats, a few of the beats, sure, but I’d rather have them interested, either perplexed and interested rather than over explaining everything, so we’re not into over explaining things.  We just are trying to elegantly sew them together over a very long format.”

6) The film’s effects will be somewhat less practical than “Pitch Black”

While Twohy had hoped to shoot the film outdoors in the fall, a so-called “financial hiccup” forced the production to move to a soundstage in the dead of the Montreal winter – a development that necessitated the use of a hefty amount of green-screen.

“I would have loved to do more practical,” said the director. “You know when we shot ‘Pitch Black’ we shot a lot of it outside, built a spaceship outside in the Outback of Australia.  We wanted to do it the same way, but we got weathered out, so our weather window you know.  Could have shot in Canada in the fall, wanted to, had the financial hiccup and that put us into winter in Canada.  You can’t film outdoors, had to run indoors, had to hang 1,000 feet of green screen, had to add 200 visual effects shots.”

As for the film’s creatures, they’ll be envisioned using the same basic mixture of practical vs. CGI that was utilized for the first movie.

“I am doing [the creature effects] the way I shot ‘Pitch Black’ so that whenever there is a close proximity to the actors or contact with the actors I have puppet pieces and I keep them moving,” said Twohy. “I keep it energetic.  I know how to light it so that you can get away with the close-ups and then anything that’s a medium or wide shot will be CG.”

7) Riddick flies solo for a good chunk of the movie

While Riddick and his pursuers eventually come together later in the film, the antihero is more or less in his own world for the majority of the film – at least based on the following quote from co-star Raoul Trujillo (Lockspur):

“Reading the script is one thing, but I really haven”t necessarily seen what [Riddick is] doing, because in this script there are all these other characters that are together and developed and it”s Riddick”s absence in the parts with us until really three-quarters into the film,” said Trujillo. “So it”s hard to say, because not being on set and witnessing what he actually did and how he”s doing it any differently, it”s hard to comment on that.”

8) Raoul Trujillo’s character Lockspur is a tracker like Riddick

“We all have like our own little gift that we bring to the whole thing, so Lockspur brings in the tracker [element],” said Trujillo of his character. “So I”m perfect for Riddick, because that”s how he operates and I”m able to go in there and see a lot of the things and pick up a lot of the things that [the others] necessarily pick up on, so that”s what I do, and then everybody else has their own little thing…I don”t personally go toe-to-toe with Riddick at all, because the idea is that we are all there to capture him, but we have a really good moment together that has to do with, again, the tracker instinct and the fact that I probably have a similar sense as he does of survival as well.”

9) The movie features a scene with “floating Harleys”

Every sci-fi movie has to have its cool futuristic vehicles, and in “Riddick” we have floating Harleys known as ‘hogs.’ As described by Trujillo:

“It”s what we call ‘the hogs,” which are like these Harleys that just float on air,” he said. “That will be good fun, because that”s one of the reasons I like shooting this kind of stuff, is you don”t really have to worry about putting yourself out on some highway or dirt and get trashed. It”s very safe, but it”s all playing with an illusion. I”m looking forward to that scene.”

10) The movie exists because Diesel agreed to do a cameo in “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”

“When we first did ‘Pitch Black’ we had no studio, the studio folded,” Diesel told us. “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.”

11) Katee Sackhoff’s character Dahl is a sniper who wields an “electrical current gun”

“My character’s this sniper,” said Sackhoff. “So you see me most of the time with this sniper rifle that’s just a head shorter than I am pretty much. And then my handgun. In this one I was given an LOD, which is an electrical current gun. I was like, ‘come on it’s kind of girly, why do I have to fire that thing?’ So I was trying to make it cooler. So the director goes, ‘well there’s a three second load-up while you stand there.’ And I was like, ‘what if I shoot my handgun at the same time while it’s gearing up?’ So I’m standing there with this massive thing and firing at the same time then sweeping with this big LOD so I found a way to make it as masculine as possible.”

12) There is an undercurrent of romantic tension between Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and Dahl (Katee Sackhoff)

“[Katee will] tell you a lot more about her character, but there”s an association between my character and her character perhaps that they were, you know, at one stage involved, or whatever,” said Nable. “But there”s a very, very deep trust that is amongst them, both of those characters, and plays out very minimally. There”s not a great deal of dialogue between them, it”s looks and it”s… she has his back. She has my back the whole film.”

“The fun little tidbit of Dahl is that she just pretends that she’s a lesbian so they don’t [come onto her],” said Sackhoff of being the only female bounty hunter. “I think that Matt Nable [Boss Johns] and I had a moment where we decided that there was maybe something between them at some point but that he’s decided to just shut it down for the greater good, meaning his task at hand.”

13) Katee Sackhoff’s “Battlestar Galactica” role helped her land the part

While making sure to mention that her “Battlestar” wasn’t the only reason she won the role of bounty hunter Dahl, it was no doubt a contributing factor in Twohy and Diesel’s decision to cast her.

“You know what’s funny? DT [David Twohy] and Vin hadn’t even seen ‘Battlestar,'” said Sackhoff. “They just knew that I brought the sci-fi fans with me, So I think they’ve seen it now, but I don’t think it was one of those things where that character got me the role. It was one of those things where I just came in with myself. In the beginning I was in this small group of girls that were kind of in the mix for it. And it ultimately came down to the fact that they wouldn’t have to teach me how to do anything. So, it’s kind of nice. I was just clearing jammed guns out there in the rain, holding a big saw clearing guns with one hand.”

14) R&B singer Keri Hilson plays a prisoner

While she wasn’t on set during our visit, Hilson – who made her feature-film debut in last year’s “Think Like a Man” – has a supporting role as a captive of one of the bounty hunter groups. Said Twohy simply: “She plays a prisoner, a convict who arrives with the mercenaries on this planet on which Riddick is stranded.” The more you know.

15) Jordi Molla’s character develops into a villain

According to cast member Matt Nable, Molla’s character Santana – the leader of the “rag tag” group of bounty hunters – is perhaps the film’s main human villain. And from the sound of it, he’s a damn irresistible one.

“My character [Boss Johns is] not a villain,” said Nable. “I think that Jordi Molla”s character Santana, which Jordi wrapped today, he was just amazing at. He takes the side of the villain, but the way he”s played it is, you know from where I”m watching is, it”s the villain you want to keep seeing, it”s like ‘When”s that guy coming back on screen,’ because he”s been that compelling.”

16) Nolan Gerard Funk’s character Luna is described as “the hope of the movie”

“I”ve described it as being equatable to Alexa Davalos” character in the second one, just that she was the innocent in these rough-and-tumble mercs,” said Funk of his character Luna, a young bounty hunter aligned with Jordi Molla’s Santana. “Obviously, strong enough to be able to stay alive and fight and all that. But also, I think the name Luna gives away a lot. In this very dark world and the temperature of human beings, you have someone bringing in the faith and bringing in the idea that we have to listen to the signs. I think I”m even more tapped into listening to the planet. I”m one of the first people who starts becoming suspicious that there could be creatures out there and there could be more to this planet than we”re actually seeing.”

17) Riddick discovers more about his Furyan heritage

While not much is known about his origins, Riddick is part of a race of “Furyans,” a race of humans from the planet of the same name (“Furya”) who evolved differently from humans on Earth as a result of their world’s harsh environment. Riddick’s quest to find out “what it means to be a Furyan” appears to be at the heart of the series, and it sounds like he may learn more about his origins in this new installment.

“[Riddick] mirrors my own quest for identity, my eternal quest as a child,” said Diesel of relating to the character. “David Twohy asked me what I thought a Furyan was and depending on what day you asked me I would give a different answer. …Something he gravitated to was the idea that a Furyan doesn’t know where he came from, and that simple reality of not knowing where you came from is such an integral part of being a Furyan and playing with this identity on a grand scale. The whole fun the Chronicles of Riddick is playing with is one perception is I was dumped behind the liquor store trashbin and what is my real identity and purpose.”

“Riddick is sort of an elemental figure, and so the question is how much do you want to evolve an elemental figure?” added Twohy. “You do want to make discoveries about him and that’s what we are slowly doing as he sort of discovers who he is himself and what it means to be a Furyan.”

18) They are planning two more movies

“Vin made it a point to say that ‘Pitch Black’ was like ‘The Hobbit’ and that he had three, like a trilogy of ‘Chronicles’ movies planned.  How did the economic realities change that initial plan for those three movies?” asked a member of our group to director David Twohy.

Answered Twohy: “Not much because the plan now is two more. …And that’s planned meaning as Vin and I ballpark it out and saying look how many stories can we tell with this character before we run out of steam and always have an escalation of interest, and so we’ve dealt out two more movies and that is the goal at this point for us.”

So where will the next two movies go?

“You”ve got to go to the Underverse,” said Diesel. “That”s something I talked about at the beginning of our meeting today. It”s expected, it”s something I firmly believe…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 [Riddick’s home planet of] 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.”

19) There is another video game in the works

With two video games in the “Riddick” franchise already released – 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay” and 2009’s “The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena” – both Diesel and Twohy maintain that another title is coming our way.

“”Oh my God, yes,” said Diesel to the question of whether there will be more games. “‘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…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.”

“There is another game in the works,” echoed Twohy. “It deals with the merc world, mercenary world.  We’re trying to expand that via the game system as well.

20) Karl Urban’s character Lord Vaako returns to “lay the groundwork” for a fourth movie

Urban, who originated the role of Vaako in the second film and is clearly listed as a member of the cast online – is back as the character in the new film, though the extent of his involvement in the plot remains unknwon.

“The short version of that is that it is a ‘Jeremiah Johnson’-like survival story, but with Riddick at the heart of it,” said Twohy. “That said, we don’t turn our backs on the mythology that we planted in the last movie and we actually are bringing Karl back for a few days of filming next week to try to advance it and try to lay the groundwork for movie four.”