Francis Lawrence interview: Water For Elephants, pachyderms and I Am Legend

With period drama Water For Elephants out now in cinemas, we caught up with director Francis Lawrence to talk about his movies…

Already a successful director of commercials and dozens of music videos for the likes of Aerosmith, Justin Timberlake and Greenday, Francis Lawrence branched out into features in 2005 with the effects laden comic book adaptation, Constantine. Both Constantineand Lawrence’s second movie, I Am Legend, though flawed, were a showcase for his distinctive visual flair.

Lawrence’s third film, Water For Elephants, is a far more low-key picture, a period drama in which Robert Pattinson’s gentle vet clashes with Christoph Waltz’s terrifying circus ringmaster, and falls for Reese Witherspoon’s browbeaten horse trainer.

While notably light on action and special effects compared to Constantine and I Am Legend, the film still displays the hallmarks of Lawrence’s directing style, with long takes, beautifully framed shots and a keen eye for detail.

With Water For Elephants out now in cinemas, we met with Mr Lawrence to talk about the making of the film, animals, and what happened on the shoot of I Am Legend.

Ad – content continues below

Water For Elephants is a real departure for you, surely?

It is, in a way. It’s funny, because I knew when I was doing it that, from the outside, it would seem like a big departure, which, for me, is a good thing. From the inside, for me, I look at it as I’m not just a comic book, sci-fi movie guy. I’m a movie guy.

But I love to build worlds. So, if you look at the world of the circus in the 30s, it’s not unlike building the world in I Am Legend. And also, in terms of the kind of story, it’s a love story. I Am Legend was not.

I Am Legend was a rich, emotional experience, where you could be scared and cry, and there’s some wish fulfilment. This, I also think, is a movie that works that way. It, hopefully, makes you cry, and sometimes you cheer, and sometimes you’re horrified at the things you see. I like that mix of emotions in a story.

I suppose the thing the film has in common with your earlier films is its technical challenges.

Ad – content continues below

Yeah, yeah. And in a very different way, for me. There were two big reasons why I wanted to do this film, coming off a movie like I Am Legend. One, I wanted to do a film that was a little more hopeful, thematically, and warmer, partially in response to something more nihilistic, but also having kids somehow changed me a little bit.

And the other reason was, having done a movie with so many visual effects shots and then coming to the end, where you have the plug pulled because you have a deadline and you have to deliver the last reel, and you know there’s a hundred shots in the movie you’re not satisfied with, was a real disappointment to me.

So, I really wanted to do a movie that I could approach in a more organic way. There are still visual effects, but they’re much more in the distance. It’s about painting out non-period elements and deep digital matte paintings, and things like that, instead of things that are so upfront. I was really disappointed by that part of the process on I Am Legend.

Some test shots appeared online recently, which showed the physical make-up of the creatures in I Am Legend, which was later replaced with CG.

What was interesting with I Am Legend was that I wanted to do it with real people in the beginning. We actually cast this huge group of people, like, fifty dancers and parkour guys. And we shaved their heads and they worked with movement coaches and we created this behaviour for everybody. And we built these suits. This guy called Christien Tinsley built them.

Ad – content continues below

We actually started to shoot with them. Second unit started first and we were doing stuff with them running across Washington Square Park towards the house, and I was really worried about it, because they needed to be fast, and we were going to have to augment them and duplicate them. They had to be aggressive, and I just wasn’t convinced it was going to work.

When I saw the dailies, I broke out into a cold sweat. They were very pale, and covered in this chalky powder to protect their skin, which was a really interesting concept, but it looked like a bunch of mime artists running across Washington Square Park. It didn’t work at all.

And one night, we shut that all down and decided we were going to go for CG. We basically postponed anything we were going to shoot with creatures until much later. We went to a whole other design process. We used the same actors, but now they were in these speed skater suits with dots, and it was all performance capture, which would be translated to these things.

It was better than doing the live versions at that time, because it didn’t work, but we needed six more months on the post end to get all the visual effects rights. Because there were some close-ups that were stunning, and then you get some shots that I never got right, and it just fucking blows it. It just kills it. And it’s just, like, one of the big downfalls for me with that movie, personally, was with the visual effects.

I was really interested to hear what your take on it was, because there’s always been an online discussion about that film’s use of CG. From what you’ve just said, it makes sense. If you’d had six more months, those effects would have worked far better.

Yeah, and if you want to go even deeper into it, part of the problem was, if you look at the movie, the most effective part of the film is the scene where he [Will Smith’s character] goes into the dark building, because you never see [the creatures].

Ad – content continues below

And the truth is, if you go all the way back to the great creature movies like Alien, the best thing is, you never see them. As soon as you get into the back third of the movie, and there’s this huge horde of creatures you’ve already seen that aren’t scary any more.

I think that’s also one of the mistakes. They should have just been hidden. They should have been much more hidden in shadows and barely getting a sense of movement. It would have been much more viscerally scary.

So, I assume the elephant in Water For Elephants required quite a few effects shots?

Zero. There were no effects shots. The only visuals effects shots we had with the elephant were to do with a bullhook, because we never had anything like that anywhere near her, physically. Other than that, the elephant did everything.

It’s because of what we just talked about that I wanted to do as much in-camera as possible. Even, by the way, the moments in the movie where you see the trunk and a close-up of [Robert Pattinson], for the most part, I stayed wide. Because although it’s the elephant’s trunk, people are going to think it’s an animatronic trunk. Everything is animal. There’s no animatronics, no CG animals. It’s all real.

Ad – content continues below

Now, in the stampede sequence, we had to layer in some of those animals, but we shot them in the real environment, and they’re all live. But you can’t really have lions and tigers running in a crowd of untrained extras.

Why do you always end up working with animals in your movies?

I love animals. Even if you go back to my music video days, I can’t tell you how many animals I used. I did a video for Beyoncé a few weeks ago and I used a lion and some hyenas and a yak. So, I always seem to be around animals.

Going back to the technical considerations, the bits on the circus were well handled. Were they difficult to achieve?

It was one of the more difficult days. When you’re making a movie, you have those days that you really look forward to, and it’s a little bit like Murphy’s law. The days you look forward to become your hell days. The days you’re dreading become these amazing days.

And I was really looking forward to it, because one of the disappointments on the movie was that I wanted to do the walk through the train in one shot. In theory, it should work. But the problem is, we did some rehearsals and got the pace right, but the rig for the Steadicam was just too big for the narrow, narrow space, and there’s one turn two-thirds through the walk that goes around in an S in a confined space. And we just couldn’t make it round the bend with the operator, Steadicam, the characters, the guys who pull focus, the guys holding the light.

Ad – content continues below

So, I had to do it with a cut, which doesn’t actually hurt the sequence. But I was really looking forward to making this one-take version, so you truly felt that all these cars were connected, and that we didn’t cheat. We hadn’t just built these big sets.

But I think you still get it. We really shot it on the train in the real train cars, and they were all linked up.

That sequence reminded me a little bit of Goodfellas.

A little bit. There’s something immersive, I think, when those kinds of shots are used properly. They’re really fun, and in films like Children Of Men, they’re really effective, when you stick with things and go a little wider than normal. Letting the environment be the character.

I was really blown away, as well, by Christoph Waltz’s performance, which I thought was remarkable. Did you have conversations about how dark you should make his character?

Ad – content continues below

Yeah, we did. We really tried, together, not to judge him, as a character. It’s a mistake people can make on a film like this, where they say that they’re evil. I think it would have been unfair for he and I to judge him and say he’s evil.

Instead, typically, what we would do when we would talk was flop the story, and we would say that he was the hero. He’s built this family and built the circus and he’s desperate. He’s trying to hold his family together, and he wants the circus to make money so that he can pay his guys.

And in comes this young fucking guy who’s going to take his wife and destroy his family and his circus. When you look at it from that perspective, what it does is gives him a logic, which I think makes him human.

Now, his morality is questionable. Personally, I align myself with Jacob anyway, and he’s going to build his life in a very moral way. But that’s the approach Christoph and I had.  And it’s also interesting, because there were certain moments where the scenes were scripted a bit scarier, in kind of an on-the-nose way.

What I think Christoph is good at doing is taking that away and letting it be in the performance, and in the character in his approach to a scene. There’s a sequence in the movie where he finally realises that the two of them are in love, and he makes them dance, and he’s being a bit sadistic.

It was scripted, actually, where he had the bullhook and he starts knocking things down. We both decided that was a little too easy and thought the threat becomes the bullhook instead of the man. And so we got rid of the bullhook, which, as a filmmaker, makes you a bit uneasy, because you’re relying on that tension, right?

Ad – content continues below

And then instead, you allow it to be the sadism and the character himself, which I think was really effective.

There were times, as well, when you could almost forget about the terrible things he’d done earlier, because he was so charming. That’s quite rare in film.

Yeah. We also added a scene that wasn’t in the book. After the big meeting between Rosie [the elephant] and Jacob comes in and discovers Christoph hunched in a chair and desperate. In the book, Christoph’s character used to come to Jacob and apologise, which I felt was an act. You know that if someone comes to you with an apology, you can always question their motives.

But if you discover somebody alone and hiding, you at least feel, for the moment, you’re near the real person. I thought that was a very important scene to have.

What was the casting like, in general, for this film? Establishing the correct dynamic between the characters was obviously important.

Ad – content continues below

A triangle like this is a bit of a puzzle, and Reece [Witherspoon] was the first person we got involved with. She was one of the first people I ever pitched for the movie in general, and the only person I pitched for the character of Marlena. I wanted a real all-American girl to play the character, and I think she’s a great actress – smart, sexy, funny.

Behind the smile, she’s very tough, and I wanted her to be a real survivor. I wanted her to have that toughness and Reece has that. We wanted to build around her once she was on board.

Christoph was actually next. Christoph came to us and had read the script and really liked the part. This was before I’d seen Inglourious Basterds, so I went and watched it and was blown away by him.

Reece, he and I got together and talked and he came on board. I thought he was great – really magnetic, and charming. Smart, sharp, and he can be really scary too, but in a subtle, interesting way.

I liked the dynamic between the two of them. I liked the age difference, because it makes their alliance a little uneasy. He’s a bit of a father figure, but you can also see why she’d go for a guy like this, who’s charming and charismatic.

Ad – content continues below

And then we found Rob. In all honesty, I was sceptical after Twilight, because I didn’t know, because of how stylised those movies are, I didn’t know what he could do behind all the contacts and make-up and stuff. When I sat down with him, I realised that he’s quite a bit like the Jacob character himself.

He’s a really good guy, and even with all the craziness, he’s still very humble, still very comfortable in his own skin. And he’s just becoming a man. He’s not a boy anymore. But I think also, unlike a lot of young guys right now, he’s not really a cynic, and I thought that was really important. I thought, if I can get some of that into the character, it would be perfect.

And again, I liked the dynamic between he and Reece, because they’re both romantic actors, but it didn’t seem too easy. In another version of the movie, if you hired Kristen Stewart from Twilight, and put them in it together, you go, “Oh, well, they’re gonna be together.” It’s almost too simple.

What I like about this love story is that it’s atypical, structurally. They don’t fall madly in love and then spend the rest of the movie trying to be together. It’s a slow burn. He’s falling for her, but he’s got to keep his distance because she’s married, and she doesn’t fall for him for a long time. To her, he’s naive and innocent and young. He can’t give her what she needs.

It’s only through the course of the movie, through the trauma, that they start to bond and she can begin to trust him. And even when they decide to run away, it’s imperfect and scary and sad and desperate.

Ad – content continues below

You also did a series called Kings. How did the making of that compare, because that was quite a star-filled TV show?

Ian McShane, who was great to work with. Kings was interesting. It was another one of these things where we got to build a world. It was an alternate universe. We got to transform New York into the capital of a fictional country, and Ian McShane was the monarch.

It was a modern, alternate universe version of the David and Goliath story, and a really good friend called Michael Green created it, and it was really fun. Unfortunately, nobody really tuned in to the first episode, so it was kind of dead in the water from the beginning. But the people who watched it loved it, and I really loved the world and the characters. I think it was just a tricky kind of show for NBC at the time. They just didn’t know how to market it properly.

It seemed to be one of those shows that had perfectly good ideas, but didn’t seem to click for whatever reason.

It was tough, because they ended up selling it on alternate universe, monarchy, and war. So, people never really knew what the story was, and I think they were confused by all of it.

Ad – content continues below

It was an expensive show to make, so it was a bad combination of things. Had it been HBO or Showtime, where they let things live and breathe for a little while, and you’re not counting on all those viewers being there from episode one, it might have had a life. I was a little disappointed by that, but it was a great fun experience, and it was fun working with Ian McShane.

I’m actually doing a show when I get back, another pilot, for Fox. It’s called Touch, with Kiefer Sutherland. That’ll be really fun.

Will that tie you up for the foreseeable future, or do you have another feature in the pipeline?

I don’t. I’m developing a bunch of things, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. Hopefully, something will line up right after the television show. As soon as I’m back after this tour, I’ll start prepping the show. We’ll shoot it in June and we’ll be done by July or something.

Francis Lawrence, thank you very much.

Ad – content continues below