Mark Neveldine interview: Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, flaming skulls, and breaking Marvel’s rules

In anticipation of Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, we had a chat to Mark Neveldine, one half of the writing/directing team who brought you Crank…

You probably didn’t know Mark Neveldine’s first name before you decided to read this interview. Neveldine/Taylor are usually referred to as, well, Neveldine and Taylor, the filmmaking team known for their over-the-top, frenetic directorial style and super-edgy subject matter.

They’re the team who brought us the Crank franchise (and thus many of Jason Statham’s finest moments); they tackled the weird world of online gaming in the wonderfully crazy Gamer; and they also wrote Pathology, one of the darkest and most disturbing horror movies of the past few years.

So it’s really, really exciting that they’re about to unleash their vision of Marvel’s darkest antihero in Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance this month. We grabbed Mark Neveldine for a chat about it…

How did you come to be involved with the Ghost Rider franchise?

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We were pitching another project to Rachel O’Connor, the Sony exec, and she said “Oh, this is a cool pitch, but we’ve got this big project here with Nic Cage in it; I don’t know if you guys are interested in doing a comic book, but it’s Ghost Rider.” And we were like, wow. Brian [Taylor] is sort of a comic book guy, so he gave me the pitch on the movie and the comic book. We went in and met with the heads of Sony and showed them our take on it – how we wanted to make it darker, kind of more demonic and more criminal – and they loved it.

So you weren’t into the character or the comics beforehand?

Well, I know very little about comics – I’m a comic book fan as soon as I read them, but I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up hunting and fishing in upstate New York and Brian grew up in LA, so we’re totally different that way. I ended up reading about a hundred of the Ghost Rider comics, and I loved a lot of them. I loved the idea of the Ghost Rider; I thought, a dude on a motorcycle with a flaming skull? I’m in.

You can’t really say no to Nicolas Cage with his head on fire, can you?

No way! Nic is like a childhood hero, so that was super awesome.

Let’s talk about Nic, then. What’s he like to work with?

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Nic is funny. He’s fun, and he’s goofy; but when he does the actual work he is serious as hell, and he is really amazing at what he does. He loves direction; he wants your direction. He’s a method actor, and he does all the research. We were online looking at insects and African tribal dances; he was really trying to figure out how he was going to move as the Ghost Rider in this movie – how does, like, a creature spawned from Hell translate on Earth? And you know, he’s great. He’s such a contrast of personalities and we loved him. It was a great collaboration between the three of us, I can’t say enough great things about him.

He does seem like an actor who can be amazing with a good director, and other times it feels like he’s kind of off the leash and just doing crazy things – but you want some of that craziness…

Well, exactly! It’s a Ghost Rider movie so we’re like, we want crazy! But he gave us both sides. Johnny Blaze is just a really great well-drawn character, and then there’s the crazy Ghost Rider. He kind of said, when you’re the Ghost Rider you’re out sucking people’s souls, and then when you wake up the next morning you’re Johnny Blaze and it’s like the worst hangover of your life. And I thought that was a great take on that character.

Just to clarify, then – Spirit Of Vengeance isn’t exactly a sequel, is it? Are we calling it a reboot?

It’s a ‘requel’, or a reboot, or a… re-engineering. The only thing that really connects the two is Nic playing Ghost Rider. But he plays that character in a completely different way too so it’s gonna feel completely different. It looks different, too – the first movie has a white skull, we went with a black charred skull; we didn’t go with the spikes on the jacket, we decided to let the jacket chemically change. So if he’s on fire, let’s have it kind of bubble up like tar bubbles in the summer; you could almost reach out with a finger and pop ‘em. We had a lot of fun with the aesthetics of that.

I have to admit, though, I really liked the first movie.

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I think a lot of people liked the first movie. It made like $250 million! But I have yet to see the first movie. I’ll tell you why – Brian said, “Look, I saw it with my kid. It’s a great Disney movie, but you don’t need to see it until after we make our movie.” So I’m actually gonna watch it either right before our premiere or right after, one or the other. I saw the trailer and all the stuff online but I haven’t seen the whole movie; we just wanted to kind of make this our own thing.

So is Spirit Of Vengeance finished now?

There are tiny tiny things happening; all the visual effects are done, the 3D is finishing as we speak, and we’re actually really happy with it. When people see the final finished 3D image on the screen, it’s really immersive and it’s just dope.

There are a lot more effects shots in this movie than your previous ones, does that affect the way you work?

Yeah, I mean, it’s a big change. Because in Crank, we just did our little goofy effects and had fun, and this we had to take seriously. We had to do a lot of green screen stuff, and tracking, and spending weeks on, like, 20 frames. And we’re not used to doing that stuff, but it was fun. We really had a vision of what we wanted, and Iloura, the vfx company, gave us exactly what we wanted. The first time they actually showed us the flaming skull, they nailed it. So we’re really happy with the effects, 100 per cent.

I hope you’re not taking it too seriously though…

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Oh, I mean, Ghost Rider pees fire! And there are a lot of transitional moments when he transforms into Ghost Rider where we just go buck fucking wild, and there’s a lot of the Neveldine/Taylor craziness in there.

How does the Neveldine/Taylor partnership work, anyway? How do you split things up between you?

Well, Ghost Rider’s script was kind of in place when we came in, but when we do it, we start from just sitting in a bar and drinking beers and talking about, you know, this guy who’s gotta have adrenaline to stay alive. We talk to each other until we’re tired of each other and then we write an outline that we pass back and forth, and then usually one of us does the first 50 pages of the script, then the other will edit it and write the next 50 pages, and the other will edit that 50 pages, and we’ll just keep adding to it and working on the script.

And then we get on set, and we both camera operate and we both direct. Our influences are definitely different; like I said, Brian’s from LA and I’m from upstate New York, and I love action, so I get on the rollerblades and I hang off wires and do a lot of crazy shit. But overall it’s like a football huddle – so if we want to talk to Nic, or the other actors, we all kind of huddle up. We try to keep our egos out of it and just have a lot of fun.

So, if the Spirit Of Vengeance script was written before it came to you, did you get much input?

You know, we did, but it was kinda greenlit as it was. They wanted us to give it some of that frenetic energy, and add a couple of one-liners, and just punch up the script a bit, so we were able to do that before we shot it. I wouldn’t say the Neveldine/Taylor stamp is on the script so much as it is on the movie, if that makes sense? It was cool, though, having a script that’s inspired from a David Goyer script is, like, the greatest thing that could ever happen.

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You’ve done projects like Crank, which you wrote and directed; and then there’s Pathology, which you wrote but didn’t direct; and now this, which you directed but didn’t write. Do you prefer to write, or direct, or to do everything?

We’d rather write and direct our own projects but we wanna do these bigger movies, and I think it’s important to collaborate on that. But yeah, would we have wanted to write and develop the whole thing from scratch? Yeah, of course. But Sony basically said, “here’s this, now go make it”. They didn’t really fuck with us and Marvel didn’t either. We kinda broke a lot of the rules.

What kind of rules did you break?

Well, I’ve heard that there’s this Marvel handbook; it’s like a rumour, but I never saw it. We knew that we were breaking rules by going in a direction aesthetically with Ghost Rider that hadn’t been in the comic book. We also didn’t really follow the guidelines with the bike – we used a Yamaha VMAX because my feeling is, when you’re doing action, and you’re doing it in the camera like Brian and I do, you need a motorcycle that can actually handle the action; that can handle the wheelies and the endos and the 360 burnouts. The VMAX is more of a sport bike than a Chopper: Choppers are awesome, but they’re not as hot for action as we need them to be.

And you want as much of the action as possible to be real, otherwise it just kinda defeats the point.

Yeah! You know, we came from doing everything in-camera, so this was a big step up. So as much as we could kind of contain and own, we did.

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You’ve talked a lot about the possibility of doing another Crank movie, but what I’d like to know is whether you’ll ever do something else like Pathology?

Oh, wow, never heard that question before. We love Pathology; we did tons of research for that movie, and we loved the script, we loved Marc Schölermann, we loved Milo [Ventimiglia] and [Michael] Weston’s performances… It’s a small little movie; we made it for nothing, literally, but, gosh, we spent 300 hours in LA County Morgue watching them dissect bodies and the craziest things you can imagine, and we really enjoyed the pathology and psychology of those characters.

We do have other thriller and horror film ideas; a lot of them, really, that we hope to tackle. We’re now at a stage of our careers where it’s like, can we branch out that far? Because it’s like, you know, you’ve gotta do the projects in your wheelhouse. I don’t believe that bullshit, but when things are kind of rolling, you want to go with that. We’re trying to take on a lot of projects: Brian’s writing stuff, I’m writing stuff, and we’re also trying to see if there’s a way to branch out and almost have like a little company that’s producing stuff. That might be a way for us to get more of our crazy thrillers out there.

I mean, I do love Crank, but Pathology is my favourite Neveldine/Taylor movie. It’s a bit weird, because it’s such a disturbing movie, but I love it and I keep lending it to people who are probably just horrified…

There’s a buddy of ours who uses Pathology as a date movie. He’s like our playboy friend and he literally puts it in every time he has a first date. He says it works every time.

How does that even work?

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I dunno. You have to cuddle and you have to share your inner psychology with each other, I guess.

Maybe, but it’s not like a scary movie where you’d cuddle up and you think “yes, we’re gonna have sex now” I think you’d watch it and be like “Oh my God, I’m traumatised…”

I agree with you! I’m married now or else I would try it.

Okay, silly question now. Who would win in a fight between Chev Chelios and Johnny Blaze?

Well, they’re both invincible! You can’t kill Chev Chelios! Probably what would happen is that Ghost Rider would kill Chev Chelios, and then Chev would come back and he would drag Ghost Rider to hell.

Mark Neveldine, thank you very much.

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