We had the pleasure of talking to Australian born director Russell Mulcahy, best known to most of us as the director of Highlander, The Shadow and, more recently, Resident Evil: Extinction. (I’ve also just managed to get hold of a copy of his film Ricochet, which I remember being a solid and underrated 90s action-thriller, starring Denzel Washington and John Lithgow, but more on that soon.)
The interview was to promote his latest film, Give ‘em Hell Malone (released on DVD today), which stars the ever dependable Thomas Jane as an old school private eye, living in a bizarre setting of the past and present. But we were fortunate to have time to discuss his career at length too and get some great stories in the process.
I thought Give ‘em Hell Malone was a lot of fun and it made me realise how few old style private eye movies there are nowadays. Why do think there hasn’t been much of resurgence in that genre?
I’m not sure, because they were a lot of fun and maybe, not so much in recent years, but in the past maybe twenty years or so, they tried to make them a little too comic book-y and comical. Whereas the older noir films definitely had a quirkiness to the them and a black humour, but they also had a serious, strange, underlying tone to them and we wanted to keep that. Even though there was stuff that was really out there in ours, we really wanted to keep an underlying threat going through it.
It’s probably closest, in terms of your own work, to The Shadow. What inspired you to go back to that genre?
Probably, in some ways, because I wanted The Shadow to be more like Malone [laughs], so maybe The Shadow was a little too glossy and I just wanted to make this a little bit more ‘in your face’, a little grittier, a little weirder and I was allowed to do that, because there was the freedom in the script to do so.
I thought that the opening shootout was great, especially as it tried to do something a little different. Where did the conceptual idea behind the way it was shot come from, as it was quite graphically violent?
It came from just exploring… I remember back in the late 60s, watching The Wild Bunch and being blown away by it thinking, “Oh my god that was violent!” and then I saw the 25th anniversary release and thought, “Ooh my god it was so tame.”
I just wanted to put people there and not just see guys getting shot, with all of the blood bags going ‘boomboomboom’, which I’ve done thousands of, so I just wanted to explore various ways of making that bullet seem to hurt.
Also I wanted to disorientate the audience using different angles, so sometimes the camera would be under the ground, and you’d see the wet and bloody footprints walk over you. So, I just wanted to keep the audience spun around a little bit, because I’m sure when you’re in a gunfight it’s just complete chaos and I just wanted to create this feeling with exploding heads and plaster flying off the walls and shadows and create that sense of ‘Holy Christ, this is just chaos!’
Well, it certainly worked when we watched it, as we’d just sat down to eat dinner!
And my girlfriend’s face kind of dropped!
Oh my god! Well, I hope you kept the food down.
I was curious to know how you came to cast Thomas Jane, who’s quite an underappreciated commodity, certainly in Hollywood…
Well, he was already attached to the project, before I came on. He was friends with Mark Hosack, the writer, and they’d been working on it for a little while and then I was friends with the producer, Richard Rionda, who got the finance together.
Richard and I were trying to get a film called The Watcher (made), (based on) a book I bought many years ago, which is very, very strange, warped horror film, which we’re still developing because it’s very hard to bring into a film format.
However, then this script came along – or the first version of it – and it just had this ‘wow’ factor and I just loved that premise of the one simple object of the elephant, which just seems to send a whole bunch of people on this crazy search of mayhem.
Doug Hutchison (who plays the pyromaniac character of Matchstick) seems to be channelling the Joker (the Heath Ledger version)…
Yeah, I don’t know whether he was. He was not directed to do that. I can’t remember now, but we were talking about what his back-story was and, obviously, when I talk with actors, it’s always fun to sort of work out their past. So, we did work out his whole rather terrifying childhood that he’d had with his parents and he explained a bit of that in the film, but it wasn’t in the original script.
Do you know what? I don’t ask actors what they’re channelling!
That’s fair enough! [both laugh] Malone seemed, like quite a lot of your films, to have a sense of humour and fun. Is that something you often try to aim for?
SPOILER FOR LOLITA REMAKE COMING UP IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT
Well, you know, I think sometimes the most horrific things can happen and have a bizarre comedy to them. For example, in the remake of Lolita where Frank Langella, at the end, gets shot, obviously mortally, but instead of doing the big death scene, he just stands there and says something like, “I think I’ll just go and lie back in bed,” and it was the most wonderfully twisted way of dying.
That way of thinking I always love, when it’s not going for the obvious, and also, to me, there’s always going to be some humour in a situation, whether it’s bad or sick humour, or genuine. There always seems to be some oddity about life.
One thing I have to ask about is your involvement with the remake of Teen Wolf, as I know that there’s a lot of worried people out there…
I’ve heard this. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard this and let me assure you – I mean we are not screwing around with the obviously very much beloved, 80s, Michael J. Fox classic. We are not doing that.
Obviously, it’s inspired by it, but the new MTV Teen Wolf takes out a totally different slant, taking more of the slant of The Lost Boys, so to speak. It still has humour, but it’s basically got horror and humour.
The humour is in the characters and the real situations and the teenagers. It’s very real and not played for any obvious laughs. They come from the situation. So, there is definitely humour and horror. We really, really wanted to go for that and also the reality. Also, it’s obviously pumped up with not only a good scary score, but it’s also pumped up with great music.
I’ve been aware of your films since I was a kid, but you also had such an amazing career directing pop videos, particularly in the 80s. So, one thing I have to ask – as much for my Dad as he’s a massive Queen fan and was the person who introduced me to Highlander – how was working with Queen in the context of their music being such an integral part of Highlander?
It was totally integral and it came about at a wonderfully early stage in the editing, in that I had cut together a twenty minute piece which was excerpts from a number of scenes and, because I’d being doing so many videos, I hadn’t done any with Queen, but I’d been doing a lot with Elton John, Duran Duran, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel and whatever…
There was a lot!
Yeah [laughs] there was quite a lot of them!
And I’d always been a fan of Queen and approached them. So, then they watched it and they said yes. So, the incredible thing that happened was that they came in early on the film and the composer was a guy called Michael Kamen, who passed away a number of years ago, and he also had a rock and roll background, but had been doing wonderful scores for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
He was on board as composer, Queen came on board, they wrote some songs and then he would then take some of them and at the end, or halfway through, intercut the score. There was an extraordinary collaboration between the band. It wasn’t just like we finished the film and asked for a song. They were very much involved in edit and during the months of post production.
There’s a great advantage to having the film composer work with a band like Queen, as they also had that, as you know, that rock and roll but also operatic quality, which lends itself very much to the operatic quality of the movie.
I know you must have spoken at length about Highlander over the years, so in trying to think of a different angle, I thought I’d ask what the first positive nostalgic memory of working on the film was?
Well, I guess – my god there’s so many! Obviously, one is working with Queen and becoming very good friends with everyone and becoming very good friends with the late, great, wonderful, genius Freddie Mercury.
Two… would be it was a film that we did and that was financed, but EMI and the other financers really left us alone. We didn’t have any real interference and were left free to make our film. And you know the original screenplay was called ‘Dark Night’, which (Highlander) was based on, was written by Greg Widen. Then we had [the line broke up, but it sounded like “Peter Bell who’d just done Red Dawn”] came on and did another version of the screenplay, so we had a great script.
And then there was Christophé (Lambert)…there were just many (positive) aspects… it was like we could just think ‘let’s do a swordfight’ and as they normally happen on a mountain, or forest and even though we had all those, we thought, “Let’s do the first one in car park and let’s have all the steam come on, so the car park’s in the rain, in an underground car park!” and everyone else is going “What!?”
It was a great collaboration. The whole thing was great. But, you know, the costumes by James Acheson, who did The Last Emperor, it was just a great pool of talent… Allan Cameron, the production designer, who went on to do The Mummy and The Mummy 2 movies, Jungle Book – wonderful designer. So, yeah it was a truly… even our line producer, Eva Monley, worked on Lawrence Of Arabia and she had some wonderful stories about that! [laughs]
It was a great family and we went up there to the mad areas of Glen Coe, with some mad Scotsmen and battled away! I remember getting a photograph taken – I’ve still got the photograph – of me with Sean Connery. I’m standing there and Sean Connery is holding the umbrella over me! So, I go to get this photo signed and gave it to my mum and it says: To Joan – which is my mum’s name – much love Sean Connery. And I gave it to her with such pride, as it was only my second film, and she looks at it and says, “Oh that’s nice dear, but I wish it had been Clark Gable.”![both laugh] God bless her!
That’s mothers for you!
Yeah, that is mothers for you! I don’t even know if she knew who Sean Connery was. I don’t think she was a big 007 fan.
You’re a big horror fan and are returning to it after Resident Evil 3, which looked like a lot of fun to do…
It was hot! We had a lot of zombies or undead people fainting on the set. It was one-hundred-and-twenty-eight degrees. They had about three pounds of makeup on and there was about three hundred of them. So, there were flashes of white, as medics were running through shots, but it was a lot of fun!
I read that you’re making a ‘Sharks in a Supermarket’ film (Bait)…
I am, yes. The script that I wrote is called Bait. We start shooting this June in Queensland, in Australia, in the Warner Brothers tanks.
It’s based in an underground supermarket car park and there’s a tsunami in a small Queensland town, which brings in tiger sharks. So, basically, yeah – it’s sharks in a supermarket!
I’m looking forward to it, but I’m absolutely terrified of shark movies, so it’s going to be a difficult one for me (thanks, Jaws!).
Well, especially when you get scenes like people trapped in their cars, with water up to the windscreen and then there’s sharks bashing at the windows trying to get inside. And we’re doing it in 3D and I think it’ll be a lot of fun.
The whole premise is that you go to the supermarket to buy a pint of milk and some eggs and all of a sudden your day turns into your worst nightmare…
Literally my worst nightmare! Have you got any cast down for that yet?
We have, but I can’t mention them yet. There’ll also be quite a few unknowns but… it’s the sharks [laughs] – the sharks are gonna kick ass! But we have a strong cast.
One last question. Can you tell me anything about Weapon? [A rumoured action project with Jean Claude Van Damme and Vinnie Jones]
Weapon – that’s gonna be after Bait. At the moment, I’m just finishing up Teen Wolf with the final mix and then I go straight on to Bait and that’s going to take me the rest of the year, so I’ve just got to focus on that…
Get one done first!
Yeah! And do it really well, y’know? Hey that’s a good idea!
Russell Mulcahy, thank you for your time!
Give ‘Em Hell Malone is released on DVD today courtesy of Momentum Pictures.