Rob Cohen began his Hollywood career in the 1970s as a producer and stalwart collaborator of John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games, Short Circuit). In the eighties he mixed his role as producer along with that of director and second unit director on a number of hit movies before coming into his own right as a director in the 1990s with work such as Dragonheart (1996)and the Stallone vehicle Daylight (1996).In 2001 Cohen achieved a big Hollywood hit with The Fast And The Furious, and reprised his productive partnership with Vin Diesel in the following year’s smash hit XxX. With 2005’s Stealth a box-office disappointment, the performance of his latest movie The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was potentially make-or-break for him. As it turns out, it’s ‘make’, with an initial take of $42,450,000 and counting…
Are you pleased with the news regarding Dragon Emperor?
I’m pleased with the numbers [laughs]. You can never make a film like this and expect to please the critical community – it’s not in the cards. You don’t even start the film if that’s what you’re thinking.
Opening weekend must be the most nerve-racking experience of any director’s life…?
Yes! It’s more than what you hope for your baby…the ramifications to your entire career! It’s like for you, if you make one bad post, you can’t work any more. And whose deciding that it’s bad are people that you don’t have any respect for anyway. So it’s a very weird thing – that moviemakers are either at the helm of something they really love, and doing something they really love…or they’re sitting in the wilderness in movie jail [laughs].
It’s always seemed to me like the classic astronaut description of space travel – sixteen hours of boredom followed by ten seconds of sheer terror…
Do you have any tricks to keep yourself sane when a movie of yours is just opening?
Surfing. I was going to go out right now, before I heard about this call, but…you gotta go out and live your life among normal people. If you spend your day on these opening weekends among the people who made the movie, you’ll absolutely suffer the entire experience.
Even if it’s good. I’ll never forget when XxX opened, and it was clear it was going to be a gigantic hit. Everybody was feeling so great. Joe Roth…the picture did $44 million, and he was upset it didn’t do fifty. So I had to go home and feel a little like I’d failed the studio [laughs]. Instead of going ‘Yay! This is even bigger than Fast And Furious’ , I had to go ‘Ohhh, I didn’t get enough for Joe’ [laughs].
The best thing to do is be among people who don’t care whether Ken Turan or A. O. Scott like your movie, or whether it does a hundred, or fifty, or twelve. You got to just stay centred.
Is it still too early to be talking about the next one?
Errr….yeah. I have plans and I have ideas, but I’m not even officially part of the franchise. It’s still Stephens [Stephen Sommers] and John Daniels and Bob [Ducsay] and Jim Jacks and the studio. I would have to be an invited guest.
Did the necessity of replacing Rachel Weicz with Mario Bello for Dragon Emperor help to break that feeling of being an outsider?
Yeah; I didn’t ask for that challenge, but it came to me. When Rachel decided not to come back officially – because she’d already decided that seven years ago – I looked around and I thought ‘Who was Rachel Weicz before she played Evie?’. Okay – talented actress, very pretty, respected, done some small quality work before her popcorn debut…and who’s in that situation right now? The thought came up of Maria Bello and I met with her and just felt that she had the stuff.
You’re right, but if you look at it, the only two anybodies back from the first two are Brendan and John. Jet, Michelle, Luke, Isabella and Maria were all people that I brought into it. I don’t think there was ever any feeling of ‘we’re the old guard and you guys just came aboard’. Brendan couldn’t have been more embracing of everyone, including me.
Was China the key factor in you saying yes to the project?
Yes – absolutely.
Set in Africa, it would have been maybe a pass, maybe ‘I’ll think about it’…?
If it had been anywhere but China it would have been a pass. I just don’t do sequels. But to do a big fantasy movie in China…that doesn’t come every day. I had already worked my ass off on Sinbad and had it fall apart. I was probably never going to see this opportunity again. You’ve said that Sinbad fell through because of Stealth’s box office problems…
…and you’ve regretted getting overly fascinated by the technical opportunities of Stealth at the expense of characters. Is that a lesson that fed back into production on Dragon Emperor?
Yeah, very much so. Because, no matter what the critics think, I’m a smart guy [laughs]. And I’m educated. And I have an analytical training. I looked at it and I thought a) I want to up the fun quotient…because that’s what I like to do and I think I do well. Fast And Furious can be what it is as a story, but in the end, it was a fun Summer ride; XxX was a fun Summer ride…
And Stealth was not fun. It was not as entertaining moment-to-moment as the other two had been, and what I think you need for a movie in the Summer.
Do you think Hollywood gets too easily beguiled by new technologies?
Yes – the movie’s are so big, and the process…each visual-effects movie is two complete movies. In time, in effort, and in imagination. When you get excited by the new toys, it’s so easy to forget your elementary school primer…which is called ‘story and character’. People like characters [laughs]. People like to have a story that leads them nicely and takes some unexpected turns, where they feel that the narrator is telling them, bringing them along, showing them the path without forcing them.
It’s a very delicate balance, and when you’re dealing with the complexity of some of these visual effects, the technical demands of deconstructing ways to shoot them, to shoot all the elements and make sure you have everything, and then to balance all those elements and get them in to alignment, so that they’ll work…that can become obsessing.
Is this what leads to actor complaints that they are the last thing to be attended to in a setup, and given the least time?
I’m very improvisational on the set, even with the effects as well; no matter what I storyboard, I hardly ever use it. It’s only a way of quantifying what might be involved. I was guilty of it on Stealth, what you’re saying, but the first thing I did on this film was that…first I’d made the decision to build these enormous sets, because I felt that we wanted an epic movie and all that.
But what I really wanted was for the actors to relate to the reality of the set, and help them ground themselves in a reality that actors feel comfortable with, and that stimulates them. If it were a digital set with digital creatures and digital environments, I think they would have floated away [laughs].
I wouldn’t let them walk onto the set until the day or night of the shoot, and then when they walked on the Shanghai streets or that cave above Shangri-La…they got it. They felt it. And I think when you look at their performances, you really feel that everybody is in the same experience.
We were lucky enough to have a chat with John Badham the other day, who I know you’ve worked extensively with. His problem with CGI is the impossible camera moves —
That’s my specialty! [laughs]
Yeah! So I was thinking you wouldn’t agree with that…?
I don’t agree with that at all. John is ten years older than me, and there is a generational difference. I’m with the group that looked at Michael Curtiz, Irvin Kirshner…guys that were moving the camera really dramatically for dramatic emphasis, taken to a new level by Steven Spielberg. These were the film-makers I revered. I started on Miami Vice and started getting a chance to move the camera rather dramatically…
Sometimes, in three-dimensional space as defined by a computer, by the matrices and the whole thing, there’s no limit to what you can do. So the question is ‘Why are you doing it?’. Are you doing it because you can, or are you doing it because it really has an idea behind it? I moved that camera down Vin Diesel’s arm and into the stick-shift and down into the drive-shaft, right into the internal combustion engine and came out of the exhaust manifold for a boost to the wheel! That’s an impossible camera move [laughs], but it certainly made one of the moments of The Fast And The Furious, and then every other goddamned car commercial that came along for the next few years.
It put that movie into another mind-set, and I knew what I was doing.
So it’s really down to inventing a new visual vocabulary that forces itself away from imitating lock-off shots, and bearing with the transition from one to the other…?
Right. The traditional shots that David Lean or William Wyler could have done. But you have to have a purpose. The example I gave is a good one – I was talking to these racers on the line and listening to what they’re listening to and having them tell me what they’re feeling, and I went ‘My God, these are like Centaurs’. They’re half-car, half-human. They really feel their car. They feel the power of the engine, whether it’s mistimed, and they’re in connection emotionally with the engine.
So how do I connect the man to an engine visually? And that’s when I came up with that shot – there was a real story purpose to show you that Vin Diesel felt the Thrump from his arms and feet and that he and the car were one.
Those participating in the CGI backlash have heralded Dark Knight for its minimal use of CGI…
Well, ninety percent of the stunt stuff that we did [on Dragon Emperor] is real. It’s on the set. In XxX I did all those stunts for real. There’s a feeling to reality that CGI cannot give you. So if you sort of accept that, then you have to find a vocabulary where the abstraction of CG is actually the thing you are playing for. Whereas if you try to go to total verisimilitude of the 3D universe that we experience each day like with a car stunt, you’ll always feel it.
There’s a billion places that the eye is so skilled at; what are the tiny distortions, internal reflections on a piece of sheet-metal going through a certain kind of light…? And if you don’t see those there or they’re there too perfectly, you know that this is a CG car.
So if the film-maker is saying to you ‘This is a REAL car! We really jumped this river that is FIVE HUNDRED yards wide!’ and you go ‘That car is CG!’, he’s lied to you and you feel lied to. But if I tell you that this is an army of skeletons…[laughs]. I’m not telling you that this is real! I’m telling you that this is Ray Harryhausen done with today’s techniques.
So you’ve got to use it with the knowledge and the respect for the audience, that you’re not fooling them. You’re there to delight them with something imaginative that everyone will fully understand is CGI.
According to various sources you have an impossible slate of work ahead of you: Mummy 4, King Of The Nudies, XxX 3, Argonauts…what are you actually taking on next?
I don’t know [laughs]! I just had triplets with my wife Barbara, and they’re four and a half months old, and I want to get to know them. Also there’s a de facto actors strike here. So I’m just saying ‘Relax, smell the roses…know your new children…re-meet your wife!’ [laughs]. Chill out and let the dust settle…
What is it that interests you about the life and work of Russ Meyer?
Every director wants to do a movie about a director, because it’s what we most understand. What I love about Russ is the way that his relationship with his wife Eve and the fetishes that developed between them became the fetishes of a sexually awakening America. And the largeness of the guy.
Hugh Hefner is a household name, even today, whereas Meyer…that name is, you know, slipping away. Yet Russ had the same impact on movies as Hef had on the publishing world. He was the first one to go into that territory – granted, with breast-obsession…have you ever read his biography?
Oh my God – it’s three volumes! With every picture of every girl he ever had sex with. It’s unbelievable. If you ever want the total lexicon of what it’s possible to say about a woman’s breasts, just read that thing. It’s like three thousand pages long…every director is an obsessive maniac.
There’s been news today of John Carpenter and Nic Cage getting together for Scared Straight. Do you think that’s a good fit? I know you were strongly associated with the project…
I developed it. And I think I’m still exec producer [laughs] – I haven’t checked! I developed it from a treatment with a young writer and with two producers that I like, Tripp Vinson and Beau Flynn. You know, you have to be wanting to make a hard ‘R’ prison movie, and with three new kids I’ve begun to think a little more about the lighter side of PG13.
My daughters and son will be old enough to look at a movie with this next movie or the movie after – and I want them to be able to go to daddy’s premiere [laughs]. “No honey, you can’t see the man absolutely raped in the shower cells, or the guy electrocuted in the electric chair. I don’t think you’ll sleep well”.
There’s a part of me that would love to do something like Arabian Nights or something fun, or Mummy 4 in Peru or Mexico or both…
What about your ‘robot dog’ story…?
Oh man – you know what I’m gonna do? To keep myself busy between surfs and playing with the kids, I started to novelise it. I thought maybe the way to go with that one is give it some commercial credibility and then it’d be easier to get it done. I almost got it made at Universal. You know that [Phil] Tippett and I designed the dog, and it was just really beautiful, and it’s a great story. It’s just that nobody was there to bite.
Would you still be interested in Jessica Biel headlining XxX 3? What kind of shape is that film taking now…?
One of the things is that without me the producer went off and hired Ice Cube [laughs]. I feel that if there’s ever going to be another XxX, we’ve got to bring old Vin back. I don’t think you can build a franchise based on quicksand. We’d have to start again, re-introduce him, change him to a degree, get him in a new adventure, increase his triple-X state of mind…extreme sports…you know, American bravado versus an international problem.
That’s what we had, and it was working. Then certain producers decided to change it.
Rob Cohen, thank you very much!
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is on general release now. Check out our review.