xXx 3 Director DJ Caruso: ‘There’s Something Inherently Camp About Xander’

The director of xXx: Return of Xander Cage talks tone, diversity, Vin, extreme action and his G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover idea.

DJ Caruso’s directorial resume doesn’t pin him down easily. He’s done noirish crime dramas like his cult favorite debut, The Salton Sea, thrillers such as Disturbia and Eagle Eye, and character studies such as Two for the Money. With xXx: Return of Xander Cage, he has teamed with star/producer Vin Diesel to bring back one of the actor’s signature characters, the extreme sports pro turned NSA agent who returns to active duty in this installment to retrieve a device that can cause satellites to come crashing to earth.

Taking a page from Diesel’s main cash cow, the Fast and Furious series, the film assembles a huge and truly international team around Cage, including martial arts star and Rogue One breakout Donnie Yen, Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose, Indian superstar Deepika Padukone and legendary Thai actor Tony Jaa. Putting together the global cast was one of the topics we spoke about when we sat down with Caruso last week in Los Angeles, along with working with Diesel, finding the right formula for the third xXx entry and Caruso’s one-time involvement with G.I. Joe 3, in which he wanted to introduce the Transformers.

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Den of Geek: Did your involvement in this spring out of your talks with the studio about doing G.I. Joe 3?

DJ Caruso: No, it was all more about I had a relationship with Vin and we had talked about developing a few things. We had something over at Sony called Invertigo, this cool antigravity movie. Things didn’t work out and so about a couple months, I was working on G.I. Joe. We’re handing in those scripts. A couple months into that, he called and said, “I want to bring xXx back. Would you be interested?”

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I thought, “Okay, let me think about that.” I remember having fun with the movie, the code and the swag and the attitude and I thought, “Okay, that guy was like a rebel, a rebel who became a patriot. That could be kind of a good character to reintroduce and bring back.” And the action. I remember when Rob Cohen shot that snowboard sequence (in the first movie) which is kind of fun. I thought, “Yeah, I would be interested.”

Then once I realized Vin was interested in bringing in another team, or bringing in this other team that Sam (Jackson) had assembled while he was gone, and that it wouldn’t just be like a one, sort of machismo kind of thing, that’s when I said, “Okay, I can do that.”

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Were those elements that you wanted to see in it the more you thought about it?

Yeah. I mean, I love extreme sports and I love that whole world. I also thought, too, the Point Break remake that came out was like they’re extreme athletes. They’re extreme sports people and I thought, “Okay, it didn’t click. It didn’t get people excited.” The movie’s really well shot and everything, just that didn’t generate enough excitement, so I thought, “Obviously we have Xander and that’s his background, but who else could be extreme, and what other kind of skills would you need?” That would be something I would have explored just even if it wasn’t Vin or not, because I just feel like one extreme athlete and him doing that wasn’t as interesting to me as a group of people.

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When working with a franchise so that’s so closely associated with a star, who’s also the producer, do you go into it with any concern that that collaboration can work?

That’s one of the chances or the risks you’re going to take. I felt like we’d developed a relationship prior to the cameras rolling, that if we were in sync. I think a lot of times things could go wrong if they’re not quite in sync and you start shooting the movie. I made sure I was in sync. As far as the producing hat that Vin had, he’s the kind of producer you want because it’s not about like, “Let’s shoot this in five days. We don’t have more.” It’s really about how creative can we be and how outrageous can we be. As a producer, he was very supportive.

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But yeah, you worry. I’d be lying to tell you how as a filmmaker you worry about “How can this happen? Can the relationship dynamics work?” But if you invest in the beginning like I did deeply, and you form a synergistic view it made it a lot easier. To answer the question, there’s always a little bit of apprehension when you’re stepping into something that someone already been through.

This cast is has to be the most international cast that we’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Talk about getting everybody on board and setting the tone for having that.

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Right. I think it was nice starting from scratch with the screenplay and working with (screenwriter) Scott Frazier and Jeff Kirschenbaum, our producer. Starting from scratch and sort of building these characters and first realizing that we wanted Xiang to be, we wanted him to be a great Chinese martial arts actor, First we said, “What if it’s Jackie Chan or…” But then we honed in on Donnie Yen when I showed them the Ip Man series. We kind of wrote Xiang for Donnie in hope that he’d do it.

I had seen Ruby Rose and just sort have been following her for about 12 months. I had met her in just a general meeting. Having worked with Angelina Jolie early in my career I was like, I hadn’t had that feeling for somebody, that otherworldly thing, and so we put her in it. We wrote Adele for her.

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Then, the Deepika aspect of it…we thought Serena, if you could almost tell by the name, we were almost thinking Russian in a way when we were writing Serena. Then I had seen the screen test that Deepika and Vin did, and I saw that chemistry, so I thought, “Wow.” For me it’s always so much more interesting when an audience doesn’t quite know this actress or actor and there’s a mystery and there’s sort of an unknown quantity and a factor that she had.

As we just started to piece it together, we thought, “Well, we have Talon. What if we got Tony Jaa to be Talon because he hasn’t been in that many American movies, and you have Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in the same movie.” I was pinching myself. Then we just started to build off that. We also wanted a UFC Fighter. We’d written it for Conor McGregor who was going to do it, and then we got Michael Bisping to come in after Conor lost his title fight. It was kind of constructed in a really cool, organic way. It also made a lot of business sense to Revolution and Paramount that we were bringing this global group together. It was really sort of natural. It came together very naturally, but at the same time it made really good movie global sense.

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It’s reflective of the world, which is a discussion that’s been happening in Hollywood for the past couple of years.

Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. I think there is a balance in the way that the world is. It’s just that the world is shrinking. I think cinema, particularly, is there just a true American action movie? Or is it really have to be more global in a way because the spectacle of action movies is so necessary to be global in order to make the business sense of the movie. It’s just seems such a natural way that to go.

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We’re very proud how the girls are in this movie, because these girls are equal to Xander if not surpassing in certain things. Donnie Yen, I would be skeptical sometimes of those casting things that I’ve seen other movies, because it felt like this person’s in this movie just because of you’re trying to get China. They’re barely in the movie but that’s what … This way we integrated them all in a way where they all got to shine.

You must have been thrilled that Donnie Yen made such an incredible impression on people in Rogue One right before your movie comes out.

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Yeah. It was really cool. Also knowing that when we were shooting our film, Donnie had come to us from Rogue One. We’re shooting, rehearsing, everything was good. He had to leave us at the very end to go back to Rogue One. We had one shot left with him that we had to get. We had to wait until Los Angeles to do a pick-up day. Then he went to Rogue One not for the three days he was going to Rogue One for. He went back for like four or five weeks or something crazy like that, so we had to wait to him to get back and do that one day shot.

Can you talk about capturing the right tone? It’s obviously a movie that doesn’t take itself completely seriously, but I’m guessing you also don’t want to veer into camp.

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There’s a little bit. I don’t want to say that there’s camp, but there’s something inherently camp about Xander and the way that Xander is. Not camp, he’s not quite winking at the audience but he’s having a good time. I was really, really inspired by what I saw in Deadpool in a way because I had such a fucking good time when I was watching Deadpool. I just thought the irreverence of it all, and the humor of it all, and to take what we’ve been seeing in the superhero franchise. I was saying that it just made me feel good in the fact that when we were developing the script and doing things that we said, “Look, we want this to be entertaining. We want to have fun. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously, but we also don’t want to be Naked Gun-ing it, and camping and laughing at the audience.” We wanted to find that fine line.

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I remember early on in the editing room, we were just fucking around one day. We had the character cards when the characters come on, and Neymar’s character card pops on. We thought, why don’t we put for fun, “Thought he was being recruited for the Avengers.” Right? We just kind of laughed and we left it, and the studio saw, and the studio laughed. You kind of gauge that. So once that started to work we realized we could push it that far but not too far. Even with the action we thought, “Okay, we’re skiing the jungle without snow, riding motorcycles in the water.” All those things are possible because I found those off the stunt men that were really doing it, then just to push it that much more, to push the outrageousness. Hopefully if we get to do something like this again, it becomes expected of this franchise.

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Do you have ideas for a next film?

We have some ideas because we fell in love with these characters now. Now you can really picture them in a three-dimensional way because the actors did such a great job. We do have some ideas about how the team might be split up and how we might have to get them back together, and what that task could be, and who the villain could be. We’ve talked about it. We’ll see what happens if we get a chance to do it again.

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You blew up the internet a little the other day when you told Collider that your take on G.I. Joe 3 would have brought in the Transformers. Was that an idea you actually pitched?

We actually had that in our first script. (Producer) Lorenzo di Bonaventura and I hired Aaron Berg (to write the script). We finished our screenplay and at the end we had this little coda about what happened, and then something kind of kicked off on the moon. It was like this perfect blending of the franchises, I thought. I think (the studio) was shocked in a way. They weren’t quite ready at the time, but it was just something that Aaron Berg was really like, “We need to do this.”

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I was like, “Yes, we need to do this.” We had a few different ideas about that. I just think that’s the way, I mean, it seems like it’s such a natural way that the franchise should go. I think that injection in the G.I. Joe franchise of the (Transformers) world that Michael Bay created would be fantastic.

Can you say what the scene was?

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I can’t tell you what the scene was, but I will just say it was a really, really, great button at the end of the regular narrative drive of Aaron Berg’s screenplay where when it happened you went, “Oh, shit, I get it.”

Are you still involved with G.I. Joe 3?

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I’m still loosely involved. They brought in this whole writing team and they got all these writers together and they want to show me what they’ve been thinking and seeing what this writer’s room came out with, so I’m loosely involved, but that’s not my next movie.

You were also working on something called Stolen Time with Will Smith.

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It’s still in development over at Fox with Will Smith. The thing I’m really working on next is, there’s a book called God Is A Bullet I’m adapting. It’s got our independent financing. Dylan Sellers is producing, and it is a really, really…In a way, it’s kind of back to the noir-y, kind of cool drama and action that Salton Sea had with two incredibly different characters that have to come together and solve this mystery. It’s a great book. It’s down and it’s dirty. It’s southern California. It’s what I’m most excited about next.

What movie do people talk to you about the most?

You know what, it depends on where I am. I was just in Mexico City, and a lot of people were really big into Eagle Eye. You just go, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but then when I was in India, Disturbia. It was really Disturbia, Disturbia. But I would say overall most of the time, it’s Salton Sea, when you really get someone who really wants to talk film and sit down. Other filmmakers as well. It always seems like Salton Sea is the one that sort of resonates a lot with the filmmakers. Then it’s the popularity of some of the other movies. I was in a car the other day, and the driver was like, “Man, Two for the Money. I had a gambling problem, and I watched that movie, and it reminded me…” But I would say in general it probably would be Disturbia and Salton Sea.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is out in theaters now.