After almost a decade of cinematic silence, audiences will finally become reacquainted with Vin Diesel's Furyan killing machine in Riddick, the third installment of writer-director David Twohy's film series. We visited the set during filming in March 2012, and talked to the cast and crew. Here's what we found out.
From the outside, the Riddick set looked like an unassuming warehouse in an industrial park outside of Montreal. But once inside, the grey Canadian winter gave way to swaths of manmade extraterrestrial wasteland, surrounded by a cocoon of green screens. The whole experience was not unlike stumbling upon the weirdest natural history museum diorama ever built.
Riddick picks up where The Chronicles of Riddick left off. Antihero Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is unintentionally left in charge of an army of mind-controlling cultists known as Necromongers. As their "Lord Marshall," is privy to their devotion, concubines, and fancy-schmancy evil headgear.
After a yet-to-be-revealed series of events, we next find Riddick divested of his Necromonger amenities and living as a hermit on a harsh alien world, with nothing but dog-like animals known as "jackals" and edible "vipers" (which the film's creature shop built out of gelatin, as Riddick has to eat them) for company. It's bucolic living for the unrepentant killer — until he meets a particularly dangerous breed of alien known as the "mud demons."
These beasts prompt the stranded Riddick to activate an emergency signal that attracts two rival crews of mercenaries: Boss Johns' (actor Matt Nable) crew of consummate professionals and Santana's (Jordi Mollà) gnarly gang of space scoundrels, who are eager to decapitate Riddick for big bucks. Needless to say, this is a recipe for nobody being particularly happy (except maybe the mud demons).
If this sounds more like the gritty survivalist trappings of Pitch Black than its sequel Chronicles of Riddick, know that it should. As Twohy told us, the production team was consciously channeling the more gruesome, claustrophobic, and pared-down aspects of the first film:
David Twohy: Probably about five years ago, Vin and I started talking seriously about doing [Riddick] because there was the Chronicles of it all, which was a PG-13 movie wherein we spent a lot of money [and] made it. It was made as a studio movie with a lot of studio input. It pleased some fans, but not all fans certainly.
It was a very different movie than Pitch Black. We recognize that and that was the aspiration at the time. We possibly suffered from overreach [and] — between the new economics of the film business and where had landed financially with the last movie about how it did relative to its budget — we realized there was probably the new reality for us was that we could spend somewhere between $30 and $40 million to make this movie […]
It's clearly R-rated as Pitch Black was and yeah, we're not pulling any punches this time. You're sort of forced to when you're doing a studio movie for $100 million or more. You have to pull your punches […] and we don't want to soften our blows anymore.
But it's been a long time since we've seen Riddick onscreen, after Chronicles didn't accrue the necessary box office haul oh-so-many summers ago. Will those viewers unfamiliar with the Chronicles be able to keep up?
David Twohy: We're concerned with just paying off the loyal fans, and we think that if somebody doesn't understand something in this movie, the solution is go back and look at the other two movies and get up to speed. But certainly it does play in a gratifying way as a standalone movie. But there are threads that we continue to sew into the fabric of this movie as well that we started sewing in previous movies — and will continue to sew in future movies.
The shooting schedule similarly mirrored the film's stripped-down setting. Whereas Twohy had 85 days to shoot Chronicles, Riddick was scheduled to be shot in forty-odd days:
David Twohy: We only have 47 days to shoot the movie and we'll probably take 49 or something like that, but that's still tight, maybe the new realities of moviemaking. I shot Pitch Black in 60 or 65 days. I shot Chronicles in 85 days, so here we are, a shorter time period than any of it. And yet I still have to stay open to — and any good director should stay open to — new possibilities that arrive on the set, on the day or in the moment.
If you shut down completely and just shoot the script as I sometimes just want to do — because it's the most efficient way to get through it — I shut myself down to happy coincidences, and I shut myself down to other ideas. So I am pretty embracing of actors contributing to not only their [characters' back stories], but maybe the way a line falls on a given day. But I am also keeping one eye on the clock and realizing that I've got a finite amount of time to shoot this movie.
Indeed, this shortened shooting schedule impelled the production to house an alien world or two inside a completely ordinary warehouse, giving the set the feel of some lunatic millionaire's maze to confound and doom nosy teenagers. Visitors weren't allowed to take photos on set, but know that the entire building had a post-apocalyptic Willy-Wonka's Chocolate Factory sort of vibe. But no candyfloss was being brewed here — only dark, blood-splattered cinema magicks.
As we walked from room to room, the cathedral-like architecture of the Necromongers' ship gave way to a creepy, rainy weigh station where the mercenaries hole up to Boss Johns' entire ship (which took nine weeks to build and boasted levitating motorcycles called "hogs") to Riddick's canyon hideaway. The latter was my favorite set, as we saw his hunter-gatherer accessories and toilette, such as his fire pit, his store of cooked viper meat, his viper-skin coat, and his various implements of stabbing.
The props were so meticulously tossed around, you felt as if Riddick would clamber over a boulder at any moment and surreptitiously steal of a lock of your hair. It was if we wandered into an exhibit at the Vin Diesel National Historical Museum, circa 2476 A.D. Also all around us, green screens had been festooned. These would later provide the alien planet's sky and ecosystem, which production designer Joseph Nemec characterized as slightly more hospitable than that of Pitch Black:
Joseph Nemec: We are on a planet. We don't say exactly what it is. Our skies will have broken skies, broken sun, broken moon and there will be a lot of atmosphere. Most of our lighting is warmer. So we tried to stay with warmer colors to try and get away from some of the Chronicles look and to have a different look that was in Pitch Black as well. The only blue I have used in the entire film is a little bit of detail inside the private chambers. Everything else has been in warmer colors. Most everything on the weigh station sets are in ochres, and even the greys are warmer greys. The blue on the ship is a warmer midnight blue as opposed to a colder blue. So even though there is some blues there, it all has gone to a warmer look than the colder colors that were used in Chronicles.
One element of Riddick that would not be added digitally was the film's formidable arsenal, which include AK-47s, M4s, Beretta, and shotguns built for massive muzzle flashes. All of these were modified to look worthy of futuristic bounty hunters. Competition shooter and Riddick's resident gun expert Paul Barrett explained his philosophy for creating firearms that have yet to be invented:
Paul Barrett: We always have to go from something that exists and make it look futuristic. To me as a designer, there's not one gun here that I wouldn't want another week just to tinker with and add LEDs […] Most of the drawings I was presented with were impractical or the ergonomics were [off]. The guys are great at drawing stuff, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a real weapon. The grip and trigger might be too far back because they've never held a gun. When I look at the drawings, it's really interesting, but there's none of them that I can work with because they're too impractical. My first concern is to go with a platform that gives you reliability on set.
Costume designer Simonetta Mariano provided the defensive portion of mercenaries' ensembles. Whereas Boss Johns' team sports samurai-style interlocking armor, Santana's crew basically adorn themselves whatever swatches of dirty space fabric they find lying around.
Mariano also gave us access to the concept art for Riddick's costumes — he begins the movie in a full Necromonger crown and body armor, flanked by S&M corset-bound concubines. After his break with the Necromongers, Riddick goes straight to animal hides.
And what of these animals that Riddick is hunting (and getting hunted by)? One of most entertaining parts of the set visit was the creature shop, where Eric Fiedler and Jason Hamer constructed Riddick's alien fauna. Along with a full-sized jackal model — see the concept art above — the most impressive animals in the shop were the mud demon puppets. Without giving too much away, imagine a were-crocodile with a large, poisonous weevil tail, sort of like if the entire phylum Arthropoda decided to have a orgy with a pack of timber wolves. What would motivate a group of guns for hire to brave deadly creatures and Riddick's murderous moxie? Actor Matt Nable elaborated why his character, Boss Johns, has personal business with the convict-turned-warlord-turned-mountain-man:
Matt Nable: When we arrive on the planet, there's a bounty out on Riddick and […] my character, Boss Johns, has a fairly decisive sort of motive for appearing and going after Riddick. And certainly the crew I'm with are a much more professional type of unit, an elite group of mercenaries compared with the other guys.
And we're not necessarily there to collect bounty, we're on there to […] find out some information about my son, which was little Johns, who was killed in the first Pitch Black. I don't know what happened to him, so I've been sitting on this for 10 years and so my motive is very, very different from the ragtag [mercenaries].
Johns is part of a four-member capture crew that consists of mechanical expert Moss (actor Bokeem Woodbine, who promises audiences will see "exciting toys that haven't been added to scifi before"), Lockspur the tracker (Raoul Trujillo), and Dahl the sniper. Dahl's played by none other than a heavily-armed Katee Sackhoff, who got the role over a beer with Vin Diesel:
Katee Sackhoff: My character is the sniper. We see me most of the time with this sniper rifle — that's just a head shorter than I am — and a handgun. In this one [scene], I'm given an electrical current gun, and I'm like, "C'mon, that's kind of girly! Why do I have to fire that thing?" I was trying to figure out how to make it cool, so the director goes, "There's a three-second load-up." So I go, "What if I shoot my handgun at the same time?"
But Sackhoff's character isn't a redux of Kara "Starbuck" Thrace from Battlestar Galactica.* As Sackhoff explained to us, her inspiration here was more 1980s action flicks, such as Terminator, Aliens, and Predator (which was one of the first movies she ever saw):
Katee Sackhoff: I think there's a little bit of [Starbuck in] her. There's a little bit of me in all the characters that I play […] I am definitely a lot more girly than the characters I play, but there a lot of big differences between Starbuck and Dahl. Starbuck was extremely juvenile and immature, and grew up in [Battlestar Galactica]. Dahl is very mature, very much a woman. She grew up really fast and has been taking care of herself for a while.
The opposing mercenary crew is under the thumb of the sociopathic merc chief Santana. This gang is in it for the money and the bragging rights of chopping off Riddick's head and putting it in a box. Jordi Mollà (Blow) gave us the rundown on Santana's modus:
Jordi Mollà: My character comes from a strange, dark place. I can picture him without family or roots. He became a merc with no attachments to anything, who doesn't want to feel anything at all. He's a machine.
The loons who make up Santana's coterie are Vargas (Conrad Pia), Luna (Nolan Funk, who plays the mysterious innocent among Santana's rough-and-tumble weirdos), and Diaz, who is played by former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, who described these no-goodniks to io9:
Dave Bautista: We're very rogue mercenaries. We just want to get paid. That's our thing. I carry an AK-47 that's been modified with a 75-round clip. There's also the muzzle that's been modified, with fire comes out. David Twohy said, "Don't come here expecting me to tell you who your character is. Tell me who your character is." We all got together and discussed the backgrounds of our characters, and how we saw each other's characters and how they would relate […] I'm the guy who thinks he can be leader because he thinks he can kick anybody's ass on the planet.
Given his pugilistic career choices, the 6'6" Bautista also hinted that Diaz might be the one to toss Riddick over the turnbuckle (or vice versa):
Dave Bautista: If you're familiar with the character of Riddick, it seems like he always has the upper hand. That's the cool thing about the conflict that may (or may not!) happen. Maybe I'm thinking about more than the money. Maybe I'm thinking, "I just want to kick this guy's ass to prove something."
So there you have it — a battle royale on a crap planet between eight bounty hunters, countless alien predators, and one extremely disgruntled space criminal with night vision. This flick is certainly shaping up to be some R-rated mayhem. Come back tomorrow when we hear about all things Riddick from Vin Diesel himself.
NOTE: Universal Pictures paid for io9's travel and lodging expenses for this set visit.
*Although Sackhoff was happy to share some bizarre Battlestar-related anecdotes, such as the reason she missed appearing in the Portlandia Battlestar reunion ("And I had just ﬁnished a job where I dislocated both my shoulders and I think it was during that time [when] they called.") and the hilarity of designing her own Starbuck action figure:
"It was a very big thing [to get action figures] with Battlestar because I wanted her to look feminine and we got to approve them. So my doll shows up and it was literally Dirk Benedict with tits. And I was like, ‘This is not what I look like. Can we give her a waist? Maybe some rouge? A little bob? How about we give her a ponytail?' And so it comes back and it's like Number Six in Starbuck's clothing with these massive Jessica Rabbit boobs. And I was like, ‘This is not me either.' So I was like the last one to sign off, and [the action figure] has this cute little ponytail, and she kind of looked feminine, but kind of looked masculine. But they don't make them anymore. I have a box of them at home."