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Reign Makers

Reign of Fire is a story about people, not dragons. It's all about point-of-view, says director Rob Bowman. By Frank Moldstad
"We had to come up with something that was absolutely insane, and try to do it in a realistic way," says Bowman. (Click for Quicktime movie.)
Every moviemaker wants outstanding special effects that will leave audiences gasping, yet no one wants it said that the storyline is just a vehicle for special effects. Its a time-honored moviemaking maxim that the story is King, and effects must serve the story and have a purpose.

Thats easier to say than do, however. A director who is undertaking a big-budget summer movie that includes a healthy allocation for special effects must establish control over the project at the outset and be an advocate for the storyline throughout the process. Otherwise, pressure from producers and studios, not to mention the seduction of undeniably cool effects, can lead to eye candy without a purpose, something no one truly wants producers, directors, visual effects supervisors, actors ? or audiences.

So when Rob Bowman (The X-Files Movie) got the opportunity to direct Touchstones Reign of Fire, a movie where fire-spewing dragons are laying waste to the shrinking human population of London, his antenna were up. The story he wanted to tell was about the humans, not the dragons. At the same time, Reign of Fire needed some outstanding dragons (it ended up with 150 effects shots). In fact, it needed thousands of them. With the resources of Disneys now-defunct Secret Lab behind him, Bowman put considerable time and effort into the dragons' creation. But all the while, he kept his mind on the characters' point-of-view.

?I look after the audience when I make a movie and I want to make sure that the summer movies are getting better, Bowman says. ?One of the things that might be lacking is that sometimes the story suffers from overuse of action and effects. I think the way you tell better stories is you write better scripts and you have better actors, and then you do a better job of telling the story when youre photographing the movie.

Fight scene with Bale and McConaughey (Click for QuickTime movie.)
?To me, that evolution is fueled with stronger actors, more skilled actors, actors that you dont know if theyre going to survive at the end of the movie, and actors who play a character in a movie. Its not about a star, it is a character in a movie and the story is the star. So that informed who I was going to go after, he adds.

To that end, he went after a core trio of actors: Christian Bale (American Psycho), Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill) and Izabella Scorupco (The Vertical Limit) as Alex. He asked each of them to subsume themselves into their characters, something they did well. Bale, barely recognizable in the films lead role as the reluctant leader Quinn, plays a shaggy, reserved tough guy. McConaughey shaved his head, buffed up and got tattooed for his role as Van Zan, the man of action and rival to Quinn. Scorupco spent most of the movie with her model-looks smudged with grease paint and ash, and dressed in fatigues for her role as Alex, the helicopter pilot who sends dragon fighters parachuting to almost-certain doom.

But Bale in particular needed reassurance before signing on. On his way out the door to meet with Bowman, Bale said to his wife, ?Its a movie about dragons. I dont think Im going to be doing this.

The meeting with Bowman changed his mind.

?When I met with Rob about it, he had all of the same concerns I did about what could go wrong, because there are so many things that could go really badly wrong with the bigger budget youre getting on a movie and especially a movie about dragons, Bale says. ?I wanted to know that it was a very strong-minded person who was going to be directing it, because I was fearful that I would be making one kind of movie, and then in CGI they would put in friendly dragons, or dragons with hats on, or dragons that talked, and I would have no control over that whatsoever. Id just be mortified I was in such a movie. So when I met with Rob, his concerns were exactly the same, and we sort of made a pact: OK, lets do this as long as we can insure that we get to make the movie that he wants to make.

A lot of people say that sort of thing in Hollywood, but Bale says he really believed it when Bowman said it. ?And he came through on all counts, Bale says. ?I cant fault him on a single thing. He kept his word throughout, which on a movie of this scale can be a difficult thing to do.

When he was comfortable with the cast and the emphasis of the story, Bowman dived headfirst into dragon-making, a process that was much more difficult than first thought. These couldn't be just any dragons, they had to be stealthy killing machines, with a "realistic" appearance (for a dragon) that would fit well with the rest of the post-apocalyptic look of the set.

?I sat down with an illustrator and made dragons that represented what I wanted to see, Bowman says. ?Then we went through about nine months of design because I realized it wasnt just make an illustration, give it to a computer artist, and there you have a dragon. You have to build it. You have to build the feet, build the legs. How long is the tibia? How long is the fibia, how wide are the hips? Whats the gait? Whats the length of the neck, whats the head position, whats the jaw? Every single inch of this dragon is designed.

With the illustrators, animators and modelmakers (see effects crew, last page), Bowman studied National Geographic footage of snakes, alligators and leopards. He was wary of creating a fantasy creature that the audience would have no connection with, lacking an innate reaction to its attitude or behaviors. But if something sounds like a cobra, sports alligator-like scales and crawls like a leopard, the audience will connect.

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Related Keywords:Reign of Fire, special effects, director, Rob Bowman


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