The Wolverine

On November 1st 2012, I visited the set of The Wolverine in Sydney, Australia. To give you an idea of the timeline of my visit, Hurricane Sandy had just wreaked havoc in New York, and I woke up early one morning from the constant noises coming from my computer because I was getting so many notices of the breaking news that Disney had purchased LucasFilm and was making more Star Wars movies.

It is five in the morning and I’m standing in a street lined with Japanese houses covered with snow. The elaborate set was  built in a huge parking lot that was built for the 2000 Olympic games. Flakes of snow fall as ninjas run and ride motorcycles along the rooftops. Hugh Jackman is hanging off the top of a snow plow as it barrels down the street, away from a crowd of masked ninjas. Jackman, employing safety harnesses, flips to his feet on top of the snowplow and “activates” his claws. The second unit director calls “cut”, and Hugh notices our little grouping of press off in the corner and yells out “So you guys a pulling an all nighter? Why don’t you put some ninja suits on and get in the action?”

After the jump you will find a compilation of interesting facts I learned while visiting the set.

The Wolverine was filmed over a 17 week shoot, with 13 weeks filmed in Australia, and 4 weeks shot in Japan.

The movie was being shot on all 6 sound stages at Fox Studios Australia, a international production facility which was also used for The Matrix, Moulin Rouge!, Mission: Impossible II, Star Wars Episode II, Star Wars Episode III and Superman Returns. The studio is a strange looking facility as it is partly an abandoned theme park. In 1999m Fox opened the $261 million theme park on the grounds (think an experience like Universal Studios Hollywood). Fox Studios Backlot theme park closed in late 2001 due to poor ticket sales. At the time we were visiting, a big tent was set-up in the closed-down theme park area, housing a Cirque du Soleil show.

We also watched a second unit night shoot (7pm-5am) at Sydney Olympic Park in Homenbush. We traveled to the location on a water taxi with some of the key film crew, as its much faster to get to the location from Downtown Sydney by water than by driving. The set is a bunch of streets lined with incredibly detailed traditional wooden Japanese buildings. A Japanese vending machine is outside of a gas station. Fake icicles hang from the roofs. The street has been cleverly redressed and reused multiple times for different shots in this action sequence. A gigantic crane holds the lights above the huge village set. When we arrived on set, it was deemed too windy to shoot due to safety concerns. So we waited with the crew for the wind to die down.

The sequence is the battle that leads up to the final fight — the most elaborate fight sequence in the film. It involves an army of Ninjas trying to take Logan down in a snow covered Asian village. Ninjas start off using swords but find that those blades aren’t doing the job so they switch to bows and arrows. Some of the ninjas are riding motorbikes on the roofs of the Japanese buildings. Yukio commandeers a snowblower and drives at the ninjas. Logan jumps on top of the snowblower and fends off attackers but is shot with many arrows while doing so. Eventually Logan is fighting while dozens of arrows are sticking out of his body and back like a porcupine, and image in the storyboards looked like the Frank Miller comic come to life. The filmmakers went back to the comics and found some iconic images that fit nicely in this story.

Hugh Jackman trains 2-3 hours a day before shooting begins. Dwayne Johnson gave Hugh advice on how to build muscles for this movie. As a result, Jackman eats protein every two hours. Sometimes they need to take a break from filming so that Hugh can get his every-2-hour meal in.

While the theatrical release of The Wolverine will almost undoubtedly be Rated PG-13, the filmmakers took the time to film both PG13 and R-rated takes of different sequences and dialogue “just in case.”  The stunt team has been always trying to push the rating, but they have sometimes been reigned in by the director. Some of the crew members told us they were hoping that Fox would be willing to release an R-rated version of the film, at least on home video. Hugh Jackman says the studio and filmmakers are open to the possibility of an R-rated cut, but most of the people involved think that Christopher Nolan has shown that an R isn’t essential. And while it’s tempting to make it an R-rated movie, he isn’t sure he could do it — Hugh says he has met so many 13 year old fans over the years and that the filmmakers would need to have an incredible reason to exclude all those pre-18 year old fans from the film.

Second Unit director David Leitch started as a stunt man working on movies like Fight Club and Oceans Eleven, and later graduated to second unit directing, working on Ninja Assassin. He was an action coordinator on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he designed the fight choreography with Deadpool.

Leitch says the stunt work in this film is more gritty and grounded in reality in contrast to the previous films. They have decided to tackle more of the stunts using practical means and not rely as much on post production CG.

The bolo created for Trinity in The Matrix is reused in this film — one of the ninjas use it with an ax attached to the end in the ice village sequence. John Bowring created most of the weapons used in the film. He worked on X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Matrix, and created the iconic knife in Crocodile Dundee.

Wolverine’s claws were redesigned for this film. The older version was a straighter design, but the new claws have more cuts and angles to them, allowing them to reflect light easier. Also, the claws come out of the hand lower, towards the palm, which makes more sense from a scientific perspective. The older claws came out a bit beyond the knuckles. The new claws appear like they come out from in between the fingers, which means they could retract straight back into the forearm.

Wolverine’s bone claws only appear in a flashback sequence.

The movie is written as a stand-alone story, with very little connection to past or future X-Men films. 20th Century Fox embraced the idea of this film being different and were even the ones to come up with the title The Wolverine. The story does feature other mutants, and that includes other mutants from the X-Men universe. Director James Mangold says there was no pressure from the studio to connect this story with the other X-Men films, previous or future. There is no set-up in this story for future films as far as he knows. Mangold says ”Our goal is to make something that doesn’t rely on franchise.”

The movie begins normally where you might finish a story. The story takes place a few years after X-Men 3 concludes, long enough that Logan has grown “a long ass beard” and gotten into a huge rut. Logan is at his lowest at the start of the film. He’s battling with himself and his immortality. Almost everyone he loved has died. Of course, Logan is always battling to be at peace with himself, never mind happy. Mangold was attracted the the project because of Logan and the concept of his immortality. He wanted to really get inside Logan in ways the other films had not yet accomplished. Mangold claims that ”This film strives to be mature, reaching a higher reading level.”

Hugh describes the movie as ”A real fish out of water story”, with Logan trying to find his way in Japan. Logan is dragged to Japan by  a woman named Yukio (played in the movie by Rila Fukushima) because of a promise he made in his distant past (something he said he’d do, but he put off) during his time at war.

Yukio’s hair is dyed bright punk red. Actress Rila Fukushima read the comics in preparation for the role, and was shocked that they wanted her to have dyed red hair as her comic book version had long black hair, which is what she has naturally.

Rila spent a month of training in preparation for the film, doing basic muscle training and working with swords.

The Wolverine is partly a buddy adventure story. Yukio and Logan have an understanding, she’s an assassin, he’s a soldier. She has a lot of confidence and he becomes annoyed by her, so it’s designed as a funny pairing.

Logan’s view is the complete opposite of honor and the samurai code which leads to some dramatic situations. Logan eventually realizes the strengths of those codes are in some ways stronger than his own strength.

The story is structured in a way that you don’t know who is good and bad, and it’s meant to be somewhat confusing. James Mangold didn’t want to do the regular super villain comic book movie arc, and pushed to make it more character-based.

The producers and Jackman thought that Wolverine was almost unstoppable, as he can regenerate quickly, and felt the character needed his own Kryptonite. Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie came up with the solution, a way to compromise Logan. The challenge was to make Wolverine more vulnerable than he’s ever been before. The result is supposedly a much rawer, much more visceral Wolverine. He is fighting more desperately in this film and the challenges he faces internally and externally are deeper. Producer Hutch Parker says the story is more reality based, both psychologically and emotionally. Setting the story in Japan, a place which is both alien and real gives it a venue which is less fantastical but still unique.

When they shot in Japan, the crew wasn’t able to completely lock off the streets, so they shot guerrilla style with a Japanese crew trying to block normal people from getting in shots. We were shown clips from a chase sequence that takes place in the city streets of Japan with Silver Samurai in black leather with a bow and arrow running around on roof tops trying to shoot Logan down. A real world feel in contemporary city. The cast of the film is almost entirely Japanese.

Darren Aronofsky was originally set to direct the film, reuniting with his Fountain star. Aronofsky worked on the project for six months which included rewriting the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie. He departed citing the long overseas shoot would prevent him from being with his son, but online sites speculated that the studio was unwilling to approve his hard R-rated draft of the script. Hugh Jackman told me that he believes Aronofsky was never 100% committed, that he was developing it but not ready to shoot it. James Mangold replaced Aronofsky as director, and Jackman claims that James changed about 15 percent of the movie since boarding the project. Mangold says he spoke with Aronofsky before he became involved with the project.

Hugh Jackman says he personally hopes that the studios can someday agree to allow his Logan to mix it up with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark as he would “love” to “kick his ass.”

The Wolverine will be the first X-Men movie released in 3D. The decision to post convert the film to 3D has not affected the way James Mangold shot the film. Mangold says he does not want to use 3D as a gimmick coming out of the screen, but instead using it  more as a window into a world.

A cynical Mangold was shocked that 20th Century Fox agreed to let him end the film in the way he wanted.

The Wolverine opens on July 26.

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