In the bowels of an abandoned New Orleans power station, Sam Huntington dangled from a cable designed to retrieve him from a horde of hungry zombies. Each time the cable brought the actor into the camera’s view, he ad-libbed a different punch-line, in one take meekly offering an out-of-breath “Thank you” and in the next, “I’m glad I’m not dinner.” The moment serves as the comedic end to the sequence Huntington and Brandon Routh, the titular star of “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night,” filmed the day CBR News visited the movie’s set. And while it’s just another day for Dylan, a private investigator whose cases are based in the world of the supernatural, for the cast and crew, it was another step on the film’s long road to completion.
Producer Scott Mitchell Rosenberg first discovered the popular Italian comic book character ten years ago while reading European comics. “[Dylan Dog] stood out as a character that was truly different because he lived in a world knowing that all forms of monsters exist, but also knowing that the biggest monsters are, very often, humans,” he told CBR News. Despite the fantastic characters, Rosenberg found the stories had an unusual grounding in reality, an aspect he found particularly appealing.
For Rosenberg, who also spent a decade in bringing “Cowboys & Aliens” to the big screen, “Dylan Dog’s” ten-year-long road to completion was filled with false starts, an attempt at an animated version and at least one other director coming on board before Kevin Munroe settled into the position. “It was very difficult and the studios didn’t ‘get it,'” he said. Eventually, Rosenberg decided to finance and produce the film through his own Platinum Studios.
As he continued to hang from the cable, Huntington prepared himself for another take. Walking away from the nearby phalanx of monitors, Munroe took a few moments to consult with the actor about his line. When the cameras rolled again, Huntington simply told Dylan, “You’re my hero.”
As Marcus, Huntington’s role is that of Dylan Dog’s best friend, a part the actor is extraordinarily pleased with. “I read the script and I’ve always loved it, literally, since the first time I read it. I love this role. It’s a funny role and it was really appealing,” Huntington told CBR shortly before shooting his death-defying cable scene. “I’d like to think that this character was really tailor-made for my style of humor and acting.”
The character is also recently deceased — not that death would impede a friendship in Dylan Dog’s world. Marcus takes the place of his comic book counterpart, Groucho, who affects the style and appearance of the mustached Marx Brother. Since those aspects of the character are legally protected in the United States (Groucho lost his mustache and was renamed Felix in the American reprints of the comics), it was decided early that Dylan’s silver screen companion would be a wholly original character.
“Just seeing his tapes when he came in for an audition, it was, ‘Oh my god, he’s amazing!’ He’s actually really incredible,” Rosenberg said of Huntington. “A ton of people auditioned, but he just really stood out very strongly.”
Little did the producer know that Huntington was good friends with the movie’s eventual star. “I got this call three months later from Brandon and he was like, ‘Hey, I got attached to this movie, you should check it out.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah man, I know all about it,” Huntington said. The two are longtime friends, dating back before being cast as Superman and Jimmy Olsen in “Superman Returns.” “It’s nice to be on set with someone who you’re friends with,” Huntington said. “There’s that automatic comfort level and you just don’t have to worry about it. [Our off-screen friendship] actually really helped. Because these guys have known each other for so long, it’s important to have that kind of background.”
Routh, on the other hand, was initially hesitant about taking on another comic book character, but quickly dismissed his trepidation. “This comic was so different from what I’ve done before. We’re not talking about a superhero,” he said. “It was always more a detective story and genre/creature film comedy. And y’know what? It’s a great film, so who cares?”
Making Routh look like the title character meant paying special attention to his wardrobe, a task that proved more of a challenge than one might imagine. Although Dylan isn’t clad in a bright costume, his style is iconic, consisting of a black coat, red shirt, blue jeans and brown shoes. “One of the challenges that we had was finding the right color red for his shirt that would look like you’d go buy it out of the store and just be natural wearing and not a forced fire engine red, which works fantastically for the comic and has for all these years,” Rosenberg explained.
“I pulled every shirt possible in [New Orleans],” said costume designer Caroline Eselin. “It all came down to a textual update of what the 1986 version was.” That philosophy extended to the rest of the costume. “We needed to update the jacket, but it’s still the same silhouette. It’s jeans, but it’s newer jeans. Everything is just a little more modern.”
Setting the story in New Orleans allowed the filmmakers to maintain some connections to the comic’s European routes with its Old World-style architecture and storied past. “Compared to Europeans cities, yes, it’s a really young city,” production designer Raymond Pumilia noted. “But in America, it’s a nice, beautiful old city that has a lot entropy. The disorder that grows from these buildings settling [on their foundations] is gorgeous.”
That sensibility extended to one of the few sets he had to build from the ground up: Dylan’s office. “We gave him a nice little old New Orleans small apartment/office. The whole thing’s maybe 15′ by 30′ — tight, packed, lot of light, lot of layers to it,” he said. The set was filled with occult books, odd objects and even a nod or two to the Marx Brothers. “I made the floor a half-inch unlevel from one end to the other to make it feel more like a New Orleans place,” he added.
Another concern was transporting the characters who inhabit a generally black and white London in the comics to a full-color New Orleans, a task charged to Pumilia. “We started with some of the basics of the comic book and the whole feel of Dylan himself. Then, we came up with a color scheme for the different characters; whether it be the werewolves, the vampires or the zombies.” The zombies ended up with a pervasive green tone to them, “Like the morgue,” he explained. The vampires received blues and the werewolves took on reddish hues.
The production utilized a number of practical effects to achieve the desired monster appearances like actor John Steele’s “super zombie” suit. Other make-up challenges ranged from creating the subtle corpse-like pallor of Marcus to the full teeth and fur applications on the werewolves. “That’s the tough part, because you have to be changing gears every day,” explained make-up effects designer Martin Astles. It was a challenge that appealed to him as he enjoys “anything on the fantastical side” of filmmaking.
Back at the power station, Steele emerged from a climate-controlled tent as the super zombie. Undead, but altered by a mixture of vampire and magical influences, the character is Dylan’s principal opponent in the scene. “He’s supposed to be the head boss of this factory, but he exposed himself to steroids,” Astles said. “All the symbols on his tattoos are magical. Kevin had the idea that he was magically controlled.”
Helping to bring this fantastic reality to life is visual effects supervisor Olaf Wendt, who handled the transition shots from the characters’ human forms into their monstrous appearances. “In this context, it’s really about the transformations,” he said. “There are just things that would be quite difficult or very, very costly to pull off practically. It’s a vampire and werewolf film. You got to do it; you got to see that kind of stuff and try to do it as well as possible.”
Wendt’s job on set during our visit was dealing with the cable attached to Huntington. While Marcus is meant to be caught in a simple hemp rope, the actor’s safety required the crew to use steel. “That means that, in places, the rope ends and it doesn’t take his weight like it would,” he explained. “That’s something we have to fix in post [production]. It’s the kind of effects you won’t notice in the final product, but which have to be there in order for it to look right.” According to Wendt, these types of “invisible effects” are commonplace across the spectrum of filmmaking, from romantic comedies to period dramas. “You may look at a film that, on the face of it, doesn’t contain any effects, and maybe it’s a 150 [effects] shot show.”
Up on the catwalk, Routh and Steele were ready to shoot their fight. At the director’s instruction, Steele swung a massive arm at a human, and fairly vulnerable, Routh. The actor bobbed and evaded, occasionally taking a hit, but surviving. Despite playing the Man of Steel, Routh had little fight training before this film. “The one thing that didn’t happen in [‘Superman Returns’] is that I didn’t fight. I got beat up,” the actor joked. “So I knew how to do that.”
Oddly enough, learning how to take a hit was helpful in developing Dylan’s fighting style. “Everybody he fights is ten times stronger than him, so usually it’s just him getting the heck beat out of him,” explained stunt coordinator Eric Norris. He and Routh defined the action from a standpoint of defense. “He’s ducking out of the way and jibing as they keep coming at him, and then he’s throwing big haymakers.” Instead of giving the character formal martial arts training, Norris settled on “just kind of dirty fighting.” He gave Routh credit for learning fast, saying the actor “stepped up his game” for the film.
Actress Anita Briem, who plays Elizabeth, also enjoyed stepping into the world of fight training, although her character’s style involves more blades than brawn. “It’s kind of fun because it’s sort of elevated, in a way,” she said. “I have very specific weaponry. Kevin’s vision on how the action is very much how you tell a story and how it explodes out of the story has really been inspiring.”
As we spoke, Briem offered a few details about Elizabeth, Dylan’s client and potential love interest who enjoys Dylan’s world of monsters and wants to know more about them and him. “How Elizabeth and Dylan are trying to come together and how their relationship develops, that has been really exciting,” she said. “It’s really sort of lifted off the page. The character has changed quite considerably since we first started. Kevin has been really terrific.” She credits the director with creating the freedom to experiment on set with the characters and the ways in which they bounce off of one another. “Because everybody’s very open, we’re discovering things every day. So, when you come into work the next day and do the scene that’s on the page, maybe it doesn’t exactly make sense anymore, but you’re inspired for something bigger because something bigger took place yesterday.”
Sometimes, that bigger thing is the day itself. It addition to the fight, much of Dylan and Marcus exploring the zombie enclave was shot early in the morning, almost entirely in story sequence, with the crew moving from one end of the location to the other. While unusual, it reflected the pace of production. “I don’t know how many set-ups we’re doing,” said director of photography Geoffrey Hall. “It’s usually, if we’re on single camera, [something like] seventeen. Then, when we go multi-camera, you start getting up to forty or fifty.” While speedy for an effects film, he commented, “I’ve found it hasn’t compromised anything.”
At nightfall, with the action already filmed, all that remained to shoot were the zombies themselves. Hall lit the area under the cable to match the appearance of the earlier shots, and the zombie extras were given their instructions: Menace Huntington’s stand-in. The group crawled in from the shadows to the spot where Marcus plopped onto the ground. Just when it seemed the director was satisfied and ready to wrap up the day, he and Hall had a quick conference, resulting in one last shot. Soon, the cameraman lay on the ground while the zombies clawed at him. After several takes, Munroe was happy with the shot that would ultimately make it into one of the film’s trailers and called for a wrap on “Dylan Dog’s” zombie day.
“Dylan Dog: Dead of Night” arrives in theaters on April 29