Set visits often follow the same basic routine — arrive at the location, watch a bit of filming and between shots, the director, an actor or a crew member will take the time to chat before the next call of “Action!” Sometimes, the chats become more formal interviews, but the most important thing from the filmmakers’ standpoint is getting the day’s shots finished. When CBR News visited the New Orleans set of “Green Lantern” in August, that familiar format was rocked by a missing element — actual filming.
The Warner Bros. film, which stars Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, the cocky test pilot who gets drafted into an intergalactic police force, was, until recently, a secret contained on computer hard drives and CGI render farms. At the time of our visit, precious little was known other than its principal leads, which include Blake Lively as Carol Ferris and Mark Strong as Sinestro. The look, scope and feel of the project were all mysteries the crew gave us special access to in lieu of watching a scene being shot.
The day began with a tour of the art department, set up in one of the adjacent stages. Inside, a large-scale model of the Guardians’ Citadel — a circular platform surrounded by nine seats — greeted us as production designer Grant Major said hello. Flanking him were cardboard cut-outs of fan-favorite Lanterns Kilowog and Tomar-Re. Major discussed the movie with the aid of many production art pieces, concept drawings and photos.
He started with a group of designs marked “Coast City,” Hal Jordan’s hometown. Pointing to a photo of a composite cityscape, Major talked about the environments used to create the fictional aerospace town. “There are some key locations [here in New Orleans] that we’ve incorporated into Coast City. We’re also using some of the west coast of California. The character of Coast City is very West Coast Californian,” he said. Shots of Long Beach, California, will supply some of that Pacific feel. “There are also some testing grounds [on the edge of New Orleans] like California has inland in the desert area.” In the composite photo, the coastline, airfield and desert-like proving grounds were clearly visible. It was a convincing sight.
He gestured to several illustrations of the changes that Hector Hammond will undergo throughout the film. Starting with an untouched photo of actor Peter Sarsgaard, each picture adds volume to his forehead, achieved through practical effects. “We’re fortunate to have the prosthetic designers and the manufacturing area within the same building,” Major explained. That proximity allowed them to tweak Hammond’s appearance throughout shooting.
The presentation was reminiscent of a DVD special feature, but live and with more depth than could be encoded onto a disc. Major moved on to a wall dedicated to the design of the planet Oa, the Green Lantern Corps’ headquarters. “[Hal] sees these shafts of light or energy coming up from it,” he said, pointing to a full-color drawing that reveals the world to be honeycombed from eons of exposure to the Power Battery. The concept was impressive and unlike any other seen in comics or animation. It was a bold departure, but one that honored the purpose of Oa. “It’s an extremely old place,” Major said. “It must have a lot of influence on a lot of different cultures over time. So, what we tried to do was introduce a plethora of different types of architectural styles and a feeling that over the millennia, there’s just been this building up and building up and this whole sort of huge history.”
Asked about how the film’s eventual conversion to 3D enters into designing the world, power ring constructs and the rest of the film, Major responded, “Film design is a 3D job anyway. Even though it’s projected in 2D, we design it in such a way that you’ve got to get a feeling of the geography and the way that spacial systems work. Obviously, we’ve been thinking, ‘How do we make 3D moments eye-popping?'” He added, “It’s storytelling, first and foremost.” Without getting too specific, he mentioned space scenes will utilize the deep-field of the 3D environment, while certain shots of the Lanterns using their powers will reach out into the audience.
The next set of photos detailed members of the Corps: Boodikka, Medphyll, the Green Man and Salaak, to name a few. “We’ve had the task of designing about 25 of them, which we’ll see as featured extras,” Major explained. “We’ve been putting a lot of work into making them exotic, but the top of the evolutionary chain of their own planets.” The list went deep into GL mythology with one new addition: N’gila Grnt. The production designer smiled when that design was mentioned. “Other than N’gila Grnt, they’re all quoted from the comics,” he said. Sadly, G’Nort wasn’t present.
Along for the tour were producer Donald De Line and co-producer Geoff Johns, who at the time had only recently been named DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer. “The creation of DC Entertainment shows that Warner Bros. knows they want to do DC properties, characters and stories,” Johns said of the company’s restructuring.
Every so often, he and De Line added to Major’s hour-long presentation. When the issue of the superhero mask came up, Johns offered, “Green Man has his mask on his world. He’s obviously protecting whatever crazy identity he has. The uniform comes from the ring and reacts to whatever the wearer needs.”
De Line added, “When the Lanterns [other than the Green Man] are on Oa, they don’t need to be masked because they’re not protecting their identities from each other.”
When Major’s presentation concluded, costume designer Ngila Dickson took center stage in a nearby screening room to discuss the most hotly contested aspect of the film up to that point: the costume. Known for the elaborate, but fully realized clothes seen in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the designer was presented with a unique learning curve when it came to the computer-realized uniforms of the Green Lantern Corps. She approached the challenge from the Guardians’ point of view, explaining, “I wanted to explore the costumes from a DNA/cellular level. The costume is grown over the body — being true to the nature of where that [Lantern has] come from. The idea is that the Guardians recognize what the ring has chosen about each individual and highlight that.”
Using a slide of a naked Abin Sur as an example, she illustrated how that thinking went into the unique variation of his costume. “I wanted to bring out in him this sort of beauty,” she said. His finished uniform highlighted the curious texture of his skin. Dickson presented slides of other Lanterns. Each uniform reflected the characters’ differences, from the slight frame of Tomar-Re to the mass of green across Kilowog’s chest. Along the way, she revealed that her favorite Lantern is Bzzd.
With an understanding of the uniform firmly in place, she talked about Hal’s costume. “The very first thing [the Guardians] are going to look at is this human’s anatomy,” she began. Her research took her to medical diagrams from the 1500s. She called those early explorations of the human form “quite beautiful as renderings.” Following on the thought that Hal’s new bosses would also explore his psyche, she looked at the eventual costume as an extension of the character’s first love: flying. “I wanted to take the concept of him as a pilot and create this extraordinary flying machine,” she explained as a slide of Reynolds in the finished costume appeared on the screen. She admitted designing costumes no one would ever wear was “weird,” but that CGI is just a new tool to use as readily as needle and thread.
Johns and De Line took over the show to present an early effects test of Salaak. The movements looked uniquely like the alien, with his four hands furiously typing away at various keyboard and monitor constructs. Though it was only an unfinished animation test, Salaak showed off plenty of character. “They got his personality perfectly — he’s kind of anal about everything,” Johns said. “Everyone [on the film] is doing their research and really being diligent about it, but they bring a whole other layer to it which you can’t do on a comic book page.”
De Line credited Johns with crystallizing the connections between the film and the DC Universe. “All along the way, with every draft, Geoff would look at it,” he said. “We really wanted to stay true to the comics and the mythology and he was always our touchstone.” In addition to Lanterns like Salaak and Isamot Kol, Johns also suggested bringing the emotional spectrum and Dr. Amanda Waller into the story.
Another interesting fact about our visit: it was Mark Strong’s birthday. The crew celebrated by getting him a cake adorned with a portrait of his character decked out in Sinestro Corps gear. When asked later about that costume, the actor gave no indication that Sinestro’s fall from grace was scheduled for the next film — should a sequel happen — but his eventual turn to evil was never far from Strong’s thoughts. “Knowing what happens to Sinestro defines the way he behaves in this film,” he said.
“He carries around ‘Secret Origin’ with him,” Johns added, noting the actor got his copy of the story signed when artist Ivan Reis visited the set a few days earlier. “Mark really did his research and embraced that character.”
Due on the green-screen stage, Strong was unsure whether his theatrical background gave him an advantage in that environment. “It doesn’t faze me,” he admitted. “I’m sure some of the reason is that if you grow up doing 10 or 15 years of theater, you know it’s not real. You can see the front row of the audience.” Whether in live theater or playing an alien, he believes it is all about the power of imagination.
That sentiment was shared by Reynolds, who also faced the blankness of the stage. “You see the concept drawings and you find it that way,” he said of working in the featureless green studio.
Coming to talk to the press group in between camera set-ups, Reynolds still wore the grey motion-tracking suit under his robe, and his neck was still dotted with tracking markers. “I had a tussle with the black-and-white fairy,” he quipped. The dots would eventually help the special effects people track the collar-line of the costume. The actor admitted that he initially worried about the tracking suit, but, “You gotta get over the ‘feeling stupid in a grey unitard’ thing pretty quickly if you’re going to do a hundred and four days of shooting in it.
“I think once I got behind the idea and the reasons why it wasn’t an actual suit — that it’s actually kind of a bio-weapon — I was all for it,” he added.
Although filming would wrap the next day, director Martin Campbell looked forward to the months of post-production work, where the world shown in stills would become a living, 3D reality. “The tests have been very encouraging,” he said. The director was also confident in the story and the way his team handled the material. “You just treat it like any other drama,” he explained.
“We always go back to character and story,” De Line added.”What are we relating to and what are we caring about? That’s something that Martin is always very focused on.”
Asked whether the film will raise the profile of the “Green Lantern” comic book, Johns replied, “I hope so — the hope is that this stuff always feeds back into [the comics].” At the same time, the push to get the DC properties into film, television, and games is important to their survival; whether they are the “big guns” like The Flash and Wonder Woman or lesser known characters like Sgt. Rock. Johns also expressed an eagerness to see Vertigo titles like “100 Bullets” find their way off the page and into other formats.
Just when the day appeared to be wrapping up, we were presented with was one more surprise — prop master Andrew Petrotta brought in a battery and ring. The battery is different from its comic book counterpart, more alien, ancient and mysterious than the familiar design. “It’s a type of resin,” he said of the lantern. “Originally, it’s grown with lasers in a resin bath, then there’s a bit of sculpting afterwards.” CBR News had the opportunity to try on the ring prop; it had plenty of weight, with the same alien stone texture as the battery. Oddly enough, the only rings Petrotta made were a set for Reynolds and his stunt double. “The others are computer generated,” he said.
In course of a few short hours, the cast and crew of “Green Lantern” offered a special glimpse at the film, showing off the things fans of the comic will appreciate and the summer movie aspects that general moviegoers will hopefully enjoy. “‘Green Lantern’ has this mythology, this epic scope,” said Johns, a scope everyone involved in the making of the movie plans to introduce the world.
“Green Lantern” lands in theaters on June 17th