CCI | <i>Underworld: Awakening</i> Stakes Out New Territory

The cast and crew of Underworld: Awakening met with the media at Comic-Con International to discuss the latest installment of the supernatural-action franchise, which finds Selene escaping imprisonment to discover that humanity is waging a war to eradicate vampires and Lycans. The film marks the return of star Kate Beckinsale as well as the series debut of the Swedish directing team of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein.

Beckinsale admitted it initially felt strange to suit up as the vampire warrior Selene for the first time since 2006’s Underworld: Evolution. “It’s like putting your wedding dress on, or putting your school uniform on,” she said. “It’s like a time-warp feeling.”

“It was weird not having Len [Wiseman, who directed the first two films] there at first,” she added. “You go from Len, who is my husband and is American, and you get two Swedish directors.” And while Beckinsale also missed franchise regulars Scott Speedman and Bill Nighy, the fourth film “immediately felt like the same type of family environment that we had on the first one.”

Awakening is also noteworthy for being the first installment in the series to be filmed in 3D – something Wiseman, who now serves as producer, wasn’t open to at first.

“To be honest, I wasn’t comfortable at all,” he said. “Like many others, I was nervous about certain aspects of 3D. Does it help? Does it hurt? Underworld: Awakening wasn’t greenlit as 3D. … It was months in to it that we decided on the 3D. It took a lot of testing; there hadn’t been a lot of live-action movies [in 3D at that point].”

“I don’t think it’s the future of films,” he added.

Stein conceded that he and Mårlind were also apprehensive about shooting in 3D, but by the time they began production, they were on board with the technology, and the RED EPIC digital cameras in particular. “We will be the first film out to be shot on these RED EPICs in 3D,” he said.

The directors, both Underworld fans, acknowledged that the franchise brings with it certain challenges and expectations.

“You want to deliver to the fans because they want to come and see an Underworld movie, but you don’t want to bore them,” Mårlind said. “You also need to bring in new stuff. You are always saying ‘Is this cool, or is this stale?’ and ‘Is this new, or is this too new?’”

“Aesthetics is everything, and we felt that we had the same taste [as Wiseman],” Stein said, adding, “I chatted with Len for like two hours and it was just love at first sight. We found our match pretty quickly and then we came over a week after and just stayed.”

However, Mårlind said he Stein also wanted to put their own stylistic stamp on the series.

Underworld is sort of like the Godfather movies of goth,” he said. “We said that we wanted to amp the goth, so, ‘How can we have some neo-goth?’ That was the first thing that everybody said. ‘Yes, we must do that, we must have a new take on the goth.’”

Awakening also required a degree of world building that Mårlind said is rarely seen in other films. “[Underworld] created a world we had never seen before. People said, ‘Is this Chicago? Is this New York?’ But no, it’s ‘the city.’ It’s a comic-book world, and different rules apply.”

The same can probably be said of the duo’s unique directing style. “One day I’m directing and he’s helping me, the next day he’s directing and I’m just helping him,” Stein said. “It works excellent. It’s also very nice to be the guy who’s not directing, because then you sit in a chair by the monitors and you can watch everything and affect everything without having the responsibility.”

Wiseman, who’s deep into production of the Total Recall remake, explained that his busy schedule prevented him from taking the reins on Awakening. He said that while it was more difficult to let Patrick Tatopoulos helm 2006’s Rise of the Lycans, “It never stops being weird, especially when Kate’s back, because there’s not been an Underworld that Kate’s been in that I haven’t directed.”

Still, he enjoys his new role as producer, which presents with different types of challenges. “If you are a creative producer, so much of the creativity is exercise, and I like to be involved in a lot of things,” Wiseman said. “While I’m directing [Total Recall], I’m able to see everything that’s happening on Underworld and have a lot of creative input in that.”

He said he hasn’t allowed the latest wave of vampire films to influence the direction of the eight-year-old franchise.

“I don’t pay attention too much to all the other vampire movies going on,” Wiseman said. “That may change the focus on our series. It really has its own evolution to it. I think that if I can say anything in the change of it, it started in an era that was a little more Matrix-y at the time, the wire work that was popular and things like that, and that drove the action [of the early films]. … Ours is much more action-oriented than a lot of the others, and I hope that sets us apart.”

Similarly, Awakening may stand out from the previous three films in the series. “It feels very new, very different than the others,” Wiseman said.

“There’s a human element in this Underworld that’s missing from the other ones,” offered Michael Ealy, who plays Detective Sebastian.“My character is probably the main component of that human element. I have the most interaction. That, to me, is what was missing from the first two.”

Ealy, who was experiencing his first Comic-Con – “This is crazy; I’ve never seen anything like it” – revealed that he performed much of his on wirework stunts in the film, requiring him to wear skintight harnesses.

“They taught me all the tricks to not becoming sterile,” he joked. “It’s scary. You’re like, ‘I haven’t had children yet, but I would like to.’”

Beckinsale, whose stunt work in the series helped to catapult her to the status of action star, acknowledged that, “As an adult the ability to get terrified from your work is quite healthy.”

“I did have a very painful experience on a wire trying to leap over two cars,” she recalled. “I think that was the time I actually shed a tear, the only time in the movie I shed a tear. That was kind of embarrassing.”

As for that “action star” label, Beckinsale said, “It’s still hilarious to my family. I mean, I was the one with three birds woven into my hair so I couldn’t run to the bus. I was not that person at all. It did give me a slight moment of panic because I love it. It’s great … but it’s weird when you get associated with that one thing that isn’t necessarily your most instinctive thing to do.”

“I do other things as well,” she added. “It’s just that sometimes those movies don’t come out! Unfortunately, some of the movies that I am very fond of, independent movies, nobody sees. I love the fact that I get to do both. It’s cool.”

Underworld: Awakening opens Jan. 20, 2012.

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