INTERVIEW: xXx Director Assembles the X-Factors of the Return of Xander Cage

When it came to assembling a revival of the action-packed "xXx" franchise, filmmaker D.J. Caruso had a task that at first glance seemed nearly as impossible to tackle as one of extreme government operative Xander Cage’s missions.

But the director -- who previously helmed such taught thrillers as “Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye” and “I Am Number Four,” as well as a host of episodic TV dramas including “The Shield,” “Smallville” and “Dark Angel” -- proved ready for the task: as he explains to CBR, even with all of the wall-to-wall action, his job on “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” was a lot like being an expert chef, knowing where and how to flavor his film with the many tasty ingredients he had at hand.

CBR: In a way, this film was probably as much a soufflé as anything, because you have so many different ingredients and flavors that you’re putting into one movie. You’ve got this international cast, everybody’s different kind of fighting styles -- how did you approach that as you figured out what everyone was bringing to the party?

D.J. Caruso: What I had to do was be observant and realize, even after meeting everyone, what their personality’s like. Obviously knowing Donnie Yen’s fighting style, knowing Tony Jaa, knowing what I wanted to do, trying to figure out what to do with Vin, Deepika [Padukone], Ruby [Rose].

I think you hit the nail on the head: I had to realize my job was to bring out the best in all these characters. You know that Xander is going to have his screen time. He’s going to have all it is. How do I do justice to Donnie Yen? How do I do justice to all these others: to Serena, to Deepika?

So I really took their personalities, and the first decision I made was, “You speak with your accent. You’re not changing your accent.” Only Toni Collette, because she played an American agent, had to change her accent. I just wanted everyone to be who they were and help that infuse their own personality into their characters.

Then really, shooting a Donnie Yen fight is completely different from shooting a Tony Jaa fight, with this acrobatics and all this stuff. Then also coming up with stuff for Xander. So it was a soufflé, but I think the biggest task and challenge was to make sure exactly what you said, that each one of these characters could pop and do their own thing. They all are so dynamic and interesting that it was easier than I thought it was going to be.

As you prepped to make this movie, what was the fun of going in knowing, “Okay, I’m making a “xXx” movie; I’ve got these other two that have come before. How am I going to be faithful to them and brand new and fresh for the audience today?”

First I thought, “Okay, I want to make sure I pay homage to what everyone responded to when people who would love the franchise or like the franchise would remember.” I remembered the coat, I remembered, “I live for this shit.” I remember the swag. I remember he was really like this rebel who became this reluctant patriot. I thought, that’s a pretty cool character. So let’s make sure we kind of latch on to that.

But now let’s take him 15 years in the future, and let’s [find out] what did Sam Jackson’s character have to do in those 15 years to kind of replace Xander? What kind of extreme people would he bring in? So how do we do that and bring these characters in, and sort of launch a new [version]: if you’re a first-time viewer, this is a great jumping off point to get into the franchise.

So I was trying to balance all that, and the fun of the prep was like, watching motorcycles ride on the water. Watching motorcycles sink in the water. Watching a skateboarder go 70 miles an hour and figure out how am I going to fucking shoot that? How am I going to chase that? Let’s get the Porsche with the crane arm coming out so we can go 60 miles an hour and chase him. So that was the fun -- the logistical fun.

Then the personalities that they all bring every day is like, “Oh, I don’t have Vin today, but oh, but I have Donnie Yen. Oh, I have Deepika. Oh, I have Ruby. Oh gosh, I have Michael Bisping. Oh my God, Neymar and Sam Jackson today. Oh, obviously Ice Cube.” So each day brought its own little different fun so it never got like that repetitive nature.

If you’re the coach, Vin’s the quarterback -- and also, in a way, the GM, as a producer.

That’s true, yeah [Laughs].

D.J. Caruso
Director D.J. Caruso on set of "xXx: Return of Xander Cage."

He comes from “Fast and Furious,” which is a great ensemble, even though he’s the first name on the callsheets. He also knows how to be part of an ensemble and to fit in a different place in the cast. So tell me what was fun about assembling a “xXx” family for Vin in this movie, with Vin being part of that process.

I think what was fun is knowing that Xander was a character that’s a little closer to who Vin is, in a way. He’s more fun, he’s easy going, and Dom is a little more brooding and heavy. So that part of it made it fun initially. I kept saying, I met this girl Ruby Rose last year, and imagined her as Adele, and to show him that, and to bring him in to putting that whole team together, and then him showing me the Deepika screen test that they had done for “Fast 7,” and I immediately fell in love with her. So it was like building this smorgasbord of a menu that you’re talking about, building that together and putting it all together.

Obviously because he knew this character and he’d been this character, he was really sort of always policing being true to what Xander would be doing. And at the same time, and I was helping launch these other characters in a way that hopefully, if they get to come back together again, there’s a foundation built for them.

Could this potentially be like a reverse “Avengers,” where each of these characters could go off to star in their own solo movie?

Pretty interesting! Yeah, I don’t know. Hopefully, if this does well and that happens and we get a chance. It’s interesting because as you start thinking about the next movie, it’d be interesting to think, what if we got these guys separated? And they’re the watchers of the world? And all the world leaders are now going like,”We don’t like these people watching us.” So what if we separated them in pockets and pools and had to get them all back together? So you’re thinking along the lines of what we’re thinking.

I mean this in the nicest way possible: how important is story to a “xXx” movie? Is it more about moments and action and coolness?

Yeah, I think the story, the plotting of the movie to us was the first thing we figured out. You go, okay great. You get this McGuffin. You understand what’s happening with this. Then ultimately, at the end of the day, what is it saying? It’s saying like, you have to be careful because you don’t know. The watchers that are supposedly looking over you are the ones that actually need to be watched. So we kind of jumped off the plot and that theme.

And I thought, if it’s simple enough in a way, you can anchor that and have everyone grab on to these characters and take the ride though and understand that Pandora’s Box and the satellites and all that. It’s part of it, but at the same time, it was enough plot to kind of anchor you and take you through. It’s important to plant that foundation within the action franchise so that what they’re doing, even though you're having fun, it means something.

When the movie starts, we see women in the established “xXx” mode -- they’re a little ornamental at first. But then you get these great female characters that emerge by the end of the movie. That must have been exciting for you to set up that classic espionage world, but then reveal “Oh, we’ve got some really cool ladies here.”

That’s funny, because that was a conscious effort on our part. I just thought, wouldn’t it be great to, yes, again, that’s sort of what I say. That’s the old “xXx” and paying homage to the old spy movie, and the Bonds and the “xXx,” and kind of taking it up. Then all of a sudden you go, “Okay, why are we making this movie now? What’s different?”

Then he meets the female version of himself, with Serena. Then you realize, when he’s needing help, he’s going to take Tony Gonzalez and all those SEALs, and drop them out of a plane and say, this are the people I need, and he goes and gets Ruby Rose, where you kind of have this bromance between him and Ruby Rose like they’re just partners.

It was really fun because I had this perverse smile on my face when we did the first screening because in the focus group, they were just talking about, “I didn’t know that there was going to be such great, strong women who kick ass in this movie. We just thought it was going to be Xander.” I really get a pleasure out of hearing that because it’s great to kind of juxtapose both those, the old “xXx” world, and the new “xXx” world with these kick-ass women.

With all the different elements that you’re bringing in, how is this at the end of the day a D.J. Caruso movie?

I think it’s a D.J. Caruso movie because, what I discovered when I was making the movie was that, oh, I know why. You have that epiphany, I know why I’m making this movie now. And the reason I’m making this movie was, it was such a celebration of individualism, and the collective power of individuals who all think, act, talk differently. They’re from all over the world, but the collective power of them still being true to themselves and working together was amazing.

I think that to me was that theme and the message that I grabbed onto. Then I started thinking back to some of the other movies I made and being true to who you are and not trying to conform, and I think that’s what made it a D.J. Caruso movie.

Now you’ve got some fun franchise work behind you, I know “G.I. Joe” has been in your sights for a while. Where do you stand now, and where do you hope to go with that project at this point?

We were working on that, developing that, prior to me starting “xXx,” and Dwayne [Johnson] was working on it with us prior to him starting “Baywatch.” Then the “Fast,” and all this other stuff came in. So we got to a point where I was pretty happy with the script. It took some chances that the studio wasn’t sure they were willing to take yet with the franchise.

So we’re going to all get together and reevaluate that when all this blows over and see where we are. I’d be interested in sort of revitalizing that. I think “G.I. Joe,” there’s so much potential there to kick it up to the next level.

Would you bring Vin in?

Ah, maybe! Maybe.

As a filmmaker, what did you come out sort of thinking “Now I know how to do this, and I’m going to take my game to the next level on the next movie?

What I think what I came out with, which was always so interesting was that, because each one of these stunts was so specific, that it was really fun for me to understand and manage each of these stunt teams in a way that they would help execute my vision.

So I feel like now, sometimes those big movies are daunting because there’s a second unit that goes off, but we didn’t really have that big of a second unit. I really like the fact that I think now I can blend being a first unit, second unit, passing some of it off of course, but even taking a movie that’s even bigger than this. $85 million sounds like a lot, but this movie, that was like, they didn’t know from a business standpoint, it was kind of like, the “Deadpool” thing: “This is how much you have.”

“For the last ten days you might not have craft services.”

Exactly. I know to cry poverty to $85 million sounds ridiculous, but you know when you make a movie like this how fast it goes.

Looking over at your career, you had almost this perfect progression of size and scale in the projects you’ve worked on. You’ve taken a big step forward each time, but it’s always very logical. Did you feel it happened that way, or was it intentional?

No, I don’t know if it was intentional. I think it’s always, when you first start, I remember like seeing “T2” and going like, “What the fuck? How could I do a movie like this? It’s just so remarkable.” Then sort of going, “Okay yeah, I think I can.” You start to progress and get bigger.

I remember the really big jump for me was “Disturbia,” with a 36 day schedule in one little place we went to. Steven [Spielberg] convinced me I could do “Eagle Eye,” and then going, “Yeah, I can embrace this and I can take that.” So that sort of was encouraging. It’s not so much a conscious effort, it’s just more about knowing that you can be at the top of your game no matter what the size.

At the end of the day, I made a little movie called “Standing Up,” which was made for like $1.8 million, and you make a movie like “xXx,” which was made for $85 million. It’s really bizarre, and it’s not bizarre. It’s the seven people around the camera, and the actor in front of the camera. It’s almost all the same, if that makes any sense.

There’s so much energy and momentum in this movie. Are you at all an adrenaline junkie yourself?

A bit of an adrenaline junkie. I always say I like to do things a little crazy. When I first started directing second units, I did a movie called “Drop Zone” with Wesley Snipes, which was way back in the 90s. I did all the second unit on that. So I kind of fell with skydiving and jumping out of airplanes. I would even jump out of the airplane with the camera and follow Michael Jeter down. So that kind of stuff, that adrenaline stuff kind of gets me.

But then you get kids, you get a little older. I’m a pure jet skier, a stand-up jet ski with my Yamaha. So those are the kind of things I did growing up. So I have that. A little bit of motocross, but not much. Mostly on the water.

How proud are you of the fact that you’re the director who figured out that Nina Dobrev could do comedy?

I was really proud of that, because I will say, to be quite honest, when Nina was coming into read, I was like, “I already cast Serena. Why is Nina reading for Becky? This is a mistake.” And the casting director said, ‘No, she really wants to read for Becky.” So I was like, “Great!”

When she came in and started, I saw a whole other side to Nina that I didn’t even know existed. After the casting, I hung out with her and I said, ‘Can you just sit down and talk for like 15 minutes?” I realized who she was, and her energy. It was really amazing. So she won me over in the room, and she made a real conscious effort to show that she has this side to her.

Then to watch her work and have this kind of Lucille Ball-esque physical comedy, and fun, and sexy, it was really, really fun because I think she did a great job, and I feel proud to be part of showing a part of who Nina really is out there.

I’m really curious about working with Donnie Yen, who’s not just a great martial artist, a really good actor as we’re finding out, but he’s also a director. He’s a filmmaker himself, and knows how to stage those things. What was the give and take between you guys figuring out some of his action choreography?

I was really, obviously, coming in very respectful and told Donnie, look, some of the fights on the page might not have sounded or read like they were going to be Donnie Yen type fights. That was really important to me to say, “I need Donnie Yen signature fights, so I want you to help me develop these.”

So I would work something out with some of the stunt team we had. I would show them to Donnie. Donnie would come in and tweak. He had a friend of his who was kind of like watching us going through it. Then what I really, really learned from Donnie was camera: I’m good at having the camera in the right place, but it’s like how far to take a piece of action? [He’d say] “A kick to the face, when my leg’s at this perfect straight moment where it’s actually a perfect kick is when the stuntman was already falling out of frame. So can you please have that stuntman hold and not fall out of frame and let me finish my perfect kick?” So I was like, “Oh – that makes sense! As soon as he starts going out of frame, I’m forced to cut, and your leg hasn’t been fully extended yet.” So all those little things.

I felt like I went to Donnie Yen film school, so I gave him a lot of the freedom to watch. At the end of the day down in video, I would cut stuff together really quickly and say, “Here’s what we got so far. What do you think?” “Oh, that’s great,” he goes, “but I can do this kick better.” So I was really inclusive in him encouraging to have ownership of the fight.

In a perfect world, if you get to do whatever you want to do next, what do you have in mind? Do you keep your hand on the “xXx” wheel? Do you work on “G.I. Joe?” Do you have something else on deck?

I have a little movie that I’d like to do because I feel really strongly about the film. It’s called “God is a Bullet.” A first-time screenwriter adopted a Boston Teran novel.

In short, it’s kind of getting me back to “The Salton Sea,” and the noir Southern California desert, which I’m really fascinated with, by two characters who come together in very unusual circumstance and have to sort of form a relationship, a believer and a non-believer, and also find the answers to this mystery. And I’m really intrigued with doing that, and then I’d love to go back and be doing something really big.

That sounds really cool: to go back to something that you started with at this stage of your career.

Yeah. That’s what I want to do.

"xXx: Return of Xander Cage" is in theaters now.

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