In the Legendary Pictures fantasy-adventure Seventh Son, Oscar winner Jeff Bridges stars as John Gregory, the sole remaining knight in an ancient mystical order of monsters hunters. To defeat the shape-shifting Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), he takes on apprentice Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), and sets off on a quest to save mankind.
Based on Joseph Delaney's bestselling novel The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, the long-delayed film is a story of fantasy and fate. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a recent press conference with its stars began with a little cerebral conversation, courtesy of The Dude himself.
Bridges shared his thoughts on the universe, man: And he did it by quoting The Big Lebowski, his beloved 1998 comedy. Asked how fate has played into his own life, the Oscar winner replied, "As The Dude might say, this is just my opinion, man. You got the universe, right? You got the black holes and the whole deal, and all the stuff we don't know about. Yet here we are, right? And somehow we've come out of the universe. I'm thinking of a guy, Alan Watts. Do you know (philosopher) Alan Watts? He would say apple trees make apples, and the universe peoples. We just come out of this, so it's kind of destiny I guess, or fate that here we are. The Big Bang, it happened and it resulted in all this happening. And here we are. And all our challenges and our dilemmas are fate. And all of those dilemmas can be wonderful or lessons for us, to teach us."
Bridges would have you believe Seventh Son is a sort of "prequel to The Big Lebowski": With he and Moore having last worked together 17 years ago on the Coen brothers movie, The Big Lebowski was bound to come up … again. When asked to compare the cult comedy to this adaptation of a young-adult fantasy novel, Bridges teased, "Not many people know this, but I think we ought to just let this out of the bag: This film is actually a prequel to The Big Lebowski."
After chuckling, he continued, "There are some weird parallels. I think of Maude flying with the paint is kind of like her dragon [transformation in Seventh Son]. The Dude liked to smoke it, drink it, and you know Gregory, I'm sure, has some kind of smoking mixture that he probably would light up on. There's probably some similarities. I haven't really thought too much about it."
Early on, Mother Malkin was intended to transform from a sultry witch to a vicious bird, like a hawk, but presumably much scarier. While this explains the plumage applied to her sleek black dress, this concept was eventually abandoned in favor of a more traditional fantasy foe: the dragon.
For Moore, the hardest part of making Seventh Son was her costume. "Our costumes were tremendous," the five-time Oscar nominee said. "I mean, mine -- not only did I have the tail, but I had bones that came out the back in this spine thing, and feathers! I had extra hair, contact lenses, special makeup, big shoes. The most daunting part for me were the costumes, and just trying to carry it off."
But this was a hardship she happily took on, explaining, "Jackie West's costumes sort of made the character for me. It was such a thrill to get to do that." She praised the production design of Dante Ferretti as well, saying, "That whole fantastical world they created gave us so much. It just allowed you to step into that (mindset) very easily."
An unseen bit of costuming led to Master Gregory's growling tone. In Seventh Son, Bridges speaks in a slurring grumble that makes Master Gregory a bit more distinctive in the acclaimed actor's panoply of parts. However, the affectation was almost by accident. Bridges described his process of creating his character to mediums who allow spirits to come to them and inhabit their bodies.
"I had this idea," he said. "It's kind of a silly idea -- to wear these weird teeth [for playing Master Gregory]. I'm thinking, 'You're in the Dark Ages, you're not going to have good teeth.'" It's a good concept that goes unseen because of bit of Gregory's look the actor hadn't considered. "So I wore these teeth, which you couldn't see at all because of all that hair!" He laughed, adding, "But that made me probably slur a little bit … so that's the truthful answer, I guess."
Bridges took his role as mentor seriously on set. Barnes, the 33-year-old whose credits include The Chronicles of Narnia, recalled how Bridges offered to be an acting mentor -- an opportunity he still beamed about nearly three years after the wrapped production in Canada. "Jeff is the reason I wanted to do the film in the first place," Barnes said. "He was unbelievable generous. … Jeff would just say [affecting a decent Bridges' impersonation], 'You're my apprentice in the movie, you should be my apprentice in real life. Let's talk about acting!'
"I've been so lucky in my life to work with some great actors who had been my heroes before we started,” Barnes continued. “But Jeff was the first one to say 'Let's talk about acting,' because no one wants to do it because it's like there's this secret, this magical secret that we can't talk about how or why we're doing what we're doing. Why we tell stories in the way that we do. Like there's some secret to the world of acting that you need a special key to open. That it's not just dressing up and playing make believe. But Jeff was actually the first person to step me through his approach to scenes." He then turned to Bridges and said, "Thank you, man."
Bridges' best mentors are mostly animals and babies. And James Mason. Adding to what Barnes shared about mentors, Bridges said, "My father and my brother, I guess they count as mentors, my mom too. She would give me some wonderful acting tips. Julie [Julianne Moore] has said this, and I agree with her, the ages you get to work with as actors are so many different ages. I have found that my best mentors are animals, dogs and children, babies. I remember the kid in Crazy Heart, so wonderful! See how he did his things, he had no expectations, not being result-oriented. You can learn that from the kid if you're open to it.
"I can remember the second film I did called The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go,” Bridges continued. “Burgess Meredith wrote, directed, produced it. James Mason played a Chinese Mexican. And I remember Mason -- James Mason -- I was just in awe of him as an actor. And there he was, taking me under his wing. And going about, in a very purposeful way, breaking all those expectations that I had with him. Just saying, 'Yeah, I'm a regular guy,' talking about his brother, my brother, and those kinds of things."
Bridges then looked to Barnes and said, "That's maybe in the spirit I came to you and said, 'Hey.'" Then his words dissolved into warm giggles, with Barnes interjecting, "You're my James Mason!"
Barnes' vision seizures proved too intense for the final cut. When Tom experiences visions in Seventh Son, it's a brutal shock to the young apprentice's system. So Barnes studied epileptic seizures for inspiration, recounting how his first day on set had him thrashing around in the mud of a pigpen. But the most graphic of these takes won't see the light of day. "They didn't want it to seem quite as medical," Barnes said, "I think I really went for it with the frothing and the spasming. I was literally on the ground convulsing, because I wanted it to seem scary, like an affliction. I think in the end it was -- as Master Gregory and Tom talk about -- that it's a weakness that can be turned into something useful. And it's not useful if you're spasming on the ground."
Bridges brought the press conference to a close with a bit of philosophy, because of course The Dude did. Regarding the film's message about good and evil, Bridges went deep. "In my research, I came across this quote I'll read to you by [Russian novelist] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn," he said, procuring a full sheet of paper from his pocket. He read, "'If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?' I'm hoping that's in the movie somewhere."
Seventh Son opens Friday.