Director Renny Harlin and Co-Producer Jonathan Yunger gathered the stars of Hercules: The Legend Begins -- Kellan Lutz (Twilight), Liam McIntyre (Spartacus), Scott Adkins (The Expendables 2 and newcomer Gaia Weiss – on Saturday for an occasionally raucous panel at New York Comic Con that featured a trailer premiere for the action-adventure.
Although it was the end of a long Saturday that included packed-to-capacity panels for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Walking Dead, the crowd still flooded the theater for the final presentation of the day, which promised exclusive footage from this upcoming 3D action-adventure.
Hercules: The Legend Begins stars Lutz as the titular demi-god who falls for the Hebe (Weiss), princess of Crete, who’s sadly betrothed to another. To separate these lovers, the vile King Amphitryon (Adkins) exiles Hercules to a far-away war. There he must fight to stay alive, but he aims to do more than that: The Greek hero wants to return to the woman he loves, and seek vengeance. McIntyre co-stars as Hercules' good friend Sotiris.
Waving prop weapons, ranging from a hatchets to swords to shields to a dagger, the stars arrived to cheers from the audience. The entire cast appeared elated to be at the convention.
"How awesome is it to be at Comic Con?" Harlin asked the crowd. "This is my first Comic Con, and I came here yesterday, and I walked through the halls, and I saw the banners and the posters and the stands and the costumes and the fans, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' This took me right back to where I started from and gave me back that feeling of inspiration and excitement about creating illusions and stories and creating dreams. I think it is so exciting to be here. And I think this is the perfect movie to be talking about here, because it really is for all of us a childhood dream."
The filmmaker added, "I think every director has two dreams: one is to make a Western one day, and one is to do a historical epic, and this is my dream come true. It's a huge canvas, huge historical story with a love story in it. So it's kind of like everything I loved as a kid, growing up and watching movies, and what I still love."
Of course, this isn’t the only Hercules movie arriving in theaters next year. But for the most part, the cast and crew was careful not to mention their competition, Brett Ratner's Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which stars Dwayne Johnson. That is until Harlin and Lutz addressed the latter's physical transformation for the role. "Get cut, look great" was Harlin's direction for Lutz's bodybuilding. The actor added, "There's another Hercules, and already that guy has a lot of muscles, and I wanted to make my guy a little more real, a little slimmer."
Lutz continued, "Like Renny said, you have dream projects, and for me growing up, born in the Midwest, you play a lot of pretend. And Hercules was always that hero to me. I think he is the first iconic hero in the stories told over and over again. And for me, meeting Renny, seeing his vision, seeing where he wanted to take this story, I was just so excited for the opportunity and to get to work. It's every boy's dream to ride horses and fight Spartacus with swords. So it was an honor to be a part of it. Then Gaia … she's a good love interest, that's for sure. So it's very much a blessing to be part of this movie and to be Hercules."
While the other actors on stage have established screen careers, Weiss is far less known, having only previously appeared in the Italian film Biance Come Il Latte, Rossa Com Il Sangue. But after Harlin had auditioned hundreds of actresses in America and Europe for the role of Hebe, he came across Weiss, who'd actually been helping a friend prepare for his audition. "She's a complete newcomer, but that's exactly what we were looking for," Harlin said. "We wanted to find someone who is young, who is attractive, who is a great actress and brings innocence and strength to this role of this princess who is the tragic love interest of our Hercules."
Asked what drew him to projects like Hercules and Spartacus, McIntyre replied, "I am fascinated by this period of history. I grew up pretty nerdy. Surprise. All I did was learn about Roman and Greek history and stuff like that. Then off of the great fortune of getting Spartacus and learning how to sword fight and doing all these cool things that I never thought I could do, and then this amazing man [Harlin] comes up to me and says, 'Hey, would you like to be in your perfect era playing opposite an amazing gentleman in Kellan Lutz, who is going to play a Greek demi-god, and do more sword fighting?' I went, 'Where do I sign?' There is just something about that era that is so arousing to the senses. … There's just something about that period, and especially the legend of Hercules. He's the absolute first superhero, like, he defines superhero. Superman, Batman, they are all based off of this myth of Hercules in some way. And to be part of that experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And to be a part of this particular project, which just does it with such panache and just does it with such heart, in a way we don't to see with such historical epics … it just has such a soul to it and it really called to me."
Regarding his own casting, Adkins joked, "Renny saw sense." However, he added, "I got to play this character that was so meaty and had so much to chew on. It's always great to play the bad guy. I relish in that. "
Harlin told the crowd why this Hercules tale isn't like the ones they've seen before: "Hercules really is the original superhero. I think in many ways people have a caricature or stereotype in their mind, which is, like, Hercules is a hulky guy who carries rocks. We really wanted to go to the origins of this character and really start with a young man who doesn't even know that he is Hercules."
He added, "We think this story is special because it is about a young man who comes from a dysfunctional family with problems, with parents. Scott plays his dad, but then we find out he is not really his dad because his dad is Zeus. He has problems with his friends … and like any young man he has huge issues in his love life, which is where Gaia comes in. So he has all the angst, all the issues, all the problems of a typical young man. And on top of that, one day he starts realizing, and he's basically told, 'You're a demi-god. You're the son of Zeus, and your mission in life is not just have fun, and have some sword fights and make love to a beautiful girl. Your mission is much grander than that. And you have a destiny that you have to fulfill in your life. And we thought that was a really interesting way to dive into this story."
"To say in two sentences what the story is about, " Harlin concluded, "he's a young man. He wants to marry this beautiful girl. His father hates him, you know that happens sometimes. He is sent away to war and he has to go on this incredible long journey, through different countries, and different cultures, until he is able to find his way back home to his love and settle the scores."
Harlin was equally enthusiastic about the film's format, saying, "About the 3D, I'm going to say something really honest, and tell me if you agree. I feel that 3D started and it was very exciting. And then every other movie came out in 3D and most of them were converted from 2D. Sometimes the studio would say, 'Shit, we can sell much more expensive tickets if the movie was in 3D, let's convert it.' I was personally disappointed in some of these movies because they just didn't look that good to me. Do you agree with me?" The crowd cheered in agreement, and Harlin continued, "So to me the 3D starts with the whole visual design of the movie. You have to think about the 3D when you are prepping the movie, how you are going to shoot it, how every prop and set is placed, cause it is a completely different visual language. And there are great examples, of course, like Life of Pi, or how many of you have seen Gravity? 3D can be completely mind-blowing and beautiful so we designed the whole movie for that purpose. Every frame of the movie was shot in 3D and I'm telling you it's so gorgeous and I love it so much. I think you'll enjoy it when you see it. And 3D is not just like poking arrows into your eyes and swords to your eye. That's not what 3D is about, it's just gimmicks. 3D is about creating a world where you feel you are inside it. And it is your world and you are going to experience it with the characters."
Harlin later explained how else the 3D affected the film's production. "The movie was meticulously planned," he said, detailing that every shot was storyboarded. But because he envisioned the fight scenes using speed ramps -- that slow down the action from 29.97 frames per second to 18,000 frames per second using a "super-slow motion camera" known as the Phantom -- Harlin decided long takes of the action scenes were a must. "You have to think about your editing because in 3D you don't want to be cutting crazy-fast in a way where you're can't focus. You have to think about your editing points, where is your eye drawn from one shot to another. And so it was a super-challenging undertaking."
The same can be said for the cast on two fronts. First, the use of slo-mo in the fight scenes demanded that some of the weapons be more authentic than props typically are. Lutz recounted how they used steel swords, and McIntyre noted that, in one scene, they used a real ax. The other difficulty was in the long takes: Instead of doing a few seconds of fight choreography per setup, the onscreen fighters had to perform three minutes of staged fighting, which is a pretty intense endurance test that Lutz confessed resulted in new scratches and bruises every day. He noted that was an obstacle for the make-up department, which had to maintain continuity as they shot out of order. But afterwards, the cast and crew could gather around Harlin's special 3D playback monitor, the cast still in their armor gear, putting on tiny 3D glasses to watch the day's footage.
Millennium Films shot Hercules: The Legend Begins in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the biggest sound stage in Europe, which houses the world's largest green-screen studios. Harlin said they film on the same stage as the recently wrapped 300: Rise of an Empire. "If we made this movie in Hollywood, it would have cost $350 million to make," Harlin said. The estimated budget is instead closer to $70 million, according to IMDb.
Finally, they screened a special teaser trailer cut just for New York Comic Con, although Harlin lamented it was not in 3D because of the limitations of the venue. As promised, there was a lot of slow-motion action of brawny men in battle. The journey set before Hercules is clearly established, from his love of the fair princess, to his exile, travels on the high seas, and tribulations as a warrior. All of that leads to his vow, "I will not stop until I have returned to the princess and avenged my friends." When the final title crossed the screen, the assembled audience roared with approval.
This was the first time the cast had seen the trailer, and Lutz was clearly overwhelmed. He put his head in his hands and said, "I love being an actor!" Then he turned to Harlin and added, "You did an amazing job!"
The panel drew to a messy close when Harlin revealed the panel was giving away the signed prop weapons they brought. He urged everyone to look under their seats for a gold star sticker to learn whether they’d won. Immediately people began flipping over seats in a frenzy. The panel dissolved without an official end as fans with gold stars rushed to the stage to claim their prize.
Above the noise of the crowd, Harlin joked, “We'll get good publicity. Just go on the subway with a sword. Go in front of a police station with an ax!"
Hercules: The Legend Begins premieres in March.