As the lights dimmed in a West Los Angeles theater, the first few minutes of Rogue Pictures' The Warrior's Way flickered on-screen, revealing a mash-up of Western and martial-arts films visually reminiscent of 300 and Sin City. That's no accident, as The Warrior's Way was realized in much the same way as those movies, utilizing limited sets and complete green-screen environments.
CGI backgrounds lend the prologue a surreal quality as the narrator tells the audience about the assassin Yang (Dong-gun Jang) as he faces the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and the only thing standing between him and his mission to kill the last member of an enemy clan -- a baby. Although the duel is a quick burst of violence, the anticipation builds as the music swells and the two opponents size each other up. On the verge of victory, Yang realizes he can't kill an infant. So he flees with the child to a small town in the American West.
Between clips shown during the press screening, the cast and crew discussed the film's unusual feel and setting.
"We pretty much just locked ourselves in a room for 20 months until we figured out what the best thing to do was," joked special-effects supervisor Jason Piccioni. Thanks to the malleability of the green-screen process, the filmmakers found themselves presented with a range of options for the final look. When asking themselves if it should be a gritty reality or something more hyper-real, Piccioni recalled, "There was a lot of room for us to play. At one point, we decided that the movie is a storybook from the point of view of the town. We used that as a license to project what a character in that town 10 years later would tell his kids about."
The storybook concept was one that actually appeared in an early version of the script. Although the scenes themselves disappeared, the idea charged the team with the freedom to create a more fantastic world. In terms of the prologue, the filmmakers asked, "What would Asia look like to a kid in the Old West?"
The answer is a mix of styles as vast as shadow-box puppets and 8-bit video games. "We were very lucky that digital arts have reached the point where we could use all these talents to create true, fantastic environments," producer Michael Peyser said. "Audiences who have seen the movie seem to really enjoy being taken into this world."
Following a montage introducing the Western environment and Yang's love interest Lynne (Kate Bosworth), the producers and star Jang discussed the romantic element wrapped up in the fantastical world of the film.
"Underneath that plot there beats a heart and that heart is a human one," said producer Barry Osborne.
At the start of The Warrior's Way, Yang is a hardened assassin. "His emotions are almost killed by his master to be a stronger warrior," director Sngmoo Lee explained. By coming to the United States with a baby in hand and meeting Lynne, Yang begins to see another way of life. Of course, things aren't easy, as Lynne has her own ambitions to learn the ways of the blade.
"You have a hero who wants to stop killing and a heroine who wants to kill," Peyser said. "Their dance of romance is a dance of death."
"That was the design of their romance from the beginning," Lee added.
For Jang, creating that romance meant overcoming a language barrier with Bosworth. Through a translator, he expressed that the gulf of cultures is not insurmountable. "When I work with someone with a different background and a different language, the connection that we feel as actors is much more important," he said. "The chemistry we create [more so]."
"And you have to understand, these are two seriously unattractive people," Peyser joked.
Jang, known in Asia for his roles in contemporary dramas, fondly recalled watching Westerns as a child. "My father happened to like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood," he said. "One film I remember vividly is Shane, especially the last scene." The 1953 classic, about a gunslinger ready to hang up his six-guns until a local land baron forces him back into violence, floated into his head as he read the script. He said watching those films prepared him for the role.
Returning to the dance of death for Yang and Lynne, the producers introduced Danny Huston as the villainous Colonel. The actor, already well-acquainted with playing bad guys, said he was attracted to the character's quirks: The Colonel hates dirt despite living on the frontier, and is obsessed with the teeth of the woman he beds. In one clip, we see the Colonel disfigured by a child. From that moment on he wears a leather half-mask that recalls The Phantom of the Opera. "His mask, to some, may seem ugly," Huston said, "but I think to him, it's his brighter side."
The Colonel-centric clips also featured Geoffrey Rush as Ron, a drunken sharpshooter whom producer Osborne likens to Shakespeare's Falstaff. The town drunk, Ron is ready to challenge the oppressive Colonel while the other residents tower. "It was great to have Danny embrace it because a movie like this has many heroes," Peyser said. "The villain has to be big enough [to take them all on]."
"There's another aspect of the movie that the four leads personify," Osborn added. "Once you're violent, you can't escape it. It stains you in some way or another and that affects every single one of them."
With that, a final action montage was shown. Somewhere between anime and a Sergio Leone movie, the sequence teases an attack on the town by the Sad Flutes, the clan of assassins from which Yang fled. Meanwhile, Lynne and the Colonel fight in the hotel, both figures becoming blurs of swords and coats. Even Rush's Ron seems to regain his wits long enough to aid Yang in defending the settlement, climbing to the top of a building and taking aim at a rusted Ferris wheel.
As the lights came up, director Lee suggested audiences enjoy The Warrior's Way first as an action movie. If they're satisfied with that, he implores them then to "think about the relationship of these people and what Yang had to go through to be strong. Also, how it relates to your own lives."
Asked whether there was anything else audiences should take from the movie, Peyser joked they should think, "'That was cool' and 'I gotta go see that again.'"
"'And tell my friends'," Osborne added.
The Warrior's Way opens Friday.