John Hyams is on the action short-list of directors that can work within a modest budget, yet present a finely crafted action film that will be enjoyed even by the biggest of action aficionados. Hyams’s “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” was a break out hit that displayed excellently choreographed fights (owing a lot to the MMA sport) and a setting and mood, not unlike an old John Carpenter movie. Now, he returns to the franchise with not only an action fans’ wish list of action stars such as Van Damme, Adkins, Lundgren, but the movie is shot completely in 3D. Without a doubt, this hard-R movie is one to be on the lookout for this fall.
Jonathan Urban: John, thank you from taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions. Universal Soldier: Regeneration was a no-holds-barred action fest that many fans felt brought the Universal Soldier series back into relevance. How will “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” build upon that and is this a sequel or standalone film?
John Hyams: USDOR [Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning] works as both a sequel and a stand-alone — the idea was to follow the mythology where we thought it should go after the conclusion of Regeneration. It answers the question of what became of Luc Deveraux.
JU: At Action Fest 2012 in Asheville, NC, I was part of a large crowd that got to preview the first 5-8 minutes of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. It appeared to switch back and forth through first person (audience looking out through Scott Adkins’s character John’s eyes) and third person. Is this basically how the movie will function, with the 3D elements being in the first person shots?
JH: The scene that played at Action Fest was strictly first person — the only third person elements come as mirror reflections, letting the viewer know who’s POV we are occupying. However, the movie follows traditional third person storytelling, with certain first person elements that are there for a reason. And it’s all shot in 3D.
JU: The opening is not your standard action movie and in many ways seemed to invoke the feeling of a horror movie, with the voice of the girl calling out for her dad and talking about “monsters.” Is this movie going to take the audience through multiple genres and shock them?
JH: Yes, that was definitely the intention. To me, USDOR is sci-fi, action, horror, noir thriller. I was inspired by filmmakers like David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Gaspar Noe, as well as amnesia stories like “Memento.” It deals very much with the subjectivity of experience — unlike the other Universal Soldier movies, this one comes from a much more limited, intimate point of view. The viewer often does not know anything more than the protagonist. The idea was to give the viewer a different kind of experience than they’ve had with the other
movies — to challenge them in different ways, and hopefully fulfill them in different ways.
JU: Scott Adkins is the main star, with Van Damme and Lundgren as co-stars. Would you say that Van Damme and Lundgren have as much time as they did in “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” or more time and how did you envision their roles this time, as it is clear Luc is not a good guy this time around, and when we left him at the end of “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” he was running off and treading the gray area between hero and indifferent?
JH: Van Damme has less screen time than he did in US:R [Universal Soldier: Regeneration] however his role is no less pivotal. Dolph’s role is similar in size to the last one. The point was to introduce a different protagonist and tell the story through his eyes. However, it certainly, as you say, plays off the question of what kind of individual Luc has become since we last saw him running off.
JU: On this one, you co-wrote the script, so what was your goal for this film?
JH: As I said earlier, I think my goal was to try to make a different kind of movie — in order to provide myself and the audience a different set of challenges.
JU: You teamed again with Larnell Stovall (Undisputed III), who is an excellent fight choreographer. What kinds of fights are we going to see in this film—MMA-based like in US:R or more traditional fights, showing off Adkins high level of kicking prowess?
JH: Larnell and I had a chance to get to know each other on Dragon Eyes, however Cung Le was the choreographer on that one, Larnell the stunt coordinator. This time I got a chance to see first-hand why Larnell will soon be considered one of the best choreographers in the business. What I loved most about working with him was how much he focused on narrative — the story of each given fight and how they relate to the others and the rest of the movie. I think that these fights have a little bit of everything, but always in the service of the story. We didn’t want this to be an MMA movie or a trickster movie — we wanted the fights to be appropriate to what is happening within the story, and to be grounded in a real and honest place. One thing I can tell you is that it’s brutal as hell.
JU: Like I mentioned earlier, this film is in 3D, which eludes to some sort of theatrical release. What was it like framing shots and filming in 3D with the same cameras they were shooting the new Spiderman movie with and what challenges did you have to overcome?
JH: The challenges with 3D are twofold — technical and aesthetic. Technically, it requires more time, more people, and provides you with less coverage for any given moment. So, preparation was key. DP [Director of Photography] Yaron Levy and myself had [to] break down the entire movie beforehand so we knew exactly how many set-ups would be required to get through each day. Preparation was key, and he did a great job and I’m very pleased with the result. Aesthetically, the idea was not to use 3D as a gimmick. Instead of going for the “comin at ya” bullshit, we opted for an approach that created an immersive experience that played into the subjectivity of our storytelling.
JU: You and others have mentioned that this will be a hard R movie. Was there any reluctance on behalf of the studio to shoot it in a hard R manner, considering all of the noise the PG-13 rating of “The Expendables 2” received and then it was switched back to R and what are your thoughts on PG-13 vs. R?
JH: There was no reluctance on behalf of the studio to go hard R. It was there on the page and everyone was on board. As for my thoughts on PG-13, I’m not a fan of it. All it does is tell me what I’m not going to see. R ratings leave open the possibilities of what you might see, which is a better way to go into watching a movie.
JU: Will there be any king of behind the scenes footage or making of on the eventual home video release, as it appears outside financing was needed to finish it and was that the case of the studio not wanting to fund that aspect?
JH: There will be extensive behind the scenes material, produced and directed by co-writer Doug Magnuson. It’ll be some of the best behind the scenes material you’ll ever find about the filmmaking process, and gives the viewers an unbelievably intimate look into everything that goes into shooting this kind of movie. I think fans are going to love it.
JU: You also re-teamed with composer, Michael Krassner. What kind of score can we expect in this one as the last one had a very moody, barely there score which helped heighten the sense of claustrophobia in that movie?
JH: This score goes even further into this territory than Regeneration. While there’s still plenty of synth work, it’s less of the Carpenter, Tangerine Dream variety. It’s a beautiful, elegant score — minimal, dark, haunting… the goal was to explore the blurred line between sound and music.
JU: Well, John, I want to thank you again for your time and say that most action fans have “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” at the top of their must see list.
(Note: ”Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” does not have an official release date yet, but John seems to think it will be post- ”The Expendables 2” to capitalize on the star power of Van Damme, Lundgren and Adkins.)