The 2008 comedy/action movie Journey to the Center of the Earth was one of the key titles that introduced modern 3D to audiences that was thankfully red/blue headache free. The adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure story was a hit, proving that Brendan Fraser could mug for the camera in a whole new dimension. Now that film has become a franchise with Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Another Verne novel (conveniently titled The Mysterious Island) served as the inspiration this time out with Josh Hutcherson’s precocious, adventurous teen returning for another reality-bending adventure, this time joined by the likes of Michael Caine, Luis Guzman, Vanessa Hudgens, and of course Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
It’s another slice of over-the-top 3D action spectacle very much in keeping with the first film, only this time with a new director. Gander, Newfoundland native Brad Peyton got the call to helm the blockbuster sequel after a string of family hits on TV and his previous 3-D and effects based work on Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore. Dork Shelf recently got a chance to chat with the Canadian family filmmaker, delving into subjects like the challenges of shooting underwater, adapting Jules Verne, being in awe of Michael Caine, and getting The Rock to play the ukulele.
You’re very experienced in directing films for children. Did Journey 2 fit into that category naturally or did you have to alter it at all?
It has the right sensibilities. My taste luckily isn’t about being gratuitous or anything, especially for this type of movie. Even when I did really dark stuff, it was the heart behind the darkness that was interesting to me; the juxtaposition between sensitivity and darkness. For me a movie like this is a rollercoaster ride. It’s fun. It’s an adventure film. Could it get scary for a little kid? Maybe, but then I’ll make you laugh five seconds later and that’s the balance. That juxtaposition is what’s interesting to me. And when you look at adventure film, it’s probably the most interesting aspect of them. Harrison Ford falls into a pit of snakes and then goes, “Why did it have to be snakes?” In real life, tension creates comedy. You know what I mean? A lot of times when people are in danger they crack jokes because they’re just so tense. So, I tried to…it sounds a little bit silly because it’s a big fun adventure film, but you try to make it a little bit human. You try to ground it. You try to have real emotions. And I said this to the producers early on, the more ‘popcorn’ the movie is, the harder we have to work to make it an emotional story and ground the characters. Otherwise its just spectacle and no one will care.
So, I guess the Indiana Jones movies were a major influence in that respect?
Yeah. To me, I loved Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, and I found those to be inspiring movies because I cared about Indiana Jones. After Indiana Jones gets punched 400 times, what do they do at the beginning of the third act? They shoot him. And that shows the audience he can get hurt. So what do I do? I break Josh’s ankle. And it’s funny because you go to the meeting and say, “I want him to break his ankle” and they say, “Well, how’s he going to finish the movie?” Exactly. That’s the question you want the audience to ask. So that kind of interplay is the interesting aspect of making a movie like this. That’s what allows you to try and make it a little more specific and less generic.
How did you approach entering this franchise that was already in swing?
I looked at the movie as an opportunity not just to do a sequel, but to try and reboot a franchise. So you look at Journey to the Center of the Earth and you go, “Ok what did it do well?” It had great 3D, it was fun, it had a great tone. But I want to make a movie that would inspire audiences in the same way I was inspired when I saw Indiana Jones. So that’s why I said, “Ok, let’s get off the sound stage and go to Hawaii so we can shoot there as long as possible.” You know, put the actors in the dirt, make it as real as possible. Give the island a character and also get a scope and scale that you just can’t get on a sound stage. So I had to do all those things like bring a great 3D experience, but I had to kind of make it my own as well. And then obviously we lucked out and got this amazing cast, so then you have this snowball effect where it’s like, ok now we have a real shot now of making a movie that’s going to pop out. It’s weird, but for me since the 80s they haven’t really made these fun adventure films as much. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are probably the closest thing. Pirates is four times the size of our movie though. Their budget is just massive, massive, massive. But, I’m pretty ambitious and wanted to see if we could make a movie like this that harkens back to a classic adventure film with the money we had.
Did you have to teach The Rock how to play the ukulele or did he come to the set with that skill?
The Rock is not going to be taught anything. Here’s the thing with Dwayne. You meet Dwayne and you realize right away that he’s Superman. He’s the nicest guy in the world, but if you punch Superman he’s going to get angry. He’s also 6 foot 5, 270 pounds. If you think about the history of wrestling arena, how few guys have gone from being at the top of that game and successfully become legitimate movie stars? Not many and you wonder, what are the attributes it takes to do that? Dwayne is incredibly passionate, incredibly driven, when he does something, he commits to doing it 100%.
When Dwayne came on the movie, he was like “Brad I want to pitch you this 3D idea.” In my head, I’m like “Is he going to say punch the camera?” And then he describes the pec pop of love. He’s sitting there waiting to see how I’d react and I’m like, “Oh my god that’s amazing!” I never thought he would say that in a million years and that’s the take away scene of the movie for a lot of people. You’ve just never seen that before. And Dwayne’s a big 3D fan so he’s like, “If I’m going to do a 3D movie, I’m going to do it Dwayne Johnson-style.” He brings himself into the movie that way.
And the ukulele scene, to get back to your question, is the same thing. It was Dwayne saying, “You know, I love playing guitar, I love ukulele, I wonder if we could do that?” I was already looking for a scene where we could bond the characters and so I thought, “This is great.” And what’s interesting about that scene is that it’s almost the perfect analogy for this type of family film or adventure film. You get this totally disarming scene playing into the charisma of a movie star where it’s this little tiny guitar and a really big guy. But what the scene is really about is Dwayne and Michael and Josh revealing the fragileness of their characters and getting on the same page. The last shot of the scene is the push in on Michael Caine where he realizes that he hasn’t been there for Josh, but Dwaye has, the same guy who he’s been criticizing for the whole movie. That’s the theme of the movie and that scene completely makes you absorb that without being heavy handed at all. And that’s the joy of doing an adventure film. You can say these things and do these things without people even realizing. It’s meant to be subtle. It doesn’t need to be overdone. By the way that shot where Michael Caine acted that made me feel like a giddy five year old. It’s pure Michael Caine acting. I went up and was like, “Wow! Look what you just did!” and he was like “Oh, ha ha ha, I do that all the time.” I’m like, “Cool, I don’t.”
How much of the banter between the characters was improvised. Were they playing off each other at all?
Most of it was written. 90% of their stuff was written, though my process with the actors was to get them to Hawaii, get them to the hotel, and get through their scenes. I’d break down the script for each character and then do a morning with just Luis and Vanessa and their scenes. Then I would get some time with just Josh and Dwayne and just do their scenes. So I was looking at the movie just through those individual character’s story arcs and making sure they all played. A lot of the improvisation and the discovery was done in those sessions.
By the time we got to the set, thankfully we’d already had those discussions. We’d gone through the exploratory stage with the actors. And it also allowed for a certain comfort on the set. We’d walk through it and say, “We’ve done this scene.” You know there’s a sense of familiarity with the scenes already, so all we were doing was blocking it for the camera. Once you get it up on its feet, really emotionally up on its feet, then it’s just about tweaks. You know, “Maybe we should change this line, maybe we should break this line in half.” Those little moments you can only do when you’re there watching the
Was it nice to have a talented cast who you could depend on to play with the material like that?
For me, working with a cast like this ultimately comes down to collaboration. They’ve done it so many times and the only way that I can figure out how to excel as a director is to work with people who have done it more and are much better. So, I like to collaborate and I make rules. Like early on my rule with Luis Guzman was that we’d always do one take for fun. I’d do six or seven takes for me and then he’d get one for fun. And that immediately takes the tension out because he knows that no matter what, he has an opportunity coming where he can contribute an idea. That frees them up. And they know I respect them and value them and I’m not there to wag my finger and make them do what I want. I find that’s how you get the best out of people.
So Luis Guzman added a lot to his character?
Oh yeah. The thing about Luis is that he’s a real character actor. Whether it’s comedy or whether he’s playing a thug or whatever, Luis understands people. He understands comedy. Louis and I completely hit it off. We’re friends and when I go to New York, I hang out with him now. He’s a good dude. He’s a really good guy and he accesses people in an honest way. He really commits to his characters, no matter what you’re asking him to do whether it be the over-the-top comedic guy or the thug who never blinks. It was a great experience and I needed to use [his character] Gabato in two ways. He’s the comedic relief, so he’s in a way the broadest character in the movie. But I also needed him to really get scared, to really run when the monsters are chasing him. But I had to still make it real on some level and Luis is perfect for that because you can say to him, “You’re really scared here. I know you’re playing it funny, but let’s do one where you’re really scared.” And he’s like, “Ok, I can do that.” So he is able to make it both broad and funny and grounded in the same time.
The movie has a lot of intense action, was there anything particularly difficult to shoot?
Yeah, this is the type of movie where there isn’t a small day, like “Oh I can’t wait to shoot that little lizard chase. That’s going to be really easy.” Everything in it was pretty complex. The hardest stuff was probably the underwater photography. That’s really tough. The communication level is just ridiculous. We build a 700,000 gallon tank and we put it on a stage in North Carolina. It’s about 2.5 stories tall and there’s a deck on top of it. So I’m up there with a crane arm that we built with a case that goes under the water. Then I’ve got the top underwater camera operator in the world down there with a second camera. Then I’ve got 20 ex-Navy Seal scuba guys as a safety crew. Then I have the deck of the Nautilus that I built and had lowered in there. Then I’ve got decks of lights we had to try and figure out the best location for so that I don’t have to move them underwater. Then I’ve got the cast down there, submerged for a minute to two minutes at a time with no goggles and guys swimming up to give them oxygen so they can stay down there.
So with all that, I’m communicating through a stunt coordinator who’s communicating through a mic in the water to the cameraman. We had to develop a complex system to talk to the actors just to do one take. I’m so impatient, so it was a real pain to sit there and set it up and then to get the shots right. Plus we had to get the harpoon hit and the Vertigo shot. I wanted to get the first 3D Vertigo shot so I had to shoot it a certain way to get the green screen in certain way and ugh! You’re just like, “Holy crap, this is going to take forever!” But it’s funny because the movie was shot in 62 days and if you go to research how much time Michael Bay takes to shoot Transformers, you can triple that number.
How do you approach making a film of this scale over such a tight schedule?
Part of what I brought to the table as a director is efficiency. I’m ambitious but that’s a funny word because it’s normally only used for failure. How many times have they said, “Oh it’s ambitious” and they succeeded? So I looked at it like, “I am going to try and achieve a lot with the budget I have, with the time I have, and with the cast I have, because we need to be the younger brother to Pirates.” That’s the attitude you have to have when you go into a movie like this. You’ve got to maximize the opportunity. So whatever the challenges were, you have to be able to step up to the plate and have a plan that no one is eventually going say, “That was ambitious, but you had seven days and you couldn’t do it.” I’m not like that. I pre-visualize and I’m constantly looking at my iPad to try and find shots to cut. I try to figure out what I think will end up on the cutting room floor and then not shoot that. So when a producer says, “Oh we lost a day” I’m like, “No worries.” And they’re like “What do you mean, normally directors are panicking?” and I’m like “No, I saw this coming and I’ve already dumped a scene in my head.” And you know, that’s just one of the difficulties that comes with shooting a big movie.
With all of the technical demands, how much were you actually able to shoot on location?
Pretty well the whole thing. 70% of the movie was shot in Hawaii and 30% was shot in North Carolina. The only green screen sequence was with the bees.
Right, that would have been tough to do practically.
Yeah, it’s pretty tough to get gigantic bees in a studio or find them at all. But you know, we shot the actors on a stage and then we went out and shot the backgrounds ourselves in Hawaii with a little helicopter camera that actually ran into a tree. I still have that take on my computer. But anyways, it was very much Return Of The Jedi-style. I will say this though, trying to make a movie that has a reality to it when there’s nothing real on the screen is a tough challenge, and we’ve all seen movies where you just don’t buy it. One of the things that I had conversations with the physical effects team about was that everyone has seen that moment in a movie where the guy is riding on a motorcycle and the bike leans and then he leans afterwards. That happens and you’re like, “What the hell? That wasn’t real!” So I had them design the bucks that stood in for the bees so that in order to turn them, the actors had to do it themselves. So you see this reality. When Dwayne leans on the buck, he really has to lean. It was about finding a way to make even the most unreal situations in the movie seem real. So even when the bee is put in and all the backgrounds are there, all of the digital fanciness is added, there’s a certain level of humanity in some part of the acting and the action.
Why did you decide to re-imagine this particular Jules Verne classic?
Well, part of the Journey brand is Verne. So it’s not like I can ignore that. I kind of have to develop from that. This franchise promises two things, a really great 3D experience because the last one was the first modern live action 3D movie and then Jules Verne. And that’s what separates us from other blockbusters: understanding what Verne represents and looking at his work not as a retelling, but as a reference point. Hollywood already did an adaptation of The Mysterious Island. It’s from the 60s and it was a great movie with a great score from Bernard Herrmann. I respect that stuff, but I’m not trying to do that again. I’m trying to build on the mythology that he wrote, but under the pretense that it was real on some level and the story can grow from there. So you’re using it as an inspiration point. I feel like as long as I can be respectful to Journey to the Center of the Earth, the book, the original source material, and the movies that came before me, then I’m ok to venture off into my own version. You’ve got to respect it, but you’re not tied to it in any particular way.
So which was more difficult, this movie or wrangling those Cats And Dogs?
I’ll say that was. I’d much rather direct Dwayne Johnson in anything than a bunch of cats and dogs. That’s more difficult. A lot more.