This past Tuesday (5 June 2007), Buena Vista Home Entertainment hosted a unique new experience for the digital press -- a live screening of the film PRIMEVAL and real-time Q&A session with director Michael Katleman, who was watching the film right along with us. The result was a fascinating opportunity that enabled us to pose thoughtful and insightful questions as they arose. The image you see is a screengrab of the junket dashboard (no, that isn't what the croc looks like in the film -- it's the bonus material breakdown of the CG development process). We didn't have to fight traffic and travel across town to one of the studio screening rooms. We didn't have to jockey for limited time with cast and crew. And we didn't have to make notes in the dark to remind us of questions we'd like to ask later. It was a casual, engaging approach to press junkets I hope to see more of in the future.
PRIMEVAL is based on the real life story of a killer croc named Gustave who has taken the lives of more than 300 Burundi's over the past 100 years. While many have seen and attacked him, no one has been able to kill or capture the beast. The story focuses on a reluctantly ambitious American news crew (Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton), a Steve Irwin-esque reknowned crocodile hunter (Gideon Emery), and their exasperated Captain Ahab guide (Jurgen Prochnow) who has long been hunting this Moby Dick. While the croc would seem to be the main event, he's actually on the second card, behind local warlord Little Gustave and his complete, unmerciful control of the region.
Erroneously marketed as a serial killer horror film, PRIMEVAL plays more like JAWS in Africa's river region. Yet while Bruce the shark was a problematic animatronic, this beastie is 100% CGI and capable of vivisecting humans in ways you've yet to conceive. This is a human drama, layered with socio-political commentary and the real-life horrors of living in a country where anarchy reigns supreme. But by the end, it may just be that Gustave is Mother Nature's way of balancing the scales.
Listed below are the highlights of the questions asked and answered during both the 9:00a screening (which I took part in) and the 6:00p screening...
Q: is this a monster movie? a human drama? i know it's all of the above, but as a director, what was the essential nugget of the narrative that guided you through production?
A: I think the nugget that was going through my head and guiding me was, "everything is not as it seems." I think that notion speaks to both the monster element, and the human drama.
Q: Michael, how did you first hear about Gustave?
A: I first heard about Gustave when I read the script. I was immediately intrigued that this kind of predator could exist in the everyday lives of the people of Burundi.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the real Gustave?
A: As the myth goes, Gustave has been stalking people for up to 100 years and has killed over 300 people. Obviously, in our film, he is a supercroc, but in reality, once he got the taste of human blood and realized that humans move a lot slower than other animals, I think he simply realized that it would take a lot less effort to snack on humans at will. He has been shot at, stabbed, but it just seems there is no way to take him down. Who knows, maybe he has been dead for a long time, but I for one think it's cool to imagine he's still out there.
Q: Since this was based on a true story, what kind of research did you do to help make the film?
A: First, I watched the National Geographic documentary. And, thank god for the internet, because there's a wealth of information out there.
Q: In your research, did you ever have a Gustave sighting?
A: No, I actually wasn't in Burundi. We shot the film in South Africa, in Cape Town and Durban, but I did see many a crocodile, not even close to the size of Gustave. They scared the hell out of me.
Q: Typically, movies about real-life killers are made after the killer has been caught or passed away. Did you have any qualms about making a movie about a killer that is still at large?
A: No. It actually made it more exciting for me knowing that this animal is still out there, and real. But, obviously, we took a tremendous amount of creative license.
Q: Was JAWS a big inspiration for how you showed the audience Gustave?
A: JAWS was a huge influence and inspiration. I still remember the first time I saw that film, and I basically grew up in the water surfing all my life, and even I have to admit that I was afraid to get back in the ocean after that film. If I could come close to putting that kind of fear into people, I would consider this a huge success
Q: What was the ratio of CG to practical effects?
A: 100 percent CG. 0 percent practical effects. We started out with an animatronic croc, in hopes of shooting as much with it as possible. But, once we got the animatronic in the water in Africa, it just didn't look that scary or believable, so we made a last minute change to not use it at all. We went 100 percent CG instead, which not only posed some CG challenges, but really affected the film financially.
Q: Was there a debate about CGI versus animatronics when it came to the design of Gustave?
A: We went down both roads, and CGI won out. It was far more flexible, and gave me a lot more latitude in editing to manipulate the crocodile, and make it scarier and more aggressive.
Q: How difficult was it to create an entirely CGI character for daylight shots? You don't see that a whole lot.
A; It was definitely challenging. The nighttime is much more forgiving. What added to the level of difficulty was putting the creature in water during the day. It just requires a lot more time, and a lot more patience.
Q: What sound was used to make the croc's jaw snapping?
A: We used a series of sounds. There is some wood snapping, elephant sounds, snake sounds, croc sounds, and anything else that was cool. We looked at the dinosaurs from JURASSIC PARK as a template. They managed to make the sound frightening, and give it personality all at once.
Q: Is the design of the creature based on actual footage of the croc?
A: Yes. The jumping off point was Gustave. From that point, I set out to create a leaner, meaner croc. When you look at the real Gustave, he is sort of big and fat. I tried to make a scarier version of this killing machine.
Q: How much creative leeway / artistic license did you allow yourselves in terms of the croc's movements etc?
A: We started out trying to stick to the actual movements that crocodiles make. But, at the end of the day, I just wanted it to be cool, so if it didn't look cool, we changed it.
Q: JAWS triggered a massive shark industry that's now endangering several species. Are you worried about villifying the crocodile?
A: I hope this film is taken purely at an entertainment level.
Q: Do you think having PRIMEVAL out there will inspire more crews to head out and try to capture Gustave?
A: No, I think if anything, if they saw the documentary, they might want to go capture Gustave, but I think people realize that this is a Hollywood film, loosely based on facts.
Q: So we've seen giant sharks, giant crocs, giant spiders and ants. Which of the giant monster movies, made or yet-to-be-made, do you think deserves to be seen?
A: All of them. Give me a giant anything and I'll be happy. One of my favorite toys as a kid was a magnifying glass. Seriously, if you can make it scary, I think it's cool.
Q: How did the opportunity to direct this film come about for you?
A: The producer, whom I had worked with in the past, brought the script to me, and offered it to me. I read it, and having been a huge fan of Brancato and Ferris, having enjoyed THE GAME, I jumped at the chance.
Q: Is it hard to direct from someone else's screenplay? Have you ever considered writing?
A: It's actually quite fun to direct from somebody else's screenplay. As soon as you read it, your imagination takes over, the visuals come to you, it formulates inside your mind, and it becomes your own. You are constantly re-writing the script during the process, so by the time you start filming, it pretty much becomes your own.
Q: You have directed some big TV-shows, but nothing close to horror or thriller. Was it a conscious choice to do a horror/thriller as your first big feature film?
A: No, but when I read the script, there was something about it that intrigued me. In a sick way, I began to become excited about figuring out all the different ways that a crocodile can kill a human. This was a new experience for me from what I had done on TV, and it definitely excited me to be doing something different.
Q: Even with flicks like *Anaconda* around, this isn't traditional fodder for a horror film -- and I like how you treat it more like a science documentary than the usual horror flick. What inspired you to tell this particular story in this particular way?
A: I really like the fact that if you go to the water, there's a crocodile. If you go to the land, there are warlords. There really is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. It gave me a great opportunity to not only shoot a horror film, but to shoot a horror/action film.
Q: How much did the script evolve during the shoot? Iím sure it was strong to begin with (Ferris and Brancato are no slouches, I think they wrote The Game) but did it change much?
A: The script went through quite a few re-writes, with Brancato and Ferris involved at every step of the way. A lot of the re-writes were motivated by our financial constraints, because a film like this can easily spin out of control. On set, there were quite a few changes made, just from working with the actors.
Q: Why "Primeval" and not "Gustave" for the title - what does the name "Primeval" dictate or require?
A: To be honest, it was titled "Gustave" for a very long time, but nobody really knew what that was or what it meant.
Q: How long did you shoot in Africa for? Was the entire film shot there or was some of this type of stuff (on the boat) shot elsewhere?
A: We shot for about 7 weeks in Africa. Everything was shot in Africa.
Q: How many cameras did you use to shoot the most intense action scenes?
A: I generally had 4 cameras to shoot the action. If it was a situation, for instance, where the hut was going down, I had roughly 8 cameras for those sequences. For the most part, I used about 4.
Q: You mentioned in the commentary utilizing the camera to make daylight look like night shots, did that help you along a great deal?
A: The day to night was more in post production. Once I looked at the film as a whole, it gave me a tremendous amount of control in creating passage of time, creepiness, as well as selling the beauty of Africa. So, while I was filming, I didn't really rely on it, but in post, as I was finishing the film, it became an incredible asset.
Q: Some of the scenery shots are amazing - I wonder how much of that was down to the cinematographer, and how much to Africa's natural beauty?
A: My cinematographer, Ed Pei, is incredible. He is very talented. In conjunction with the natural beauty of Africa, it was hard not to capture it on film.
Q: Were any locations problematic to film in?
A: They all had their challenges. Working in water is always difficult. When we were on land, we had to deal with snakes, rhinos, etc. And, doing stunts outside in the jungle, has its own set of challenges as well.
Q: Was there a wildlife expert on-set throughout the shoot?
A: There wasn't a wildlife expert per se, but there was a ranger there to protect us in case we were attacked by the animals that were around us during the shoot.
Q: As a director, what is more preferable: a set where everything is comfortable, but fake, or a real location that is full of life but possibly with uncomfortable shooting conditions?
A: It depends on what kind of film you are making. For Primeval, no question, a real environment, despite the potential for unfavorable conditions. It forces the actors to deal with nature. It makes it all more real. For photographic reasons, it is far more advantageous as well. Having said that, if I were shooting a film that took place all in interiors, I would prefer to build the set - making it much more accessible for camera, lighting, etc.
Q: How'd you do that helicopter shot?
A: I'm glad you pointed that out. It's one of my favorite shots in the entire film. Actually, Steve Boyum, my second unit director shot that shot, so props go out to him. It was done with mounts on a helicopter and an extremely wide-angle lens, and we just followed the cage procession going through the field.
Q: How difficult is it to put together a big action scene and make sure you've got all the shots you need, especially as they so important to the finished film?
A: It's actually not difficult. It's a lot of fun. You basically just imagine in your mind what you'd like to see, what makes it more exciting, what would make people jump - what YOU would want to see as a viewer.
Q: What are your thoughts on digital filming versus shooting on film?
A: I think digital filming is definitely the wave of the future. I don't think it's quite there yet, but I think it's pretty close. There is a tremendous amount of freedom with digital with being able to shoot as much as you want and having the kind of latitude that you are given with the digital format. But, there is something really sexy about film that I'm not ready to give up. I guess I felt the same way about LPs and CDs.
Q: What was the thinking behind when to use and not to use subtitles?
A: We tried to only use subtitles when it was essential to the story for you to understand what they were saying. If the audience could figure out what was happening without the subtitles, that was my preference.
Q: Was there anything you really wanted to do in the film, but couldn't because of budget or time restrictions?
A: Yeah, lots. As a filmmaker, you are never satisfied. Part of the challenge is trying to make it all fit with the means that you are given. Believe me, if I had been given twice the money, I would have found a way to spend it.
Q: After principal wrapped, did you have to travel back to Africa for reshoots or second unit work?
A: No, because our post schedule was so tight, in order to have the film released just after Christmas, I had to make sure that I shot everything I needed during principal photography. Also, when you are dealing with Visual Effects, and a short turnaround, you really have to lock all those sequences as early as possible. I was filming 6 days a week, and editing on the 7th day, in order to make our tight schedule.
Q: What are your thoughts on the film's sound design, and did you have a lot of discussion with the film's sound engineers in trying to plan out the ideal mix?
A: The sound was very tricky, and in the end, I'm incredibly happy with it. When you are doing a film like this, you have to decide if you are going to creep the audience out with very little sound, making it very tense, or do you hit them with a barrage of sound, and make them jump by the sheer volume. You must create peaks and valleys with the sound, where the audience will experience a bit of sensory overload. There were a couple of tricky things with the sound besides just the mix. One was coming up with the perfect crocodile sound. At the end of the day it was a mix of elephant, crocodile, snake and probably some horn thrown in for fun. The other area that took a tremendous amount of trial and error was the tracking device. It was executed incredibly well in "Aliens," so we kind of used that as our jumping off place. We had to find the right tone that made you aware of the tracking device, that didn't become irritating.
Q: Does it bother you that most viewers (like those of us watching right now on our laptops) won't get to experience the audio as you intended?
A: Absolutely. I really wish that everyone had the opportunity to not only view this on the big screen, but hear it in the theater, as it was intended. We put a tremendous amount of work into the sound design and the music. But, having said this, it is pretty damn cool that we can watch a movie on our computer, don't you think?
Q: And can you please tell a little bit about your ideas on the soundtrack, that is very present in the movie?
A: John Frizzell is the composer on the film. He did an incredible job. He brought a portable studio to Africa, and recorded many of the local musicians. He then brought back all of his samples and orchestrated around them. Our goal was to try and keep a very strong African influence in all of the score, and I'm quite pleased about that.
Q: It sounds like you're pleased with just about everything, which is great, but I'm curious as to what you feel, if anything, could have been tweaked more to your liking?
A: I am pleased, but I'll be honest, I would tweak everything more. I don't think you're ever satisfied that you've spent enough time on everything. The reality is, it's a race against the clock. The one thing I would point to first would be the crocodile. I think Luma did a fantastic job creating this in the short amount of time that they had, but I would have liked to have seen more personality in its eyes, I would have liked to enhance the movement and made it more aggressive, and in the original conception, I had envisioned Gustave-vision, which I just ran out of time and couldn't develop to my satisfaction. So, I ended up cutting it from the film.
Q: How difficult was the casting process?
A: Casting is always difficult. It is really hard to find the right person to fill the role that has been living inside your head.
Q: When casting comedic actors like Orlando Jones, who have some genre film experience with actors associated with dramas mostly, is it hard to keep the comedic actor's wit from overpowering the presence of the other actors?
A: Yes, it is always a balance. You want to make sure that the scene doesn't become about a joke, but that the scene remains about the initial intent.
Q: Did Orlando ad-lib a lot of his lines or was the character written to be sort of a wise guy?
A: The character was written to be sort of a wise-guy, but having said that, Orlando did ad-lib a large majority of his lines. I have to say that was probably one of the most fun parts - turning the camera on, saying action, and seeing what came out of Orlando's mouth. We would get on set and start playing around, and he would come up with some incredible material. He is a truly gifted comic, and I look forward to working with him again.
Q: Between this and Prison Break, I am curious: is Dominic Purcell capable of buttoning his shirt?
A: It was actually in his contract that it had to be unbuttoned, so I'm not sure what comes next for him.
Q: How similar is Dominic to the Tim character? I only ask because he seems so natural in this role?
A: Dominic is an extremely cool person and a very gifted actor. He is a great person to work with, and I think he could just about tackle any role and make it look natural.
Q: Dominic Purcell looks like he could wrestle a croc bare handed! Is that all acting, or is he a bit of a tough guy in real life?
A: Dom is definitely a tough guy in real life. In fact, in the first week of shooting, when he was running from the truck as it was chasing him down in the grass, he dove under a tree and actually separated his shoulder. Without missing a beat, he kept on filming, finished the day out, went to the hospital, had it wrapped, and came back to work the next day, still begging to do his own stunts.
Q: What was it like working with a legend like Jurgen Prochnow? Was Das Boot an influence on your style?
A: Jurgen was a true pro. He brought a lot of experience, and had a strong grasp of his character. I would jump at the chance to work with him again.
Q: As a director, what did you do to help get the actors into their scenes. This is a very physical shoot and outdoors.
A: To be honest, I just really talked about who their characters were with them, and how they would react to the situations that presented themselves. Once you thoroughly understand who the character is, it makes it easy to figure out how they would react to a given situation.
Q: When the film was released theatrically, did you go see it with an audience? Did the film have an extensive test screening process?
A: Unfortunately, we didn't have an extensive test screening process because we had a short turnaround. We had two screenings, but very little time to make changes in between.
Q: Did the film have any issues with the ratings board or was the R granted without need for additional edits?
A: Yes, we had a very hard time maintaining the R rating. Many of the kills were much more graphic initially. When you are working on a film with so many visual effects and on such a tight time schedule, you often don't see the finished product until the very last minute. The ratings board was very nervous that once the final touches were put on the film with the effects, it would be far too graphic. In the end, I am pleased with what we were able to accomplish and still maintain the R rating.
Q: During its theatrical release, what did you think of the decision to bill the movie as a "serial killer" theme, rather than a killer croc?
A: I'll be honest, I wasn't crazy about it. In a film like this, the croc is the star, and I think that the fans of films of this genre want to know going into it that they are going to see a killer croc movie. Unfortunately, it caused a lot of frustration with the fans, and at the end of the day, they felt deceived.
Q: Was there ever a feeling that this film and ROGUE (from the "Wolf Creek" guys) would step on the toes of one another, in promotion and in audience?
A: That is actually what influenced our decision on rushing our post schedule, we really wanted to beat that film out of the gate to be the first croc movie, not the other croc movie.
Q: What are you hoping people take away with them when the credits roll?
A: That they had a fun ride, and for the hour and thirty minutes, were able to forget about the outside world.
Q: Would you be interested in making a sequel?
A: Not at this moment. Not that I don't love Gustave, but I think I would like to dabble in other arenas.
Q: What are your thoughts about providing behind-the-scenes material on DVD?
A: I think that behind-the-scenes material is invaluable. It's a great way to see how the film was shot, and hear all the great stories from the shoot. It's a great way to learn how to make films.
Q: At which point of the production did you think about the DVD extras?
A: We actually started thinking about it on our first surveys to Africa. We started filming some behind-the-scenes footage of Africa, of the making of the animatronic, basically the entire process.
Q: What are some of the other extras on the DVD? Will the Blu-Ray version have exclusive extras?
A: I believe they are the same. From what I understand, there is Crocumentary, Deleted Scenes, and Commentary from myself and Paul Linden (our visual effects supervisor).
Q: Now that you're completely finished with Primeval, right through DVD, what do you have planned next?
A: I am working with Jon Feldman on a new show for ABC called "Big Shots," while I am also reading and developing other feature projects.