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Wimmer: 2005 UFAC

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Kurt Wimmer in Austin, Texas

University Filmmakers Alliance Conference
2005 Report

-- Alicia Vogel, April 2005

 The Article

Anyone who leaves this room I’m going to kick their ass,” Kurt Wimmer said with a grin to the students at the packed crowd at the University of Texas at Austin, Saturday, April 9, 2005. When the UFA staff left, he added, “The UFA officers are gone, let’s fuck this room up.”

And he wasn’t kidding. We were treated to a preview of the trailer for his upcoming movie “Ultraviolet” as well as an action scene from the film. He apologized for the some of the digital effects not being finished, and said “there were some rough edges.” However, in my opinion, the rough edges of the trailer were about on par with the first trailer of “The Hulk.” The action sequence shown was reminiscent of Equilibrium’s sword fight in DuPont’s office, but a much more flamboyant style. Wimmer said that the martial arts in it were based on wushu mixed with other styles. As I told a friend of mine the next day at dinner, picture gun-kata strategy mixed with caffeinated wushu. Action fans, you may start drooling now….

Wimmer himself oozed sincerity, and had a natural energetic charisma. He welcomed questions due to his own lack of mentorship and kept encouraging audience interaction. A student in private conversation after the final panel told him he was gratified that he would answer them so straightforwardly and honestly. He said he couldn’t picture what others would have said. The student said that he’d ask other “industry people” questions such as how they got into film and the answers would be very vague such as “Well, I went through the chain and worked my way up.”

The following is a summary of topics and questions covered in the two talks Wimmer gave at the conference, and the panel at the end. Answers are paraphrased due to a lack of a recorder. Quoted material is his words that I managed to capture to paper.

How was filming Ultraviolet since you had a bigger budget?

It didn’t have a bigger budget. EQ’s budget was 20 million dollars, Ultraviolet was 33 million dollars which is an insanely low amount for a sci-fi movie with as many effects as it has.

On Ultraviolet in general:

“Ultraviolet took twenty years off my life.” He said they chose to shoot in Shanghai…and said it was an amazing city because it is Mainland China’s push to create Hong Kong’s equal. Due to the budget, they needed a first world city with a third world workforce in order to pull off the look of a futuristic sci-fi film. Visually Shanghai did create the foundation for the look of the film; along with the modern buildings there was immense poverty. The language/cultural barrier was huge. Wimmer indicated that the language problem was vastly underestimated because when they shot Equilibrium in Berlin and Italy, there were enough fundamental concepts that Americans share with Western Europe to communicate. But, he added, “try finding a bathroom in China. Try it. You’re basically going to have to pull it out and show them.” Another obstacle was that the Chinese film industry typically shoots with straight locations so they were unused to the idea of building sets.

In a discussion after the panels, he mentioned that Ultraviolet was written to be especially visuals heavy in order to sell the film post-Equilibrium.

Does Equilibrium have the highest body count of any film?

“I don’t know,” he laughed. “I hope so.” He said that Ultraviolet topped Equilibrium’s body count, so not for long. The trailer had been shown before this point, so his answer elicited laughter.

Questions on Equilibrium’s lack of distribution:

Columbine had a huge effect on the film industry. You can’t put guns in trailers anymore. “Sin City had 23…I counted them, but they aren’t firing.” In Equilibrium they are always firing, because “When Preston has a gun out, he is shooting.” After Dimension broke even with the world distribution rights, they decided to release it here how they did. “I was heartbroken at the time, but I’m not bitter. Equilibrium did what I wanted it to do, which was to get another movie.”

Is he worried that Equilibrium is his one-hit wonder?

“It was my one hit failure.” His thought after the film’s poor box office distribution and results was “I’ll never direct again.”

On filmmaking and the question: “What’s the hardest task you find as a director?”

Before this question, Wimmer had said to the audience: “How many value your soul?” Nine-tenths of the audience raised their hands. “How many don’t?” Four people raised their hand. He said, smiling “Four people are going to make it.”

The hardest task is politics. As a director you are guilty until proven innocent. Film producers are cynical and almost want to see you fail because they get paid anyway. You have to be a bulwark against all the doubt and gossip. “I navigate through information.” He elaborated “Be the person with all the answers and make sure they are the right ones.” People want to be led. You may not think so but after a grueling day people just go “just tell me what to do.”

Wimmer further advised to learn about as many things as possible about film jobs. This way when a guy tells you the lighting can’t be done a certain way; you can say, “Bullshit! It can and I’ll show you how.” In the case of Equilibrium, it wasn’t until he finished the film that some people finally understood what he was trying to accomplish. “Process will crush you if you are not strong.” He added that in terms of filming, that “Equilibrium is probably the purest movie I’ll ever make.”

Questions regarding Film versus HD (High Definition Digital Video):

Equilibrium was shot on film. Ultraviolet was shot on HD. Unlike some of the hype, HD is not any easier than film and has many of the same problems, but it’s cheaper. But, he wouldn’t go back to film. The resolution and the quality will only get better. He was asked if he liked the look of HD. “There is no look,” he answered.

How does he feel about working with CG?

He said he didn’t really like working with CG, as it’s not photorealistic yet--but it will be. Right now the industry is still in its infancy. He said that it does take away some of the storytelling ability to some degree. However it will “save your ass.” It makes great looking trailers, and unfortunately that is what is important in the film industry right now…cool trailers and opening weekends.

How do you select actors?

You don’t get to choose, as you are really in more of a committee sort of position where everyone tries to agree on a person. Movies do live and die by casting. Marketing actually has determined the amount of money a certain actor/actress can bring into a film. For Equilibrium, “the smartest decision I made was casting Emily Watson” (he mentioned her Oscar nominations.) “After she was cast, everything else fell in line.” When he wrote Ultraviolet, he wrote it with Milla Jovovich in mind. He further explained that she is one of the very few women (and he apologized to the women in the audience) that can pull off portraying a killer. He goes “Anyone see Elektra?” No show of hands. He laughed and said no wonder that film didn’t do well. Personally he didn’t buy Jennifer Garner being a killer. But Milla, he said, is “a killer Ukraine.” He recalled that on the set he asked her to punch him expecting to get it in the stomach and she gave him a black eye.

Everyone thinks being an actor is easy, that “it’s all chocolate and flashbulbs.” People don’t know how much it takes for an actor to do emotional scenes…and for them to do it again and again on each take.

What’s his catalyst for writing?

“It starts with a feeling.” He indicated that it usually starts with himself. His intention is to have written stories that will have moments that have made people stand up and cheer. Ultimately, he wants people to come out of the film desiring to become a better person. He advised to put truth into the story. His opinion is that there is too much manipulation in film (For example, token kids or dogs put in films for marketing reasons.) He emphasized several times to write what you feel.

On writing:

He encourages people to write, as writing is a form of editing. It’s difficult to balance the nexus between a story that maybe only you care about and for what an audience would be interested in. Wimmer also writes for visual interest. He invented gun-kata for Equilibrium to give it the visual dynamics in order to give the film something to look at.

When he first started writing scripts, he would get asked to direct them. Being the writer it puts you in a much better position to make the necessary and inevitable day-to-day changes to the script.

In general, to him writing is a form of therapy. He said he has stacks of scripts, some of which he wrote for himself and just sit on a shelf. Equilibrium was one of them until a friend of his, producer Lucas Foster, saw interest in the script.

On writer’s block:

“There is no such thing. People who get writer’s block are people who don’t know the end.” The end is the point, and everything leading up to it must lead into it. Wimmer can’t stand it when Hollywood have endings re-shot. “The story is the most important thing. If you have a good story, you can get away with just having reasonable actors.”

When asked about some of his writing projects he said the Thomas Crown Affair was pretty much how he wrote it. He enjoyed adapting it to work within a modern relevance but still keeping essence of the theme of the original. On Sphere, however, he was the first writer, and said that none of his work came through in the resulting film.

Most significant experience for him as a starting director:

“Getting fired off the first film I worked at.” He said it was for incompetence and that he was making a different movie than he was hired for. Instead of making a “good” film, the backers wanted a straight-to-video movie to be packaged in an attractive box. (His term for it was “video box.”) His biggest mistake (referring to the incompetence) was in not understanding how to block shots visually in order to convey the story.

What are the five best movies to watch for beginning directors?

He learned more from bad movies than good movies. “Watch everything.” From this you learn more on how you make movies. Wimmer lamented the recent lack of directors who have their own discernable style. “When you saw a DePalma film, you knew it was DePalma…now everything looks sort of generic.” He added, “I get off on the visuals. Seriously.”

What films in the future would he like to make that wouldn’t be in the action genre?

He would be interested in films that were more of a “Primal Fear meets Silence of the Lambs” thriller. He has a script he would like to film called “Lovebirds” which is based on a real-life married serial killer couple in the 1970s.

Would you be interested in working for TV?

Wimmer indicated an interest in doing more NC-17 type films, instead of going to TV, which is the opposite direction. In addition, to him films are “About the ending. About destiny. Serial TV is made without ad end in sight.” He would “write and produce, sure, there is a lot of money in it.” But Wimmer said he wouldn’t direct it because there isn’t enough time in a television production schedule to do the quality of film he’d like to create.

Did you think Christian Bale is Batman because of Equilibrium?

“I think I got him the movie.” He made a wager with Bale during Equilibrium saying that he would bet $500 that he was going to play Batman. Bale took it thinking he “couldn’t lose.” Later, Warner Brothers requested for a copy of Equilibrium to review. When Wimmer heard that Bale did get the role “I thought, that motherfucker owes me $500.” He laughed and did quickly add that to Bale’s credit he did call and said he lost the bet and owed him the money. Wimmer replied not to worry about it and “that he was glad he got the part.”

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(A very special, heartfelt thanks to both Alicia Vogel for being our eyes and ears at this event and to the UFA, University of Texas, Austin for sponsoring it.)