Last Halloween, when not suiting up as Hawkeye, I traveled to Japan. I was in an old, icy, snow-topped village and there were ninja warriors everywhere dressed in classic black shinobi shōzoku, on the street and on the rooftops of the dark wooden structures. It was night time and the houses and shops down the street were highlighted by the sheen of icicles as snow softly fell from the sky. There was a snowplow in the middle of the street with a woman behind the wheel sporting a noticeably colorful hairstyle. On top of the machine stood a fierce and rugged man, wearing a winter coat on top of a white beater.
He had blades extending from his fist, his name was Logan and I wasn't really in the cold winter of old Japan. I was in Olympic Park in Sydney Australia and it was a hot summer day. At night, while we watched the second unit film action sequences of Hugh Jackman preparing to battle an army of agile foes, it got pretty cold - at least it looked cold - as we stood and watched Jackman and the large cast of extras work their magic in front of the cameras on the set of The Wolverine.
Let's rewind. Twentieth Century Fox invited us to visit the set of James Mangold's The Wolverine last fall to watch a few sequences being shot and meet the cast and crew. The time difference was two tiers away from normal and beyond description, but seeing a mutant fight ninjas negates the human need for sleep.
It's the day after Disney bought Lucasfilm and for our late afternoon, evening and overnight tour of the sets for Twentieth Century Fox’s The Wolverine we began by taking a boat to Sydney Olympic Park, where the crew had assembled a large outdoor set, enclosed by the carefully designed exteriors of an old Japanese village, surrounded by another layer of work tents and trailers and beyond that, another layer of fencing for security. For a large visible parking lot, the area was rather desolate and outside of the public's eye even though in the distance one of the Olympic buildings could be seen.
Fake snow calmly floated from the night sky onto the shockingly real, yet entirely artificial set. Even the moonlight above came from cranes holding a massive rack of lights, a structure that needed the wind to die down for safety reasons before the crew could shoot their scenes.
The aesthetic from street view looked incredibly authentic, from the detailed snow and ice on structures and on the ground, to the Japanese license plates on the vehicles and signage on the walls. We walk through a very narrow alleyway which leads behind the buildings to a tent where Hugh Jackman is later outfitted with a safety harness for the scene he's shooting, and there are two stations of monitors, one where an editor is actively cutting footage on the fly and another where second unit director David Leitch took time to show us footage they had shot over the last several days.
Without any special effects and barely any editing, the footage looked real. We saw scenes of Jackman’s Logan running through the street being shot repeatedly by arrows, becoming a pin cushion of sorts for the ninjas' ranged weapons, and we saw scenes of ninjas riding motorcycles on the snowy village rooftops, doing all sorts of stunts, including most notably, a shot where Wolverine is held down by chains and one biker does a backflip to hit him in the face with the rear wheel of the bike. No CG effects, just cut together.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was criticized for its shoddy special effects in some of its action sequences and scenes involving Logan’s adamantium claws. In The Wolverine, that's a non-issue and everyone we spoke to about the film being grittier, more real and more visceral were not exaggerating. The general message is that viewers will feel the blow of each hit and when Wolverine swings those claws, there will be damage.
We won't spoil the sequence depicted on the storyboards behind the monitors, but fans of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s run on the Wolverine comics will be happy with how iconic moments are paid tribute in the movie adaptation. A stunt coordinator tells us:
"We went back to this particular comic for the iconic images so you’re going to see a lot of those spiced throughout. Tonight you might even catch a few of the images from the Frank Miller stuff, and I mean, we’re all fans of that so we want to make sure that we’re true to that."
The sun has vanished and at this point the crew is still waiting for the wind to die down and it's going to be an even later start than expected. So we take the time to chat with some of the crew, from assistant directors to stunt coordinators who have nothing but praise for Jackman's abilities and work ethic.
"Obviously there’s going to be heightened reality and there are going to be big set pieces but the way we did the action is way more grounded, with way more practical stunts, with more human talent. In this sequence with the performers we have parkour artists, great freerunners and acrobats, great motorcycle riders and we’re just shooting real, real stunts, so it’s great."
The footage we watched from the previous day's dailies and what we were later going to watch live, we were told, may be the most complex action set piece in the film.
"We've got three bikes at speed all performing various stunts in amongst ninjas jumping, leaping, bounding all while they’re fighting Hugh who's in the middle of it all. So to get that choreography to work time and time again without ever trying to put Hugh in any danger whatsoever - I mean obviously there’s an element of risk with any action sequence you do and you just try to minimize that. The benefit to us is that Hugh is just so capable. In another life he was probably a stuntman because you can put him in a 20 beat fight with next to no rehearsal he picks it up like that and to find an actor like that, who can do that, is very rare."
A few fun facts and observations:
- Through disarms, we will see Wolverine using other weapons although the claws remain his primary.
- Fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio - a massive comics fan - came up with some very interesting and unique fights for Wolverine fighting humans, ranging from ninjas to the Yakuza gang, to mutants as well. Many of the action sequences, how they finish is the same as the books.
- What we saw and what was described felt like an R rated film, like a Jason Bourne movie with more bladed weapons and harder-hitting combat in larger-scale sequences.
- The props master showed us a trailer full of functional bows. They were black, matching the outfits of the many ninjas wandering around set, with silver arrows with black fletching. There were swords and smaller blades everywhere, even a few spears. He even had a chained weapon (a Bolas) he designed for Trinity in The Matrix sequels but it was never used.
- Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada) is by far the best swordsman.
- The stunt guys wanted Shuriken (throwing stars) but they wouldn't work for the scene so are not used. There are however, firearms in the film to go along with the bows (Korean Horse Bows) and arrows.
- The props master also designed the knife used by Crocodile Dundee.
- Behind the set structures, there are wooden planks everywhere with a complex set of ramps for motorcycles to drive up to the roof of each building. There are white camouflaged matts to offer the bikes gripping as they traverse the rooftops in pursuit of Wolverine.
With some time before the second unit could being shooting, we interviewed Hugh Jackman (Logan) and Rila Fukushima (Yukio) and then traveled by car to the main unit to see the multiple sound stages of Fox Studios Australia where James Mangold was shooting a top secret scene.
Stay tuned for more of our visit to the set of The Wolverine where we explore the main stages!
The Wolverine hits theaters July 26, 2013. X-Men: Days of Future Past hits theaters on July 18th, 2014.
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