Commentary: Makers of 'Death Race' face sinking dollar
Montreal-shot film saw costs rise due to weakening American currencyDirector Paul W. S. Anderson and producing partner Jeremy Bolt are used to the vagaries of making movies around the world. The British duo, who live in Los Angeles, made the "Resident Evil" franchise in Berlin, Toronto and Mexico, while their "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" was made in the Czech Republic.
But even they weren't prepared for what happened in Montreal while gearing up to shoot Universal's "Death Race," which opens Friday.
In a first for the globetrotting filmmakers, they encountered extreme currency fluctuation.
From first deciding in August 2006 to use the French-Canadian city as their location to the first day of principal photography in late August 2007, the U.S. dollar took a nosedive, falling 16%. Anderson had sticker shock, remembering getting CAN$1.50 for an American dollar in 2004 when shooting "Resident Evil: Apocalypse."
"By the time we were shooting 'Death Race,' it was dollar for dollar," he says.
But it didn't end there. The production also booked part of its post work in the Great White North. "By the time we were in postproduction on 'Death Race,' we got 98 cents Canadian for every American dollar. It was the first time I've experienced that, where you don't even get a whole dollar back."
The filmmakers could see the Canadian dollar rising, but what could they do? Anderson had tailor-made the script to match the location because of what they found in Montreal.
"Race" is set in a near future where an evil prison warden oversees prisoners in a race to the death. So Anderson and company needed two things: a big racetrack and lots of industrial decay.
They scoured North America and Eastern Europe and landed in Montreal, which came complete with the bonus of a Formula 1 racetrack. But after a meeting with track officials, "we quickly learned that they wouldn't have let us perform any stunts on that track," Bolt says.
After that "depressing" meeting, the pair told their scout to just drive and, in Bolt's words, "show us anything big and industrial." What they found was the defunct Alstom train yards -- a rusty, rundown factory where trains were built long ago. The property was massive, complete with spacious, dilapidated buildings.
"Paul just jumped out of the car and began reconceiving the film on the spot," Bolt recalls. "We went from a conventional racetrack to one that wove in and out of buildings. It was much more dangerous and much more original."
Dangerous because cars would be zooming in and out of buildings at high speeds and crashing and flipping in near proximity to structures -- or, better yet, inside them, something rarely seen in movies.
The production also found a turn-of-the-century prison, a bridge and a potential soundstage but needed to import stunt drivers and a group of workers whose sole specialty was working with curved metals, a necessity for the custom-built cars. This drove up costs, though the film still came in at its $65 million budget.
"We were locked into the reality of the locations, and the stunts were built around those locations," Anderson says. "So there wasn't a point where we could pick up the sticks and go shoot it in Shreveport, for example."
Anderson took the Montreal shoot in stride; his experience had taught him to deal with the unexpected. He and Bolt moved to Los Angeles to make 1995's "Mortal Kombat." The director figured that's how life would be: He would live in Hollywood, drive to a studio and make a movie on the lot.
"But the experience has been anything but," he says. "I put the majority of movies together in Hollywood but then get on a plane and go shoot them somewhere else."
Anderson, like others in the industry, would rather stay in Los Angeles, and he says the studios would rather he stay. Execs then wouldn't have to wait a couple of days for dailies and wouldn't have to hop a plane if they wanted to talk face-to-face.
But it comes down to economics; other places have made it cheaper for films to shoot.
"We have incentives in England. They have them in Canada and all over the world. They have them in different parts of America, even New York," Anderson says. "But for whatever reason, California doesn't seem to want to engage in that, and it's a damn shame."