Commentary: Safety first during 'Transporter 3' shoot

Olivier Megaton shares secrets to filming action for sequel

"Transporter" talk: While there's no sure thing in Hollywood, action franchises are about as safe a boxoffice bet as you're likely to find.

Indeed, last weekend's $67.5 million domestic opening for Sony's "Quantum of Solace," the first James Bond film constructed essentially as a string of action set pieces, is a good reminder of how moviegoers like to embrace action. It's also good news for Lionsgate with its Nov. 26 launch upcoming for "Transporter 3," the latest episode in an action franchise that began in 2002.

"T3" director Olivier Megaton is a French artist, novelist and filmmaker ("Exit," "The Red Siren") whose credits also include more than 80 music videos and commercials. Produced by Luc Besson and Steven Chasman, the film's screenplay by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen is based on characters created by Besson and Kamen. Jason Statham again stars as Special Forces officer Frank Martin, a highly skilled and handsomely paid courier for underworld criminals.

In "T3," Frank is forced against his will to deliver from Marseilles, France, to Odessa, Ukraine, a "package" that turns out to be Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), the kidnapped daughter of a Ukrainian official. To ensure Frank's cooperation, his blackmailers have him wearing an explosive bracelet that will detonate if he's more than 100 feet from the car he's using to transport his sexy package. It's a film with the right ingredients for great action, and an early look at its marketing materials left me betting that Lionsgate has a winner on its hands.

I was happy to have the opportunity to focus recently with Megaton on the making of "T3," as well as the ins and outs of making action films. "From the beginning, when Luc Besson proposed this film to me in December last year, he asked me to do something different," Megaton told me.

"Before being a director, I was a painter. He asked me to give a certain aesthetic to the film because he really wanted (it to be different from the first two episodes). The problem was not that he doesn't like the other ones, but the only condition to make a third one was to make it different."

In developing the series' third film, Megaton said, "I proposed a lot of different things to him, and making all the action scenes seem real made it seem a little different. The other difference was the style of the film because of the editing, the production design and maybe the direction with the actors -- (like) choosing Robert Knepper (to play) the villain was really different from what we did in the first and second one. We wanted to give a chance to the emotions of the characters and help the character of Frank Martin be different than (before). Having a real villain against him made him more powerful."

One of Megaton's changes for "T3" was creating action scenes that run longer than in the first two episodes. "For example, the scene underwater," he said. "I've got the answer why there are not so many scenes underwater -- because it's really, really hard to do. It takes four to five more times to do it and, therefore, you can't see a lot of scenes like it in other films. Maybe sometimes in an old James Bond film. We tried to find on location the way to make action, and this (underwater) scene is very different. We took the time to make it good.

"Robert and Luc tried (in writing the new film) to make it a little younger and more modern. When I read the script, I tried to transport it to a special location to make it more stylish and (made) a lot of storyboards to be very, very precise. I saw the other films, (especially) all the action scenes, and said: 'OK, they did this in this one, and they did that in the other film. I don't want to do the same thing. How can I do it differently?'"

Asked how he planned the film's intense action scenes, Megaton replied: "You have to be well-prepared because you're working with a lot of different departments. The storyboard of the film is really a masterpiece. There are four books (of storyboards). The guy I worked with was a young guy and very talented, Jonathan Delerue. He made the storyboards for 'Hitman' last year for Fox. I (put) him on this film because I (liked) the action scenes from 'Hitman.'"

From the beginning of production, Megaton added, "we were (sitting) around a table with small models, playing with them and trying to figure out how to do the things (called for in the script). Everybody gives advice to do it safely and to do it (with great action). It's like building a building. Every week the chief of each department would come back and say, 'OK, I found a solution,' and would show what he did and so on. Every piece of the puzzle is important, and when you're on the set, everything has (to have) been solved and prepared because when you're on the set, you don't have time because everything is going very, very fast. But everything has been so prepared that there is no improvisation at that time."

Action sequences, Megaton said, are often constructed from elements shot at different times. For a car chase, he said, "each shot has been prepared, and when you see the big chase, it has been shot at the beginning of shooting, in the middle of shooting, and some of the shot was done three months after the end of shooting. It's really like being in front of a puzzle."

For the major action set pieces, was he able to shoot them multiple times, or did he have to get them on the first take? "It depends," Megaton replied. "We made a French film, so we didn't have the money of an American (budget). So when you throw a car into the water from a bridge, you can do it just once because it costs a lot of money to throw a car into water, (and you can't) throw two or three cars. Each time we tried to have five or six cameras (to get the necessary shots) because even if everything is prepared, you can't know when you throw a car into water exactly where it's going to be. So you are ready with a lot of cameras to try to catch that very, very precise moment.

"During all the shooting, every day, there was a base of three cameras, and during (major sequences) we had five cameras and sometimes six for explosions. On my last film, I just had three cameras on the set, and two of them stopped during an explosion because of the bang. So you have to imagine everything (that can go wrong)."

With so many cameras rolling, there was plenty of footage to wade through during editing. "It was huge," Megaton said. "The thing is that nowadays, everything is very precise, so even if you shoot with three to five cameras, you know what you're going to take from the A camera and what you've got to take from the B one. When you storyboard a film a lot, and when you prepare (in great detail), you know exactly which shots are going to be used. So even if there is a lot of footage, every (shot) that's going to be used is (planned ahead).

"It was huge, but I only had one editor in the beginning. Another one arrived in June for the last four weeks of the editing of the film. But when you see big action (Hollywood) movies, they have three or four editors. We made everything with just one (editor) in house. I came to the editing when I was in Paris because it was editing (there) as soon as I could, and every day if I could."

As for what Megaton enjoys most about filmmaking, he explained: "Working on a set. Production is always (the most fun). In postproduction, you are alone. Working on a set, you are working with one or two hundred other people, and you're in your own world. It's like a war; it's like a battle, and you're like a general. Everybody is looking at you and asking you, 'What should we do now?' There is a lot of adrenalin. In postproduction, it has to be hard work. Every little piece has to be put up in the right place, and so on. I really don't like postproduction, but I tried to do my best to work seven days a week on the film. I really prefer shooting (because it's) really exciting."

The other aspect of filmmaking Megaton doesn't particularly like "is the preparation of a film because it's really the distillation (of the script). In the beginning, each time you read the script, you have great ideas, and then the production supervisor (tells you), 'We don't have the money to do this and this and this,' so that's it. The two parts (of filmmaking) I don't like are the beginning and the end."

We also spoke about how action scenes wind up different on film from how they're written. "It's impossible to write a car chase with the right location," Megaton said. "You have to be really, really good about knowing the car and what happens (when it's going that fast). To be real, it should have been written by a stunt coordinator. For sequences like that, you have to add a lot (to what's written). When you write scenes in an action movie there are always too many words, too many drama scenes, and that's where you (run into problems) because in an action movie, the audience has to be there from the beginning to the end. If they get bored in the middle of a scene, it's not the right thing for us."

Safety is a major concern while shooting action movies, Megaton added. "We try to find the best people in each department because it can go very, very fast, and you can have a very, very (terrible) accident on the film," he said. "Everything (with cars) was shot at real speed, so when you see two cars during a chase, they are driving (wildly fast), and the car has to be prepared. Everything around the camera has to be protected, the people have to be protected, and everybody has to take care."

Before coming to Los Angeles to promote the movie, Megaton told me, "I was in Paris for the premiere for (the crew). The (technical supervisor) came to see me and thanked me because, he said, 'In 20 films I've done, I've never seen so many dangerous things done, and I had no accident on this film.' And he said to me, 'It's really the first time.' That's because of the preparation and the people taking care. But when you see the results, it's OK. So you know you can do things like this with no accidents."

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