'Losers' budget deceptively small

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Seeing is believing, except at the movies.

Case in point: Sylvain White's action thriller "The Losers" from Warner Bros. and Dark Castle Entertainment, which opens April 23. With all its explosions and global locations, "Losers" looks like a $100 million film but cost less than half that.

"I can't really say, but I can tell you it's under $40 million," White ("Stomp the Yard") told me. "The budget is a lot tighter and smaller than people would expect."

How did he stretch it so far? To begin with, he shot entirely in Puerto Rico. "The movie takes place all over the world and we needed to find a location that could facilitate all these different looks without our having to go to all these different places."

Based on a DC Comics/Vertigo comic book, "Losers" was written by Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt. Its ensemble cast -- no superstar salary here -- includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Oscar Jaenada and Jason Patric.

It's a betrayal-revenge story about a Special Forces unit sent to the Bolivian jungle on a search and destroy mission and who are then double-crossed from the inside. Presumed dead, they go deep undercover to clear their names and even the score.

When White became involved with "Losers" in October 2008, he was developing another project at Warner Bros. and heard about it from the studio and his agents at UTA.

"What particularly attracted me was the odd yet original combination of the gritty, realistic, visceral action combined with a fun comedic tone and characters," he said. "That was something that hadn't been done in a while."

He loved the fact that it's an ensemble film: "There's a leader, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but all six characters have an equal amount of screen time, an equal amount of lines and an equal amount of presence and importance in the movie."

With that approach, he added, "I would say it's more balanced than, for example, 'Ocean's Eleven' where the Brad Pitt and George Clooney characters really stand out as the leads and the other guys are the sidekicks."

Tax incentives for shooting in Puerto Rico were initially why producers Joel Silver, Akiva Goldsman and Kerry Foster sent White there to take a look.

"I was apprehensive about Puerto Rico because I thought it was just a small island in the Caribbean and I didn't know if I could shoot all these locations there," he said, explaining they had to double New Mexico, Dubai, India, Los Angeles, the Fiji Islands, Bolivia and Miami.

"But once I got there and scouted I saw that, in fact, this place has a very large infrastructure and I knew I was going to be able to deliver all these looks and different locations."

Plus, the island's small enough so they could travel from one location to the next within a half-hour.

As for filming the explosions that drive the action, White observed, "We really didn't have the kind of budget to do it over and over. So for things like that it was one-take wonders."

It's not unusual for directors of big-budget action films to have 10 cameras rolling when they shoot key scenes to make sure they get everything they need. "I never shot more than five cameras. That was the maximum I was able to get," he said.

This being White's first action movie, he studied "the art form of action" and surrounded himself with a team that had deep roots in the action arena.

"I got the stunt guys that did huge movies such as James Cameron's 'Avatar,' " White said. "I got the guy who did special effects on 'The Dark Knight.' "

For the most complex scenes, White storyboarded or created pre-visualizations to help him meet his brisk shooting schedule.

"Because of the budget, we shot the entire movie in 50 days with virtually no second unit. So I would basically shoot all the action -- from a tire screeching to a door knob opening, all the little details. We did it all in 50 days and I think the movie feels like it was shot over 100 days like most action films and feels like a much bigger budget."

He's understandably proud of having been able to come in on time and on budget. White's also pleased about making "Losers" as a PG-13 instead of the R movie it originally was going to be.

"When I read the material, it was clear to me that it had to be a PG-13 film and the reason for that is it's based on a comic book. Any 14-year-old's going to walk into a comic book store and buy "The Losers" and I wanted that same teenager to be able to go see the movie."

He felt that given the film's tone and humor it was really about intensity rather than about gore or how harsh the action could be.

"So I focused on the intensity of the action and not necessarily the violence and it worked really well. You watch the movie and you don't miss it."
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