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Uncharted may have been in development since 2008, but Ruben Fleischer remains unfazed by the video game adaptation’s long road to the big screen. As a frequent collaborator of Sony Pictures, Fleischer couldn’t resist the chance to make an action-adventure film that harked back to his favorite film of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like the rest of the industry, Fleischer’s film was shut down in March 2020 despite being hours away from rolling cameras, but as of July 2020, Uncharted became one of the first blockbusters to resume production during the pandemic. A driving factor in the film’s quick return was Tom Holland’s unyielding Spider-Man: No Way Home schedule, and while it certainly helped that Sony was steering both films, Fleischer also commends Holland’s tireless worth ethic and commitment to both projects.
“There was overlap between [Uncharted and Spider-Man: No Way Home], but the credit goes to Tom Holland, who’s relentless in his commitment to the things he’s a part of,” Fleischer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Whether it’s Spidey or us, he would never compromise. He wanted Uncharted to be great, and he gave everything he possibly could to the movie. It was he who prioritized making sure that Uncharted be the best it possibly could be.”
“Madison, to this day, is one of my all-time favorite characters, so I’d be thrilled to see what she’s up to in the world of the zombie post-apocalypse,” says Fleischer, who directed both Zomebieland (2009) and its 2019 sequel.
In a recent conversation with THR, Fleischer also discusses the moment where he realized that Holland and Mark Walhberg had the chemistry needed to portray beloved video game characters Nathan Drake and Victor “Sully” Sullivan. Then he addresses director Andy Serkis’ approach to creating Venom in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to his 2018 smash hit, Venom.
So this movie has been in development since 2008, and a lot of people have come and gone. Once you came on board, did you wipe the slate clean, or did you pick and choose what you wanted to keep from previous iterations?
When they approached me to make this movie, I was thrilled at the opportunity, largely because I just love the genre of treasure-hunting films. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, for sure, my favorite movie, and it’s a genre that they just don’t make that much anymore. So I was thrilled to make a globetrotting, treasure-hunting adventure with two great characters at the center of it, who have this back-and-forth banter that’s super funny. And the fact that it was based on this video game that was known for not only it’s humor, but also these incredible action set pieces was really exciting. So I was thrilled to get to make something on this scale that would hopefully deliver the same experience for theater audiences that the franchise is known for delivering to video game fans.
When adapting a property with a huge, existing fanbase, there’s often a tug of war between being faithful to the source material and then making it your own. So how did you navigate that situation?
It’s something I’ve thought a lot about because it’s tricky when you have a piece of material that people feel real ownership of, whether that’s a superhero character or a video game character. The true fans of the source material are very protective of being honored appropriately. So in making this film, I wanted to make sure that it worked first and foremost as a theatrical film and that it provided the same action, adventure and humor of any great movie. But I knew that we had to ensure that fans of the games would be excited about it as well. So respecting the core relationship of Nate and Sully — and their dynamic and banter — was at the forefront of my mind. The franchise has also done such an amazing job of coming up with these never-before-seen action sequences, so it was super important to me that we have the same caliber of action in the film as the video games. We were even lucky enough to feature an action sequence that fans will recognize from the video game franchise. So I wanted Uncharted to stand on its own two feet as a film, but also acknowledge and pay tribute to the beloved video game at its center.
Since you just alluded to the airplane sequence, was that one of the most challenging action sequences of your career?
There were a couple of really tricky ones in this movie. The hanging-out-of-the-back of the plane sequence was certainly incredibly challenging, but I was lucky to have some incredible collaborators to help bring it to life. Scott Rogers, our second unit director, Uli Nefzer, our special effects supervisor and our VFX supervisors were all instrumental in making that the sequence it ended up being. But honestly, the third-act sequence, the boat battle, was actually even more challenging than the [airplane] sequence, just because those pirate ships and all the action that takes place was very involved and really difficult to execute.
To play off the title, what was uncharted territory for you on this movie? Was there an aspect of this project that was completely new to you?
Being honest and real, the most uncharted aspect of this film was trying to make a movie during a global pandemic. We were meant to start shooting principal photography on March 16th, 2020, and I was over in Germany, prepping the film. The actors had just arrived, and we had rehearsed some of the scenes. So we were due to start filming March 16th, and that was pretty much the day the world shut down, officially. On March 17th, we were on a plane headed home. We locked the stage doors at the studio, and we didn’t know if we were going to return and get to make the movie. To Sony’s credit — and in large part because Germany was so ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with the pandemic — they felt like it was safe for us to return in July. We had a whole Covid team. We wore masks. We were tested every day. So it was a filmmaking experience unlike any that anyone on our set had ever had before. It was unprecedented. So while it’s not the most exotic answer, it’s actually the truth. The uncharted element of this filmmaking experience was just navigating the reality that we all face these days with the pandemic.
Uncharted was, in fact, one of the first big movies to resume production during the pandemic. Was there also a great deal of urgency since Tom’s Spider-Man schedule was pretty immovable?
Perhaps that’s the reason why, but everything was ready to go. During the time away from the set, we were able to continue to storyboard, work on the script and do other things. But we were literally a day away from starting shooting, and we were all just eager to get back there. So the urgency was more from me and the producers just wanting to carry it forward and see it through and not have it fall away. Everything was so unknown at that point, and there was the great possibility that they could’ve just said, “You know what? We’re not going to make this movie anymore.” We were so close. We were literally on the starting gate when it all went down. So the urgency was just not wanting the movie to go away because we saw the potential that existed.
I believe you did some additional photography last summer. What did you learn in the editing room that you later clarified via another round of shooting?
I love reshoots because you have the opportunity to see things once the movie is cut together. I don’t think of it as reshoots; it’s more just additional photography where you can enhance elements of the characters, storylines and bolster some of the action. For us, it was all about a satisfying conclusion for Nate and Sully and feeling that kinship between them. It was about that relationship feeling bonded and that they were going to go on more adventures together. So we wanted the audience to walk away from the film feeling as great as they can about the two characters at the center of the film.
Since Tom had to do additional photography for Spider-Man: No Way Home as well, it must’ve been helpful to have Sony steering both ships in terms of scheduling.
Yeah, there was overlap between the two, but the credit goes to Tom Holland, who’s relentless in his commitment to the things he’s a part of. Whether it’s Spidey or us, he would never compromise. He wanted Uncharted to be great, and he gave everything he possibly could to the movie. It was he who prioritized making sure that Uncharted be the best it possibly could be.
And it wasn’t you who told him to get jacked for the role of Nate Drake. It was him somehow feeling physically inadequate next to Mark Wahlberg.
I read the same thing that you did, so that was kind of news to me. He showed up looking so fit, and it was cool because you don’t think of Peter Parker that way. I think it was all a part of his process of wanting Nathan Drake to be his own character, distinct from Peter Park and what Tom had been associated with prior to this movie. So whether it was wanting to match Mark or just simply create a different silhouette for his character from the one that you’re used to seeing, it was all part of his process in wanting to make Nathan Drake really distinctive.
What can you tell me about the lens you were using in the park scene with Moncadas (Antonio Banderas, Manuel de Blas)? The bokeh was more pronounced than usual.
On Venom, we used these vintage anamorphic lenses made by Todd-AO, and I love the look of them so much because it takes the curse off of conventional digital lenses in a nice way. That wide-angle lens that we used in the establishing shot outside of Sagrada Familia certainly has the most noticeable vignette of any of the lenses in the movie, but that wasn’t the only shot that used it. It’s interesting that you caught it because it does have a really specific feeling, but I like that it’s not a super clean, digital, traditional-looking picture. We used those Todd-AOs throughout the movie, and sometimes, it’s more apparent than others. I hope that it wasn’t distracting and that it instead gave a texture and quality to the locations.
I loved the running gag about Sully having too many apps open on his phone because my folks have the same offensive habit. Were you guys keenly aware that this is a common practice amongst a certain generation?
Yeah, that line was in the script, and it just struck me as really funny. But because it comes from character, it really distinguishes Nate and Sully as being from two different generations. Sully is this luddite who’s older, and Nate is this younger, more tech-savvy kid. But it also just informs the humor and the dynamic between the two of them. That scene in the crypt, actually, was one of the first days that we shot with Tom and Mark. There’s so much comedy in that scene, and it was the first time I really got to see their banter together. I was so thrilled. That line always struck me as funny in the script, but they came up with so many others that are featured in the film. There were so many improvs and other things on the day that played with the dynamic between old guy and young guy or jaded guy and excited guy. So that day was a really exciting day of filming for me because I knew that the chemistry between them was real and palpable and that it was working.
To me, there’s a lot of real estate left with Nate and Chloe (Sophia Ali). So whether you direct a potential sequel or not, were you purposefully setting up that relationship to play out over time?
Yeah, the central theme of the movie is trust and who you can trust and not trust. And through the experience of going on this adventure, Nate learns who he can and can’t trust. He goes from being a more naive and gullible person at the beginning of the movie to a more savvy, experienced person at the end of the movie. And the dynamic with Chloe is a big contributor to his education. So it’d certainly be very fun to reunite those two characters, and Sophia is an incredibly talented actress. I’d be thrilled to get to work with her again.
I’m fascinated by the Papa John’s location in this movie since it fuses our modern and ancient worlds. The Moncadas’ headquarters is another example of this intersection. So what’s the story behind the Papa John’s location?
(Laughs.) The true, honest answer is that Papa John’s was a sponsor of the film, so we had to incorporate it. It was originally scripted as a fast food restaurant, and Papa John’s fit pretty well into that spot. The exterior that Sully walks into is a practical location in Barcelona, and the interior was a set that we built on stage in Berlin. So there’s a bit of movie magic when he crosses through the threshold from one place to the next. But the interior was something that we built on stage, and Papa John’s provided all of the window dressing, logos and everything like that. I love the juxtaposition of this ancient world with something as banal as a Papa John’s. When Sully says, “I’m literally in a Papa John’s right now,” it always gets a great laugh. It’s just so unexpected that you would go from a gothic quarter in Barcelona to finding yourself in a traditional pizza place.
You’ve made five movies with Sony in your career. Since you don’t seem to have a deal with them, do you prefer this arrangement where you take things one movie at a time?
Yeah, when you get to know people and you have a good thing with them, there’s no reason not to continue to work together. And that’s true of actors I’ve worked with, such as the original Zombieland cast. This is actually the first movie I’ve made without a cast member from Zombieland. So everybody has their comfort zone. The interesting thing with Sony is that there have been two administrations over the course of my career. Originally, with Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, those were with Amy [Pascal]. And Venom, Zombieland 2 and Uncharted have all been with Tom Rothman. But both experiences have been terrific.
I spoke to Andy Serkis for Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and like many people, I expected him to incorporate performance capture, which is his bread and butter. But he told me that he maintained the process that you and Tom Hardy established on the first movie. So were you also surprised that they didn’t reinvent the process at all?
It’s surprising just because that’s what Andy Serkis is known for, but ultimately, it relies on the actors’ willingness to do motion-capture performance. And Tom was pretty clear that he wanted to be Eddie and that he wanted to leave Venom to the animators to realize. He felt that they were two separate entities and that Venom shouldn’t have traits of Eddie in his performance, which I think is totally appropriate. While he provided the voice, that was it. The rest was left for the animators to bring to life, and it seemed to work pretty well on the first one. So I’m glad that they followed suit on the second.
When we last spoke for Zombieland: Double Tap, you expressed your interest in doing something more with Zoey Deutch’s character, Madison. So have there been any conversations about that spinoff idea? Or is it all quiet on the Zombieland front?
(Laughs.) So far, it’s all quiet on the Zombieland front. I’ve just been really busy with Uncharted, so I haven’t had much time to think about that. But Madison, to this day, is one of my all-time favorite characters, so I’d be thrilled to see what she’s up to in the world of the zombie post-apocalypse.
You’ve accomplished quite a lot in this business, but is there a dream project you’re still chasing?
No, I just feel super lucky that I get to keep doing this. It’s a dream come true as somebody who grew up loving movies and TV shows. To actually make them myself is something I never believed I’d be lucky enough to do. So I can’t say there’s any great white whale out there. I just feel so lucky about all that I’ve gotten to do and all the incredibly talented people I’ve gotten to work with. So I’d just be happy to continue to make stuff that I’m excited about.
Well, I’ve got to go finish my script for the Zoey Deutch-led Zombieland spinoff.
Uncharted is now playing exclusively in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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