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[This interview contains spoilers for Venom: Let There Be Carnage.]
When Tom Hardy was searching for a director to helm Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to his 2018 hit Venom, he knew he needed someone who had the utmost expertise in bringing CG characters to life. So he called the world’s foremost authority on CG characters, Andy Serkis, to see if he would be interested in the job. After all, the duo had wanted to collaborate directly for a number of years, and Hardy had actually called Serkis ahead of the first Venom movie for insight regarding performance capture technology, a process that Hardy didn’t ultimately use. So once Serkis signed on to Venom 2, he initially thought he’d incorporate his signature approach involving performance capture, but he only ended up using the tech during the testing of Woody Harrelson’s Carnage.
“Tom had his own methodology in terms of creating Venom,” Serkis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Originally, when I came on, I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll be doing lots of performance capture.’ But in a way, because Venom is inside Eddie’s head for a lot of the time, I wanted to take on what Tom’s process was and where he was comfortable. Tom obviously wanted me to be there because as an actor-director, I was comfortable in that environment. So I think Tom wanted someone who he could have frank conversations with and create an environment of work that was sympathetic to everybody who perhaps wasn’t as familiar with CG characters as myself.”
Let There Be Carnage‘s mid-credits scene happens to be one of the genre’s most significant credit scenes to date since it puts Tom Holland’s Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Hardy’s Eddie Brock/Venom on a collision course. Could Hardy’s characters make an appearance in December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home? That question remains to be seen, but Serkis acknowledges that the situation was quite fluid until the last minute. In fact, Spider-Man was once a part of Venom 2‘s story — until he wasn’t.
“[The mid-credits scene was] 100 percent in flux, yeah. It couldn’t have been more in-flux-y if you tried,” Serkis reveals. “Yeah, of course, it was something that they talked about from before I even came on to the movie. There were moments where [Spider-Man] was going to be in the story, potentially, and then he wasn’t. But no, we decided that we wanted to really examine the Venom-verse first. So as we were going through principal photography, the inevitable discussions had to be had, but it wasn’t until very, very late on that we reached the precise notion of the teaser that we wanted to lay in there.”
While Serkis can’t say much about his upcoming role as Alfred in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, he admits that he wasn’t afraid to follow in the footsteps of past Alfred actors including Michael Caine, Michael Gough, Jeremy Irons and Alan Napier. He also believes that Reeves, his longtime friend and collaborator, has made something really special.
“Nah!” Serkis says with a laugh in response to whether he was intimidated. “I’ll tell you that it was fantastic being reunited with Matt Reeves, [producer] Dylan Clark and [VFX supervisor] Dan Lemmon from the Apes films. We had such a great time making it, and when it eventually comes to the screen, Matt Reeves will have made another masterpiece film because he’s so super-invested in it. But yeah, I’ve been forbidden, expressly forbidden, to talk about Alfred.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Serkis goes on to discuss the film’s minimal amount of deleted material and the influence of new cinematographer Robert Richardson, as well as composer Marco Beltrami. He also addresses whether he’d be interested in playing a new character in 20th Century Studios’ upcoming Planet of the Apes film, and then he looks back at working with David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
Well, Andy, it was great to see the Christmas Carol team reunite on Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Since Tom was an executive producer on that project, is it partially responsible for bringing you and Stephen Graham on board?
Certainly. Tom approached me to direct this, yeah. Actually, this all starts way back. Before the first film, Tom approached me. We’d been wanting to work together for many years, and there have been other projects that we’ve nearly worked on. And as you say, he was an EP on A Christmas Carol. But before the first movie, he approached me to see if he could come and do some experimental work in the Imaginarium, which is my performance capture studio in London. And then I didn’t hear anything more from him. Then, when Venom one came out, I realized that was the character that he talked about and wanted to explore. So two years later, I got a call from him saying, “Andy, I really would love to throw your hat in the ring for directing this one, so what do you feel?” So I was just delighted to get the opportunity, really. Working together was really something that we’ve both wanted to do.
So when it was announced that you’d be directing Venom: Let There Be Carnage, I was just as surprised as I was when I learned that Michelle Williams was joining the first film. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like your sensibility. So what attracted you to this mad world of symbiotes?
(Laughs.) I’m curious to know why you thought that it would be a million miles away from something that I would do.
That was just my initial reaction, having seen your last film Breathe, but it started to make more sense once I recognized the parallels between Eddie/Venom and Gollum/Smeagol.
Right, right. Tom was, for me, the big draw. And to also work with Woody again. But Tom’s sensibility, as an actor, is very similar to mine in the sense that we’ve both played characters that are pretty out-there, physically and vocally. It takes a certain bold approach to reach those characters, and we both like swimming in the darker end of the swimming pool of character types. So yeah, for me, it was exactly the opposite. It felt perfect that we had this world, which is very dark, psychologically real and underpinned with real emotion, danger, menace, threat and real social issues, too. Plus, there’s this fantastic range of fantasy in the symbiote characters, which allowed the film to go from very intimate and real emotions to this big, operatic battle royale and visual effects fest.
So you certainly know your way around creating memorable CG characters. How much of your approach, technology and philosophy did you apply to Venom and Carnage’s portrayal? Did you change the overall process a great deal?
Not hugely because Tom had his own methodology. Tom had his own methodology in terms of creating Venom, i.e., he recorded all of his lines and it was more about the radio play. Originally, when I came on, I thought, “Oh, we’ll be doing lots of performance capture.” But in a way, because Venom is inside Eddie’s head for a lot of the time, I wanted to take on what Tom’s process was and where he was comfortable. Tom obviously wanted me to be there because as an actor-director, I was comfortable in that environment. And Woody was also going to have to tread into the steps of Carnage. So I think Tom wanted someone who he could have frank conversations with and create an environment of work that was sympathetic to everybody who perhaps wasn’t as familiar with CG characters as myself. So that was sort of what was driving it. But because of the range of emotion that Carnage was going to have to use, we actually used performance capture a little bit in the testing process just to get some real physicality. I wanted him to be so physically different from the way that Venom moved, so he wasn’t this big lump and almost kind of quarterback, neanderthal and straightforward battering ram kind of energy that Venom has. I wanted Carnage to be the opposite: very slippery, light, sort of mellifluous, able to slip and shift his shape, change molecularly and arm up and use tendrils in different ways. It was sort of like, “How can we have the opposite energy to face off with Venom?” So for that, I went back to all of the comics and culled all of the images and work I could find about the character, including the fact that he can change his molecular structure and so on. So that was what was informing all of that, and when we would actually shoot those, I knew how we would piece it all together, finally.
Every actor and director I’ve talked to about Tom Hardy has said that he’s unpredictable in a good way. So what’s the key to successfully directing him?
I think it’s creating the right atmosphere for him to feel comfortable. When you’re doing something as bold as what he’s doing, you need everybody to be singing from the same song sheet. And if you’ve got people who aren’t quite in sync, then it’s easy to be thrown because you’re totally reliant on your imagination. So you need everyone, and for the most part, I think that’s what I was able to do for him. He really comes up with gold when he’s in the right environment.
My favorite scene in the movie is the one involving Michelle’s character and Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu).
(Laughs.) I love that scene.
Michelle is one of the best dramatic actors in the world, so I appreciate those moments where she gets to be playful. I also really liked how you used her as the mediator between Eddie and Venom. So while you made great use of Michelle and Reid Scott, was it often a challenge to keep the human, symbiote-less characters in the mix?
First and foremost, you have to root for every character in this story. There’s no one that you really don’t like, that you’re not connected to in some way or don’t understand. Considering that it’s such a fast movie that doesn’t linger or have much exposition, the character beats are really left to fully emerge. This is the ambition anyway, but hopefully, you can really understand the emotional complexities, foibles, flaws and dysfunctionality between all of the characters and all of their relationships. So if that was all in place and believable and real, then you can have your Buster Keaton moments, your slapstick and the fight in the apartment between Eddie and Venom. When Michelle is indulging Venom inside Mrs. Chen, it’s done with such truth, and that’s why it’s such a beautiful moment.
Since Tom only had eight weeks to get his body and his knees ready for filming, were you holding your breath throughout each action sequence?
Yeah, for sure. I was obviously with him during prep, and he was having these operations on his knees literally as we were having script meetings and going through story. He was sitting in hotel rooms with his knees in ice machines and all sorts of things. So we were all very mindful that what he was about to do was a very tall order. To go ahead and do what he did, he had to be on top of it not just physically but also mentally.
So how did [cinematographer] Robert Richardson take to his first comic book film?
(Laughs.) Look, I adore Bob, and I’ve worked with him before on another small movie that I directed [Breathe]. We have a very close relationship, and I was delighted that he was able to come on board. The first movie was very dark, monochrome and edgy with a lot of handheld, but this wanted to feel more classical, I suppose, in want of a better word. We were also going to use a lot more color predominantly because of the color of Carnage and the way that his color is a dominant force in the film. So the saturation came right up. And to be able to go from the intimate to the operatic, cinematographically, was what we aimed to do. But the symbiotes are quite unforgiving in their designs, as you well know. They are quite comic book and cartoon-y, as designs, which you can’t get away from, but I knew that Bob would be able to find a way of blending and shooting shallow focus. We talked a lot about shooting shallow focus so that there was a lot of drop-off with the symbiote characters. They weren’t fine-edged all the time and sort of standing out. So we worked hard at that along with Sheena Duggal, who’s the visual effects supervisor. The three of us were very, very keen to make the integration and the compositing of each visual effects shot work as best we could.
The first film had one of the best composers in the world, Ludwig Göransson, and now your film also has one of the best composers in the world, Marco Beltrami. What prompted the change?
Going to the core of where this film was at and where we were taking it, we wanted to have a fuller score that was slightly more orchestrated, bigger, epic, but romantic at times. So the early discussions were really about it feeling like Cape Fear and that Bernard Herrmann style, which has a weight of orchestration. There are quite a few homages to ’80s and ’90s movies like Beverly Hills Cop. Even the costume that Cletus Kasady has is a riff on Cape Fear. So there were little nods to that style of filmmaking and that kind of score. So I just thought Marco would be bang-on for it, and I love what he’s done in this film.
There was a lot of talk about this film being a love story between Eddie and Venom, but the movie does, in fact, have a romantic comedy structure. “Boy loses symbiote, boy gets symbiote back.” There’s even a big apology scene. So was the romantic comedy genre a key ingredient in your early conversations?
Yeah, definitely. That relationship is at the heart of it, but of course, there are other romances that go through the movie, too. It’s also “symbiote loses host’s girlfriend.” (Laughs.) And “supervillain wants to be rejoined with supervillainess.” There’s a lot. So the romantic themes in it go on beyond Eddie and Venom, for sure. So yes, the romantic comedy, of course, was one of the flavors that we wanted to bring into it.
Will there be any deleted material on the Blu-ray?
There’s very little other material because we had to shoot in 54 days. It was always going to be a very lean film. The story was going to go at the pace it was going to go at. We decided that very early on. So there’s not a whole heap of extra material. There are some funny one-liners from lots of characters, which we pared away. In the search for the balance of the movie, you don’t ever want to signal anything or say, “Look, we’re being self-knowingly funny here.” And so we took them out. So my director’s cut has not changed hugely, but yeah, we pared away at some of what we felt was tipping a wink to the audience a little bit too much.
[The next question and answer contains major spoilers for Venom: Let There Be Carnage.]
Since the mid-credits scene has far-reaching implications, was it in flux until the last minute?
100 percent in flux, yeah. It couldn’t have been more in-flux-y if you tried. (Laughs.) Yeah, of course, it was something that they talked about from before I even came on to the movie. There were moments where [Spider-Man] was going to be in the story, potentially — and then he wasn’t. But no, we decided that we wanted to really examine the Venom-verse first. So as we were going through principal photography, the inevitable discussions had to be had, but it wasn’t until very, very late on that we reached the precise notion of the teaser that we wanted to lay in there.
Now that another Planet of the Apes film is currently in development, would you be open to playing a new character? Or have you scratched that itch by now?
Gosh. Look, I love that universe, and playing Caesar throughout those three films was an amazing part of my life. So I suppose it all comes down to story and character. If it was an amazing story and an amazing script, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down without thinking about it seriously. I’ll put it that way.
So Alfred and The Batman. Was it daunting to follow in the footsteps of Alan Napier, Michael Gough, Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons?
Nah! (Laughs.) Look, I really can’t answer any questions about The Batman, but I’ll tell you that it was fantastic being reunited with Matt Reeves, [producer] Dylan Clark and [VFX supervisor] Dan Lemmon from the Apes films. We had such a great time making it, and when it eventually comes to the screen, Matt Reeves will have made another masterpiece film because he’s so super-invested in it. But yeah, I’ve been forbidden, expressly forbidden, to talk about Alfred. (Laughs.)
One of my favorite films of all time is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and you got to rub shoulders with several luminaries on that set including David Bowie. You also got to shoot on that iconic lightbulb set. What comes to mind from those days?
Well, we were shooting up at Mount Wilson Observatory in L.A., and yeah, it was an extraordinary set. I just thought all of that was going to be CG, but it was all real. Those lightbulbs went on for hundreds of meters, and that scene was quite magical. But I have to say that hanging out with Bowie was one of the highlights of my career because I was always a big fan of his. What a gent. What a lovely human being. Fascinating and funny. Really funny. Great sense of humor. Yeah, it was good fun. Good times.
I believe your next acting job is in Idris Elba’s Luther movie, but do you know what your next directing job is?
There are a couple of things which are vying for pole position. I can mention one of them now because it’s been out there for a while, and that is Animal Farm, which we’ve been developing for quite some time. So we’re working away on developing that, and then there are a couple of other movies. It just all depends on what falls into play next.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is now playing exclusively in theaters.
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