Controlled Chaos: An Interview with John Hyams

Despite my lifelong affinity for the action genre, I'd never encountered the Universal Soldier franchise. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew of its reputation as a Terminator rip-off, but it wasn't until I read Vern's “Action Movies Don't Have to Suck” piece for the Village Voice that I was intrigued enough to seek out John Hyams'& Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Day of Reckoning. Hyams' elegant staging and disarming sincerity offer a refreshing alternative to the action adventure comic book slop dished out to teenagers and poked at by indifferent adult audiences that an entire generation of studio execs have chosen to ignore. Despite their relatively tiny budgets, Hyams' Universal Soldier movies, along with his other fictional feature, Dragon Eyes, are exquisite examples of digital cinema and personal storytelling. Rightfully, these movies should be dime store thrill rides, and in the best possible sense they are. They're also equal parts melodrama, musical and tragedy. This shockingly new cinema of John Hyams is one that is unafraid to feel deeply, to show the immediate consequences of violence or examine what it is to be human.

I recently had the privilege of Skyping with John Hyams and discussing his work, methods, favorite films and creative background. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 22nd.

Many thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (who has already written two fantastic pieces about Hyams for MUBI, on Dragon Eyes and Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning), Christopher Small, Jake Barningham and my father, Larry, for letting his little girl stay up late watching hideously violent and severely age-inappropriate action films. It made me a better person.


SARA FREEMAN: A lot of people have asked you about your favorite action movies, but I'm curious to know what your favorite musicals are? Your staging, particularly the single-take scenes in the garage with Jean- Claude Van Damme in Dragon Eyes and the final underground sequence in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, seem to be heavily influenced by dance and classic Hollywood body rhythms.

JOHN HYAMS: My answer to that one, as good as question it is, is that I have to admit that I'm not a huge musical guy. I appreciate them, I don't have any issue with them, but I'm not really overly educated with musicals. I've seen the classics, you know, Singin' in the Rain and West Side Story and all of those, but it wouldn't be very honest for me to claim that that's where my influences come from. But it's undeniable once you start dealing with fight choreography and dealing with movies that are essentially fight movies that the action scenes themselves, especially when it's two or more guys tangling with each other, that it very much becomes like choreographing a dance. So, whether or not I knew very much about dance, what I come to find when you're doing these kind of scenes, when you're doing a movie fight, each fight itself should have a general narrative to it. It should have a beginning, middle and end in the obvious sense, but also the obvious things that we can relate to, like the fight in Rocky where your hero is taking a pounding, taking a pounding and then he breaks out and now he starts gaining advantage, gaining advantage, and then he starts losing advantage, but he's able to overcome the odds. You always want to build a shape to these fights. I had the benefit on Day of Reckoning of working with Larnell Stovall, who is a real master of fight choreography, and he has a very keen understanding of how fights reveal not only narrative, but character. He instinctively builds these ideas into his choreography. You are trying to play with the audiences expectations of what they are conditioned to see.

I say that in reference to what you're talking with what we call “oners,” sequences that are done in one shot. When you talk about oners, you think of the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, the opening shot in Boogie Nights, De Palma's opening shot in Snake Eyes, you think of Touch of Evil. So, the oner is kind of a thing that whether or not audiences are always aware that they're in the middle of one, I think it infuses the proceedings with a different kind of tension because in a way, you're almost seeing a piece of theatre at that moment. And so I think the idea of fight choreography and action scenes, much like dance, they deal with a lot of precise variables that all have to go right. If you shot Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and shot them with a bunch of close-ups and a bunch of cuts, you would be depriving the audience of what these people can do. So, when you're doing an action scene with Scott Adkins, the reason why you cast him is because you can do a wide shot that actually plays out for a while without a cut and you can see how talented this guy is. Not only at remembering choreography and hitting marks and hitting them with serious intention, but you're also seeing a collection of controlled chaos of cinema at its highest level. So, it's a lot of fun to test yourself with a lot of things.

That scene with Jean-Claude in Regeneration was a scene that we had to kind of get in a half day of shooting. We could have shot in a series of different shots or we could have done it as a oner where we'd have two chances to pull it off and if we didn't pull it off, then that scene wouldn't be in the movie. Those kind of things energize a cast and crew. I have never regretted shooting things that way when you're in the cutting room, as much as you're afraid of it when you're on the set. You're thinking “Geez, did I cover this scene properly? If this doesn't work, the whole thing is a dud.” But in the end you are usually more upset when you play it more conservatively because more often than not, when you come up with these ideas, it gets everyone there excited about what's going on, the stakes are kind of raised. And, I think quite frankly, cinematically it becomes more interesting because cuts are tension releasers. Depriving the audience of a cut is building tension. If you didn't time it right and you do lay an egg, then there's nothing you can really do about it, but if your performers are good, then there's a different kind of magic that is almost real time magic. It's almost like theatre at that point. It's a lot of fun to do that.

I mean, what Alfonso Cuarón did in Children of Men was something that every filmmaker saw and thought “Wow, what a courageous way to make a movie like that.” I think for myself, my jaw just hit the floor. I think it's one of the greatest films to be made in the last twenty years, if not ever. That movie is essentially in-camera editing. One of the great ironies is that when the Oscar nominations came around, the only nomination it received was for editing. I thought that was kind of hilarious. Not to say the editing wasn't good, but the editing was choosing takes because not only those big action set pieces, but even the dialogues were done without coverage. The way to achieve that was to have a director as talented as Alfonso Cuarón and also have a cast that's as talented as that cast. That movie is an example of what cinema is capable of doing. I found that movie incredibly inspiring and I hope to be more courageous that way as my career proceeds.

On one hand, [single-take shots] can be a gimmick and used as a gimmick, but I also feel that it's the highest level of the art form. Steven Soderbergh does that a lot, P.T. Anderson does that a lot, Michael Haneke does that a lot and, like I say, it's not just about doing a tricky oner, but about playing out a moment and maintaining the tension. Ya know, I've talked to people who have seen Children of Men and didn't even realize that some of the scenes were ten minute shots. They weren't trying to show off, they were trying to create a subjective point of view and did it brilliantly. I really think Alfonso Cuarón is among our greatest living filmmakers.

FREEMAN: Who are your other favorites?

HYAMS: In no particular order, Paul Thomas Anderson, of course the Coen brothers, Spike Jonze, as few movies as he makes, I think he's a real master of cinema, Michael Haneke, Nicolas Winding Refn, Jacques Audiard, but there's so many talented filmmakers out there. I just saw Looper and I flipped for that. Zero Dark Thirty. Boy, that was amazing. It's interesting to see a director like Bigelow, who in my mind, has always been an incredibly talented director who wasn't necessarily connected to A+ material until now. It's really interesting to see someone who has always been making really good movies and putting some really amazing sequences on film, ya know, pretty memorable moments. Like the foot chase in Point Break, I always thought that was the best foot chase anyone did. She always made good genre movies. Suddenly, you put her with this kind of material and she made the best movie of the year in my mind.

FREEMAN: Your documentary from 2002, The Smashing Machine, opens with a very savage fight and is immediately followed-up with the doctor's visit and essentially the repercussions of violence on the body. How do you reconcile the real, decidedly anti-poetic portrayal of violence and its effects with the violence in your narrative films, which are highly stylized and, in the case of Day of Reckoning, completely free of body hindrances?

HYAMS: Well, I will say that I never had intentions of being a documentary filmmaker, but when I did and the fact that The Smashing Machine was the first one I made changed me as a filmmaker. It changed my point of view and my feelings about how to portray violence on screen. This might surprise some people who have seen Day of Reckoning and think it's the most violent movie they've ever seen, which maybe it is in a certain context, but I do firmly believe and try to portray that violence has consequences. Violence in life, for anyone who has been involved in one or a number of violent acts, if you've been the victim of violence or the perpetrator of violence, either way it has lifetime emotional repercussions for the people who have been involved. Those acts leave their mark on you as a person. Violence changes people more than anything else in life. I find it incredibly important to portray these consequences of violence on screen and I think that's why when I did Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Day of Reckoning, those movies ended up becoming, by a lot of people's estimations, very dark movies. The idea wasn't to make them dark, the idea was to bring some truth to the proceedings. The one thing I'm incapable of doing at this point, maybe I'll change in the future, is to create those scenes you've seen in so many movies like the buddy cop movie where they go on a shootout and kill five drug dealers and then they crack jokes afterward. To me, that's not realistic and it's almost irresponsible in some ways as a way of depicting violence. If you were a cop and you had a shootout and you actually killed someone, which again, happens in millions of movies, that would affect you. The way Breaking Bad portrayed it, which is brilliant, where a character kills what is essentially a bad guy and just killing this one bad guy scars his psyche. So I feel like in the Universal Soldier movies, the whole idea was to envision this science fiction reality where we have created human attack dogs. We've designed humans for the purpose of killing and how if you take that idea and play it out, you realize that these are going to be, in the most simplistic terms, damaged individuals.

I feel like, regardless of the fact that The Smashing Machine is about a real human being in a real violent act and how that affects his life and Universal Soldier is a sci-fi action movie where super soldiers are fighting each other with baseball bats and a lot of it is played for almost ghoulish laughs, I feel like we tried to stay true to these characters, that these characters are damaged and actually become the victims. You have empathy for these monsters because they didn't choose their fate.

I'm all for violence in movies. I enjoy it, I've watched Django Unchained and I take no offense to any of it. I think Tarantino does it with responsibility, but I find it curious that people often times, the ratings board included, look at a movie like Day of Reckoning, which shows violence a certain way and they immediately think these are irresponsible movies, but if the movies show violence in an offhand way where there's no blood and crack jokes afterward, then it's treated as no big deal. They'll consider it to be inoffensive, and then I'm far more offended. Offended is a strong word, I don't think I'm offended by very many things, but what's actually more dangerous for a viewer to enjoy—let's take Raiders of the Lost Ark, I love it, but how many people does Indiana Jones kill in that movie? A lot. Or Reservoir Dogs, when someone gets shot and is actually screaming and crying and bleeding in the back seat of a car and you're seeing a realistic depiction of it, but which of those two movies got more flack for being violent? Reservoir Dogs did.

I don't want to sound like I don't have a sense of humor about it because I'm not someone who has ever complained about violence in movies. I'm fine with it and I don't think it has an adverse effect when you watch it, but I guess I'm making a point to people who do complain about violence in movies that I think it's more that some people are fine with violence, but they don't want their violence to look like it's actually bad. I think that's where people need to be careful. What is their issue? Is their issue with violence or is their issue with seeing violence look like something upsetting? They want their violence to look clean and not upsetting.

FREEMAN: To follow that up, I feel like a lot of contemporary action directors use slow-motion to enhance the actual movement of the action and fighting. In your movies, you often use slow-motion to enhance the painful consequences—the effect, not the cause. Why is that?

HYAMS: I think that is a really interesting observation, I've never thought of that. That is probably the way I've used it. In the past, I've used slow motion in the past very little and in the last two movies, experimented more with it. I kind of used Dragon Eyes as a chance to experiment with it because I knew I wanted to try it out in some places in Day of Reckoning. In Day of Reckoning, I only used slow-motion during action when we were in the underground compound. We never used it in the sporting goods store or during the car chase or any of those things and the reason I used it down there was that the whole point of this movie was subjective perspective and how there's a lot of things happening to our protagonist in the movie testing his grasp of reality, what's real, what's a hallucination. The movie and the story is moving almost more toward to this surreal, primal place. I wanted everything that happened under there to exist almost in a different time space, almost like you're under water. So, that was the idea. The fact that we would use slow-motion more on impact rather than the throwing of a punch or the throwing of a kick was really because you're trying to intensify the impact. If I slow down a punch, then I'm kind of taking away the visceral impact. If you show something happening at high speed and then quickly over-crank it to the result slowed down, the contrast between the fast and the slow on a very basic level can intensify the impact in an interesting way. I prefer to slow the consequences down like you said.

I know there's a moment in Day of Reckoning where Scott kicks a guy in the head and he actually kicks that guy in the head. He and the stuntman had agreed that it would be a one-take shot and this guy was like, “let's just do it.” So he kicked him in the head. We thought let's see how fast that kick looked and let's see the impact as it occurred. It becomes a formal exercise. That's what editing is about. You're adjusting the momentum of things in an attempt to create a visceral impact for the viewer.

FREEMAN: Do you like editing your own movies?

HYAMS: I do. I've gotten into the habit of it because of the documentaries. Editing a documentary is in the name of economics. We couldn't afford to keep an editor for as long as we'd edit those movies. We edited The Smashing Machine for a year and a half and had co-editors from time to time, but we could never afford to keep ourselves on the payroll and pay someone else, too. What I came to find after doing that, spending enough hours doing it, is that I started out in fine arts in painting and sculpture. Let's just say my creative process or my ability to activate my creative process was simply going to the studio and being by myself. It was a solitary endeavor, kind of like writing is or composing music is and once you get into film, part of the reason you get into it is because of collaboration. You're excited by collaboration and you realize that if you are utilizing your talents and the talents of other people. You can create even more amazing things than you could by yourself. The idea of engaging with people who have talents that you don't and collaborate is what film is all about. Not to compare it to war, but [production] is like playing a football game with a bunch of people. It's a large squad racing against the clock. So when you get to the editing room, that's the closest I can get to being myself in a painting studio and manipulating the medium. If it's a painting studio, you're mixing paint and applying it to a canvas and seeing how they look. That process, for me, is always a lot of trial and error, but mostly error. You make the wrong decision over and over again to try and explore every avenue until you stumble upon the right one. It's a bunch of failure until it finally culminates into something that starts to work. I could sit in the editing room with an editor and say “two frames to the left, no two frames to the right” and all I would feel was self-conscious about how much I'm irritating this person. If I could just sit there and manipulate the material, I could come up with something that is the result of trying lots of different things out. It ends up becoming this solitary experience that has been born out of six or eight months time where you literally talk to hundreds of people over the course of every day. To me, it's become my process to sit and manipulate the material to see what I can come up with rather than having all the answers before I go in. Now there's far more talented filmmakers than me who can easily work with editors. I'm sure one day I'll have the opportunity to work with an editor that will make me realize I can do a lot better than just on my own. When that day comes, I'll gladly welcome it. It's not really a pride or ego thing, but I'll certainly work with an editor.

FREEMAN: In another interview, you stated that “people don’t realize the amount of politics that can go into getting someone to agree to lose in a fight onscreen to another person.” Can you talk about some specific instances where you encountered this obstacle and what you did to satisfy everyone's needs?

HYAMS: The most obvious example of that and, spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen Day of Reckoning, but at the end of Day of Reckoning, Scott Adkins character, John, kills Jean-Claude Van Damme's character, Luc Deveraux. Scott has actually had two previous on screen fights with Jean-Claude and obviously never survived either of them with other directors. There is a very real thing that you never think about, but when you do think about it it makes a lot of sense that people who have made their living off of being action stars and made their living having fights on screen, there is, in the same way as pro wrestling, you can't just have when someone loses. There's a narrative reason why someone is losing.

You start to realize that Chuck Norris started his career losing to Bruce Lee and at a certain point he starts to win fights on screen. I don't know if you can even think of Arnold Schwarzenegger losing an onscreen fight. This has become something that these guys have to protect, it's their reputation. It's going to exist forever. They're not going to go into it lightly. If they are going to lose, then there's got to be a really good reason for it.

In the case of this movie, this movie was designed around and necessitated that his character not only lose, but be killed. If we had presented Jean-Claude with an idea “you fight Scott Adkins and then he kills you and now he's the champ,” I don't know if he would have gone for that, but that wasn't the point we were making. In essence, him losing the fight is almost an offensive move, kind of like the Obi Wan Kenobi move. By Luc relenting and basically sacrificing himself as an offensive move against his enemy, which isn't John, it's the government, he's deciding he's going to unleash this guy's wrath upon you. However, if that wasn't the case, I don't know how interested he would have been in doing this. It ultimately becomes something symbolic that can be interpreted as an action star also saying they're being replaced professionally. There is a lot that goes into it. If you have a guy like Andrei Arlovsky who hasn't been in very many movies, he's not going to have a problem losing a fight to Jean-Claude in Regeneration or Scott Adkins in Day of Reckoning because he's got to pay his cinematic dues. This is different if you're Sean Penn. If you're Sean Penn, you can do a movie and lose a fight, your livelihood isn't really based on your onscreen record. Guys like Segal, Jean-Claude and Schwarzenegger, for better or worse, it's their cinematic identity. This applies to a lot of other guys too, Jason Statham or Michael Jai White. If you have a Jason Statham fight and say “oh by the way, at the end of this fight, this guy is going to kick your ass,” I'm sure he's going to have some thoughts about that. I'm sure he'll basically decide whether or not that's going to happen. That's really just part of what it takes to be an action star, creating a reputation through the illusion of your onscreen fight record. It's not until you go through the process of working with performers that you start realizing how ever much you think is at stake directing this movie, in their minds there's far more at stake for them because they're the ones in front of the camera. They're the ones who are going to exist forever doing them whatever you ask them to do. It's a huge amount of trust they're putting in you to A) not make them look foolish and B) not do something that is going to damage their career in some way.

Above: Scott Adkins and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

FREEMAN: I was taken aback by your answer in that other interview because I feel like most people associate that mentality with women, specifically beautiful starlets who go from playing ingenues to playing mothers or even grandmothers at the end of their career. They make a living off of their looks and it's usually thought of that way actresses, not for actors.

HYAMS: Exactly. That's a perfect analogy.

FREEMAN: How has your interest in MMA influenced your fight choreography and staging?

HYAMS: I would preface this by saying that my interest in MMA was really just born out of making The Smashing Machine. I was never an expert in MMA before doing that and it wasn't until I did that and gained an appreciation for the sport and got to know some people who are athletes in the sport and suddenly, I had a personal stake in the events. Like I said, from doing The Smashing Machine, once you've witnessed a real fight by highly skilled individuals up close and you really see what a fight looks like and sounds like like and what the aftermath is, it's hard to go into doing fight scenes after that without realizing, kind of like what I talked about in that earlier question, if you're not in any way presenting violence as consequential, then you're sort of ignoring what reality has showed and to me, a fight while it can be like a dance, like you say, and be beautiful in its flow of movement. Hong Kong cinema is very much like a choreographed dance. When you watch Jackie Chan, it's like watching Buster Keaton. That's very complex choreography, it's not about the consequences of violence, it's about creating kinetic, almost comedic choreographed routines. To me, in the context of the movies I've been making, I'm far more interested in presenting something violent in a fight as if it is something you want to get out of the way of. To show that when you have two guys and like Andrei Arlovsky and Dolph Lundgren, two 6'5”, 250 lb. guys slugging it out with each other, that's a really powerful, brutal thing that's going on there. It's important to not only try and shoot it in a way that puts that forward, but also have the sound and music that accompany it not take away from the power of what is going on. Like I say, when you have stood ringside at a heavy weight battle, whether it's a boxing match or a MMA event, it's really humbling to see the power and force of what is going on when two heavy weight fighters are both keying off on each other. In The Smashing Machine, in the fights in Japan, the crowd doesn't make any noise.

FEEMAN: Really? That has to be tough on the fighters.

HYAMS: They will cheer a moment. When the bell rings, it's dead silent. You can hear a pin drop, even in the Tokyo Dome. You can hear the sound of their bare feet brushing across the canvas, you can hear every punch. That was something we really tried to replicate in the sound design of that movie. It's really the most unnerving thing. It's one thing to have a bunch of people screaming while two guys fight, it's another thing to just be hearing it. It's hard for me to present a fight as anything other than an incredibly intense engagement between two individuals. Sometimes movies have a habit of taking the power away from fights, whether it's people punching each other over and over again and you don't even have a nose bleed to using sounds that are kind of redundant and you hear the same sound over and over again and it's like two people punching each other and there seems to be no consequence. When you see a fight where every punch leaves a mark, which we try to do with these movies, we really try to account for all these blows from a fight perspective. You actually see the intense brutality of it.

FREEMAN: That reminds me of Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance where in the beginning of the movies, he's wearing the clean white tank tops and by the end, he's just drenched in dirt and blood from all the action activity. Scott Adkins reminded me of John McClane when he's wearing the white tank top in Day of Reckoning.

HYAMS: We couldn't help but think of John McClane when we had him in the white tank top. That's what's great about John McClane and that's what's great about Die Hard, especially the first one, is that he bleeds. He's a very vulnerable hero. He's not the most powerful guy, he's a scrapper. His feet are bleeding, his face is bleeding, he looks like hell. Those are things to take into consideration. There are guys who always want to be presented as always being heroic throughout their onscreen battles and they don't want to look like the other guy's hurting him too much, but you realize that you are able to manufacture empathy if you show that character as being vulnerable, as being hurt.

FREEMAN: You shot both Dragon Eyes and Day of Reckoning in Louisiana. Were you affected by the Southern gothic feel of the environment? Did it aid the storytelling?

HYAMS: In the case of both of those movies, we knew we were shooting it down there before really the movies were even completely written. To me, in both those cases, the wise move is to use the environment to its advantages and to its strengths. Dragon Eyes was designed from the get-go to take place there, it was written to be set there, and the setting was just part of the whole idea. The ghetto was a stand-in for a western setting. In Day of Reckoning, the mood is very much about a kind of gothic, noir environment, but the fact that this environment, what was important to me was that the move and story starts in a very innocuous, ordinary type of surrounding and slowly digress into a more primitive setting, that by the end, we're actually underground. There's swamps, rivers. It moves not only into lush, wooded areas, but also swampy jungle areas. While Day of Reckoning isn't supposed to take place in any specific place, it's supposed to be an anonymous American city. Dealing with that kind of climate and that kind of topography influenced us, for sure.

We're experiencing this movie through the eyes of John, the protagonist, and he is living in almost what is like a construction of reality. His home isn't a real home, it's essentially a set that's been created for him. You want to create this very indistinctive environment that is almost devoid of character. Even to the point of not placing him in a city that we are aware of helps create this feeling of “everything seems normal, but everything is a little off.”

FREEMAN: In Day of Reckoning, you use a very visceral strobing effect to illustrate the physical and mental state of the soldiers once they've been freed from government control. These scenes are immediately followed up with either violent acts (Adkins attacking Arlovski in the strip club) or the repercussions of violence (Arlovski literally having blood on his hands after the hotel shootout). What were you trying to achieve with this effect?

HYAMS: The effect quite simply was trying to find the most direct cinematic representation of hypnosis. Again, those scenes are shot subjectively as in these are characters looking directly to camera and we are seeing their POV. Another way to look at it and this is really where the idea originally came out of was that this was supposed to represent some manufactured religious experience, as in a religious experience where you “see the light.” How could we create a scenario where a character is in essence, on one hand, being literally brainwashed or having the religious experience/epiphany that's leading them towards clarity. The idea of light and the idea of strobing, which has given us more angry customers than anything else in the movie, but to me, I find it to be very effective. It's one of the few times, if not the only time, where I've been able to achieve the pure subjective experience of the movie, where the viewer is experiencing something close to what the character is experiencing. There were all sorts of concepts we were talking about back and forth, thinking “Should it be like Enter the Void? Should it be like 2001?” What kind of visuals do we want to create for these guys having this experience. The sound design is doing more than half the battle there.

Above: Cung Le in Dragon Eyes.

FREEMAN: You shot Dragon Eyes and Day of Reckoning almost back to back. What was that experience like? How was shooting Dragon Eyes different than shooting Day of Reckoning?

HYAMS: Going into Dragon Eyes, as I've talked about before, it came to me as I was prepping Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. It's produced by the same producer and it was a movie they had that was ready to go. In order for me to continue to develop Universal Soldier and be employed, directing Dragon Eyes was the perfect way to do that. When I met with Cung Le and immediately had a great feeling for him, I wanted to help him bring his vision to the screen. I thought here's the opportunity to do something that's very different from the Universal Soldier movies, something where I'm stepping in with very little preparation, very little shooting time and take what exists and strip it down as much as possible, so that it becomes an almost abstract formal exercise in many ways. Taking something that is a very familiar story in a familiar genre and presenting it as if it were literally a graphic novel with bright kind of primary colors and very two-dimensional and graphic by nature. It called for a high degree of stylization. In doing that, I was able to experiment with things that I was thinking about using in Universal Soldier in different ways. I think again, the strobing effect, and the effect of shooting in high speed and manipulating in high speed, the sound design ideas, were done in Dragon Eyes as formal exercises that became more fully realized in Universal Soldier.

FREEMAN: The color correction in Dragon Eyes almost reminds me of silent film tints.

HYAMS: The idea color palette wise was to make the colors very desaturated and very monochromatic. In my mind, it's more of a graphic novel thought. Graphic novels tend to be very washed out in color, there tends to be one dominant color in any series of frames. I thought that was a good way to let people know what we were not explaining through dialogue since we're drifting through time in a very elliptical structure.

FREEMAN: The bad ass shoot out in the brothel in Day of Reckoning is unlike anything else in the movie. Can you talk about how you shot that? The vibrant colors (purple seems to very prominent), smutty neon lights and overall textures (especially Dolph Lundgren's Ken Doll-like hair) are palpable almost to the point of surrealism. Everything is so moist.

Top: Jean-Claude Van Damme in the opening sequence of Universal Soldier: Day of Recknoning. Above: Dolph Lundgren in the brothel.

HYAMS: We're trying to take you into this very surreal type of hell on earth environment where you witness this kind of massacre. What we're doing immediately after being in Scott Adkins house, the scene previous to that where he is experiencing memories of his family. The movie for a while has dual narratives that connect, the dual narratives being Scott Adkins character, John, going through his self discovery and the character of Magnus the plumber, Andrei Arlovsky, who is clearly a government agent who has now been flipped into the underground cult militia led by Deveraux. That's a very surreal world, the world that is a figment of these creatures imaginations. If you're literally taking a species of humans that have been created for one thing—to be killers—and now they've been liberated, now they're experiencing free will, what will their free will lead them toward? Our thought was because that they are creatures that have been created with a void in their soul. They have no history. Their memories are spotty at best. They have no childhoods, they don't have all the things that make us human. Therefore, they would kind of have this insatiable appetite and hunger, this void that they needed to fill. Once they're no longer enslaved, they would be filling that void with the kinds of things humans fill their voids with, only to a more extreme degree. They would be filling it with alcohol, deviant sexual appetites, trying to satisfy their urges, but never being able to satisfy the urge. Ultimately, what they've created is this personal hell on earth for themselves where they sit around and drink away their futures. They're left very flawed and unsatisfied, so they're going to have to satisfy that, but they're not going to be able to. So, that was the idea behind creating this environment. It has a very garish color palette, a very moist underbelly environment, classic tempered noir feel. The whole concept of putting these dark, sweaty, swarthy creatures in this claustrophobic hallway and then have one guy come in and be massacring the lot of them and that when he reaches the end of the hallway, there's Dolph Lundgren waiting for him with perfectly combed white, white hair and a nice button down collared shirt. The contrast he would be present there is a beam of evangelical light at the end of this dark tunnel. It just seemed like visually and thematically it presented an appropriate way to deal with the scene.

FREEMAN: I think Dolph would be a pretty great religious leader. I might be inclined to join his religion.

HYAMS: [Laughs] Yeah. If he wanted to, he would do well.

FREEMAN: In Dragon Eyes, there seems to be an almost Hawksian camaraderie between Hong and the rival gangs, sort of like “I'm going to try and kick your ass, but if you kick mine we will be on the same team.” Do you think this has more to do with alpha male type machismo or a sense of honor?

HYAMS: I think it's playing into certain obvious cinema archetypes, there's western archetypes that it plays into. The rules of machismo are played out cinematically, that's how we learned those rules. With Dragon Eyes, it plays in a very literal way, like you said, “If I kick your ass then I'm the alpha dog now.” To the point where Cung beats up a few guys early on and they have to fight with him when it becomes a gang war. All things in the original script were far more explained, we decided to strip out all the discussion of these things and have it play out visually. We eliminated it and said “let's play it out almost in silent movie style.” You understand the pain between these characters from what happens in their physical interactions.

Above: Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

FREEMAN: How has your background in painting and sculpture influenced your cinematic creative process?

HYAMS: You establish your creative process early, you groove it into yourself early on. When you're young and you end up repeating that process when you're attacking a different project. When I'm making a movie, I go through all the same stages as when I was creating a painting or a sculpture, starting from broad ideas swimming around in your head to things you are physically sketching. So, I feel my process is very much the same. As I explained a little to you before, the editorial process, is exactly the same as I when I was painting and making sculpture. As much of a collaborative process as it is, it ultimately a very solitary process. That is what usually defines any movie is a lot of decisions that are made, before or after, post production that have to do with sound, music and color that have a far more profound effect on movies that people are seeing than almost anything happening on the set. It's hard to imagine that when you're a viewer watching a movie you are probably manipulated more by the music and the sound than anything visually you're seeing. The moods you're getting, what the experience is, has a lot more to do with multiple post production decisions. How those images play out. In the end, film is very much a two-dimensional medium moving through time. If another filmmaker took all the footage we shot in that movie, they would completely different movie that felt completely different. In the end, it really is a studio art. As much as it is about production and performance, only a small fraction—an incredibly important fraction—there's still plenty of chances to fuck it up no matter what happens on set.

Above: Dragon Eyes.

FREEMAN: Do you storyboard or sketch out your scenes?

HYAMS: The truth is I've story-boarded for other people and done some storyboard work, but for myself I don't really need to. I will storyboard, but they artistically impressive storyboards. They can be crude storyboards. On Day of Reckoning, every shot in the movie was planned out. Unless you're using them for visual effects or deciding what needs to be built on a set, there's a point where being too specific with a storyboard is wasted energy. There's going to be so many different things thrown at you. It's not always smart to force something that you decided early on because actors can come up with a better idea, a DP might come up with a better idea. Story-boarding is good to a point, but it's not something you should rely on completely.

FREEMAN: By my estimation, you're using the RED camera differently than most other directors use it. Can you talk about some of the challenges, advantages and/or drawbacks to the technology, specifically relating to action choreography?

HYAMS: I don't know how I'm using it different in relation to how other people use it, but there's a difference between the RED ONE and the RED EPIC. The RED EPIC, which we used on Day of Reckoning, is a much different camera than we used on Dragon Eyes, on a specific level with the RED EPIC you can shoot at high speed and you don't lose resolution. It doesn't go from a 4K to a 2K image. With the old RED, it would change the focal length of the lens you were using. If you were shooting with a 20mm, it would become a 40mm if you were shooting at high speed. With the EPIC, onDay of Reckoning, we didn't have that problem, which is good because you end up not having lenses wide enough to shoot the way you want.

On a basic level, the EPIC is a great camera for shooting action because it's very small. It's very lightweight. Day of Reckoning is a 3D movie, which means we had two cameras strapped to each other at all times. Our camera operator, Nick Davidoff, had to shoot hand and steadicam with two cameras. We only could have achieved that with the EPIC. If you shot with the ARRI Alexa, those cameras are too big. That was the perfect tool for that.

Beyond that, I have always been someone who loved film. I love the look of film. Certain projects call for different things. There's practicality and budget and I think that now with the ARRI Alexa and the RED EPIC, I feel that, short of shooting something on 65MM film, there's nothing that can be achieved on 35MM that can't be achieved digitally. There are so many advantages from a workload perspective to shooting digitally that film is no longer a viable option for most filmmakers unless its for formal purposes. I know Tarantino likes working with film and Nolan and Wally Pfister like working with film and their stuff looks amazing and I admire it, but for the budget practicality of most situations, digital is far more beneficial. It's like a computer vs. a typewriter. For a while I didn't think digital had caught up with film from a formal standpoint, but I believe it has now. What people can achieve from an image quality, resolution and color density standpoint, you can achieve all those things with digital now. So, I'm all for it.

FREEMAN: If you were working with film, do you think you would shoot the same way? Or would it be an entirely different process?

HYAMS: I really don't think it's entirely different, actually. At this point, you can light in similar ways. You can shoot in low light with high speed film, you can shoot in low light with digital cameras. It's easier to change a memory card than it is to change a mag, you can actually change memory cards on the fly so you can theoretically do longer takes. It's less of a process to pop cards in and out. For actors and the general flow of filmmaking, digital is preferable. It doesn't slow the operation down as much when you're dealing with the media. As far as what you can and can't shoot, I don't think that changes.

Film is a separate thing. Back in the day, if you were doing a car chase, you could set-up a crash cam or put a little Aeroflex in a box and put it in the car and crash it and it would survive. With digital, you always have the chance of the impact turning the camera off and losing what you have. In the case of those kind of situations, film is almost preferable. The now version of crash cams is putting 5Ds and 7Ds all over the place.

Above: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

FREEMAN: In the first Universal Soldier movie, the narrative catalyst are the original memories of Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott motivating their actions. In Day of Reckoning, John is motivated by what is later revealed as a false memory. There appears to be a different philosophical dynamic between these two ideas. As a storyteller, what process do you have to go through to reconcile them?

HYAMS: I think what the first Universal Soldier dealt with on the most basic mythological level was what makes us human are our memories. I think all of the Universal Soldier, whether they're the ones I made or that other people made, they should be about what defines being human. That is the theme the movies are exploring. In Day of Reckoning, we are almost taking a different approach to the same idea, which is if you love a person who never existed, is that love any less real? The answer that our character comes up with is no. It's the same, it's what defines him. He is defined by a family that never existed, but he is still motivated by this family and all of his actions and the actions that will follow are defined by something the never actually existed. If they exist in your memory, then that's real enough.

Responses

11 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • CJ Roy

    Great interview Sara! John is an exceptionally smart, moral film-maker and I couldn’t be happier a guy like him is getting the attention and respect he deserves recently.

  • John Lehtonen

    An extremely intriguing and exceptional interview. Hyams is a very articulate speaker, and can connect theory/philosophy with the technical aspects of cinema. Excellent work Sara!

  • rado

    Applause!

  • Sara Freeman

    Thank you kindly! I’m incredibly happy that his work is receiving a lot of praise and enthusiasm from viewers. I can’t wait to see what he does next!

  • Ryan Pearce

    Well done Sara, great interview.

  • Aaron G.

    Excellent and thoughtful interview.

  • T. J. Mesen

    Sara, this is pure gold! Congrats for getting to do this great interview. Hyams’ honesty and thoughts on cinema are also fantastic

  • Mac

    Schlock is schlock. You can nick all the stylistic devices you want from European art movies, but crap dialogue, bad acting, and slack pacing are what they are. Contrary to what many people think, the visual component of a movie is only part of what makes a movie great. Hyams can talk a good game, but that’s all it is, talk. I don’t see any evidence that these ideas of his have been translated into the fabric of his films. All I see are a couple of movies that remind me, aesthetically, of Cosmatos’ Cobra. Wanting to ingratiate yourself into the canon alongside filmmakers like Noe and Kubrick (and every filmmaker drops Kubrick’s name right now as an influence, hoping that by intoning his name some of his residue of genius will drift over them) means you have to do more than place your name alongside of them in a sentence. I mean, I’m curious about the intellectual calisthenics some of you have to perform in order to convince yourself that these films need to be taken seriously. It’s a bunch of karate instructors all lubed up and punching and kicking and shooting each other in slow motion to a techno music soundtrack. Haven’t you had enough of that already? Is it the stale idea that memory is ambiguous or that identity can be manipulated? Is that what it is? Is that what makes your jeans all creamy? Hasn’t all of this been done before?

  • John Lehtonen

    Yeah Mac, that would be useful if you actually went into specific examples and came up with concrete points rather than dealing in overwritten (take a breath buddy) generalizations. Your rather disturbing insistence on replacing actual film analysis with frat boyish masturbation put downs makes renders most of your so-called contributions moot. People here will gladly discuss a film with you, but your incredibly close minded approach doesn’t allow for fruitful discourse.

  • Bradyy

    Nice

  • GekkoP

    Great interview.

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