Until Death Do Us Part - Jonas

Jumaat, Mac 06, 2009

#228. Cinema : Incredible journey in Race to Witch Mountain

Mind your step: Cabbie Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) protecting Dr Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) from the government and a hostile alien in a scene from Race to Witch Mountain.

Ride along with Dwayne Johnson as he moves into top gear.

Jack Bruno drives one heck of a taxi. His standard yellow cab survives everything from being rammed by three heavy-duty government SUVs to attacks from a Predator-like alien evil-doer and bumping along railway tracks at chassis-crushing speed.“I’m a pretty good driver,” says Dwayne Johnson, the actor behind the wheel, then laughingly qualifies, “when we can have multiple takes.”

That indestructible taxi and the car chases it is involved in are central to Race to Witch Mountain, a sci-fi adventure from Disney that has Johnson’s character, a Las Vegas cabbie and ex-con, helping two alien teenagers with paranormal powers unravel the secret of the mysterious Witch Mountain to save their world. Out to stop them are the government and an extraterrestrial monster.

The film is a modern-day re-imagining of the 1975 Disney classic Escape from Witch Mountain, based on a book by Alexander Key. In the roles of the teenage siblings Sara and Seth are a captivating AnnaSophia Robb and newcomer Alexander Ludwig. Other cast members include Carla Gugino as a kooky astrophysicist and Ciarán Hinds, the sinister lead UFO investigator.

“I enjoyed the car chases very much,” says Johnson in an interview during a press junket last month at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort to promote the film. Director Andy Fickman was also there.

“We had great stunt coordinators (who had worked on the Bourne and Spider-Man films), and it was an honour to get behind the wheel.”

Johnson speaks often of feeling honoured. Coming from the world of professional wrestling, he’s had a certain image to overcome to prove himself. But from his single line in his first movie, The Mummy Returns (“Haku machente”, which apparently means “It’s hot as hell” in ancient Egyptian) in 2001, to headlining Race to Witch Mountain, the progression seems to have been without major missteps.

“I knew it was going to take a lot of work, but I didn’t give myself a timeline. That was one way to make God laugh – ‘so those are your plans?’,” he quips.

“It has taken as much time as I had anticipated. Hopefully, my performances are decent as well.”

Despite dropping his former wrestling persona – there’s not even the barest cock of the right eyebrow that “The Rock” was so famous for, although his unnerving focus on you when you ask a question remains – it is a reputation that still dogs him. Johnson, however, gives due credit to the experience that helped mould his career in entertainment.

“I didn’t have the luxury of studying dramatic arts. Wrestling provided a really invaluable platform, in terms of entertaining huge crowds every night.

“In front of 20,000 people, if your jokes bombed, that was a big learning experience. You either sink or swim in that guerrilla-style of shooting, and it helped my transition into films.”

Strangely for an actor whose name now appears above the title in movie posters, Johnson seems willing to alternate his leading roles with supporting ones, such as Agent 23 in Get Smart and that very memorable gay bodyguard in Be Cool.

“When I first broke into movies, my personal identification of the type of actor I wanted to be was one with a broad foundation of work. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. I went for material that moved me, and would move and entertain audiences.

“Even those films that didn’t do well at the box office ... I don’t regret doing them. They were the best decisions I could have made for myself at that time,” he says.

Johnson is the antithesis of Jack Bruno in terms of his character’s misanthropic nature and lack of communication skills, but he can identify with a man who stumbles in life and tries to stay on the right path.

“I know what it’s like to struggle like that ... I was arrested several times when I was younger. I’m grateful to the adult figures in my life who saw potential in me even when I didn’t see it. Ultimately, it gave me the opportunity to do great things.”

Rolling in the aisles

Johnson and director Fickman are interviewed separately but it’s uncanny how both men, completely different physically, speak similarly about their penchant for humour – Johnson likens the two of them to a comedy duo – that they could be finishing each other’s sentences were they in the same room.

“My humour tends to permeate throughout the set,” says Fickman, “and Dwayne likes to laugh a lot. The two of us together are very dangerous.

“If something bad is going to happen, and if we can look at each other and start laughing, we know we can figure it out.”

It’s that sense of humour that Fickman has tried to inject into Race to Witch Mountain.

“All my favourite movies growing up, like Star Wars, ET, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, were great adventures, but I remember them being very funny as well. The comedy helped make them more human.

“When people laugh, it makes the film more enjoyable because you can breathe a little.

“We also set out to do just a really cool action film that everyone can enjoy. There’s no bad language, no nudity, nothing that some adults don’t want their kids to see. But we didn’t hold back on the action.”

The UFO phenomenon is something Fickman couldn’t escape even if he wanted to.

“When you’re born in Roswell, New Mexico (made infamous by a supposed crash of a UFO that the US government and military allegedly tried to cover up), even if you’ve never had an encounter, it follows you the rest of your life,” he says.

He did “tons of research” for the film, gathering as much information as he could from various sources, including leading ufologists like Whitley Strieber, one of the most famous alleged alien abductees who wrote about his experience in the best-selling book Communion, and Bill Birnes, the host of The History Channel’s UFO Hunters.

“We wanted our sci-fi adventure to be grounded in some level of reality. We didn’t want to be disrespectful to people who had experienced encounters. The story had to be as real to them as possible,” says Fickman, who reportedly also sought assistance from the US military and CIA advisers to shape the elements of the movie.

In fact, the film opens with actual news and documentary footage of UFO sightings.

Johnson says it was a great help to the storyline that Fickman is such a huge believer. And is he?

“Yes,” he states without hesitation. “We would be incredibly arrogant to believe that we were the only intelligent life in the universe.”

Fantasy and reality

Johnson has done action and comedy, sung, danced, dressed in drag and even kissed a guy! This month, he hosts the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, where he promises to take anyone on in a burping competition. Currently in development is “some great dramatic material”.

“I’m drawn to characters who start off being flawed, that end up becoming, maybe not great, but better people,” Johnson says.

And that’s exactly what Jack Bruno is – the anti-hero who ends up saving not just one world, but two.

Says Fickman: “Jack is not good with people, but he’s put in a situation where he has to be with somebody. There is conflict – did we pick the wrong guy? – but he is the right guy.

“We didn’t want to start right away with someone so good, like a superhero. We yell and scream, it’s what makes us human, and to bob and weave like that is far more interesting. There are more places to go emotionally. As much as we want to get somewhere, it’s the journey that counts.”

Apart from the typical difficulties that come with any movie – rain, forgetting lines, getting the dog to go where it should – the biggest challenge for Fickman was creating a believable look.

“The hardest thing when dealing with fantasy is how to make something look real that you’ve never seen – the spaceship, for example.”

Making a conscious effort to use special effects only when needed, the filmmakers built massive sets “to crawl around in” and all the car chases and scenes in the city of Las Vegas were real.

“When you have technology in movies to make anything happen, it’s not always the best thing. Not everything is filmed against a green screen, it takes away from the human drama. Sometimes, it’s just nice to enjoy the race,” says Fickman.

This is the second time the director and actor are working together after 2007’s highly successful The Game Plan, also from Disney, and it won’t be the last. “We have several things in development and I hope to do many, many movies with him,” says Fickman.

“I love that Andy is passionate about his craft, work and movies. What I really appreciate is how happy he is. He’s very successful and good at what he does, and an excellent communicator, with a big heart. He’s a special guy,” says Johnson.

“We do like each other. Besides looking like twins, we have a fun relationship,” Fickman jokes.

He also speaks highly of the film’s younger co-stars.

“I saw AnnaSophia in Bridge to Terabithia and really liked her. We didn’t meet anyone else for the role. And she set the bar so high, the trick was finding her brother.

“Alexander came in for one of the massive auditions. He had a great personality and by the end of the screen test, Dwayne and AnnaSophia loved him,” says Fickman.

“We hadn’t chosen anyone for the part yet, but as Alexander was at the door saying goodbye, Dwayne yells out, ‘That kid was awesome!’ Thankfully, he’s the one we cast, but Dwayne can never open his mouth again!”

Man for the job

As articulate as he is, Johnson is suddenly at a loss for words when reminded that he once proclaimed himself to be “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment”. He mutters a sheepish “oh-oh” and has to think for a second about what title he would give himself now.

“Erm ... erm ... probably the biggest eater in Hollywood.”

Johnson is obviously more than that. He would never say so himself, humble as he is about his acting success, but, as Fickman gushes, he is an inspiring person to work with.

So inspiring, in fact, that comparisons were made between the speech pattern of President Barack Obama while he was campaigning and that of The Rock.

“I was incredibly honoured when I heard that. President Obama is an exceptional speaker and communicator and I believe in the power of communication with our children, our loved ones and certainly with our adversaries. What a wonderful man, what a wonderful family.

“I anticipate great leadership. There’ll be a bit of stumbling as we all do but out of that comes a great learning experience. That is what you find with exceptional leaders,” says Johnson.

And does he have political ambitions?

“Not right now,” he says.

Not. Right. Now. It opens up the possibility, doesn’t it? Remember, you read it here first.

Race to Witch Mountain opens next Thursday.

Source :
The Star

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