Brendan Fraser made his breakthrough by starring in two back-to-back films in 1992: The dumb frozen-caveman comedy Encino Man, and the smarter period drama School Ties, in which he played a secretly Jewish boy at an elite prep school. The dichotomy of those two films provided a solid sample of the next decade of his career: Alternating character dramas (Gods And Monsters, The Passion Of Darkly Noon, The Twilight Of The Golds) with big, sloppy comedies (Airheads, George Of The Jungle) and nichey comedy-dramas, he had a strangely patterned career that jumped around tonally and gave him as many flops as successes. Then in 1999, he starred in the special-effects-heavy blockbuster The Mummy. While he's done drama and comedy since then, his biggest roles ever since have been in big effects movies: The Mummy Returns, Monkeybone, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, and the new Journey To The Center Of The Earth, a movie he and director Eric Brevig are enthusiastically billing as the first digital live-action 3D narrative feature. The day after a sneak preview and Q&A; with Brevig and Fraser in Chicago, The A.V. Club sat down with Fraser for an enthusiastic, gesture-and-funny-voice-filled conversation about the film, improvisation, and being taken seriously as an actor. (Brevig's more sedate conversation about the film's technical aspects can be found here.)
The A.V. Club: In interviews, Joe Dante has specifically lauded your profound talent for "looking at a spot without looking through it"—
Brendan Fraser: Without winding up looking like this? [Crosses eyes.]
AVC: More like the kind of thing that comes up in commercials a lot, with kids not quite actually looking at the animated character flying around them—he was basically praising your skill at green-screen work. Do you think there are different disciplines involved in green-screen work than in smaller, non-special-effects films?
BF: [Laughs.] What can I tell you? I used to get sent to the principal's office for behaving like this, and now they're paying me to do it, okay? [Laughs.] It's like having imaginary friends, believing they're there. Your audience will believe they're there, and then it makes the CGI guys happy—Joe, etcetera, and all my friendly beloved happy nerds who helped make this movie, CGI-wise. From John Berton at ILM on down. It's a matter of being able to find a fixed point in space, then determine exactly what its physical properties are. Are you fighting it? Is it a mummy? Can you improvise with it, as I was screwing around on [The Mummy Returns]? I went to give the mummy a Curly poke in its eyes—I had too much coffee that afternoon or something. And of course if you poked a mummy's eyes you'd get goo on your hands, so I go [Recoils, makes face, examines fingers.] "Bleh!" I thought we'd have to go again. I could hear John Berton go [Hyena-like nasal laugh.] "Hyneah nyeh nyeh heh nyeh! We can use that!"
Seriously, this is important, because four or five years earlier, I was doing George Of The Jungle, CGI—and I had come of age in making films, so I had kind of gotten an education on how to make that ill-behaving child I formerly was— [Laughs.] How to use that talent for imagination, practically speaking, to collaborate with the CGI artists who are using technology that keeps quadrupling and quintupling itself over and over, to a saturation point. I think audiences aren't as easily impressed as once they were. I know even I feel that way, and I love movies. There's a glass ceiling that's been hit. You can't really see a film now that doesn't have some sort of—or a television show, or a little YouTube spot that you do on your laptop or whatever—that doesn't have some sort of special effect incorporated into it. Finding a way to stay true to whatever it is that it takes to act a scene out, and make sure that you use your imagination as best as you possibly can, still stay loose, and still allow yourself the liberty of doing what you need to do as an actor, and then work within the confines of what is actually possible…
So, George Of The Jungle. It was the 16th day of shooting this, and George is introducing a real elephant to his CGI pet elephant, who believes he's a dog, so the challenge was to create an elephant who had big puppy-dog eyes and a tongue that went [Pants rapidly like a dog.], like a Labrador, right? So we're lining the shot up, and there's the elephant, and everyone's got to be quiet and keep the fewest number of people onset so it doesn't [Panicked elephant trumpeting noise.], freak out or whatever. The shot was designed to have George introduce his pet elephant Shep, so I worked the elephant. [Mimes the shape of an elephant next to him.] And I figured I could stroke its trunk, like you would stroke… [Enthusiastically pets imaginary elephant at shoulder height.] "Good boy! Good boy!" So I'm stroking the trunk like that, and there's four or five guys with laptop computers on music stands, from I don't know where, watching me with hawk eyes, and there's little orange cones that are placed on the elephant as reference points. And I was stroking the elephant, and I was winging it during the shot, so what would you do with a dog? You would scratch it behind the ears, so I reached up to scratch the elephant behind the ear.
All these guys had aneurisms. They were like, "Eek!" And I went, "What's the matter?" and they went, "You can't shoot that!" and I'm like, "Shoot what?" And they came over, and we had this huddle-up like on the mound, like in Bull Durham, and I said, "What's the deal?" and they said, "You can't raise your right arm to scratch the elephant behind the ear. You can only use your left arm to stroke the trunk." "Why?" And all the CGI guys turn to each other and go [Murmuring crowd noises.], and the first AD just walks up and goes, "Because we don't have the budget for the shot, okay? If you scratch the elephant behind the ear, it will cost another $258,000. If you scratch it on the trunk, it's only $85,000. Okay, can we get to work? Thanks." We've come so far from there. You can do anything you want now.
AVC: In the Q&A; last night, Eric Brevig was talking about the 28-second shot he had to drop because it didn't fit into the budget, so presumably that's still an issue to some degree. Are you saying directors normally don't tell you not to improvise in big effects films?
BF: You can or can't. You're talking to a guy who was in an $85 million arthouse movie called Monkeybone. Love it or hate it, it had a lot of highly technical elements to it. There was puppeteering, there was claymation, there was CGI, there were huge setpieces. I don't know what happened, they gave the keys to the inmates of the asylum. We went nutty and we made a movie. The studio saw it and went, "Huh?" [Laughs.] I was like, "You guys don't watch the dailies or read the script? Whatever, here you go!" Me and [Monkeybone co-star] Dave Foley were like, "We have the dubious honor of being in the world's most expensive arthouse film ever created!" Because in the end, it wasn't this wacked-out comedy, but they could've made that movie now for, what, half the cost, a third of it, who knows?
In the case of Journey, because it's a 3D film, Eric was really adamant about having it all pre-visualized, so we could do the computer models of it. We needed that, it was an essential tool. Not just to show how we're going to do it, like with storyboards for instance, but also just to ensure that we stayed on track, because after a while, you get stuck in this blue and green cloth, and you just get lost in it. There's basically only three people in this movie, and we have to believe that we're being chased by dinosaurs, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Every setpiece, every tactile environment that the actors could pick up and interact with [Picks up glass, waves it around, smacks it onto the table.], those were all real. But everything else beyond a certain sphere had to be tracked in later, and the 3D quality of it isn't just what I remember filming, the coming-at-you thing where we do the boo-scares for fun, which is kind of expected, almost required. It's more like you're in an immersive experience.
I feel when I watch this—these tools have been dabbled with over the years, and I feel like finally, with this film, we brought all of what's available, all in the same place at the same time. Live-action, CGI, 3D, narrative comedy, all for the purpose of making a feature-length film shot in high-def in 3D. The dimensions are coming at you, you're in the environment as an experience of the film. More importantly to me is the depth of field. When you watch the raft sequence in the water, you almost can see the curvature of the ocean, and very often you find yourself wanting to know what's around the corner. A branch will come past you, and maybe you'll duck a little bit and maybe intuitively resist the urge to—you know it's not behind you, but you look behind you. And maybe if the sound is mastered properly, you hear the branch go crack, like someone else stepped on it. It really brings you right into the experience of the world of the film.
AVC: You seem really, really geeked about this film.
AVC: Do you get this excited about less technically focused movies, about dramas like Passion Of Darkly Noon or Gods And Monsters?
BF: I try to. This one got my motor running because it hadn't ever been done before. But as a work in progress, yeah, I'd like to know as much as I can about the material. With Gods And Monsters, c'mon, it's Ian McKellen! I used to watch him in the library on Betamax tapes, acting Shakespeare, he's a hero of mine. I couldn't believe I met him, I worked with him. He's a sweetheart, he sends cheeky e-mails at Christmastime, and he's a funny, wonderful guy. And on top of that, he's knighted. And he's brilliant on top of it. [Pauses.] You actually saw Darkly Noon? Wow. You're looking me in the eyes and you're laughing, my goodness. That picture was my trip up the river. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you mean that?
BF: C'mon, that was—every actor has his Heart Of Darkness movie.
AVC: Do you mean in terms of the difficulty of making it, or the contents, or the final results?
BF: We were in the wilds of Germany pretending we were somewhere in the deep South. Everyone went berserk, we were attacked by man-eating wasps, I'm not kidding you. [Laughs.] It was like "AHHH! Ahhhh!" [Flails around, swatting at wasps.] At one point in the movie, one of them lands on my face in the shot, and the only reason I don't react to it is because I really didn't want it to bite me in the eye. [Laughs.] And we didn't have enough money, we couldn't go for another take, and the little bugger actually starts to take off, and the director was so spooky and dark and weird. He was like [Raspy, English-accented voice.] "It's wonderful, wonderful, he doesn't even react, wasps on his face, it's wonderful, wonderful!" And I'm just thinking, "I just don't want my eye to puff out like this [Exaggerated face-exploding gestures.] and wind up in a German hospital." [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have problems transitioning between the big special-effects actioners and little dramas? Do people tell you in the action movies to go bigger and louder, and in the little movies to dial it down?
BF: Hmm. There's choices that you need to make, for sure. You can't be precious about them. Throw them away if they don't work, or hopefully you've got a good director who'll say "Uhh, could you read the script, please?" And if it's a good script, then everything you need to know should be on the page. But the truth is, you're always going to wind up having that as a structure or outline. I was just talking to a friend of mine working with Paul Greengrass, and Paul, I'm told, apparently just shows up, meets the actors, and says, "What do you think?" and that's how he gets that real quality to his movies, because he just goes, "The script is not precious. What's really going to happen here?" And the actors all step up their game, and they stop acting all of a sudden, and they're actually living in front of the camera rather than delivering performances, and that's how you capture that. So I guess it depends from project to project.
AVC: How do you feel about rehearsals? Do they tend to spoil the freshness of that sort of improvisation you're talking about?
BF: With Journey To The Center Of The Earth, we had given ourselves a solid three weeks, because there are only three people in this picture. We talked the whole script through, and it was a bit thin. We needed to bring something to it, but there's a whole system of approvals, etcetera, that had to go to studio executives far, far away, who weren't in the trenches. Eventually, in the best way possible, we'd smile and nod at the notes we were given, and then just do what we needed to do to get the job done. Then later, we'd let them think it was their great, grand idea. That's just the way it works; it's part of the drill. Please don't give away my trade secret. [Laughs.] But it's part of the drill.
AVC: This is your first production credit. What was your involvement in the film like as a producer?
BF: I came to the project because the screenplay as it was presented had been developed by Walden, and it had gone through so many writers that it kind of got this smorgasbord indigestion of ideas. The fact it was going to be in 3D made me wake up, and that's what caught my attention, because that hadn't been done, as far as I knew. And I wanted to know more about that. I hadn't read the book, so I came to the screenplay with fresh eyes. I went to Borders Bookstore, bought the last copy of the novel, speed-read through it, realized that all the relationships are basically [Pounds invisible book.] Right! There! In! The! Book! It's about a professor with his assistant who's a nephew, and then they meet up with this mountain guy. Just change the gender, and suddenly we've got an interesting structure of a relationship.
AVC: So were you actively involved in retooling the script?
BF: Yes. And for that, I went to [producer] Cary [Granat], I met Eric, pitched all this to him, and said, "Look, he's got all the setpieces pre-visualized, and they're great, I've seen the artwork and everything like that. All you need to do is just change the words, and that's relatively inexpensive." Some people look beyond their nose and say "It's just writing." Yeah well, you know, [Whispers.] it's the best part. All we have to do is change the screenplay around a bit, restructure it, it's a quick thing. It's a cheap fix, in other words. So I gave that to Cary, and he told me, "I can't make this film without you, for two reasons—I can't afford to, I need a star, and besides, it's your idea." And I said, "All right, well…" I screwed my courage up and said "I need to be a producer on this picture, in that case." So I earned that stripe. And I think I might have surprised them all, because I took the position a little more seriously than most actors do. I'm not going to say they're vain about it, but we've all seen films where there are entire crawl sheets of co-executive-executive-executive producers, they're this long. I actually took in the best way possible advantage of a voice that must be heard, because let's face it, I don't mean to be a braggart by saying this, but I really have received a definite education since 1991 when I made my first film until now. I really have. I've come of age during a period of filmmaking when it has gone through enormous technological leaps and bounds, and it's exciting to think of where it's going to go from here. So for that, I just intuitively had a lot of knowledge about it, and that's what I wanted to be able to bring to the project.
AVC: Do you worry about being taken seriously as an actor? You come across as a bit of a goofball.
BF: Thanks! None taken!
AVC: You declared as much at the screening last night, and you seem pretty proud of it here—
BF: Oh, I absolutely am.
AVC: So is it a concern at all for you, in your career?
BF: Well, look, if you don't take it out of yourself, somebody else will do it for you.