- Recapitulating Beowulf yet again
- Being under-released and under-advertised, such that it made a mere $6 million in theaters worldwide
- Possibly just being far too awesome for theater viewers by mixing Vikings and aliens into a standard monster-movie thriller
Defender: Director/co-writer Howard McCain, co-writer/producer Dirk Blackman, and producers John Schimmel and Christopher Eberts
Tone of commentary: Info-dense and as highly specific as a film-production class lecture. All four men were closely involved with the production—Blackman, for instance, was a hands-on participant who handled second-unit shooting because the schedule was so tight—and they dissect practically every shot, explaining its elements and what’s going on outside of frame. For instance, in one sequence, stars Jim Caviezel (as an alien soldier who crash-landed on Viking-era Earth and inadvertently released a monstrous creature into the area) and Jack Huston (as a Viking war-leader) play a drinking game by running in circles atop shields held on the shoulders of their Viking compatriots. McCain and his partners explain how wires and harnesses were used to support the actors, and point out in which shots they’re actually running along a track covered with sandbags for some extra wobble. They talk about how the floors are cheap plywood grooved to look like old wood to save money, and how the ceilings are CGI. They analyze the scene’s story significance, where the characters are psychologically at that time, and how the sequence alters their relationships and changes the story’s tone. They explain various alternate ideas for the sequence, and why they were cut or revised. They address the negative feedback they got about the scene, and argue against it. Finally, they make jokes about how the filmmakers themselves “rehearsed” the scene’s drinking games by drinking heavily before production started.
One ongoing thread of the commentary track has the co-writers revealing all the scenes and fights that were cut from the film to keep the run-time down: In one draft, a brief verbal disagreement was a seven-minute ritual combat. Lengthy monologues were cut, including the speech that lured John Hurt into performing in the movie. And the shield-running scene was originally 35 minutes long.
They also discuss their many, many extremely minor references to other genre films they love. For instance, an interior shot with mist was cribbed from Alien. When Caviezel uses his energy weapon on a tree, “That’s our homage to Rollerball.” “Yeah, there are a lot of homages in this film, and that’s okay. We love genre films, and we wanted to stick ’em in here… from The Natural to The Searchers to Jaws to Aliens to Lawrence Of Arabia.” “And Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS, all throughout the whole movie.”
What went wrong: Roughly 50 percent of the commentary consists of these production details. The rest is a list of shooting problems. While all four men seem delighted with the final outcome—they’re generally just explaining their uphill battles, not actually complaining or bemoaning the results—the shoot was apparently a nonstop series of trials, largely stemming from a limiting budget (of $47 million) and an ultra-tight 50-day filming schedule. Among other things, they reveal that:
- The film was supposed to start with an epic alien battle inside a starship in space, but they couldn’t afford it. Without it, they felt the beginning of the story was too draggy because it was a monster movie where the monster didn’t show up, so they also wound up cutting a Viking-funeral opening that they’d already shot and loved.
- They planned to shoot in New Zealand, but couldn’t afford it, and wound up relocating to Nova Scotia. This caused endless problems: They couldn’t find caves and had to make some. They couldn’t find a waterfall and had to send photographers to Norway for source shots. The area was over-logged and they could only find a small patch of sparse trees for their forest hunting scene. A promontory over the lake had to be built because no such rocky outcroppings existed in the area, and they needed one “to give it kind of that epic feel.” They wanted mountains in the background but there were none, and they could only occasionally afford to add them with CGI; they laughingly point out the scenes where mountains don’t appear because they thought no one would notice.
- The Nova Scotia farm where they constructed their Viking village was on a flood plain; they were warned of this in advance but promptly forgot about it. Subsequently they wound up with enough water in the village to turn the packed earth field to mud, and convert all the straw on the ground into a rotting, stinking mass.
- Oddly, a sequence in which the characters converse while riding horses had to be shot using real horses because the filmmakers couldn’t afford fancy mechanical ones.
- In one sequence, the Vikings fight a bear; the filmmakers couldn’t afford a real bear. They instead wound up spending $35,000 for “a guy in a bear suit” and a team of puppeteers, and weren’t pleased with the results, but couldn’t afford further shooting.
- The production was plagued by immense rainstorms and -40 degree weather, which particularly bothered the shirtless Viking actors shooting at 4 a.m. outdoors. The sodden ground in the Viking village froze solid, and co-star Jack Huston dove into it for a combat shot and broke his shoulder.
- They were contractually obligated to bring the film in “under two hours, including credits. Which is why the credits at the end of the movie move quite quickly and they’re on three columns.” They asked for an additional 79 seconds for the credits, but the studio wouldn’t budge.
Real production problems aside, they also reveal a zillion little gripes they had about compromises with the film. As McCain grouses, “Now being the anal person that I am, what I was upset about was, if you look at the houses, they have palm thatch on them. Of course [the Vikings] didn’t have palm trees. But it was too late in the year, so we couldn’t get [the right kind.]”
They also address the zillion little gripes of the “Internet critics” who groused about the film’s details, and explain each one in turn: Yes, the characters speak English and not Old Norse. Yes, a character in one scene talks about a woman stabbing him with a fork, even though forks didn’t exist in that era. (McCain facetiously claims that was done on purpose, and is answered with “So… we were embracing our ignorance?”) Someone angrily wrote to McCain to complain that a whale carcass in the background of one scene isn’t “the correct whale for that kind of water.” Finally, over a quick montage of a sword being forged, McCain wearily sighs “And yes, it takes a long time to make a sword, oh you Internet critics, you.”
That aside, the Internet hordes at least saw the movie. In the one veiled reference to the film’s miserable box-office showing, the four commenters praise whoever’s watching the film for presumably buying it or renting it, unlike the “millions” of people who reportedly made it the most-pirated movie ever.
Comments on the cast: The stars get only brief acknowledgements, and all come in for a bunch of enthusiastic but generic praise. The only standout is Caviezel, who gets what isn’t exactly a compliment: He’s described as having “kind of an ethereal otherworldliness… so you really could believe he was from a different world.”
Inevitable dash of pretension: The filmmakers boast about their creativity in coming up with a monster that’s bioluminescent, so instead of being regularly underlit, which they regard as a lame, cheap monster-movie cheat, it deliberately underlights itself unless it wants to be seen. Then they talk about how Avatar is about to come out, and how their understanding is that Avatar’s “entire world is bioluminescent,” and they pat themselves on the backs over how good it feels to beat out James Cameron at something.
Commentary in a nutshell: “I was constantly amazed by how good everything looked considering how much we had to shoot. I think on average we did at least 30 setups a day. You know, the last movie I was doing, Lucky Number Slevin, our average was 12 setups a day.” “We had one day, do you remember, where we got 72 setups at the lake. And that was before lunch.”