Here in the Gloucestershire countryside, Bryan Singer is surrounded by knights in shining armour as he shoots Jack the Giant Slayer, a reimagining of the classic legend of Jack and the Beanstalk crossed with the even earlier tale Jack the Giant Killer. But, alas, no giants are to be found — they will all be computer generated.
The melding of real-life locations, live actors, CGI characters and 3D was the challenge for Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Superman Returns) this time around. He hasn't had a film in theatres since the World War II movie Valkyrie, which came out in 2008, and much of his time since has been spent bringing this action-y fairy tale to life.
Starring Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) as a heroic young farmer who leads a pack of knights to rescue a kidnapped princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) from those evil giants, Jack the Giant Slayer was shot in 3D using the latest motion-capture technology.
The film co-stars Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, and Bill Nighy and John Kassir as Fallon, a colossal two-headed giant.
Were you with this project from the beginning?
"No, the film's concept was developed years ago with David Dobkin and Darren Lemke, who both wrote the script. I then read it and helped rewrite some sections when I was asked to come onboard in 2010. Of course, the original folk story of Jack the Giant Slayer dates from the 1700s, and it was about this guy who kills giants quite brutally, and then sends their heads back to King Arthur. Then Jack and the Beanstalk came about a hundred years later, and that's a fairy tale about the plight of a farmer who steals the goose that lays the golden eggs.... This film is an amalgamation of the two legends."
What was it about the concept that appealed to you?
"I liked the fairy tale aspect of it, which was why I was drawn to it originally. The film has also given me the chance to work with some of the latest motion-performance technology, which I hadn't worked with yet."
Did you make a lot of changes to the script?
"The characters were all there, I just rearranged them a bit. I brought in a lot more of the giants' history, and made the journey to their land clearer so it made more sense. I made the giants a bit darker, scarier. We ended up with something quite different from how it started out; so yes, I made a lot of changes."
What can people expect from the Bryan Singer vision of the movie?
"It's somewhat of a romantic fairy tale; it takes itself quite seriously, but with a slight wink at the audience. It's not quite Princess Bride, and it's certainly not a parody, but there is a whimsical charm to it. Jack is a fairy tale set in a mythical place in England, with princesses, kings and knights. We have been careful not to anchor the film in any specific period in history."
How was the first day working with the 3D camera?
"I found it interesting. You know, it does change the way you shoot a little bit; you have to consider the different-sized lenses and the position of your camera. We've had some success with it, and I feel good about the 3D look of the film. Once you get used to working in 3D it doesn't pose any real problems."
I've heard it is a much slower process to shoot in 3D.
"Yeah, it is a little slower, but not as much as you would imagine. I tried to learn as much as I could before going into it, both in terms of performance motion-capture and 3D. Before I started filming Jack the Giant Slayer, I was lucky enough to spend some time on the set of Hugo with Martin Scorsese, and I observed a bit of that. That was a good experience to watch. James Cameron was also very helpful, and I even hired some folks who worked on Avatar to work on this production."
And what about the world of the giants?
"We used a lot of visual effects. When you have characters that are over 25 feet tall, you can't really build sets to accommodate them. They would end up 200 to 300 feet, and no sound stage in the world would be big enough to accommodate that size of set. You're compelled to build virtual sets. Some parts of the world of the giants are very real and grounded in reality, such as the forests, but some are ultimately quite large and fantastic."
I imagine an adventure film like this will be packed with plenty of action scenes.
"They mostly involve the giants. We pre-captured the actors, and then on the set we did something called SimulCam, where we can project the actual giant into the scene as I'm shooting it. [So] we can put the giant into the live space so I can see what it would look like on camera. The actors, unfortunately, have to act in front of a tennis ball, but with this technology I get to see what the giants looked like in the scene."
What will the giants look like?
"Well they won't look like the actors, but the actors drive the performance. They're a mixture of organics and they're kind of crafted from earth, so there is a lot of nature in the design of them. The main giant is two-headed, but he is the only one — they each have their own distinct features."
Were they inspired by any early childhood nightmares or experiences?
"Probably from Ray Harryhausen and the larger-than-life creatures I saw in those early stop-motion films. I grew up with those movies, so in a way you could say this is my tribute to them."
Mark Pilkington is a freelance writer based in London, England.