When Underworld first premiered on September 19, 2003, it represented a beginning not just in terms of helping to reinvent the monster movie but also what it signified for those both in front of and behind the camera. For lead Kate Beckinsale, it was the first opportunity she’d have to kick ass as an action heroine, with her career mostly having consisted of period dramas and sweeping romantic films up until that point. For director Len Wiseman, who had only helmed ads for companies like Sony and music videos for artists like Megadeth, it was the opportunity to help bring the story he’d first helped to construct alongside Kevin Grievoux and Danny McBride into reality. At the time that Underworld went into production, no one could have envisioned the sort of cultural juggernaut it would go on to become, with four more movies released over a span of 13 years, as well as a short film and even a video game. There’s even been more recent talk of reviving the Underworld realm by means of a TV show, which Wiseman is set to develop — though when it’ll officially debut on the small screen has yet to be confirmed.
With the first Underworld movie celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, Crumpa had the opportunity to revisit the making of the film with Wiseman himself. Over the course of the interview, which you can read below, the director reflects on the origins of the story, how they found their lead in Beckinsale, the fact that Underworld resembled more of a scrappy student film while they were making it, and how their limited budget led to more than one creative adjustment. He also discusses whether the expanded cut of Underworld is his director’s cut, his favorite memory from filming, when the conversations about a sequel started, the biggest lesson he’s applied to every movie he’s made since, and more.
Crumpa: I would love to go back to before a script was even written, when this was in the beginning story stages. It’s such a different take on the traditional supernatural genre, where the vampires and Lycans come from a common ancestor and there’s all this interesting world-building and lore. As the three of you, you and Kevin and Danny, were sitting around hammering out this story, where did that all spawn from?
LEN WISEMAN: It had multiple levels to it, because where it actually spawned from, the initial kickoff, was a meeting that I had taken at Dimension. I had done a few music videos and based off of the music video reel, I had a meeting with them, and they pitched me a lot of things that they were looking to do, and one of the things that they were interested in was developing a werewolf franchise. And I didn’t know what to do with that. I wasn’t necessarily even a fan of werewolves in general. But I really wanted to make a movie at the same time, and so it was an opportunity.
So it started to just develop as an interesting take on a werewolf movie, trying to find something new in that. What’s a new type of opponent for a werewolf? We’ve seen the sheriff, we’ve seen the local town, and it just evolved into us all talking about, « What if the opponent was the vampire? » It hadn’t really been tackled since the forties or fifties. So that’s what initiated the beginning of it. Vampires against werewolves, and then [we] developed a love story within that. You treat it like it’s its own comic book world of Godfather or Romeo and Juliet, the battling houses and families.
We put it together, pitched it back to Dimension. They were not interested. And rightly so, they have their vampire franchise already and were looking for something just strictly werewolf-based, but it [hit] a rhythm that we found very interesting, and we developed it further. Our agent at the time said, “I think this is a really clever idea and let’s continue to develop it as that idea that you are putting together, and we’ll take it out.” So that’s what we did, and I spent about six months or so doing elaborate artwork for it. We started pitching the script around and got a lot of attention from it, which was great. A lot of the big studios were taking all these meetings. It was exciting, and we got quite a few offers to buy the script — as long as I didn’t direct, because I hadn’t directed a movie before.
WISEMAN: And that was known. I’d been up for pitching on other movies prior to that and always hit the same wall of “You haven’t directed a movie yet.” This was developing with the understanding of, “OK, we’re gonna take a shot, let’s take close to a year off and develop something, and if it’s my own, then they have to let me direct it.” But that was tough, because there were a lot of offers, and we didn’t have a lot of money. When some of the bigger offers came in to buy the script, I just couldn’t do it, because I’d be in the same kind of situation and I really wanted to direct this one.
I was directing a music video for a soundtrack to a movie that Lakeshore Records was a part of, and it was a Rufus Wainwright video. That representative, he was on set, and we just got along and sparked up a friendship, and he said, have you ever thought about directing a movie? [Laughs] I said, « Man, since I was about 12, that’s about all I’ve been focusing on. … In fact, I have this project and this art that we’ve been going around with.” He brought me in to pitch it to Lakeshore, and there’s the story.
People don’t think of this franchise without thinking about Kate [Beckinsale] as Selene. This role was a change of pace from the sorts of parts she had been taking at that point in her career. In terms of casting, finding your lead, what was that process like?
WISEMAN: That’s also what really hit at that time. It was very new for her. She hadn’t done anything like that before. It created a different kind of film, because you don’t associate her with [being] an action star, and so that was new and exciting. She brought so much to that character, and it was a pretty quick process. I remember being surprised that she liked the script because it was not at all something that she had done before, and it just all kind of worked together at the same time. I think she was looking to branch out and do something in that space, and we were looking for somebody new, and it just came together fairly fast.
This was your first time directing a film. It was Kate’s first time in a role like this. But this was the first movie for a lot of people just from the production standpoint.
WISEMAN: It was. Our production designer, and our second unit director, and stunt coordinators. A lot of that team — it’s been so long, but I remember there was an excitement of making [what] essentially felt like a student film. It’s a student film where they’ve given us money, [but] it’s not a lot of money. The script was actually written much bigger, and I had never been through the process of “OK, now here’s a budget, and here’s what that budget’s schedule breakdown is. Here’s how many days that can afford. » But because we had this group of hungry crew that were… there were a lot of people, not necessarily that hadn’t worked on movies before, but not in that position, and so they were getting a chance to step up. That was really enjoyable, because there’s an excitement — not just in “This feels like a new story and idea, but it’s the first time that we get to be in this position.”
How often did the budget affect decisions in terms of filming, whether with timing or maybe scaling back a scene or an effect that you were intending to do?
WISEMAN: Oh, I remember a day — and this would happen often, we would prep, and whether it’s a fight that has been choreographed or a stunt sequence, the time dictates everything, right? It was a scene where Selene shoots through the floor, drops, and falls to the floor. There was a whole storyboarded sequence, and it was prepped, to continue that action sequence. We had squibs that were all in the wall, in the next hallway, and this other section that was ready to be pyro’d and all the effects were rigged — and we just didn’t have time and on that kind of budget, it’s not like we’re gonna come back, it just goes away. It was also a learning curve for me. We didn’t actually have an official second unit, nor did we have even an insert unit.
I had done music videos and commercials before — especially working on props, [you’re] much more aware of an insert unit [that] will come in and do the real detail work of the bullets that are being picked up or inserts of a gun. We didn’t have that, so I was trying to make it through my day doing the action sequences. But then also, we needed a close-up of the camera on the ground that Selene picks up, or just a bullet that hits the ground and bounces off. So I started taking a camera operator or somebody, [and] said, « You’re now doing the insert stuff. » There’s a lot of upping the jobs and the titles as we’re going.
It was tough because we were green-lit at $16 million. I remember it at a time when we were going around through a lot of the other studios, they had read the script as a $50 or $60 million movie. As you’re coming up, you hear the stories of the Wachowskis going from Bound and then what the budget was on Matrix. You don’t know where you’re gonna fall. I remember, for a time, thinking, “OK, this will be a $50 million movie. That’s incredible,” and the reality is I hadn’t directed a movie. If you were gonna do it — and they really trusted me, not to say that [they didn’t] — it was $16 million, and that was a lot to get through for an action film.
Do you remember a scene in particular being just the absolute toughest to shoot, either because you were on a time crunch, the budget was feeling tight, you just couldn’t get it in one take, or something else that was more troublesome?
WISEMAN: I do, and I love him to death, and we put him through so much prosthetics, but the time that it took Bill Nighy to get in the full mummified makeup and how intricate that was… was something that, at that time, I was not even prepared for. But we had to just shoot around as much as we could until he was ready. It took about six or seven hours in makeup. And so that was a scramble of getting the shots that you have planned, and then the reality is we’ve got to get these angles and use the same dolly that we did for those.
There’s a part of that that hasn’t really changed much in my career. You always are doing that at the end of the day. But at that time, I was like, “No, I’ve got these storyboards, I’ve got everything mapped in my head. These are the shots that we need.” You start going through and go, “OK, but what do I absolutely need to tell the story?” It’s a kind of argument you have with yourself about things you’re so passionate about, but then what’s most important? What I started doing is, if it’s the most exciting moments, production value shots, I would do that as the first thing of the day, because there’s no version of doing that at the end of the day when things are crazy.
That’s one that I remember, but yes, there were many. There’s a lot of stuff that… when I watch the movie, I don’t know if directors ever forget the plan that they had, or the shots that they were gonna do, or the scene that they had to drop, and that one has quite a few of them.
The extended cut of Underworld isn’t a director’s cut, even though there are scenes that were put back in, some things that were cut [from the theatrical release] mostly for pacing. Would you ever release a director’s cut of this movie?
WISEMAN: Now, I wouldn’t, because [of] what we’ve just been talking about; there is no other footage that exists to do that other than the storyboards that are on my shelf. The extended cut was, in essence, a director’s cut in my mind. It was a chance to have… a lot of it was the world that we did cut for pacing. The part that I really was very interested in was in the first film, which we always thought was gonna be one movie, but we did map out a whole origin story for it. A lot of that was the backstory between Lucian and Sonya that originally was cut shorter. [I would] put in more of that story, which is interesting because that then became a basis of what let us go further, and we had the genetic memories in the backstory that led to Underworld 3. But yeah, I think the extended cut is — if you just squint, it also says director’s cut. [Laughs]
You can talk about days that were harder, but I’m sure you have so many great memories from being on set and making this movie.
WISEMAN: I do. When I went to London and I was casting, and we were looking for Victor, I’m seeing a lot of the Emperors from Star Wars and all these really great character actors that I love. I didn’t know Bill Nighy. I’m behind the camera, I’m doing the audition, and I just had chills. I remember telling the studio, “I have found this guy that people are going to be so impressed with, and his name is Bill Nighy.” I thought I had discovered him, that’s how naive I was.
Brief naivete aside, you’re making this movie, and everybody is really giving it their all and there’s so much enthusiasm and great energy around the project. At what point did you start to think, “We really have something here”?
WISEMAN: You know what? The real truth is, I didn’t, because it did feel like it was a lower-budget movie that wasn’t going to compete with the genre at that scale and everything at the time of what was out there. I honestly remember thinking, “If this does really well and people notice it, if this goes straight to video, but they think it’s cool, maybe it’ll find an audience.” But I truly was not expecting it to.
We were making it independently. Screen Gems didn’t come on until I cut a reel together about halfway through the shoot, so we didn’t have a distributor yet. Once Screen Gems got involved, I got a better sense then, but I started seeing the billboards and thought “Wow, this is official. This is actually a real movie.” I’d see Underworld on billboards and buses, the same as Daredevil at the time, and it was awesome but just shocking to me as well. I remember being like, “OK, that’s very, that’s so rewarding and great.” But at the same time, I thought, “It’s not anywhere near the size of Daredevil.” I wasn’t thinking this was going to necessarily hit. I wanted it to, but I was pleasantly surprised by it.
How early after the release were there talks of a sequel, or were those conversations happening before the movie even premiered?
WISEMAN: Those talks started to happen before the movie premiered. At least an interest of, « Hey, if this does well, do you guys have an idea of where that would go? » But the real energy behind it was [that] it had a good opening weekend, so that happened pretty immediately after, at least the conversations. We had mapped out this mythology that really was about four hours worth of movie at that time. The second film, we moved that over, and the third film jumped back to the origin story. With a lot of movies, if people you’re working with like it, there’s a conversation about, “Hey, if this goes well, do you have an idea in mind?” But absolutely, after opening weekend is when the conversations were real. Of course, that changes once you actually get in and start to write the script, but there was absolutely a blueprint that we had already been mapping out for our own knowledge. “Where would these characters go? Where have they been?”
What’s the biggest lesson that you took from making this movie that you’ve brought to every project since?
WISEMAN: One of the biggest things for me, personally, [is] Underworld was really a school in creating a bubble with your actors and being more free to explore what the scene is. I came from a drawing background, storyboards, props building, and I was so specific about even just movement and blocking and I would do what actors can’t stand, going out and kind of walking through. “Here’s where you say this line and then pick up the gun here, and then you go over here.” That I have really changed. I’ll also admit that there’s a nervousness with established actors if you haven’t directed a movie — and now, I find, it’s your creative bubble. It’s the only group on the production that is not stressed out about time. They’re not [focused on] the schedule, they’re just focused on the characters and the story.
I find that as more of an excitement now, because so much of making a movie has a lot of pressure and obstacles. Now, it’s the equivalent of walking onto the set first thing in the morning with your coffee, and somebody comes up and punches you in the nose and says, “OK, now get to work” because there are always things that come up, every start of every day. There’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of stress, and the actors are only concerned about the creative part of the movie that you’re making. So that’s changed for me. At first, I was finding my way. It all depends on the actor too. Some actors are like, “OK, show me exactly what you want me to do, and I will do that,” but I used to lead with it because I thought, “This is all my responsibility, every movement of everything in this movie,” because I was young and that’s how I did a music video.
Looking back, what do you think about most often with regard to the legacy of this movie?
WISEMAN: I love the love for it. It’s always gratifying. With everything that I’ve done, there’s a different kind of feeling to an Underworld fan that is very rewarding for me, because it’s something that I just created from scratch and didn’t know what it was going to become. The continued love for it is really fantastic. I look back now, and, OK, it’s dated now, it’s of an era. I can look at what I would have done differently, but then I step back and think, that really resonated with people, and that’s still fun.