When you make a big summer effects movie, you don’t have the luxury of taking a couple of weeks off before the premiere. You’re likely to be spending 12 to 15 hours a day working in the editing room, supervising visual effects or tweaking the sound mix. It was the last of these tasks that Rob Cohen was engrossed in when myself, Ryan Rotten from Shock Til You Drop and Eric Moro from IGN dropped by to spend a little quality time talking about The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Cohen has earned a certain amount of loyalty from me with the incredibly hyper-goofy Stealth – any film that has Jamie Foxx crashing his plane into the side of a mountain in super slomo is a film that I can heartily endorse – and having him in the director’s chair for the third Mummy movie feels sort of right. He’s taking the franchise in a whole new direction this time, as the only Imhotep to be found in the film is a Shanghai nightclub owned by John Hannah’s character (think Club Obiwan in Temple of Doom and you’ve pretty much got it down pat). This installment also leaps ahead a whole bunch of years to 1946, and finds the still remarkably youthful Rick O’Connell [Brendan Fraser] and a woman claiming to be Evelyn (Rachel Weisz is gone, replaced by Maria Bello) retired after having some unseen spy adventures during World War II. But their government needs them back for One Last Mission, and so they head to Shanghai, unaware that their son Alex [Luke Ford] has dropped out of school and is in China himself, getting mixed up in the kind of archeological adventures that get henchmen killed by booby traps (a glorious moment in the footage I saw that day had a whole bunch of coolies taking it hard from thousand year old traps and young Alex O’Connell gets soothed by an old friend telling him they all knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the job. I love the idea that the Mummy films take place in an alternate universe where archeology is a well known adventure profession). Hijinks and CGI ensue.
Cohen was holed up in Santa Monica’s Todd-AO facility, having just come from a meeting in Venice (California, not Italy), where he had been approving effects shots – with the movie hitting in just a couple of weeks there were still 150 plus out of a thousand to finish. I had been to a couple of editing bays before, but never to a sound mixing stage. Editing bays tend to be smaller, office-like environments, but the sound mix stage contains a real, giant movie screen, and banks of consoles, all of which look like they belong in NASA. Cohen’s sound mix stage also contained about eight Oscars, if you rounded up the awards given to all the folks working there at the moment.
Watching the mix happen was pretty incredible – we’d see an entire scene run with just one layer of sound (for instance we saw a fight scene with just the breathing and gasping playing), then another, then another, and then we’d hear the layers being put together to create the entire tapestry. Sound is something that we take for granted in movies these days, but it’s one of the most important elements in the creation of cinematic reality – we can accept a heavily pixellated monster better if the sounds of its footfalls feel real.
We didn’t get to see any big CGI moments (although I was surprised to learn that a parked cargo plane in one scene was computer generated), but we did get to see a couple of scenes from the first twenty minutes of the movie that set the tone pretty well. We saw a scuffle at Imhoteps when young Alex makes moves on the wrong girl, and we saw Rick and Evelyn at home, two bored people trying not to show how excited they are to be invited in for One Last Mission. But most interestingly, we saw a lengthy scene where Alex, working away from the prying eyes of his parents, discovers the tomb of China’s first emperor [Jet Li!], which is guarded not only by mechanical crossbows, acid powder and flying buzzsaws but also a smokin’ hot ninjette played by Isabelle Leong. The scene is filled with good old fashioned adventure thrills, and the less than ten minutes I saw felt more like an Indiana Jones adventure than the entirety of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did.
“A reporter recently said to me that the new Indiana Jones film went toward the direction of the Mummy franchise,” Cohen said. “That’s funny, because I’ve gone more towards the direction of Indiana Jones.”
Of course one of the big elements that Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have in common is that the lead hero has himself a mostly-grown son. Say what you will about this film, but it’s unlikely that the movie went into production with anyone knowing that Shia LaBeouf would be playing Indy Jr. So how does Tomb of the Dragon Emperor set itself apart from Spielberg’s film? Cohen doesn’t mince any words.
“First of all, the son is not a caricature,” said Cohen. He explained that Alex is “a real identifiable kid who found a diary in the stacks and got financed and found the tomb. Steven was making a very extreme character out of Shia. Whenever you bring someone in on a Harley doing Marlon Brando, you’re not taking off on this level. I think the rapprochement here is totally emotional. It’s a very different intent. It’s ironic because I did see [Crystal Skull] and there are similarities. But we didn’t know what they were doing at the time. I think you’ll see our treatment is different in tone and casting. Luke is 6-foot-3, an inch and a half taller than Brendan.”
An older Alex isn’t the only personnel change in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Weisz was offered the role of Evelyn, but Cohen says she opted out. “I got a call from Rachel’s agent who said, ‘She’s not playing the mother of a 21-year-old and she’s not going to China.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well I guess she’s not doing the movie. I told the studio I’m not changing the design of movie. This is a young bull/old bull conflict and Alex is in every major action scene playing a major part. I don’t want to have a 16-year-old kid with a gun in his hand, it’s going to look ridiculous.”
With the support of the studio, Cohen went looking for replacements, not limiting himself to English actresses. “I opened it up to American actresses because I think it’s easier to learn an accent. I’ve always admired Maria for her ballsiness,” he said. “I sent the script to her agent I got a call, she wanted to meet and we had a drink. I asked her why she was interested in this. She said, ‘I’ll tell you, when I saw Indiana Jones, the first one, all of my girlfriends wanted to be Karen Allen, but I wanted to be Harrison Ford.’ I said, ‘You’re so going to screen test.’ She took a few weeks to get her English accent going, I made her a brunette, screen tested her with Brendan and when he saw it, he said, ‘It would be an honor to work with her.'”
Cohen had a lot of studio support on this one, in fact. He demanded that he shoot on location, in China, and Universal gave him the okay. “There are no green screen sets in this movie,” he boasted. “I went all over China – to the deserts north of Beijing. The truth is, I had a list of ten commandments when I went in for the first meeting. One of them was that we were going to shoot all location stuff in China. We went to Western China near the Kazakhstan border then down to Hengdian then we wound up at the Shanghai studios where we had a basic standing set of The Bund, then we expanded it for this chase featuring a chariot drawn by four bronze horses.”
Another of his commandments? Cultural sensitivity, believe it or not. “There would be no bad cultural jokes goofing on the Chinese or the Chinese culture – which was in the script when I got it. When they sent me the script, I had lived in China in my past when I did Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, I have a home in Indonesia, I’m through Asia all of the time. I’m a practicing Buddhist. I just have a love for all of this. And I said to them, if you want a treatment of China where the Chinese are kind of funny, I’m not your guy. I’m going to do a movie that follows a true love of Chinese culture. So, Stephen Sommers, Sean Daniel and Jim Jacks – the producers – wanted me to make my movie. The studio was 100% supportive of that.”
Cohen also wanted to go bigger than what was in the script. “I was going to do a battle sequence in the end that wasn’t in the script in which it would be Jet Li [playing the titular Dragon Emperor] bringing the terracotta army back to life, but still terracotta. Michelle Yeoh and Maria would bring back all of the people who died in the foundation building the Great Wall of China. Because this Emperor started the great Northern Wall project and anyone who was his enemy, or any conquered soldier…they were worked to death building the wall. They found a guy [his skeleton, I assume] who was a lawyer at the time, they found him with the scrolls of 27 volumes of legal cases of the time and the punishment for almost anything – other than being cut in half, or beheaded, or drawn and quartered – it just said ‘Wall.'”
His additions to the script didn’t end there. He introduced new monsters, as well. “The Yeti was in the script,” he said, but “the three-headed dragon was not, nor was the Foo dog, but I had been developing Sinbad with Keanu Reeves and I had become interested in the character that was going to be Jet – the villain in that was going to be a shape-shifter. So, I put it in here. Once he reaches the pool of eternal life at Shangri-La, he could now change form when he needed to. When he gets back to raise the army, he turns himself into a three-headed dragon so he could fly out of the Himalayas, not hike. Then he turns himself into the temple guardian dogs and can just cross the battlefield. You get the opportunity in a movie like this that you can’t do in Indiana Jones because in Indiana Jones even when it got more slapstick, it still had to be in the world. This is a magical world and when you start talking about the undead, you may as well go all the way. Take your opportunities and make it something unforgettable.”
Cohen is very aware of what happens to franchises – “I’ve watched all of my franchises trashed out of existence by guys like Neil Moritz, the producer. It hurts. It hurts when you see something like Fast and the Furious or XXX and you see what they do. It’s very disappointing.” – so he’s pretty happy to have been given so much trust by Stephen Sommers, who seems to have been in touch with Cohen only a few times over the course of the making of the film. And if given a shot at another Mummy, Cohen seems like he’d be happy to take it,although he probably wouldn’t be returning to the Dragon Emperor in The Mummy 4: “I don’t know about [revisiting] this mythology, but I had such a good time with this cast, Brendan and Jet, I would bring Jet back in 1950 as another guy. As a hero this time, with Brendan. And I’ve got an idea of where it could take place and what it could do, but it’s overstepping, because it’s not my franchise and this hasn’t been a hit. At this budget, it has to be a big hit.”