The sound of automatic gunfire, so near we feel it in our chests, snaps Stax from IGN out of his sleep. Everybody laughs.
No, this isn’t a war zone – that’s not the kind of journalism I do. The kind of journalism I do has me standing in the middle of the New Mexico desert discussing tampons with the Hughes Brothers. See, the current set for their post-apocalyptic movie Book of Eli is built on what appears to be some kind of a landfill or something, and elements of trash migrate to the top of the sand, and tampons appear to be very, very common.
The gunfire comes from the weapons wielded by Ray Stevenson and a bunch of raggedy wasteland types, led by Gary Oldman. They’re firing their weapons at a lone structure, a dilapidated old house, that stands alone in all the dust and wind. We’re on set for what turns out to be one of the coolest scenes of Book of Eli, and the Hughes Brothers are happy to give us a sneak peek at it through the magic of pre-viz. Denzel Washington, the titular Eli, is holed up in the house with Mila Kunis and an old couple played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. The bad guys unleash a fearsome fusillade of fire, which is what startled the snoozing Stax. Then comes the coup de grace – Stevenson whips out a bazooka and the camera follows the shell from the weapon across the battlefield right into the side of the house. It looks cool in the pre-viz and much better in the finished film. The Hughes Brothers are consciously trying to evoke some of the more famous long single-take shots in cinema, and they showed the crew Hard Boiled as a reference point – not for the actual shot but for the feel they wanted to get.
With the dust blowing in the wind and the old-fashioned house and Denzel Washington in a duster and the gunfire and the eventual introduction of a very Wild Bunch-esque gatling gun to the scene, you could be excused for thinking Book of Eli is a Western. Warner Bros really wants you to know that it is not a Western, says Albert Hughes. ‘That’s the thing that the studio has been scared of,’ Hughes told us that day. ‘And it’s not a western, because [while it’s] set in the West, but it’s not [set in] that time period. But, at the same time, my brother and I have always been influenced by Sergio Leone and originally wanted to shoot this in Almeria, Spain, where they shot those spaghetti westerns. We tip our hats a lot to those Westerns, but we did the same thing in Dead Presidents, but that’s not a Western .’
When pressed Albert admits there are elements that resemble Westerns. ‘There’s a bar, and it looks like a saloon, and there’s a showdown [in the main street] and stuff like that, but I mean, you get those in cop movies, too.’
Except you won’t confuse Book of Eli with a cop movie – not with Denzel’s Eli spending most of the movie dispatching his enemies with a samurai sword.
But who are these enemies, and why do they want Eli? The film is set post-apocalypse (while we were on the set the Hughes Brothers said they were thinking of keeping the cause of the apocalypse vague, but it feels fairly explicit in the final film), and Denzel is a lone man wandering through the wastes. He has something – that titular book – that Gary Oldman’s Carnegie really wants. I think the ads more or less fill you in on what the book is, but I’ll honor the filmmakers’ on-set wishes to keep it a secret*. So Carnegie wants that book, but who is Carnegie?
That question is what had to be answered before Oldman would take the role. While the basic outline of Carnegie is obvious – he’s a guy who runs a small settlement of post-apocalyptic survivors, and who dispatches his men regularly into the wasteland to find the book that Eli is carrying – the initial script didn’t give Oldman a character he wanted to play. ‘I was intrigued with the script, but it had further to go,’ Oldman told us in the catering tent as the beginnings of a savage New Mexico dust storm whipped against it. ‘I think [Carnegie] was sort of one-dimensional. Let’s put it this way: if they’d cast Jerry Seinfeld, you would have known he was the villain by page 2.’ But beyond being the bad guy, Oldman felt Carnegie remained undefined. ‘It was never really clear who this guy was. Tony Peckham came in and specifically did a rewrite on Carnegie. And I’ve just had a ball. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed myself so much on a movie.’
But what was it that gave Oldman the confidence to sign on even when the script was in flux? The Hughes Brothers and their vision for the film. ‘I just sat down with Allen and I just thought he was fucking great. I really liked him. He had a real take on what he wanted and what he wanted to make.’
That seems to be pretty consistent with the cast and crew. The generally accepted division is that Allen is the guy who works with the actors while Albert is the visual guy, the one who pores over the storyboards and obsesses over the cameras. It’s a combination that seems to work well for them on set, and it serves the actors as well. It’s interesting watching the two brothers as they work the set, two halves of one filmmaking mind.
Not that we got to spend too much time on the set. The weather gods were conspiring against us and the production; what began as a dusty wind slowly turned into a serious dust storm. We were equipped with goggles and Taliban-esque scarves to keep the dust from choking us, but it was no good. The production had set us up in a small tent with a video feed from the camera where we could watch body parts being set alight for a scene following a car explosion, but the floor of that tent slowly got deeper with sand. Sand settled on our shoulders and even in our pockets. I was wearing a jacket that has been stained permanently by the reddish dust. Eventually we moved to the catering tent to eat and do interviews, but even that had to be cut short as the sides of the tent, battered by 40 mile per hour winds, buckled and began thrashing around, threatening to collapse the whole thing. The set visit – and the shoot – were cut short.
But there’s something to be said about those kinds of circumstances. You can’t recreate that on a soundstage, and whatever else the godforsaken area around Albuquerque is good for, it represents a very realistic end of the world. Atmosphere is half the battle, and that dust storm won the battle for Book of Eli.
* Total aside: It’s interesting to visit the set of a movie and be begged to keep something a secret and then see that thing revealed in the trailers and TV spots. It happens almost every single time I’m asked to keep an element secret – on the set of City of Ember we were told to keep the movie’s last scene, a sunrise, a secret, and it was the most used image in the trailers. The identity of Eli’s book is really a no-brainer, but nobody on set would tell us just what it was. Even though you’ve figured it out from the trailers, I’m maintaining that mystique in the piece.