Sitting alone in a room with Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor is an incredible thing. The two filmmakers, credited in their own movies as “Neveldine/Taylor,” are supremely creative cats, riffing off of one another constantly as they fielded my battery of questions about Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which hits theaters tomorrow. Just during our brief 15 minutes together, I watched as they ping-ponged ideas back and forth, generating at least two on-the-spot movie pitches along with an unusual concept for staging a Neveldine/Taylor film festival.
All of it rooted in our chat about Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. This is a redemptive moment for the Nic Cage-starring, comic book-adapted franchise that Sony first brought to theaters in 2007. Where the previous effort offered a generally mild take on the flaming skull-headed vigilante anti-hero, Spirit of Vengeance is instead fueled by the same creative juices that birthed two Crank movies into the world. It’s a non-stop assault on the senses, but a carefully composed one. The two filmmakers pair perfectly with Cage’s unique sensibilities, as they were more than happy to talk about during our chat.
“You just collaborate with him,” Neveldine said of his and Taylor’s work with the actor on set. “We told him what we want this film to look like, where we want to go with it. He loved the idea, he loved our vision of it, and he’s as nuts as we are.”
While Cage doesn’t shy away in Spirit of Vengeance from the sorts of “crazy” moments that make him such a pop culture icon, working with him behind the scenes gave the two filmmakers a new perspective on his work. Neveldine is full of praise for Cage, not just for his commitment to the role but also for the amount of study he brings with him to the set.
“He really wants to dive into these characters. We’re all online studying insects and tribal dancing and how does Ghost Rider move. As far as Johnny Blaze, he’s a guy dealing with demons and addiction. It’s like the worst hangover after you’re the Ghost Rider,” Neveldine explained. “He really has this all thought out. He wanted to be that over-the-top at those times.”
It’s hard not to talk about the more intense Cage moments without zeroing in on a particular scene that occurs during the first half of the new movie. Johnny Blaze terrorizes a club owner as he pumps him for information, delivering a career-high “crazy” performance for Cage as he tries to keep his literal inner demon contained. He’s shouting and screaming as his face is contorting, both in real life and with some help from the movie’s talented visual effects team. It’s a moment that sticks with you after you see it, after the movie, and one that Cage fans will certainly be referring to as one of the greats.
The directors both felt it right there in that moment as well, as Neveldine told me. “When he’s transforming at the club, that’s a brilliant scene! It’s so nuanced and so amazing; he really thought everything through.”
“He wanted to shoot the moment he got to the set [that day,” Neveldine continued. “He was just boiling. It was amazing. So we got shit ready fast and started rolling the camera. For us, it was probably one of the greatest moments, cinematically, of our lives, just being on the set. It was so phenomenal. We were like ‘This is really fucking happening in front of us right now!'”
For Taylor, that sort of attitude speaks to the enthusiasm that the star actor brings to all of his work. “Nic’s a guy who’s done a lot of movies, he’s been around a long time, and I think people underestimate how passionate he really is. I think… he needs to feel secure. Whether it’s the directors or all the creative people around him, he wants to make sure they’re as passionate as he is and that this isn’t just a job. We’re not just taking a paycheck and doing a job. If he knows you’re as passionate as he is, you’re inviting him to be that creative– wow. You’ve got an unstoppable death weapon.”
Cage’s potential as this “unstoppable death weapon” is working behind the scenes as well. In the first Ghost Rider movie, a stunt double wore the costume when Johnny’s skull-headed alter-ego emerged. In Spirit of Vengeance it was all Cage, all the time. Not only does this bring an added level of nuance to his own performance, it also influenced the actors around him. Why? Cage would show up to the set on his Ghost Rider days with his face fully decked out in creepy makeup, an aspect of his performance that fans will get to see when the eventual Blu-ray is released.
“We really wanted people to see that performance, because it’s amazing,” Taylor told me. “So we want to make sure that’s on the Blu-ray.” Neveldine added, “He put so much damn effort into it that people have to see it. He really worked his ass off just playing the Ghost Rider. Just that part of the movie. We want people to see how he prepared for it, how he did it and what he put into it.”
It’s wild to hear talk like this coming from a pair of filmmakers who will freely admit that they “don’t like exposition.” Neveldine and Taylor excel at delivering action, but their favorite moments on Spirit of Vengeance came from what Taylor calls “the Nic days.”
“Ironically, shooting action, which we do a lot of, can be kind of tedious and boring. It’s not as fun to shoot as [to see on screen]. You’ve got that 10 seconds where you’re like, ‘Oh shit! I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die! Ok, cut.’ And then you wait another two hours to get set up [for the next shot],” he said. “That stuff’s cool, but the biggest rush we had were the Nic days when we knew… we were gonna get to be that close to a performance that you know is going live on on YouTube forever. That was a rush.”
All of this isn’t to say that Spirit of Vengeance is short on action. The movie features some tremendous set pieces, including one in particular involving a gigantic construction vehicle that Ghost Rider takes control of and twists into a demonic bad guy-masher from Hell.
“It’s a Bagger 288,” Neveldine tells me. “It’s a strip-miner that actually cuts into mountains and takes all of the dirt and rocks that it wants to take, sucks it out and sends it away on conveyor belt.”
“That’s a real thing. We found that up there in the middle of nowhere,” Taylor chimed in. “It’s one of those things that you look at and you’re like, ‘Is that real? Is that a joke? Really?’ It’s like a Sawzall that goes through mountains. Yeah we want that in the movie.”
It turns out that the scene as it was originally envisioned was a little bit different. There was no Bagger 288. Neveldine and Taylor hadn’t even heard of such a thing when they wrote out the screenplay. “In the script, it was a wrecking ball,” Taylor revealed. “Which would’ve been kinda cool. It was supposed to be the ‘Hellcrane scene.’ It’s like a wrecking ball that’s on fire and the Ghost Rider is blowing up a bunch of stuff.”
The two wanted to go bigger though. That’s when they were approached by a production designer with the picture of a Bagger 288. There was one available for the crew to use in Romania. “”We saw it and it looked like it was left there basically for us,” Taylor continued. “It was this giant, rusted out hulk with chains hanging off of it. It looked like Ghost Rider. We didn’t even know if the thing would work, but sure enough, you turn the key and it fired right up. So we went up there and we shot in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere, and we shot this real thing.”
The most amazing thing you walk away with after watching Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is the realization that you’ve just seen PG-13 rated movie. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of gruesome, fiery death and profanity. As Neveldine told me, it’s all about pushing the limits. “”The trick is, we learned that you can burn up and decay 250 bodies, but as long as you don’t see any blood — really — you can get away with it.”
It’s impressive how much the two manage to “get away with,” but Taylor admitted that it would be nice to return to the Ghost Rider mythology with something more specifically directed to the R-rated audience. “It would be great to develop it into an R [for a sequel] and do it like its own thing again,” he said. “The first movie is its own thing, Spirit of Vengeance is its own thing… let’s even create another version, with Nic, of Ghost Rider and have fun with it, do an R-rated version. It would be great. If there’s an audience for it, fuck yeah. We’d love to do a rated R version.”
The line of thinking led me to question the directors on their unique filmmaking style. I wanted to know, where does it come from? It’s a tough question to ask of any creative: why is the work that you do so identifiably yours? The resulting back-and-forth between the two I think speaks to their style better than any thought-out response could.
“Panic and desperation,” Taylor said.
“Psychosis,” Neveldine responded.
Back to Taylor. “We have no money, it’s freezing cold, all the cameras broke and we lost the script and don’t know what the hell to do.”
Then to Neveldine. “It might be something to do with our ADD and our impatience. We want to just knock things out and make things happen fast, and we don’t like exposition.”
And so on. “We get super easily bored.”
“Yeah. We want people to be right in the moment, in the movie with us. That’s how you feel in Gamer and Crank and a little bit this movie. You’re just right there with the guys.”
“I mean maybe it’s to a fault,” Taylor reflected. “When we watch Crank now– like, to me, Crank seems boring. To me that movie is just loooooong, boring conversations. The movie seems to go so slow. I just want to fast-forward through that movie. And that’s Crank. So we might be our own worst enemy in terms of [us being] so bored by everything all the time that we’re always cutting and going faster. It’s kinda become our thing. We’re always talking about how on the PlayStation 3 you can watch a movie at 1.5x speed with sound. It’s perfect.”
“That’s how I watch all the DGA and WGA screeners every year. I just watch ’em on 1.5x,” Neveldine chimed in, completely serious.
“So an hour and a half movie you can watch in 60 minutes. That, to us, is perfect. If we could break the 60-minute barrier and actually come out with a one-hour feature film, that’d be perfect for us.”
Hearing this, the answer seems obvious to me. I suggest shooting a movie at 1.5x speed. Taylor thinks on it. “We could do a Crank film festival. They stitched the two Kill Bill movies together and made one movie. We could do that with Crank, but instead of editing any scenes out, we could just play it at 1.5x.”
The two throw some times and numbers back and forth, and Neveldine nods in agreement. “Wow, that’d be a blast.”
They’re not ready to talk about what’s going to come next, though both confirm that Crank 3 “will happen.” As is the case with most filmmakers as they mentally prepare themselves for the wide release of a feature film that they’re poured so much time, energy and passion into, they’re just focused right now on getting the movie into theatres.
“If we come out this weekend and the movie does really well, I’m sure we’ll get a lot of calls. Maybe we’re doing Expendables 10 or something like that,” Taylor told me. “If the movie bombs? It’s straight to porn. There’s always options. There’s always options.”
(Check back tomorrow for a review of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance)