Previewing “PRIEST”: Exclusive Pics, Plus Comments

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Originally published at on April 22, 2011

New Yorkers got an early taste of Screen Gems’ upcoming PRIEST this past Tuesday, when FANGORIA unveiled advance 3D footage and the animated prologue from the May 13 release. Director Scott Stewart and actor Paul Bettany (LEGION, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, THE TOURIST) unveiled the clips at the AMC Lincoln Square and answered questions after the screening. Based on the Min-Woo Hyung comic-book series, the action/SF/horror flick follows a warrior Priest (Bettany) hunting the vampires who have kidnapped his niece (Lily Collins).

LEGION helmer Stewart became involved with the project after the studio called specifically for him. “I read the script that Cory Goodman had written,” he recalls. “That led me to the graphic novel. It was just a really cool world. It felt like a really different take on vampires. We’ve seen a lot of vampires lately—sparkly vampires. I really wasn’t so interested in that. This was something more like a war film, an after-the-war film. It was also a sci-fi Western, and I’m a big fan of Westerns. It was a chance to take a lot of familiar ingredients and make a new recipe out of them.”

Bettany jumped at the chance to work with the director again after their previous collaboration. “I’m a big fan of Scott’s,” the actor says. “We made a movie before [LEGION] for very little money. And he was given a chance to make a movie with me and three times the budget. And I thought, ‘Wow!’ To be able to see Scott really realize his vision on screen and have some really great paints and a much broader canvas! That was a really exciting idea for me.”

The British thespian acknowledges what attracted him to the title role. “I love the part,” Bettany says. “The stoic, the classical tight-lipped man of few words. I’m British, so I start from a butch deficiency. Any idea to be that tough guy was attractive to me. I haven’t had so much fun making a movie ever in my whole life. I would cut people and go, ‘More blood!’ Scott would go, ‘More blood!’ They would dutifully bring more blood on set for us. It was so much fun.” 

Stewart recognized the difficulties in adapting the open-ended comics series into a feature-length film. “When I came onto the project, there was a script written,” he says. “The way I looked at it, I read the script and read the graphic novels. There are 16 books for people who are fans, each one ending with a cliffhanger and ‘stay tuned’ for the next book. You’ll see the story progress this way. Book 16 ends with a promise of book 17; that was several years ago. Hyung never wrote any more and just stopped. After 16 books, he found something else to do.”

With the help of screenwriter Goodman, the filmmaker found ways to translate the missing pages of the comic onto the movie screen. “Goodman had taken the story that was set in the Old West,” Stewart says. “He broadened it into the future and played the story out. We had Hyung come out from Korea, and he read a translation of the script. He looked at all the stuff that we were doing in preproduction. He said, ‘I was thinking about taking the story into this direction.’ It’s really similar to where we went with it. It inspired him enough to go back and write another story, PRIEST: PURGATORY, which Tokyopop released. I see the movie as a sequel, in a way, to the graphic novel. I looked at his images and tried to put as many of those in the film as I could. This was a collaboration between Hyung, Goodman and myself, and we pushed the film more into science fiction.”

Though his character had already been established, Bettany still needed to create a persona all his own. “Scott gave me all the comics,” the actor says. “They’re unspeakably beautiful, but they’re not very much about what we were trying to do. I was much more focused on the things [I loved] when I was a kid. I was shouted at by my dad for staying in and wasting a good part of the day watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I always wanted to be that guy when I was a boy. That was the person I was interested in bringing to the screen; someone who is good at hurting people. Now the war is over, and what does he do? What world is there left for him? He is rendered useless for normal life. Suddenly, there are circumstances that come about where he is important again.”  

Stewart has high praise for his ensemble cast, including STAR TREK’s Karl Urban (as the villain of the piece), BLIND SIDE co-star and soon-to-be Snow White actress Collins and, particularly, NIKITA heroine Maggie Q. “I auditioned very talented actresses for that role,” the director reveals. “A lot of very recognizable people came in wearing catsuits, boots and looking sexy. Maggie comes in wearing a ratty old Beastie Boys T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, with a big Diet Coke in her hand. She goes, ‘I don’t think I dressed right for this.’ She read, and I knew she’s Priestess. She’s tiny, but she can jump and kick your head off. She’s just the coolest person in the world. She commands the screen when she shows up.”

In order to create his alternate world, Stewart digitally removed the mountains and deserts from the locations where they filmed to create a feeling of vaster vistas. Though PRIEST sports many CG FX, the director shot as much practically as he could, especially during the action sequences. Bettany remembers the intimidation he felt during one of the stunts. “I found myself on this bike attached to this jeep with a camera rig,” he says. “I had a wire on me. It wasn’t a train, but it was a truck pulling the train carriage at 50 miles per hour. I stood up on my motorcycle and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I wasn’t going to die, but I had to leap from this motorcycle to this moving truck at 50 miles per hour. There is no point where you’re worried about the CG train behind you. You’re not considering that the mountains are going to be taken out. You’re just dealing with the very real fact that you’re standing on a motorcycle, trying to jump onto a train. Scott is from the world of special effects, and he wanted to get as much in-camera as he could.”

As for the possibility of a PRIEST sequel, Stewart says, “The studio was excited about the movie when they saw an early cut of it. They spent the money to allow us to make the film in 3D, like we desired to do from the beginning. They put us in May, one week after THOR and one week before the fourth PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. We’re a much smaller-budgeted film, but we think we can kind of stand up. The studio had a lot of confidence to put the movie where it is. Hopefully people respond to it and enjoy the film. If they do, we’ll be back to make another one. The important thing is to make a movie that people will like. It should be the audience that decides.”

See our PRIEST preview in FANGORIA #303, on sale this month, and a look at the original comics here.