What’s it like coming back to Pitch Black 20 years later with this new 4K Ultra HD restoration release?
It is very weird coming back to that film because I’m not one to go revisit my films. It’s like – I kind of learned this from Ridley Scott from working with him for a little while – it’s like ‘NEXT!’. I did that, I did the best I could, given the budget I had, given the time I had to make it.
If I’m watching TV and I’m channel flipping I’ll look at [one of my] movies for five-ten minutes and then I start to get aggravated because my eyes go right to the errors that I was never able to fix. So it’s kind of a torturous experience. That said, enough time has transpired between now and Pitch Black that I can actually kind of sit back – kinda – and enjoy it as a movie, rather than me revisiting all the travails on the set. So I did get some perspective on it and I actually did sit back and say, after it was all over, the timing of it and recolouring of that 4K master, I did sit back and say “ah, okay that’s a pretty good movie”.
How did you first get involved in Pitch Black?
The production entity at the time were Interscope films and they brought it to me in script form by the Wheat brothers (Jim and Ken) and they said, ‘we like the idea, we aren’t wild about the execution. Why don’t you rewrite it and if we all like the execution you can direct it’. I was still a new-ish director at the time and that’s the game they were playing with me back then. So I said “yes, I think I can make it better”.
It was called ‘Nightfall’ back then, which is the title of a very famous short story by Isaac Asimov also called Nightfall and I felt it owed a little too much to that short story as well. So I took it away and picked up on the character of Riddick, who was probably really just one of three lead characters. It was supposed to be Carolyn Fry played by Radha Mitchell, Johns, played by Cole Hauser and it was supposed to be Riddick (Vin Diesel) – so a three-hander, three leads. But over the course of editing and testing the film, it came out that people’s favourite was Riddick so we started to emphasise Riddick a little bit more in the final cut of the film.
So that’s how it came to me – they played a game with me, ‘if you can make it better you can direct it’. I made it better, so I went on to direct it!
There’s a lot of craziness that goes on in between all those steps – a lot of craziness when you make an independent movie. The studio that was going to finance it, Polygram Pictures, went bankrupt. Suddenly I’m shooting the movie and I don’t even know if there is a studio behind this anymore! I don’t know if the money is going to continue coming in or not and then when we finished, we had no studio to release us. We had no way to release this into theatres. There was a lot of talk about it going straight to video which, at the time, was a fate worse than death. But then, Universal Pictures came along and they had struck a deal with the original financing company, Polygram, to cherry-pick two or three films out of their current library. One was a Hugh Grant movie and the only other picture they picked out for theatrical distribution from Polygram was Pitch Black. So we said “phew, thank you lord, thank you Universal!”
You said you changed the original script – what were your main changes?
I wanted to make the characters unexpected. I wanted to give them reveals and reversals that you normally don’t get in a genre movie. [The story is] a small group of people crash land on an alien planet and have to fight for their lives – so that wasn’t particularly interesting in and of itself, so I said I think the characters have to be really unexpected.
So you introduce a square-jawed hero in Johns – the guy wears a shiny badge and you figure he’s going to be the guy who’s going to be last man standing and he’ll lead you all through this. But in fact Johns turns out to be a coward; a junkie, a guy who’s willing to chop up a kid and drag her on a sled behind them to save his own skin! And Riddick – the guy who’s supposed to have killed all those people and supposed to be something of a serial killer – he’s the unexpected saviour who can lead them out of this.
Then Carolyn Fry, who’s posing as the ship’s captain really isn’t the ship’s captain. She has her own secret, her own burden, because she tried to kill them all in their sleep basically. Even the character of Jack, who poses as a boy, halfway through we learn she’s a girl. All those things were new to the script as was the Riddick character – I think there was a criminal aboard if I think back to the original script by the Wheat brothers. I think there was a criminal on board originally, a female called by the name ‘Angel’ or something like that and so I sort of scraped that down and built Riddick back up.
Was Vin Diesel always going to play the role of Riddick?
I’ve told this story once before – it was not clear at all that Vin was going to play Riddick. He read it and liked it a lot but he wasn’t known at the time. He wasn’t known to me at the time. Some people thought he had something going and that he was maybe a hard charger. But he read once and it wasn’t a great audition. Because reading a script, holding a script, acting off the script, on book isn’t Vin’s gift. His gift is really inhabiting a role, living it. And that’s a hard leap to take when you haven’t seen this actor in any real footage yet. He had this one small film called Multi-Facial at the time that I’d seen so I knew that he could be more natural than he was allowed to be in audition.
Then somebody at the studio called me up and said “we’ve got your Riddick, it’s going to be Steven Seagal” and I said “noooooo it’s not going to be Steven Seagal, thanks but no” and there was a big fight about that. Then I had to go to the mat to be allowed to cast somebody else. He said: “Fuck it, if it’s not Steven Seagal who is it?” And I went back to Vin Diesel: “He looks the part, he sounds the part, and I’ve seen him in this little film Multi-Facial and he can be a very natural compelling actor so how about this guy?” I then got the backing of Interscope, Ted Field and that’s when we cast Vin and I’m glad we did.
It would be a very different film if it had Steven Seagal in it and it wouldn’t have me as a director!
The colours within Pitch Black change throughout. What was your reasoning behind those choices?
It came organically from the story – not my love of colour necessarily! I’m quite into astronomy and working out celestial bodies and how they behave relative to each other. So [Pitch Black is set in] a binary star system (I think) that had two warm suns and one blue sun. They were sort of gravitationally trapped to each other. Within this entrapped orbit, was a planet and the very strange celestial mechanics gave rise to the long eclipse. So [the different colours] were just a way to understand what sun was in the sky at a given time, prior to the eclipse.
We shot Pitch Black on film, not video, and then we tried a very special process called a skip-bleach process where we’re actually altering the camera negative. Most studios won’t allow you to do that anymore if you’re shooting film because it’s kind of a dodgy and ballsy step to take. They like to protect the original negative. So we skip-bleached it and that’s what gave the daytime sequences that sort of burnished look that we got. So we did a skip-bleach process on the camera negative and that was part of why the film is as visually striking.
In terms of Riddick’s POV that was sort of an ultraviolet look, if you want to term it that. That was just developed along the visual effects path. And that’s what came to the fore. There were some people like my DP for the second movie, Chronicles, who looked at the first one and his comment was “too much colour” haha!
We also have the predator POV – that was black and white – and we had Riddick’s POV. We had to distinguish it from the predator POV so we assigned it that particular colour. It’s like we’re running out of colours in the spectrum!
How did the look of the creatures come about?
In the script they aren’t heavily described, they’re just called ‘the predators’ but the script contains information about them seeing with sound and the eerie calls that they made in the night. That was described but in terms of their look – not so much except for the fact they had the ability to fly, so I guess they were described as having wings. But knowing that I’m going to work with a great creature designer (in this case, Patrick Tatopoulos, who’s also a great production designer and sometimes director himself), we pushed and we pushed and we pushed until we came up with the predator design.
With the elongated bony head, I thought ‘well we have binocular vision, we have two eyes so we can see depth. Why don’t we give this creature some sort of outriggers and on the end of each outrigger is a sonic head that sound would emit from so they can shape the objects in front of them. They can have a binocular vision as well, like humans do’. So that was the point of the outrigger and once we added that we said: “We’ve never seen a creature like that before, let’s build it!”
Where was Pitch Black shot?
It was shot completely in Australia – first in the outback, in the deep outback in a place called Coober Pedy which is an opal mining town. We went there for its wide-open spaces. It was a trip filming out there. That’s where we started filming, we were exposed to the elements, we had very little cover. We had some scenes inside the crashed ship – we built a crash ship, hauled it out to the outback, put it there, dug a trench behind it.
But Coober Pedy itself is quite a trip itself. It’s got like eight restaurants in town, eight café/restaurants to support all the film crew. It had one theatre and 20 years ago it had [a sign that that said] ‘please no explosives in the theatre’. Literally they put that up on the screen in the theatre! That’s because apparently they’ve had a problem with explosives in the theatre before and because they’re opal miners, that’s how they mine opals – they put dynamite into the ground, and blow up the ground to soften the ground to start digging. Apparently people didn’t want their dynamite stolen, so they’d bring their dynamite into the theatre! That’s the kind of town Coober Pedy was. And that was the start of the Pitch Black shoot schedule…
Can you tell us more about one of the final scenes between Fry and Riddick where you don’t know who’s been stabbed?
There has been some discussion about this and sometimes the fans write to me, or ask me “so did he cut her so that the predators would take her and not him?” I’m tempted to leave it ambiguous, but I have gone on record in the past and said… that was never our intent. Our intent was that she went back to help him and she paid the ultimate price. That was not him cutting her, that was a blade of a predator and when she sacrificed her life for him, he basically dropped to his knees and said: “Not for me, not for me, I’m not worth it, you’re an inherently better person than I ever was, probably ever will be, you shouldn’t have died.” That was the intent. But I don’t mind that it has an interpretive quality now!
So… can we expect any more Riddick?
[Yes] we’re probably going to make Riddick 4 in 2021! It’s coming! I just finished [the script], just gave it to Vin and he likes it so I think we’re going to try and schedule it for 2021!
Pitch Black will be available on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on 17 August from Arrow Video.