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Priest – Director Scott Stewart and the supernaturally gifted ass-kicker

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Priest - Director Scott Stewart
Director Scott Stewart on the set © 2009 Screen Gems

Scott Stewart began his career as a visual effects artist at George Lucas’ Industrial Light + Magic where he created visual effects for such blockbusters as Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace and Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Last year he co-wrote and directed Legion starring Dennis Quaid and Paul Bettany. He’s reunited with Bettany in his new movie Priest, based on Korean artist and writer Min-Woo Hyung’s critically acclaimed 16-volume graphic novel. In it, Paul Bettany portrays the title character – a battle-hardened rogue warrior who embarks on a perilous quest to save his niece from a murderous pack of vampires.

With the themes in both Priest< and Legion, is there something about religion that you’re trying to explore, as a filmmaker? Are you concerned about comparisons with those two films?

Priest - Paul Bettany and Josh Wingate
Priest (Paul Bettany) finishes off Familiar #1 (Josh Wingate) © 2009 Screen Gems

I was initially concerned when they called me about Priest, but I read the script and was a fan of it. The comparisons are understandable, but they’re literally superficial, in the sense that there is a religious element in the movies and Paul [Bettany] is a supernaturally gifted ass-kicker.

Those elements are literally the same, but the world and the mythology is really different.

Priest is really a science fiction film and a Western. It’s not a horror film, per se. It’s much more of an action movie. Thematically, we were asking literal theological questions in Legion, but I don’t see Priest that way at all. I don’t equate it to this world’s Church.

It’s really an Orwellian state, and it’s much more about war powers and fascism and the enemy that we don’t understand but we keep fighting, and about soldiers. It’s an emotional story in principle and it’s about sacrifice on a character level.

Does your visual effects background help with world building on a budget?

Priest - Cam Gigandet
Hicks (Cam Gigandet) © 2009 Screen Gems

Oh, yeah, for sure. We got a lot in for not a lot. Obviously, the movie is filled with effects that are not hard to see, but I’m also a big fan of the invisible stuff. You don’t think about the fact that there are very few mountains in the movie, but you see the desert landscapes. It extended all the way through into conversion process.

We had a lot of conversations about sensation of depth and shape, but the 3D is not distracting. I didn’t want dramatic scenes to be overly deep, so that you would be looking at the clock on the wall in the back, as opposed to looking at the actors’ faces.

I wanted to make sure that your eyes were still really directed and weren’t wandering around on the screen.

The vampires in this are very different from the ones in Twilight Saga. Are they based on what’s in the comic book?

Priest - John Braver
A Familiar (John Braver) looks on © 2009 Screen Gems

The Cory Goodman script diverged from the graphic novel, in the sense that the graphic novel takes place literally in the past, in the 1880s. It’s the Old West and they’re fighting these fallen angels. It would have been very difficult to do that kind of movie and set it in the Old West. So, Cory imagined a story as if it progressed into the future, and what would happen.

So, because there are not vampires in the graphic novel, the vampires are not based on drawings that were done. I had Chet Zar come in, and he had designed for Guillermo Del Toro and a bunch of other people. He’s someone whose work I was a really big fan of. He just creates these really iconic monsters that are beautiful and soulful, and not just horror movie characters. They appeal to a broader audience.

We talked about the anatomy of them and how they would work. I’m a big believer of form following function. They live in darkness and they’re cave dwellers with a hive mentality and they have a queen, so we just worked backwards from there. He did hundreds of drawings and, eventually, we had one where we went, ‘Oh, cool!’ It was that drawing that led us to decide to do the characters digitally, for the most part.

What do you enjoy about working with Paul Bettany?

Priest - Paul Bettany
Priest (Paul Bettany) © 2009 Screen Gems

He’s really such a generous soul. We are really close friends now, after having worked together for awhile, and we like to geek out on the same stuff.

He’s a really great filmmaker, in addition to being a really good actor, so he just makes your job a lot easier. Legion was an ensemble movie, and this was an opportunity to put the whole movie on his shoulders, given that it’s called Priest.

He looked like a young [Clint] Eastwood to me. He has that really chiseled, haunted look with his thousand-yard stare that he’s really good at conveying.

It’s so interesting because he’s really warm and funny, and yet he comes across as really cold and timeless. He really fits well into a science fiction world, just visually. There are certain actors that you just believe in fantastic settings. Some actors are really wonderful, but they just feel very contemporary and you want to do a romantic comedy with them. Some actors are great and they can just do everything.

Why decide to shoot in 2D and then convert to 3D?

I wanted to shoot anamorphic. For me, the touch stones for the movie were things like Bad Day at Black Rock and the big widescreen landscape movies and Westerns. I also liked the idea of using these old lenses from the ‘70s. They have a lot of artifacts that they’ve been trying to engineer out of lenses for a lot of years, but to me, they remind me of the movies I grew up loving.

There’s a lot of glass and the glass creates a lot of distortion. There are no straight lines. The wider the lens, the more bent the lines are. Those add a homogeneity to the visual effects that makes everything more tactile and organic, and I was interested in capturing that with my cinematographer.