THUNDERBIRDS - Q&A with JONATHAN FRAKES
You started filming in the Seychelles for Tracy Island but the expected sunshine didn't quite work out?
We were promised sunshine but at first all we got was rain, and shooting on location is challenging enough. The cast had just met, the crew had just come together and got the equipment out, so that whole front end of the movie is when you find out how the machine works. I think in hindsight we should have done something simple like shoot in the studio and then go to location at the end of the shoot. On the sequel that's how we'll do it.
Weren't there still some problems when the sun came out?
Brady got heatstroke. We had to cancel work for a day, a lot of people got sunburned and gorgeous as the Seychelles is, because it's on the equator the water is as hot as the air so it was a strange tropical paradise. And also everyone there, except us, is on vacation so the local workers we hired had a loose relationship with time, and showed up when they felt like it, if they felt like it. It was educational.
Did you know about THUNDERBIRDS when you were asked to direct?
I knew nothing about THUNDERBIRDS until my wonderful agent sent me the DVDs of the original show, which I watched with my kids who were 8 and 5 at the time. My daughter went crazy for Lady Penelope and my son loved the ships they were flying. I watched the shows and got a little unnerved and I called and said 'you're not thinking of doing this as a puppet show?' and they said no it's going to be live-action. And after 9/11 it seemed like a very appropriate theme for a film - about saving lives - and the original had such charm. And then I got to England and realised it's a very fond memory for everyone, and brought a smile to everyone's face. You can't really buy that kind of nostalgia.
Why doesn't Lady Penelope drive a Rolls Royce?
You know what! We offered the job to Rolls Royce, we tried! Isn't Rolls Royce owned by BMW? Rolls Royce didn't want to do it. And we said you're missing an opportunity. Fortunately Ford stepped up to the plate, but it seems like a very strange thing not to do.
What was the 'no lunch policy' you had on set?
The no lunch policy was something where the company votes to see if you'll accept it. It turns out thanks to Margaret Thatcher, there's no overtime here. In LA, if you work overtime you get a lot of money, it's called 'double golden time', so crews are happy to go into overtime because they get loaded, no pun intended. And when you've got actors you lose the hour for lunch and then the half hour for make-up and you lose the energy and focus - so you really lose two hours. And we had kids in the movie, and I think you're allowed to use them only six hours on the set. So we voted on it, and everybody seemed to think it was a good idea, and the intention was to have something like a sandwich, but the caterers would serve soups and baked beans, so it didn't work out till two weeks into it. But it ended up being a really excellent idea - also because of the amount of sunlight you have in a day.
How did you shoot the flying scenes over London?
The brilliant computer 3-D artists from Framestore headed it up. In pre-production we started to storyboard what we wanted to do in that sequence. Originally, we were going to take out the London Eye, and part of the Eye was going to drift into the Thames, but London Eye freaked out and they wouldn't let us do that. So then we created the Olympic Mono-rail, and we went through this incredible process with thirteen commissions to try to get the rights to shoot flying under Tower Bridge with a helicopter, which hadn't been done before, even by the Bond movie. So thirteen commissions were all gathered in this room and they were shamed into agreeing to let us shoot in London.
Tell us about Gerry Anderson's involvement?
Gerry Anderson created a franchise that gave generations of people, for decades, this optimistic picture of the future, and he was at Pinewood when we were shooting. He told me that THUNDERBIRDS was originally made with marionettes as a sales tool, with the hope that somebody would buy the show and he'd eventually get to shoot it with real actors. And it was the beginning of super-marionation, and he'd just done it so he could make this pilot on the cheap and it turned out to be a goldmine. He told me he wanted to direct the film - but the job was already taken.
Why cast classical actor Sir Ben Kingsley as The Hood?
Sir Ben was obviously, with Patrick Stewart, quite a good choice physically, because he looks so much like the puppet. A lot of actors came in and confessed to me like a shrink, that they had fantasies about Lady Penelope when they were kids saying 'I know she was a marionette, but I did have fantasies about her when I was a kid'. And I'd say 'I know, you're not the first to tell me that!' Sir Ben was offered the part, and when you get a movie star like that you offer the part based on a meeting, and the two big influences with Sir Ben were...that he had been doing such painful acting with HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and SEXY BEAST, really emotionally draining parts, that he was happy to do a family film. And more than that his sons said 'dad you gotta play this'. So I have his kids to thank - he adds a little gravitas.
The title sequence is stunning - can you tell us about that?
We had screened the movie in LA and the main reaction was that audiences didn't get that it was meant to be a fun movie until the kitchen sequence. So it was decided that we needed to tell the audience tonally before the movie started that you're allowed to have fun. And a certain company that pitched to us was so much more imaginative than anyone else and they had done the titles for CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. I think they did a brilliant job, and it's the only film I've been involved in where the titles get noticed in the reviews. It's also a way to introduce the pop primary colours.
Worried on political correctness basis about giving Brains' son a stutter?
It was discussed a lot during pre-production, that's why that wonderful scene at the end of Act 2 where Brady slips and makes fun of Fermat's stutter is in. It was felt that because both have the blue glasses, they should both have the stutter as well - but if it's funny we'll keep it in. And Anthony Edwards enhanced that stutter so well that it actually helped Fermat's stutter pay off.
Were you tempted to have the actors do puppetry-movements?
Everybody in the movie wanted to do their puppet movement, and they kept coming to me about it. Bill Paxton particularly really wanted to be a puppet "I'll just do it in this one scene it'll be great!" And everybody had their puppet routine. But if the actors had had their way they all would have had a puppet moment.
How has flying SFX progressed over the years?
In the first STAR TREK movie we were still using models and sticks for a couple of shots, and in the last 10 years what's happened is the technology has become so incredible that the lighting and the textures and the colours make you feel like the machines are actually huge and have weight, and the heat haze is astounding. So models for space ships I think, are a thing of the past - except on cartoon shows.
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