Movie Production of "Babylon AD"
BABYLON A.D. is an epic action-adventure that takes its protagonists across the world in a journey that could alter the fate of the world. Action movie icon Vin Diesel ("Pitch Black," "xXx") takes on the role of Toorop, a hardened warrior who is perpetually alert and who sees everything and everyone. Toorop's arsenal of futuristic weapons includes a satellite phone with an encrypted data communication system; a military GPS, accurate to one-inch; tactical multi-media goggles; and a thermo-electric interactive map. But his most important weapon is a code of ethics, unknown in his profession, and from which he will not veer.
"Toorop has a very strong personal code and I was attracted to that part of his character," says Vin Diesel. "I think too often people have a perception that just because a character acts immorally that they do not actually have a moral compass, but that is not the case. Toorop lives by his own personal codes of conduct, but allows the lines to blur in order to get his job done. This is a lesson he learned while in the military. In the film's opening scene, you see Toorop at the marketplace, and he goes from threatening a guy who owes him money at gunpoint to promising to bring a hungry kid food. He uses physical force in order to effectuate his professional needs, but in his heart he is a generous man."
While BABYLON A.D. presents scenes of epic action and set pieces, Diesel was drawn primarily to Toorop's complexities. "I approach each project from the perspective of the character first," Diesel explains. "Here is the story of a guy who is essentially at the end of his rope. He is a war veteran who has both committed and witnessed such horrible atrocities that he has completely given up on life, on love, on hope, and has become a shell. This story at its heart is a drama about this one man's ability to come to terms with the past and accept the future that is being presented to him. It is a very ordinary human struggle and in that sense the film is a drama. But then you add on the fact that this guy has these incredible survival skills and he has been asked to protect the world's first "replecant" who is also being protected by the likes of Michelle Yeoh! That is when the film becomes epic in scope."
Director/co-screenwriter Mathieu Kassovitz ("La Haine"), a noted actor in his own right (he had a leading role in "Munich"), cast Diesel because he knew the actor could handle the requisite action duties while adding critical character shadings. "Toorop is a classic anti-hero, but he has ethics and a code," says the filmmaker. "And when you have ethics, it sets you apart from other, less noble, characters. That's why I chose Vin; he's an action hero but at the same time he allows us to explore the layers of Toorop through the adventure he undertakes with Rebeka and Aurora."
Kassovitz had long admired Diesel's performance in his star-making turn as mortally wounded soldier in "Saving Private Ryan," as well as Diesel's work in big action movies like "The Chronicles of Riddick" and "xXx." "Vin has massive strength, both physically and internally," says the director. "Very few actors have that."
Diesel's casting points to Kassovitz's vision for the film, which he and co-screenwriter Eric Besnard adapted from the novel Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec. "I wanted to make a big action movie that could also represent what's happening in our society," says Kassovitz. "Dantec's novel is not filled with action, but I wanted big action in the film. The movie is more inspired by the book than a true adaptation."
Kassovitz sets his film against a global stage, hurtling the action from Eastern Europe, across the ocean, through Alaska and Canada, and into the "promised land" of New York. Everything in the film is bigger than life: cars are airlifted by giant electric helicopters; warriors square off in vicious combat inside a "fight cage"; snowmobiles fly through the air while exchanging gunfire; missiles shoot through the streets of the Big Apple; and video commercials and are everywhere because televisions cannot be turned off - you can only change the channel.
And what was Dantec's reaction to his book being turned into a big action film? "He was very open-minded," says Kassovitz. "Dantec saw that I was respecting the book's philosophy, and he was quite curious to see the transformation from book to film.
He told me, 'Take my work and do with it what you like. I like your vision and your movies. I trust you till the end.'"
Some of the book-to-film changes were character-based. In Dantec's novel, Toorop is a teenager, not the hardened and seasoned warrior of the film. The alterations in the character of Sister Rebeka were equally dramatic. Dantec's Rebeka is 60 years old, short, and French. "When Kassovitz approached me about playing the role," says international action star Michelle Yeoh, "I looked at him and said, 'Very interesting.' Then I looked in the mirror and thought, 'When did I become short, dumpy and French?'"
Yeoh provides a strong contrast to Diesel, while possessing the necessary physical and martial skills that could make her a realistic protector of Aurora. Recalls Kassovitz: "Michelle is one of the most beautiful women in the world, a wonderful actor - and I wanted to see a nun who could fight, so I needed an actress who could fight!"
"Mathieu knew that Rebeka would be the character to bond Toorop and Aurora, to put that link together," adds Yeoh. "And so he thought, 'Who would protect a young woman like Aurora? Who would be the opposite of a Vin Diesel, and his imposing physical presence? It should be a feisty French nun, someone who could stand up to Vin, physically and mentally. So that was when the idea came to Mathieu, and lo and behold, I was in the film."
For the role of Aurora, Kassovitz cast French actress Melanie Thierry, whom he had met when she was appearing in a play called "le vieux juif blonde." "Melanie was radiant," says Kassovitz. "And I said to myself: Here we are - she's Aurora! I needed a woman who could represent purity. We could think that Melanie [like Aurora] was something more than human - she has a perfect face and wonderful eyes. She seems like she's from another world."
There is indeed something special about Aurora - and it's not just the fact that she speaks 19 languages and knows how to operate a 30-year-old Russian submarine. Her father, Dr. Darquandier, a scientist long thought dead, has made sure that Aurora is the perfect combination of the best of human and machine...and a possible savior of mankind. Lambert Wilson, who played the Merovingian in "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," portrays Darquandier.
Also starring in BABYLON A.D. is noted British actor Mark Strong ("Body of Lies"), who portrays the smuggler Finn, whom Toorop encounters in a Russian refugee camp. Finn helps Toorop, Aurora and Rebeka get passes to board a submarine bound for Alaska - a critical leg in their epic journey to the U.S. Famed English actress Charlotte Rampling takes on a key role as a Noelite High Priestess, who peddles miracles - like Aurora - for profit.
Kassovitz's mandate to create big action set pieces was taken to heart by the actors and stunt teams. Headed by world renowned stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Rob Brown ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "The Day After Tomorrow"), a former world champion professional high diver, BABYLON A.D. features the talents of some of the best international action teams in the industry.
The "Belle Parkour Stunt Team" was headed by David Belle, inventor of the discipline known as Parkour, which consists of moving quickly and efficiently in any environment, using only the abilities of the human body. Parkour has been seen in recent high-profile action films like "Casino Royale" and "Live Free or Die Hard," and Belle's team in BABYLON A.D. takes the form to a new level.
Noted French action man Alain Figlarz ("The Bourne Identity") headed another major stunt team. Figlarz worked closely with Diesel on the fight scenes. "Toorop is a skilled fighter whose training comes from years of war. That is why we hired the incredible fight coordinator Alain Figlarz, who has extensive military training himself," says the actor. "The challenge for Alain and me was to come up with a style that would be unique to this character, would represent a military fight style, but also the street. In defining his fight style, we wanted to create a look that is consistent with a guy who also uses guns and weaponry easily, but who is adept at hand to hand. In essence his fight style had to feel effective, but not overly choreographed."
Diesel also makes special note of the contributions of world renowned K1 fighter Jerome Le Banner. "Jerome was incredibly generous in bringing his fight expertise to a scene that was difficult to shoot, because we were filming in a freezing cold glass box for long periods of time, it was very strenuous work. He is one of those rare talents who have both the fight background and also the acting capabilities that are impossible to ignore. Jerome brings an authenticity to the screen that really helps to elevate the story we were trying to tell."
Michelle Yeoh, who through her storied career as a martial arts icon has worked with many top action and stunt people, marveled at the work done by the BABYLON A.D. teams. "The stunts are like a candy store of action art forms," she says. "Each stunt team leader has his own style and commitment, and as someone who's always appreciated the various martial art forms, I had a great time working with them."
Yeoh gives special mention to David Belle's perpetually-in-motion Parkour team. "They're like bouncy balls, and you can't grab a hold of them," she enthuses. "To work with this new form of movement was very challenging."
One of the film's biggest action set pieces is a snowmobile chase set in the frozen wastelands of North America. Vin Diesel, remembering a video he had seen that depicted the high-flying, gravity-defying work of the snowmobile stunt team Slednecks, was instrumental in bringing aboard X-Games gold medalist Chris Burandt and record-breaking snowmobile jumper Paul Thacker, both of Slednecks, for the massive sequence. On their custom snowmobiles, Burandt, Thacker and the rest of the team did back flips, cliff drops and even ran through fire bomb explosions for the sequence.
For a story set on so many far-reaching locations, it will surprise many that most of BABYLON A.D. was filmed at Prague's recently-constructed Barrandov Studio, the largest soundstage in Europe. (The snowmobile chase was shot in Sweden.) For the shoot's duration, Barrandov was transformed into a Eastern European war zone, a Russian refugee camp, a submarine and ice floe (with hundreds of extras), and even into New York City. In Kassovitz's vision, the Big Apple has become a dystopian megalopolis of 23 million souls -- where logos and labels brand every conceivable surface - even the ceilings flash commercial messages 24/7 - and surveillance cameras are omnipresent.
For the most part, Kassovitz utilized practical effects, instead of CGI. "I'm only 40 years old, but I'm 'old school,'" he says. "I'm all about the big blockbusters from the '70s and '80s. There's not a lot of soul in CGI. I didn't want to make a CGI movie; I wanted to make a movie where you can smell blood and dirt and sweat."
Vin Diesel also notes that this sense of reality sets the film apart from other science fiction epics. "BABYLON A.D. is set in the very near future, on earth," says the actor. "This sort of setting allows you to think freely about what life could be like in a different time while also giving you a sense of reality, which I believe gives you a bit more creative freedom. In essence, by setting it in the near future, you have an easier time getting your audience to suspend belief for a minute, while you introduce them to a world where the limits have been pushed to the maximum.