Modernizing a cult classic film from the 1980s that launched the careers of several respected actors with impressive stunts interlaced with emotionally developed characters is a challenge for many directors, particularly for a first-time director. But helmer Dan Bradley, who served as a stunt coordinator on such action series as the ‘Bourne’ franchise and Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy, and was a second unit director on such films as ‘Quantum of Solace’ and ‘Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol,’ easily sustained reality in the new remake of ‘Red Dawn,’ which marked his feature film directorial debut. Being able to create completely unique action sequences and the disillusion of the family structure in the film on a limited budget was something producer Tripp Vinson looked for while searching for a director for the film, which helped solidified Bradley’s hiring.
‘Red Dawn’ follows Jed Eckert (played by Chris Hemsworth) upon returning home to Spokane, Washington on a leave from the Marines, as he reunites with his younger brother, Matt (portrayed by Josh Peck), and their father, Tom (played by Brett Cullen). Since Matt would rather spend time with his girlfriend, Erica (portrayed by Isabel Lucas), then with Jed, as he still blames his older brother for leaving him after their mother died, Jed reunites with an old childhood friend, Toni (played by Adrianne Palicki). But the group quickly learns to bonds when the U.S. is invaded by North Korea. Without warning, the city finds itself prisoner under enemy occupation.
Jed then takes on the leadership role with Matt, Erica, Toni and several of their other friends, including tech geek Robert (portrayed by Josh Hutcherson); Daryl (played by Connor Cruise), the son of Spokane’s Mayor and Robert’s best friend; and Danny (portrayed by Edwin Hodge), Matt’s best friend and the star receiver of the high school football team. Taking inspiration from their high school mascot, the group calls themselves the Wolverines, and band together to protect each other, liberate their town from its captors and take back their freedom. Along the way, the Wolverines are helped by Col. Andy Tanner (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his men, who are just as determined to save America.
Vinson sat down during a roundtable interview in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel recently to discuss the filming of ‘Red Dawn.’ Among other things, Vinson discussed what the casting process for the main characters was like; what he and the other producers had to do in order to distribute the film after its production company, MGM, went into bankruptcy in 2010; and why the filmmakers chose to change the country that invaded America from China to North Korea during post-production.
Question (Q): You have an impressive resume. Why do you choose to produce action films-what’s the attraction? Is it for the money?
Tripp Vinson (TV): Well, it’s not about the money. Doing an action movie, in my opinion, is the most complex movie to make. There are so many different elements that go into making one, and making it well.
It’s also my taste, the things I respond to as a movie fan are usually in the action genre. It’s just a personal taste. But I love the challenge of making these movies.
Q: Why did you decide to feature North Korea as the enemy? They’re not the most belligerent country in the world to other countries.
TV: They’re not the most belligerent? I’m not sure South Korea and Japan would agree with that.
There were some changes that were made to the movie. We looked at who could ultimately invade the United States, and it’s a tough thing to come across these days. We’re not in the Cold War era.
So what we ultimately decided to do was create a fictional timeline of things that haven’t happened, but could. Some of those things did end up happening-Kim Jong-il died, and that’s in the opening sequence credits of this movie. There are other things that we allude to that set the world in a pretty dark and scary place. These things help set the stage and gets the audience ready for something like an invasion of the United States. At the end of the day, though, the movie has to be taken as a bit of a fantasy.
Q: Why didn’t you make it a non-existent country if it’s a fantasy?
TV: I think that takes something away from the movie. If you’re going to do that, you might as well make an alien movie. We’ve all seen a lot of those.
One of the things that I think is special about the movie is that it’s on an alternate time-line in an alternate universe, in some ways. But it’s still dealing with real countries and real soldiers.
Q: Like in the original, the U.S. was invaded by Russia.
TV: Yes, Russia, but to be honest, Cuba played a big part in the original movie. In terms of North Korea, we looked at the way they used Cubans in the original movie. We were inspired by that notion, and ended up using it.
Q: When you made the movie, you had the problem with MGM and its bankruptcy, and everyone said, we’re going to get it out at some point. What do you do during this whole period that goes on?
TV: Well, for awhile, there was nothing to do. The post-production on the movie was finished, and then MGM went into bankruptcy. Then we sat on the shelf, like with ‘Cabin in the Woods‘ and other movies that were in similar situations. So we were on ice.
Then when MGM emerged from bankruptcy, that’s when things started to change. We realized that we were going to have to make some changes to the film. When the studio emerged from bankruptcy, they no longer had distribution. They needed somebody else to distribute the movie.
A lot of these studios were sensitive to, and I’m projecting this, no one said this to me, but China is a big market. So if I’m a business guy, I get it. I don’t want to realize a movie that’s going to upset them.
We found ourselves in a situation where the bottom line was, we didn’t have distribution. So we had to change some things in order to find someone to distribute it.
Q: Did you go back to Detroit to change that?
TV: No, it was completely done in post-production. The truth was, there was very little that had to be changed to the movie, besides a little visual effects work.
In terms of the edit, there was one scene that had to be re-edited. There was a new credits sequence that we did, and some ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) work that we did. That was it.
Q: So you weren’t worried about the North Koreans protesting distribution?
TV: No, I wasn’t.
Q: Have you received any reactions from North Korea or any socialist countries?
TV: No, and I hope I don’t get any reactions. (laughs) The movie, to me, isn’t about any of this stuff. I get the interest in all this. The movie, from the people who made it, was meant to entertain and be fun. Hopefully we achieve that.
Q: The movie is coming out for Thanksgiving with a PG-13 rating. Are you going for a teen market?
TV: My guess is we’ll have people interested in it who are fans of the original. I also think we’ll have a lot of younger fans, due to the cast.
Q: How familiar were you with the original?
TV: Extremely familiar.
Q: Did you know anyone from the original?
Q: Did you seek them out at any point?
TV: Well, we never did seek them out. I had heard, I don’t know if this is true, that the original creators were very hesitant about having their movie being remade. There were several creators I heard that weren’t crazy about the idea of remaking the movie, which I get. I’m totally sympathetic to that. I don’t know how I would feel if that happened to me.
We were never able to express how much we loved the original. I’m sure there was some hesitation there.
We really tried to make it it’s own thing. It’s one of the things that you have to deal with when you’re doing a remake, which is a connection to the old movie, and how much you want that to influence what you’re doing. At some point, at least for us, I felt like we really wanted to make our own thing, and put that into the universe.
Q: Why did you want to make a remake of this film? What was the draw?
TV: I loved the original so much. It had a big impact on me as a kid. I saw it as a huge opportunity.
Q: Can you talk about the casting? Two of the actors have really made it big-Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson.
TV: One of the cool things about making a cool movie like this is how young the cast is. That has a side effect, which is that you’re probably not going to be casting stars. They’re younger, so their careers haven’t had a chance to mature and emerge yet.
When you’re a producer or a director making a movie like this, that’s a great opportunity to cast who you want, and who’s creatively best for the role. That’s not always the case-sometimes you have to chase stars.
One of the good things about this movie was that we made some really good choices. These guys have emerged, and have become really big stars. They’re really talented actors, and they deserve all of it. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of the movie.
Some of them we had relationships with. Like with Josh, he was in ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (which Vinson executive produced). He’s an exceptional actor.
We did not know Chris, so he came in and read for our casting director, and I got a very excited phone call after he came in and read. Then he came back in the next day for the director and another producer and myself. It was obvious, you can see that he was going to be a movie star, and he was going to do something very special with this role.
Josh Peck was another one of the actors that I actually knew already. I had a project years ago that never got made that we were talking to him about, so he was already in the mix. He didn’t read, we just said, we want you, and it worked out.
Q: You wear different hats while making films. What was your involvement in this film?
TV: Well, MGM had the rights, and were open to doing the remake. So we approached them, and that’s how that came all together. Once that happens, you’re faced with a problem-what story are you going to tell? We did a lot of research on how to do this. We talked to, I think it’s been reported, the Rand corporation and some others, that helped us come up with several types of scenarios.
Then we presented that to some writers, like Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore. They mapped out a treatment for the story and developed a script, which went really quickly. Developing the first draft went really quickly.
Basically, we were getting a draft good enough to get the studio excited. It happened with the first draft we turned in. Then there was a tremendous amount of work that went into the script from that point on, until production.
Once you turn the script in, and the studio says they want to make the film, you go find your director. Mary Parent, who was head of MGM at the time, had a relationship with our director, Dan Bradley, who had done second unit on the ‘Bourne’ movies for her. So we met with him, and were super-excited about him.
Dan, in some ways, I think, has re-invented the way action is shot. So it seemed like a great opportunity for him to do this movie with us. Then we put together a crew, and you go through production.
Q: Michigan at the time had the best tax rebate in the country, right?
TV: That’s part of it, but you have to go where you can make the movie. We were looking for a place where we could do an urban-style war movie, and Michigan and Detroit had all the locations for us.
Q: Was the U.s. military involved in this-did they give you any equipment?
TV: No, they weren’t involved in this. Getting them to support a movie is very difficult. I’ve made other action movies, and never had their support. I did have their support on one movie, but getting their approval is very difficult.
Having said that, we did have military consultants. There was an extensive boot-camp and training that Hemsworth and the other actors went through.
The equipment and the uniforms and all that stuff was based on actual research that we did. Some of the equipment in the movie is American, because there used to be a scene where the foreign troops came and took their equipment, like transport vehicles, from a U.S. military base. We ended up cutting the scene, but some of the equipment lives on in the movie.
Q: There were reports that the Detroit police showed up while you were shooting an action sequence?
TV: Yeah, we had all kinds of incidents. We were shooting tanks in the middle of the night in downtown Detroit. We broke windows in office buildings, it was crazy. It’s incredibly loud, you lift off the ground from the sound.
Q: What have you done next, while you were waiting to get this release?
TV: Well, this year I had ‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’ come out in January. About a year ago, I was in production on a movie called ‘Battle of the Year.’ That’s for Sony, and it comes out in September, with Josh Peck again. I also have stuff in development in various stages.
Q: Is it always dependent on getting a star? Or with certain budgets, does it not matter if you have a star?
TV: Sure, but it’s rare in this genre. If you’re making a genre movie for $3 million, like ‘Paranormal (Activity),’ you don’t need a star, you can sell it.
For this, like I said, we were lucky our stars emerged. Originally, we didn’t plan on having stars when we were going to release the movie. For this type of movie, you usually need stars.
Q: It’s better now that they’re stars, as opposed to 2010, when it was originally scheduled to be released. Do you think now they can make head-way for part 2 or 3?
TV: I don’t know, we’ll have to see. It depends if people come out, and if it’s a success. Sure, the fact that they’re stars is going to help that. I don’t know how far you get on that, though.
I think people have to like the movie, and it has to be a good word of mouth. We’ll get initial interest because of the cast of movie stars.
Q: The original film seemed pretentious, while this one seems more full speed ahead action movie.
TV: That was the intention.
Q: Are there any independent films that you’re working on next?
TV: Yeah, there’s one called ‘Murder Mystery’ with (director) John Madden and Charlize Theron. It’s a reinvention of the old Agatha Christie movies.
Charlize plays the woman of an American couple who have been married for a few years. They’ve always talked about going on a European vacation, and they’ve never gotten around to doing it. They finally decide to go do it, and inadvertently, get wrapped up in a murder mystery. She and her husband end up getting implicated in the murder, and they have to solve it before they’re arrested for murder.
Q: Do you have the husband cast yet?
TV: I do, but it hasn’t been announced.
Q: Working with John Madden is great, you can cast whoever you want.
TV: It’s ridiculous, you can go to anyone you want and get them. It’s so fun, because everyone wants to get to work with him. He’s got a great way of dealing with them, and making them feel comfortable. He’s also got a great sense of story. I couldn’t be more impressed, I love working with him.
Q: You must have a wish list of other directors you’d like with.
TV: Yeah, I’ve tried to discuss some other things with Dan since ‘Red Dawn.’ I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He’s such an expert at what he does. So I felt lucky to watch him do his craft. He’s arguably the best in the business. I learned a lot from him, actually.
It was also fun to do it with him, because it was also his first experience. It was a great relationship and give-and-take. I’m really impressed with his ability to tell a story and the actors and everything that goes with first unit. That’s a big thing to take on, and he owned it.
Q: Connor Cruise was in this movie, which was a surprise. Did (his father) Tom visit the set and offer tips to everyone?
TV: Yes, Tom was a big part of this movie in a lot of ways. He was very involved with the development of the script. He was kind of our godfather in some ways. We would go to him when we had questions or ran into problems. So he was a great resource for us. I really enjoyed working with him.
I was super impressed. There are all these stories about his work ethic, everyone who works with him will tell you that, I saw it first-hand. I was inspired by it.
Q: What was the toughest thing to shoot-was it the parachute scene?
TV: That was mostly CG, except when we did point-of-view from the parachuters when they were coming down. That was a rig that we did, and it was pretty tough. Some of these stunt guys got banged up.
Written by: Karen Benardello