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Visiting Dolph Lundgren on the set of

by Jérémie Damoiseau


What hasn’t already been said about Sylvester Stallone’s fan-boy dream that is The Expendables? With the most simple pitch and a bunch of tough guys, Sly, the one and only, has managed to make us giddy like we’ve never been before even in our wildest fantasies of “bad-assness”. You know, kind of like who would win in a fight between Batman vs Superman, Bruce Lee vs Jackie Chan, Jet Li vs Dolph Lundgren?!

So this unlikely little project first showed up during last November’s AFM (American Film Market) during which was announced that Sylvester Stallone’s next action extravaganza was not Rambo V, but a straight-forward mercenary flick co-starring Jason Statham and Jet Li entitled The Expendables with a $60 million budget (rumored to have gone up to 80 million by now). Cool. But the buzz unexpectedly really started a few weeks later at the Transporter 3 premiere when Sly let the cat out of the bag that he was signing Dolph Lundgren onto the Nu Image/Millennium production. From there began one of the most unique casting processes ever heard of, with a succession of other bad-asses added to the mix (Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Gary Daniels, Randy Couture, Steve Austin), wish-fulfillments (Arnold Schwarzenegger), rumors (Sandra Bullock, Danny Trejo), rejections (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kurt Russell), speculations (Bruce Willis) and other withdrawals (Forest Whitaker) and unrealistic fan utopias (Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal)...

So, Dolph Lundgren. Granted, the Swedish hunk has never drawn big crowds and hasn't even become a cultural media icon and target such as the Muscles from Bruxelles or the most untouchable guy with a ponytail. A good half of Lundgren's films have been bad choices or turned out as disappointments and never managed to reach mainstream attraction/level. But the Swedish iron man managed to survive the Hollywood dream and nightmare, keeping his career intact and remaining a solid household name worldwide for old-school action flicks. Moreover, the man has been reinventing himself, namely by taking on the director's reins five years ago. By doing so by accident, Lundgren fulfilled a longtime hidden ambition of his. To everybody's surprise, Dolph showed how much he learned from his 20 years of services in the B movie realm, and the outcome of his directorial debuts was fairly convincing and promising. A solid reputation started to grow among the action fan communities. It's therefore natural that Dolph implemented directing as a core part of his career. The Defender, The Mechanik, Missionary Man, and this year, Command Performance and Icarus: with already five films to his belt is Lundgren becoming as prolific as Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood?! So when you say Lundgren finally back on the big screen, with Rocky, and to get it on with Jet Li, twice... I say sign me up!

In the past year I've had the chance to visit Mr Lundgren on the sets of his recent Direct Contact and Command Performance, both shot in Bulgaria. But it sounded like a totally different ballgame when it was suggested I come and drop by New Orleans, Louisiana where he's been filming his new acting gig with Sly and the gang.

June 26, 2009 - Being flown from Paris to New Orleans, I landed 15 hours later in a hotel suite bigger than my apartment. My arrival is amidst the last few days of the shoot. They have been shooting nights for a while and the filming schedule has been changing constantly. So I’m on hold with Dolph who finally advised me to meet him in the lobby in the late afternoon to drive to the set. I first recognize his coach and sparring partner Slavi Slavov who I had met on set in Bulgaria. Slavi is a tough but extremely gentle Kyokushin and MMA fighter who has been training with Dolph since they met at the time of The Mechanik (despite a 15 years age difference). We're joined by Nyla, a 26 year-old petite Canadian fitness model training and hanging out with the guys. And now here appears Dolph Lundgren, laid back as usual, tanned, and sporting military-style shorts and a sleeve-less sportswear letting his two Expendables tattoos show off. A very unlikely sight in this British style luxury hotel! Randy Couture shows up, and exchange a few banalities and laughs with Dolph before the blond veteran action star finds a seat aside to finish memorizing his lines from “pink” script revised sides for today's scene. I'm briefly introduced to the impressive looking Couture who seems like a very nice, down to earth guy.

In the van driving us to the set, Dolph briefs me on the latest with The Expendables, and his directorial effort Icarus (shot in Vancouver), wrapped just before coming to Louisiana. Dolph had been on a 4-hours sleep regime for weeks, training, working on his own projects, and filming. When we get to base camp, Dolph gets into make-up and takes some time to relax and focus. We're then driven to the set along with actor David Zayas who's also shooting “Dexter”, going back and forth between L.A. and New Orleans.

The sun is setting. A beautiful building, is standing before us. It's a New Orleans courthouse coupled with a prison. While we're waiting for the set to be ready and huge exterior lights to be rigged, we're watching Sylvester Stallone playing with his two dogs on a small square of grass. Dolph wishes he had brought his own dogs and observes the building, probably art nouveau, while stretching his legs. He asks me about the reactions to Michael Jackson's death in Paris. Lundgren, a contemporary of Jackson, is being affected by the death of the pop icon, and candidly evokes going to a Jackson concert with the Universal Soldier producers from Carolco. “Thriller” defined an era for him, who at the time took a radical turn moving to New York with singer Grace Jones and giving up his PhD at M.I.T. to acting a shot, shortly before stardom hit him.

A little while later, we're escorted to the second floor of the building. Dolph notices the interior, as impressive as the outside, when a local crew member tells us it was just renovated since it was totally flooded by hurricane Katrina. Puts things back in perspective for you, movies are make-believe, this is reality.

There won’t be any action or shout out today. The scenes being shot, in comparison to the rest of the film, are rather minimalist. Nothing crazy. And for a big budget production the set didn't feel over the top or corporate, no heavy protocol except the usual film production ones. The crew was generally young and professional, everybody getting the job done in a casual manner. I guess when you come towards the end of a grueling two and half month shoot, everybody is burnt out and a certain routine have come into place.

Cranes, carts of equipment, props, weapons and craft service are set up in a huge hallway but they're gonna be shooting in a small office, standing in for an interior of dictator General Garza's palace. On call for the scene are Gary Daniels, “Stone Cold Steve Austin”, David Zayas and Eric Roberts. But it really is Dolph Lundgren/Gunnar Jensen's big monologue scene. Sly talks the actors through the blocking rehearsal which is followed by wardrobe change and last make-up touches while camera and lighting crew are prepping.

Got a bit of time to chill and chat in Dolph's trailer while he was wolfing down a bite. I'm sitting on a small couch next to a pair of huge military shoes (size 17?) “So this is different from Direct Contact huh?” says Dolph ironically. “Have you seen it?”, I ask him although guessing his reaction. “I don't want to!” he says with a facetious smirk/laugh.

Going back to set after Dolph got more time to prep himself. The weapons/prop master, Kent H. Johnson (Rambo), hands Dolph what seems like a cross between a sawed off shotgun and a handgun, maybe a modified one (that sounds like something a character like Gunnar would use). Dolph handed this baby to me between two takes and I was surprised it was not a plastic toy, the thing felt real and heavy even though it wasn't huge! The weapon wrangler is also the real deal, a small but strong man in his 60s maybe, he knows his stuff for sure and is not to be messed with but a fun guy with a good sense of humor too...

“Rolling, and Action!” - Dolph storms into the room, stealing the show. His character had been off-screen for a while after we encountered him in the first part of the picture and is now making a comeback into the story with a somewhat theatrical and twisted monologue. Sly is very particular about the phrasing, he will say the lines the way he wants it or point the gun a certain way. The fact is there's nothing monotone about Dolph's monologue, which goes back and forth between humorous sarcasm, and a threatening, tough, bad-ass attitude. It's nice to see Sly direct Dolph, talking him through the beats and watching the playback together, working hard and yet still cracking up and joking around. The two men go way back now and have remained good friends for 25 years, but both also seem to keep a mutual sense of respect towards each other. Dolph for instance, knows how to keep his distances towards Sly as he's working as a director.

Sly. There's definitely a certain aura coming from him. He is the man that everybody looks up to and makes a way for when he walks through. He's the general on his set and you don't wanna mess with him or interrupt him if not necessary, but you trust and respect him. Of course he keeps it together throughout the shoot and his focus and dedication are impressive. If you work with him you have to follow, keep up the pace and get the job done or else you can forget about it. But once you go with it he will take you with him and push you to keep it moving and you'll go a long way.

Needless to say, it's hot and humid in New Orleans. And on the set, the only place cool is the green room, where talent can hang out and chill in between set ups. Dolph is joking around with his stunt double (not required for this scene but yet on stand by) about their respective fights in competitions. Dolph laughs about a boxing exhibition fight he did a couple of years ago in Moscow. He had just flown in from America at the last minute (posting Missionary Man), had no time to train and was 11 hours jet-lagged. And he was stunned because the Russians made it an over the top show, making him wear this Soviet Union outfit like Ivan Drago, making him make an entrance through the crowd like in Rocky IV! Then came Randy Couture and Gary Daniels into the conversation and jokes. You can tell the guys have become pretty tight, and being all real fighters they genuinely respect each other.

Meanwhile the second unit is also lining up a quick shot of Terry Crews hiding in the palace from soldiers. Nothing elaborate, the camera on a plate, outside lights. Sly is called to check out the set up and consult with the stunt-coordinator/second unit director. Then it's up to shoot medium and close up shots of the Dolph scene. Once they finish the scene it's a wrap for Gary Daniels and Steve Austin (for the entire shoot).

After lunch/diner (it's 3am!), Dolph is done for the day, but he offers to take me to the other set, where they've been shooting the final showdown. A twenty minute drive from camp. It's an entirely built set, next to a warehouse. They have been prepping for some big time explosions and some coverage to get for the day. This set gives us a better sense of the scale of the production, although most of it has already been destroyed by the mayhem that concludes the film. It is a huge military camp surrounding a palace (which some of will be completed through CGI and therefore stands huge blue screen on top of it. In the middle stands a statue (of the dictator) likely to be blown up tonight. Dolph is all proud and quite animated, as he shows me around. He takes me inside the warehouse where they had shot the opening action scene set on the deck of a pirate ship (as of now only a reddish deck remains). There's also the Expendables sea plane at rest. While we're watching the crew working on the set, Dolph took out his director's hat and switched back to being a normal visitor. He doesn't show off in any way, as if he felt like a small player within a big Hollywood production with other big names involved and lots of money at stake. He's probably as much happy and excited to be part of this, as he is also just happy to make and direct his own little projects (as he calls them). That is why he's actually talking to a production company to direct his next film Wanted Man in Mexico and produce it himself. As he says with a big exasperated laugh “Love this business!”. When we leave the set it's about 5am and we're taken back to the hotel by a New Orleans driver, a real movie character!

Next day - Dolph is not filming, but it's never totally a day off! We're to meet up and talk after he's worked out and taken care of his daily business. Even while filming The Expendables, Dolph is also supervising the editing and post-production of his “neo-noir” thriller Icarus. He's about to deliver his director's cut to the producers and seems anxious about the executive’s possible notes and additional edits before locking the picture (before moving on to scoring, finalizing visual effects and sound editing). Shot on HD in merely 18 days on a tight budget (needless to say the Icarus shoot was fast paced, tense and excruciating), Icarus is a project Dolph has had on the back burner for a while under various forms (the original pitch which had him as a plain bad guy assassin chased by a cop was refused by the producers) and has been delayed several times (notably because of the filming of the Universal Soldier new sequel). The teaser trailer suggested the result might be interesting, a multifaceted role for Dolph, the film a cross between Jean-Pierre Melville and Johnnie To.

Dolph shows me the first 20-25 mins and I must say it looks very promising, maybe even probably unique in that he has never done something like it as an actor or a director. Not only in the look of it, but in terms of directing, editing and storytelling. It's not as straight forward as the teaser let it seem, it's not as simplistic as "loving father and husband is called to be a hitman once again and protect his family". It has temp music and sound and the edit can still be altered before the final cut, but it shows something bold coming from Dolph. Even his character is a bit different and multi-layered, with a cold sense of humor, and living the American way of life in a cynical way. The best part about watching it with Dolph himself is the candidness with which he is laughing about his own work throughout the scenes, as if he was almost embarrassed to be involved in such silly business (that is filmmaking)...

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