LONDON — Bryan Singer was thinking of fee-fi-fo fun when he decided to make an action movie loosely based on the iconic Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tales.
In fact, the director had so much fun shooting Jack the Giant Slayer, he decided to return with his cast for promotional interviews at Hampton Court Palace, one of the film’s locations just an hour’s drive south of London.
Mind you, it took King Henry VIII and his regal entourage a great deal longer to arrive at his “pleasure palace” back in the 16th century.
That was then, and this movie is now — a first for Singer who blends live action with state-of-the-art performance capture sequences in a high-concept 3D production.
“Growing up, these were the films I waited around the block to go see,” said Singer holding court in Anne Boleyn’s former sitting room overlooking the main Hampton Palace courtyard.
“I like playing with an enormous canvas, and each film I try to do something I hadn’t done before.”
In this one, opening March 1, the well-appointed grounds at Hampton Palace are used as the medieval countryside, while the elaborate courtyard served as a scene setter for a bustling marketplace sequence. Naturally, there was a beanstalk set on the grounds, too.
The movie is hardly the bedtime story so familiar to us, though. Instead, it’s a rousing fantasy adventure with battles, decapitations and eye-popping special effects.
Singer buddies Darren Lemke and David Dobkin re-imagined the fable while Lemke, Dan Studney and Christopher McQuarrie refined the script. So, forget about the simple 19th-century allegory of Jack outwitting the giant in the sky.
“In that one, I always felt sympathy for the giant who got robbed and murdered by Jack,” admitted Singer.
“This (film) is a tale (Jack the Giant Killer) that came out in the 1700s, an Arthurian character who slew giants and brought their heads back to King Arthur.”
In the movie, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a poor farm boy who becomes embroiled in a battle between the royal forces of Cloister and a gang of giants living in the clouds. The confrontations occur after some magic beans come into Jack’s possession.
The subsequent beanstalk, which inadvertently grows from a discarded bean, re-connects Cloister to the sky kingdom of Gantua where the giants live in exile.
When Cloister Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) ends up in Gantua, a captive of the giants, Jack (Hoult), the loyal knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor), and the conniving Roderick (Stanley Tucci) climb the beanstalk to recover her. They end up facing off with the two-headed giant leader General Fallon (Bill Nighy) and the giant army as Cloister King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) waits impatiently at the bottom of the beanstalk.
Obviously, Jack was a key casting component, so Singer turned to Hoult, who had been featured as Beast in X-Men: First Class (and will be again when Singer starts filming X-Men: Days of Future Past in Montreal this spring).
“I was instrumental in casting Nick (Hoult) in X-Men: First Class, and I saw a lot of guys and he turned out to be the best I read,” said Singer who auditioned hundreds of actors for the Jack role.
As usual, Hoult, who starred in the recently released Warm Bodies, followed the director’s instructions closely.
“Bryan was pretty clear that (Jack) was an everyday guy, a dreamer and a young person who would stand up for what he thinks is right,” said Hoult. “But he’s in no way capable of being valiant. Actually, he’s the opposite of who should be climbing this beanstalk on the heroic mission.”
Like most of the rest of the cast, Hoult had to learn the drill of emoting in front of green screens or empty spaces despite being on real location sites such as Hampton Court Palace.
“It’s exciting to bring new life to a new story, and with CGI you’re in a different ballpark and get to have a new experience,” Hoult said.
McGregor agreed that there was a period of adjustment for the cast.
“It’s very different, of course, because most of the time you’re acting in thin air,” said McGregor. “At first, it’s a bit awkward and uncomfortable, but by the time filming ends you’re up to speed with it.”
Certainly, Singer has been at the helm of special-effects-driven productions before, most notably the two X-Men flicks and Superman Returns.
Still, Jack the Giant Slayer was a challenge for him, especially when it came to the CGI giants interacting with the actors. First, he made certain the CGI portion of the story was set before he filmed the actors.
“And I didn’t direct the animation, I directed the actors, so I made sure that their performances informed the action,” said Singer.
The Oscar-nominated Tucci agreed that he’s usually more comfortable with a dialogue-heavy project compared to an action-heavy fantasy. But he always believed he was in good hands.
“You have to trust Bryan,” he said. “He is able to see the whole thing. They had a mock up on monitors, which were rough animated versions, and then we would go with it.”
So far, Singer’s pleased with the results but audiences will let him know if he will be doing another one.
“A big thing that drove me to this in the first place was motion capture and the CGI animation,” admitted the director, a fan of Ray Harryhausen’s fantastical stop-motion animation flicks from the past.
“I want this movie to be the 21st-century version of Ray Harryhausen.”