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Interview - Director Alex Kurtzman Breathes Life Into 'The Mummy'

Alex Kurtzman Interview

The Mummy had its Australian premiere not long ago and while he was in the country, I had the chance to speak to director Alex Kurtzman about his film.

Matt:  You’ve had the chance to write so many big-budget action blockbusters.  How did this opportunity to direct finally come along?

Alex:  I’ve had the great privilege to work with a lot of amazing directors and they’ve been very generous with me.  I got to stay with them on set and see them work and watch their styles.  At a certain point, I developed a strong itch to do it myself – to take what I’ve learned and apply it to something.  I knew I wanted to do a project that I was passionate about and I have loved the Universal monsters for a long time.  When the studio came to me about The Mummy, I was very excited to throw my hat in the ring and they fortunately said “yes”.

Matt:  Have you always had a love for action movies?  Are there films that you look up to and use as a kind of benchmark?

Alex:  For sure.  I love all kinds of movies.  In terms of action references, I grew up in the era of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.  Those were particularly exciting because they were so rooted in character.  They were big ideas that had small human stories.  The action films that I tend to be drawn to are very similar.

Matt:  Take us through a shootout scene.  There are parts in the film where we see guns being fired, bullets hitting walls.  How do you pull that off and make it look so realistic?

Alex:  For the scene you’re talking about, we shot that in Namibia which is an amazingly beautiful place.  We built that entire town in the middle of the African desert where there’s absolutely nothing.  You’re importing enormous amounts of things.  Those buildings were all rigged to explode, collapse and reset within 10 minutes which was amazing to watch.

We had the most incredible designers and stunt folk working.  It’s a lot of planning which is the short answer.  We spent a lot of time choreographing the sequence in advance and going down to every detail.  There’s real explosions going on and so the actors and crew have to be safe.  What looks very chaotic on screen is very kind of controlled.

Matt:  I’ve seen all kind of stunts in movies but one that freaks me out above all others is an underwater scene – where someone is swimming around trying to find air.  We see that in this film with what does look like Tom Cruise.  Is there any level of danger at all when pulling off a scene like that?

Alex:  The water stuff is extremely dangerous because you’re going so deep and because you have to oxygenate correctly.  There are divers all around and Tom Cruise likes to do everything practically so there are no stuntmen there.  We were in a very large water tank.  If you don’t rise to the surface correctly then you can really hurt yourself.  The actors have to train and learn how to use rebreathers for a long time.  It’s exhausting work but hopefully it gives the audience a really exciting and scary experience.

Matt:  Special effects seem to be able to do everything these days but was there stuff here that you couldn’t pull off?  Anything that was simply too much for the visual effects guys?

Alex:  The fun about working with Tom is that’s never really allowed to be a thought.  You’re always asking yourself how you can deliver something for the audience that they’ve never seen before.

In the case of the plane crash sequence, Tom was excited about doing it in zero gravity and so we shot it over the course of a few days in a real plane called the Vomit Comet.  You fly up towards space at the speed of a rocket and then you free fall for 22 seconds.  In that 22 seconds, as you’re plummeting towards earth, we’re rolling the camera.  The audience is seeing actual people tumbling through a plane that is going straight down.  You see all the movement that you could never achieve with cables or CGI.

Matt:  I have to ask where the sound guys came up with all the spooky mummy noises.  It sounds like a mix between a strong wind and someone screaming.

Alex:  I’ve worked with a team over the last couple of years that are unbelievable.  Our mixers, Christopher Scarabosio and Paul Massey, have done everything from the Star Wars films to Pirates of the Caribbean.  They really know what they’re doing.  We spend a lot of time developing sound.  It’s one of the key emotional experiences than an audience has.  They may not be aware of it but it impacts them massively.

We spent a huge amount of time thinking about Sofia Boutella’s voice and what we wanted to do with it.  We put whispers behind it and augmented it in certain ways so that it had a very creepy effect but still found grounded in reality.

Matt:  This appears to be part of a bigger universe of films that perhaps we’re going to see more of in the near future.  Can you tell us what else is in the works?  Are you in the loop about where the storylines are going next?

Alex:  Yes.  I am very much in the loop.  The next film we’re going to be doing is Bride of Frankenstein.  A lot of people involved really love these Universal monsters.  Bill Condon will be directing.  He’s a massive lover of James Whale and he directed Gods & Monsters which makes him the perfect director.  He just did Beauty and the Beast and he’s such a brilliant, talented guy.  I’m a huge fan and I’m excited to work with him.  I think the idea is to take each of these monsters and give them their own film.

Matt:  Do you have certain plot points that you were told to include in The Mummy knowing that they’re going to be expanded upon in future films?

Alex:  Not so much in The Mummy.  The intention was to open the door a crack but not to overwhelm the audience with too much information about it.  You want to wet the audience’s appetite and get them excited about the things coming up.