Q & A with Director Sylvain White

Director Sylvain White on the set of “The Losers”

Director Sylvain White on the set of “The Losers”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Sylvain White about his action thriller “The Losers” from Warner Bros. in association with Dark Castle Entertainment, opening Apr. 23.

Directed by Sylvain White, “The Losers” was produced by Joel Silver, Akiva Goldsman and Kerry Foster. Its screenplay by Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt is based on the comic book series written by Andy Diggle, illustrated by Jock and published by DC Comics/Vertigo. It was executive produced by Steve Richards, Andrew Rona, Sarah Aubrey and Stuart Besser.

Starring are Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) as Clay; Zoë Saldana (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”) as Aisha; Chris Evans (the “Fantastic Four” films) as Jensen; Idris Elba (“Obsessed”) as Roque; Columbus Short (“Stomp the Yard”) as Pooch; Oscar Jaenada (“Che: Part Two”) as Cougar; and Jason Patric (“In the Valley of Elah”) as Max.

The story (spoiler alert): “The Losers” is an explosive action tale of betrayal and revenge about the members of an elite Special Forces unit sent to the Bolivian jungle on a search and destroy mission. The team soon find they’re the target of a deadly double cross, instigated from the inside by a powerful enemy known only as Max (Jason Patric).

Making good use of the fact that they’re now presumed dead, the group goes deep undercover in a dangerous plot to clear their names and to even the score with Max. Joining them is the mysterious Aisha (Zoë Saldana), a beautiful operative with her own agenda, who’s more than capable of scoring a few points of her own.

Working together, when they’re not arguing amongst themselves, they’ve got to stay one step ahead of the globetrotting Max — a ruthless man bent on embroiling the world in a new high-tech global war for his own benefit. If they can take down Max and save the world at the same time, it’ll be a win-win for the team now known as "The Losers."

Sylvain White previously directed the 2007 drama “Stomp the Yard,” which marked his feature film directorial debut and topped the box office in its first two weekends in release. His work on the film reflected his knowledge and passion for being a hands-on director, from his involvement with visual effects to camera operation and editing to executive producing the movie’s soundtrack.

Born and raised in Paris, White won a scholarship to Pomona College in California, where he graduated with honors in Media Studies and Film & Video Production. He went on to demonstrate his compelling visual style and strong storytelling skills by creating a series of award-winning short films, including “The 25th Frame,” “Urban Short Circuit Mind Scrape” and “Quiet,” which received multiple awards in the U.S. and internationally. White has also directed numerous award-winning commercials and music videos in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Q: How did you come to direct “The Losers?”
A: I had a project I was working on in development at Warner Bros. and heard of “The Losers” through my agent (UTA) and an executive I was working with on the project I was on. I went in and got the source material, the comic book. I was familiar with it, but hadn’t read the actual comic. I loved the source material. I thought the screenplay was very witty and original. What particularly attracted me was the odd yet original combination of the gritty, realistic, visceral action combined with a fun comedic tone and characters.

To me that was something that hadn’t been done in a while. A lot of action movies lately have had a tendency to fall under gritty realism. The action benefits from that and that’s a very good thing. But a lot of times it’s paired with a very dry serious tone as we’ve seen in the James Bond movies and the “Bourne” movies, which works really well for them. But I thought what set this project aside was that you could have this intensity of action combined with this original light, fun comedic tone, which is in many ways a throw-back to some of the classic movies from the ’80s — but with a new twist. It’s fresher. It’s newer.
Q: When was that?
A: That was about a year and a half ago — October 2008.
Q: What happened after you decided you’d like to do the project?
A: I interviewed. I got the job, which was great. I worked for two to three months to get to a shooting draft. I worked very closely with the writer, James Vanderbilt, as well as producer Akiva Goldsman. It was a really great fun process to work with both those guys. That went very smoothly. Once we had a shooting draft, we circulated it to cast. I was very fortunate. I really got the cast I wanted originally. The studio was very supportive of my choices. I was able to go with this young, edgy cast that’s not necessarily what you’d expect for this kind of movie, but at the same time fits right into the graphic novel characters — not just the aesthetic, but the tone of the characters in the comic book. I was able to get my choices with the cast that everybody now feels very happy about.
Star of “The Losers” Zoë Saldana

Star of “The Losers” Zoë Saldana

Q: A couple of years ago this might have been the kind of project a studio would have wanted to cast with a superstar.
A: The appeal of the movie is that it’s an ensemble film. It’s really about this group of mercenaries that’s come up with this female warrior. It has an ensemble feel so there’s no real lead of the movie. There’s certainly a leader, which is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but all six characters have an equal amount of screen time, an equal amount of lines and an equal amount of presence and importance in the movie. It was always kind of defined that way — as an ensemble kind of thing. I would say it’s more balanced than, for example, “Ocean’s Eleven” where the Brad Pitt and George Clooney characters really stand out as the leads and the other guys are the sidekicks.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We shot the entire movie in Puerto Rico. It was particularly challenging because we had to replicate and shoot multiple cities and multiple countries. The movie takes place all over the world and we needed to find a location that could facilitate all these different looks without our having to go to all these different places. We didn’t have that kind of budget. The budget is a lot tighter and smaller than people would expect. The movie looks like a big budget movie, but it wasn’t.
Q: What budget did you have?
A: I can’t really say, but I can tell you it’s under $40 million. I benefited from being surrounded by a really good team of technicians — from special effects to stunts to visual effects — and I was able to get really high quality results.
Q: Were there any tax benefits to shooting in Puerto Rico?
A: Sure. There’s a big tax incentive there — up to 40 percent. That was obviously the reason why it was originally considered. I was sent by the studio to different places to consider where to shoot. I was actually kind of apprehensive about Puerto Rico because I thought it was just a small island in the Caribbean and I didn’t know if I could shoot all these locations there. But once I got there and scouted I saw that, in fact, this place has a very large (filmmaking) infrastructure and it’s very versatile in its looks. I knew I was going to be able to deliver all these looks and different locations. We had to “cheat” New Mexico, Dubai, India, Los Angeles, the Fiji Islands, Bolivia, Miami. There are a lot of different locations and the great thing about shooting in Puerto Rico is that we were able to recreate all these different aesthetics within a very short distance. The island’s not that big so you can basically have access to any of these looks and locations within a half-hour (drive). You don’t have to truck very far. So it was very cost effective, but at the same time the aesthetic that the island offered really benefits the movie.
Q: You have a lot of explosions in the movie. How do you shoot scenes like that? Did you have eight or 10 cameras rolling at the same time?
A: To tell you the truth, we really didn’t have the kind of budget to do it over and over. So for the big explosions and things like that it was one take wonders. I was able to have enough cameras. I never shot more than five cameras. That was the maximum I was able to get. What really made the difference — because this was my first action movie — was me studying the craft and the art form of action and at the same time, more importantly, being surrounded by people that are really (experienced) in that arena.

I got the stunt guys that did huge movies such as James Cameron’s “Avatar.” I got the guy who did special effects on “The Dark Knight.” Those people are so good at what they do that I’m able to just express creatively what I’d like to make happen and they will facilitate that in a safe and cost effective way.
(Left to Right) Stars of “The Losers” Jeffery Dean Morgan and Zoë Saldana

(Left to Right) Stars of “The Losers” Jeffery Dean Morgan and Zoë Saldana

Q: Did you storyboard scenes?
A: For the big more complex ones that required more planning and some pre-visualization I did storyboards. For one scene in particular I did a 3D pre-visualization because it required a lot of different elements and doing a pre-viz enabled us to be very lean in terms of shooting. The big accomplishment was that because of the budget we shot the entire movie in 50 days with virtually no second unit. So I would basically shoot all the action — from a tire screeching to a door knob opening. I’m responsible to take care of all those shots, all the little details. There’s no real team or second unit to clean up that kind of stuff. We did it all in 50 days and I think the movie feels like it was shot over a hundred days like most action films and feels like a much bigger budget. So I’m very proud that we came in on time and on budget with the kind of film it is.
Q: Looking back what were some of the other challenges you faced?
A: I filmed this location in Puerto Rico, which was pretty amazing, called the Arecibo Space Telescope. It’s the biggest radio telescope in the world and it’s literally in the middle of thick, thick jungle. It’s an incredible location. I love astronomy and science and I felt this would be a super cool location to shoot a scene with Jason Patric. To go on top of the satellite dish is very rare access and our producer was able to work it out.

By the time we were shooting we realized we were very limited because it’s so tricky up there — it’s windy. It was basically me, the cameraman, Jason Patric and a microphone for the scene, but at the same time it was such a memorable moment. You’re a thousand feet above the jungle in the middle of nowhere and it was so epic and grand. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie and Jason Patric is great in it. But it certainly felt like we were on another planet when we were on top of that space telescope shooting that scene.
Q: How close are you to finishing the film as we speak?
A: We’re in the very final stages of post-production. We’re doing all the sound work, the final mix. I’m basically mixing today and a little bit tomorrow and then we should be done. It’s over a year and a half for me in the making and this is really the last few hours. I’m eager. I’m excited. The movie’s coming out soon. We tested last Saturday. The movie tested through the roof. I was so excited to know that people like it. The audience we made it for likes it.
Q: Who is the target audience?
A: It’s a PG-13 movie so I’d say the audience is the 13 to 35 target, but because of its lightness and tone it also appeals to women. For an action movie that’s atypical. The numbers for women were very high. And I think it’s also going to appeal to an older audience. I think it’s cool because it hits the sensibility of the teenagers, but at the same time it’s got a tone and quality that also make it enjoyable to older adults. Mostly the target audience is teenagers.
Q: Had you considered doing it as an R rated film?
A: When I came on the movie the studio had decided it was going to be an R film. When I read the material, it was clear to me that it had to be a PG-13 film and the reason for that is it’s based on a comic book. Any 14 year old’s going to walk into a comic book store and buy “The Losers” and I wanted that same teenager to be able to go see the movie. I felt because of the tone and humor it wasn’t about the gore and how harsh the action was going to be, but how intense. So I focused on the intensity of the action and not necessarily the violence and it worked really well. You watch the movie and you don’t miss it. It was a very good lesson for me.