"Deathgames." The title alone summons up awesome mental images, right? The title bubbled out of the trades last week as an upcoming project with "Twilight" star Kellan Lutz and "Iron Man 2" star Samuel L. Jackson in late-stage talks to headline. Intrigued by the premise -- Jackson kidnaps Lutz and forces him to fight in a modern-day gladiator arena -- I put in a call to Mike Callaghan, who is producing with Motion Picture Corporation of America, for additional details.
"Essentially the idea is, what if you had 'Gladiator' set in the present with modern-day technology," Callaghan explained. "You've got Sam Jackson essentially playing the Caesar who rules over an arena where people fight to the death. And Kellan plays our gladiator, who enters the film as someone that was kidnapped and rises through the ranks to become the head gladiator, the prized fighter."
That's the basic pitch. Things get mighty interesting however when you take a closer look at Jackson's character and how he stages these fights.
"Everything takes place online. Our villain, Sam Jackson's character -- his name is Logan -- has a fortress in a very secluded part of the world where he's got," -- now dig this, "a huge green screen arena where he has these people to the death and everything's broadcast over the Internet."
Green screen. The kind of stuff they use nowadays to shoot effects-heavy movies. Basically, your actors play out their roles for a given scene in front of a green backdrop. Computer wizards then add digital effects and surroundings into the background. It's something that director Jonah Loop, who make his directorial debut with "Deathgames" after working for years as a visual effects supervisor, has an extensive amount of experience with.
"[Loop] will be creating virtual backgrounds and environments for these fights to take place [in]," Callaghan explained. "So all of the fighters will fight in costume against, essentially, a photorealistic background from different periods... in history."
That's pretty neat. And Callaghan nails the obvious influences at work here in his next statement: "So essentially what the character Logan, Sam Jackson, is presenting to his audience is sort of a mash-up between a UFC Pay-Per-View event and a video game. On one hand, the movie is very contained, but it's going to feel a lot bigger because these fights are very epic and brutal."
Let's consider the UFC comparison first. People who are used to the dazzling acrobatic combat in movies like "The Matrix" tend to be pretty surprised when they tune in for a Mixed Martial Arts event, which is highlighted by up-close punches and kicks rather than backflips and flying jump kicks. Callaghan promises that kind of aesthetic in the finished film.
"There's no wire work with people flipping and doing crazy stunts. It's really very hardcore, a lot of punching. There are weapons involved in some of the fights, so it can get pretty bloody in that regard. We want that realism and brutality that was captured very well in 'Fight Club,' but updated for how you would broadcast those fights for a wider audience," he said.
What's more, MMA fans can expect to see some familiar faces. "We're absolutely looking to top fighters. There's a couple of people we're talking to that [are] definitely recognizable to the world of MMA and also genre fans in general for these types of movies," Callaghan said. "The movie's really taken on a life of its own at this point. We've got a lot of additional name actors that are approaching us that want to be in this movie.
Then there's the video game angle. With green screen-sourced environments serving as the backdrop for each fight, the combat can really be taken anywhere. Feudal Japan. Ancient Rome. Perhaps even a distant alien world, the cargo hold of a space ship or the pits of Hell itself. Pick a fantasy-based fighting game and consider: any of those locales are possible.
"It's like if you were trying to take... the video game 'Tekken' and recreate those fights for real, and then broadcast them over the Internet in a Pay-Per-View-like setting. It's a very contained criminal organization that is basically running their own PPV, which is a hugely profitable industry."
"If UFC were fights to the death, this is what it would look like."
Ultimately, it all circles back to the culture we live in now. "A lot of people today grew up on video games, [which] have become so sophisticated. You look at the success of games like 'Modern Warfare 2' where you're this covert black ops agent who is just blowing people away in a very realistic way," Callaghan said.
"The idea behind our villain Logan is to tap into that zeitgeist, but in a very real way. He's obviously a madman with no morals and criminal tendencies so he is kidnapping people and forcing them to fight to the death, in very much the same way that the Romans did. He's a businessman who's looking back through time and he's decided that this is [a profitable venture]," he continued, concluding, "It's a comment on the times... a comment on violence as entertainment."