Coming from the grimier, gonzo world of “Crank,” it was something of a surprise to see directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor take the helm of Sony blockbuster “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.” While the first film was a $228 million hit, Sony definitely wanted to take this prospective franchise in a different direction. And fortunately for the hands-on duo, who also shoot all their second unit footage themselves, they were given free reign by Marvel Studios to put their stamp on the film.
“They needed to sign off on the production script, the costume, the bike, and Carrigan slash Blackout,” Neveldine told us, the last comment referring to the onscreen baddie played by Johnny Whitworth. “And that was really it. They were excited about us being darker with it. They were totally in [with the aesthetic]. And then they weren’t involved with us at all.” Taylor adds, “Their main concern was that the first movie was pretty successful, but it didn’t feel like a Marvel movie. It felt like a Disney movie. I think their concern was, let’s make it a little cooler, darker, more contemporary.”
Fortunately, the duo, who have extensive experience putting Jason Statham through the ringer in the “Crank” movies, had an absolutely game leading man in Nicolas Cage. Taylor says, “We came to him with a pretty strong vision of what the movie was supposed to be when we first met him, which he bought into on Day One. He’d come in and be really excited about this, whenever he would come up with something new.” Taylor describes an enthusiastic Cage thusly, “He’s hoping we’ll like it, because he really wants to use it. And then he’d do [a line reading] and we’d all laugh and think it’s great. And he’d be like ‘Will it make the movie, do you think it will make the movie?’ And we’d say, I dunno, but we think it’s awesome! Just keep throwing them out! We didn’t want to hold him back at all.”
And sometimes, to unleash the Academy Award winner, they would resort to some bizarre techniques in getting to the heart of Cage’s onscreen alter ego, Johnny Blaze. “We thought about it as a horror film,” says Neveldine. “Like these exorcism movies, Japanese movies. We rehearsed with Nic well before he stepped on set. We studied praying mantes, insects, pharoahes, African tribal dancing, and we got into [the idea of], how would the Ghost Rider move? How would this creature from Hell translate on Earth?” Giving insight into Cage’s on set temperment, Neveldine adds, “Nic sometimes talks about his performance as music. He uses his body as an instrument. He likes to think about scenes in a jazz way, or a rock way.” But it was clear the agenda was to give the character some sympathetic footing. “You want to have a guy that’s struggling with an addiction, and struggling with his inner demon,” says Neveldine, quite literally. “Nic talked about how Johnny Blaze wakes the next morning it’s the worst hangover of his life. It’s nice to base it in reality, because we all have these demons, we all have problems.”
Matched up alongside Cage is veteran character actor Ciarán Hinds who plays Roarke, an alias of the devil that once gave the Rider his abilities. Neveldine explains what they wanted from him was something he delivered in spades, a large, gradiose, theatrical performance. “He wanted to have fun,” smiles Neveldine. “He wanted to be this big, imposing figure. It wasn’t over-the-top, but it was a big movie performance, and this is what that movie needs.” Raves Taylor, “Ciarán’s so good technically. Such a pro. You could give him the slightest nuance in the fourteenth sentence of a half-page monologue, and the next time he does it, he’ll understand it, and deliver. It makes your job so easy.”
Of course, Cage and Hinds aren’t the only familiar faces in the film. If you’re paying attention at around the midway point of the film, you’ll see a recreation of Pink Floyd‘s famous “Wish You Were Here” album cover, with a man shaking the hand of another, bursting into flames. It’s an iconic image, and who else to capture the mood but Neveldine and Taylor themselves? “We were gonna actually use the Pink Floyd cover, but we couldn’t get the rights,” Taylor laments. As a result, the two show up recreating the famous pose on the album cover, a one-second gag sure to please rock fans. Of course, Taylor also claims that your eyes may be deceiving you, as he jokes, “That was us making the deal with Sony.”
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” opens this Friday.