Tom Cruise would like to get serious for a minute. The actor lowers his voice and tells the press the right way to approach his new film, The Mummy.
“It’s important that when we talk about the film, we talk about how this is re-defining what a monster movie is,” says Cruise, 54, in a press conference promoting the film in Taipei, Taiwan.
The Mummy is based on a series of horror films featuring mummified corpses from ancient Egypt rising from the dead to suck life out of the living. These movies, dating back to the 1930s, used to be about only one thing: Scaring audiences.
He talks about how, when he first came on board, there was no script. He and director-producer Alex Kurtzman had to first hammer out the broad strokes and what they agreed on was that their mummy had to be “sexy and dangerous”.
“It’s a different thing now. We are terrified by monsters, but we are intrigued and drawn by them, seduced by them and wondering, as audiences, where our affinities are going to lie,” he says.
The movie also features another Cruise trait: Massive stunts, many performed by Cruise himself. Audiences expect realism, he says.
“When I make a film, people know it’s me. I expect a lot from myself and the people around me.”
Those expectations extended to his co-stars Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella, who respectively play archaeologist Jenny Halsey and the creature, Ahmanet.
In one scene, Jenny (Wallis) and soldier-treasure hunter Nick (Cruise) have to fight the creature inside a military cargo plane while it is in free fall. Wallis, who had no experience with stunts, found herself inside a real airplane used to train astronauts for zero-gravity environments.
The craft is dubbed the “vomit comet” because of the nausea it induces in free-floating passengers. It took 64 flights to capture the weightless fight scene. Some members of crew did throw up, but none of the actors did, says Cruise.
Wallis, 32, says she held in her breakfast out of “ego” during the final days of shooting.
“I was adamant I was not going to be sick in front of Tom on our last day. That was not how I was going to bow out,” says the British actress best known for playing Mia, owner of a haunted doll in Annabelle (2014).
She describes how, when the plane descends rapidly, passengers float. But that all comes to an abrupt end when the plane levels out and climbs, ready for the next dive. Bodies slam against the aircraft, which is heavily padded.
“Gravity comes back at three times the force,” she says of the see-saw experience which was shot in France.
She had one additional plane stunt, in which she is yanked out of the plane at high speed because her parachute opens suddenly. “I got yanked out of a plane on a bungee cord, much to Tom’s delight. We have many takes of him giggling away,” she says.
Director Kurtzman, 43, says that Cruise’s demand for realism in special effects takes a toll, but it pays off. “He’s constantly looking for ways to entertain that the audience has never seen before. When you do it in computer graphics, it doesn’t look right.”
That realism, he says, will be an important factor in the series of films that make up the Dark Universe, a franchise based on classic monsters. The Mummy kicks off the series.
Actors have already signed on to play monsters. They include Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (who is seen in The Mummy), Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster and Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. Dwayne Johnson is rumoured to be in talks to play The Wolfman.
Each will have his own movie, but will also share stories, says Kurtzman. “It’s not going to be like a superhero franchise,” he says, because these films will take the villain’s point of view, rather than the hero’s.
“You sympathise with them, but you also fear them. I love superhero movies, but I can’t relate to them as much because they are not me. The monsters reflect parts of our personalities.”
Boutella’s mummy character needed very few computer effects. Even though only the eyes of the mummy are visible in the early scenes (before the creature sucks life from victims, regaining some of her human appearance), Boutella shot them in full make-up and costume, a process that took six hours.
“I had never been so uncomfortable in my life,” says the 35-year-old actress, who was born in Algeria and raised in France.
Her big break was playing a killer in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and the alien castaway Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond (2016), a part which also required heavy makeup and prosthetics, but which got her noticed by Kurtzman.
The mummy prosthetics and makeup was heavier than for Star Trek because it covered her entire body, not just her face and hands. The effort needed to make her look like the creature and how confined she was in the body cast inside a sarcophagus was such that when her character had to rise to express rage and pain, it was not just acting.
“I really felt the pain – I couldn’t talk, it was claustrophobic and people had to carry me to move me around,” she recalls.
Once the mummy is free of the sarcophagus, she has to move in a certain way. Boutella, who trained as a hip-hop dancer and gymnast, put her training to use by adopting animal movements.
In some scenes, she is shown scuttling across floors on all fours.
“I picked the spider – spiders are part of her personality. She needed the creepiness of a spider after she is reanimated,” she says. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/John Lui