LOS ANGELES — "The face is way too hot. It doesn't look like Jet Li, it looks like the guy from 'Saw.' It's not supposed to look like a mask!"
"I've had problems with this before and I've told you about it. He's looking like a guy in black pig sh--. If you look at what we've got — he's the creature from the Black Lagoon!"
"The backgrounds are taking away from the reality we've established! Flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat, flat!"
It's an oppressively hot Los Angeles day, nearly two months before "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is released, and director Rob Cohen is holding court.
With his back turned to a group of special-effects wizards from Digital Domain, Cohen sits with roughly 25 others in a darkened theater, all eyes trained on a giant screen projecting images from the film submitted for his final approval. The sequences — around 20 in all, sometimes as short as two seconds — are played on a loop. If he thinks the shot is finalized and ready for print, he'll clap his hands and ring a bell. But not one to mince words, Cohen is letting his displeasure with some of the shots show.
And in each and every case, he's 100 percent right.
"Three times a week, I sit with the lead people, the digital men. A lot of people think that directors call up [Industrial Light and Magic] and say, 'Ya, I need a dragon that talks.' I don't know how other directors work, but with me, I'm on every pixel, every detail, all the time," Cohen tells MTV News when we join him for one such session. "And I have been doing this with them since I became the director of this movie a year ago."
To be fair, Cohen's words read harsher than they sound. Watching the process of finalizing these shots unfold, it's hard not to like the oft-derided director, who is exacting, demanding, rigid and uncompromising, but also jovial and clear about what he wants.
At various points, his desires necessitate that we watch the same one-second clip upwards of 20 times, occasionally frame by exhausting frame. To the untrained eye, the clips, which include some pretty nifty battle scenes, seem perfect as they are. Anybody who can watch one second of film and say otherwise is either lying or as obsessive about perfection as Cohen.
One shot in particular — of the Chinese terra-cotta warriors marching across the desert — has been kicked back for improvements "40 times," Cohen says. And it's not the terra-cotta warriors he has a problem with — it's the background. A background that is literally seen for one second (at the most).
"I've worked on building the layers, building the layers, building the layers, and I've seen it now for final approval several times. I don't like it," Cohen insists. "I don't like the background. I don't like the relationship of the foreground to the background. I don't like the deadness of the background. I don't feel like I'm in a photorealistic environment, and this is when the army comes above ground. That wants to be one of those moments that's absolutely undiluted by doubt. You just want to go, 'Christ! This is the terra-cotta army of Shi Huang coming above ground to go into battle!' "
Other shots — notably Jet Li's transformation scene, which includes a lot of mud effects — also fail Cohen's test, although never without specific notes on how the director thinks they could be better. ("More red. Less light! Some shrubbery in the distance!")
But for Cohen, who says he'll be working on the film this way "until they pry it out of my hands on July 13," it's an arduous process with a noble goal: make the best darn movie possible.
"Maybe many directors would have accepted some of this stuff today that I kicked back, but I can't do it. These people are dead tired. We've been working seven days a week for months. And the temptation is to go, 'Nah, it's good enough,' 'cause it's dispiriting when I kick some of these finals back, but you have to," Cohen says, a broad smile on his face. "The toughest thing about being a movie director is resisting the temptation to be a nice guy."
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" opens August 1.
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