“Underworld” director talks 20 years of vampire-versus-werewolf mayhem — and franchise's future

“Underworld” director talks 20 years of vampire-versus-werewolf mayhem — and franchise's future

Think 2008's Twilight was the first movie in which vampires warred with werewolves? Think again. Director Len Wiseman's 2003 action-horror film Underworld starred Kate Beckinsale as a werewolf-hunting blood-sucker named Selene and beat the Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson YA romance to screens by five years. Still, Wiseman is well aware that some people think he got the idea for his film from Twilight.

"Here's what's funny," the filmmaker tells EW, two decades after Underworld premiered in theaters. "Because Twilight was such a massive success, people at Comic-Con would ask if Underworld was inspired by Twilight. I'd be like, 'Okay, I don't even know if Kristen Stewart was born [when we made the movie].' But I get that a lot, as years go on. It's like, 'You did a dark, gritty version of Twilight.' I go, 'No, they did a glossier romantic version of [Underworld].'"

Underworld was always something of an underdog, an appropriate term given the film's large contingent of werewolves, or "lycans" to use the movie's preferred nomenclature. The core idea was dreamed up by the then-unknown Wiseman and an actor friend named Kevin Grevioux with the pair further developing the project with Danny McBride, a stuntman-turned-screenwriter — not to be confused with the Eastbound & Down star of the same name.

UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale
UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale

Screen Gems/Everett Kate Beckinsale in 'Underworld"

After many rejections, Wiseman finally struck a deal with Lakeshore Entertainment, a production company best known at the time for making the Julia Roberts-starring romantic-comedy Runaway Bride. Still in his 20s, the director shot the film in Budapest with a cast that included Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Sophia Myles, Shane Brolly, and Grevioux, the latter playing a lycan named Raze. "I didn't own a passport until I went out to go make Underworld," Wiseman, 50, says. "That's how young I was."

Released by Screen Gems on Sept. 19, 2003, the inexpensive Underworld was a hit, earning $95 million worldwide and changing Wiseman's life in more ways than one. He went on to make a sequel, 2006's Underworld: Evolution, and produced three more franchise entries, as well as directing 2007's Live Free or Die Hard, the 2012 Total Recall remake, and the upcoming John Wick spin-off film Ballerina, which stars Ana de Armas. Wiseman also married Beckinsale, who continued to play the role of Selene in the franchise until the series finally wound down with 2016's Underworld: Blood Wars. (The pair divorced in 2019.)

To mark the 20th anniversary of Underworld, Wiseman spoke with EW about the film and the future of the series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: IMDb has your first credit as a property assistant on the 1994 sci-fi film Stargate. I assume that means you handed guns to Kurt Russell all day long?

LEN WISEMAN: That's true. That's exactly what I did.

How did got your start in the business?

I grew up in San Francisco. I was the kid who was making movies in his backyard and through college, and I snuck onto a set. Do you remember this movie Heart and Souls with Robert Downey, Jr.? I kind of spied around the set and saw what the grips looked like. I'm like, I've got that uniform: cargo shorts and a tool belt. I grabbed my portfolio, and I just walked right [by] the security guard. I watched that set for two days. Anyhow, the assistant director came up to me. He said, "So, are you part of this production?" I told him the whole story. He was so entertained by the idea. He took a look at my portfolio, with all my artwork and drawings and storyboards. He introduced me to the prop master that was on that movie, and that prop master liked the artwork. Then the next job he was going up for was Stargate, and he asked if I wanted to be a part of that group. That's kind of how it started. Went from Stargate to Godzilla, Independence Day.

You also started directing music videos?

Yeah, I started doing low-budget music videos right after Independence Day. So, I was directing, but making no money. I was always jumping back and forth from props, often making a lot more money than I was getting to direct music videos. I would race over to a pitch meeting at Capitol Records and have my boss at the time paging me, "Where are you?" I would keep different clothes in the car.

UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale
UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale

Screen Gems/Everett Kate Beckinsale in 'Underworld'

How did Underworld come about?

It was a pitch. Off my music video reel, I got a meeting at Dimension [the Bob Weinstein-run genre arm of Miramax, which had produced 1996's Scream and its two sequels]. They were looking to start a werewolf franchise. I am now, but I wasn't then, a huge horror guy. I was looking for a new version of a werewolf movie and what that opponent would be. We'd seen the local sheriff, we'd seen the town. It's always a similar format. We hit the idea of, what if that opponent was a vampire? I remember thinking, surely that's been done. I mean, werewolves against vampires? We looked it up and realized it really has not been done since the classic monster movies. Then we [had] these two families, creating this Romeo and Juliet story with vampires and werewolves. We got really excited about it. I started doing drawings for that, went back, pitched it to Dimension, and they said, "No." [Laughs] They said, we're looking for just a werewolf thing, which I think ended up being this movie called Cursed.

Yes, that was written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, but became a famous disaster.

Oh my god, that's right. I forgot about that story. So, my agent said, "This is new, it's got a great story, let's just continue to develop it." And so we did. I'm not dying to make a werewolf movie, I'm dying to direct a movie. It was a real opportunity. I stopped doing props for a while, was really low on money, was just really focusing on getting it done. We got a lot of offers to buy the script — if I didn't direct it, because I'd never done a movie before. I met with Lorenzo [di Bonaventura, producer of the Transformers franchise] at Warner Bros. and he was like, "This is a $60 million script!" They almost bought it with me directing it. That's the closest that we got to a major studio. I was actually on set on a music video, and Skip [Williamson], one of the guys from Lakeshore Records, was there and thought I was doing a good job. He said, "Have you ever thought about directing a movie?" I pitched to Lakeshore, and they loved it. It was a much different budget than what we were shopping around at the time. They were so supportive. The fact that I did the drawings, I remember that was something that really resonated with Gary Lucchesi [President of Lakeshore Entertainment]. He was like, "If this comes directly from you, and you're not hiring a concept [artist], then I trust you know what you're doing."

UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale
UNDERWORLD, Kate Beckinsale

Screen Gems/Everett Kate Beckinsale in 'Underworld'

How did you come to cast Kate?

That was from Tom Rosenberg [Chairman of Lakeshore Entertainment]. He was the first one to suggest Kate. She was more of a serious actress, or [starring] in period pieces. She was looking to do something in a different genre, and it worked out great.

She had zero experience of onscreen action at this point?
Yes, that's true. The amount of training and everything that [she] went through Brad Martin [Underworld stunt coordinator] was heading that up, and it was extensive. So, yes, she had not done any of the training stuff, the fight choreography. All of that was an entirely new world.

You shot in Budapest. What was that like?

It was a tough shoot. What I learned on that first film is the reality of how money equals time, equals days, equals the amount of shots. The most frightening thing was, we have this entire sequence, and we have one day to shoot it. How are we going to do this? We also didn't have a second unit or even really an insert unit. In Budapest, at that time, there weren't a lot of English-speaking crew, so we had 14 translators while we were shooting. When you reset for something, you go, 'Let's go back, we'll reset, let's do this.' It was almost like watching phone tag the way it was being relayed with all the translators.

What do you remember about the release of the film?

At that time, there were a lot of movies that went straight to video that were also pretty popular. Because we started independently, I really thought, If I just kick a--, and I make a movie that goes straight to video, and people see it and like it, that'll be awesome. But I was so blown away by the advertising campaign. I remember it was up on billboards and buses and everything. It was awesome and weirdly frightening, because I knew, this is a very low-budget movie compared to [the films on] the other billboards and buses at the time, but they're presenting us just as big! It was a crazy time. I was, of course, running around, taking pictures of every billboard, sending them to my family.

After the second film, you directed other movies but continued to help oversee the franchise. What was it like steering the ship as the mythology became more dense and complex?

It's fun and tricky at the same time. It's fun to expand the world, but also making sure that it sticks to the rules and the mythology. I always think rules are very important in genre movies. If you set them up, and you start to break them because you get bored, and you want to venture out into other areas with a new film, it feels unearned.

Len Wiseman attends the Models Of Comedy show benefiting "Best Buddies" charity at Hotel Ziggy on June 16, 2023 in West Hollywood, California.
Len Wiseman attends the Models Of Comedy show benefiting "Best Buddies" charity at Hotel Ziggy on June 16, 2023 in West Hollywood, California.

Paul Archuleta/Getty Images 'Underworld' director Len Wiseman

Are there any plans to bring Underworld back in any fashion?

There is a fashion that is in the works. I can't talk about it, but there is a future to Underworld for sure.

There was some talk about doing an Underworld TV show back in the day. What happened with that?

That's the one I'm referring to.

How's it going with Ballerina?

We're on a pause right now, but I've just finished the director's cut. Had an amazing shoot. It's a really fun movie.

I happened to be on the set of No Time to Die when Ana de Armas was shooting her big action scene, and I would certainly watch her do something like that for two hours.

Right? And that's exactly what we're going to do. You like her for 15 minutes? Well, you'll love her for two hours!

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