When CBR News landed in Puerto Rico to check out the set of Warner Bros. adaptation of Andy Diggle and Jock's acclaimed Vertigo comic book "The Losers" last September, aside from the challenging heat and behind the scenes details, what we found was a not-so-secret competition amongst the film's competitive ensemble cast. From Chris Evans to Columbus Short and from Jeffrey Dean Morgan to Spanish actor Óscar Jaenada, there was only one thing on the minds of the team assembled to bring the titular black ops strikeforce to life. It wasn't who would get to blow up the most stuff or fire the most guns or crash the most cars.
It was who would get to drop the most F-bombs.
"It’s rated PG-13. We only get two 'fucks,'" laughed Columbus Short, who plays Pooch, leaning back in a chair between takes with striking red blood stains running down both his legs. "It’s funny, everyone has ad-libbed a 'fuck' and we’re like, ‘Who’s gonna have the best one.’ We’ve even battled. ‘I don’t know, that was a pretty good "fuck." Oh no, I think I had a good one the other day.’ It’s pretty funny. And I just said 'fuck' like nine times in this interview."
The contest was a little crass, sure, but it was also strangely fitting considering the pedigree of "The Losers." In the Vertigo comic, sardonic humor permeates every page as the "heroes" of the book – led by Frank Clay (portrayed in the film by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – shot their way through obstacle after obstacle in a quest to turn the tables on their former handler Max (played by Jason Patric). For the film version, opening April 23, executive producers Joel Silver, Akiva Goldsmith and Peter Berg (who co-wrote the film with upcoming "Spider-Man 4" scribe James Vanderbilt) set out to replicate the feel of the comic series, from the wise-cracking nature of its cast to its high-concept twists on the black ops action genre – a tone that resonated well with the film's director Sylvain White ("Stomp The Yard").
"For me, it was simple. I heard about the project, and I read the screenplay, and I read all the volumes of the graphic novel and I just fell in love with it," White said on set. "The coolest thing about this project is that tonally, you're doing something new and fresh that hasn't been done before, whether it's an adaptation...or it hasn't been done in a long time in terms of movies. It's got this old school flavor. You know how, in the '80s, you had those movies like 'Die Hard' or 'Lethal Weapon' or 'Beverly Hills Cop?' They were so fun. They were light. There was a lot of comedy to the action and to the characters specifically. And at some point in the '90s, you got like, 'Last Action Hero' and 'True Lies' - 'Pearl Harbor.' Whatever it is, they just went so over the top with the action that you couldn't go quite...you can't have a bigger explosion to top it off.
"There's no jokes. There's no gadgets. And I felt this movie was great because you could have the characters, the light tone, the humor that the graphic novel has, but then you can go with super, hyper-realistic action. You can go with those two. And I haven't seen that in a while. Tonally, I think a movie like 'Bad Boys' might be like this, but then the action is retarded. It's fun, but it's not believable. This is what I'm trying to do: a fun, believable action movie."
On the day CBR was on set, White set out to show how that believability would work by taking us out to a remote shipping yard on Puerto Rico's edge where the crew was busy at work, ratcheting up both the practical effects that go hand-in-hand with an old school action film as well as some key character moments. In between rows and stacks of empty semi trailers colored as rusty and beaten as the Losers looked disheveled and desperate, we watched a key moment that takes place late in the movie, where Losers team members Jensen, Cougar and the wounded Pooch (Evans, Jaenada and Short) are lined up to be shot by the members of Chyron Security – the film's antagonistic organization with ties to the mysterious Max.
Laid out on the hot concrete with their hands tied behind their backs, the trio of stars bickered back and forth for the cameras, working on building the camaraderie of the Losers while sticking to the serious moment at hand for Pooch. "Pooch is a family man," Short explained. "He had a wife back home expecting a child. So when his mission goes awry, his basic motivation is to just to get home before his wife has the baby. You know, he’s kind of the heart of the group. The whole group is very witty, very cynical, very sarcastic in tone, so it’s fun.
"Me and Jensen, the Chris Evans character, we get a lot of one-liners," the actor continued, explaining the ins and outs of the deep ensemble. "Me and Chris are like Ebony and Ivory. I swear we’re birthed from the same person. We’re all tight. This is my second movie with Idris [Elba, who plays Roque]. Jeffrey is great, Oscar is wonderful. We immediately became all tight. The chemistry is out there. You see it on screen, you feel it. Hopefully this franchise continues. I’d love to do another one with these guys. For the most part, from the beginning to the end, it’s pretty much the Losers together, so there’s a lot of scenes of us just together, having our natural banter, which plays wonderfully. It’s been great shooting with these guys, because we had so much time to train and just get a natural chemistry and the camaraderie that I think rings true on camera."
After a tense take at gunpoint, White prepared for moving on before Short (who worked with the director in "Stomp The Yard") runs over to his friend, hands still locked in cuffs and blood still trailing from his legs, asking, "One more? Uno mas?" White looks him over and with a smile assents and gives the actor another take to nail the character's signature moment.
Later, Morgan arrived for his part of the action sequence as his character Clay – the team's lead – is taken hostage by Chryon briefly before an unlikely explosion rocks the van he's riding in. While the sun beat down on the crew and small fires were lit around the shooting area for effect, stunt coordinator Garrett Warren walked up with the rest of the cast to shoot the breeze. "It's cool," he said to the assembled group. "We're gonna drive a truck into that thing in a little while." Warren's "thing" is a tanker set to make a fireball two stories high, though much like the characters that are the Losers, the film crew push along at a rapid clip, trying to cram as much action into their day as possible.
"From the get go, my agenda was to do as much of the action 'in camera' as possible," White explained as Morgan was strapped into the van taking the brunt of the impact. "Again, that was to go with the sort of hyper-realistic feel I'm going for. I don't know if you guys were here yesterday, but we did all the explosions and no CG. Everything was in camera. We're not doing what they did in 'G.I. Joe' where you've got characters bouncing off the walls. For me, when a character runs 100 yards, and he's got gear and guns and he runs out of breath – I want to feel that. I want to see that. I want to know that it's hard for Cougar to take a sniper shot from 200 yards away. I never wanted to cheat that."
While action fans may perk up at the sound of comparisons to old school shoot 'em ups like "Die Hard," for comic readers, movies like "The Losers" come down to one thing: will it be like the comic? For all intents and purposes, that seemed the going concern for the cast and crew as well. Diggle and Jock were named dropped at every available opportunity on set, and not just in a general sense, but in terms of the tone and style they brought to the original issues of "The Losers."
"I wanted to reflect as many elements of the graphic novel as possible," White explained. "Now, I'm not the kind of guy who's going to go and shoot frame-by-frame the graphic novel. It's a different medium. But there's elements of it that I think are key, and I use those throughout the visual motif of the movie. As these guys travel throughout the world, they go from city to city, and as you look at the graphics, you go from Houston to India to New York. It's always a very distinct color pallet. It always has a very amazing use of primary and secondary colors. It's so brilliant, in fact, and Jock's so great at it, that that's how I pay homage to the comic. I keep the colors consistent with the graphic novel. I keep the atmosphere, the tone, the lighting. It's very similar. When the movie comes out, you won't go, 'Oh, I can tell it was from a comic.' I'm not going to do it like the Hulk movie, where they did the frames. It's a movie. You're watching a movie. But you want to keep the design aesthetic that the artists of the comic came up with and try and reflect that as much as possible in the film."
There were some changes made to the story as well, of course. Aside from the addition of Chryon Security rather than the C.I.A. as a background for the team and their nemesis, White moved the opening sequence of the first trade paperback – "Ante Up" – from the Middle East to Bolivia in order to keep from politicizing the film in a way he felt wouldn't help a rollicking action movie. Though the director did go in and work with the writers during redrafts of the screenplay to fit his favorite moments from the comics in. "I also went back to the graphic novel, and some of the stuff where they had veered off...went back to the source material. The big action sequence where they hijack the armored truck with the helicopter – I went straight back to the comic book and did it exactly as it is in the comic book. Jensen's mission – I went straight back to it," he promised.
When the pieces were finally in place for the stunt team to pull the trigger on the explosion, an assistant commanded everyone to get behind a safety line marked on the ground. Just as the action was about to roll, White reached a toe over the line – one last flippant maneuver for fun on a set full of it – before putting all his focus on the monitors to check how the shot will come out. The rest of us sat back and watched the fireball burn, keeping one eye to the left to see Morgan's haggard head rattle with the impact of the blow. In the end, no one was hurt – as it should be – but talk of PG-13s, "fuck" droppings and how to keep violence real but fun brought the director to a reflective place.
"Just like in the graphic novel in the first volume – these guys don't got around in 'Ante Up' killing everyone. They're clever. They've got gadgets. They've got amazing strategy, and it's fun," he concluded. "I always wanted them to stay good guys through the movie and not just go around killing innocent guards left and right. They're just guys who are doing their job. They're not like the Nazis or anything. So I wanted to keep it light in that sense, but it's not really holding me back. It's not creating problems for me based on the plot. By the time we get to the end, they shoot a lot of dudes, but the beauty of American ratings is that you can shoot as many people as you want so long as you're not showing too much blood. We're not holding back from the amount of kills or the amount of deaths. Even the violent moves and the fights feel very violent. But I just don't shoot the inserts and the squirts of blood in slow motion. To me, that's not what the movie's about."
"The Losers" opens in theaters on April 23 from Warner Bros. Pictures.