Cape Town - Ron Howard has a suitably concise way of summing up exactly what it was like to direct Tom Hanks, leading a stellar cast, in the eagerly awaited thriller Inferno.
There were plenty of challenges, of course – and the director wouldn’t have it any other way because that’s part of the appeal – not least filming in and around historic locations in Florence where there are, understandably, punishing time constraints.
Often, too, they were working in searing summer heat, and, choreographing complex action sequences featuring a host of extras and daring stunts but most of all, it was all about doing justice to a Dan Brown novel that is loved by millions and making it into a riveting film.
Howard and Hanks, who plays Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, have been joint keepers of the cinematic legacy of Brown’s best selling books for many years now – they made the hugely successful The Da Vinci Code back in 2006 followed, three years later, by Angels & Demons.
Each one, says Howard, has presented its own unique opportunities and Inferno was, at least in that regard, exactly the same as its illustrious predecessors.
It was also a heck of a blast, too and clearly both men love working together – Inferno is their fifth film in a creative partnership that stretches back more than 30 years to Splash in 1984 and also includes Apollo 13 in 1995.
They are close friends and, as filmmakers, clearly have the same vision – produce your absolute best work for the audience. So how does he sum up being at the helm of the huge production that is Inferno?
“These films are hard work,” he says. “And you feel a lot of responsibility because they’re books that people love. But you know, they really are thrilling life experiences.”
Brown’s books are hugely popular all over the world for a very good reason, as he points out. “I think the reason they are so successful is because they are fun, they are diverting, they are interesting and yes, underneath that, they are very stimulating and thought provoking to deal with.”
Inferno is the perfect example and in contrast with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, which led Langdon to try and crack a mystery rooted deeply in the past, tackles a bang-up-to-the-minute theme; over population.
Ben Foster plays Betrand Zobrist, a brilliant scientist who is convinced that mankind is heading for catastrophe because of a rapidly increasing population. He believes that the only way to save the world is to wipe out millions of people and is prepared to unleash a deadly virus to do it.
Langdon is the only man who can stop him, searching for clues in 13th century Italian poet Dante’s epic work, Divine Comedy, which begins with Inferno and his nightmarish depiction of hell.
The story hooked in Howard immediately. “I felt very excited about this opportunity creatively as a director because Inferno combines two things: an idea that an audience can connect with in a very modern contemporary way; a thriller that is driven by something that we all think about.
“It’s a controversial idea that doesn’t deal with the past – it’s all about the present. And the other thing is that it’s a great role for my friend Tom and it’s great to see him back on the clue path but it’s also fantastic to see the kind of dramatic opportunities and acting opportunities that this particular thriller gives him.”
It does indeed. The premise is intriguing - two towering intellects, Zobrist and Langdon, battling each other when the stakes couldn’t be higher and one of those intellects is severely hampered; when we first meet Langdon he is waking in a Florence hospital suffering from amnesia. His brilliant mind is, then, at least temporarily impaired.
Zobrist, too, is a fascinating, formidable opponent for Langdon, not least because he is charming, fiercely bright and clearly believes in his theory and his radical, deadly solution for the ‘greater good.’
“That’s sort of central and really compelling about the movie,” says Howard. “That’s what makes it a modern thriller and, I think, makes the action all the more personal for the characters because it is a compelling argument.
“It’s something that we’ve all thought about. You begin with a fascinating character from the book but Ben Foster is a tremendous actor and brought so much intensity and creativity to the role. And I, of course, was encouraging that because I wanted that tension and that drama in the story.
“What Robert Langdon represents however, is the application of brilliance. So Zobrist is a genius, undeniably, and is deciding to take it all into his hands. And Langdon is reasoning for using our intellectual power to work together to try and solve these problems and not take this kind of crisis in one’s own hands. And that’s the central tension in the story.”
Langdon comes round in hospital having had no idea how he even got to Florence let alone ended up in hospital, suffering flashbacks. One of his doctors, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tells him that he was brought to hospital unconscious after being grazed by a bullet. He’s lucky to be alive and pretty soon the assassin sent to kill him, Vayentha (Ana Ularu), has arrived at the ward to finish the job.
With the help of Brooks, he flees, hiding up in her apartment where he desperately tries to figure out what is going on and who is out to kill him and why.
There, he discovers a cylinder, with a biohazard sign, in his jacket. It’s the first of the clues linked to Dante and, with Brooks, at his side, Langdon faces a desperate race against time – with those assassins determined to stop him - to save millions before the virus is released.
“Langdon is the one forced to react. And what’s so interesting about the suspense element in this story is that Langdon isn’t even certain where he stands in all of this. He’s unclear as to what his role might even be. So it creates a lot of internal drama for Langdon and the characters around him.
“It offered a really dynamic set of possibilities that I thought we could do something very fresh and cool for audiences. You have Robert Langdon, a kind of superhero without his power – stripped of his power – and that’s interesting. It creates a kind of a vulnerability that his character hasn’t had before and it gave Tom tremendous things to play.”
Inferno, says Howard, is a movie that will both entertain and provoke discussion. “The Dan Brown stories combine these button-pushing ideas that offer the audience two things; there’s the tempo, the pace, there’s the clue path and there’s this feeling that you’re going to have something to talk about when the movie is over.
“And yes, there’s the action and that’s fun to do. And the characters are interesting and we have a fantastic international cast.”
Joining Hanks, Foster and Ms Jones, is one of India’s biggest stars, Irrfan Khan, who plays Harry Sims ‘The Provost,’ Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen (Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey) and French star Omar Sy (Christoph Bruder). “And we’re very fortunate to have them join us for this instalment,” says the director.
“These books and movies offer very unique experiences for audiences and they’re also unique for us as storytellers, as life experiences, to go to these places, capture the flavour of a place and use it in a story.
“And also, as a director, it was very interesting to use this question of taking the world’s crisis into one’s own hands and trying to correct the problem as a single, brilliant individual going up against another brilliant individual who is trying to save mankind.
“And that’s very interesting but the clue path, which is always fun in these movies, is built into the past – it’s using Dante’s Inferno – and that gave me as a director a lot of interesting images to work with.”
The Langdon movies have become a hugely successful franchise but Howard points out that both he and Hanks approach each film as a stand-alone. “The Dan Brown movies are very interesting because as a director each one has demanded something different of me so I never feel like I’m trying to remake anything.
“The continuity is this fascinating character, Robert Langdon, and Tom bringing that character to life in the way he does, which is exciting and fun to be around when you’re working on the film.
“So there’s something kind of unique about each one and yes, it’s turning out to be a franchise but I don’t think we ever approached it that way from the very beginning and maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s sustained itself.
“And, again, it’s this unique combination of entertainment values; they are thrillers but they are not the same formula as so many thrillers that we see. And for me, Inferno has the most interesting set of characters – Irrfan, Omar, Felicity and Sidse. These are really interesting characters and this one also features really strong female characters, which is something that I really like about this story.”
At the heart of it all is, of course, Hanks as Langdon. Howard recalls that when he first discussed who could play the super smart, hugely likable symbologist, with his producing partner, Brian Grazer, there really was only one actor on their list.
“I love the fact that this is a franchise built around a thinking man – a person who is not a man of action and yet gets involved in these exciting, suspenseful mysteries,” says Howard.
“And so when the original notion of doing The Da Vinci Code came to me, Brian, my producing partner at Imagine, brought it to me and was very interested and then I heard that Tom had read it and was curious about it and we had a meeting.
“And it was an absolute no-brainer – we never considered anybody else. Brian and I both knew – and Brian is one of the brightest people in our business – ‘who plays the genius Robert Langdon?’ Well, I’ll throw the ‘G’ word at Tom Hanks.”
Although Inferno honours the novel it was drawn from, there is new material in there too, says Howard. “There are a number of inter-personal relationships that really, really factor into the plot and the mystery as well.
“And there are a lot of twists and turns, some things are not even in the book that are sort of new territory that we extrapolated from these characters, and I’m very proud of that because you get to learn more about Langdon on an emotional level than you have before.”
Langdon is thrown together with Sienna Brooks, played by English actress Felicity Jones. “I felt that she was almost like a sibling or a cousin (for Langdon),” says Howard. “They are two of a kind, but a generation apart, and Langdon can recognise in her a set of powerful strengths but also human vulnerabilities that he understands about himself and has learned to live with and navigate in the world. And it gives it some heart and humanity.”
Brown himself was involved as a consultant as the film developed and went into production. “He’s an executive producer on this so he reads all the scripts and sees the cuts and has control as they relate to the character, to protect the Robert Langdon character for future books.
“Sometimes we call him up and say ‘hey, we’re inventing a new scene but we want this to be consistent with the tone of the books. Do you have any ideas for a different clue or a new idea?’ And he’ll get creatively involved and write things out and give us ideas.”
Howard and his team filmed in some stunningly beautiful, historic locations for Inferno, including the Palazzo Vecchio and the Boboli Gardens in Florence. They have to be respectful, he says, and quick.
“It’s a challenge,” he smiles. “And you know, we’re shooting in the summer at the high tourist season and so, as a director, it means that we have hours, not days, to shoot in these places.
“And it’s very, very strict. And, in a way, it reminded me of all the way back when we were doing Splash and Apollo 13 where certain scenes had to be made under unbelievable pressure because you know, we were either weightless or we were under water and we had to prep in advance and then go in and very, very quickly do a lot of work.”
The action sequences – including one where Langdon is being hunted by a drone as he runs through the Boboli Gardens – set to the backdrop of the historic locations and the contemporary themes gives Inferno a unique blend of the present and the past.
“Boboli Gardens was a good modern kind of thriller sequence because there are different elements there – we fear over population and we also fear drones being able to track us wherever we go.
“So one of the interesting things about the action in this movies is that it kind of exists in both realms: the horror imagery that lives in Robert Langdon’s mind, his sense of Dante’s Hell, and the clues that he must discover by searching his mind in that way. And then there’s this very modern idea of over-population, of drones, of technology, of losing your individuality.”
Making entertaining, thought provoking films – and Inferno is most certainly both – is a challenge, says Howard. He wouldn’t have it any other way and it certainly helps when your creative partner is Tom Hanks.
“What we do is always a unique high wire act,” he smiles. “And there’s a great deal of comfort going out on that high wire with somebody who you trust and I think that’s been a tremendous blessing and a virtue with the projects that we have done.
“I think there’s that creative ambition that we share but there’s also a way of working and an attitude which is very, very comfortable, it’s collegial, it’s fun. You know, making movies is hard but it doesn’t have to be miserable.
“You can be friends, you can laugh, you can solve the problems together and still be ambitious and deliver on the promise of the story.”
And that just about sums up what it was like to make Inferno.
Inferno releases in South African cinemas on 9 December 2016.
(Photos: Getty Images)
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