Screen Test

Less than a week before filming began for “Beat the Devil,” one of three shorts in BMW Films’ sophomore run, James Brown arrived at RSA USA in a black stretch limo with a full entourage. In the café at the entrance to the Los Angeles production company, conversation came to a standstill.

“Ladies and gentlemen … James Brown!” announced RSA executive producer Jules Daly. Amid cheers and applause, Brown proceeded inside for his first meeting with director Tony Scott (Enemy of the State, Top Gun). It wasn’t until that conversation, Daly says, that Brown realized he was “carrying the film.” He was taken aback. A veteran performer, Brown is not as comfortable on a film set as he is on stage.

After conversations with Scott and Gary Oldman—playing a flamboyant Satan who grants Brown fame and fortune in exchange for his soul—Brown embraced the role. “He started to come alive. They were laughing and riffing off of one another,” Daly says.

That was just one potential disaster averted in a production Daly calls blessed. It easily could have gone the other way, considering that RSA took on the estimated $6 million star-studded project with Fallon very late in the process. Preparations for round two of the much-lauded Internet campaign began last fall, but RSA was brought in just four weeks before shooting was to begin.

Over the July 4th weekend, the Minneapolis agency decided to drop production company Anonymous Con tent and director David Fincher. Fincher had dreamed up the concept for the mysterious driver and executive-produced the first round of Web films, which premiered in spring 2001. Fallon declined to give specifics about the move to RSA; Anonymous Content also declined comment. A source close to the situation cites a struggle over creative control and creative credit for the project.

RSA had to have the films ready for the fall launch of the Z4 roadster, featured in all three films. And the team had only the month of August during which Clive Owen was available to reprise his role as the mysterious hired driver. You could say it was the movie-making equivalent of the heart-stopping races required of the BMW driver.

The first film in the new series, “The Hostage,” launched on Oct. 24, followed by “Ticker” on Nov. 7. “Beat the Devil” will debut on Thursday.

While “The Hire” launched with five films, BMW decided three were enough to keep the series alive. Vp of marketing Jim McDowell largely stayed out of the process, providing little in the way of specific direction. One mandate, for example, was that “no one in the films be harmed as a result of one of our cars,” he says. Otherwise, McDowell aimed to leave the stories in the hands of the directors. “That’s part of the joy of it,” he says.

Scripts for the three were culled from a pool of about 20 candidates written by art director David Carter and copywriter Greg Hahn, along with “Ticker,” which the late Joe Sweet had submitted for consideration for the first round of films.

Carter says the writing process was particularly time-consuming. Unlike commercials, “you don’t know if [a film script] will work until you write the thing,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to write eight to 10 pages. And then you look at it and think, ‘Maybe this isn’t so good.’ ” Screenwriter Vincent Ngo was brought in later to polish the scripts.

From the first round of “The Hire,” the team learned that people who downloaded the shorts tended to watch them several times, so the plots were designed to reveal new details with subsequent viewings, says Fallon creative director Bruce Bildsten. (Some 14 million people have seen last year’s films on the Internet, according to BMW and Fallon.) For example, “Ticker”—about a man who must deliver a heart to save the life of a peace-making leader—is not told chronologically, but rather cuts back and forth from the dramatic chase to the events leading up to it. Until the end, the situations and dialogue are ambiguous, open to several interpretations.

Originally, Bildsten says, the script called for the foreign dignitaries in the film to be Arabs. That way, when it’s revealed that the package is not a biological weapon but a life-saving organ, viewers might question stereotypes. But in the end, it was decided to keep the nationality of the good guys—as well as the bad guys—ambiguous.

The film’s director, Joe Carnahan (the upcoming Narc), helped rewrite Sweet’s script to heighten the drama, Bildsten says. The director brought in friends Ray Liotta, Jason Patric and Dennis Haysbert, who performed their cameo roles for scale as a favor to Carnahan, he says.

“The Hostage,” in which the driver has to rescue a woman from the trunk of a sinking car, was originally set to be directed by Scott. But when John Woo (Windtalkers, Mission Impossible II) signed on, RSA and Fallon decided it was the best film to showcase his signature style. “The Hostage” is packed with classic Woo action, as well as his characteristic slow-motion sequences and impeccable stunts.

Woo gathered his stunt coordinators to watch the first series of “The Hire” and review those stunts, Bildsten says. Then Woo told them, “We’re going to beat them all.”

Woo brought in veteran stunt driver Corey Eubanks. For one particularly dangerous stunt, Eubanks had to spin the car on a bridge, stopping just short of the edge. On the last take, a piece of wood got caught on one of the tires, hindering Eubanks’ braking control, Bildsten says, and scaring the experienced driver. Eubanks said later he’d never do the stunt again.

Scott took the reins on “Beat the Devil,” the most dazzling of the three shorts, which he approached with zeal. “Tony Scott is a fiend,” says executive producer Brian DiLorenzo. “As far as we can tell, he never sleeps and he’s always shooting film.”

The plot revolves around James Brown persuading the devil to grant him renewed youth—the catch is that the driver must outrace the devil. But getting permission to shoot the drag race in Las Vegas required the star power of some friends of RSA. To help secure the necessary clearances, Scott asked Rob ert DeNiro to put in a word with the mayor of Las Vegas, Daly says.

Scott’s plan for the shoot was to capture as many effects as possible on film, rather than add them in postproduction. In one stunt, the devil’s Trans-Am flips over a train, and RSA had arranged to have an actual train launch the car over. It turned out, however, that the train was taller than the team had expected, and in the end it was composited.

As for Brown, he had one other hesitation about the film. A religious man, he wanted to ensure it did not come off as sacrilegious but more “in good fun,” says Bildsten. In the end, he turned in a hilarious performance, despite some garbled diction. Subtitles were added for some of his particularly puzzling lines.

Carter declines to offer a straight explanation of whether the subtitles were intended from the beginning or added out of necessity. “It seemed in some places he was harder to understand … but then Tony made it more of a style thing,” he says, referring to the subtitles over some of Oldman’s lines.

“There is a bit of an Ozzy Os bourne thing there,” he adds. “You think, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying, but I still think it’s funny.’ “