When Universal Home Video is releasing their summer blockbuster “The Mummy” on September 28, the film will indubitably become part of a new legend. Loosely based on the 1932 Universal classic “The Mummy” that featured the great Boris Karloff as the titular character, this new incarnation of Imhotep, who is rising from the dead in search for his lost love has a slightly different note than the classic gothic film. A fun-filled racy action adventure, “The Mummy” resembles more an Indiana Jones episode than the successor of a classic horror film. That however works to its benefit in a time where people don’t really care much for gothic horror.
“Universal Studios tried to make this film for 10 years,” director Stephen Sommers recalls. “The studio and the producer had different writers and directors on the project ranging from Kevin Jarre as the writer and from Joe Dante to George A. Romero for directing. But they never liked any of the directions the project was taking. When I came in I wanted to make the big event Mummy. When they saw my idea, they said that’s the kind they want to make. The problem before was always that everyone tried to make a gothic horror movie” he muses.
It took director Stephen Sommers about 3 months to research the script for the film and then a total of another 8 months writing it and doing the pre-production. After that he spend a full year shooting the movie and going through postproduction. One thing Sommers immediately realized when initially approaching the material was that it would be necessary to take it in a new direction, away from the classic movie.
“When I did ‘Huck Finn’,” the director explains, “my version is closer to the book by a long shot than any other one ever made. A movie like ‘Huck Finn’ is such a classic that you have to be very faithful to the original. With ‘The Mummy’, as much as I liked it as a kid, today you should spend more than $15 million to remake it really well, but people are not so much into small gothic horror films these days. So I wanted to completely redo it and come from a different angle” he remembers. “I loved the idea of this 3000 year old mummy coming back to life. I love ancient Egypt, especially in the 20s. It is so romantic and scary at the same time. I wanted to make a movie for the new millenium.” His take on the material certainly hit it big with audiences and critics making more than $240 million at the box office worldwide, proving that his understanding of the situation was absolutely right. “Over the years the Mummies became a joke” he remarks with a smile. “They’re slow and everyone makes fun of them. You know, can’t you catch him and unwrap him? We told the studio that our Mummy has to be an ILM-Mummy, computer generated and all that. I told them we can’t just have a guy in bandages. It has to be really cool. It can’t be done with prosthetics or with a rubbersuit. It needs to be real 3 dimensional walking, talking corpse.”
Nevertheless Sommers also wanted to make sure to integrate elements he loved from the original film in his own take, although the temptation to directly lift from the classic was never really there according to his comments.
There were certain things I tried to put in” the director points out. “Many of those things didn’t fit, although I tried, while others did. In the original I liked certain lines a lot – my favorite one is when Karloff says ‘I don’t like to be touched’. So I put it in the movie, but I also went further and asked myself, why didn’t he want be touched. As a result I brought in the element that he rots upon touch, which we see in the scene kiss where he kisses Evelyn. But I also liked the idea of having a museum in the film.”
When it was time to cast the film, Sommers remembers that the studio came up with a list of possible actors to fill the roles. “They came up with a list of cast who could be in there. My editor and I looked over the list and he went out, ‘Brendan Fraser that’s the kind of actor’. Our main character needed to be strong and handsome but he also needed a sense of humor. Bruce Willis would come to mind, but I didn’t want a macho tough guy.”
“The Mummy was the hardest to cast” he explains after a slight pause. “I had the idea that it should be someone unknown, but with power and menace. We went through hundreds of actors. Then Arnold Vosloo went in the room, sat down and after a minute of talking to him I knew he’s the one. I had a specific idea what he should look like all the time. I always wanted something completely different than Karloff.”
And different he is. Vosloo has managed to create a Mummy that is very unique and because his play is so different he is never actually compared to Boris Karloff. But it took the accomplished South African actor a little to get used to the thought of having to fill Boris Karloff’s shoes.
“At first I was delighted to get the job” the understated actor tells me. “And then I was filled with fear. You know what you’re doing when you play the Mummy. Boris Karloff was the best known Mummy of all, and it’s a tough gig to fill his shoes. I was feared out, but realized the way to go would be to make it my own. Steven Sommers told me a number of times ‘Make it your own and we’ll be in good shape.’ The shadow of Karloff] was in the back of my head all the time throughout the film. I like the original Mummy and I especially like HIM. The way he moved, the things he did, the way he talked. He was spot on.”
To prepare for the part of Imhotep, Vosloo studied the classic Karloff film but stayed away from all the other ones. He was intrigued and attracted to the part because it was very different from the roles he played before, like Dr. Craig Burton in the film ‘Progeny’.
“Part of the attraction was that the stuff I’ve done before has been so dialogue-made and demanding. The dialogue I have in the Mummy was in ancient Egyptian,” he remembers. The ancient Egyptian language heard in the film was created by a UCLA professor who took current Egyptian, took it back in time linguistically and then wrote it down phonetically for the actors to read, and also taped it for them to rehearse.
“More importantly however it was an opportunity to almost, like a Kabuki actor, play emotional in a comic-book way” Vosloo continues. “Use your face, your body and a make-believe-language. Part of the reason I wanted to play the Mummy was also to see if I could do it. I wanted to see if I can grunt my way through it. It turned out very well and I was very pleased with the result.”
Part of the attraction of the Mummy was that it was an evolving creature. Starting out as a computer generated skeletal figure, the creature grew and took on more and more human shape. Arnold Vosloo was heavily involved in the process of bringing the computer generated Mummy to live. Industrial Light and Magic, the creative minds behind the technology took him in their confidence and made sure the actor understood the process.
“It was another one of those interesting things about this project” he tells me enthused. “ILM assured me that this thing would be me. It would move like me, talk like me, turn its head like me. Once I started seeing their concept drawings on the computer, I realized what they were doing and how on the spot it would be.
They walked me through the whole thing and were really good about letting me in on what it was they’re going do to the point of overeducating me. Sometimes it was just too much information, and I didn’t understand half the stuff they tried to explain to me. So I told them, tell me where you want me to be and what you want me to do.”
The difference between acting in a live action movie and one that relies so heavily on computer generated effects is that everything needs to be very precise so the computer can integrate his images correctly.
“It is so exacting” Arnold Vosloo recalls. “There’s a point where you nailed the performance so you know what you give them, and then you have to replicate that performance over and over and over again. After 6 hours of the same thing it becomes mind numbing. It’s almost like an exercise to see how disciplined you can be,” he laughs. After the film wrapped the actor stayed about another 2 weeks to record all the motion capturing. It is the process, in which the actor’s movements were recorded by the computer so that they could be integrated into the computer model of the Mummy. “We redid or did whatever possible things they needed the Mummy to do. It is actually fun to do motion capturing but after four days you’ve just had enough of it,” the actor explains. As a result the computer generated Mummy now behaves just like Vosloo laid it down for the computer. “I love the CGI character. It really does move like me. Very interesting, the whole process. Who knows where it is going to end. It is sort of a comic book CGI character and yet, it is you!” he exclaims.
And by talking to him it feels as if the actor has now licked blood of the genre. Would he be interested in playing a different classic Hollywood monster, I ask him.
“I would love to play Dracula, I really would. Gary Oldman was perfect. It was a great part and a great performance by him. To me he was the greatest Dracula.
But I would also like a shot at it. I would love to have the chance to do that. Kevin Jarre is working on a script. It is still too close to Columbia’s film to be realized, but maybe in a few years. He has done a couple of really good movies.
My Dracula would be nasty. I want to play a Dracula who loves blood. Oldman’s romantic Dracula was great, but let’s try something else, something scary.”
“The Mummy” may be Arnold Vosloo’s break-through part, although he has appeared in an impressive array of films, having worked with some of the greatest people in the industry. One of the most memorable ones was his collaboration with Hong Kong action legend John Woo on “Hard Target”. “Yes, I was playing one of the bad guys with Lance Hendriksen. It’s a cool movie. John Woo was great and I hope to work with him again some time. We had a great time. He is very different than Hollywood directors. There’s a different level of risk and a level of tranquility – for lack of a better word – on the set. The great thing about John is that he is absolutely sure about what he wants. It’s all in his head and there is no second-guessing. Some of the shots are just so poetic.”
“For some reason people don’t remember my name. It’s a phenomenon, but I’m partly guilty for that, in that I don’t have a publicist. I don’t care much for the celebrity. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m not running away from stardom, but at the same time I am not seeking it. I’m having a good time. I’ll take it and run with it. I don’t seek it out and want it to happen, because then I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. But I would really like to be doing it for 30 or 40 years” the actor adds after a moment’s thought.
While Stephen Sommers is preparing the sequel to “The Mummy”, Arnold Vosloo is going through a number of scripts to see if there’s any viable project in the interim before he goes back to play Imhotep in “The Mummy 2”. “We got something cool and it will hopefully be better” Stephen Sommer confides on his plans for the sequel. “Not bigger necessarily, but better. There are further adventures to be had. The Mummy can rise again. He comes back bigger and badder than ever. It’s a whole new story. We bring back all the characters plus a few new ones, new special effects. There are new scares to be had.” “I am looking forward to returning to play Imhotep”, Vosloo adds. “One of the fun things about the Mummy is that you could bring him back at any time. There might be some mileage in that. And also technology-wise, ILM is so much more advanced than they were only a year ago when they did the first one. It’ll be fantastic to see what they can come up with the next time around.”
Indeed it will be fantastic to see what the filmmakers have up their sleeves. For now DVD audiences will certainly enjoy the fun-packed ride to Hamunaptra, the burial place of Imhotep, to see him rise again, and appreciate the beauty and sophistication of the film at home. And when the end credits start to roll, always keep Imhotep’s last words in mind – Death is only the Beginning!