Dock Ellis 7:42 p.m., Jan. 21
Interview with Solomon Kane writer-director Michael J. Bassett
Solomon Kane was the creation of Robert E. Howard, the fantasy writer who gave the world Conan the Barbarian. Kane was that oddest of things, a Puritan superhero, a spiritually pure counterpart to Conan's physical perfection. Lo, these many years later, he has arrived on the big screen, playing a mercenary who embraces a nonviolent strain of Christianity after he learns that his bloody ways have earned him a reserved seat in hell.
Issue four of Mavel's Sword of Solomon Kane comic book miniseries showed up in my Christmas stocking back in the mid-eighties, and I never forgot his air of righteous menace and ascetic devotion. So I was delighted to have a chat with Kane writer-director Michael J. Bassett.
Michael J. Bassett
Matthew Lickona: What attracted you to Solomon Kane? What made you say, “This is the character we’re going to pull from relative obscurity and put on the big screen?”
Michael J. Bassett: I can’t really claim credit for that. But I was a longstanding fantasy fan. I knew Howard’s writing and I knew Kane, and I loved him. Getting to make the film was just one of those things. You start becoming a filmmaker and get a few opportunities. I made horror movies, mostly low-budget horror movies, before this. And then you hear rumblings that they’re going to make a Solomon Kane movie and your agent says, “Would you go and meet the producers?” I went in prepared, because I really wanted the job. The genre I love is fantasy, and it’s just not made very much. So I went in having done my homework.
ML: What did you offer that other folks didn't?
MJB: These were the English producers, who had bought the rights to the character 10 or 15 years ago. They had various scripts which hadn’t worked – they’d been too expensive, or not the right story. They wanted a kind of origin tale for Kane, which Robert Howard never did. In Howard's stories, Kane is fully formed from word one. So I went and re-read the stories and I started picking out the lines of dialogue and descriptions which hinted at a past life for Kane. I thought, “Okay, I think I can construct a story out of this, a way that the character can emerge from this movie into what would be Howard’s fully formed version of Solomon.” I pitched that to the English producers, and they liked it.
ML: And then?
MJB: Then I went to France to meet with the main producer, Samuel Hadida, who produced Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill and Resident Evil movies. He’s a genre fan. He said, “Write it.” So I wrote. And then I said, “But I want to direct it.” And they said, “Ohhhh, well, you know, you’ve made a couple of lowish-budget horror movies...”
ML: So you pushed?
MJB: I said, “But I really want to do this, and I think I can.” So they give me a little bit of resources, and I went away and did some story boards and got some design work done, and then I came back and said, “This is the movie I want to make.” It was grim, dark, and serious, and they put some faith in me. They gave me a big budget for an independent picture. They had faith when I wanted to cast James Purefoy and surround him with some great actors – the Pete Postlethwaites and the Max Von Sydows of the world. And it’s a movie we’re all terribly proud of, even if it’s not the single most commercial movie ever made. It is something which reflects the things things we were trying to do.
ML: Speaking of what you were trying to do, did you do much digging into the principles of nonviolence that the Puritans in the film were espousing?
MJB: Kane is a Puritan, but there’s a line in one of the stories that describes him as "a Puritan with a pagan heart." You can look at him and say, “He’s almost a fundamentalist,” which was of course how the Puritans saw themselves. And he’s a punisher character. He’s almost a protean Batman figure. He has absolute faith that he is right in what he is doing, that he is the hand of God.
ML: But even if he's right, he's not exactly nonviolent.
MJB: The Puritans, as I understand them, they were not terribly peaceful people. They had a kind of aggression and a sternness within them, and I think what Howard did when he created Kane is he went to the logical conclusion of that.
ML: The rigorous opposition of spiritual evil leading to the violent opposition of evil men.
MJB: I thought it was an interesting way to go. If we ever got to make another Kane story, we could take him to Africa and have that focus and determination used in the fight against slavery, which was the big moral story of his times.
ML: Still, he's hardly representative of the typical Puritan, is he?
MJB: You look at the historical perspective and you say, “Okay, I can’t make that work, but I can put this real Puritan family in the midst of it” – Pete Postlethwaite's family. They are going to become the Puritans of the New World; that’s where they’re heading. The name I used for them is actually on the ledger of the Mayflower. And when Kane joins them, they’re shocked at how violent his past was.
ML: It seemed to me – and I wasn’t sure if this was a comment that the film was making about the difficulties of nonviolence – but it seemed to me that the family dropped their adherence to nonviolence when it was their children’s lives on the line. The parents start crying to Kane to “do something.” They’re commissioning Kane to be violent on their behalf, it seems.
MJB: That’s absolutely a correct interpretation. You can only write from your own heart. I’ve got kids, and it’s like, “I will be as pacifist as possible until my children are threatened.” And when they are, you ask, "Well, what’s more important? Is my faith more important than my family?" And that, I think, is a really powerful moral dilemma for anybody. And on top of that, Pete Postlethwaite’s character has to turn to this man Kane and make him break his vow. They say to him, “Do something!” And he has to say, “If I do something, I’m as cursed as when I started the movie.” It’s the fundamental moral crux of the whole movie: What would you do? I want the audience to be willing him to break his vow, and at the same time, to understand what is at stake for him.
ML: Purefoy, as Kane, certainly puts a lot of juice into that moment.
MJB: I think James Purefoy is a brilliant actor, and I love the fact that he’s this grim, dour guy, but you can see the soul and feel his heart beat. That point in the movie where the bad thing happens – and it’s the reason I made it happen – if that hadn’t happened, there would never have been enough justification. But I think the death of innocents is a potent catalyst for a violent act.
ML: Kane's declaration reminded me of Huck Finn when he says, “All right, I’ll go to hell!” instead of betraying Jim.
MJB: Yeah, it’s a slightly different train, but yeah, that’s where we’re going.
ML: When I saw Pete Postlethwaite, God rest his soul, I realized that this film got made a while ago (2009), and it was interesting to see that it was just hitting screens now.
MJB: It’s a weird thing with movies - and you don’t really realize this until you’ve made a few of them, particularly when you’re coming from the independent world - but the nature of distribution is so incredibly complex. We made Kane and we assumed that it was going to follow a traditional kind of movie structure: it’s an independent film, so it would go territory by territory, different companies wanting to release it in different places. It didn’t catch the first release wave in the U.S., for a number of reasons I can’t go into at the moment. But everybody seemed to think, “Okay, that’s fine, Conan is coming out, and Conan is going to do well, and we’ll ride the wave of heroic fantasy that is going to come to the theaters.”
ML: But Conan kind of flopped, and the wave never came.
MJB: And we couldn’t find a distributor that really felt like they understood the movie, what it was about. Then the Weinstein Company - they’d always been fans, right from the early days, and they said, “Let us help you find an audience.” And there have been a couple of movies which fall in the category of mid-size independent pictures, generally from Europe, which have a sort of fantasy vibe to them. A friend of mine made a movie called Centurion that Michael Fassbender was in, and that was quite a successful model for the release.
ML: I suppose it's tricky, because fantasy pictures can be expensive.
MJB: Right. Nobody wants to commit $30-$40 million to a wide release on a movie like this, because you never quite know if the genre fans are going to turn up. Look what happened to Dredd. Dredd is a terrific genre picture for the fans, but they just didn’t really turn out for it, and it’s terrible, because the movie rocks. And they did a big wide release, a big commitment for that, and they’ve suffered for it.
ML: So Kane needed to be more like Centurion than Dredd...
MJB: With Kane, it always seemed to me that a wide release was going to be a danger. But with a slightly smaller release - limited theatrical, video on demand - there’s a place for it. The only regret, for me, is that I structured and made the film for a big screen. It’s shot in that way, and the sound is designed in that way. It’s got a big scope to it. So if you’re not seeing it theatrically, I do hope you’re watching it on a big telly with great sound.
ML: What is a particular sequence or shot where you think, “Oh, if someone doesn’t see that on the big screen, they’re missing out."
MJB: There’s a bunch of them, honestly. The opening eight minutes of Solomon Kane [where he learns that the devil is planning to take his soul] completely rock. They are pure heroic fantasy adventure, and they sound and look fantastic on the big screen. And there’s a sequence toward the end where I particularly punish the character - and the actor, James Purefoy - in one of the most grueling onscreen moments I could think of. [You'll know it when you see it.] That looks and sounds awesome.
ML: You sound almost like a fanboy, which is kind of fun, coming from a director.
MJB: When you make a movie, you go and try to create the closest thing to how the movie plays in your head. And generally speaking - unless you’re James Cameron or Spielberg and have massive resources where you can keep going at it - you have to accept noble defeat in many ways. What you end up with is as good as it can be. It’s not quite what you had imagined, but it’s not bad. But with that particular punishing sequence in Solomon Kane, it’s exactly what I intended. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s totally what I imagined. It captures the nature of the character – his rise to a kind of a spiritual level, and his fall from that place as well. And also, the physical determination to carry on a journey. I’m kind of proud of it.
ML: Is it weird seeing the film reach audiences so long after you've finished with it?
MJB: I’m two, three years down the line with this picture, and I’ve been through the review process, seeing how people respond to it. I know, weirdly, that some people absolutely adore the movie and some people really think it sucks. And now I’m seeing a whole bunch of new reviews come in for it from the U.S., and If anything, I’m more sanguine about it. I'm thinking “I know you didn’t like it, but some people really do."
ML: Who in particular?
MJB: Fans of serious-minded fantasy adventure. This is the Game of Thrones audience, I think. These days, they've migrated from the theatrical scenario, because nobody is telling these sorts of storiees, to TV, where Game of Thrones is delivering them. Game of Thrones is a popular, serious-minded fantasy with characters who genuinely care about what’s going on in their world. There’s none of this slightly tongue-in-cheek vibe, which is sort of expected with fantasy now. Even Lord of the Rings had dwarf-tossing gags.
ML: Yeah, it's hard to imagine a Puritan superhero ever being tongue-in-cheek.
MJB: I’ve gotten kind of slammed for Kane because it’s so serious; it takes itself incredibly seriously. People ask, “Whey can’t there be more humor?” But when I came to the story – you know Robert E. Howard. As a writer, he’s a dark guy. He wrote serious, somber things, and Kane was his most serious and somber character. So if you’re going to adapt it and you're a fan of the writer, you’ve got to be true to at least the tone of the work. And I think that’s what I did with the movie.