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Driven to ramp up 'Race' mayhem

With the blessing of Roger Corman, who helmed the original, director trades irony for more crash-bam.

August 22, 2008|Tom Roston | Special to The Times

On a Monday in late August 1995 -- after "Mortal Kombat" was the top-grossing movie of the weekend -- the film's then-30-year-old director, Paul W.S. Anderson, had lunch with the king of exploitation films, Roger Corman, who asked him, "What do you want to do next?" Anderson said that he had always wanted to do a remake of the Corman-produced, 1975 B-movie classic, "Death Race 2000."

"That's fantastic," Anderson remembers Corman replying. "We'll make it your next film."

"And in typical Hollywood development fashion," Anderson now says, "cut to 13 years later -- and I've finally made the movie."

"Death Race," starring Jason Statham and Joan Allen, crashes into theaters today, with the promise of Anderson's long-gestating vision to "re-imagine" the post-apocalyptic movie about fast cars, machine guns and exploding bodies -- of both the automobile and human form.

While Anderson is keeping Corman's central conceit -- a car race to the death -- he is updating it by making the cross-country rally a pay-per-view style, moneymaking venture that plays out on a single track, in the hands of an evil, for-profit prison system.

But what really sets the movies apart are their budgets -- "Death Race" was made for $75 million, while Corman's film was made for just $350,000.

"I always felt the [original] movie was hemmed in," says Anderson, who first saw the film as a 13-year-old in Newcastle, England. "What stayed with me was this idea of killer cars that have been developed to run each other down. But some of the cars had machine guns mounted to them and they didn't use them because of budgetary restrictions. I always wondered what would happen if those cars were really unleashed."

It was Anderson's directorial debut that landed him on Corman's lunch calendar: The low-budget "Shopping," starring Jude Law, takes place in a near-future England where youths get their kicks from driving cars into stores and making mayhem. Corman, who first saw "Shopping" when he was a judge at a film festival in Japan in 1994, was so impressed by it, he distributed the film in America in 1996 through his New Horizons production company.

The two have stayed in touch over the years, as Anderson has built a reputation Corman could appreciate; the 43-year-old director is popular with thrill-seeking audiences, if not with critics. He is known as a genre film director, particularly for science-fiction and video-game adaptations such as the "Resident Evil" franchise (he wrote and directed the first installment and was the writer-producer of its two sequels). Corman served as an executive producer of "Death Race," but says his involvement was limited.

"The original movie had a little more ironic humor, and this one is a much tougher, action film. This one is bigger and better," says Corman, who applauds Anderson's decision to have "almost no CGI shots. I think Paul was right to shoot everything naturally. You lose more of the insane, over-the-top stuff, but the trade-off is that you get realism."

The 50-day production, shot in and around Montreal, used a total of 35 cars, which were in an almost constant state of use or repair in an enormous auto-body shop where 85 mechanics and production crew members worked 24 hours a day.

A self-professed "car geek," Statham was frustrated that he couldn't convince stunt coordinators and producers to allow him to do more of his own driving scenes, so he relished visits to the body shop.

"They had all the bits and pieces," the actor says. "They were tearing out dashboards and putting in these extravagant, low-tech scrap pieces of junk. It was all very 'Road Warrior.' "

It's not difficult to see how George Miller's 1981 dystopian film, starring Mel Gibson, was also inspired by "Death Race 2000."

"I wanted 'Death Race' to live up to the visceral thrills that I experienced watching 'Road Warrior,' " says Anderson, who includes a homage to Miller's film -- a fortified, 18-wheel truck in full battle mode. "Except this time there's not a guy in the back with a bow and arrow," Anderson says. "He's got a heavy machine gun and a flame thrower."

Being a part of all the amped-up action was "a hoot," according to Allen, who plays the scheming warden intent on using Statham's former race-car driver as a pawn in the death race she mostly controls. The multi-Oscar-nominated actress saw in the script the potential to be of " 'Road Warrior' quality," and she was "very taken" by her director, who "was so excited on the set every day, that the planets had finally aligned so that he could make this."

His enthusiasm was nothing to look down on, she says; "This is a man who knows what he's doing. He has always been into the fantasy, sci-fi . . . whatever," Allen says. "He's a Brit, but 'Masterpiece Theatre' and Merchant Ivory are just not his thing."

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