Though it’s her first feature film, German director Anna Foerster brings twenty years of experience in filmmaking to Underworld: Blood Wars, primarily in the realms of cinematography and visual effects, including several Roland Emmerich blockbusters (notably, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow).
As a director she has worked mostly in television, prominently having directed four episodes of another fantasy-action series featuring a strong woman protagonist, the Starz cable channel’s “Outlander.” Foerster’s next feature-film project after Underworld: Blood Wars will be Lou, a thriller for J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot.
We’re closing out our Underworld: Blood Wars set visit report with Ms. Foerster to help you get ready for one week from today, January 6th, when the film opens in U.S. theaters.
How did Foerster come to be hired for the Underworld franchise? “I actually came into Lakeshore, that is the production company that’s doing this, for a general meeting after I did “Outlander” because the producers and his wife are big “Outlander” fans… He called up my agent and said, ‘I want to meet this person.’ We started talking and he didn’t know at the time that I have a cinematography and visual effects background and I guess they looked me up before I went into the office and we started talking and in the room it came up like, ‘So we have this project; do you think you’ll be interested?’ That was it.”
She was already familiar with the vampires vs. werewolves series when she came on board. “The first one… I saw it when it just came out. It was quite extraordinary, especially as a visual piece, and creating a world that I have not seen before at that time. I mean, later a lot of people copied it, in different ways. I think at the time this was one of the movies that kind of set a specific standard for the genre and I was a big fan of the look and the vibe and the tone of it.”
For the director, the series lost its way with its last installment, 2012’s Underworld: Awakening. “I have to admit I wasn’t a big fan of [Part] Four. To me, it became more like a futuristic science-fiction piece and what missed for me is that the balance with mythology and history were too one-dimensional and clean for me. What I love about the other ones, and what I love about what we’re doing right now, is that there are really interesting characters that have layers; and even if it’s an action film, there is quite a lot of character stuff going on and I felt that it wasn’t quite as developed as it could have been. There’s a lot of interesting stuff… the mother-daughter stuff, a lot of heavy stuff, but I’m not sure if it actually worked as emotionally impactfully as it could have.”
To some directors, taking on a later installment in a long-running series might be daunting. Not for Foerster: “I think the approach is not that different for me from the television stuff. It’s funny enough the fact that this is a franchise actually has some parallels to that, because when you jump into a television series that is running already, like “Outlander” for example, you are jumping on something that has specific characters; yet. everyone is looking to you to bring something new to that specific episode – some more than others obviously. “Outlander” was a very good example for that, that they were very open and happy [for me] to bring something to it.”
“The question you have to ask yourself before you step in is this: How can I or will I be able to navigate this? Because obviously there is a very specific set of rules of what Underworld is and you have a certain obligation to the fans and the franchise and you have to stick with that. Yet, I think you have the possibility to create new rules within this universe of Underworld, and it was pretty clear for me in the beginning when I spoke with all the producers involved, kind of comparing the movies, the fourth one and the first one, and we discussed what I liked and what I didn’t like because I wasn’t so sure, it could have been Four [Awakening] is where Five [Blood Wars] should be continuing from. It became clear pretty quick that they were very open and excited about getting a relatively strong vision to kind of build on what Underworld is, and that got me really excited.”
Foerster did get to put her own personal touch on the series through some of the casting – the film’s villain, Marius, is played by her fellow “Outlander” alum Tobias Menzies – as well as through the film’s costume and production design. “When I first put my look-book together of I how I imagined it, I went pretty far in terms of the looks and the fashion and the designs of everything and I was scared that somebody says ‘Stop’ – but they didn’t, and that was really good… I mean, again within the Underworld rules.”
The Underworld series has a very particular visual style that Foerster took pains to work within, while also searching for opportunities for contrast and variation. “There’s a certain look to it that you can veer from, but you have sort of established something that is monochrome, a blue cyan look, the blackness that’s in the costumes and stuff, which I think is something that’s established, and the tone of the environment… but how do you expand that? How do you go further? That was the interesting part – We created a completely monochrome palette in the costumes and the set of the eastern cabin, for example, so in a way this almost looks like a black and white [movie]; it’s only textures and different leathers and sheen. The only real color is blood so instead of filming everything and making it more blue, we went further and were like, ‘Let’s make this work almost monochrome.’ We were laughing because it’s Fifty Shades of Black [laughing]. When we would go into the North, you would have Fifty Shades of White, Silver, whatever kind of light.”
Rather than feel restricted within the established universe of Underworld, Foerster found new cinematic opportunities. “For example, the rules [about] the werewolves, how they turn — that’s a given. The fact that when they die, they turn back to humans and are naked is a rule and I think it’s a great rule and you should stick to it and suddenly you have a bunch of lycans that turn back or get killed, then suddenly you have a bunch of naked bloody corpses on the ground. I think that’s the Underworld rule that was dictated, I think you could take that rule and apply it in a bigger scope or in a visually more interesting sense.”
Blood Wars also expands on the world-building of the Underworld mythos in a number of ways: “For the lycans, to me, what was really exciting was to say, ‘Okay, so the lycans have been organized before but what can make them more dangerous?’ In a way – and to me what was fascinating – was the idea, ‘What if they actually get control over their transformation?’ Because every time the transform, they become those animals in a way and they don’t think clearly, they can’t hold weapons, they are becoming instinctive killing machines. So what if the mantra of the new leader is: ‘Don’t change, stay as clever as long as possible if, and only change if you have to,’ and that’s creating an interesting thing, instead of people just turning all over the place into lycans, you have the people, the lycans, that are having their own strict set of rules now, which to me all those things were exciting – and everyone was open to that.”
Blood Wars introduces a new faction of vampires, a Nordic strain, with powers and a culture all their own: “We are exploring new environments by them going to the North and developing a completely new set of rules for those people that live in the North and why they live [there]. This is a different kind of vampire… The superpowers… they have the possibility to appear and disappear but in a different way than Selene for example, she has this speed move – she can be very quick. These people — specifically Lena, who is the person we will follow — has the possibility… It’s not just a speed move; she can almost be in two places at the same time.”
While their powers may be super, their arsenal is much humbler: “These people are… in a weird way, they are almost monks. They have said ‘no’ to fighting; that’s why they went up North. They are all very skilled warriors — but their armory is basically rusted old arms from hundreds of years ago. When they are forced to engage in battle, they are forced to fight with the weapons they’ve laid down hundreds of years ago.” Blood Wars therefore becomes in part a battle of swords and shields up against 21st century automatic weaponry.
Speaking of weapons, Kate Beckinsale returns to the role of Selene, the gun-slinging vampire bad-ass, and worked with the director to bring new dimensions to the iconic character. “She’s an extremely, extremely intelligent woman to talk to generally, and she obviously has a clear idea about Selene. We had some really deep and good conversations once she came on the movie and fortunately were pretty much on the same page with that, and it was a very good collaboration.”
Selene’s motivations through Blood Wars are stark: “Everything that’s dictating her actions is based on being a mother – and how she potentially failed as a mother – and how she can make up for that. That is actually in a weird way almost her through-line for the whole movie.”
Underworld: Blood Wars doesn’t just mark Foerster’s feature debut as a director, it also marks the first film in the series to be directed by a woman, with big-budget action movies still being only rarely helmed by women. “I do actually feel that progress is happening. Looking back at my cinematography days,” she muses, “you see so many more women taking those roles in bigger movies – and the same thing for directing. I think — and maybe I’m too optimistic here– but I feel this is all going in the right way lately – and I’m super excited that Selene is an ‘alpha woman’ in a way, so it’s great.”
Alongside series star Beckinsale, Theo James (the Divergent series) returns as Selene’s ally David, reprising the role he played in Underworld: Awakening. British actors Tobias Menzies (“Outlander,” “Rome”) and Lara Pulver (“Sherlock”) take on the respective roles of a formidable new Lycan leader and a fiercely ambitious Vampire, and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) again plays Vampire elder Thomas.
Rounding out the film’s cast are James Faulkner (“Game of Thrones”), Peter Andersson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), newcomer Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James (A&E’s “Damien”), and Daisy Head (Fallen).
Anna Foerster directs. The screenplay for Underworld: Blood Wars was penned by Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter, Priest) and based on characters originally created by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, and Danny McBride.
Vampire death dealer Selene (Beckinsale) fends off brutal attacks from both the Lycan clan and the Vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (James) and his father, Thomas (Dance), she must stop the eternal war between Lycans and Vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.