Vin Diesel’s big break came courtesy of a short film he made, Multi-Facial, which caught the attention of one Steven Spielberg. The director cast him in a prominent role in Saving Private Ryan, where his gravelly voice and physical charisma quickly made a mark. Two years later, his turn as career criminal Richard B. Riddick in the sci-fi thriller Pitch Black made him an above-the-headline star. His career has been through its share of ups and downs, boosted by The Fast and the Furious franchises which has become a summer perennial and helped cement a more or less permanent place in Hollywood’s pantheon. He returns to the big screen for the third time as Riddick this Friday. In an open and expansive interview with the press, he talked about the character’s enduring appeal, as well as the ways Hollywood is changing for the better.
Question: Do you feel like you’ve done Riddick now and can move on, or are you even hungrier now to do more Riddick films and more sci-fi films?
Vin Diesel: That’s a very good question because I’ve been thinking about that lately. I would love to do more science fiction. We have another project at Universal called Soldiers of the Sun that’s very interesting, another opportunity to go into that genre. I always envisioned the Riddick franchise as a continuing mythology, so I always imagined that there would be many other films to follow. And yet, I do feel like I answered that growing request from the fans that said, “Please make another Riddick.”
It was one of the three promises that I either made, or people assumed that I made, on the social media network. One of them was the return of Letty [Michelle Rodriguez] to the Fast and the Furious movies. That was something everyone was so vocal about four-and –a-half years ago. The second was the resurrection of Riddick, and reawakening that mythology. The third one was Hannibal the Conqueror, which is the one promise I haven’t delivered on yet. But I will.
Now that I have kids, it’s a little bit trickier to watch Riddick. We were initially going to try to make Riddick before I did Fast 5, and then I learned that we were expecting a child. I didn’t think it would be fair to the child or the fans to go to that dark place while welcoming a life into the world. So Riddick waited until after I did the more family-centric Fast 5. If you remember, in Fast 5, the idea of pregnancy was very present in the Brian [Paul Walker] and Mia [Jordana Brewster] relationship, which played to the fact that my son was being born while we were making that movie. I couldn’t play the Riddick character and go to that dark place. It’s very rewarding to see the movie, and it’s very rewarding to make the movie, but playing the character is sometimes a lot more difficult than other characters because it takes so much preparation to get into that character.
For this version, with where Riddick is now in this movie, I went to the woods for four months and prepared by basically being a recluse. I prepared the inner core of the character. Because I was also producing it, it was so important to get that core character correct, so that I could easily tap into it while maintaining some kind of circumspect view of what was going on with the production, as a producer.
Q: How difficult is it for you to be the boss of your co-stars, and balance being actor and producer?
VD: I try to create an environment where, when we step onto the set, we’re all in character. A funny thing we used to say while we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. Are you guys familiar with Dungeons & Dragons? Basically it’s five or six people sitting around the table playing characters and a DM who controls the scenario. When someone would say something random like, “I’m tired, so I might just take a nap,” the DM would say, “Everything that you say is in game.” Which is a similar approach to the way we approached making this movie. When you come onto the set, everything should be focused around your character and you should stay in the pocket as much as possible. Every actor has their own process, but for me, I really need to stay in the pocket. So, if I’m on set and I’m in character, I’m not thinking like a producer. If I’m on set and I’m not in character, wardrobe and make-up, and I’m just coming on set for the moments that I’m not shooting, then I’m able to be the producer.
It was tricky because it wasn’t like being the producer of Fast & Furious. This was being the producer of something that, if it didn’t work, I would have lost my house. Everything that I had on my life was leveraged to make this movie. So, the stakes were higher than for any producer I know because the skin in the game was real. I was so committed to answering this growing request from the social media fans to continue this character, and the only way that I could pull it off was by leveraging everything.
Q: Since this was an independent production this time, is this the story you always envisioned to follow The Chronicles of Riddick?
VD: It isn’t. Part of what I’ve been trying to do at the studio is to create movies while simultaneously thinking about the succeeding chapters, and how they would all interlink. You’ve seen in with The Fast and the Furious. That felt like the challenge of our millennium. In the old millennium, when we made sequels and franchise movies, we just put the brand up there and slapped something together. We didn’t expect the property to grow; we expected the property to fizzle out. It was exploiting a brand. That’s why I turned down all those the sequels to all those films. I didn’t feel like they were approaching it with that level of respect to an overall chronological story.
When we were doing The Chronicles of Riddick, back in 2003, David [Twohy] and I put together three leather binders. Each leather binder had a lock. And we gave them to the head of the studio with one key. On the first binder, it said Core I, the second binder said Core II and the third binder said Core III. At that production level, the amount of money that we were spending at that point, we were thinking of going directly to the Underverse for Core II, and then to Furya for Core III. When years started to go by and we weren’t delivering the next chapter, we had to make a very conscious decision to find a way to tell the next chapter, continue the story and continue the mythology, even if it meant we weren’t going to get the size budget we had just had on The Chronicles of Riddick.
Luckily for us, there was an outcry from social media to make this one rated R, which did two things. First, it ruled out all possibilities of a studio backing it. As you know, rated R movies are few and far between nowadays. We had to take a more independent route, so I went to Europe, to a film market, and presented what this film was going to be, and got foreign money to start this movie and to be the bulk of the financing for the movie. And then, it was up to us to take that somewhat limited means, especially in comparison to where we were on Chronicles, and tell a story with those limited means. Thank God the audience wanted it rated R because that justified, in some ways, taking a more independent route.
Q: How did fighting Dwayne Johnson in Fast 5 compare to fighting Dave Bautista in Riddick?
VD: David Bautista came in and was just great. I remember when he was auditioning, I immediately saw some potential. I had just worked with Dwayne Johnson on Fast 5, so I believed you could take somebody from the wrestling world and coach them into some really great performances. The fight sequence between me and Bautista was different, in some ways. It took the same level of choreography, but the fight sequence in Fast 5 took us a week to shoot. It was one of the most rigorous scenes we’d ever shot because it wasn’t just the physical component. There was an emotional component that was a part of that fight sequence that added an extra level of difficulty and intensity to it. The fight between me and Bautista was fun, but it wasn’t supposed to be a huge set piece in the way that the Dom-Hobbs fight was. At the very introduction of Hobbs, you’re really waiting for the Hobbs-Dom showdown.
This was done a little bit differently because we were still focusing on the Johns [Matt Nable] and Dahl [Katee Sackhoff] characters, and all the characters who are part of the mercs. I got spoiled on Fast 5. I started to get self-conscious about fight sequences because, invariably, the other person would get hurt, and you never want anyone to be hurt on a film, let alone you being responsible. The great thing about working with these guys who have spent their lives choreographing fights for wrestling is that that’s their specialty. They know how to sell explosive hits without really making a contact, or really doing too much damage. So, I was able to exploit that for the Fast 5 fight, as well as with David Bautista. He’s the only character in Riddick that our protagonist fights to that degree, in part because he was conditioned to do that. He was such a great choice to have that fight sequence with.
Q: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently made some comments predicting that the film industry is going to implode and that only blockbuster franchise movies will get made while ticket prices will go up. As someone who stars in and produces those types of movies, what are your thoughts on their statements?
VD: At the risk of sounding naive, I don’t see that in the immediate future. I think Hollywood is changing. I love Steven and I’m a big fan of George Lucas, and their credentials are impeccable. I don’t know when the last time was that Steven Spielberg or George Lucas made a movie with Universal, but I can tell you that Universal is leading the charge. They’re looking at film differently. They’re planning ahead in a way that I’ve never seen a studio do before. They’re believing in a relationship between fan and film franchise, in a new way. They’re more receptive to an audience, in part because of social media, in a way we’ve never been allowed and in a way that Steven never could have imagined.
When Lucas was doing Star Wars, he didn’t have a 50-million-person Facebook following where he could just sift through feedback to try to get an idea for what he was going to do next. It’s a luxury we have today, and it’s really cool to see Universal leading the charge by listening. The thought of listening to an audience was unheard of five years ago. Movies were that thing where you went and bought a ticket, and you never got to talk to the person that made it, and you never got to talk to the creator or the producer of those films. You bought the ticket, shut up and sat down, and you could never comment about it or have a relationship with it. That’s what’s changing and movies are changing with it. If Clark Gable had a Facebook page, there would have been a Gone with the Wind 2.