Durango, Mexico has played host to Hollywood film productions since 1954, when actor Robert Wagner road into town to film "White Feather". With wide open plains to the east and hills, caves and canyons to the west, it has been an ideal location for hundreds of westerns and cowboys, and home for legendary big-screen cowboy John Wayne himself.
But those dusty landscapes and towering rock formations were put to use last year as the other-worldly setting for 20th Century Fox's anime adaptation 'Dragonball: Evolution'. The cast and crew of the feature film set up shop in a recently-abandoned blue jeans factory, massive enough to accommodate several interior and exterior sets, not to mention production offices, a costuming office and plenty of workspace for the prop and makeup crew. Mania.com was invited to the set to check out on the production of the live-action movie, based on the wildly popular manga and anime.
Executive Producer of the film Tim Van Rellim gives a guided tour of Jeans Factory facility. We're led into a room constructed of translucent floor, walls and ceiling, with a large futuristic captain's chair in the center of it. This is part of the lair of Lord Piccolo, played by actor James Marsters.
"This is the Genesis chamber," Van Rellim tells us. "It's where Piccolo creates the the Fu Luns. He generates them here and sends them down to the volcano, to try to stop Goku from getting the Dragon Ball that's hidden there."
The chamber is raised about 8 feet from the factory floor to allow lighting from the bottom, tops and sides, bathing Piccolo in a white light. This is part of the dirigible which Piccolo travels in throughout the film.
But it's the monsters that are on our mind. "The Fu Lun are sort of a rather nasty, unpleasant monster," Van Rellim said, adding that they creatures were created with practical, prosthetic effects, and not CGI. He also promises to show us a dead one at the Volcano set!
Outside the Factory are two towering rock formations perhaps thirty feet tall. Both of them are completely artificial and constructed by the crew. As Van Rellim leads us towards them crew members spray the ground with water hoses. The cost of being situated the desert is massive amounts of dust and sand in the air at all times.
We reach the volcano set, a massive bowl of rock. We stand in the center of the crater where, if this were the reality of the movie, we'd be incinerated instantly by the roiling lava all around. Instead we're standing on a flat green surface. Off to one side a green strip goes from the lip of the volcano down to where we stand. It's not hard to imagine the orange and red lava flow that the CG crew will add in post production.
This is the site of the battle with the monstrous Fu Luns, which regenerate every time our heroes strike them down. To my disappointment, the dead Fu Lun we've been promised is nowhere to be seen, having been cleared away by the crew before our arrival.
From there we move on to the second man-made cavern. Above us is a ledge which is clearly meant to serve as a stage for some climactic battle. All around are rock formations that look natural at first glance, and then reveal themselves to be eroded carvings (or perhaps fossils) of massive dragons. Van Rellim tells us this is the foot of the Dragon Temple.
There are no Fu Luns here either, but seated nearby is an imposing figure in ornate, black leather armor. He's got pale skin, fangs and etchings in his head that suggest a pair of antennae, laying at rest along his skull.
This is actor James Marsters, in full makeup as Lord Piccolo. He's here because they'll shortly be filming the climactic final confrontation between his character and Goku. While I'd describe his skin as pale with a greenish tint, it looks much more green in the stills and footage we've seen since then.
Marsters agrees to talk to the press but, as we're about to learn, it's not always easy to tell where the actor ends and the world-dominating demonic villain begins. But its the actor who speaks first and tells us why he's so committed to doing justice to Lord Piccolo.
James Marsters: I've got a son who will kill me, even if he has to grow up first, he will kill me if I get this wrong.
Press: Does he get to see you on set?
JM: No. You know, he's in school and Durango is a bit of a harsh place to try to talk his mother into. If I start trying to pull him to Durango she's not gonna want to go to Wales next time.
P: Did you have to keep a lot of stuff secret from him?
JM: Actually, I trust him with everything. Even though I tell the producers I won't tell anybody, if I tell nobody else I'll tell Sullivan. He's never compromised. He's never leaked anything. He's maniacal about it, especially about 'Dragon Ball Z'.
P: What do you want the fans to know about your role and this movie?
JM: I want them to know that the cast and crew and writers and everyone understand that this is important. A lot of us are 'Dragon Ball Z' fans.
Just speaking personally, I'm a fan because it helped me raise my son to understand his aggression and his anger is not a bad thing. It's like a dragon that you have to ride. And, you can't kill your own dragon. You can't chop off your own balls. At the same time you can't let your dragon run you around the world out of control.
'Dragon Ball' helps to teach young boys that being a real man is kind of being a goofy man sometimes, being a mellow man, being a kind man, being a gentle man, and that has nothing to do with being weak.
Goku is a great role model because he's basically a karate bum, like the stunt guys. They're cracking jokes. They have no need to strut and prove themselves as men, but if they need to they're triple-times deadly. That is a good role model and it's helped me explain to my son how to become a man.
So at the core for me that's why it's important.
And I think that's why the unapologetic violence of 'Dragon Ball Z' is important. I think it's important not to shy away from that because Goku is fighting for the right reasons.
P: Is it important to you to really humanize your character or do you embrace the idea of being super bad?
JM: Well I'm playing this guy as a prison guy. He's spent a long time in prison and he meets this little pup who thinks he's going to stop him from getting his Dragon Balls? You've gotta be kidding me.
Thinks he wants to fist fight? I've been in prison for two thousand years. I'm gonna pants you, bro.
[As Marsters talks about what drives Lord Piccolo, it's easy to see the actor subsiding and the villain coming through]
P: So he's not a guy who thinks of himself as a villain?
JM: No! He's not a villain!
Piccolo was working with the mystics. He was thinking he was doing the job. He did one thing that the mystics didn't agree with, and instead of talking about it, they threw him in jail. And it wasn't just like a nice jail. It was like where no molecule in your body moves for two thousand years.
Now I think that's kind of harsh punishment. Don't you?
Now who are these mystics anyway. Are they really just? Screw them! Have they run the Earth so damn well anyway?
So I don't think that Piccolo is evil. He's just really mad.
P: Got it.
[Nervous laughs from the gathered press]
P: Do you get locked into a mindset where you are Piccolo?
JM: Yeah. If someone said, "how you doing funny-face?"
I'd say "don't you talk to me like that when I'm a demon God. I don't take it well."
I kind of felt bad about it later that night because I was in character. I'm enough of a method actor that I don't want to hear any jokes or shit like that because everyone to me right now is vermin, basically.
JM: I'm sorry, but it's true!
P: You said in a previous interview that you felt 'Dragonball' was very Shakespearean. Can you expand on that?
JM: I think I was referring to, in the way that the characters...in Shakespeare there're really no villains or heroes. There'd just be people behaving in a villainous manner or an heroic manner. It depends on what chapter of their life that you happen to climb in on as to where they fit in that story.
I think that 'Dragonball' has the same kind of universe where people start really evil and get redeemed in a fairly realistic way. Not like they're all butter and cookies all of a sudden, but they do switch sides when they do realize certain things. I think that that takes it away from white hats and black hats stapled on characters. I think that's less interesting.
From what I've seen of the anime, certainly, that seems to be true a lot. I think it's more interesting and I can't think of a lot of western writers besides Shakespeare that do that.
All of Asian art, and then Shakespeare.
P: Are you a comic book fan yourself?
JM: I actually wrote a comic book for Dark Horse, a Spike and Dru comic book. They changed it with the artwork from a romance to a gothic, twisted thing. I had to tell Juliet Landau why she was portrayed like this [pantomimes a twisted creature].
It's a romance, OK?! If they would have just done it like I told them to do it, it would have been really great. But in a romance all the guys reading it have to want the woman and want to be the guy. And all the girls reading it have to want the guy and want to be the woman. That's how romance works. There are no questions on this one.
It took the fuel out it if you make the woman a ghoul. And that's why I was embarrassed in front of lovely Juliet Landau, for God Sakes. I'm supposed to take care of her.
But yeah, I love comic books. I had boxes of them when I was growing up and I got back into them later on with Frank Miller's 'Daredevil' series. I just read everything that Frank Miller ever wrote. Then I got into...who did 'Batman: Year One'? Mazuchelli. I'd gotten into him for a while. 'Swamp Thing', circa mid-nineties. Was that Alan Moore? That was awesome stuff.
And 'New Mutants'. I remember liking that a lot.
I don't know that I read that much now just because I have to read so many scripts. But the graphic novels: they're movies, for cheap. Three bucks, man.
P: Did you have a chance to hang out with the other actors?
JM: Actually I haven't shot a whole lot. This is really my second day with Justin. We're just getting to know each other today. Justin's a great guy but I've just been shooting mostly with the character Mai [played by Eriko].
So I've been up in the clouds blasting people and killing people, but I haven't been really with the main cast. But yeah, Chow's cool. Everyone's cool. Everyone seems real nice.
P: Any trepidation about tackling more bad guy characters. Are you worried about being typecast?
JM: [mocking] Do I want to show my soft side?
I like cool work, man. I suppose it would be best to show a few different sides of myself all the time, but I feel like this is another really good role and a really interesting project.
And I don't really feel like I'm redoing Spike. Spike was very sexual, first of all, and he was very funny.
They're both kind of loners but it kind of stops there. Spike was never interested in just blowing up the Earth.
Lord Piccolo will try to destroy the world on April 8th, when 'Dragonball: Evolution' opens in theaters in the U.S. Check back with Mania.com next week for more from our visit to the set of the film.