How To Make A Full-On Action Movie In A Single Car: Mukunda Michael Dewil On Vehicle 19

vehicle 19 coverReleased on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today is Mukunda Michael Dewil‘s outrageously ambitious action film, Vehicle 19.

As soon as I understood what Dewil was attempting, I requested an interview with the man. I wanted to know how he’d managed to mount this full-scale action film in which the camera never leaves the confines of a single car.

And I was also curious, to be blunt, about what on Earth inspired him to make his life so difficult in the first place?

Here’s some of what Mukunda told me.

If I ever want to make a movie in South Africa again I should definitely say Vehicle 19 is fabricated entertainment. I wanted Paul Walker’s character to be a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to put him in an environment as hostile as possible, so I did take license. That being aid, Johannesburg is known as a dangerous and edgy place. Although it’s kind of culturally rich and there’s a fantastic, vibrant mood down there, you’ve got to keep on your toes. I took those elements and heightened them for dramatic effect.

The idea of keeping the camera in the car came first. I wanted to stay with somebody the whole time. I thought this could ramp up the pressure. If you stay with somebody, the situation happens to you as well as them. So I thought I could take the audience on this ride where they want escape but can’t. They’re stuck with this guy, and if I make his journey as dangerous and intense and under as much pressure as possible, I thought that could work. I thought about what the most difficult situation might be for someone where there’s no escape, and I expanded from that point.

Staying inside the car caused a lot of problems. I felt that we’d need some element of believability – it’s entertainment but you can lose your audience. I had to make it so that the character just couldn’t get out and leave the car. That’s why he’s already there in the country illegally, so he’d get arrested. He has to follow through with what he said he’d do. I had to add obstacles so that he couldn’t just leave, and the one time when he does leave, we have the thing where the phone rings and he turns back.

It’s tricky filming in a car. You don’t have the normal cinematic conventions of master shots and singles, it’s a whole other language. But what I did was just scale it all down so that the wide would be the whole car interior, and the tight shot would be on Paul’s eyes. There was a learning curve for us all as we went along, but I really wanted to do this, try something different. Unless somebody is going to give me $200 million dollars and I can break new ground with technology I’d rather just work with what I have in a fresh way. We wanted to engage the audience in a new way. So, while we had to learn a few things as we were going, I think it paid off. We have something that looks different and feels different.

paul walker vehicle 19

We had seven cars and not one. We had to put the camera just about everywhere so we had seven different set ups. It’s tricky when you have to shoot inside the car and also outside, because you have two completely different worlds of light to deal with. Both Miles and I come from a commercials background – I spent ten years shooting commercials – so we were spoiled and used to having a lot of money to shoot a small amount of stuff. In commercials you really try to make everything pop and look as good as you can.

For Vehicle 19 we wanted to make Johannesburg look gritty and dangerous but to still have a big movie look and feel. We shot with an anamorphic lens because even though the film is set inside one car, we wanted it to look big. The lenses really had this great depth of field that helps with the look a lot.

We shot on 35mm because it had to look good. We didn’t have the luxury of huge panoramic vistas, we had to work with just the inside of a car and the downbeat environments outside the window but still make the film look really good.

It’s not subtle down in Johannesburg so a lot of the shots are saturated – slightly brighter, slightly bleeding – and I think that helps evoke the mood. The interior of the car had a specific look too, and it was tricky to maintain that as we drove through different environments.

 A lot of the film was created in camera, and we did a lot of risky stuff a larger movie couldn’t do. We got away with it, without so many regulations, because we’re an independent movie. Crazy, risky stuff. So we didn’t have to cheat there as much as on a bigger blockbuster. Paul did 98% of the stunts and there was only one he wasn’t allowed to do for insurance reasons.

I have another movie in development with K5 who did this one. It’s called Glop, it’s an action thriller which takes place on table mountain. It’s quite a big movie.

Table mountain? Considerably less constraining than a single car, of course. I wonder what Dewil will manage up there?

For now, though, if you can only choose one newly-released “Paul Walker drives a car” film this week, I think Vehicle 19 is the more interesting and unusual choice by some considerable distance.

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