Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
“What’s important is that the movie gives a voice and a face to characters that are usually not represented in cinema, but specifically these kinds of movies.” – director Dean Israelite
THE MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS were a huge deal for kids of the ’90s. The most popular version of the show was a mashup of the Japanese series’ action sequences, re-cut with American dramatic scenes, where a teenage squad in color-coded, motorcycle gear-inspired armor battled against supernatural monsters and villains, camping it up and kicking butt much to the unending pleasure of children worldwide. These wholesome and diverse teens were one generation’s after-school heroes. And they are about to become another generation’s with director Dean Israelite’s POWER RANGERS, a reinvigorated, modernized take on the enduring TV series.
At the film’s recent press day, the affable director and I sat down to talk about everything from creating a new language, modernizing established, multi-dimensional characters and how they organically integrated product placement.
At what point did this project first cross your path? Was the script already written and then you came aboard, or did you pitch your own take on first and then the script was written after?
I read a very early draft of the script that the producers and the studio had been working on for awhile. It needed a lot of work, but I understood what my take would be and I really felt good about what I could bring to it. I’d grown up on the show. They had submitted it to 8 or 10 directors – a lot of whom were most established than I was. I ended up putting together a really big presentation to the producers, and then to the studio, and then finally to everyone at Saban, Haim Saban, trying to show them what this version, my version, could be. They got very excited about it and then gave me the job. From that point on, there was a lot of work done to the script and we were lucky enough to get John Gatins on. It really came to life at that point.
Do you have to become a Power Rangers expert before you pitched your take? And were there things you wanted to do maybe from the series that just didn’t quite fit in the movie?
I went back and watched the first season again. There were a few things that I pitched that just wouldn’t fly that, in later seasons, I’d forgotten that had happened and we needed to stay away from that. But we were lucky to have everyone at Saban be the godfathers of everything so they could tell us areas in which we could try to excavate. We’ve expanded a lot of the mythology in really cool ways. A lot of that is thanks to them shepherding us in these directions. And it felt good with the script and what we were doing.
Walk me through how you did that opening sequence where we’re in Jason’s truck and the camera does that continuous 360 shot. That seems to be quite intense from a technical standpoint.
Yeah. It was. What we did was have the truck and we put a stunt driver on top of the truck in a roll cage so he’s controlling the car. Dacre is in the seat but he has no control over anything. The camera is remotely hooked up in the back and it’s on a rig that spins 360. Those are the only things that are in the car. Then you have everything that’s timed out – you have the stunt drivers and we broke it into three, maybe four sections. We knew we were going to match the cuts on the wipes to give the feel that it was continuous. We are remotely in a van that’s disguised so if the camera catches us, we’re okay.
You’re just doing it over and over to get the timing with the cop cars and the others cars correct. I’m standing over the operator, breathing over his shoulder as he’s trying to get the rhythm correct and I’m on a walkie-talkie yelling Dacre, ‘Turn now! Turn your head!’ It was great! The only time we were ahead of schedule was then. We started with that and we had three days for it and finished it in two days because we were so prepared. We had really ironed it out because it was so complicated.
Were there scenes you thought would be easy that turned into a bigger challenge?
There were a lot of those days. The campfire was grueling – absolutely grueling. I felt okay going into it because the blocking was simple. They are all sitting down, but the coverage for that was intense because I wanted to make sure the characters were always connected to each other. So that’s always pivoting the camera from one character to another at the right moment and dialing in the performance and making sure it’s all working in sync. And it’s a really challenging scene for the actors. We’re outside. It’s freezing. It’s March in Vancouver at 3AM. That was an incredibly hard night. I shot so much footage and was very relieved when I saw it. To the editors’ credits, it’s all in the assembly of that scene.
It seems insignificant, but it’s incredibly noteworthy, but what I loved most about this movie is that the female rangers’ abilities are never questioned by the men on the team. That’s huge for these kinds of movies. Even with racial diversity and Billy being “on the spectrum.” These are small things that will make a difference. Was that something you were conscious about?
It was always important. The show was diverse. I didn’t want to just make it diverse racially. What’s important is that the movie gives a voice and a face to characters that are usually not represented in cinema, but specifically these kinds of movies. Jon and I always talked about that if THE BREAKFAST CLUB was made today, there were going to be these other issues that would be in that movie – and what are those issues we would bring to the fore? That was always an absolute true north in the process of making the movie.
In terms of the female thing, I’m glad. That’s good to hear it connected with you. I always wanted the women in the movie to be incredibly strong and powerful. To me, Kimberly is just as much a leader in this group as Jason is. It’s never discussed, but it just is. I love what Elizabeth [Banks] did with Rita. I think that’s really fucking bold and really empowering. Those were all very conscious choices.
How did you know you found the perfect cast? They are so on point.
It took a really long time. We were missing our deadlines to make the suits, because we hadn’t found the right combination of the characters. There were points in the process where we thought we were not going to find the perfect combination and we’d have to compromise here and there. But when you see them, you kind of know they were right for the role. Then the question becomes, ‘How do they fit in with everything else?’ We got lucky. I’ll give credit to all of us: to John Papsidera, the casting director, and the producers and the studio. No one would relent.
You hired a language expert to create the Alterian language. Tell me all about this, because you know nerds are going to learn it and train their dogs using it.
Right, which I hope. We took months to develop the language. Zordon’s from Planet Altar, so we wanted him to speak Alterian. It’s part of the mythology of the show. When we said we were going to have this prologue, it doesn’t make sense that they speak English. Conceptually, going with the idea that we wanted to make this as grounded and real as possible, to be respectful, they gotta speak their language.
I met with a linguistic professor from Canada – Christine. She had some experience working on MAN OF STEEL. I just talked about what I wanted the language to feel like. I wanted it to feel like ancient, mythological, and powerful, but with a beauty to it. Ultimately we settled on a language that would be a combination between Aramaic, Ancient Greek, some Latin, maybe a little bit of French. She came up with a bunch of sounds and an alphabet and she’d translate the words. I loved it!
It’s so hard to get everyone to learn the same language and speak it with the same kind of inflection.
Was Krispy Kreme always part of the plan?
John and I were walking around Vancouver one night. We were still in pre-production and trying to figure out where the crystal would be. We were thinking about structures in Angel Grove that would be weird geological shapes because you have this crystal that’s buried underneath it. We went around and around and he said, “I just want to put it under the Golden Arches!’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?! That’s a brilliant idea! But that doesn’t feel like of this particular moment.’ Then we started to go through what else is in the zeitgeist of teenagers today. And Krispy Kreme said yes. We were lucky enough it all worked out.
Um, donuts are the source of life for many people.
[laughs] Exactly. Right!
Bringing your film crew together is a little like finding the team members you’re going to morph with in life. You work with the same cinematographer and editor here. Does that strengthen your film?
Totally. Absolutely. It’s rare to find people that speak the same language that you speak. That you have a shorthand with, that completely get you and you get them. Once you find those people, you just gotta hang on. I remember one day, [producer] Marty Bowen was on set and Matt Lloyd and I were just talking and [Marty] said, ‘I didn’t understand a word you guys just said in the last five minutes.’ We just have all of these shorthands – abbreviations for things. Trust is very important. When you’ve been through the trenches with guys like that, you can turn to them and know they will say what they really think. That you share a sensibility and can trust that.
There’s a maturity in your work, from your short, to PROJECT ALMANAC, to this. Is there something you do to push yourself as a filmmaker on each project?
That’s a great question.
It might all be subconscious.
It might be. I always just try to look for substance in things. That’s what I’m trying to go for. I’m trying to understand that in a more rich way. I’m trying to articulate that in a more succinct way. It’s about trying to get to the heart of something I think is substantive and meaningful. What I like, in terms of PROJECT ALMANAC, to this is I think the characters are all very interesting and disenfranchised in their own way. These kids are much deeper and much more complex and disenfranchised in their own way. They feel like an evolution from that. Maybe I’m getting better at being able to dramatize or identify that.
POWER RANGERS opens on March 24.
Feature Photo: Director Dean Israelite and Dacre Montgomery on the set of SABAN’S POWER RANGERS. Courtesy of Lionsgate.