Doug Aarniokoski and I talk Highlander: Endgame

Douglas Aarniokoski is one of the nicest guys you could ever talk to about anything. And when that something just happens to be the movie Highlander: Endgame, the first Highlander project to unite Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert as franchise heroes Duncan MacLeod and Connor MacLeod since the pilot episode of the TV series, it’s an even bigger honor for a fan like me. Swordmaster F. Braun McAsh says Doug is “the epitome of cool,” which, after talking to him, is something to which I can certainly testify.

Christopher Lambert describes Doug as a very visual director, and the Highlander franchise is certainly no stranger to visual directors. Russell Mulcahy, who established the Highlander style of awesome swordplay, beautifully filmed flashbacks, and heartbreaking character moments that explored what it means to live forever, directed the first two films. Mulcahy had cut his teeth directing music videos just like Andy Morahan, who directed Highlander: The Final Dimension. It was the first feature film for both.

And while Highlander: Endgame also marks Doug’s directing debut, his filmography as a first assistant director reads like a who’s who of the most talented and visionary directors working today on some of the most cutting edge films of the last decade. Doug performed first A.D. duties for Robert Rodriguez on The Faculty and the George Clooney vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn, Jay Roach on the hit Mike Myers comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and Richard LaGravenese in the critically acclaimed Living Out Loud, which starred Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito as two troubled people who form a fragile and unlikely friendship. He was also first A.D. for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for Terry Gilliam, whose own directorial credits include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Time Bandits, Brazil, and 12 Monkeys. That’s quite a varied and talented pool of mentors.

The Faculty found him in front of the camera as a coach, and Austin Powers made his voice a star. Listen in the scene where Dr. Evil talks on the phone. The voice on the other end of the line is Doug’s.

“Yeah, I made it into some sort of cult status,” he laughs. “I’m the Phone Guy. It’s a funny story. They happened to be at the looping stage that day and they were doing some work with Mike and I happened to be there at post and Mike wanted to play off somebody on the phone. He said, ‘Doug, come on down here and jump on the mic. It’ll be fun. I’ll talk and you just answer back.’ So I sat there and just sort of did improv for like 20 minutes on the phone and we had some fun with it. I didn’t think they’d keep my voice!”

It was on the Austin Powers set that Doug met his wife, Suzanne Todd, one of the film’s producers. They are now proud parents of a little boy named Hunter, named after Steve McQueen’s last movie. Doug has called Los Angeles home for the last fifteen years, though he grew up in the Bay Area. He is very relaxed, open, and exuberant as we discuss Highlander: Endgame.

“There are so many websites!” Doug says of the Highlander fan community. “That’s incredible! I knew of the first Highlander movie but I’d never really seen the series or the second or third movies.”

Indeed, Doug was too busy making great movies with great directors. But that work caught the attention of Miramax, whose genre arm, Dimension Films, will release Endgame on September 1.

“The last show I did with Robert was called The Faculty,” he explains, “and we were shooting some additional photography that Robert was unable to attend. So he recommended me to Miramax to finish the film. I shot some of that and they were very impressed with what they got back.”

So impressed, in fact, that they turned to Doug to film additional material for the upcoming Dimension Films western Texas Rangers, which was filmed in Canada. “I went up there and I shot some promotional stuff for them, and as it turned out they had a very troubled schedule due to the fact that all the stars in that movie were television stars, so when they had an end date, they had a drop-dead end date. They basically created a third-unit action unit that I was directing, and I went on to become a second unit director. We ended up shooting for what was supposed to be six days but ended up being almost six weeks. It was pretty intense. Once I got finished with that, Miramax was becoming a bigger and bigger fan of my work and they said, ‘We need to put you in a film right away. The next film we do that gets green lit we’re going to put you on.’ And that was Highlander. It all happened literally over a span of about two weeks.”

While Doug had already established himself by helping other directors bring their visions to the big screen, Endgame was Doug’s baby from the word go. “We didn’t have a lot of prep time, unfortunately, on this film, and it was kind of a crash course in preparation for photography due to the fact that we had to finish before the holidays. So we literally only had five weeks, which is probably about half of what this movie would normally have had for prep. So there wasn’t a lot of time to brainstorm and come up with ‘How are we going to develop this in a new way?’ When I spoke to (Bill) Panzer and (Peter) Davis and Miramax I pitched them my ideas to take Highlander in sort of a new direction, which I think excited a lot of people and scared a lot of people. It’s hard when people get familiar and used to a certain format for a story like Highlander. I’m sure it’s the same as if somebody went in for Star Trek and said, ‘Let’s lose the Enterprise!’ You know what I mean?” he laughs. “People go, ‘Wow, we kind of like it, but … I don’t know.’ It’s a tough film to follow. So we tried to go in and develop some interesting ideas and certainly wanted to take the fighting to a new level. And that’s what we really concentrated on the most in this film. Everyone’s familiar with the story, and you can only do so much with the story. And so what we really tried to concentrate on was to give the fans something that they would really be excited about, in terms of the fighting and in terms of the swordplay. Coming on the heels of a film like The Matrix, people expect so much more out of films these days. You just can’t give them the same old one-two-parry, one-two-parry and the guy’s head comes off. Nobody’s going to buy it. They want something a notch, or five, better. That’s what we really tried to do, and Miramax did a fantastic job in terms of casting because they gave me Donnie Yen. He is fantastic. When they showed me his movies and they showed me his martial arts tapes, I did a back flip! It was incredible! He came on the set and he just took it to another level. And the fight between him and Adrian, I think, is pretty spectacular. Being the fourth film and me being a first-time director meant giving the audience something new, and that’s what I really wanted to bring to the table. I wasn’t trying to emulate any of the other directors. I tried to come up with something that would really stylistically show off what I knew, and that was action.”

In addition to the skills Adrian and Donnie brought to the Endgame table, F. Braun McAsh was back as the Highlander swordmaster after playing that role for four seasons of the TV series. “F. is one of those guys,” Doug says, “who you know, when he’s telling you how something is done or how a specific move is executed, you know you’re getting the best information money can buy. I keep waiting to see him on the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ game show. He’d clean up. The guy knows something about everything. His nickname should be ‘Hard Drive.’ He’s brilliant.”

All this talk about action was sending my excitement through the roof, so I took the opportunity to start blabbering to Doug about the trailer, and how colorful the film looks. The scene I mentioned shows Connor fighting Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne) at the edge of a cemetery. In the woods beyond the Immortals, stark brown trees meet rich grays and blues that mingle in the mists and contrast the white grave markers. Kell, draped in a long black coat with a shining silver sword, battles Connor, wearing a long brown coat that plays beautifully against the bright gold guard of his katana, the sword’s ivory dragon handle, and the dark gloves that have become a Connor MacLeod trademark.

“We were very concentrated on the color scheme of the film. Wendy Partridge, who was our costume designer, and I spent many hours trying to design a look that was not just black. We didn’t want to just do Blade, as great a movie as Blade is,” he says, referencing the 1998 Wesley Snipes hit that featured its own fair share of kick-ass martial arts and swordplay. “We didn’t just want to go jet black, jet black, jet black. As you look at the film, you’ll see that there are a lot of browns, and that’s just a conscious decision we made. These people are Immortals. They live amongst us, and they blend in as opposed to stand out. They’re not walking around looking for battles. The battles find them. So we wanted to put them into an everyman’s world. We felt that by taking the black away we put you in an everyman world as opposed to everyman into a movie world. And then Doug Milsome, our director of photography, and I sat down in Romania and came up with a couple of ideas.”

Milsome was a camera operator on the original Highlander, and has provided cinematography for films like Full Metal Jacket, Breakdown, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The Endgame director speaks highly of him. “When you have somebody that talented, you literally let them run with it. I say, ‘This is what I want and this is the kind of feel I’m going for,’ and provided you guys are on the same page, you just let that guy go. He’s talent 101.”

I told Doug that both he and Milsome have appeared in the daily photos on Adrian Paul’s PEACE website, and it was then that our conversation turned to the man behind Duncan MacLeod. “Adrian is such a great guy, and obviously what he does with his charity is just fantastic. I’m glad for him and I hope people will check out his website. He really does put heart and soul into the MacLeod character.”

At the Gathering 5 convention held this March in Denver, Adrian praised Doug and said he’d love to work with him again. “Wow! The feeling is definitely mutual,” Doug says. “Adrian puts 110% into everything that he does.”

And so, says Doug, does Christopher Lambert.

“I feel so fortunate as a first-time director having the opportunity to work with two actors who truly knew who their characters were in Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul. I would sit down with them and we would talk about what we wanted to achieve in the scene. Instead of me trying to sit there and say, ‘You know, Adrian, I know you’ve played this character for nine years but I think he would do this,’ there was none of that because they are the characters. They know exactly where they’re going, where they’ve been, and how they got there and what journey their characters have taken. For them to get into a specific zone, if you will, man, it’s just like flipping a light switch. They are there. I was shocked. I didn’t actually know that (“The Gathering”) was the only episode they’d done together. When they came on the set, it was like two brothers. Their camaraderie was incredible. We were out at dinner one night and I said, ‘How many shows have you guys done together?’ And they said, ‘One.’ So I said, ‘Come on, you guys see each other all the time at conventions and stuff, right?’ And they said, ‘No.’ But there was just something there. It was really a kinship. It was really bizarre. What better way to play off of two guys who, in the story, haven’t seen each other for ten years and then come back together? They were truly living out the story, which was great. And they never missed a beat. They got together and it was just BOOM. It was like butter. Especially for me! I just sat back and enjoyed the performances.”

Doug explains how Adrian — a director himself — gets the most out of himself and everyone around him, though never at the expense of the other actors or the crew. “Adrian is very respectful in terms of everybody’s job. Adrian is one of those guys where I guarantee you he can do everybody’s job. He could pull focus. He could work the smoke machine. Design the costumes. He could run the DAT machine and do sound at the same time. The guy is just so multi-talented. He blows me away. He really does. He reminded me a lot of Robert Rodriguez, who literally could do anything. He was really, really talented, but very respectful and never tried to push his way into somebody else’s thoughts. He was always there for support. If you had a question and you wanted to involve him he was definitely there and he’d tell you what he thought about whatever it was you were asking him. But he was very mellow, very laid back, and was definitely a team player. In this kind of shoot, you needed to have somebody like that. You really couldn’t have an egomaniac on this film because the time crunch was so intense. Shooting in Bucharest was so brutal, there was really no room for egos.”

Endgame marked several firsts. It was Doug’s first directing gig, and Adrian Paul’s first time bringing Duncan MacLeod to the big screen. Jim Byrnes and Peter Wingfield were making their movie debuts (as TV series favorites Joe Dawson and Methos), so was the WWF’s Edge (Adam Copeland), and Donnie Yen was also making his first appearance in an American studio picture of this size.

“You have to be sort of a conductor and a shrink at the same time,” Doug laughs. “You really have to sort of feel out your actors and try to understand their fears and be aware of their concerns and really be there for them. It was such a melting pot of backgrounds. The TV actors I’ve worked with, obviously the guys on Texas Rangers, they’re so dialed in. They are so sharp. They don’t get 25 takes. They get in, they’ve got to hit their mark, they’ve got to say their lines, they’ve got to deliver their performance. So they’re really, really tight, and I’ve found that the film guys are just as tight, yet they sort of want to mature within the takes and they really want to try different things and you have to respect that. It’s a fine line. You have to draw it, and walk it, and be careful that you don’t trip on it.”

Every good action film needs a good bad guy and a pretty girl. Endgame won’t disappoint. The Immortal villain of Endgame, Jacob Kell, is a Highlander himself whose connection to Connor MacLeod goes back to Scotland where they grew up together. When I asked Doug about Bruce Payne, who plays Kell, I swear I could hear his smile through the phone.

“Bruce Payne,” he says, “is the consummate professional.” Payne has a long list of movie bad guys under his belt, most notably making trouble for Wesley Snipes as Charles “The Rane of Terror” Rane in Passenger 57. “That guy is so tight. I worked with Bruce years and years ago when I was a second A.D. on a film called The Howling.” Subtitled The Freaks, the film was the sixth sequel in the Howling series of werewolf movies. This one found a reluctant werewolf battling an evil vampire in a circus freak show, and Bruce played the vampire.

“At that time I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t even thinking about directing. I was just happy to be an A.D., to be working in Hollywood. Bruce was the villain, and he and I just hit it off. Usually actors and assistant directors are at each other’s throats, and due to scheduling and everything else that goes on you usually don’t end up being friends with actors per se. Bruce was just a great guy, and truly a hard worker. We hit it off. We had not seen each other since then, and when I got this job and I read the script and read the character of Kell, I knew that was Bruce. I got on the phone with our L.A. casting director and with our London casting office and I said, ‘You have to find Bruce Payne.’ We were seeing wonderful actors, I mean, really, really great actors, and always in the back of my mind I knew this was a part that Bruce Payne had to play. I tried to be very democratic about it. I tried to be very open-minded. I saw the other actors and I thought some of them were just absolutely incredible and did a wonderful job, but it’s like when you see a girl on the subway, you just go, man, if I’d just stayed on and waited I wonder what would have happened. You should never let that instinct go. We found Bruce, and he came in, he sat down and read for me, and he was the girl on the subway that I knew he was going to be,” he laughs, “as terrible as that sounds!” I tell him the metaphor works. “He was the girl on the subway that I couldn’t let drive away. And we had a great time working together.”

“Speaking of the girl on the subway,” I ask, “what about Lisa Barbuscia?”

I can hear Doug smiling through the phone again as he begins to talk about the actress who plays Faith, an Immortal femme fatale who is the key to Duncan MacLeod’s darkest and most painful secret. “Lisa B.,” he says, savoring the name. “Yeah. Yeah! Wow. Talk about pulling somebody out of thin air. She walked into the London casting office and I had never heard of her. Obviously our London casting director had heard of her having a model background and a singing career. She came in and did a reading and took direction so well. Literally she walked out of the room and we turned to each other and said, ‘OK. We’ve got her. There she is. That’s her.’ Michelle Gish, who was our casting director in London, had never seen her do anything of any sort of grit, and she was just blown away. She said, ‘I didn’t know Lisa had that in her.’ She did!”

The Faith character loves Duncan MacLeod in the past and hates him in the present, which allowed Lisa to explore different sides of the same character. “It’s really apparent when you look at her. Obviously the look of her character-contemporary as opposed to the past-she’s very soft, sort of a princess in the past, sort of an angelic look, wide-eyed. In the present, she’s much harder. She’s been around the block … a few hundred times! Lisa just grabbed on and she really worked hard in terms of trying to realize where she’d come from and how she would feel today when she saw Duncan MacLeod again.”

Doug explains that Adrian helped Lisa when it came to playing the same character in different time periods and states of emotion. “Again, Adrian lent so much to the other actors. He was very supporting to them in terms of either being in their position or working with someone who’s been very close to their position, in terms of the structure of the story and in terms of the time lapses and all that. So it was again great to have Adrian there. He could say, ‘Well, back in episode #18,’ or what have you, what you have here is what you had there. And (Lisa) really took that to heart and really, really worked hard in rehearsals. It shows.”

You can’t have Highlander without swordfights, and you can’t have Highlander without romance. Adrian and Lisa share some pretty hot love scenes in Endgame.

“Whoa!” he says, laughing. “I have to tell you, we shot the film with sort of a Rated R version in mind,” Doug explains. “The marketing at Miramax, at one point, had wanted a PG-13 for obvious reasons. They wanted to broaden their audience. They feel that more people can enjoy a film with a PG-13 instead of an R. But we knew. Because of what Highlander is. Because of the action that takes place. Because of what audiences expect in terms of the action. And there’s violence. As terrible as that is, when there can be only one, the only way to go down is to get your head cut off. So we tried to do that very stylishly, and the love scenes as well. I can say they’re very, very steamy. You’re going to see a lot of skin, both Adrian and Lisa. But I think it’s done very tastefully. Both of the actors have seen it and they’re both very pleased with it. Nick Glennie-Smith, who did the score, gave us some music that’s really wonderful. And ladies want to see Adrian’s backside. There’s a lot of his backside in (the love scenes). If I was a gal and I was watching him for six years on television, I mean, God! How can you not love that? When does reality take over from the fantasy? It does in this movie. When we would walk into a restaurant in Bucharest, literally you’d have thought these women had been on an island and had not seen a man in thirty years. It was pretty amazing.”

Though Doug never had a shortage of good material to film, the filming itself was often complicated by the locations in Romania. “Moviemaking is really about challenges, whether you have the best-case scenarios or the worst-case scenarios. It’s all about problem solving. Being in Romania amplified the problems. It’s a society that’s post-Communism and is really just coming out of it. It’s very hard for people to sort of stand up and be counted. They really are used to staying back and laying low and not drawing attention to themselves. On a film set that’s very difficult because it’s all about getting stuff done, thinking ahead, and really planning your day and being able to move left at a moment’s notice. And they were not set up to do that. We had some Americans, some British, and it was hard for them to get the level of work they were used to out of the Romanian crew. But let me tell you this: They are the sweetest people. They worked really hard. It’s like never having skied before. ‘Jump on the skis and go down this hill.’ You might want to do it, and you might love it, but it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at it. And I think this film was definitely the biggest budget film they had had. They’ve had a lot of direct-to-video million-dollar budgets, things like that. I think they were kind of blown away by the speed and the efficiency we tried to bring to them.”

The Endgame crew, meanwhile, was nearly blown away by the weather. When filming resumed this year after Bruce Payne recovered from a nasty bronchial infection, the production found itself in London because key locations were covered by snow. “That was unfortunate. But we knew the weather was coming, and there it was, unfortunately, right smack in our face when we tried to go back there. The producer of the movie, Patrick Palmer, who’s been around for a long time, went over to Romania and found there was absolutely no way we could do this. He made an educated decision and it really saved the movie, because we would have had to shoot everything there over again. I actually never made it back to Romania. I was leaving for the airport when Patrick called me and said, ‘Stop everything, turn your ticket in, you’re heading to London.’ It was a complete about-face.”

London, Doug says, provided more of the “creature comforts that movie people are accustomed to, fine restaurants, a nice hotel with hot water, that kind of thing. We were able to recreate Bucharest. When you watch the cemetery scene, half of it is shot in Bucharest and half of it is shot in London, and I defy you to tell me which half is which. The production designer in London, and again, Patrick Palmer, scoured the countryside to find just the right hills, just the right trees, just the right backdrops. If you show me where it’s broken down between Romania and London, I will buy you a steak dinner, my friend.”

“I’ll take you up on that,” I replied.

“You got it!” Doug laughed.

With all this talk of what was shot where, Doug explained that he and Chris Blunden, “a very talented editor,” did a lot of the film’s editing in London. “We had a great time there.”

But London would not be the last stop for Endgame. Some second-unit footage was shot in Scotland, and additional footage was filmed in Luxembourg. One of the additional scenes is a kata performed by Adrian Paul, who talked at length about the sequence at Gathering 5. Doug was just as excited as Adrian about the results. “We did shoot the kata sequence, in Luxembourg. Highlander is a worldwide film! We had a week of additional photography in Luxembourg doing some green screen and some of the martial arts stuff like the kata. It’s a moment where he’s getting ready to do battle and he does a kata to prepare. It was one of those scenes where it was always on the schedule and always in the script and we never had the time for it. But Adrian hung in there and trained and trained, and got ready for it. He worked so hard. And literally he and I would go out at our lunchtime and take a handful of crew and go out and shoot the kata every day for a week. It’s a great scene. He’s such a bad-ass.”

Adrian’s bad-ass self isn’t the only TV series face that will show up in Endgame. Jim Byrnes reprises his role as Joe Dawson, and Peter Wingfield is back as Methos. “Peter and Jim both came attached to the project via the TV series, and I quickly became a huge fan of both of these gentlemen. I had never worked with them before, I had never met them. They were really open to my suggestions in terms of what I wanted to get out of the various scenes which a lot of times meant changing the way they delivered their lines or their motivations. For me, as a director, I love actors who take chances and aren’t afraid to go left when everyone else is going right. Even though Peter and Jim had done these characters for years, they were willing to not only go left if I asked, but they’d ask me how far. I love that.”

Adam Copeland, better known as the “The Edge” of the WWF, also made his feature debut. “Adam is just a great guy. He obviously had never done anything in terms of film, but what a presence, man, I mean, he knows acting, without a doubt. It’s like, ‘Hey, cool, let’s do it again. Great!’ For him it’s just one shot, usually, you say your lines, you scream at the audience, you do your thing.”

Doug says that Adam Copeland is not “The Edge” when he’s not in the ring. “We only had him for two days. He walked on the set and we were like, ‘That’s him?’ I was expecting some big, heavyset guy. But he was like one of those professional models, this ripped, cut, great-looking guy who spoke wonderfully and came in and was really nice to everybody. We put shitty teeth on him and he was ready to rock and roll. We had a lot of fun. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets nailed for a few more parts.”

It’s been three years since Adrian Paul signed on for the new Highlander movie in September of 1997. In that time the film has been through several writers and titles. Doug says that by the time he came on board, everything had already been worked out. Joel Soisson wrote the script from a story by Gillian Horvath and Bill Panzer; it’s a story that Doug speaks quite highly of.

“What storyline can you address that hasn’t been addressed over seven years on the TV series? We had to work it into something new that people are excited about.”

Doug won’t go into many details about the story. A theme, on the other hand, is something he readily offers. “Without a doubt, redemption,” he says resolutely, echoing Adrian Paul’s one word summary of the film from Gathering 5. “Adrian and Christopher and myself have had hours and hours of discussion about the film and the arc of the characters and why this story needed to be told.”

And though Doug won’t say what’s in the movie, he does comment on something that isn’t. The latest trailer shows Connor slicing Kell in half, only to watch each half grow its own Kell. Doug explains that this and other special effects shots were done only for the trailer and do not appear in the film. “That is actually not in the movie. That was for the trailer. A lot of times the things you see in the trailer are not in the film, for better or for worse. We didn’t want to go into Kell being a sorcerer like Mario Van Peebles. We wanted to keep it on a human level. We didn’t want to get into the supernatural thing at all because it really contradicts what Immortals are all about. We tried to make it two people who you wouldn’t look twice at walking down the street that melt in amongst us. That’s what it’s about. The first movie was simple in its concept and so direct in its execution. But the other two, they were contradicting what the first one had set up. They tried to take it somewhere where it really didn’t need to go. It’s not about sorcery. That is not representative of what the film is about.”

As for Doug’s future, he’s writing a script about a college student who’s framed for murder and finds himself in a world of corruption and deception. “It’s very much in the vein of The Fugitive,” Doug says.

And as for the future of Highlander, Doug says, “I have heard rumblings that there may in fact be a fifth installment. But at this point they’re only rumblings. I hope for the fans’ sake they will allow Adrian to carry the torch for at least two more. There are great stories yet to be told, and I really feel Adrian is on the brink of big screen superstardom. Whether or not I would direct another Highlander … I think for me, there can be only one. But then again, Connery said ‘never again.’ So, I’ll never say never.”

But in the meantime, there’s Endgame. The previous Highlander sequels, Doug explains, were simply not “chapters” of the same story introduced by the first film.

“When I came on board I was very concerned that we didn’t go off in a direction that the fans would be unhappy with. This film is for the fans.” It’s something that Doug, Christopher, and Adrian were aware of before and during filming, and Doug is certain the finished product will reflect that.

“Redemption always, always popped up. When you see the film, you will realize why that is.”

Highlander: Endgame, a Douglas Aarniokoski film starring Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert, opens September 1 in a theater near you.