Paul Bettany Promises 3-D Conversion Done Well in Oft-Delayed Priest

If Screen Gems' upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller Priest feels a bit familiar to you, there's a reason: the film reunites star Paul Bettany with director Scott Stewart, with whom he made last year's avenging-angel apocalypse pic Legion. Produced on a relatively modest budget, Legion made $67 million worldwide but fared poorly with critics and, Bettany admits, suffered from its limitations. With Priest, however, he and Stewart aim to surpass their own benchmark and give audiences something that they haven't seen before: a 3-D post-conversion job worth the price of admission.

In Priest, Bettany plays a highly-skilled warrior who goes rogue to save a young girl from vampires -- which, according to the sizzle reel screened at WonderCon last weekend, promises plenty of gore, hero shots, and the kind of cool-looking effects and action that made Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil: Afterlife a surprisingly enjoyable 3-D experience. Originally slated for release last year, Priest suffered numerous release date changes due to its lengthy conversion process. But, as evidenced by footage presented by Bettany, Stewart, Cam Gigandet, Lily Collins, and Priest manhwa author Min-woo Hyung, the wait was apparently worth it: Priest indeed looks gorgeous, in part thanks to a budget three times that of Legion which allowed Stewart to create an alternate world made of equal parts Western and sci-fi.

Co-stars Maggie Q and Karl Urban couldn't join Bettany and Co. at WonderCon (Urban, they said, was off filming the Judge Dredd reboot), but fans in attendance reacted positively to the sizzle reel. Movieline caught up with Bettany the following day to discuss Priest, its 3D conversion, and Bettany's personal investment in the film.

You seem pretty happy with the WonderCon reel and the reception it earned. I take it the post-conversion process was worth it?

I've seen the movie in various states, different cuts, and definitely the cut we have now is spectacular -- it's the best version. I mention that because sometimes that's not the case, sometimes the version that comes out you find less appealing for various reasons, but this really packs a punch. I've seen it in 2-D, and to see ten minutes of it in 3-D -- it was really great, and I'm so pleased that we shot a 2-D movie on beautiful 1970s anamorphic lenses, which are just gorgeous. You can see the texture of it and the blacks are beautiful, it's just gorgeous. And then to have done a post conversion and taken that much time and care over it... it really paid off. Scott wasn't relying on 3-D in his head as he made the movie, to give it a pop. So everything that 3-D gives us is gravy, it's extra.

How much trepidation was there, given the inconsistency in quality of most post-converted 3-D films we've seen?

I think technology is becoming more sophisticated, and Scott made a really good point Saturday night -- Sony has 3-D televisions and it behooves them to make good 3-D conversion films. So they got behind this completely, gave them the money and the time. It's the longest post-3-D conversion that I know of, and it's not just that others are rushed; I think they're also done without a lot of thought. And I can assure you, because I've been very invested in this film and Scott and I are dear friends -- I've been talking with him every step of the way -- of the amount of care that has been put into it.

You seem unusually involved in this film, given that most actors' creative obligations end after the cameras stop rolling.

It is. I think the last time I was that involved in a film after the completion of principal photography was back when I made a film called Gangster No. 1 that I made when I was a kid. I used to come sit in the edit suite. It's been wonderful with Scott, and he's really given me huge access. We talk a great deal about movies and this movie in particular because it's our thing.

What kind of input did you have with Scott in the editing process?

Sometimes he would ask my opinion on stuff, or he would show me a sequence and say, 'Do you think it's better...?' I would never tread on his toes. But we've got a great editor, Bob Murawski, and he did such a spectacular job between the version that I saw, which was already good, and the version that we have today. It's just so fast and furious and it doesn't let up in its pacing.

When you started acting did you ever envision yourself as an action star?

Yes I did, I suppose. Not when I started acting but when I had the first instincts to act, shooting and being shot and killing bad guys. But as an actor I haven't done that sort of thing before, and it's nice to surprise people. I had a lot of practice playing this part when I was a kid, you know what I mean? I just hadn't done it in my adult life as a grown-up actor, but it's been bubbling away underneath the surface since I was running around on a school yard.

Clint Eastwood seems an obvious influence on your Priest character; what other iconic actors or characters did you channel?

Oh, you know, they're so manifold... yes, I grew up in London, England, but I grew up having my dad on the weekend shouting at me, 'Paul, go out and play! Get out of the house, it's sunny!' Me, just sitting in a dark room watching John Wayne movies. I'm sure there's John Wayne and Eastwood, there's all sorts of influences. There's Seven Samurai -- I think you can see that in the framing as well. I absolutely grew up watching and loving those movies, and I'm sure there's James Coburn... a bunch of people in there.

In Priest, we'll get to see you deliver a number of epic one-liners. What's the secret to pulling off those kinds of moments without them feeling silly?

Your job is to make these things feel real for the audience when they're watching it. You just have to be 100 percent behind your dialogue. I mean, I cut a lot of dialogue out of the movie for Priest, because often what happens is you'll have the "Man of Few Words" overwritten. A writer's written it, and they love words. So I just didn't say anything in the script unless it was totally necessary, for one reason or another. Then when he does speak it sort of really hits home, is my hope.

You and Scott obviously worked together on Legion. What was it that brought you two and [Screen Gems head] Clint Culpepper back together?

First of all, Clint Culpepper is a maverick and he goes with what he feels in his gut. Before the receipts came in for Legion he said, "Let's all make a movie together again!" But Legion was made for a very small amount of money, comparatively, and almost suffered critically because I think it looks like a more expensive movie than it was. It's tiny. We shot it in one f***ing room, you know what I mean? Except for a few pieces we were in one location. But we had no money to make that movie, and on this movie we had three times the budget and a much broader canvas. It was so wonderful, the idea of seeing Scott being able to actually realize the stuff in his head on screen. That was something I wanted to be involved in. And I totally felt what he was capable of when we were making Legion. I think he has really shown himself in this movie.

There's a sense with Priest and other recent projects that Clint works like the old Hollywood studio heads used to, working with a stable of stars and directors.

It's great that Clint works like that: He doesn't just wait to see [if a movie will succeed]. He goes with his heart, his gut. Scott and I really owe him. But I've said it before; I really do think so often trailers aren't representative of the movies that one makes. This really does feel like that sizzle reel. It feels like it's on that kind of a pace throughout the whole movie. The entire fifth reel is nonstop battle. But I'm really proud of it, and optimistic. I hope it can get out there in a really crowded marketplace.

Priest is in theaters May 13.