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Comic-Con 2007:
The World Premiere of Beowulf Footage
Believe me. It's worth the wait.

According to Neil Gaiman, it's the oldest story in the English language, told with the most modern techniques available. We won't argue, and not just because that's Neil Gaiman we're quoting. Last night at Comic-Con 2007 a select group of press and comics professionals had the chance to see footage from Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf, and it's safe to say that all were blown away.

The same footage was shown today at the Con for attendees lucky enough to get into Hall H. In addition, Paramount scheduled another 3D showing. What screened last night had gone through the process of Real-D ™, the same company that did a flawless transfer of Monster House into 3-D last summer.

Co-writers Gaiman and Roger Avary began the evening by talking a bit about their collaboration. After Avary had been briefly attached to the film adaptation of The Sandman, the two became good friends. Though Avary had toyed with a Beowulf adaptation for years, it was in a conversation with Gaiman that he realized the two needed to collaborate and finish it.

Once they had established a little banter, Gaiman introduced the teaser trailer, telling the audience to "..put your Clark Kent glasses on." Everything went dark but for the faint glow on the screen and then…well, Zemeckis pulls you into another world with the trailer. At times, a grotesque world.

When the lights came on again, the two writers marveled at the experience. Avary described the motion-capture footage as being better than what was in his head when he wrote it, and yet it was as if Zemeckis had pulled it out of his head. His British counterpart mused over the experience of watching it being shot, "…as if the cast of Tron were performing Shakespeare in the round."

Later, Avary admitted that the process of doing motion capture did confuse the actors involved. With no costumes and no cameras, they would roll straight through every scene, and that would be it.

Gaiman wished he could show more than what he then introduced, the second reel of the film. But even though Beowulf has a November 16 opening date, a lot of work remains to be done. The teaser trailers and the ten minutes of this reel are all that have actually been finished.

*Spoiler Alert for those that have not read the epic poem*

Really? You're sure?

The segment opened with Beowulf (Ray Winstone) declaring his identity as he rips the arm off of Grendel (Crispin Glover). While the hero boasts of his exploits, the fatally maimed creature stumbles back to its underground lair, to be cradled by his mother (Angelina Jolie), at first seen only as snaky hands.

Both Glover and Jolie sound as if they're speaking a variant of Old English, which somehow made them both all the creepier.

It goes on from there, following the story fairly closely with the addition from Avary of Grendel's mother seeking mortal seed to have another child. The clip closed with the implication that she may very well succeed in seducing Beowulf.

Along the way, we also got a glimpse of John Malkovich and Brendan Gleeson in character, as well as Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar. Though the entire thing looks like a Hildebrand painting come to life, the performers within are still clear. Winstone, though, has been digitally reshaped, and Beowulf's face bears little trace of his likeness.

The writers defended this as picking and choosing artistically. One reason that they had always felt filming this as a straight live-action film was that the third act, like in the epic, takes place several decades later, with Beowulf facing a dragon (only glimpsed in a subsequent teaser shown). Though aging make-up has gotten better, it's still not perfectly convincing. With motion capture, filmmakers can achieve any effect, and since few really great actors have the over-the-top, near mythological figure of someone like Beowulf, why not take the best actor and create a new body for him?

Clearly, some alterations have been made in the plot, but Avary described these as merely filling in plot holes from the original story. He likened it to a game of telephone, in which the story had been handed down in oral tradition for decades before being written down. During that time, some things got lost, and he and Gaiman had the chance to hypothesize what those things were.

Though Avary joked that he wrote the script so no high school student should have to read Beowulf again, he admitted that he thought the original was a great story and a fascinating read. He considered this film as a supplement, and hopes that students will thank Gaiman and himself.

We'll find out on November 16.

Derek McCaw

 

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