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Dolph Lundgren Wants Action Without Superheroes

We chat with the director about his movie ‘Castle Falls’ and why his fight scenes can’t afford spandex theatricality.
Castle Falls Dolph Lundgren
Shout! Studios
By  · Published on December 1st, 2021

Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Dolph Lundgren about Castle Falls and how he sought character in every punch thrown.

Action is character. When a film transitions from its dialogue to physical violence, it should not forget the person throwing the punches. The guy in the ring is the same guy out of the ring. How they behave in combat should reflect how they behave when tucking their children into bed or how they sip their coffee. Keeping a bead on the character’s humanity should always be the priority no matter what film you’re making.

Dolph Lundgren has portrayed numerous badasses. He’s waged war in Red Scorpion, come in futile peace with Dark Angel, avoided superhero spandex in The Punisher, and smashed fists with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV (not to forget The Expendables franchise as well as Creed II). If anyone understands action and its relation to drama, it’s him.

Now seated in the director’s chair, Lundgren contemplates what worked and did not work throughout his filmography. The movies that celebrated the explosions over the bodies rocked by them make him wince. He wants his audiences to cheer, but he wants that applause rooted in their empathy for the characters. The most successful action movies are the ones that place the viewer in the front row, seated directly behind the protagonist’s perspective.

No One Wears a Cape in Castle Falls

Castle Falls is an exhilarating proposition for any action movie junkie. Dolph Lundgren partners with martial artist Scott Adkins to deliver several colossal bouts between each other before their characters turn their attention to the real bad guys. A luxury condominium is scheduled for demolition in a few hours. Hidden within is a boodle of cash. They know about it, as does a cadre of machine-gunning maniacs. The body count rises rapidly.

“I saw this as a drama,” says Lundgren, “where people are trying to kill each other for various reasons. Maybe there are some larger-than-life aspects to some of this stuff. Fights in real life would be shorter, probably. You wouldn’t have as many spectacular kicks if you’re actually trying to kick the shit out of somebody in the street. It’s slightly different. I wanted to make it a little more entertaining than that.”

But making it more entertaining than reality doesn’t mean forgoing emotional reality. Adkins is playing a former MMA fighter. His technique would be a little extreme. He can be let off the chain unlike Lundgren’s brawler, who’s a blue-collar guy more adept at punching a clock than a terrorist’s face.

“You assume that [Scott] would pull a roundhouse kick out of the bag,” Lundgren continues, “and try to get somebody with it and so forth. Whereas my character doesn’t have any skills. He’s more like a street fighter. So yeah, everything I try to do could possibly happen in real life. Nothing superhero-ish, because I didn’t think it belonged in this particular film.”

COVID Created a Unique Opportunity for Discovery

Dolph Lundgren only had 17 days to shoot Castle Falls. Weirdly, however, COVID-19 created a unique situation where the director received sudden downtime. Last year, in March, the film shut down. During the six-month break, while they grappled with the world and an uneasy future, the director and his cast drilled into their characters.

“I wanted it to be about real people,” says Lundgren. “I was very detailed with the actors about their characters and their backstories. We were trying to give them some depth so that the performance comes from a deeper place than just trying to make the lines work.”

Lundgren would like to replicate such luxury in his next picture — minus the pandemic, hopefully. The opportunity to dig in and root around with his actors was thrilling and something rarely experienced. It also allows for everyone to be on the same page before the cameras start rolling. With only 17 days to execute, any extra time you can devote to the script and the characters beforehand is invaluable.

“On the next picture,” he says, “I’m going to take a little more time on the material. I want to really analyze how it’s going to translate to the screen. In this one, I had to fix a lot in post to keep pace. I did more of that than I would have liked.”

Life is Never General, Only Actors are General

Dolph Lundgren holds the action until the back half of the shoot. All the slow stuff comes first. He wants his actors to know who they’re playing before they ever pull a trigger or throw a right hook. The more time they had to discover their inner life, the better the movie operates, and the easier it is to sell the emotion.

“There’s a theoretical preparation when you’re working on the character,” he says. “The way I like to do it is to ask, ‘Who is this guy? Where are they coming from? What are they trying to achieve? What are the obstacles? Who are these other people to him?’ No day is just another day. There’s nothing general. Somebody once said, ‘Life is never general, only actors are general.'”

Everything comes easier once specificity is achieved. Lundgren likes to torture himself in pre-production, so he doesn’t have to torture himself in post-production. Pain is an essential element in filmmaking, and it’s better to get it out of the way early on.

“Once you’re on the same page,” says Lundgren, “then the fun begins. Because when you’re shooting, you’re having fun. You’re not trying to display something. You’re not trying too hard. Because when you try too hard, it’s exhausting. It’s better you just feel it, you know?”

Dolph Lundgren Recommends the Castle Falls Workout Routine

But Dolph Lundgren knows that feeling one thing on set may not actually accomplish anything. A scene works only when all parties are collaborating and watching each other’s backs. Lundgren relies on his cinematic history to let him know when the moment is done.

“I try to watch the performers,” he says. “It’s a visual medium. I have to use my own experience when I see something. I may say, ‘Well, you should hold that look a little longer,’ or ‘Don’t move so much.’ Because onscreen, things read differently. You may feel the moment as the performer, but it still may not work on film until you add this or take something away.”

You often hear how shooting a movie is like running a marathon. Well, for Castle Falls, it was like climbing a marathon. Beyond the kicking and the punching, a true workout awaited every crew member.

“You don’t have time to think it through properly when you’re shooting,” says Lundgren. “I learned a lot from this film because it was a very, very tough shoot. You’re in this building; it had 10 stories and no elevators. Some days the crew had to walk 40 stories a day. Up and down. So, people weren’t too happy about that, but I think they got in pretty good shape at the end of it.”

Lundgren looks at the movie as it exists today, and he is quite pleased with it. Like any project, he learned a lot and wishes he could go back in time and apply that knowledge to the first day’s shoot. Maybe find a building with only five stories and no elevators, instead. Maybe skip the pandemic next time, too.

Most importantly, Castle Falls left Lundgren energized for the next movie. He’s gung ho and ready to go.

Dolph Lundgren’s Castle Falls plays in select theaters and debuts on VOD on December 3rd. 

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)