Both WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and WWE Films producer Joel Simon had long sought to turn Steve Austin into an action film star. One of the best-known and most successful wrestlers of all time, Austin had already proven himself to be a capable actor, having appeared in THE LONGEST YARD opposite Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, and played Detective Jake Cage in the television series “Nash Bridges.” But the producers had yet to find the ideal starring vehicle that would ignite Austin’s career as a bona fide action star. That is, until Austin himself brought them a script called THE CONDEMNED.
“We thought it was the perfect material to make as his first movie,” remembers Simon. “It was a great role for him, and it fit the kind of movies that we want to make at WWE Films, throwbacks in the vein of classics like DIRTY HARRY, DIE HARD and 48 HOURS. THE CONDEMNED is a character-driven, rollercoaster action film – with incredible action and a great story. It’s very real, and it’s very in your face.”
“You’ve got ten convicts who have all been condemned to die on death row,” explains Austin. “But then they’ve been bought up by a TV producer and put on this island to fight for their lives. And he’s going to broadcast this over the worldwide web. It’s taking reality television to the extreme, and I think it asks a few hard questions about our fascination with those shows. Of course, it’s also designed to take you out of your world for a couple of hours and give you a real rush!”
“We’ve become a society of voyeurs,” adds Simon. “THE CONDEMNED begs the question of who should now decide what we can or can’t watch. It’s a fascinating story.”
Both the producers and Austin recognized that THE CONDEMNED’s violent story line would require a physically demanding shoot. The story features many large-scale fights and extreme stunts; but for a seasoned WWE wrestler like Austin, that was hardly a concern. ”For me that was part of the attraction,” he says. “And it’s pretty much all filmed outdoors on incredible locations, and coming from a background of hunting and fishing, I thought I would enjoy that. And when I got together with Scott Wiper, I knew that WWE Films had picked the right guy for the job. He’s an excellent writer and a wonderful director, and I knew I’d be in good hands.”
Upon viewing Scott Wiper’s second feature, a thriller entitled A BETTER WAY TO DIE, the producers were convinced that he was the right director for THE CONDEMNED. A graduate of Wesleyan University where his thesis film won the prestigious Frank Capra Prize for Best Student Film, Wiper wrote and directed his first feature, CAPTAIN JACK, in 1996, following it with A BETTER WAY TO DIE in 2000, which was financed by Newmarket and acquired by Sony Screen Gems and HBO.
Wiper, who did not write the original draft for THE CONDEMNED, was intrigued by the idea behind the script, but it was Austin’s involvement that secured his interest. “When Steve and I got together, we really hit it off,” says the director. “I got very excited about the project and pitched the producers my ideas, which involved making the whole game illegal and for the internet. From there, Steve and I hammered out the ideas together and eventually had the final draft ready to shoot.”
In the role of Ian McStarley, a British special forces agent, the filmmakers turned to former English soccer star Vinnie Jones, who first came to attention with his breakthrough performance in Guy Ritchie’s LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and has since appeared in the films X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, SWORDFISH and GONE IN 60 SECONDS. Says Jones, “I really loved this role. It’s full-on action that never lets go. It’s a great idea and a great story. What’s also fantastic is that Steve is not a wrestler in this movie, he’s a movie star. And if Steve comes out as the big hero, then I come out as the best bad guy ever! The audience will be booing me and loving him.” “Vinnie Jones was exactly right for this role,” says Wiper. “He’s a great actor. But like Steve, he’s also a great athlete and could handle the physical work required. The combination of the two of them together made perfect sense.”
Although a fighter himself, Austin began training for the fight scenes months in advance. “I knew it was going to be a very physical shoot and a very long shoot, so I was in the gym everyday working out and I really cleaned up my diet. Then I went to the Gold Coast four weeks in advance to work on all my fight scenes. I was trained by some of the best guys around: Richard Norton, who’s done hundreds of movies and worked with people like Jackie Chan; Sam Greco, who’s a World Kick Boxing Champion; and local stuntman Ronnie Vreeken, who taught me different techniques such as working with sticks. I also had to concentrate on my foot work – that’s something I never did as a prowrestler. Everyone worked really hard with me over and over and over again, from start to finish.”
The Russian (Nathan Jones) and Conrad (Steve Austin)
Wiper felt strongly that Austin’s fighting style should be markedly different from the techniques he regularly displays on the WWE stage. “I wanted his fans to say ‘Whoa! That’s new!’” says the director. “So we developed a new way of fighting for him which was a mix of street fighting and martial arts.”
From the beginning, the filmmaking team decided that none of the fighting in THE CONDEMNED would involve CGI effects. “That was the real focus of the film from the moment we started designing the fight scenes,” says executive producer Michael Lake. “We wanted all of them to be based in realism.”
“The fight scenes in this movie are as real as you could ever get,” avows Jones. “There are a few moments where Steve finally gets me down and just starts pummeling me. We both said, ‘Let’s just go for this’ when we shot it. And I can tell you, I had bruises all over where he just hammered me! But that was a big part of it – we were both prepared to go that extra mile to make this movie really work.” While it was important to Wiper that the fight scenes be authentic, violent and unapologetic, he knew the movie wouldn’t work without strong performances from his cast.
McStarley (Vinnie Jones) and Conrad (Steve Austin)
“Steve and Vinnie both took the acting component very seriously,” he says. “And I think they’re extremely good on both levels.” For the supporting cast, Wiper actively sought actors who could learn how to fight, rather than casting athletes with little or no acting experience. “We were extremely fortunate to find such a talented group of people, such as Masa Yamaguchi, who plays Saiga. He’s studied martial arts since he was six, but he’s also a very well-trained actor. The rest of the cast took the lead of Steve and Vinnie, and I have to take my hat off to them all – they were incredible.”
Adds producer Joel Simon, “We put together some of the best stunt people in the business, and they enabled all the cast to perform nearly all of their own stunts. It was actually very difficult for us to make Steve use a stunt man in some of the most dangerous sequences – he wanted to do everything. He was brilliant.”
As with other WWE Films productions like SEE NO EVIL and THE MARINE, WWE Films decided to make THE CONDEMNED in Australia. “We needed a great island location and knew we’d find it in Australia,” says Simon. “The crews there are fantastic – they put 150% into their work – and the locations are extraordinary.” Adds executive producer Jed Blaugrund, “On Queensland’s Gold Coast, you can find the tropics, beautiful islands, the metropolitan scene – every possible style of location that this film – like our other two films required. So to return to Australia was a very easy choice – we love it there.”
The spectacular locations, however, were not always conducive to a large-scale film shoot. Explains executive producer Michael Lake, “We shot in beach locations in the water, in huge waterfalls, narrow gorges, and then we had the climactic fight scene in the middle of a rainforest. The challenge was to safely place a cast and crew in those locations without harming the natural beauty of the environment and to get things in and out. It was physically demanding, but it paid off because we have such an amazing look to this film across a whole range of locations.”
The stunts and fight sequences were particularly treacherous for the actors and crew. “I didn’t want to use effects,” says Wiper. “So when you see Steve with a hundred-meter cliff behind him, he’s really up there. Or a fight through a steep waterfall – that was all real. Often, the only thing between the actors and a very long drop was a little cable.”
The film was shot in several locations, but much of the action took place on Moreton Island, off the coast of Brisbane. “The island in this movie is a character in itself. I wanted an ominous look so that when you arrive you know there’s something wrong with this place. We used an old Japanese fort and a downed American B-25 Bomber – signs of death and violence that were there from 60 years earlier. And we found these creepy beaches where there were all these dead trees buried in the sand. I tried to find as many locations as possible that were visually interesting but also worked with the story. So we start off on the bright beach and slowly descend into the heart of the rainforest where it’s dark by mid afternoon.”
Wiper hopes that with THE CONDEMNED he’s delivered first and foremost a fun, popcorn, action movie. “That was always my number one priority,” says the director. “On the other hand, I think a great action movie has to, on some level, act as a cautionary tale about violence. There’s certainly a theme in this story about the dangers of violence on television and in video games. But overall I wanted this movie to take the audience on one hell of a ride!”
Adds producer Joel Simon: “The film is certainly going to give the audience all the action they could ever want, but it will also offer them some thought provoking moments. And I think that’s the appeal of this movie.”
An adrenalin-charged action thriller, THE CONDEMNED stars World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar Steve Austin as Jack Conrad, a death-row prisoner in a corrupt Central American prison who is “purchased” by a wealthy television producer to take part in an illegal reality game show. Brought to a desolate island, Conrad finds himself trapped in a fight to the death against nine other condemned killers from all corners of the world.