When screenwriter Darren Lemke first proposed the idea of contemporizing the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale with CG technology, it was 2005. Tim Burton had not yet jumped into the rabbit hole with “Alice in Wonderland.” Amanda Seyfried had yet to don the cape for “Red Riding Hood.” Snow White had no Huntsman.
But due to development delays and changing technology, Warner Bros. and its New Line division didn’t start production on “Jack the Giant Slayer” until early 2011. By that time, Disney’s PG-rated “Alice” had earned more than $1 billion at the box office and the once-novel idea for “Jack” had some huge expectations to fulfill.
“When I came on, I was not aware of any fairy-tale movie existing,” said director Bryan Singer, the “X-Men” and “Superman Returns” helmer who joined the “Jack” production in 2009 after David Dobkin stepped off to direct another film. “I thought I’d do what I did with the comic-book movies. I’ll be the first guy to create a big cinematic version of a fairy tale.”
After watching the other fairy-tale films, Singer decided he wanted neither a “colorful and fantastical” approach like “Alice” nor a “purposefully dark and aggressive” film like “Snow White.” He wanted to maintain Jack’s family appeal — but that didn’t mean scaling back the production.
“Jack” is nothing if not massive: The $195 million, live-action movie shot for 100 days outside London and features expensive motion-capture giants, an enormous beanstalk and 3-D effects. The studio is banking on young boys itching to see burping, flatulent giants tramp around the English countryside devouring people.
But “Jack,” which was delayed from last summer, is hitting theaters just one week before Disney unveils Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” aimed at a similar audience. Pre-release surveys indicate that “Jack” — featuring Nicholas Hoult (“Warm Bodies”), Eleanor Tomlinson (“Alice”) and co-starring Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci — could be a disappointment on the level of last spring’s big-budget Disney bomb “John Carter.”
In 2010, Singer was in the early stages of pre-production on “Jack” and unsatisfied — the script wasn’t working for him. The relationship between the giants and the humans was too ambiguous, he felt.
“You didn’t have a true sense of heroes and villains,” he said. “It might have been a good antiwar statement, but I don’t know who the audience would have been.”
Singer convinced his childhood friend and frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects,” “Valkyrie”) to look at the script and tell him what was wrong with it.
“Chris does this thing where he writes essays about why your film makes no sense. They are hilarious. He did one for me,” said Singer in an interview in his office on the Fox lot, where he is readying a new “X-Men” installment for production. “He’s reading this to me and I’m laughing so hard I’m crying, because he’s so right.”
En route back to L.A. from a trip to England, Singer rerouted to Seattle to surprise McQuarrie at the airport, where the writer-director was scheduled to land for a family vacation.
“Even though he had all these family obligations, he gave me three hours a day for four days,” said Singer. “Then I chartered a jet to bring his family back to L.A. so I could get a few more hours of flight time with him. That’s where it all formulated, the strategy for what we were going to do.”
The new vision included a deeper back story for the giants and a better explanation of the relationship between the huge creatures in the clouds and the humans below. Singer presented the new vision to New Line, and McQuarrie was brought on to rewrite the script.
McQuarrie’s version, according to Singer, was a vast improvement, but his changes upped the budget considerably. Singer needed to get it under control and persuaded his television writer friend Dan Studney to accompany him to Hawaii to further work on the project. Singer and Studney wrote a new draft, with Singer paying his friend $5,000 out of pocket for the assist. (New Line later made a deal with Studney to be the on-set writer.) The movie began shooting just a few months later.
Singer admits the last-minute “Jack” rewrite was the closest he’s come to entering production without a completed script. “You have the designs. The studio wants to make the movie and I’ve already opted to not make ‘X-Men: First Class.’ Once that train is leaving, the alternative is they have no movie and they’ve spent a lot of pre-production money.”
After more than three months filming in England in spring 2011, Singer and his team began the complicated post-production process. Last spring, when it was clear the visual effects would not be done by the June 15 release date, Warner Bros. pushed the movie to March — a much more dicey time for busy families to get to the movies.
All the while, Singer admits he was grappling to find the proper tone.
“This movie probably has a bigger on-screen body count than any movie I’ve done before,” Singer said. “It’s done in a way that’s fun, but it was a challenge to get away with that without it becoming upsetting to people.”
To achieve something appropriate for kids 7 to 11 years old while not alienating teenagers, Singer toned down the sound effects, specifically a crunching sound, when the giants devour the humans. He also scrapped his original intro — one he recorded three different times with narrators including Julie Andrews and Ian McKellen.
Singer returned to the set, this time in New Zealand, to create a more family-friendly introduction that explained the mythology of the giants in a bedtime-story format read to two children who would grow up to become the film’s protagonist, Jack, and its princess.
“It was about creating a tone like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or ‘Star Wars’ that allows you to get away with a lot of stuff because it feels like a movie,” Singer said. “It’s clearly a movie. It’s not ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains bloodless but intense fantasy violence and brief crude language. 117 minutes.