Bob Thompson ,producer of Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie recently sat down for a Q&A with BoLS, about the just released film.
Bob Thompson is best-known for co-creating the hugely successful BIONICLE® IP for for the LEGO Company and producing the original multi award-winning BIONICLE® movies. The founder of Good Story Productions, a film and TV production studio with multi-platform expertise, Bob formerly worked at the BBC and BBC Worldwide.
1) The Bionicles are one of the most well known LEGO product lines. What drew you initially to the Warhammer 40000 universe and Space Marines in particular as a film subject?
Warhammer 40,000 is an amazing story universe – it’s huge, rich, complex and inspiring place to explore creatively.
I also had an interest in wargaming and model making when I was younger. Back in the late 1970’s I used to make WW2 models, mostly tanks and warships. Me and my neighbour made up our own rules, they were insanely complex and involved 5 coins and a cup. We spent many happy hours recreating Rommel v Monty at El Alemain or sinking the Bismarck. But this was all 5 or 6 years before Rogue Trader (the forerunner of 40k).
I first heard about 40k when I was working on BIONICLE, my younger brother was into the hobby (I actually have his Blood Angels on my desk right now). It reminded me of all the fun I had with WW2 models, but I was super busy with developing stories for, setting up my first film and a dozen other projects. Then I hired a former GW writer to do a script for a theme park ride. He asked me if I ever worked for Games Workshop, apparently I had a similar approach to story development. That was the trigger to start researching – so I got into the Black Library and that was me hooked. About four years later I met one of the Games Workshop team at a convention, we talked, we got along, I listened to what Games Workshop thought about making a movie and the rest I guess is history.
2) Following up, with this film being the first major movie set in the Warhammer 40000 universe, how does a producer begin the process of laying out a story and deciding on broad plot details? With such a vast and richly developed IP, how does one begin to “draw on a blank canvas”?
Development of any story is way more work than most people think we spent nearly 4 years on this part of the film. First I read everything I could, I already had half a dozen BL titles on my shelf but pretty soon I guess there were 20 or 30 well thumbed titles, but the more I read the bigger and more confusing the universe became, so i figured the only way to really understand it was to spend time with the people who really know it.
Then I spent time with Dan Abnett bouncing story ideas back and forth, then pitching the best ones to Games Workshop. Eventually ‘Mithron’ (renamed ULTRAMARINES later) was a clear winner – tight, uncomfortable, claustrophobic at times. It ticked three boxes I really wanted:
The films must be a different window on the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I had to tell a 40k story but in a different from BL and Computer Games.
The films must be 100% authentic, making the story first and foremost for the fans. But to be pure to the Universe meant we had to be able to make it for a budget that would go under the radar (without studio executives demanding we include a ”love story’ or ‘a sick child needing to be rescued’ or some other crazy un-40k idea to make the film work for multiplexes/family audiences etc).
3) Can you talk about the differences in working on grimmer, darker universe, compared to your previous work on Bionicles. Did you feel more or less constrained by the grittiness and maturity level of the setting?
The grim darkness of the far future was a freedom. There is a one huge difference between making BIONICLE, which was for 7-11 year olds, whereas with ULTRAMARINES we were making a film for people like us. Me and many of the crew are action sci-fi, fantasy fans, genre movie fans – shooting, exploding, crashing blowing stuff up and chainswording open skulls. Relative to other projects there were very few constraints – no romance, no bad Language – plenty of violence. I think we had only one challenging constraint and that came as much from us as anyone else, we had to respect the amazing 40k universe but with all these great people at Games Workshop helping us, it was a blast!
4) As a producer, what were the biggest challenges in balancing the needs of veteran fans who are fully immersed in the background of the 40K universe vs those who are just approaching the the Warhammer 40000 setting?
One of the great things about 40k is that fans of the hobby are always at war – everyone has a unique perspective on what should or shouldn’t be in the first 40k film. What is the most important race, chapter, weapon, vehicle… I really love and respect this but, the truth is, you simply could not put everything into a single film – for a start it would be about 6 million hours long! So we decided we needed to focus on telling a great story and at the same time making sure that everything we put in the film was 100% pure 40k. We checked, rechecked and Games Workshop checked, rechecked and approved every single detail, at every stage of production; from from Strikecruiser floor tiles to the sound of ceramite on ceramite…thousands upon thousands of tiny details had to be perfect.
I also think those veteran fans are going to get a kick out more than just the story though. We have littered the film with tiny details you could to try and work into your next miniature and homages to some of the past heros and artists; Maxillius’ bolt has John Blanche’s iconic handwriting or the fact that we had an expert in medieval typography create the purity seals using the same techniques a servitor would have access to, or the subtle embossing of skulls on Carnak’s Power Armour. Veteran or newb, there is a lot to look at in this film.
5) Can you talk about what is / was like to work with Dan Abnett on the script, and how that came about?
I needed to work with a writer who really knew the universe and how to tell a story for the fans – Dan was an obvious choice. Not only is he a great writer who knows 40k inside out but he is also a really nice, really fabulous and very professional hardworking guy to develop a film with. Also my introduction to 40k had been the Gaunts Ghosts books so I already knew and liked his writing.
I gave Dan a brief on what we needed to make the kind of film I wanted to produce, then he worked up several story ideas, just a page or two each, then went up to Nottingham and pitched these to Games Workshop and got their input and developed the best ones. I think we tried maybe 20 ideas before we hit upon Mithron, which was the basis of what was later to become the ULTRAMARINES story.
After that we went through several drafts of the script Dan would write, I would edit then we would have a collaborative back and forth over every line of the script until it was perfect and ready and back to Nottingham to get approval.
6) Production-wise, can you tell us what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities that bringing the Warhammer universe to the screen present, that viewers will have never experienced in other media such as tabletop games, or novels?
The biggest challenge was always getting the details right, checking and approving the thousands of assets in the film was – not only did things have to look right, have the correct insignia etc, but they also had to physically work with each other and most importantly create a CG look that honoured the tradition of Games Workshop art.
I think it is fair to say that our goal was to bring the kind of story you get in a Black Library novel to life and deliver it with a look and feel, which is both new and yet authentically 40k. We went back to Games Workshop art; pencil sketches and oil/acrylic art for our inspiration. The result is a combination of authentic 40k storytelling and a painterly look to the animation following on the traditions of John Blanche and the artists and illustrators who have created the universe over the years.
7) Lets talk a moment about the voice talent. You have assembled an impressive cast leading with John Hurt and Terrence Stamp. Can you give us some detail about how they were brought onboard and what you feel they bring to the table that will excite the viewers?
Really the cast went way over my expectations for who we could get. When we started casting we had a terrific reaction to the script and were totally taken aback by just how excited and keen the actors were.
We started our casting with Sean Pertwee both Martyn and I are both fans of his films, so we started there and caught a great break. Yes we could get Sean who was terrific in ‘Dog Soldiers’ and even more great news Sean’s agent remembered John Hurt’s son used to play Warhammer. I really can’t think of any better voice better for a Chaplain, the voice of the Chapter (check out his ‘Burn Heretic’ in Trailer 2) so a few phone calls later it was confirmed and we had John Hurt.
Casting Severus required more thinking, we wanted a Captain who was cool, commanding, tough but also a strategic thinker. Subtle coolness has been Terrence Stamps trademark since the 1960’s, Valkyrie had just come out and Terrence was great in that and of course he had been in Star Wars, Superman, Smallville even Halo 3, but the performance that caught our imagination was The Limey, where his character is a cold brutal killer who is also intelligent and respected – Sounds like a Captain right! Well Terrence read the script, loved it and was in.
8) Finally Bob, give our readers the number one reason they MUST see Ultramarines – a Warhammer 40000 Movie
There are so many things, great acting, great visuals, great sound, but above all it is a great story that takes you right inside a squad of new Ultramarines on their first mission, so darken the room, set the sound to loud and step right into the 41st millenium.
That’s it folks. The movie is shipping now, after some manufacturing snafus got worked out, so have at it. If you drop any spoilers in the comments, make sure you MARK THEM please.