Q&A: David Hayter talks Wolves, Metal Gear, and X-Men

David Hayter is known to millions as the iconic voice of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series, but you’ll also likely recognize his name as the screenwriter of such hit films as X-Men, X2: X-Men United, The Scorpion King, and Watchmen. This month, Hayter is making his directorial debut with Wolves, a werewolf horror flick now available through Video On Demand, with a theatrical release on November 14. Hayter recently sat down for an interview in which he discussed his new film, sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, and his career.

Q: There was a pre-release screening of Wolves in Manhattan during the New York Comic Con. What was the response?
Hayter: It was great. There were a lot of hard core fans of me, and they are always very nice. Everyone seemed to like it, and we had a Q&A afterward, which went great. But it was also nerve wracking, because it was the first time showing the film to outside people, not people involved with the film. I didn’t know what to expect, but they seemed pretty jazzed about it. I came in at the end, and I heard them laughing at all the right places and reacting the way I wanted them to react, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

Q: This was your first time in the director’s chair. Was it what you expected?
Hayter: It was everything I had hoped for and more. It was so much fun, but a huge amount of work. It was really just a blast. I was so lucky with my cast and crew. You know, I worked really hard not to hire, what do you call them…a-holes (laughing). I think that strategy really pays off because we didn’t have any egos on the set. We didn’t have any drama. We all just pitched in and made this film together and it was really fun.

Q: Did you make any surprise discoveries as a first-time director?
Hayter: Of course there were a thousand things that came up that were surprising to me. When people ask “What did you learn?” I say I don’t know because there were a million little things. For example, I really edit my scripts down to the bone. I try not to have too much in there that doesn’t directly propel the story forward, and I was surprised how much I could still cut out during the editing process. So things like that, and things like if you have a character just standing there, and he just shot a gun with smoke pouring out of the barrel, what our guys did was spray the barrel with WD-40 and then hit it with a blowtorch. It superheats the barrel, the WD-40 burns off, and you roll camera, and it looks like an amazing smoking gun effect. I learned all sorts of little things like that, just being around movie magic.

Q: Was there any director that you worked with in the past that influenced your approach to directing?
Hayter: Oh absolutely. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with Bryan Singer for ten years and learned so much from him. I’ve also gotten to work with Zack Snyder, Ang Lee, and Paul Greengrass. I worked with Darren Aronofsky and Guillermo del Toro, and all of those men have very different styles, but what they all have in common is the ability to control their set and to guide things to where they need to go. Some do it in a very intimidating way, and some do it in a calm way, but they are all very strong. I learned a lot about how you run the show from their perspective. I would ask them questions and get their thoughts on filmmaking, and I learned an enormous amount.  

Q: You not only directed Wolves, you wrote it. What inspired you to write the story?
Hayter: A producer friend of mine came to me and asked me if I would do a werewolf film. I didn’t want to, because they were very risky and very difficult to pull off. So I thought, “I need to come up with a take on this that hasn’t been done before that I can relate to.”  I thought about making it more of a hero’s journey rather than a horror film. I thought about my own life, when I was a young man becoming an adult, and you’re dealing with issues of sex and rage and violence. In a typical werewolf movie you’re looking to destroy all that, but in this film, I wanted it to be something you couldn’t destroy. I wanted it to be something you embrace and learn to control and love it, and I felt that would be a very different take on the genre, and something I hope a lot of people will be able to relate to.

Q: Do you have a favorite werewolf movie?
Hayter: The greatest werewolf of all time in my humble opinion is An American Werewolf in London. There was a lot of that, in terms of creature designs (like the Nazi werewolf), that I thought was so incredible. In a way, I think it is the definitive telling of the classic tale. A guy gets bit, he starts changing, he starts killing people, and gets hunted down. So, to a certain extent, I wanted to be sure we told almost the opposite story, because it had been done so perfectly and so flawlessly already. But at the same time, I really love the idea of rock and roll music in the film, I love the idea of keeping an element of humor throughout and making it a fun ride in the way that American Werewolf is. So that was my greatest inspiration. And there was another little Canadian film called Ginger Snaps, which was a really great film, and a great human metaphor about two sisters. The older sister gets her period, and the little sister thinks she changing into a monster. It’s such a great, relatable approach that I found it inspiring as well.                   

Q: Wolves is bloody, but not excessively gory. Was that a conscious decision to make it more accessible?
Hayter: Well, there is a cut that is bloodier and more brutal. Some of those elements were cut back when we edited Lucas. He reads so young that we felt we might be appealing to a younger audience, so we pulled back to a certain extent. Although obviously when you’re doing a movie where people fight with their teeth and claws, people are going to stabbed and slashed and amputations and whatnot. Then, it’s like Wolverine: people are going to get stabbed. But I wanted it to feel like action violence rather than horror violence, if that makes sense. When we were working on the Scorpion King, people were getting slashed, but it’s not Walking Dead-level gore and grossness. It’s more the beauty of violence in the Sam Peckinpah sense.

Q: Exactly. Later in the film, there’s some beautifully-shot werewolf fights, but you aren’t bombarded or distracted by gore.
Hayter: Right. For example, there’s a scene with the bikers where Cayden takes down a guy, and this guy’s obviously a bad dude; he deserves whatever he gets. But the point of that scene is that Cayden can’t yet control what he’s going through, and he tears the guy to pieces. But we framed it very specifically, so you don’t see the guy, you see these ropes of blood flying as he’s slashing at him. The audience knows the guy is being brutalized in a horrific way, but we’re focused on Lucas and the beauty of the creature and the ferocity he is putting into the acting, rather than thinking ”Oh my God, was that a chunk of liver?” And to an extent, that can be more effective when the audience doesn’t know what’s happening to that guy out of frame. Their own mind can fill it in to wherever they’re comfortable. But if you’re squeamish and that sort of thing puts you off, there’s a way to appreciate it on that level as well.

Q: Was it difficult as a director bringing out the actor’s personalities and performances from underneath masks of latex and fur?
Hayter: Well it was something I was aware of from the beginning. I started as an actor and I’ve done prosthetic work myself, and it can be very frustrating trying to act under those things. When we were doing the X-Men movies, people don’t appreciate that James Marsden, who played Cyclops, had to act without his eyes in every film, and that’s an amazing thing to pull off. 

We were very aware of that, so when we designed the creatures, I said I wanted everything to go back from the face, so we weren’t piling a lot of things on the face, and the eyes had to be very clear. The masks are molded to fit on to each individual actor’s face, and I wanted them glued to the places where the actor’s facial muscles move, so that when they twitch, when they frown, when they look at someone in horror, that would translate through the latex. And I think Dave and Lou Elsey, the Academy Award-winning monster makers who created these creatures, pulled that off so beautifully. All the wolves are individually designed so that when the actors are acting, you still feel them. You still feel that is Jason Momoa back there or Lucas Till or John Pyper-Ferguson. They are able to emote.

There’s one moment near the end when Lucas gets some tragic news and his face just drops, and he’s so horrified, and you just see it. You see the muscles of the wolf reflect the muscles of the human being, and I was very pleased with that and I hope that gives people less of a feel of rubber-faced masks and more genuine emotion.

Q: The makeup was one of the more impressive things to me. Even after they turned, you could still see Lucas Till or Jason Momoa. Each wolf had an individual personality.
Hayter: Right. And one thing people have told me that they noticed was that we kept each individual’s hair. We recreated their natural hair onto the wolf, because I thought human beings already have “fur” in certain places, that should be reflected in the whole thing. So Jason still has his samurai top-knot even though he’s a wolf, and Lucas still has his blond mop of hair. It’s funny, because I never intended on having a sandy colored wolf, but he’s so blond, we figured, that’s the way he is. 

Q: The practical makeup and creatures reminded me of one of my favorite guilty pleasures and one of your early films, Guyver: Dark Hero. Now, please tell me the werewolf-fu in Wolves was inspired by all the Guyver-fu from that film!
Hayter: (Laughing) Well, obviously, working with Steve Wang, a legendary creature maker, I learned so much from him just watching him execute the creatures on Guyver, that was a very inspiring thing. First of all, we didn’t have the budget to do CG werewolves (in this film), and second, I wouldn’t have done that anyway, because I don’t think that necessarily works. It’s very difficult to pull off properly. I always know when it’s CG and there isn’t any weight to it. I was certainly inspired by what I learned from Steve Wang and the continued impact of that Guyver film. People bring it up to me all the time and I’m proud of it.  

Q: How did you make the jump into screenwriting?
Hayter: It’s a very long story. Basically I had produced and starred in a little film called Burn back in 1997-1998 and my friend Bryan Singer executive produced it. We had a deal to distribute Burn and that fell through. Then I was just a broke film producer and Bryan kindly gave me a job answering phones on the movie X-Men. I was a fan of the comic book, and I just started talking to him about the script and I said “Why don’t you have a scene in which such-and-such happens.” And he said “Yeah, go write that for me.” I figured he was kidding, but he wasn’t, and he started having me rewrite the film extensively. I did about 13 months of work on it, and ended up getting sole writing credit, and suddenly I was a big-time screenwriter. It was the craziest, lightning-in-a-bottle story you could possibly imagine. It changed my life instantly.

Q: What do you get noticed for more – your work on the X-Men films and Watchmen or your voice work as Snake in Metal Gear?
Hayter (In the Snake voice): No – it’s Metal Gear! I get a certain level of appreciation for those movies I’ve worked on, but Metal Gear is a phenomenon that gives me fans worldwide. It’s stunning, the impact. You know, it’s the difference between being an actor and a writer. There’s a great Simpsons episode in which they say “There’s a new film coming out, it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s starring Julia Roberts, and it’s being written by the biggest screenwriter in the world, whoever that is.” And that sort of sums it up. People really don’t get what a screenwriter does, and normally they don’t get what a voice actor does either, but Snake is so iconic, Metal Gear has impacted millions of people around the world. I get recognized more by far for that.

Occasionally, someone will come up to me and say “Hey, David Hayter, I’m a really big fan,” and I’ll say (in the Snake voice) “Thank you,” and they’ll ask “Why are you talking like that?” It turns out they are a fan of X-Men.

Q: Does it get old having people ask you to do the Snake voice?
Hayter: No, it’s kind of like being Dan Castellaneta who does the voice of Homer. You can do something with your voice that instantly makes people happy. Because it’s so weird to see a voice you know coming out of a human being you’ve never seen before. It’s incredible the effect it has on people, and it’s something easy I can do that makes people happy so no, it never gets old. I appreciate having that run on those games. I’m glad it’s made so many people happy.

Q: Jennifer Hale your Metal Gear co-star, is in this film. Was that just coincidence in casting, or did you reach out?
Hayter: Well, no. Wolves was a Canadian film, so we could really only have two American actors, and Jennifer is Canadian. Really, Jennifer Hale is the reason I have had such a significant voice-over career. She helped me get the job on Metal Gear, she totally got me the job on Star Wars: The Old Republic, so I owe her a lot. She’s a very good friend and a legendary actress obviously, but she doesn’t do a lot on-camera, which is a shame, because she’s very beautiful and an excellent live actress as well. So I think she was the very first person I cast. I thought “Whatever I’m doing, Jennifer’s in it and I’ll figure it out later.” So it was very much on purpose.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the actors in Wolves and your thoughts on working with them.
Hayter: It was amazing. It was an interesting group to go into on my first film. Each person was different and unique. John Pyper-Ferguson is an amazing character actor. He’s such a chameleon. He’s one of those character actors who just disappears into a role. You know, I was talking with someone who said “I don’t think anyone could go toe-to-toe with Jason Momoa except for Stephen McHattie.” It’s funny, because Stephen is such an incredible actor and a phenomenal talent but he’s very intimidating. He’s not a big dude, but he’s very quiet and people are very respectful of him. I think I made him laugh on day three of filming and we pretty much bonded.

As for Jason, Bryan Singer once told me never to work with an actor more powerful than yourself. Really, there wasn’t a level in which Jason was not more powerful than me, and I thought “What am I going to do if he’s a dick? If I have a problem, I can’t threaten him. What am I going to do?” But he was such a joy and there’s nothing he does where he wasn’t committed 150%. Not only that, but you need a star who walks on to a set and creates the atmosphere. He definitely did that. He was so inspiring and so committed. He was one of the hardest working men on the set. Merritt Patterson was amazing, and Lucas was great. He had a much better time than I deserved working on my first film.

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