'Van Helsing' director: 'I never look back'

By Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stephen Sommers was known for bringing "The Mummy" back to life in two rollicking adventure films starring Brendan Fraser. So it was natural that when Universal reached back into its vault of monsters, it turned again to Sommers.

On hand in "Van Helsing," just out in DVD, are Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man, with the title character reinvented as a younger, muscular version of Bram Stoker's original vampire hunter.

Sommers, a boyish 43, is just back from vacation and says he hasn't been thinking about this movie or any other for months. "After three big special-effects movies, I just wanted to take time off and be with my wife and kids," he said from his Los Angeles home.

The "Van Helsing" DVD's release this week is forcing Sommers to think about the movie that fired the opening salvo of summer 2004 and took in $54 million on its opening weekend, but was skewered by critics.

"I never look back," he said. "The last time I read reviews was for 'Tom and Huck' [1995; he wrote the screenplay]. Mr. Spielberg told me never to read reviews. ... I read one review where the critic seemed to like the movie; then he said the matte paintings of the Mississippi River were horrible and whoever did them should be fired.

"There were no matte paintings. That was the Mississippi River."

Asked what he hopes viewers will take away from watching the "Van Helsing" DVD, Sommers' quick answer is, "How hard it was." He laughs, though, trying to find that perspective he says he doesn't have.

Then it comes to him.

"I think Van Helsing is wildly visual," he says. "Visually, when we began, every shot in the movie was almost impossible. That's why we spent hundreds of thousands of hours on methodology. I wrote a script that was unmakeable. Then we had to spend two years figuring out how to make it work.

"You have Hugh Jackman, then his stunt double, then a digital double all in one shot. There's so much stuff that had never been done before."

Working with Jackman, who had the title role, and the rest of the cast is what remains foremost in his memories.

"When I look back, what I think of is I had so much fun hanging out with Hugh Jackman every day," said Sommers. Tony-winner Jackman and the opera-trained Schuler Hensley, who portrays the Frankenstein monster and starred with Jackman in the National Theatre production of "Oklahoma!," serenaded the director on his birthday -- "in full costume," Sommers marvels.

That kind of experience informed the choices made for the DVD extras. To save viewers the trouble of "slogging through" more traditional fare, Sommers and producer/editor Bob Ducsay emphasized interactive bonuses, such as navigating the incredible sets of Dracula's castle and Frankenstein's lab, using remotes.

After their experiences with the two "Mummy" DVDs, they grabbed at what seemed to be the freshest ideas.

Despite talk of a "Van Helsing" sequel, Sommers says there are no plans for one, and the original script was not written with a sequel in mind. Internet sites have him involved with two projects -- a "Flash Gordon" remake and "Airborn," a fantasy-adventure film -- but that leaves him shrugging.

"I read that my No. 1 choice for Flash Gordon is Ashton Kutcher," he says. "The words Ashton and Kutcher have never left my lips before. We have the rights to 'Flash Gordon,' but I won't be directing. And 'Airborn' is a novel that's just coming out."

"I love special-effects movies, but they're mind-numbingly time-consuming," he adds.

Next time out, whenever that might be, Stephen Sommers is hoping to work on a much smaller scale.