Fifty yards from the main set of “Gulliver’s Travels,” in which he plays the title role, Jack Black is sprawling on a chair outside his large trailer, having assumed a facial expression familiar to those who know his big-screen work.
With his trademark manic stare and one eyebrow raised sky high, he looks both bewildered and amazed. But right now, Black isn’t playing for laughs. He’s trying to explain to a visitor the camera technology that allows him to play a hero who is a giant among tiny men and women.
“It’s wild,” he says. “I’m, like, 12 times bigger than everyone else in the cast. But they’ve developed this, like, amazing camera, so I can be in the same shot as the little people and interacting with them.”
How does it work? Black’s eyebrows shoot even higher and he stretches out his arms in an eloquent “don’t ask me” expression.
Here on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, some 20 miles west of London, various key elements for different scenes in “Gulliver’s Travels” are strategically placed at some distance from each other — a clear indication that this is a green-screen production, dependent on elaborate special effects to be inserted later.
This mammoth Fox production, which will be released Dec. 22, is a loose, lighthearted update of Jonathan Swift’s classic 1726 satire about a traveler who is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself a giant in a land of little people.
Intriguingly, Black is, in every sense of the phrase, the big man on set. Not only is he the star, he is also one of the film’s four producers. And it turns out that he was integral to the project when the idea for it was just a single spoken sentence.
According to producer Gregory Goodman, “It came out of the office of John Davis [a producer with a long-standing deal at Fox]. I think the idea was simply: Let’s do ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ and let’s put Jack Black in it.”
“I jumped at the chance,” Black says. “When the book was written, obviously, the world was not a totally discovered place. You could imagine an island where miniature people might live. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility as it is today. So we thought: Shall we set it in the future? Make Gulliver a space traveler who goes to a different planet?
“Instead, we have him going through an inter-dimensional portal to an alternate, not altogether different place.”
Black has taken producer credits before, on “Nacho Libre” and his “Tenacious D” films. But this is the first time he has fulfilled the role on such a huge project. Colleagues on set confirm that he is taking things seriously and setting a tone as a leading man and producer.
“Jack really gives it his all,” enthuses director Rob Letterman ( “Monsters vs. Aliens”). “He’s incredibly generous and a really nice guy. He’s always here for the other actors, even when he doesn’t have to be. He’ll come in to read his off-camera lines, and he gives it the whole performance.”
Black’s Lemuel Gulliver is a downtrodden character who works in the mailroom of a New York daily newspaper. He has a secret crush on the paper’s travel editor ( Amanda Peet) and cons her into believing he can be a travel writer.
Sailing to Bermuda on assignment, his ship enters the Bermuda Triangle, and he ends up in Lilliput, an 18th century kingdom whose tiny inhabitants, who speak Olde English, are constantly at war with its neighboring country Blefuscu.
The film’s cast includes Jason Segel as Horatio, a Lilliputian commoner who befriends Gulliver. Billy Connolly plays Lilliput’s gruff but fair-minded King Theodore, while Emily Blunt is his daughter, the princess Mary, beloved of Horatio. (“Gulliver,” has been filmed before—in 1939 and in 1996 as a TV movie, with Ted Danson.)
Among the key centerpieces for various scenes here on this day is the Knotfersail, the boat that transports Gulliver from Bermuda. It stands on wooden supports, so it can be shot from below. Fifty yards away is a raised stage that represents the royal box on the beach at Lilliput. Visitors have to imagine the monumental CGI backgrounds behind these structures.
Because the cast tends to have long breaks between scenes, Connolly brought in ukuleles and has taught them all to play. “It’s really coming along well,” Segel says later of his ukulele playing, raising one eyebrow to signal the irony. He applies the same deadpan tone to his struggle to master the English accent in which he speaks as Horatio.
“Oh, it’s flawless,” he says confidently. “Even right now, talking to you, it’s hard to get back into my American accent.”
But Segel is dead serious as he discusses Black’s influence on the production: “Jack’s the nicest guy. Right after ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ he asked if I wanted to write and executive-produce this show, ‘Black Market Music,’ for HBO. It never got made, but we’ve been trying to work together ever since. He’s also quietly mentored me when I’ve needed advice over the last 10 years.”
Despite the green-screen blankness, it hasn’t all been emoting into a void. The production has used some of England’s most glorious locations, including Blenheim Palace and the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich in southeast London, a baroque 17th century architectural masterpiece and the site for a huge, spectacular dance number.
“Jack always wanted to sing the song ‘War’ for this film,” Letterman says of the old Edwin Starr hit (with the refrain “War! Huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”). “One of the themes in Swift’s book is the futility of war.
“We found the perfect place for it [in the script], and last year Jack pieced together the song with baroque instruments with [film composer] John Kimbrough in a garage and recorded it. Our choreographer, Fran Jaynes, developed the dance number with a core group of 40 dancers, worked out this routine with Jack, then we took it to Greenwich and rehearsed it with 250 extras.”
But crucially, the sequence was filmed with “the amazing camera” that so impressed Black. “We have this new cutting-edge machine we’re using,” says Goodman, smiling. “It’s called Dual MoCo, which stands for motion control,” being used here extensively for the first time in a film.
He gestures toward Connolly: “We’d take the king sitting in front of that cliff there, with the camera on him, and Jack talking to him, sitting on the beach. We’d put Jack in front of a green screen, and the camera pans down Jack. The two cameras are perfectly in sync so they can be acting with each other at the same time. It’s complicated computer technology and the cranes move in absolute lock so we can pop them in the same scene automatically.
“So on screen you’ll have Jack speaking with a character who’s one-twelfth his size. The aim is to make the effect look like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life.”