'Riddick's' Vin Diesel flexes muscle behind the scenes too

On-screen, Vin Diesel's default setting can be described as coiled rage and brutal efficiency.

In the films that put him on Hollywood's star map, the buff and bald actor hefts big guns: from artillery to his own softball-sized biceps. He punches the accelerator on the fastest hot rods and pummels enemies into submission without hesitation or fear.


So it's surprising to discover that in 2011, just weeks before cameras rolled on "Riddick" — this weekend's sequel to 2000's "Pitch Black" and 2004's "The Chronicles of Riddick" — Diesel found himself facing existential dread.

"I have never talked about that," Diesel says quietly.

In conversation at his bungalow on the Burbank Universal Pictures studio lot, the granite-tough star seems genuinely taken aback, uncharacteristically humbled, to be opening up about his own fallibility.

"I will never be able to convey the anxiety, the frustration, the fear that I was feeling before making this movie when the funding wasn't getting to where it needed to get," he says. "To where padlocks were being put on the production studio in Canada because we had insufficient funds to get going. To where I had to leverage my house."

At stake: the independent production he spent years putting together as a producer was in jeopardy of shutting down. Rather than wait for an insurance company to bond the $34-million sci-fi film in order to secure a key bank loan, the star took matters into his own hands. Risking foreclosure on his own home, he provided the financial backing for "Riddick" himself until bank funds came through.

"He had personal financial exposure when he didn't plan on being that involved," the movie's writer-director David Twohy confirms. "Vin reached into his own pocket to make sure the crew didn't go home. He was putting his money where his mouth is."

Which is to say that Diesel's sweat equity on movie projects these days doesn't necessarily end with bench presses and power squats.

The star (government name: Mark Sinclair Vincent) may have become associated with crazy stunts, blunt-force trauma and sequel after blockbuster-grossing sequel (cumulative worldwide gross for the "Fast & Furious" installments in which he's featured: $2.14 billion) — a certain cinema of gigantism. But a closer inspection of Diesel's involvement as a producer for "Riddick" and the last three "Fast" movies reveals that his creative control extends to overhauling scripts, casting (sometimes dictated by his Facebook page's 46 million "friends") and even personally hawking international film distribution rights.

"What people are often shocked to hear is that I work more and harder when I'm not filming a movie than when I am," Diesel says from his perch behind an office desk.

With the exception of a costarring role as an extraterrestrial plant monster named Groot in Marvel Studios' upcoming comic book adaptation "Guardians of the Galaxy," all Diesel's acting efforts stretching into the foreseeable future arrive with producer credits attached.

Among them, a big-screen blowup of the 1970s TV show "Kojak"; a sequel to 2002's "XXX," "XXX: The Return of Xander Cage"; the hunter-turned-hunted thriller "World's Most Wanted," and the actor's long-gestating dream project: the historical biopic "Hannibal the Conqueror."

At the root of his current status is what Diesel not-so-humbly refers to as "probably one of the best deals in Hollywood history": trading a walk-on cameo in 2006's "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" for a chance to reboot "Riddick."

Portraying antihero Richard Riddick in the low-budget thriller "Pitch Black" was the actor's Hollywood breakthrough. Before that film became a cultishly popular sleeper hit, he was known for supporting roles in the dramas "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and "Boiler Room" (2000), and to a lesser degree for having premiered his debut feature as a director, "Strays" (1997), at the Sundance Film Festival.

The last time multiplex audiences saw Diesel's escaped convict character in "The Chronicles of Riddick," however, things didn't turn out as planned. Universal's $105-million sci-fi "Pitch Black" sequel fizzled at the box office, taking in just $57 million domestically and effectively derailing the franchise's future prospects.

"I had initially asked the studio if I could pay them $10 million to get the rights for 'Riddick' — to put my houses up and borrow some money," Diesel recalls. "At that time, I felt like 'Riddick' was held in a vault. We weren't allowed to be creative with that project we had already fallen in love with. They said, 'We couldn't bear the idea of this movie being successful somewhere else. So the answer is no.'"

By then, the actor had turned down a lucrative payday to appear in "2 Fast 2 Furious," developing a reputation for being difficult along the way.

"It was derivative of itself," he says.

But when test screenings for "Tokyo Drift" proved disastrous, Universal begged Diesel to reprise his role as outlaw street racer Dom Toretto, offering him the chance to oversee script development. By his own telling, if he had passed on the deal, the "Fast" franchise would have been kaput. (Universal studio executives declined to comment for this story.)

"I remember we had this long talk by his pool," Justin Lin, director of the last four "Fast" installments, recalls of trying to lure Diesel back to the series. "He's a big Dungeons & Dragons guy. We talked about what this franchise lacked: a mythology. There's all these characters; they exist in this universe and it's important to respect that. I took that to heart."

"So when I did the cameo," Diesel says, "they gave me two franchises. One, 'Fast,' which they didn't think they'd ever produce again. And 'Riddick,' which they didn't want to produce ever again."

The move proved fateful: Diesel's prodigal return to the series, "Fast & Furious" (2009), went on to gross $363 million worldwide. Two years later, at the suggestion of a Facebook friend, the actor cast Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Toretto's hard-charging nemesis Marshal Luke Hobbs in "Fast Five" (which went on to take in $626 million in global box office).

Then, again at the behest of Diesel's social media followers, the actor-producer brought Michelle Rodriguez's character Letty back from the grave (she's seemingly offed in "Fast & Furious") for this May's "Fast & Furious 6," which clocked a staggering $787 million in ticket receipts and now ranks as one of summer 2013's biggest hits.

"He listens to the fans, yo," says Rodriguez. "He's not just doing it to be cool. He cares so … much!"

Diesel used a different producer skill set in order to obtain financing for "Riddick." In lieu of arranging studio backing, in 2010 he traveled to Berlin's European Film Market to personally lobby investors and pre-sell the movie's foreign distribution rights.

"A plane to Germany, a room full of foreign investors with a presentation saying, 'This is what "Riddick" will be like' — you're looking at the guy," Diesel says.

In an ironic twist, Universal, which had tried to dump the franchise, ultimately stepped in to help finance the film and is domestically distributing "Riddick." "They put some equity into the film," Twohy says. "Not big. Compared to the last movie, they have really no exposure."

Reflecting on the predicament that had caused so much hand-wringing during "Riddick's" pre-production lockout, Diesel says, "I was in a very tricky situation. The deal I had for 'Tokyo Drift' was running out. So I had maybe a month left in my window and then all the money I spent on the writing and development would have been lost because it was about to revert back [to the studio]. It was the scariest moment of my career.

"So the fact that you even know 'Riddick' is coming out is blessing enough," Diesel says, breaking into a grin.

Still, there's no guarantee the film won't tank. Pre-release tracking surveys indicate a solid opening for "Riddick," which could earn between $20 million and $25 million in its debut weekend. Asked how much he's worried, Diesel remains unequivocal.


"Honestly," the follically averse actor says without any apparent irony, "not a hair."