Summer 2015

Jay Roach breaks down Austin Powers star-studded opening sequence

For the opening of Goldmember, the third film in the franchise, director Jay Roach had fun playing with audience expectations and created an actual action scene—starring Tom Cruise—until the real Austin silliness takes over.

By Rob Feld

Making a bigger budget third installment to the very successful and already self-conscious Austin Powers comedy franchise felt like a tricky thing to Jay Roach, as he and Mike Myers approached Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).

Much of the humor in the previous low-budget films relied on what Myers referred to as "no-money fun," sending up the jokes they couldn't afford, like throwing rubber fish through the shot instead of the sharks with head-mounted lasers they had wanted. For Goldmember, Roach would have the money, but wanted to stay true to the well-established Austin character. So he decided to make a joke out of the audience's expectation that the film might be ruined with too much money.

The film starts with a high-octane action sequence shot in Moab, Utah, for the opening of a mock film called "Austinpussy." A helicopter chases a motorcyclist as Austin parachutes into his remotely driven Jaguar to save the day. To suggest what a sensationalized, star-studded Hollywood version of Austin Powers' life would look like, Roach copied the style of John Woo, James Bond films, and Mission: Impossible, and reached out to Tom Cruise to play Austin alongside character cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, and Danny DeVito. It's a movie within a movie—supposedly directed by Steven Spielberg—that cleverly morphs into the real opening of Goldmember and Austin Powers-style silliness. And Roach switches back to referencing the pop art, movie musicals, and silent films that made the series fun.

I carefully designed and storyboarded this opening sequence shot-for-shot, but second unit directors Marco Schnabel and Jack Gill directed the action bits. We found two guys who made their own skydiving movies. One guy had a camera on his helmet and filmed the other guy, dressed as Austin, flying past him before his chute opened. They would get three takes out of each jump. This frame is a close-up with a double hanging in a harness with the green screen behind him and a giant fan blowing at him. As Austin falls, he looks at a watch on his wrist synched to his car cruising by remote control on the highway below."

This is the real skydiver hovering above the car. The car is being driven by a stunt driver disguised by the seat so the car looks driverless. The diver catches up with the car and drops into the lap of the stunt driver and takes over the driving. It was a miracle. We thought it all through, carefully storyboarded, but I was so skeptical that it would work. You can see the stunt driver's hands sticking out of the seat and holding the steering wheel. He had black gloves and sleeves so even if you caught it, it might just look like a shadow. He's driving at the right speed and the parachutist nailed it. There's no trickery. It has to look dangerous and work as a real action sequence.

In John Woo's action filmmaking and in Mission: Impossible, there's an almost campy exaggeration of physics, like a shootout on motorcycles doing wheelies. We wanted to see how far we could exaggerate that style. This sequence was designed to set up the final piece, where Austin ejects from the car, flips over the helicopter and shoots it down from above. There are so many more shots here than would be in a normal Austin Powers movie. The chopper and car do come close to each other. But the rest is a digital composite, a guy on wires spinning around against a green screen. We added the smoke later.

Austin lands on the ground after shooting down the helicopter. I had to stitch the action sequence into the exploding miniatures from our live shoot on the Paramount lot. Tom Cruise jumped down into the shot and we dropped in these pieces of burning helicopter, piped gas coming out of them, and guns falling like in a John Woo movie. This slow tilt up off the backs of his feet was deliberate—to feature the Beatle boots. Tom turning into the shot was key because it teases the audience for a second into thinking it's going to be Mike Myers. The blue velvet pant legs slide down perfectly on the landing, which is the trigger for the camera to pan up and make the reveal.

Following the exaggerated action, the first big laughs of the sequence are the reveals of our surprise stars. Here we see Tom in the Austin wig. Mike shaved his head for Dr. Evil so the wig traveled with us at all times. We popped it on Tom and let the audience think for just a few beats longer that it could be Mike until the turn, carefully choreographed for maximum impact. 'Tom Cruise as Austin Powers' was an amazing thing to see on the screen. We wanted those names to come up. The comedy of the sequence is a combination of over-the-top stunt casting and enjoying the names on the credits. So we got a joke out of it.

My favorite thing about the whole title sequence was contrasting the modern version of a big action film with the Austin approach, which is nerdy musical theater. The trick for the casting was to talk busy people into doing it and getting planets to align. We had to find a way so that they would only have to be there for a couple of hours of makeup, maybe an hour of shooting. The sequence had to be shot in eight hours, partly because it was winter and we wanted the light to be super bright by the time Austin did his dance. Kevin Spacey's imitation of Dr. Evil and Danny DeVito playing against-type for the usually mute Mini-Me was perfect.

If Hollywood was going to make a giant movie about Austin Powers' life, you would probably have Steven Spielberg direct it. He was really cool to do this. I said, 'Steven, if you have any ideas I'll absorb them and pretend they're mine.' His one idea was, 'What if there's a little wind in their hair?' It was such a nice touch. So we put a fan just off-camera to make Tom and Gwyneth seem even more mythic. I said, 'Oh, that's why he's Steven Spielberg.' Some of the cinema equipment in the shot is added, but some of it is real and lighting the background.

We spent a lot of time on the title design of the movie-within-the-movie to make it the opposite of the fluid, hippie dippy, swirly colors of our usual Austin-style graphics. You can see the mechanistic, metallic shine on the earlier credits, the bling of an expensive action film contrasting with the 'mojo' in Austin's hand. But here you start to see what the sequence is all about—Austin bringing his own vibe to the movie, even in a big-budget version. It's still going to be the no-money, fun Austin. Austin can be a fish out of water in any of his situations, but he always brings the water with him and makes everybody do a synchronized swim. That feeling is what takes over now.

The individual homages in the sequence were trying to get at the idea that Austin was doing the film his way. This shot, of course, is from Singin' in the Rain. The point is that Austin inspires people to get into his personal mythology and transforms the world to his specifications and worldview. We rehearsed and rehearsed in the sun and I wasn't sure it was working. But when we covered the street and pumped hundreds of gallons of water into the air, and the umbrellas spun, the colors popped against the gray walls, Mike's feet splashed and it just became magical to watch. Mike nailed it every time so we only did a few takes.

Here Austin steps out of the 'screen' into Quincy Jones' studio session. It's a reference to Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. We wanted the audience to feel like Quincy Jones, the guy who gave us Austin's theme with his 1962 song 'Soul Bossa Nova,' was actually watching Austin on screen. Our DP, Peter Deming, lit the screen shot separately and much brighter than the orchestra and gave it a smoky, wet feel, [like] Singin' in the Rain. Then Austin steps out of the screen and runs down to high-five Quincy. Sometimes in comedy, rather than push the style too much in a moment like this, the main thing is just to make sure the camera is in the right place to capture a whole moment.

Here Austin is in a West Side Story rumble with Britney Spears. It's Jets versus Sharks with the finger snap. Austin with old-fashioned costumes and eccentric dancers versus Britney's skintight leather, metrosexual men and pyrotechnics. Her set is deliberately designed in blacks and grays. The worlds clash as he brings color to the set. It's a showdown between color and joy, and this more commercialized video thing that Britney represents. As Austin's joyfully colored band of Carnaby Street dancers advance on Britney, we go from quick formal shots to more swirly, encircling shots. It took a while. With the stunts, dancing, pyrotechnics, this was a 21-hour day.

The guns popping out of Britney's bra in close-up are actually on a mannequin that has gas-powered machine gun bursts of flame. We just twisted the mannequin back and forth, and then cut to the wide shot of the real Britney. We had the guns mounted in her bra and then switched to digital effects. The guns-in-the-bra idea, going back to the fembots in the first Austin film, was something I borrowed from a very cool, very pop-art 1965 film I've always loved called The 10th Victim. Austin catches one of the bullets in his teeth in another deliberately low-tech homage to low-budget spaghetti Westerns.

Austin dances and makes Britney's head explode with a final pelvic thrust. When her head shoots around it's a low-tech, Austin-style, in-camera visual effect. We just slowed down the camera to 2-frames-per-second and Britney moved her head around at normal speed. Then, when played back at 24-frames-per-second, it looks like her head is jerking around at inhumanly high speed until the 'mechanism' accelerates past the redline. We imposed over her face a shot of a bag of gunpowder and fake fleshy bits exploding. Again, it's a deliberately unsophisticated effect, as contrasted with modern visual effects. It's something only an Austin Powers film would do.

We threw everything into this last shot: women with Laugh-In body paint, dancers, Uncle Sam, and Col. Sanders on stilts. I went to Mike and said, 'We have Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Uncle Sam on stilts, little people. What else could we possibly throw in?' He said, 'Well, would it kill you to have someone juggling kittens with sparks coming out of their ass?' He was joking but my visual effects guy filmed me juggling stuffed kittens and used a grinder to create some sparks, so in the bottom left of the final image, near where the director's credit is, I'm juggling kittens with sparks coming out of my ass.

(Photo: (top) DGA Archives; Screenpulls: New Line Home Entertainment)