Roel Reiné found his calling early: When he saw Blade Runner at just 11 years old, he instantly knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker. After honing his craft in his native Netherlands, he made the jump to Los Angeles, helming direct-to-DVD movies like Death Race Inferno, The Marine, and The Man With the Iron Fists 2, among others. He released Admiral, a movie about Dutch naval hero Michiel de Ruyter, in Europe last year. We talked to the director about making inexpensive movies look like more than a million bucks, the challenges of filming on the water, and how consumer technology is changing movie-making.
What made you want to make movies?
I grew up in the Netherlands and I grew up with American movies. I saw Blade Runner when I was 11 and I knew I wanted to become a movie director. So from that moment on, I did everything that was needed: I started reading about making movies, I sneaked on to movie sets in Holland when I was 15 and 16, and I used my father’s 8 millimeter camera to do stop motion of my puppets.
Then I kind of found out that, in Holland, making genre movies wasn’t really done. I had to get my chops going in television.
I started in local television, and when I was 23 years old, I became the director of this action TV series in Holland—a prime time, really well-watched TV series. I did many TV shows in Holland before I developed my first screenplay, The Delivery, when I was 28. It was an English language road movie that I made with a Dutch cast. That movie basically took my career to the next level. I won this award in Holland called the Golden Calf. It’s kind of the Oscars in Holland for the best director.
Then the movie was sold to Lionsgate and that was my ticket to Los Angeles. It was very difficult to get my first American movie off the ground. So I said to my agent and my manager, “I really believe in the 10,000 hour rule: If I want to become a really good director, I need to be directing for 10,000 hours. Anything that is in front of me I will do.” So I jumped into the sequel and prequel business. I made 16 American feature films in 7 or 8 years, like Death Race 2 and The Marine and Dead in Tombstone—these are action movies that cost between $5 and $8 million for the studios to make.
Two years ago, I felt like I had done my 10,000 hours, and I wanted to make a really big, cool movie. So, I went back to Holland and developed this movie, Admiral.
When you came onboard to Admiral, was there a script already?
The producer, Klaas de Jong, was developing a screenplay about Michiel de Ruyter. He did that for 5 years, and he spoke with some Dutch directors, but he could not find one. They were very scared that they could not pull this off technically because of the sea battles.
I always wanted to make a movie about the golden age of Dutch history because, at that time, Holland was the only republic in the world. We were surrounded by kingdoms that were trying to stop us from being a republic. We were like a small empire—we had 20,000 ships on the oceans, while France had only 400 ships on the ocean.
So I called Klaas and said, “Let’s talk.” Then when I read the screenplay I said to him, “All those sea battles, those are easy. But we need to find a story because it’s too much of a history lesson.” So, I brought in a writer friend and we developed a new script over two years that was more story, more character, more heart and emotion. I also started developing the sea battles and how we had to do them technically.
When you start working on a project like this, how much research do you do? Do you feel like you have to be really historically accurate?
My research is massive. There’s a lot of stuff known about the 17th century—many museums have books and letters from that time, and there are a lot of paintings that show you this world, the sea battles and the killing of our prime minister. So, there’s a lot of material visually you can use as inspiration, but there’s also a lot that was written down that we could use. So that was really cool to tap into.
I wanted to be as historically correct as possible, but we’re making a movie and not a history lesson. The biggest thing I did was let go of the ages of all the characters—because if you want to follow the story of a character over a period of 20 years, it gets complicated. Maybe you need to use different actors and they have kids that grow up and they’re going to have wrinkles in the face and all this makeup and prosthetics. Then the movie becomes very … from a distance you cannot connect with these characters as a viewer.
What I did was give all the characters an average age, and told the story in a period of nine months—but in those nine months, we gave the audience 22 years of Dutch history. All these historical moments are happening to these characters in a period of nine months, and you can connect better to these characters.
We also made the language a little modern. If you go to old Dutch language, it’s really boring. But everything else—even the details in the sea battles and the details in set dressing and the ideas that the main character has to destroy the English fleet—all these things are historically correct.
Why was it important to tell Michiel de Ruyter’s story, and why was it important to make it in Holland?
I think the most important reason is that he’s the No. 1 hero in Dutch history. Schools are named after this person. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Amsterdam but on Dam Square in the middle of Amsterdam is Nieuwe Kerk [New Church], and in this church is his grave. It’s a beautiful, big grave. Everybody knows this person and nobody has done any movies about him. So I definitely wanted to make a movie that the Dutch people could be proud of.
The main goal was to make a really good Dutch movie and to make it accurate. The Dutch speak Dutch, the English speak English, the French speak French so hopefully an international audience also finds that appealing.
There are a number of battles at sea in the trailer. How much of that was real, and how much of it was computer generated?
I really love doing stuff in camera. I think Death Race Inferno has some of the coolest action in racing out there because we did all the stunts in camera—we only used computer animation to clean up stuff. I wanted to do the same thing with Admiral. We had three 17th century ships. One is from Holland, one from Russia, and one from France. We brought them to a really big lake in Holland, where you can’t see the shore on the other side. With these three ships we did a real sea battle, with all the crew and actors on the ships and cannons firing. I didn’t use any green screen because I wanted it to feel real.
But then with computers I surrounded the ships with more ships so you feel the hundreds of ships around them. And we have some kind of Google Earth kind of perspective of the sea battles that is full CG where you can see kind of the logistics of it.
But it was a bit challenging. There are the three Bs: You don’t want to be on boats, you don’t want to use beasts, and you don’t want to use babies on movies. So, we did a lot of boats and we went on the water. Then you have to think about currents and wind direction. So, it makes it all very complicated. But I like to do complicated stuff. It’s my hobby.
Did you do a lot of the shooting yourself?
I’m the director of photography on all my movies, but sometimes I don’t get the credit because of union rules and that kind of stuff. It’s kind of part of my style. I don’t believe in sitting in another room behind a monitor. I like to be with the actors on the floor, feel what they feel and interact with them directly. And, because I’m operating the camera, I can participate in things that happen on the set and correct them or direct them really close by. That makes me very fast—but also all the actors really like it because they never get so much attention from a director as from me because I’m there.
You choose a location, you choose a script, you choose the actors, you block the actors. For me, moving the camera with specific lenses in that environment is one thought. It is one idea. It’s very much about having control over all those elements to make the movie really cool. So that’s the reason I’ve done it on all my movies.
It cost 8 million euro to make Admiral—which is not a ton of money. What lessons did you learn from making direct-to-video films that you applied there?
Movies like Death Race Inferno, they cost $6.5 million dollars. It’s very low, but I learned a way to make them look like $20 or $30 million: Use smaller crews, be my own DP, and never use studio sets—find the production value in the locations that you shoot. I always shoot with four cameras and therefore I get a lot more coverage—which makes the movie feel much richer because we can cut more and show more angles.
I brought all that knowledge to Admiral—it looks like a $40-50 million movie. We did it for 8 million euros because we used the same techniques. We were very smart in the way we planned, scheduled, and shot it. I shot that movie in 42 days and it’s a 2.5 hour movie with hundreds of extras every day—lots of costumes and horses and big sets. But if you surround yourself with a really good crew and you have a plan with stretching the dollar in a smart way, then you can pull it off.
You’ve used drones in some of your shoots. Is there any other sort of emerging technology that allows you to do really cool things as a director?
Many years ago, I think on my Scorpion King movie, I started learning flying the drones myself and they crashed all the time. It was a big disaster. But in the last few years, drones have became so sophisticated and very easy to fly. In Admiral, there are three shots flying over the water that I shot with a $600 consumer drone with a GoPro camera underneath. Then with this GoPro footage we went to the visual effects company. We CG’d in ships and other stuff and then we blew it up in 4K in cinema and nobody sees that this is like a GoPro shot in between the epic shots that we use for the whole movie.
So, it’s also using that technique and daring to use it in a bold way. I operate the drones myself. It’s fun.
On Admiral, we had two days on choppers because we were on the lake and I could have more control. But even when I’m shooting on choppers, I never use gyroscopes. I wear ropes and harnesses and I’m hanging half out of the chopper with the camera on a bungee rig from cables because I can control it much better, and stabilization you do in post with computers. So also there you use a combination of techniques to get the best result.
You love genre movies. What genre do you really want to work in?
I really would like to do science fiction. But also I really like historical movies. I’m going to do a few more historical movies out of the Netherlands. But I also want to do a movie, for example, about Waterloo and the whole battle to kick Napoleon out of Europe. I also had this Second World War movie that I want to do. It’s different stuff. That’s the great thing about making movies—I don’t want to stick around for one genre. I want to mix it up. It keeps me sharp and keeps it fun.
What’s one movie that you think everyone should see?
The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in the West and Blade Runner. Those are the movies that people should see—but I think everybody’s seen them already.
Since you got your start in TV, are there any TV series that you’d want to direct an episode of?
I love House of Cards, True Detective, Game of Thrones and Vikings. Hollywood is making the big $100 million tentpoles and some sequels and some smaller movies. But the really daring movies—[movies with] political statements—a lot of studios are not making those movies anymore. You see a lot of moviemakers going to television to do it there, and I really like that. The Newsroom and all those kind of series I really like, because they dare to do something edgy and controversial, and they also do it in a style that is very filmish. These series look really cool—they look like feature films.
If you’re a big Game of Thrones fan, you must have been thrilled when Charles Dance, who plays Tywin Lannister, signed on to be in Admiral.
Of course. He was on my list, and I was like “I don’t know if we will succeed but let’s give it a try.” When he read the script and he said yes I was so excited because he’s such an iconic figure in that series. But he’s also a very iconic actor. He’s the villain in our movie and every time you see him, it’s so cool because he’s so powerful. It works so nicely. So I was really proud that he was part of this movie.