UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – Thump. Thump.
That’s the sound the golf cart makes each time it strikes the uneven pavement as it transports Vin Diesel across the Universal Studios back lot. He’s traveling from his bungalow office to a screening room where “Riddick” crew members have gathered to watch the third installment of the sci-fi series starring the 46-year-old actor-producer as an extraterrestrial ex-con.
“It’s such a victory that this movie is going to be in theaters,” he says in his signature growly tone.
Indeed, when it comes to “Riddick,” Diesel is all too familiar with hitting bumps in the road. It took the “Fast & Furious” star nearly a decade (and millions of dollars in fundraising) to bring his see-in-the-dark anti-hero back to the big screen. Universal had jettisoned a possible third edition after 2004’s “Chronicles of Riddick” didn’t soar at the box office.
Despite the fact that “Chronicles of Riddick” and its 2000 predecessor “Pitch Black,” as well as a pair of “Riddick” video games, amassed a cult following, it seemed Riddick would be forever lost in space.
However, Diesel remained undeterred. He worked with series writer-director David Twohy to resuscitate Riddick, obtaining the film rights after Universal passed.
“I started in the independent (film) world, but this was a new level of challenge for me,” said Diesel.
He treated the sequel like an indie film project, not unlike the 1990s self-funded movies “Multi-Facial” and “Strays,” which first transformed the burly New Yorker from bouncer to actor- producer. Between filming “Fast & Furious” movies, he traveled to Germany with Twohy to woo enough investors to convince the studio to come back on board.
“This character struck a chord,” said Diesel, who points to his 46 million Facebook fans as the reason for taking several risks – including almost leveraging his own house when bills couldn’t be paid – to recover Riddick. “He’s tangible for them. I think the idea of a character that has been misread, overlooked and given up on is very fascinating to people.”
The original “Pitch Black,” which introduced the ruthless Richard B. Riddick amid an eclectic group of spaceship crash survivors, cost $23 million and went on to earn $53 million worldwide. The follow-up heavily expanded on the first film’s spacey mythology and budget. It cost $105 million but wasn’t ultimately a blockbuster, bringing in a so-so $115 million worldwide.
“Riddick,” which opens today and leanly cost between $35 and $40 million, blends elements from both chapters, keeping the ornate look of “Chronicles” but dispatching with its PG-13 interstellar politics in favor of the R-rated terror of “Pitch Black.” The film strands the Furyan bad boy on a desolate planet where he’s hunted by dueling bands of mercenaries.
“For both of us, it was like going home again,” said Twohy. “No matter what part of the world we’re in, whether it’s the Australian outback where we shot ‘Pitch Black,’ or Vancouver where we filmed the second movie or inside an old train depot in Montreal where we shot ‘Riddick,’ it just feels like home when we’re together making a Riddick movie.”
With the revivals of “Fast & Furious” and “Riddick” now under his belt, Diesel feels reinvigorated about his other passion project: a trilogy in which he’d play Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca, the audacious general who marched across the Alps to challenge the Roman Empire. It’s another bumpy venture Diesel has been working on for the better part of a decade.
But first, Diesel says he’s revving up for the seventh “Fast & Furious,” which begins shooting next month in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in which he’ll portray the treelike alien Groot. For the former street performer, it’ll mark his first foray into motion-capture acting – and playing a character known for delivering just one line: “I am Groot.”
“The idea of bringing that physicality to a CGI character always tantalized me,” he said. “To strip away everything is insane. In this case, the voice plays heavily into it, too. I don’t know what kind of dialogue will be in it, but even if it stayed true to character, there’s so much one can do with ‘I am Groot.’ It’s the kind of challenge very few actors ever get.”