Blade was originally intended to be a small-budget, gritty little superhero movie.
Producer Peter Frankfurt had made his name on an indie drama called Juice, which featured rapper Tupac Shakur in his movie debut. So when he asked head of New Line Mike De Luca if there were any Black superheroes, the executive was happy for him to take a chance on a property they had sitting around the office about a vampire-human hybrid who had supernatural abilities, but didn’t drink blood and liked to kill those who did.
Frankfurt got together with a young newbie writer called David Goyer (who would go on to script Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and they hashed out an idea.
Read more: What you need to know about the Blade reboot
“I remember saying to Mike, ‘the good news is it’s really great’,” remembers Frankfurt now. “The bad news is it’s not a $3 million movie.”
Luckily, De Luca was on board and suggested Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne as possible stars.
But, admits Frankfust: “It was always Wesley, it was the obvious choice. Why? Because he was so f***ing cool!
"And he was badass, he was really into martial arts.”
Finding Stephen Norrington
The search for a director began. David Fincher was wrapping Se7en at the time and became interested.
“I remember saying to David, ‘You’re not going to do this movie, we both know that. I don’t want to spend a long time with you dancing around this,’” says Frankfurt.
But the director went for a meeting with the film company and they were soon eating out of the palm of his hand.
“After we left that meeting, he was the director of Blade,” continues Frankfurt. “He was never going to do it, but we wasted maybe 10 months.”
As it became apparent that Fincher didn’t want to do it, the net was again cast for a helmer and landed on a kooky, energetic Englishman who had previously made one tiny-budget horror but mostly worked in special effects (including, funnily enough, on Fincher’s Alien 3).
“When I met Stephen Norrington, I was like, oh my God, this guy’s P.T. Barnum,” laughs Frankfurt. “He’s a very singular guy in terms of his approach.”
If you want to know more about Norrington and all his subsequent travails, then there’s plenty to read on Google. But one thing is very clear — he was absolutely pivotal to Blade’s look, feel and success.
“Norrington was off the hook,” says Frankfurt, who still talks to him. “He was a madman. It was a really adventurous shoot and we ended up making the movie at a very high level.”
“Stephen’s a very interesting person,” adds Theo Van de Sande, Blade’s cinematographer and a seasoned pro at the time of filming, coming off the back of visual effects extravaganza Volcano.
“He had no experience, he had done a small film. He’s a brilliant person, but as brilliant as he is, he’s as poor in social contact.
"So he was immediately aware of his power situation and misused it to my crew. But we came back a day later and continued. We had a little power play, but nevertheless it clicked and we started to do the movie.”
The "Blood Rave"
There are lots of brilliant moments in Blade, but perhaps none as impactful, cool and OTT as the opening scene, which takes place at a rave that turns dark when the sprinkler system starts to spout torrents of blood onto the (as it turns out) vampiric revellers.
“Goyer had written a scene which is basically a human sacrifice,” explains Frankfurt. “A guy comes down from the ceiling and he’s fed to the vampires. And Norrington’s like, no, let’s turn this in a rave!”
The Prodigy were asked about providing the music, but in the end the track used was a New Order remix.
“We really wanted to set up that scene as something you wouldn’t forget,” adds Van de Sande. “I used light to create blood that is almost crystallised — it is particulated — because I wanted the blood in the film to be a special character.”
The cinematographer went back to his theatrical beginnings and built mirror cubes which he was able to use instead of strobe lights. And he asked the production designer to build seven windows into the club set through which people shined lights while the crowd danced.
“The whole scene starts kind of calm and then becomes short cuts and closer shots,” he says. “It was very complicated.”
And then of course there was the blood.
“We were in slickers and hoods and hats and boots and still just drenched in red,” reveals Frankfurt. “It was pretty horrible, it irritated some people’s skin. It went so far over-schedule because of getting the blood to work, all these extras. [Steve] kept on wanting to shoot singles of the DJ.”
“The gave us raincoats for three-and-a-half dollars and the sleeves came off,” continues Van de Sande.
“And the blood was cold and it disappeared in grates and then was sucked back up and cleaned and put back in. People pee when they’re cold.
"Just before the premiere there were suddenly people who had been extras in this scene [who] complained about illnesses.”
Breaking new ground
Throughout the shoot, the crew was utilising innovative and pioneering techniques. Van de Sande used new camera lenses and got a guy in East Germany to build a new kind of viewfinder in two weeks, allowing them to do more visceral action scenes in an era before digital.
The director of photography also wanted to pre-empt the bullet time technology you saw a year later in The Matrix.
“The Matrix did things that I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the budget for it,” he says. “We were going to do [bullet time] with the sword fight at the end.”
And considering Hollywood was too timid to launch another film series led by a Black superhero until Black Panther 20 years later, Blade suffered surprisingly little interference.
“We didn’t feel the weight because the expectations were so low,” remembers Frankfurt. “There were aspects that were interesting to come to grips with… like an international person at New Line said we need to get someone who’s big in Japan because a Japanese audience won’t go to see a movie with Black guy on the poster.
"And Stephen Dorff was bankable in Japan.”
Neither Van de Sande or Frankfurt are involved in the Marvel reboot of the character, starring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.
Still, says Frankfurt, “I’ve seen Kevin Feige around town and he’s always incredibly gracious. There hasn’t been a movie like it and a character like Blade since.”
“I saw the film again recently and I’m very proud of some of the stuff,” says Van de Sande. “Visually, that film is completely connected. When we did the film I didn’t know about Marvel, I didn’t know what a superhero film was. I needed to believe this world and so I did everything to make world not normal, but believable.”
“Wesley’s line was, ‘People are going to go bananas’,” adds Frankfurt. “The movie was just ahead of the curve.”
Blade is streaming on Prime Video.