Talking 'Riddick' - and Dungeons & Dragons - with Vin Diesel
"I don't think I ever saw that."
I've just told Vin Diesel that his new film, Riddick, reminds me of Hell Comes To Frogtown, and for a moment I am terrified that I have mortally offended cinema's gentle Brooklyn giant. Just as quickly, however, it becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth.
"Hell Comes To Frogtown..." he says, intrigued, "I will look it up!"
It's not an unfair comparison: Riddick, the third instalment in the ongoing adventures of Richard B. Riddick, is cut from the same cloth as the Roddy Piper vehicle: a shoot-em-up vacation for your brain that seems to take great pride (and glee) in its B-movie roots, harking back to the good old bad old days of '80s and '90s hard sci-fi and action films set in aggressively ugly environments that feature copious grizzled bad dudes, corny one-liners, bare breasts and plenty of gore. It's a hoot.
Not only that, but much like those low-budget days of yore, Riddick is as close to an "indie" blockbuster as you can get, made for a comparatively meagre $38 million, a great deal of which was secured by Diesel himself. "Yeah I did, [I put] a lot on the line," he says, nodding sagely and with a hint of horror in his voice. "Everything. I had to put my house up, because I went to Europe to get the money to make the movie, and I ‘sold foreign’, and it wasn’t enough to make the movie. We had a month left on the option, and there was no other alternative but for me to do the gap financing, that last $5 million or whatever, and yeah, I had to leverage the houses."
It's an impressive level of commitment for a star who could, for all intents and purposes, choose to do only highly-paid cameos and spend his time in a gold-plated bubble if he so desired. Instead, Diesel comes across as completely committed to his fans, and felt he had a responsibility to provide them with another Riddick flick.
"I felt like I had made a promise, quite frankly, that’s all it was," he says, matter-of-factly. "That demand for the next chapter of Riddick was so loud, and they were so vocal about it, that I felt like I’d told them enough that it’s going to come, and I had one moment in time to pull it off. And if I would’ve waited one more month, the rights would have reverted back to Universal and I never would have gotten them again. I felt like, what’s the point of me having this amazing ability to make film if I can’t manifest the films that people want so badly?"
He's not lying about the fan demand: Diesel's Facebook page has 46 million 'likes' - and he's the only person running it. "How do you interact with 46 million people?" he asks, clearly rhetorically (I have no idea), before his voice descends into a conspiratorial whisper. "It's such an intimate relationship. It's strange how you can even have an intimate relationship with 46 million people. But it's the most positive place in the world! I don't bring the negative to the page. I believe that the value of that is to be truthful, to give some insight on who I am, while simultaneously allowing for this positive, non-judgmental environment."
Though he's clearly relieved to have seen the film completed, and must be thrilled that it opened at the #1 spot on its US debut (we spoke the week before its opening weekend), he seems a little shaken by the experience. "It was a very tough time. My father saw the film last week, and he said, ‘I don’t know whether I’m more happy about the film’s success, or more proud that you made this film against all odds’. And it’s true, it was against all odds."I ask Diesel whether or not working outside the studio system meant they had a greater sense of creative freedom despite the relative financial stresses and he barks with laughter. "Definitely for David Twohy!" he says, his eyebrows raised almost to the top of his shiny bald head. "But David Twohy wasn’t going to be homeless if the film bombed. It’s not even producing in the same way that I produced Fast & Furious; this is old school producing, this was more reminiscent of Multi-Facial and Strays, in some ways."
Strays, his 1997 feature writing/directing debut (which he also starred in and produced), must seem an eon away from his current status as a box office hero, most visibly as part of everybody's favourite rev-head franchise. He's typically Zen about Fast & Furious' continued success. "You know, with things like this, you're not supposed to make six movies, and they're not supposed to get bigger and better. But when you're continuing a saga like this, you have to focus on defying expectations. And hiring a master of horror [Fast 7 director James Wan] plays to that, and I'm so excited to see the nuances that will be brought to this next chapter."
Even though Riddick has only clocked half as much big-screen time as Fast, it's well and truly a multi-platform phenomenon, taking in video games and graphic novels that have kept the "IP", as Diesel puts it (that's intellectual property to the folks at home), ticking over. Given this, I see my chance and ask him if he would ever consider turning Riddick into a roleplaying or tabletop game. He is, after all, one of Dungeons & Dragons' most high-profile adventurers.
"Very much so," he says, only barely restraining his enthusiasm. "Um... I would love to do it. You mean like classic roleplaying?"
Well yes, I respond, I'm a D&D player.
"Are you??" he says, before breaking into the cheesiest grin and double thumbs up this side of Wayne Campbell saying "Zang!" Then he pulls back from the brink of deep nerd and side-eyes me. "But you're probably a new generation D&D player."
No, actually, I say, for years we played 1st edition AD&D [Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to you], and our DM [dungeon master to you] only recently decided to bring us into the 4E [4th edition to... you get the picture] world. His eyes widen and it's clear we're about to get into it. Here follows the next few minutes, as my fellow journalists' eyes glazed over:
Vin: "What's that like? I never made that transition."
Me: "It's a lot like WoW."
Vin: "So they modified it to WoW?? Undeniable references? Easier?"
Me: "Yeah, a lot more area-of-effect spells..."
Me: "...and the rules are a little easier, so it's really straightforward for bringing in new players."
Vin: "Gotcha. But has it kind of defeated the old magic a little? The old lore?"
Me: "A little bit. I miss the old lore."
He shakes his head slowly.
Vin: "I haven't played recently, so I'm so old school in my playing, literally starting with the basic box-set at 12-years-old from my grandmother, and then actively collecting the first edition. But even going beyond that, and getting-- did you ever use Arcanum, any of the third party stuff?"
I nod, and he grins.
Vin: "Obviously! You create cool characters. I mean, my Witch-Hunter came from the Arcanum, and just to geek out, if you ever saw xXx, there's a Melkor tattoo on xXx's stomach. It's so goofy, it's such a dweeb thing."
At that point, one of the other journos regains consciousness, and asks rather urgently, "Were you guys speaking English just then?" and it's clear things have to be brought back on topic.
So, giving it one last hurrah, I tell Diesel - just to make it totally clear that we're "people" - I have my dice in my bag, and it's not a word of a lie. I kick my bag under the table and the telltale clatter of Chessex rings out.
A beatific smile spreads across his face and he scrunches up his eyes and he says, "Oh, beautiful."
And at that moment I swear we were all natural 20s.
Riddick is in cinemas nationally from today.