Underworld at 20: It began as 'Blade for werewolves' but evolved into an unlikely franchise

With the vampires vs werewolves actioner turning two decades old, we spoke to co-writer and actor Kevin Grevioux about how it came to be

Kate Beckinsale in 2003's Underworld. (Alamy)

In a world filled with expanded cinematic universes, there’s a case to be made that the Underworld franchise exists in the same one as Stargate.

That’s because it was on the latter 1994 sci-fi flick that a young extra called Kevin Grevioux met a props guy called Len Wiseman and struck up a friendship.

“We exchanged numbers and he even stayed with me a couple of times,” says Grevioux now, hair now a little whiter, but with his distinctive basso profundo voice very much intact.

At the beginning of the noughties, Wiseman was looking to get out of props and into directing and turned to his mate after a movie company meeting.

Read more: Underworld TV series to offer 'different perspective'

“They wanted to do a werewolf movie because Blade had done so well for the vampire genre,” remembers Grevioux. “We had been friends for a couple of years, so he called me. He said, ‘What do you think about doing a werewolf movie?’ And I wasn’t too enthusiastic.”

This was three years before the Twilight series turned lycanthropes into people who looked like Taylor Lautner.

UNDERWORLD, Kevin Grevioux, 2003, (c) Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection
Kevin Grevioux in 2003's Underworld (Screen Gems/Everett Collection/Alamy)

“Werewolves weren’t ‘sexy’ in the way vampires are,” explains Grevioux. “They wear ripped clothes, their hair is usually matted and you don’t really get a cool aesthetic. I told Len, if you can promise we’ll at least do a bi-pedal snout-nosed werewolf.”

The pair got together and hashed out a plot that Grevioux thinks was “about finding a dead, frozen werewolf in the ice, in the Alps, something like that.” But the neophyte writer knew enough about Hollywood to realise you had to have more than one idea if you were going to a pitch meeting, in case the execs didn’t like your original.

“I said why don’t we do a Romeo & Juliet story, but instead of Montagues and Capulets werewolves are one side and vampires are on the other. We make it this interracial love story against a 600-year-old race war.

"I remember he was on the couch and he was looking at me… and here we are five or six movies later.”

Grevioux disappeared to write the script, but because he wasn’t represented by agent, they brought in another writer to polish. But no-one wanted to make it.

Prod DB © Lakeshore Entertainment / DR UNDERWORLD (UNDERWORLD) de Len Wiseman 2003 USA avec Erwin Leder, Scott Speedman et Kevin Grevioux vampires, gothique, science-fiction, militaires,
Kevin Grevioux in 2003's Underworld. (Alamy)

“The script went around to everyone in town and everyone passed, including Lakeshore, who wound up producing the film,” he says.

“And they passed on it twice. That path is always perilous because you’re not selling these stories to fans. You’re selling these stories to executives, who don’t really like this stuff for the most part and you have to convince them of what you’re doing.

"One of the problems we had is producers didn’t know if people would be able to tell the difference between the Lycans and the vampires. That’s because they didn’t think the werewolves should be snout-nosed bi-pedal creatures. They were looking for them to look more like Sabretooth in the X-Men movies with mutton chops and long fingernails.”

Grevioux was instead trying to emulate some of the old Universal monster movies, where they fought against each other. “To me, that was monster gold.”

ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, Glenn Strange, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., 1948
Glenn Strange, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. in 1948's Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Alamy)

One of the keys was to find their heroine, a black Lycra-clad badass vampire who went round assassinating werewolves. Their solution was an unlikely one – British actor Kate Beckinsale, best known at the time for period dramas and romcoms (the star ended up marrying Wiseman).

“From what I remember, we were looking at several people,” recalls Grevioux.

“Even Halle Berry was a name that had come up. When you’re coming up as a writer, one of the things they tell you never to do is include artwork [in your script], because that’s sophomoric, unprofessional.

"Well, Len is an artist and he drew some pictures and put them in the script for everyone to look at. Kate was trying to decide what her next project was and what did she see but a script with pictures and so that’s the one she grabbed. The rest is history.”

The movie was shot primarily in Europe, on a comparatively tight budget.

Kate Beckinsale (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)
Kate Beckinsale at SDCC in 2003. (Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

“We were working with stuntmen from Hungary, who really weren’t making a lot of money,” says Grevioux. “I was a bigger guy and the stunt co-ordinator wanted me to lay into one of them. And I was like, ‘Dude!’ Len talked to me and said, ‘Well that’s what they’re paid for!’

“After I empty my clip in the opening scene, you can see me running into the train and knock this guy over and he was about 5’ 7”, 5’ 8”.

"I’m 6’ 3”, 250 pounds. The first time I did it, they were like, ‘You can hit him harder than that!’ [In the end] I just bowl him over and I felt bad.”

He continues, “We had some British SAS guys and one of these guys was the weapons master. I had this sub-machine gun and Len wanted me to just throw it aside and every time he would tell me that, the SAS guy would run up to me and tell me, 'Please don’t do that!'

"Because these guns are expensive and that comes out of his pocket. If you go back and look at the film, after I bowl this guy over, I kind of gingerly toss the gun aside onto the seat of the subway car!”

Kate Beckinsale in 2003's Underworld. (Alamy)

Despite modest expectations, the film was a sleeper hit, spawning a series of sequels and prequels. Beckinsale became known as an action star, interspersing small dramas and comedies with returning to her black catsuit every few years.

In 2017, Wiseman announced a TV version, telling Deadline it would be a “pretty big departure from the films. I don’t want to say it’s more adult, but it’s definitely less comic book in its tone and character.” The show has yet to come to fruition.

So what was the secret to its success?

“It turned the genre upside down,” explains Grevioux. “You had filmmakers who cared about the genre and cared about making something cool and slick. It was a heady experience.

"But it was not without its pitfalls. A lot of the time, you have to fight for every bit of coolness.”

Underworld is available to rent or buy on digital.