Jason Statham’s new action movie “Safe” hits screens this week, and Hugh sat down with director Boaz Yakin. You’ll know him from the big blockbusters like “Uptown Girl” and “Remember the Titans”, and more recently has explored more independent cinema such as “Death in Love” starring Josh Lucas.
He was very candid about his career, and what it was like coming back to directing an action film with Jason Statham – it’s definitely worth a read!
Hey there in Australia!
Let’s talk “Safe”. Where did the idea for this film come from?
Well, I broke into the business a long time ago. Too long ago to specify! In the late 80s as a very young writer, I broke in writing action films and so forth. Recently I got into much more independent films that I had written, and I directed and financed a small film myself that was certainly not commercial or broad audience based. And I thought it might be time for me to return a little bit to my action movie roots. I’d written them but never directed one before, so I kind of cooked something up based on that.
Yeah, for the viewer it’s not an expected film for you to make compared to your last few. But it fits in your very varied career!
Yeah, my career is very strange. The films that you actually succeed in making are not always are the ones that do well. There are very few people who have produced a film that reflects their first choices of what they would do. For me it’s been a much more varied, hit-and-miss kind of a process. I’ve sort of bounced back and forth between movies that I’ve been interest in like “Fresh”; and then having to take jobs like “Remember the Titans” or “Uptown Girl” that are much more a way for me to eat, or keep my hands in it, you know what I mean?
Yes, for sure.
And that sort of leads to a rather varied portfolio!
It does. With “Safe”, you’ve got Asian gangsters, Russian gangsters, corrupt cops- everything. How much research did you have to put into all of those before you could pull that story together?
I think I’ve written so many action films it’s almost like having a backlog to draw from! [laughs] It’s like a fantasia in a way, like a fevered dream of the dissolute New York of my youth, of the 1970s that I rather miss, in a way. Because New York had a real kind of improvisational, corrupt feeling that was a little scary but certainly a more fun than the sort of bland Starbucks version that it is now. It’s sterile, a bit safe – which is great in certain ways – but it’s lacking in colour. It’s funny, I’ve had some reactions saying they love it and others saying it’s so unrealistic. Which it’s meant to be – it’s very much a fantasia like that. Because It doesn’t announce itself. No-one’s wearing a superhero outfit, and stylistically it’s a little more edgy, a grittier feeling at the start of the film. But the fact that it is over the top and heightened and feverish sort of takes people by surprise, but it’s definitely not meant to reflect reality.
Is it a sort of throw-back to an older-style action film in that way?
Yeah, I mean it’s a throwback to the films that influenced me. Like “Death Wish” and “Warriors”, but with a heightened, nostalgic feel about the whole thing.
Jason Statham – he’s such a captivating lead actor in that role. How did he come to be attached to the film?
My friend Lawrence Bender, who is the producer – knew Jason. And when we were trying to put the film together he was one of the first people that we thought of for the role. And Lawrence got him the script, and he seemed to respond to the material, and we just went forward from there. It was entirely Lawrence’s relationship that led to him being in the film.
And how did you like the way he turned out in that character?
Very much. I think people expect to see Jason in that kind of role, so the challenge for us was to find moments of emotion and vulnerability that aren’t quite expected from Jason. I think the challenge is no longer to have to sell him as an action hero but sell that vulnerability. Whereas if you’ve got someone else who’s a sensitive actor you have to sell him as a bad-ass. But with Jason it’s quite the opposite– we already know he’s a bad-ass! [laughs] How do we get some vulnerability going? And Jason was very open to trying that, and we really got some colours in there.
I liked his vulnerability and how the backstory of his family wasn’t fully explored. What did you envisage in the rest of his backstory?
You know, I don’t really know! I don’t mean to say this in a pretentious way, but I wanted to make kind of an impressionistic action film where you’re just told enough about the detail on things for it to make sense and hold together and understand something about what these people are going through; so you can be connected to it, and then off you go like the races. Know what I mean?
Like the little girl. You meet her at the school, you understand she’s a genius who gets kidnapped and you know her mother is sick. I’m not going into scenes of her with her mother like giving her an orange before she goes to school – and some people miss that kind of thing – but for me, I wanted to tell an impressionistic feeling of the story where everything just flies by. That you get just enough touches of what these people are feeling for it to carry through.
Well you’re not exactly trying to create a drama – and there’s so much action in the spectrum that it makes sense to focus on that!
Yeah, I wanted the emotions to be there, but to be there in a way it just touched on them to understand the people. You didn’t have to spell it out. When Jason’s character runs home [SPOILER] to find his wife killed, you never meet his wife, you never see her dead, you all just experience it through his reaction. And I ‘ve seen so many films where you see the family and know they’re going to get killed! [laughs] And they’re having pizzas and laughing and you know it’s just there so you can see them get killed. So I thought, why not try something that just touches on what we know and expect from the genre, but kind of flies by without getting bogged down in them.
What’s Jason like to direct?
Jason’s very specific and detail oriented, Extremely detailed, especially when it comes to action and physical movement. He’s got a very strong idea of what works for him and what he likes to do. It was a great process, at times about pushing him into directions he didn’t normally go to, and other times it was for me understanding things I’ve never done before and put them into action with his character. But he’s so focussed on detail.
And there’s plenty of creativity in regards to the action scenes. Firstly – how did you think them all up, and then how did you go about planning them?
Well thank you for saying that! We figured if I was going to do it I wanted to bring something interesting to it. We had to film on a somewhat limited budget and what I thought with the creativity was of ways to do things without the constraints of time and budget. Like in the scene when the little girl gets kidnapped, I had essentially a day to shoot that scene, and that’s something you could shoot for three days if you’re covering it from every angle. So I decided to cover it from just shots inside the car, as if what she’s experiencing in that scene. As opposed to trying to turn it into a gigantic set piece. So I thought it was more interesting, and clever use of mirrors and reflections, etc. It leads to more creativity.
And I think that helps to draw you in a bit.
By the way, I worked with a remarkable team of stuntmen. They’re a collective in Los Angeles, and they do many of the films that you see. They have so much experience and have done everything so many times. So if you can just explain what you’re looking for, they bring you options and images beyond anything you would have been able to come up with because they do it all the time. So then it’s exciting to work with them who execute the specific vision you’ve got, it’s just great.
Speaking of the “little girl”, what was Catherine Chan like to work with?
She’s very focused, very genuine. For me I wanted to film a girl that was sort of the anti-Natalie Portman. You know, [Portman] was so striking and accomplished so young, but I wanted to find a little girl that you would pass on the street and not pay attention to. Someone that didn’t feel like an actor, but like a real kid. And Catherine had that focus, and that really translated.
What was it like directing her in amongst the adult content of the film?
You know, people are often concerned when they see a film that’s involved in certain situations where you wouldn’t want kids to be in, or even see. But when you’re on set it’s so artificial and the kids feel the sense of play-acting, that artificiality of the process, it’s like a big game. So it’s very different from actually watching the kids in the film. But that being said, there were some scary things going on with loud noises, and stuff that I had to reassure Catherine about!
And what was the hardest part of the shoot?
Definitely shooting in the New York subway system. Technically, physically, safety-wise, it was a tremendous challenge and we only had a few days to do it. That’s something I’m very proud of, we made a New York subway scene that can stand up there with the best of them. – that was definitely a goal.
“Safe” opens in cinemas this Thursday May 10.