Exclusive Interview: Now You See Me Director Louis Leterrier

Second generation French filmmaker Louis Leterrier first came onto the American movie scene as part of the wave of Luc Besson directors with The Transporter and its sequel, but his real shining moment was directing the martial arts thriller Unleashed, starring Jet Li and Morgan Freeman, a movie that combined dynamic and intense action with truly heartwarming dramatic moments, not something easy to pull off.

In short order, he got the gig to direct the semi-reboot The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton, followed by the remake of Clash of the Titans, both which did well at the box office but had their share of problems ultimately leading to disappointed fans.

Now Louis is back with the magic-based heist movie Now You See Me, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Dave Franco. It’s a sightly smaller movie than his last two, but it also includes a lot of the elements that made Unleashed so special, particularly being more character-driven.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the filmmaker last week and ended up talking to him for longer than the time allotted to us, but we did get one question we’d been wanting to ask Louis for a while. As a fan of Leterrier’s work going back to Unleashed, this writer has always felt he had gotten a bum rap from the fans for a couple of the movies he’s made, knowing there were many things out of his control, so we decided this was a good time to get him to address the fans’ reaction to his last two movies, The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans, and we got a really frank response about navigating the studio system that’s a good lesson for any burgeoning filmmaker.

ComingSoon.net: Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet and I thought I should preface this interview with that.
Louis Leterrier:
It’s very, very different from everything I’ve done before and yet it’s the closest thing to me, so yeah I’d love for you to see it. So let’s talk about it.

CS: I’m really psyched to see it having seen the four minutes and a couple of the clips including the magic battle between Franco and Ruffalo which looks amazing.
Leterrier:
The first four minutes is actually the first ten minutes but like hacked with a chainsaw (laughs), so it doesn’t give you the idea, but it’s what it is. It’s this supergroup of magicians robbing banks for the right reasons and giving the money back to the audience. The inception of the project was that coming off of “Clash” especially I was like, “I would actually like to start a movie with a script that I really love” and actually A script, that’s a luxury I’d like to get. (chuckles) I read a lot, a lot and lot of screenplays and this one was just so impressive and so smart and so different from anything I’d seen before and yet, similar to stuff I loved like “Rififi” or “Ocean’s 11.” I totally saw the movie. Sometimes you’re like “Okay I’ll find it,” but this one it was like “Flash! I see the movie.” I see the cast and the vibe it needs to have. I had to compete for the job because the guy who did “Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans” and “Transporter,” he’s not your first choice to do a smaller adventure movie. I had to prove that I was the right guy for the job and that maybe some of the movies that I’d done before weren’t representative of who I am really inside and the kinds of films I love and want to make. A few rounds of meetings, a few rounds of ideas and I think ultimately what got me the job was that I was very honest and tried to make it as pure and simple and as clear towards the characters and cast it tremendously and pay über attention to the script so that we can make sure that if there’s any small plothole, we fill it and we use it to develop every word spoken by these characters. I eventually got the job but it was a long courtship.

CS: You mentioned liking the screenplay and I definitely noticed there’s a lot of writers on this movie, a lot of names listed. What kind of shape was this screenplay in when you came on board? Had Bob and Alex pretty much gotten it into shape so you didn’t have to do many rewrites?
Leterrier:
They did one pass with the original writers, who were Ed Ricourt and Boaz Yakin, so that was it. It was in great shape. The only thing is that the second team of writers, Appelbaum and Nemec, the guys who wrote the last “Mission: Impossible,” who are in the J.J. Abrams family, they came in and did an active pass, just the stuff that we knew that we wanted to change. In the beginning, there were four men—all the magicians were men—and we changed one to a woman, and a few small things about the action and making it not be just one trick and another trick and another trick. They added this over-arcing big story on top of it and that was them. Then Ed Solomon came in and did the shooting draft with all the notes from the actors. Obviously when you write a screenplay, you write it without (actors in mind), but it has to be tailored for an actor and if you cast Jesse Eisenberg or The Rock, it’s not the same character. It’s very possible you’ve heard a lot of the casting stories—could have been this guy, could have been that guy—so that’s what Ed did on top of him keeping it make very smart, enhancing the magic. What’s great about Bob and Alex and Bobby Cohen, the set producer on this job, is that Bob and Alex are two of the greatest screenwriters working in this town, so they’re more than just producers that hire the hot writer. They hire people that are hard-working guys that they’ve worked closely with, “friends of the family” they call them, and they have the J.J. Abrams stamp of approval type of work and from the J.J. Abrams school of TV and movies. It was really great exciting and a great school for me to work with these guys, all the writers, Bob and Alex, and see how story is crafted and take it apart and rebuild it better and really, not hesitating to throw away entire bits of the movie to see what it feels like and eventually say “Well just one shot.” “I spent two weeks shooting that!” But we’re not precious, it was not like “Because we shot that much and shot that long to get that scene, let’s keep it in the movie.” No, it was like “Let’s try to lose everything.” Very Steven Spielberg. He always tries with his editor Michael Kahn to create the simplest cut of the movie. Usually if you can tell a story in 70 shots and 45 minutes, that’s good enough for him, then you build it up from there. All that stuff was very interesting for me to learn.

CS: I’m glad you changed one of the magicians to a woman, because there aren’t enough strong women in most summer movies which tend to have one token woman and that’s it.
Leterrier:
It’s funny. Hollywood is our own society in a sense where we’re “horrible chauvinist pigs” and there are token women who are standing around in their underwear, and for me, it was important. Magician’s assistants are such an icon of this culture and I wanted a love story/interest that could go with a magician, so I thought it was very interesting. We have other women and they’re just there and useful but they’re not part of the main action. For me, it’s a balanced society so we should do a balanced cast.

CS: I also want to talk about Jesse as Atlas because one thing I got out of what I’ve seen is that he seems to have so much confidence in this role. I was on set,but I didn’t get to really see him acting, but it’s quite a change for him as opposed to Woody who is kind of doing what we expect from him. Was it hard to convince them to cast Jesse as Atlas?
Leterrier:
That’s like my one big idea and that’s what started the ball rolling because we had this script, we were pretty much there. We had a very supportive studio and producers and we were ready to go, ready to go, but people were reading the script with a typical A-list star guy and they were reading it and turning it down. Often, the studio will ask you to go to these five people first and if you have one of them, the movie’s greenlit right away. So they were passing on it, but these days, it’s all based on international sales so you have to cast somebody who sells tickets just on their name. You’ll go see anything by, say, Brad Pitt. This screenplay was very different for me, and I really love David Fincher and I was watching “The Social Network” almost daily because I loved the vibe and it was so there. Then one day I woke up and I was like, “Why not this guy? Why not Jesse?” Not playing it like Zuckerberg but with all the stuff he can do, like charismatic but also this uber-mind and what really transpires in Jesse’s acting is intelligence. At first, he was originally written more as a leader but it’s now really more like a foursome, but as the leader of the group, who better than this guy who truly has many colors in his acting palette. I met him and he was on board right away – he loved the script and we had a great meeting in New York. It’s funny because this one piece defined the movie and at the same time, made it very complex because obviously you can’t have Jesse and surround him with…

CS: The Rock.
Leterrier:
(laughs) Yeah the Rock or whatever. Yeah, exactly. We can’t do that kind of stuff. You have to really surround him with his peers. When you play with an amazing tennis player, you better be good and what I wanted was for pros who can do fast acting, quick gunslinger, pop pop shooting from the hip kind of stuff, so the second piece of the cast was Mark Ruffalo. And that’s the thing. I was like “Okay, I’ve got these two, now we can start building the rest of the cast with their equivalents.”

CS: You also got to work with Morgan Freeman again for the first time in nine years. You got to work with him before he won his Oscar and now after. What was it like working with him again?
Leterrier:
He was so humble before his Oscar… (laughs)

CS: Did you literally just call him up and say “Hey remember me from ‘Unleashed’?”
Leterrier:
Yeah, I had to do this. I was like, “Hi, Morgan, it’s Louis Leterrier. We worked together ten years ago,” and he was like (probably the worst Morgan Freeman impression I’ve ever heard) “Come on, Louis, I remember you!” I was terrified that he would forget me, but he’s just an amazing guy and an unbelievable actor. There are amazing, great Gods of acting that you feel like you can’t direct. You feel like they don’t work under direction, but Morgan really likes to be pushed and challenged and when you see the movie, it’s not your typical Morgan Freeman voice of God. He’s pretty biting. I literally saw the movie again with an audience at an early screening and without doing anything and just me pushing my camera closer to him, people would laugh or would have a chill. He doesn’t say anything.

CS: Morgan Freeman has a presence on screen.
Leterrier:
People immediately connect with him and that was a challenge also in casting Jesse Eisenberg, casting Mark, casting all these guys. Although you’ll see it’s quite different than what he’s done before, and I feel like everybody was given a task that… not that they haven’t done it before, because actors have played good guys and bad guys, but the typical stuff that you’re expecting from an actor such as Jesse playing the leading man or Morgan the bad guy or Mark Ruffalo the action dude, running around. It was good and challenging and exciting for all of them to be like, “We have to do this, we have to stand tall in front of 600 people and pretend I’m a magician.” And Louis is going to spin his camera on this minute-and-a-half endless shot and I have to hit my marks and do a magic trick and talk to the audience and all that stuff. Because we knew that was the only way to capture what was written in the script, the essence of fun and something you haven’t seen before.

CS: Where do you go from here? You’ve done this amazing movie with an amazing cast that you’re very happy with obviously. So do you go back to doing tentpole franchises or do you have a “Star Wars” movie in you?
Leterrier:
Man, I’d love to do that. We did the mix at Skywalker (Ranch) with the Skywalker team and ILM did the FX. I just love spending time up there. That’s the reason you’re there and I’m here. It’s so good, but J.J. is just the best guy to do this job.

CS: They’re doing some other spin-off movies, too.
Leterrier:
Yeah, I’m up there often. If I happen to walk into George Lucas and he offers me a job I’ll say, “Yes, I’ll take it.” (laughs) No, I don’t know what’s next, it’s not a fair question. I don’t know what I’m doing next. This one was like a baby I wanted to walk all the way to their first day of high school, which is why I wanted to take this movie by the hand. As I told you at the beginning, this is the closest movie to who I am as a filmmaker and as a person—the energy, the fun—and it’s the kind of movie I’ve always wanted to make because that’s really what I like, so yeah I’d love to more movies like that.

CS: I’ve been meaning to ask you this: do you feel you get a bad rap from movie fans for “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans”? I thought they were decent movies and I feel that you may have gotten a bad rap for things that were beyond your control. Do you feel like that’s the case?
Leterrier:
Yeah, yeah, I do. To be very honest with you, yeah. I was thrown under the bus a couple of times because I’m a nice guy and I surrounded myself with people and trusted people that really… and I’m not talking about Edward Norton, because Edward and I love each other and we still do. He was at the premiere on Monday. We love each other and Email all the time. He’s a friend.

Even though I studied in New York and I know the American system, I come from France where I learned that with movies in France where the director is king. There’s no such thing as a studio edit. It’s the director’s cut, period. We have a true voice in what we’re doing, and I come here and I’m not dumb, but I think it’s going to be that with hard work, people will see the stuff and they’ll be like “yeah,” but I just realize that there’s studio politics involved.

There are more good guys than bad people working for studios and same thing in crews and directors, etc. etc., but a lot of people have to justify their jobs and they make you run around in circles and try stuff that you don’t need to try because you work very hard on the story and casting. They just drop by, typing on their Blackberry, and say “Ah, I don’t like this, change that.” And you’re like, “Tell me why you don’t like that, let me try something else” and then you lose a lot of time that is very precious and money and energy in trying to do studio notes that don’t make sense. And then you sort of bastardize your own work. Obviously, I’m not saying that I’m God’s gift to cinema, but I sort of know what I’m doing and I know how to tell a story and how to get things done and that’s to trust myself.

My thing in the beginning when I came here was that I was not confident enough that I knew the system. I was asking the producers, “So what should I do?” and they’re like “Now you should do this.” I feel like the great filmmakers who have a true voice, yeah they take the notes, they understand the notes, but it’s really about the notes underneath the notes. When you do a test screening and somebody says, “Well, I didn’t like the love story” but it was probably just too long.

You have to understand the notes rather than taking every note literally, and working very hard to make everyone happy. Ultimately, what counts most importantly is the movie and that’s what I did but I feel like “Clash” was my first studio movie, “Hulk” was just a challenge, because we were the red-headed stepchild of this whole superhero universe when the first Hulk hadn’t worked. I wanted to respect Ang’s movie, but some other people wanted to say, “This movie never existed” so we were trying to find this sort of half-assed version of a reboot, “It’s not a reboot, it’s like a parallel thing, different Hulk, different things” when in fact it should have been “Okay, this is not an origin story, this is later,” but we should have been very frank about what we decided to do, but that was the problem.

And then “Clash” was really my first studio movie with a great studio that is Warner Bros. but when I got see the boss and the boss says, “Well let’s go see another boss” and then the other boss says the same thing I’m like, “Who do I need to see? Who is the guy that says ‘yes’?”

CS: On a happier note, it sounds like “Now You See Me” is finally the movie you wanted to make and the people you’re working with respected your vision to let you make the movie you want to make. So I’m really excited to see it.
Leterrier:
It’s not to say that in the previous movies, people didn’t respect me. I felt it was also my own “mea culpa”—I got lost within the studio politics. Now I’m starting to understand that I’m doing the machine much better. I feel like (at first) I just got my license and I was in an F1 race.

CS: Well the worst part of “Clash” was that it was the first movie to try to do a last minute 3D conversion after the success of “Avatar” and that started a lot of the backlash against 3D.
Leterrier:
Yeah, yeah. I think.

There are many errors, some of them mine, some of them not mine, but live and learn. Ultimately, a lot of people still love “Clash” and I think it’s a very entertaining movie. I just feel like emotionally, it falls and at the end of the day, people go see emotion. You can blast it with visual FX and make it as crazy and expensive looking visually as possible but I think “Avatar” works, obviously it works because of (those things), but also because James Cameron always tells very emotional stories, and I think that’s also why his movies are so popular. I think our movie, “Now You See Me,” is an emotional movie rooted in smart and wits and fully amazing actors working perfectly together. It’s like a supergroup of musicians. Sometimes supergroups are horrible like with Sammy Hagar…

CS: (cutting him off before he could mention Asia) There’ve been a lot of good and a lot of bad supergroups.
Leterrier:
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Sometimes they’re horrible, but they can do amazing things and that’s what happened on this one. I feel as if I was this record producer and I feel like I created this perfect supergroup of talent. I’m super happy and proud of this movie and yes, Will Smith, his movie’s out there and I have tremendous respect for him and the movie (“After Earth”) looks very interesting, but our movie is really a movie that is really worth seeing at the movies, because we’re doing stuff that hasn’t been done before like true magic, like optical illusions and card forces. As you saw, the movie starts with the card trick and Jesse is really forcing a card on the audience. Everybody in the audience sees this one card.

CS: That’s funny because even watching the clip, I saw that card, too.
Leterrier:
There you go, that’s it. It’s a well-known magic trick, the force, but it’s a really cool magic trick and that’s why we’re doing stuff like that. Unaided by CG, just like the real deal and I think it’s great. It’s a fun movie to go see with your friends and family. You know the greatest compliment yesterday after the screening? People tweeted right away that they’re going to see this movie again. “I’m taking my friends.” I always hoped that this would happen, that somebody would not only be happy but say, “I have to see this again.” We did our job if that happens.

Now You See Me opens nationwide on Friday, May 31.

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