Exclusive: Shoot ‘Em Up ‘s Michael Davis

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You might want to take a second and jot down the name “Michael Davis” before you start reading this interview, because it’s a name you’ll be hearing a lot about in the next few years. While Shoot ‘Em Up is not his first film by a long shot, it’s the one that’s going to get him a lot of attention for many reasons. It’s an imaginative and original action film starring Clive Owen as a nameless gunman trying to protect a newborn baby from hundreds of hired assassins, taking equal cues from Looney Tunes and John Woo movies, mixing comedy with insane shootout sequences. On top of that, it also stars Paul Giamatti as a despicable bad guy with no morals acting as the perfect counterpart to Owen’s carrot-munching protagonist.

That’s probably all you really need to know about the movie, except that Davis is intensely likable due to his enthusiasm for movies, both making them and referencing them. We had a chance to talk to him at Comic-Con International where his movie went over like gangbusters at a screening the prior eveningÂ… and then we spoke to him once again at a New York junket.

ComingSoon.net: You’ve said that this is the movie you’ve always wanted to make, that it was a dream-come-true. Can you talk about how long ago you came up with the idea and wrote it?
Michael Davis: I wrote the script seven years ago and it started with a friend of mine who said, “You gotta see these John Woo movies.” I’d seen “Hard Boiled” and I saw Chow Yun-Fat with a baby and I go, “Wow, what a great image. THAT’s the movie.” Not a little sequence, right? The most hard-boiled guy in the world stuck with the most innocent thing in the world, the contrast of the violence and the innocence and then I go, “There’s the central image of the movie.” And then the big trick was that I could have copped out and said that he got stuck with the baby and there was this whole other plot, but I felt like the baby needed to be the target of the assassins, because that’s kind of the wild, insane, crazy. Then the big trick was, “Why was the baby the target?” And it took me a long time to figure out the mystery. During that time, I was just coming up with all the cool things I wanted to do with the gunfights, because that was one of my other premises was that every action scene had to be guncentric. I didn’t want to have big explosions. It was all about gunplay and what the hero was doing with the gun. Then I started with, “Okay, it’s a gunfight during the baby delivery. There’s a gunfight during a freefall. It’s a gunfight while he’s making love to a woman. It’s a gunfight during a car chase.” All the different, clever permutations and textures of it.

CS: As far as Clive Owen, we’ve seen him do similar things. We’ve seen him in “Sin City” for instance, but what was it about him that thought he’d be good for this?
Davis: I wanted a fresher take on the nice guy. Everybody loves the BMW films but you don’t get enough of him. Or “Sin City,” he was only a third of the story, right, and also in “Sin City,” he got rescued by the girls a lot. I wanted to see him kick ass more! So we had this taste. Here’s this guy who we want to see burst out as the action guy, so I got him, and he was my absolute #1 choice in the entire world and still is.

CS: Did he do a lot of his own sliding around and stunts himself?
Davis: Clive did most of the action himself, when he was rappelling down, that was all Clive in the Descender. We hung him from wires for four days for the entire skydiving scene. We hung him upside down, we had him leap into pads. He did most of the action himself. I mean, he’s very athletic.

CS: Did you work out a lot of back-story for the character? We obviously see a bit of his personality and idiosyncracies but we really don’t know much about him except that he doesn’t have a lot of money and he’s a great shot.
Davis: You know, it’s funny how much with movies, that it’s what the character does that you say you know that person, rather than back-story. Sometimes back-story feels like it’s part of the formula, like you have to do it, but there’s this scene where he’s driving, right, and he hates the way the guy in front of him is driving, not using his turn signal and he goes “That guy’s a jerk! I hate the way he drives!” And all of a sudden you realize, “That’s me. I’ve been that guy.” And once you identify with that, no back-story can make you identify with somebody as much as the little things like that. And usually, these action heroes are cooler when they have a mystery about them, so hence, the anger man thing helped me. He doesn’t say much, and I also admire the man-with-no-name movies by Sergio Leone. I thought it was fun to give it an updated, automatic weapon version of it.

CS: Was Luc Besson an influence for you at all, his style of action films?
Davis: Absolutely. “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional.” You can look at it like Clive and the baby is basically a junior version of Natalie Portman and Jean Reno, so definitely. It’s so funny. When I was in film school, I would take all the foreign film classes, and I was not excited about them, but I have to say, now it’s the foreign filmmakers that excite me. The guy Jeunet who did “City of Lost Children”, LOVE his movies, love “Amelie,” love John Woo, love Luc Besson, because they’re influenced by American films but they put their own twist on it, and sometimes, American filmmakers making American films, it’s the same-old, same-old, so it’s great to get influences from these international filmmakers.

CS: Also, these international guys have a bit more free rein on what they do. You’ve mentioned that New Line let you do all the stuff you wanted to do, but there never were any issues with the studio or with the MPAA for any of the scenes?
Davis: They let me make the movie I wanted to make, and the thing about it is, one of the things that my producers did is they said “We have to find the right studio for this,” and the first place was New Line. If you think about it, they made “Boogie Nights.” Bob Shaye started John Waters’ career! They got it, and Monica Belluci plays this lactating hooker that got to feed the baby. Paul Giamatti is this frustrated guy at home and there’s sort of a weird sexual bent about him, and they went for it. In the editing process, they never even talked about that stuff.

CS: What’s up with the carrots?
Davis: It’s easy. Well there’s two things about it. I guess this is a little plug, but the guy eats carrots cause they’re good for your eyesight. Eyesight is good for shooting, and I figured I didn’t want to have the fractured, hurt character that’s drinking and in a bar. How many times have we seen that? Why not have a healthy twist on that, right? But I also felt like we described Clive’s character as the anti-Bond. Bond is a jet-setter, here Clive is homeless. He rides the bus, not jetplanes. Bond has gadgets. Clive has this carrot that gets him out of situations, he stabs people in the eye with it. He can reach his gun with it. Also, they always give the funny quirky things to the secondary actor and they make the lead man straight and boring ’cause he never does anything weird. I think it’s important to give the weird stuff to the straight man and that all of a sudden twists it, hence the carrots were part of it.

CS: Any idea what you’re doing next?
Davis: I’m writing a script that I’d love to make that’s very much in the wild balls-out action kind of thing, that’s a little wilder than “Shoot ‘Em Up.” That’s what I’d like to do, but I’m also reading scripts and being sent stuff.

CS: So you’re not against directing someone else’s script?
Davis: If it was great yeah, but I’ve written and directed five other movies. I did these films “8 Days a Week,” “100 Girls,” “Monster Man” and there’s something great about being the creator from the beginning. It’s like I’m a storyboard artist. I’ve told you about the animation I did. I animated about 15 minutes of the movie to get the movie made. 17,000 drawings shot-for-shot how the action scenes were going to come out, skydiving, the gunfighting, the carousel, the making love, every scene. If you go to the official site (‘View Age-Restricted Content’) and I asked them to include it on the DVD. To be an animator and to see your vision from animation to film, from writing it to film and then directing it, it’s a pretty big rush to overcome to do someone else’s idea. (chuckles)

CS: Was this done fairly low-budget and did doing the animation first make it easier to keep it low budget?
Davis: This movie probably at other places would have been over $60 million. We did it for under $40 million. We did it in 55 days shooting. We hardly had any overtime. Everything moved very, very quickly because everybody knew “this is the shot.” It wasn’t like we knew what the scene was. I animated it and we could know which part of the shot we needed to work right when we filmed the live action, because we prepared with the animation.

CS: With all of this stuff needing to be done, which ended up being the hardest scene to shoot? The skydiving scene looked like it might be tough.
Davis: The skydiving scene wasn’t so hard to shoot as it was tedious, because once they were lining up my shots, it was easy to do. The lovemaking scene was actually easier than you thought. After each take, Monica and Clive would look and go “that’s beautiful.” There’s probably some dialogue scene that took longer than we thought, but the action scenes were pretty much like clockwork.

CS: Did you end up using a lot of CG for the bullets?
Davis: There’s a number of CGI muzzle flashes, there’s some digital face replacements of the baby’s face in dangerous situations. Obviously, we didn’t want to put the baby in danger.

CS: Do you have any idea what you’re going to show at your presentation today and have you had any problems with what you can show?
Davis: You know what? We had to cut one little bit of violence out, but otherwise, all the bloodshed. We’re showing the very opening of the movie all the way through Paul Giamatti pulling a gun on Clive. We’re going to show the crib gunfight at Clive’s place. We’re going to show a piece of my animation, and then we’re going to show the car chase.

Here’s some more with Michael from a more recent interview we did with him at a junket back in New York City, where he started by passing around an iPod with some of the animation discussed above:

Davis: I did 17,000 drawings and 16 minutes of animation, and it was a great showpiece to show that I had a vision and get them excited about the action sequences. It helped Clive get excited about it. I think I sold Clive on my work ethic that I was crazy enough to do all that work just to maybe get a shot at a movie.

CS: Certainly everyone we’ve talked to who’s been involved with the movie said that they did it because you had a vision for the movie.
Davis: Yeah, but I think it’s easier rather than talking about a vision–because I’ve been in Hollywood a long time and they’re always about the pitch and people are great in the room, but often times when they talk about the tone it’s like “Oh, the tone will be Indiana Jones meets Garfield.” Yeah, that’s a take, but how do you execute it? I think a picture is worth a thousand words and if you have 17,000, you do the math, and with this, you can really see what the movie is, and if you look at all the animation, some of the movie is really shot-for-shot what my animation was. The animation also helped me with the choreography. I wanted part of this action ballet, a real feeling of orchestration, that there was a hand in the style of it. When I was animating it, I’d look at it and go, “You know, that part’s good but there’s not enough energy. I need to get the character on the run. I need to have him tumbling or pirouetting. I often would add, like I’d have a minute and a half sequence and then I’d do another 30 seconds by putting five seconds here and five seconds there to energize it, so I knew what cuts I needed to get the visceral and also a little bit of a design to it.

CS: It’s one thing to get Clive Owen to watch a stick figure doing those things, but how do you convince him to go about doing it?
Davis: It’s a step by step process. The first thing that happens is that he read the screenplay and besides all the crazy, wild action–and he was attracted to delivering a baby in the middle of a gunfight–there was a lot of imagery that he thought was fresh, and he hadn’t seen before. He was already intrigued by that. I also have to tell you that I thank the internet. There were some stories written about the screenplay and the animation that were forwarded to Clive, and he saw that people were interested in seeing him do something like this. The internet had actually validated the property before, and I really am grateful for that, and then you go and show him the animation and it’s a little bit more than stick figures. The drawings are definitely a little rough, some of them I do in five seconds, but it does show a flow of storytelling that he could picture himself doing this stuff, and then when he saw me and says, “This guy has a work ethic, he’s a madman, he says,” he signed on. He had just been nominated for an Academy award. Everybody in town wanted him, and here I am this guy who’d only done these five little million dollar indie movies and of all the people in the entire world, he picked me to do it. I’m like amazed to be here. I don’t understand these directors that are like “Oh, it was so hard.” It’s the greatest job on earth and you know, everybody treats you like a king, and I’m uncomfortable with that because they’re doing all the hard work. By the time we get to the set, I’ve shown everybody my storyboards, I’ve shown them the animation. They know what angle to do. This great DP Peter Pau of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a godsend. He made sure that “Michael has to get that shot. We cannot leave today without getting that shot.” He prelit all the sets so that when we walked in, it was just a matter of just putting the camera up. There was one morning where we got 38 set-ups before lunch. Clive Owen, who had worked with Robert Rodriguez, who I think is legendary in terms of getting shots very fast. Clive says to me, “I’ve done more shots in one week than in any one of my movies in one week.” It just went like clockwork, but I had great people helping me.

And for those who may want to hear Michael Davis’ enthusiasm for themselves, here’s some audio of the director telling the story of how this movie finally got picked up by New Line–a great story for anyone struggling to get their movies made–and why it took him so long to make an action movie after doing romantic comedies. (He also talks about some of his favorite action movies and directors.) You can listen to that five minute audio clip by clicking (or right-clicking) here.

Shoot ‘Em Up opens nationwide on Friday, September 7. Check back in a couple weeks for interviews with Davis’ stars Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti.

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