Exclusive: James Wan’s Death Sentence

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The following interview marks the third time this year that ComingSoon.net has spoken with director James Wan, the Australian who broke into Hollywood with his genre-defining flick Saw. Earlier this year, Universal released his gothic horror flick Dead Silence (you can read that interview here) and now he’s back with a different movie with a similar sounding title, Death Sentence, a revenge thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a father trying to get revenge for the murder of his son by a gang. If it sounds somewhat familiar, that might be since it’s also based on a novel by Brian Garfield, the writer of Death Wish.

This time, we caught up with James in San Diego where Fox Atomic held a special breakfast for journalists to watch the trailer and a couple clips from Wan’s latest, which is a stylish genre amalgam of ’70s revenge thriller, violent action flick and heavy drama, but with plenty of the gore that Wan established himself with Saw as well. After watching a couple impressive clips of Kevin Bacon in action, we sat down with James to talk to him about his new movie.

ComingSoon.net: This movie seemed to happen pretty fast, or was it just that “Dead Silence” got moved back so much? When did you start this and how did you come onto this movie?
James Wan: I came across this film halfway through “Dead Silence.” I read the script and this is the first film I’ve done that I had no hand in the writing or my writing involvement is that of a director. I’ve always wanted to make a revenge movie and when this script came across my table I thought it was the perfect opportunity to make a revenge film but with a twist, something a bit different. The way it’s different is you’ve got a story about an everyday man, a father, that classic setup, and his son gets killed right before his eyes. Where it differs, now, is he goes back to the bad guys, to take the law into his own hands, but now the bad guys are coming for him as well. So you have this man who’s put himself and the rest of his family in danger when the gang comes up to them. So it goes from this revenge film to a thriller. I shot the whole thing like it’s a thriller movie, even though there’s the theme of vengeance and all the morality that comes from trying to take things like this into your own hands.

CS: Was this premise mainly from the book, or did you change things a lot?
Wan: It’s a bit different in the book, because the book and the first “Death Wish” are vigilante movies and this is not a vigilante film, this is a revenge thriller. Not many people remember this, but in the first “Death Wish” film Charles Bronson doesn’t actually go after the people that hurt his family, he just goes after every punk. He just blows them all away. (laughs) He doesn’t actually go after the people. That’s a vigilante movie; this film is not like that. This is about, like the tagline says, “Protect what’s yours,” protect your loved ones and it cuts both ways, it’s for both sides. Gangs are protecting what’s theirs as well.

CS: Did you go back and read the original novel?
Wan: No, because I read and fell in love with the script. I knew the novel was very different from the script so I guess I did not want to be swayed by what the novel is. Having said that, I’m sure the novel was a really fun book as well, because I loved the “Death Wish” films and “Death Sentence” is in a very similar vein to that.

CS: I thought it was interesting that in the trailer we see him going through the judicial system first, but then him taking matters into his hands when that doesn’t work out.
Wan: Yes, but a lot of people are going to think that the law isn’t the thing that…the guy gets off on a technicality. I’m not going to say too much, because I’ll give it away, but once again it’s a bit different. He goes through the judiciary system but at the last minute something different happens. I think people will find it interesting.

CS: Did you go back and watch ’70s films to get the look? It seems like a different look from what we’ve seen in your other two movies.
Wan: I was very much influenced by the ’70s films, like “The French Connection” and “Taxi Driver” and all that, but [I wanted] to still give it a contemporary visual feel, so today’s kids and today’s audience can go, “Oh this is cool, I’ve not seen this before.”

CS: Was Kevin Bacon already attached to this movie before you came on board?
Wan: I came on board first and Kevin was one of those people I’ve always wanted to work with. I knew that this role required someone who can play good and have a dark edge with equal measures. And Kevin’s great. Kevin’s one of the greatest actors we have, I truly believe that, and he can play a good guy and a bad guy just as well. I felt like this is a film about a man who goes from an office guy, a normal everyday man, he literally transforms 180 degrees into something he’s not.

CS: From the scene we saw in which Kevin tackled a guy, this seems like a very physical role for him. Does he have a background in football, or something like that?
Wan: Once again, without giving too much away, his character goes through so much that by the end, he’s a shell of a man. There’s that classic saying: When you take everything away from a man, he’s now got nothing to lose.

CS: It’s the adrenaline thing also.
Wan: Well, there’s that, and he literally goes through a lot in this film.

CS: Somebody told me there’s also a bit more dramatic stuff in the movie.
Wan: Obviously, because this is Comic-Con, they show all the more fun stuff. The film is not wall-to-wall action, it is truly first and foremost a drama story, and I treated the action scenes like they were part of the “dramascape” as opposed to just high points that we have to hit, as if this was just an action film, you know the classic rollercoaster thing that you have to try and hit at a certain mark. This is not like that; all the action scenes come from the story and one of the things I tried to do with the action was make them so intense and scary. I felt like that was the only way I could differentiate my film from all the other summer blockbusters out there that are packed to the brim with CGI.

CS: Can you talk about the rest of the cast? I saw you have John Goodman in this.
Wan: Definitely. Besides Kevin, John Goodman’s in it. The role that John Goodman plays in the film, I really wanted someone that I could get to play against type. We wanted someone who had never done anything like this before. John Goodman has such a great role in this film and he does an amazing job. People are so used to seeing John Goodman as a lovable dad or the quirky characters he played in the Coen Brothers films. I admire him so much as an actor and I wanted him to play this dirty, filthy gun dealer that runs his business out of his garage body shop. I want to speak about my other cast too. Kelly Preston, she’s so lovely, she was the perfect thing. If something like that happened to your wife and it was Kelly Preston you’d get all, “I want to do something about this myself.” And of course Garrett Hedlund. I think no one’s going to recognize him in this film. He’s playing the main bad guy, and when he first showed up on my set he had just gotten off “Georgia Rule.” He came in and he had such long blond hair, he looked like a pretty boy that just stepped out of some boy band. Then he bulked up thirty pounds, shaved his hair off, there were protectors on him and he is amazing. Not only is he physically intimidating he’s a talented actor as well.

CS: He has a sports background doesn’t he?
Wan: No, I mean he did do “Friday Night Lights.” (laughs)

CS: And Leigh has a part in this too?
Wan: I’m going to try to stick Leigh in everything I do, whether it’s a big part or a small part. I got Leigh to play a cameo in this film… just so I can kill him. (laughs)

CS: From one of the clips we saw, there looked like there was a good amount of blood and gore in this. Who did you use for the stunts and effects?
Wan: I had a great team on this film, people who have worked with Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, their stunt guys, people who have done special effects for Michael Mann and all these other people, but my main special effects/makeup was the same guy I worked with from “Saw.”

CS: You also have Charlie Clouser doing the music for this. Working with these same guys in this very different genre, was it hard getting them up to speed on the different tone you wanted?
Wan: No, no, I guess because I’ve worked with them before so many times that they know how I work, they know what I want. They know my shorthand and right off the bat, I told them what kind of film this would be.

CS: You’ve said you don’t want to be thought of as a horror director, although that’s how we first met you. Since you’ve been working with the same team, do they also not want to just do horror? Are they as flexible as you are in terms of changing genres?
Wan: Yeah, most of the people I work with are artists, for the lack of a better term. No one wants to do the same stuff again and again. It’s so limiting, and I’m such a big fan of films in general. I’m a film fan, so I look to make a film in every genre if I can.

CS: Then we’d get a boxed set and you wouldn’t be able to watch the whole thing in one sitting because every movie would be so different.
Wan: Yeah, I want to see my horror film mixed with my action thriller, mixed with my romantic comedy…

CS: And then in twenty years, they could have a James Wan Film Festival…
Wan: (laughs) That’d be cool.

CS: How do you feel about the release date this is getting? It’s the Labor Day weekend, which is pretty good, but you’re going up against Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” and “Balls of Fury,” which is tough competition.
Wan: You guys have seen how crowded the marketplace is in the last couple months. It is insane. I’ve never seen so many big films competing against each other. The slot that we have now, let me say, I guess it’s better than going up against “Spider-Man.” I think people will find something different about this film; it’s not another horror film. I feel like the horror genre is tapering off a bit, and I feel like here’s something that’s a bit different. Even though it’s a revenge story we’re familiar with I think the premise is different enough. It looks different, and the trailer is [different]. A lot of people who’ve seen the film have told me how much they loved it. So I’ve been getting great responses and I’m very excited.

CS: I hope they show this to us; I was really bummed that I never got to see “Dead Silence.” Do you have any idea what you’re doing next?
Wan: I’m taking a bit of time off just to chill. I’ve made my last three films back to back, so I’m really tired, but at the same time I’m using this opportunity to write again, to go back and write my own stuff with Leigh, so we’re very excited.

CS: As far as the “Saw” franchise, I remember when I first talked to you, it was very much like your movie to break into the biz, but now, it’s become this huge franchise. Have you stayed involved with it and kept up with what they’re doing on each movie?
Wan: I’m the executive producer for the sequels and all that. I guess I’m a lot less hands-on because of the films I’m directing, but my filmmaking partner Leigh Wannell, he’s been involved every step of the way up until the fourth one, and he’s there to make sure the scripts look good. I just felt so comfortable that I felt like I did not need to worry that it was going to stray too far.

CS: Have you thought about going back and getting more involved on those, when you’re on break between other things?
Wan: Going back and making another “Saw?”

CS: Yeah, either making another “Saw,” or writing another installment with Leigh. Was there anything you never got to do that you wanted to do?
Wan: Hey, you never know. Ten years from now I might go back and remake the first film. (laughs)

CS: With a bigger budget…
Wan: (still laughing) Yeah, with a bigger budget and actually shoot it how I planned to shoot it in the first place.

CS: You could do “Saw X” in space.
Wan: I’ve always wanted to do that.

Death Sentence opens nationwide on August 31, not to be confused with Dead Silence, which is out now on DVD and can be purchased through Amazon. If you want to know more about Death Sentence, you can also read an earlier interview with James and Kevin Bacon here.

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