The thriller is a fairly tried and true tradition in Hollywood, but Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days takes a different approach to the genre by bringing in some of the characterization and drama while building the tension towards an explosive finale.
Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a schoolteacher whose wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murdering her boss and jailed for three years. Convinced his wife is innocent, Brennan devises an elaborate plan to try to break her out using his limited resources, but he soon learns that even the best-laid plans can’t account for every possibility when the real world rears its head.
A few weeks ago, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with director Paul Haggis, an interview which you can read here, but we decided to stick around for the press conference with Crowe and Banks, and here are some of the highlights.
“I was written comedically, and I screwed it up,” Banks joked when asked about taking on a rare dramatic role. “I’m a classically-trained actor. I went to drama school, and I fell into comedy. My very first job as an actor was a comedy called ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ and I really enjoy making comedies, but I was so happy that Paul called me one day and said, ‘I think you can do this,’ and I think a lot of the best actors have great comedic chops as well. I wanted there to be a lightness to Lara so that you believe this man would want her in his life forever. I think that’s partly why I ended up in this job. I’m just excited by great writing and good challenges and they come in the form of comedy and drama. I’m always just chasing a great role.”
Crowe has played a lot of “everymen” but when asked how he expects audiences to believe that an English teacher like John Brennan would be able to pull off such an elaborate plot to free his wife, he responded: “I think it’s about belief. It’s kind of simple. If the audience is seeing this guy believing in what he’s doing then they flow with him. They might not agree with what he’s doing but he’s obviously got an unshakeable belief in his wife, and it transfers into how he researches what he needs to research and when he hits those hurdles and things don’t work out properly, the mere fact that he keeps going, that’s the transformation, if there is one, is in his persistence.”
Banks confirmed that it wouldn’t be so hard for her husband to figure out what he needed in order to plan the escape. “I remember having a discussion with Paul where he told me that you could just Google how to break out of prison and 400,000 things come up,” she said. “The great thing about this movie and it answers the question about a regular joe who breaks out of prison is that they have YouTube videos with a lot of the information that you need. The fact of the matter is that people do break out, it happens all the time. You can learn how to do it. I think the great thing we’ve done in this movie is that it ultimately comes down to that you can learn how to do it. It’s all about the bravery of doing it. ‘Am I brave enough to actually risk it and do it?’ and risk the consequences of making it happen. It’s sort of the larger message of the whole movie, that we can control our destinies and we can take action.”
To which Crowe added, “On behalf of Lionsgate Films and Highway 61 Productions, I would just like to have a disclaimer here right now. We’re not recommending that anybody tries anything they see in the movie.”
To really understand the motivations of her character, Banks was helped greatly by the fact that Haggis shot her scenes in an actual prison. “For me, so much of the character was so fully realized, because we were lucky enough to shoot at the actual Allegheny County Jail,” she said. “I was put in a cell, they closed the door and after about two minutes, I was like, ‘I’m good, I got it, I see why I would never want to be in there.’ I got to talk to a lot of inmates. Someone asked earlier if the inmates cared about the movie. Interestingly, like myself, they really cared about the authenticity that we brought to it. I was wearing all prison-issued clothes and they’re very scratchy and itchy. I was really fascinated by everyone’s little attempts on a moment-to-moment basis to capture any little sense of freedom. The pants I wore have an elastic waistband that was horrible and cut into me and everyday after the first few days, I have all these marks around my stomach from wearing them, so when I was sitting with the inmates, I asked how they dealt with it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we make them all into drawstring.’ I remember going to the costume designer and saying, ‘You know, authentically, these could be drawstrings and they’d be a lot more comfortable for me.’ What was really great for me was just figuring out all of those little authentic things that they do. For instance, it’s really cold in there and they only have one thin blanket, and they will take the padding out of their pillows and put it over the vents that blow cold air at night so they don’t catch pneumonia, so they’re not freezing, and the warden said, ‘It’s not really allowed and sometimes we allow it and sometimes we don’t.’ I just imagined all those little daily battles she was fighting for a sense of her dignity and a sense of any little freedom that she could be having.”
“There’s a real tyranny and a finality of those doors when they close,” Crowe confirmed. “I was really uncomfortable in that jail. Obviously, the staff are really nice and kind of friendly but I didn’t like being in there.”
“They don’t have bars on the doors,” Banks continued. “They really are just steel doors with a little window that you’re just peeking out thinking, ‘That’s it,” and there’s not outdoor space at the Allegheny County Jail, so I was also thinking about a woman who has not seen the sunlight in three years. It’s meant for short-term stays.”
When asked about how he found inspiration for his character’s drive to be reunited with his wife, Crowe told a rather touching personal story. “On the 10th of November, my parents will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary, so I’ve been very blessed in that way, that I’ve grown up in a household that’s all about commitment through the hard times and the good. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the character, that unshakeable belief that we were talking about before. I was away from my own family for 87 days to make this film. I couldn’t convince my wife to go to Pittsburgh, which is silly because it’s a beautiful place and she would have really enjoyed it. I kept sending her notes about things she would have liked to have seen or places she would have liked to have gone. There was a big distance between me and my own family so that made a lot of the things that we were doing in the script come into a very stark reality. I know this is very simple, but I take the inspiration that I need for what I’m doing from the thing that I’m doing. It was a really well written script.”
One journalist in attendance pointed out the lack of dialogue and Crowe commented on how he fashioned his performance around that fact. “You’ve got to drive whatever you’re doing from inside so whether you’re doing a scene with dialogue–and sometimes dialogue is a crutch so you don’t need it. You don’t need big swathes of exposition to explain where your character is.”
Crowe also told the press in attendance about a mishap they had while shooting some of the driving scenes in Pittsburgh when their SUV was struck by a fire truck. “We were parked at the #1 position for a shot we’d done a number of times and we were just sitting there waiting for the police to tell us when we could go on another circuit and next thing you know, this fire truck comes up from behind us and just before it hit, I went, ‘Oh, dear’ and the guy just does this turn and takes out the front of the vehicle. We were in a little SUV and he was in the firetruck so he was going to win. We weren’t hurt. We spent about an hour laughing, and all the other firemen came out and said, ‘Who did that? Well, it would be Dooley.’ If this guy has a reputation, don’t let him drive the truck! Seriously.”
When Crowe and Banks were asked what they learned about the other one while making the movie, Crowe elicited an audible “Awwwwwww” from those in attendance when he said, “What I learned about Elizabeth was that she was worth saving.”
Quite taken aback, Banks tried to top her co-star with, “What I learned about Russell–that I could share with you all–was I think he was saying that words can be a crutch and for me, Russell is the crutch.”
To which Crowe quipped, “Make sure you spell that right.”
The Next Three Days opens on Friday, November 19.